By Annette Hinkle
Connoisseurs of all things Asian know that finding authentic ethnic cuisine on the East End is nearly impossible. But fortunately for lovers of Thai food, Highway Restaurant & Bar in Wainscott has set out to change that, one night a week at least.
Every Thursday is Thai night at Highway Restaurant & Bar where diners can enjoy a $35 three-course dinner with a choice of three appetizers, three mains and two desserts — all of which capture the authentic Thai flavors that aren’t always easy to replicate in American kitchens.
“We’re in an area of the world where people are well traveled and savvy about food and aware of what they eat,” explains Adam Lancashire, manager of Highway Restaurant & Bar. “We know you need to offer value in the off season – give a break and give something back to get people in the door.”
“We didn’t want to regurgitate a $35 price fixe with the same format as everywhere else,” he adds, “but we knew that’s the price point we needed to get to.”
The result is a lineup of dishes designed by executive chef Anand Sastry that embrace the sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavors that define Thai cuisine. Fans of Thai cooking will appreciate the authenticity of the offerings at Highway Restaurant & Bar while those new to Thai food will experience a complexity of flavors without being overwhelmed by spice. Expect the classics, like chicken satay with peanut dipping sauce, wing bean salad, Thai fish cakes and green chicken curry, as well as some unexpected surprises, like a yellow curry made with local flounder and a lemongrass rice pudding for dessert.
“This is where we drew on the executive chef’s knowledge,” explains Mr. Lancashire. “He very much drives the menu choices. He’s an experienced chef and keeps his skills contemporary and sharpened. There are few places where you can get good authentic ethnic food and keep the quality high.”
Bringing the Thai menu to life every Thursday in Highway Restaurant’s kitchen is chef Justin Finney, who comes with experience at a number of local eateries, including Nick & Toni’s, Rowdy Hall and Meeting House. One of his biggest challenges for local chefs is sourcing authentic Thai ingredients. For example, while many dishes call for lime, it’s important that chefs use kaffir limes, not the variety found in local grocery stores. Another staple is Thai basil, which has a flavor that is unique and distinctive from the sweet Italian basil most of us know and grow, while galangal root, which is also called Thai ginger, bears little resemblance to the variety found in local grocery stores.
“The minute I tasted the green curry I was right back there in Thailand,” says Mr. Lancashire who spent several months backpacking through Thailand when he was younger. “It’s different than doing it at home, it was instantly authentic. From where I see it, there are no short cuts. Everything has to be muddled, not put in the blender.”
“This reminds me of a very enjoyable time in my life,” he adds. “When I came back from Thailand, I never was able to recreate it. You have to get specific Thai ingredients to make it what it should be. It’s also labor intensive, but as with all things, it’s all the more rewarding when it comes to fruition.”
To complete the experience, Highway Restaurant & Bar serves Singha beer (a Thai standard) and has designed cocktails to compliment the food, including a Lemongrass-Aritia, a pineapple Hemingway (made with Dutch’s Moonshine) and a rum-based Thai “Whiskey.” But why bother going to all this trouble to bring Thai food to off-season diners on the East End?
“We thought it was a unique opportunity to provide something different and good value for the money,” explains Mr. Lancashire. ‘We don’t necessarily make money doing it, but we put ourselves on the map and showcase what we can do, and it’s really good.”
Thai Thursday, which began just a few weeks ago, joins chicken pot pie Monday and $20 pasta Wednesday at Highway Restaurant & Bar and diners seem to be eating up the off-season diversity. (By the way, those who don’t like Thai food can choose from seven or eight other dishes from the restaurant’s regular menu on Thursday nights.)
“If you open the paper, restaurants have happy hours and good food prices, but we’re doing something completely different every day of the week,” explains Mr. Lancashire who notes the result is a lot of repeat customers who are quickly becoming regulars.
“We’ve really earned people’s trust. It’s going well and we’re getting a lot of rewards,” he says.
Highway Restaurant and Bar is open for dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday (closed Tuesday) and 5 to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Lunch is served from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday and brunch is every Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 290 Montauk Highway, East Hampton. (631) 527-5372