The note at the top of Long Grain’s menu, “Asian Home Cooked & Street Foods,” doesn’t begin to describe the creative and delicious food in this very popular Camden eatery.
Paula Paladawong’s enthusiasm for the creative cuisine created by her husband, Ravin Jakjaroen, had our mouths watering well before the food started to arrive. Paula is a vibrant presence in this tiny 30-seat Elm Street restaurant. She eagerly told us about the local farms that supply much of the restaurant’s meat and produce while taking us on a tour of the menu which, honestly, was a complete mystery to me. Kimchi? Thai basils? Pad Seaw? Chaing Mai curry noodles?
By the time Paula had fully described each of the dishes she wanted us to try, this meat-and-potatoes guy couldn’t wait for them to arrive. And the aroma of foods going by our table was making me very hungry.
Let’s start, though, with the beer. For a small restaurant, the beer list is impressively diverse with choices from Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Phillippines, China, Sri Lanka, Finland, Belgium, Scotland, Germany and the United States. Paula recommended a Hitachino Red Rice beer from Japan, one of her most popular choices. I loved it. This beer had a nice ginger taste and was a refreshing match for some of the spicy dishes we tried.
I began this culinary adventure with something I recognized: mussels. The broth was pleasingly spicy, not too hot, just right. I had Linda taste it and she said the flavor came from lemongrass. They thoughtfully include a large dipping spoon with the dish, and I dipped liberally every time I took a steamed mussel out of a shell. Incredibly flavorful.
By the time 6 p.m. rolled around, the restaurant was full and I noted a lot of younger diners. Lin explained that they are “more worldly and adventurous.” I think she was comparing them to me. And she’s right. So you need to know, you unadventurous Mainers, that Asian and Thai food need not be spicy. There are plenty of tasty choices that won’t set your mouth on fire!
Those choices would not include curry. But I encourage you to spice up your dining with the Beef Panang Curry with roasted red peppers, bamboo and Thai basil. This was one of my favorites, very spicy indeed, with a large portion of beef that was soft and flaky and oohhh so good. But I must warn you — don’t eat the red peppers in the sauce! Paula warned me, but I managed to eat one and it took the rest of my beer and a glass of water to douse the fire in my mouth. Of course, that was a good excuse for another Hitachino Red Rice beer!
Long Grain restaurant in Camden features Thai food with a creative edge. Paula said they wanted to serve something a little more unusual than other Thai restaurants. Well, they’ve certainly met that goal.
They use locally obtained meat and produce as much as possible. It was fun to hear her excitedly explain the food on the menu. It’s important to note that you’ll get plenty of advice here to help you with your choices of dishes, ingredients and spices. Many dishes offer choice of meat, vegan and gluten-free dishes (most dishes are put together in the kitchen so ingredients can be changed to order).
Four local organic farms grow vegetables for the restaurant and some are trying to keep up the supply in the winter with the use of greenhouses. They get their meat from the Curtis farm in Warren. They strive for authenticity and home-cooked foods, making ingredients like kimchi and wide noodles right here.
The table was set with metal chopsticks, but don’t panic. The server will ask if you are okay with these or if you’d like silverware. “You’d better bring silverware for backup,” George replied. And he never touched the chopsticks.
Each night, Long Grain has a specials menu featuring in-season, locally grown products. The daily menu is divided into appetizers, rice dishes, noodle dishes, stir fries and a daily curry.
We welcomed some guidance from Paula. The garlic chive rice cake appetizer sounded intriguing, but I had to ask what a rice cake was. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the dry snack type found in all our grocery stores. Sure enough, theirs is a light spongy cake which can be seasoned in a variety of ways. This appetizer was one of our favorite dishes of the evening. The soft texture inside the rice cake contrasted with the crispy pan-fried outside and they were served with fresh bean sprouts and a sweetened soy-based sauce. I have no idea what the spices were but they were perfect!
We also sampled the rice cake in their highly recommended stir-fry with housemade kimchi and rice cake.
Their rice and noodle dishes offer a choice of pork belly, chicken or tofu. We chose pork belly for our version. The kimchi surprised both of us. It is a vegetable condiment (mainly napa cabbage and carrots) fermented in a vinegary sauce full of spices that pack a wallop of flavor. The tang of the kimchi combined with the lean pork belly and rice cake to make an outstanding entree.
This dish intrigued me so much that I Googled kimchi when I got home. There are even whole websites devoted to kimchi, as it is a famous Korean condiment. The best quote I read claimed it was the kind of dish that you have to get used to, but when you do you will be hooked. I couldn’t agree more.
Our last choice included their housemade wide rice noodles. Paula explained that it takes three days to make these. There is Pad Seaw, a mild version, and the spicier Pad Ke Mao. We ordered the spicier but it was pleasantly mild. Wide noodles, thinly sliced pork belly, lots of asian greens, mushrooms and egg pancake pieces made a stir- fry that offered very different flavors than either of the other two entrees.
Even though we were able to get smaller sampling portions of these dishes, we were full and still had leftovers to take home. We thought we were done, unable to eat another bite, until a serving of coconut custard brule came out for us to share. That first bite convinced me I had room for more! The creamy custard was served over black sticky rice and topped with coconut cream. What a surprise the sticky rice was — sweet and full of texture. This was absolutely delicious.
Long Grain served grains in each course, appetizer through dessert. It sure would be easy to eat more grains, as healthy diets suggest, if I could make them taste this delicious.
We left Long Grain satiated, delighted by one of our best meals of the year as we headed to the Samoset Resort to check into what we now think of as “our room.” Number 338 is a corner room with one view toward the Rockland breakwater and the other out over the open ocean.
Stepping up to a window with the open ocean view, we were stunned by a full moon shining over the water. Spectacular. What a welcome!
Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed in the “Best of Maine” section.