I'd been trying to catch up with my friend Liz for months when she had an unexpected couple of days off and suggested we meet at Esan on Park Avenue, where she often goes to get her Thai food fix.
Light and airy, given that we ate al fresco. Indoors, the narrow restaurant has a comfortable vibe with live plants, gray walls, pendant lights, Asian art, and smooth jazz.
Even though it was the peak of the lunch hour, our meals arrived in less than five minutes. Liz stuck by one of her favorites, the Spicy Tofu (the most expensive vegetarian selection at $5.50; the affordable prices are another reason she's a frequent customer). The dish comes with broccoli, snow peas and baby corn, but she doesn't care for snow peas and substituted an extra helping of broccoli. Piled high next to a generous heap of white rice, her tofu squares were extra thick and "spiced just right with a touch of garlic and a little bit of fire," mixed with the veggies in a light brown sauce.
I guess I was in the mood for peanuts because I'd been snacking on them all morning, and the Pad Thai sounded appealing. The Pad Thai I thought I was ordering from the vegetarian menu combines bean sprouts, baby corn, mushrooms, snow peas, carrots, lime and crushed peanuts with thin rice noodles. Unfortunately, because of my unfamiliarity with the menu and a bit of a language barrier, I inadvertently answered questions that led our fast-talking server to believe I wanted the other Pad Thai, one with bean sprouts and a choice of pork, chicken, beef, shrimp or squid. I answered "shrimp," so I'm not placing blame on our server. When the dish came without all the toppings I thought I was getting, he was nice enough to bring out a bowl of veggies at no extra charge. The Pad Thai ($6.75) was light and non-greasy, and the portion was big enough for me to have the leftovers for dinner — but the shrimp was quite tough. Bonus: The noodles were manageably sized. (I despise when they're so long and unwieldy that I have to resort to cutting them.)
Also available: appetizers, soup, salad and lots of vegetarian options. Hot and spicy dishes can be ordered one of six ways, from "a little hot" to "nuclear."
Thai iced drinks ($2 to $3), soft drinks ($1.25), bottled water ($2), beer (including Singha and Tsingtao, $3.50), and wine ($4.95/glass and $19/bottle). We had water.
The damage: $15.25
Next time ... I'd get the Coconut Green Curry ($5.25), a spicy mix with zucchini, basil, red peppers, broccoli, snow peas and green beans.
Good to know
Where: 696 Park Ave.
When: 11:15 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:15 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.