Restaurant Review: Pukk

71 1st Avenue
(between 4th Street & 5th Street)
East Village, Manhattan

Vegiboys Rating (2.5/4)

Thai cuisine occupies a special generational pocket of memory; before the turn of the millenium, it fell upon a lower rung of recognition or comfort than Chinese or Indian cuisine… Thai restaurants were rarely to be found outside of urban areas, and even more rarely visited by the dining masses.

The early ’00s changed this, with Thai cuisine rising from the depths to become a national culinary trend. Pad Thai and Thai iced teas became universally understood concoctions among the late teens and 20s crowds, and a flood of new Thai restaurants fell over themselves to provide the hip, affordable experiences expected by their audience.

However, the moment of Thai cuisine’s popular heights has passed, and the restaurants have largely now become just another American dining option.

Pukk rose as one of the star members of NYC’s original Thai trend. Along with SEA (an excellent venue – particularly their Brooklyn branch, though not purely vegetarian), Pukk has weathered the fade in Thai’s vogue, but the restaurant has a sort of nostalgic datedness that belies its earlier glory days.

The tiled interior and its rounded shapes make (and always have made) the dining room feel like it’s located behind the locker room for a high school pool. The chairs, though sleek looking, are unfortunately uncomfortable (note; the padding for the bench seating can be moved, just use some agression in lifting them). The bathroom (with its basin-less sink and stone surfaces) again betrays Pukk’s hip beginnings, and also its decline (some unfinished adjustments in the bathroom electrical wiring have left it inconveniently dark).

We began our meal with lychee and pineapple cocktails; both were exceedingly sweet.

For appetizers we went with corn fritters and the pumpkin egg roll (made with smoked tofu). Three dips accompanied these apps: a sweet chili, a peanut, and a pineapple sauce. All tasted fine, but didn’t offer much flavor: the corn fritters derived all of their taste from their deep fry oil bath, and despite the menu description, the filling for the pumpkin egg roll lacked any smokiness.

Brian chose the Pad Thai as his entrée, which arrived as a rounded tower topped with a liberal layer of bean sprouts. The flavor was regrettably bland, and the considerable amount of egg used in the dish wasn’t necessary: it helped neither with binding the ingredients nor improving their taste.

My green curry “chicken” was also terribly underseasoned. Bamboo zucchini and green pepper tasted great as stand-alone elements, but the broth lacked any flavor, the basil was hard to notice, and the dish did not possess much heat.

For dessert, a lychee rice pudding brûlée followed suit with the previous courses: all of the flavors we hoped would pop instead seemed muted.

Whether this all be from a conservative use of spices, use of lower quality ingredients to reduce costs, or simply a tired kitchen in need of stronger inspiration, Pukk has not maintained standards since its heyday. The bill came to $20 each, but the experience simply couldn’t match even that price. To keep its reputation and its clients, Pukk needs to move past its role in the Thai trend, and embrace a longer-term strategy. Compromising on the original atmosphere to offer more comfort and convenience, and working to keep the tastes fresh regardless of the success of its initial menu are necessary changes for it to hold a place in the urban dining scene, rather than relegating its sucesses to the hole of the city’s culinary memory.

Food (2.5/4)
Atmosphere & Service
Value (2.5/4)

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