By Joe Ricchio | Photographs by Kristin Teig
Traditional Asian street food is greatly enhanced when it is created with fresh Maine ingredients. This seems simple enough. But if you still require proof, let Long Grain show you the way.
One of the most common misconceptions about Long Grain in Camden is that its cuisine is exclusively Thai.
In actuality, a wide range of Asian styles are offered, in a fashion similar to what one might find in the sprawling food courts and hawker stalls of Bangkok. Owners Paula Palakawong and Ravin “Bas” Nakjaroen hail from this great city, which they call “one big melting pot of all cuisines.”
“We focus on traditional dishes and flavors, while utilizing the ingredients that are seasonally available,” Palakawong says. “We are continually amazed by the way this makes classic food even better and more interesting.” Long Grain almost exclusively relies on products from local purveyors, and creates damn near everything from scratch.
While navigating my way through the narrow dining room, I observe a plethora of antique cooking tools hanging from large wooden planks affixed to the walls. According to Palakawong, they were all discovered in local antique shops over a period of two years. The decor is fairly sparse, allowing the presentation of the food to be the center of attention.
Palakawong and Nakjaroen opened Long Grain in the summer of 2010, after moving from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where they had operated a contemporary Thai restaurant called the Four Rivers. Nakjaroen runs the kitchen. He’s a self-trained chef who learned cooking techniques from his mother and grandmother and who began cooking professionally in his teens. Palakawong attended college and initially began working in restaurants only for a “transitional period while looking for a regular job.” Yet here she is today.
The wine list, though small, is appropriate for a menu made up primarily of authentic Asian cuisine. These wines tend to have a higher level of acidity, which makes them better suited to pairings with bold, spicy flavors. On this particular visit, I select a bottle of 2010 Domaine des Aubuisieres Vouvray Les Girardieres, an off-dry chenin blanc suffused with the flavors of honey and candied lime peel. This wine will go the distance with all of the dishes we order—even dessert.
As Palakawong skillfully glides through the dining room delivering artfully presented plates of tantalizingly aromatic food, she makes routine stops to chat with regulars and greet newly arriving patrons at the door. Our appetizers begin to materialize, starting with the nua nam tok, a northeastern-style Thai beef salad topped with red onion, scallions, chili paste, lemongrass, and leafy greens. Marinating the tender beef in roasted rice paste has imparted a pleasant smoky flavor that complements the fiery chilies and fragrant lemongrass.
Coconut soup is up next, with creamy, locally made Heiwa Tofu, rustic chunks of galangal, whole bird chilies, and a mixture of wild chanterelle, king oyster, and chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms. The broth is delicate and not cloyingly sweet, and the whole chilies will take the heat up several notches if you choose to eat one. Long Grain utilizes several adept local foragers in an effort to showcase the best mushrooms of the season. Palakawong enjoys how “each wild mushroom has its own unique flavor and texture, making them a great example of an ingredient that greatly enhances this style of cuisine.”
Pork, shrimp, and local seaweed dumplings arrive in a small bamboo steamer. The dough for the wrappers is made in-house—much like everything else—and it valiantly holds in the excessive amount of filling packed into each dumpling. For our final “starter,” we order the roasted eggplant special, which has been stuffed with seasoned ground pork and showered with mint, cilantro, and chili-lime vinaigrette. It is truly Asian comfort food at its best.
The service at Long Grain is not only friendly and attentive, but the servers are also well informed about the ingredients and where they are sourced. Every item that could possibly be local is local—a practice that Palakawong and Nakjaroen take very seriously.
As the bottle of Vouvray diminishes, our main courses arrive. The first is a spicy and sour stir-fry of house-made kimchi, braised pork belly, and meaty royal trumpet mushrooms accompanied by dense and toothsome rice cakes. As it turns out, the spicy stir-fried noodles in our pad ke mo are also cut from the same flour block as the rice cakes, and they are served with a healthy amount of Thai basil, wilted greens, wild mushrooms, and chicken breast.
I decide to transition to beer, choosing the Hitachino Nest White Ale from the Kiuchi Brewery, located in Japan’s Ibaraki prefecture. It has a rich, honeyed quality, making it a strong follow-up to the wine.
Although I’m quite full at this point (nothing new here), we decide that the desserts, which Palakawong refers to as “contemporary,” are not to be missed. The coconut panna cotta with mixed berries is velvety and flavorful, and the baked coconut custard is truly unforgettable. It has been brûléed on top, giving it a nice crunch to complement the creamy custard perched atop a pool of sweet purple sticky rice.
Considering the amount of painstaking effort that goes into each dish, Long Grain’s prices are extraordinarily reasonable. When I ask her why they have chosen Camden as the home for their restaurant, Palakawong replies that the people who live here care deeply about the quality of their life and their food. It’s a mentality that is perfectly suited to the culinary experience Palakawong and Nakjaroen have created: unique, exotic dishes made from ingredients right outside your back door.31 Elm St. | Camden | 207.236.9001