Tom and Mimi Khamvongsa were trained in the classical culinary art of their native Thailand. They cooked for some wigs big enough to demand the best quality food ? high-ranking politicians, wealthy businesspeople. And then, in a brilliant stroke of fate, for us as well as them, they moved to Sonoma County more than a decade ago.
They often return to Thailand, sampling dishes there and bringing back techniques and ideas to Tomi Thai, their restaurant in Windsor. The name Tomi is a conflation of Tom and Mimi. The food they prepare is exquisite. Within the first few bites, you realize they know exactly how to balance ingredients with Thai herbs and spices to create flavor harmonies. The ingredients are impossibly fresh and clean-tasting. They take no shortcuts, making almost everything from scratch. They prepare their spices and curries themselves.
For instance, Pork Green Curry ($8.95 ****) is based on a homemade green curry paste. To prepare the paste, they pound together fresh spicy-hot chiles, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemon grass, kaffir lime, coriander root, peppercorns, roasted coriander and cumin seeds, salt and shrimp paste. Once the green curry paste is made, they mix it into coconut milk to make a light green soupy liquid, then add little pieces of tender pork, more green chiles, sliced bamboo shoots, zucchini, green beans, slices of green and yellow bell peppers, and basil.
The result is an astonishingly good curry ? not just because all those good veggies and a little pork are tossed together, but because it all shows proportion. Proportion in the amount of ingredients used to make the curry paste, and proportion in the amount of paste used in the coconut milk, and the proportions of the vegetables and meat in relationship to the liquid curry. It would be so easy to throw the dish out of whack by overemphasizing one ingredient, but that doesn?t happen.
Here?s the kicker: Everything they serve shows the same unerring proportionality. The Khamvongsas have learned their classic cooking well, and the love and passion they put into doing things properly comes through strongly in the food.
Tomi Thai is in the space formerly occupied by the late and lamented Odyssey, where the food was also exceptional, and the d?or has remained pretty much the same. Six stools still face the counter, which glows with light from within. The big screen projection TV is still there, showing ? on a recent night ? a B movie whose story seemed to be taking place both in medieval times and in the present day. It was hard to tell as the sound was turned down to a low mumble.
You can tell a lot about a Thai restaurant by its peanut sauce. This iconic condiment is often poorly made, lacking in flavor or with a texture too thick and gritty. The peanut sauce served at Tomi Thai is, in all its many manifestations, perfect. Mixed with plum sauce, it is the dip for Fresh Spring Rolls ($7.50 ****). Three rolls are cut in half to make six pieces. Each piece consists of soft rice paper wrapping up lettuce, noodles, cucumbers, mint, cilantro, onions, and shrimp. It?s hard to imagine how they could be better. Fancier? Maybe. More elaborate? OK. But not better. They crunch, and the mint-cucumber-cilantro combination is like a fresh breeze on a cool, sunny day.
Green papaya salad is known in the Thai language as Som Tum ($7.50 ***) and this one shows how careful the kitchen is to get the freshest possible ingredients. Shredded green papaya is joined by cherry tomatoes, chiles, carrots and haricots vert, and tossed with a delicious lime vinaigrette. A wedge of crispy Iceberg lettuce is added to one side and ground peanuts are sprinkled over the top.
The salad is one of the dishes on the menu where you get to choose your level of spiciness: mild, medium or Thai spicy. I?ve had Thai food hot enough to blister the chrome off your bumper, but Tomi Thai?s ?Thai spicy? level of heat is more like a nice, bearable pungency. Medium is what most would call pleasantly spicy, and mild is barely noticeable.
Strips of chicken breast meat are drowned in a marinade of curried coconut milk, oil, turmeric and kaffir lime leaves, then run up on bamboo skewers and lightly grilled until just done. Four of these Chicken Satay ($7.50 ****) are perfection, as are the peanut sauce and a small but astonishingly fresh sweet cucumber salad.
The familiar Thai soup, Tom Kha ($4 ***?), is fragrant with coconut milk flavored with galangal root, kaffir lime leaves, mint, cilantro, lemongrass, scallions, mushrooms and Thai spices. You can order it with chicken or as a vegetarian soup, in which case it contains Asian cabbage. It was ordered ?Thai spicy,? but the heat wasn?t obvious at first. It slowly built in the mouth to a welcome glow.
The special entr? on a recent night was Pumpkin Delight ($13.95 ****), an aptly-named mix of winter and summer squashes, onions, haricots, red bell peppers, basil and shrimp, all drenched in a rich chile and garlic sauce.
A section of the menu is devoted to House Favorites, which you can order with chicken, beef, vegetables or tofu. Tender strips of beef in the dish with the lively name of Pra Ram Long Srong ($10.95 ***) were served on a bed of spinach and cabbage and topped with a savory seasoned peanut sauce and a sprinkling of ground peanuts.
How can you resist a dish called Drunken Noodles ($8.95 ****)? Wide, flat, pan-fried rice noodles are saut?d with spicy chiles, egg, onions, tomatoes, basil, bell peppers, haricots and bok choy, and chunks of tender chicken. Once again, it was the way everything was perfectly proportioned that made this dish a stand-out. If the noodles got drunk, that might have made the tiger cry ? so here came an order of Crying Tiger ($13.95 ***). Five big strips of very tender, marinated, grilled rib-eye steak, about a third of an inch thick but still done medium rare exactly as ordered, were served on a bed of fresh and organic spring salad mix enhanced with a garlic and coriander root sauce. A dab of fiery Sriracha sauce topped the sauce.
Desserts are typically Southeast Asian variations of sweet sticky rice with mango and fried bananas with honey or ice cream ? but who had room? For beverages, there are the usual non-alcoholic drinks like iced Thai tea or coffee, soft drinks and beers. The wine list is short but knowledgeable. The 2005 Capcanes Garnacha from Spain is $36, a 2007 August Kessler Riesling from Germany is $35, and a 2007 Cameron Hughes Viognier is $30. Corkage is $10. Service will most likely be by a family member or friend, and relaxed and pleasant because of it.
To sum up: Classic Thai dishes beautifully prepared with a full knowledge of the cuisine by the sure hands of expert practitioners.
Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at email@example.com.