East End Eats: And Now, Thai Night

An understanding of the layered nuances and flavors of Thailand
Thai fish cakes are one of Highway restaurant and bar’s outstanding appetizers. Laura Donnelly

Highway Restaurant and Bar

290 Montauk Highway
East Hampton
631-527-5372
Open six nights for dinner, 
closed Tuesdays
Lunch Saturdays and Sundays

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I have been to the Highway restaurant and bar’s Thursday Thai night three weeks in a row. It is that good.

The restaurant is in a spot that has changed hands and chefs so many times in the last five years that it’s hard to keep track, but this time it just fiddled with the name a bit. So what, who cares: Those in charge at this point know what they’re doing.

I’ve often said that restaurants out here could serve Alpo in the summertime and the flocks would come regardless. But find a way to bring in locals, who may be on a budget, through the long winter months and you might succeed. Highway restaurant and bar offers reasonable specials during the week, a chicken pot-pie night, a pasta night, and now a $35 three-course Thai meal on Thursday nights.

One of the aspects of the physical space that was never terribly appealing was its large, nondescript size and shape, a big, drafty L-shaped interior. Now one side is curtained off in winter, and the central dining room has a huge freestanding gas fireplace dividing the bar from the front dining area. There are comfortable banquettes with pillows and generously spaced tables.

The first time I went for the Thai meal, there were three appetizers, three entrees, and two desserts. The last two times there were four appetizers, four entrees, and three dessert choices. For those who may not want to avail themselves of the frequently fiery options, the restaurant offers a few items from the regular menu.

Of the appetizer choices the wing bean salad is my favorite. It is a crunchy, salty, spicy, light mixture of chopped “winged” beans, possibly blanched briefly, with peanuts, coconut, pork, shrimp, kaffir lime leaves, and Thai basil. It is simple and complicated at the same time, with all the flavors coming through and the freshness of each ingredient very apparent. 

The stir-fry chicken with baby corn is another winner. It is a masterful blend of chicken, chili peppers, wing beans, onions, dainty bits of baby corn, and Thai basil — salty but beautifully balanced. The Thai fish cakes are also outstanding, two sturdy little cakes filled with a white fish, ginger, garlic, and more. Alongside them is a bundle of sweet-tart vermicelli rice noodles with carrots, a wedge of kaffir lime, and some cucumber slices. 

Kaffir limes are a warty, knobby fruit also known as “porcupine orange.” The flavor is something between limes, lemons, mandarins, and mystery. The fresh leaves are also used in Thai dishes and add a flavor similar to cilantro, almost soapy but addictive to those who love it. 

 The only appetizer that didn’t send me into paroxysms of taste-bud ecstasy was the chicken satay. It was good, just not as exceptional as the other dishes. Two skewers of white meat chicken were nicely marinated with lemongrass and grilled with a tame peanut sauce on the side and some sweet, mild cucumber and chili-flecked vinegar.

For entrees we tried chicken with cashews, crispy chili beef, green chicken curry, and halibut yellow curry. I noticed on our second visit that chopsticks are part of the place settings, not traditional in Thailand but requested by some patrons. Some of the dishes, such as the chicken with cashews and crispy beef, were leaning toward Chinese food, but were still highly seasoned with Thai ingredients. 

The chicken with cashews is full of tricolored peppers, onions, scallions, and Thai basil. The cashews have roasted burn marks on them, and there is a hint of salty fish sauce. The crispy beef is shredded beef, crunchy and chewy at the same time, with some julienned carrots, fennel, and more basil.  

The curry dishes come out of the kitchen in bowls with lids, which are removed with a flourish, the scent of coconut milk and spices wafting up. The green chicken curry was tender white meat in a nice, somewhat sweet and spicy broth, with little rings of fiery red peppers, giving you the choice of how hot you want it. The halibut yellow curry was a beautiful presentation, the chunks of halibut cooked just enough and also sturdy enough to complement the sauce, full of sweet and hot red peppers, Thai basil, and shreds of fresh ginger. (A previously tried flounder in curry was too delicate for the formidable spices.) Every dish comes with a little bowl of perfectly cooked sticky rice.

     Every time I have gone to Highway restaurant and bar for Thai night it has been packed. Even better, it was packed with familiar faces, there’s Ken and Jeanmarie, Carl and Mary, Bill and Abbie, Suzy and Michael! It is a happy clubhouse filled with people who appreciate something different, and more important, something authentic, executed with great care and understanding of the layered nuances and flavors of Thailand.

The two handsome gents you will see scurrying about are Adam and Henri, consummate professionals I worked with at the Living Room restaurant at c/o the Maidstone when I was pastry chef there. The service (on all three visits) was friendly, efficient, and knowledgeable. 

Two of the dessert offerings are house-made coconut sorbet and a lemongrass rice pudding with pineapple confit. On our third visit the menu also offered a pear and cashew gyoza with house-made banana ice cream. Coconut sorbet is my favorite, simply because I am mad for coconut. The lemongrass rice pudding was a tad watery on my first visit, but more flavorful and substantial on the second.

 The pear cashew gyoza reminded us — that is, my fellow chef and friend known as Cookie Monster — of when new chefs take over a restaurant and take stock of what was left behind, trying to figure out how to use it up before they start ordering new supplies. “Take these wonton wrappers and nuts and make something.” In other words, they were a bit odd and perplexing. The presentation, however, was lovely, especially the bruleed baby banana half and the creamy, perfect banana ice cream.

Thai food is my absolute favorite cuisine, so much so that I questioned my insanely ecstatic reaction to finding it here on the East End. But I assure you, after having been to Highway restaurant and bar three times (so far), and having been to Thailand, this is as authentic, delicious, and boldly flavored a meal as you will find outside of Bangkok.