At a restaurant where the signature dish is called metmamuanghimmaphan, first-time diners are sure to have a few questions. The spirited servers at May Kitchen + Bar, May Chaleoy's highly anticipated Vashon Island foray, are perpetually untangling foreign phrases, matching pandan leaf and Siamese watercress razzle-dazzle spied on neighboring tables to their menu descriptions, and assuring patrons that, yes, they really are allowed to wander into the kitchen.
MAY KITCHEN + BAR 17614 Vashon Hwy. S.W., 408-7196, maykitchen.com. 4-9 p.m. Wed.-Sun.
The back door leading to Chaleoy's genuinely open kitchen is the entryway likely to garner the most attention. Designed to mitigate customer traffic once the restaurant adds takeout to its repertoire, the door is now available to anyone who wants to peer at the tidy line and absorb the hushed rhythms of sauce-stirring and noodle-garnishing. And May's cooks won't mind if your admiration for a meticulous rear-wall pantry arrangement of fish-sauce bottles and coconut-milk cans inspires you to reach for your camera.
Still, the most interesting scenes unfold at the restaurant's front door. It is here where Vashon Islanders, who've anxiously waited a year for May to open, get their first glimpse of the lemongrass-scented refuge that Chaleoy has created. They inevitably swing their gaze around the 60-seat room, cloaked in rich teak and mahogany panels that make the space feel as special and secure as a ship captain's quarters, perhaps alighting first on the central U-shaped bar that serves all manner of alcohol. Then their eyes might be drawn upward to the exposed rafters, or dart toward the candlelit tables surrounded by longtime friends who are similarly sick of boarding a ferry every time they want pad thai. And once they've completed their visual tour, they grin.
May serves outstanding versions of central Thai classics. But, more compellingly, May serves a community. The restaurant's tremendous success—although reservations aren't formally required, they're a wise idea at any restaurant where half the tables are filled by 4:30 p.m.—is a gratifying reminder of how much a restaurant can mean to the eaters who live nearby.
"People are pretty much losing their minds," says Vashon resident Shauna James Ahern, the cookbook author and blogger known to her fans as Gluten-Free Girl. "If it had been mediocre, I would have been fine with it. But we're in New York right now, and I cast no aspersions on New York, but I haven't found anything here as good as May."
Although Vashon has a reputation as an edible wonderland, where heirloom pigs run free and clammers effortlessly pry massive geoducks from the shore, the town's restaurant scene has long been abysmal. Ahern senses that situation changing with the recent openings of Zamorana, an offshoot of a Mexican food truck helmed by Jorge Garnica, and May, the first Thai restaurant on Vashon since the early 1990s, when Wok in Takeout was in business. Even Zombiez, the island's living-dead-themed burger joint, has started serving tomato salads.
"Vashon is a pretty urbane place, if not urban," says Ahern. "Most of us escape to the city once a week to Sitka & Spruce or The Walrus and the Carpenter or Delancey. Frankly, I'm much happier going to May."
In 2010, Chaleoy's business partner, Tom Schwaegler, invited the Bangkok native to open a restaurant on Vashon. Before being recruited by Schwaegler, Chaleoy had run May Thai in Wallingford. Fans of that restaurant will recognize many of the dishes served at May Kitchen + Bar, although the latter's menu is considerably slimmer. May Kitchen offers just 10 entrées, a puny figure by American-Thai standards. There isn't any fish, duck, or seafood other than shrimp, and the only dessert is crème brûlée, but Chaleoy has said she plans to grow the dish lineup slowly.
Yet with so many terrific dishes already on the menu, it's silly to grump about what's not available. While you pine for larb and massaman curry, I'll be eating gai haw bai thoey, a gleefully tactile starter of three tender chicken bits, each bandaged in an untrimmed emerald-green pandan leaf, its forearm-long ends jutting skyward like especially perky onion tops. The marinated chicken bundles are seated in a slick of sesame oil, ginger, and syrupy pineapple chunks, so they're sweetly sticky both inside and out. The perpendicular dish is a sugary southeast-Asian spectacle, something like what you hope to get when you order food at a tiki bar.
Preparations that don't literally rise above their plates still manage to transcend expectations. Eaters who've soured on moo satay will appreciate May's cliché-wrecking version of grilled pork skewers, supple and rich from a swim in a curry propped up by coconut milk. Green papaya salad, tossed with a bracing amount of lime juice and a squirt of palm sugar, is a graduate thesis on the primal importance of crunch, its shredded starring fruit joined by crisp roasted peanuts and green beans which aren't shy about snapping.
Nearly half of the appetizers are fried (in gluten-free-friendly rice flour, Ahern points out), with the yum phak boong drawing the most appreciative ogles. The flash-fried watercress looks like a futurist's idea of healthy eating, its stiff stalks and leaves bound in cryogenic-like suspension, but it was the only dish I sampled which came up short on flavor. While the accompanying thick tamarind dressing was a tangy partner, the watercress tasted bland and wet.
Consolation awaits in a bowl of thom ka soup, enticingly smooth and vaguely butterscotchy. The hot soup helps soften the chicken, which was brutally overcooked. Although thick sauces lessened the blow, chicken and beef were tough every time they appeared, whether in soups, noodles, or fantastically velvety curries. But the shrimp—in an arresting pra ram loang soang, a stir-fry of baby corn and bean sprouts swamped with a sunset-hued peanut sauce—were perfectly cooked.
Asking an accomplished Thai cook to tackle phad see iew is probably akin to asking Gabby Douglas to turn a cartwheel, but the dish doesn't suffer for its simplicity or ubiquity. The dusky, soy-soaked sprawl of yielding wide rice noodles, Thai broccoli, and scrambled eggs has a ridiculously good garlicky char. Like most of May's dishes, it's not spicy, but diners who want to add heat can request a caddy of pickled peppers and chili sauce. As the menu patiently explains, "authentic Thai menu items are not served on a star system."
Vashon eaters have uncomplainingly adapted to the DIY spicing method. But Nadine Edelstein, a tile artist who's lived on Vashon for 20 years, says they weren't so deferential during May's first test meals. "I went to one of the pre-opening openings, and we were told to pretend like it was a real restaurant and to stay in our seats," she recalls. "But it was really hard, because we'd want to talk to people at other tables. We told them, 'This is what it's really going to be like.' "
And Islanders couldn't be happier about it.
Moo satay $8
Som thum $8
Thom ka $12
Phad see iew $12
Pra ram loang soang $15