Located in a restored leather mill, Brown Sugar by the Sea looks out through large, airy windows framed by rustic timber beams and brawny steel braces. The room feels thoroughly modern and unabashedly historic at the same time. A quick scan of the restaurant’s patrons reveals a diverse, eclectic, and urbane crowd, including parents and their Thai-connoisseur youngsters; a young bohemian couple, their attention torn between intense conversation and a shared platter of steaming noodles; a lone, professorial gentleman, tucked into his dinner, which he has strategically positioned between himself and his propped-up Kindle; and just about every other kind of diner you can imagine.
When plates arrive at our table, we quickly realize that aside from the shabby-chic ambiance, what people really come here for is the gloriously fresh-tasting, expertly prepared food, including Thai-inspired originals, Asian-American adaptations, and a plentiful selection of authentic Thai staples.
The aptly named Brown Sugar Fresh Rolls are indeed fresh, with the traditional near-transparent rice paper wrapper acting as a window on the crispy shredded carrots, shrimp, cucumbers, lettuce, and basil inside. Crab Rangoon, most likely an American invention, has somehow managed to graft itself to the standard Thai-American restaurant menu, and why not? Especially when they are as extra crisp and extra creamy as these. Naturally, we ordered Brown Sugar’s rock-solid rendition of classic Pad Thai—and so did almost everyone else.
If one dish epitomizes the traditional Thai taste profile—sweet, sour, salty, spicy—it is the venerable Tom-Yum soup, which is based on chicken broth, fish sauce, lime juice, lemongrass, and hot chili paste, made here with excellent balance among the symphony of flavors and effects.
The Spicy Roasted Eggplant Saute, a traditional recipe, is piled high with tasty vegetables tossed with basil and a sublime sauce. Last up: Three Taste Salmon, whose name refers to the sweet, sour, and salty character of this excellent dish of perfectly grilled salmon with Thai spices, chopped scallions, and steamed vegetables.
For those who still haven’t made their way to this dynamite waterfront restaurant, where the fragrances and flavors of Thai cooking permeate every sense, you don’t know what you’ve been missing.
Appetizers: Fresh Rolls ($7), Crab Rangoon ($7). Soup: Tom Yum (Hot & Sour Soup) ($4). Salad: Som Tum (Papaya Salad) ($12). Noodles: Pad Thai ($11). Entrees: Spicy Roasted Eggplant Saute ($14), Three Taste Salmon ($16). Location: 75 Water Street, Newburyport, 978-499-8424, brownsugarbythesea.com.