By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
We ordered a round of appetizers to stave off plunging blood sugar: vegetarian Thai spring rolls ($4), fried golden and stuffed with minced carrot and cabbage; Sapa fresh rolls ($8), cool rice wrappers rolled around diced shrimp, crab, and slender noodles and finished with a leaf or two of Thai basil; shrimp in a blanket ($9), big butterflied crustaceans fried in a spring-roll skin and served with a hot red chili sauce; vegetable tempura ($8), including sweet potatoes, asparagus, white onion rings, and shredded green onions, served with a thin, vinegary-sweet dip; and steamed dumplings made with ground chicken and shrimp with soy sauce ($8). They were all pretty good. By that, I mean, if you found yourself passing by and ducked in for a beer and a round of small plates, you could fill your belly and probably empty your wallet and not feel that you´d been unduly punished. But you´d be crazy to drive any distance for this, passing one Thai joint after another on your way, those identical paper menus posted in windows whizzing by in a blur.
And that´s as good as it gets, apparently, because our entrées -- even the ¨Chef´s Specialties¨ -- were mostly a whopping disappointment. My pad Thai ($16) was a mess: limp rice noodles sort of mushed around with ground peanuts, shrimp, and slivers of dry chicken in a sugary sauce that lacked any sour notes (I had to ask for lime, and even a generous squeeze couldn´t improve it). I couldn´t detect an atom of dried shrimp or tamarind or anything else to lift this dish beyond a lazy, rote formula supposedly suited to ¨American palates.¨ Am I not an American too?
Two of our main courses were almost identical in composition, so much so that I started to wonder if they were using up bags of Chinese vegetables left over in the freezer when they bought the place. Snow peas. Carrots. White onions. Sliced red and green peppers. Throw in a handful of cashews, some shrimp, and a thin, sugary brown sauce with exactly two flavor notes and you´ve got ¨Shrimp With Cashews¨ ($18). Do the same thing with dry and tasteless beef, chicken, and pork slivers minus the nuts and you´ve got ¨Three Kings in the Forest¨ ($18 -- a ¨specialty¨).
Sapa duck ($20, with a choice of basil, chili, curry, or pepper lemon sauce), the breast meat roasted, sliced, and fried, tasted mostly of hoisin sauce and sautéed onions. It too was dry and neither pleasant nor special enough to encourage more than a few bites. Red curry with chicken ($14) was a hit with the one person at our table who hadn´t had Thai food before. A traditional Thai red curry would be made with handfuls of roasted and ground spices: star anise, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, cumin, coriander, shrimp paste, crushed chilies, maybe fresh coriander or lemongrass, possibly long beans, tomatoes, and eggplant. Sapa´s red curry came with the same lineup of vegetables in our other dishes, and the sauce, while very spicy-hot and creamy, had little depth.
The only dish I can recommend unequivocally came from the sushi bar: a pretty plate of sliced hamachi sashimi drizzled with soy sauce and served with jalapeños and tobiko ($15). The very clean fish had been lightly handled and offered a good punch of heat against cool flesh.
We had mochi ice cream for dessert ($3) -- the weird, mass-produced Japanese ice cream balls wrapped in sticky rice flour -- in flavors of green tea and red bean. You might have to develop a taste for this stuff.
Anyway, Sapa´s just getting on its feet; it may yet do something spectacular, what with ten centuries of potential food bliss at its disposal. Or it might just limp along serving chicken on a stick with peanut sauce for the rest of its natural life. But in the meantime, you and me, we´ll be salting and frying our own scorpions.
Or maybe Koppelman has an extra mattress in Queens.