No one will argue that a noisy restaurant is unpleasant, but music, if any, should
also be appropriate to the setting. I organize my mind with Bach, boogie with Aretha, and in my weaker moments wish I could find a man who could love me with the rich purity of Aaron Neville’s voice. A few notes can transport me from when the Shirelles marked my social universe to when the bubbling tama of Youssou N’Dour and King Sunny Ade’s conversational dúndùns permeated my expanding world. So when I enter a restaurant, I occasionally find that my enjoyment and understanding are defined as much by what is on the box as by what is on the plate. Bethania’s plaintive wail reminds me of boozy nights in Pelourinho dives, the rocking Marley skank makes me hanker for serious jerk, rebetika makes me want to cry in my avgolemono. I can even stand limited amounts of Gipsy Kings with proper bribes of olives and chilled Manzanilla.
When I first entered Siam Garden during the holidays, the narrow room was in Christmas drag, with the prints of Asian villages and the metal deer prancing on the main room divider joined by twinkling lights and fake snow flocking the windows. The place was empty except for a table of wait staff at the back. Why then, I wondered, were Charley Pride and Tammy Wynette blaring from the sound system at the top of their recorded lungs? A bewildered waitress answered our request for lower decibels with the information that the music was regulated from an upstairs apartment and could be neither muted nor changed. So we endured incongruous achy-breaky variations while sampling a mercifully moist version of the classic chicken sa-tae ($5.95), distinguished by a slaw of red cabbage and carrot strips and a peanut sauce with a bit more chile bite than usual. Even more mercifully, the torture by country had segued to Asian lite by the time our entrées arrived, and my friend was able to enjoy his duck yum ($12.95), a warm, cilantro-garnished mound of crisp skin and chewy meat mined with peanuts, pineapple, scallions, and red onion slices on a bed of cooling iceberg. I savored the relative quiet along with my pahd khing sohd ($8.95), flavorful pieces of chicken in a rich ginger-infused broth filled with crinkle-cut carrots, scallion pieces, bits of a slippery black fungus, and a julienne of ginger. The food was prepared so tastefully that under other circumstances we might have attempted to find out whether the kitchen had also upped Thai’s usual meager dessert ante a notch. Instead, we hit the street lest the music change again.
The deer pranced without any twinkle lighting their way by my second visit. But more importantly, country was no longer cool— the far apter Asian elevator music prevailed. Unfortunately, the mayhem had moved to the table, where hit-or-miss offerings supplanted the previous glories. Although the light broth of the tohm yum ($3.75) was aromatic with lemongrass and loaded with shrimp, only a bizarre topping of crushed potato chips lent any interest to a Thai salad of lettuce, cukes, tomatoes, and stuff, and only an excellent dipping sauce redeemed the flavorless gai yang ($10.95). Sizzling on arrival, the basil duck ($12.95) was a delicious reminder of the kitchen’s potential. Nevertheless, we quit while we were ahead, lest mayhem strike again.