Anya's Thai Bistro

Some are silent because they're silent, others are silent because they have high expectations of speech. My cousin is afflicted with this taciturnity in all communicative acts, including cooking. He lives therefore suspended on his way to a perfect utterance, a perfect dish. Well, perhaps the former is my own particular problem, whereas his metaphysical ambition plays out culinarily. For now he's the pastry chef at Amuse, and in the same kitchen makes all of the ice cream for Mix. He was recently asked by someone who has a tendency to imbue everyone with (extra)ordinary ambitions if he would like to one day start a his own restaurant. He reworded this wistful inquiry into something certain: "I will." I laughed because I was won over by the earnestness of his ambition

His face is stern, yet vulnerable with youthfulness. He asked for a beer when we were out for dinner at Kobe, and the waitress shot back "are you old enough, honey?" His pale skin made his blush all the more raw. His temperament--which some interpret as easygoing calm--is such that after a moment he said "that's quite a 'tude," and when asked, said that no, he would not hire her.

Asking such a serious soul for his opinion of a restaurant is a treat. He considers judiciously, and is careful not to taint his answer with what he considers to be personal bias. He said of the new Thai place in town, furrowing his brow and lowering his voice (though it already rumbles low from his narrow frame), that it has a small menu of "simple food" that's "very authentic." By "simple food" (a phrase he uses often) he means to distinguish it from fine dining, but also to commend its decency. There's a bit of a passive-aggressive jab in calling it "simple food," yet his aesthetic, I gather, is something like simplicity. For a recent family gathering he made a sauce of slowly sautéed slices of red pepper and onion in olive oil, something that is also done at Amuse. At amuse, he said, they use a lot of spices, but he just used salt and pepper. He didn't give any indication which he preferred, but personally I'm for his version. From anyone else I would've rolled my eyes at "authentic", but I sensed he meant something specific rather than magical. He simply meant that the food was closer to what he tasted in Thailand than it was to Thai Pepper, a restaurant that strains to be innovative and upmarket. Then again, maybe my brain was mush. While his short oral review was not glowing, exactly, a considerable excitement for this place had been transferred to me.

Because of what he said about Anya's, I walked in to its low cavern of a dining room with a kind of serenity. The space appeared to me through a mist of sentimental trust, as in at that stage of infatuation when anything the other says is beautiful. Following this simile, you'd think I'm about to say that in retrospect everything was crap and the things that mesmerized me, empty. Not exactly. But then I have yet to have a second date, which I plan to. I have a rendezvous planned with sticky rice and mango.

I developed an amused affection for the place. Surrounded by empty shops, the room had a quiet romance to it. There were a few other full tables, none of them exasperatingly boisterous or scarily quiet. The lighting seemed soft, in part because of the sizzling sounds from the kitchen, which soothed. The kitchen was just behind a counter that reached up to the chef's waist, and from my seat I had a view of vegetables searing in small rounded pans.

As far as I can tell, they have a crew of three: Anya the chef, her husband the waiter and host, and a large man in chef pants and Crocs, who I assume assists Anya. The arrangement doesn't fit easily into the roles that divide the labor of a restaurant. Anya apparently takes orders when she can (or perhaps when she feels like it). Her husband does all the service: greeting, bussing, taking orders. Their assistant must do dishes as well as helping cook. I think we met Anya. She was efficient, as her husband theatrically exclaimed on his way back to her behind the counter. He eagerly came to wait on our table, apologizing that we hadn't yet received menus, only to discover that we had already placed our orders with his wife. "She's so quick!"

The husband (I didn't catch his name) in his somewhat flustered way was eager to please. I couldn't help but read this as the desperation of someone treading financial water. Businesses down here never last for long. They're easily forgotten. Only when I heard that Anya's was here did I remember that I had heard a couple years ago that The Underground Market existed. Now it's gone, along with everything else except for Anya's. The emptied out shop spaces that surround the tables give the place a certain allure just as they made me worry for its fate. Here I was happily removed from the normal functioning of Ashland's commercially saturated downtown. It was a bit like being backstage.

Through my misted gaze I was enamored of the food, although it helped that there was variety to sample between the four of us. About halfway through my ample bowl of pad thai, its flavor was no longer a flavor. But that's true of just about anything you eat that much of. Everything, I thought, had a freshness. Thai restaurants have this tendency to devolve into rich, slightly sweet masses of whatever. You begin piling oily glue into your gullet. Here the flavors remained distinct, and the vegetables crisp yet piping hot. The chopsticks had a purpose other than making Americans feel cool, allowing you to pick up and sample individual chunks of tomato, bell pepper, chicken, broccoli. (Yeah, I heard that somewhere, and it's not specific to Anya's at all. One could do the same thing with a fork, but we have a tendency to use that instrument as a shovel.) The Thai tea seemed to cater to the tastes of Ashlanders, who say "not too sweet" as praise. I wished for overpoweringly syrupy tea on principle, but then I had to admit I enjoyed this modulated stuff.

When we left, Anya's husband made sure to send us off with "see you next time!"

12 August 2012