Restaurant Review

Understated flavors offer new Thai delights

CorrespondentAugust 26, 2011 

  • 13200-131 New Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh


    Cuisine: Thai


    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: casual and cozy

    Noise level: low

    Service: friendly and attentive

    Recommended: fresh garden rolls, crispy veggie rolls, tod mun pla, pad kee mao, curries, desserts.

    Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: beer and wine; accommodates children/excellent vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Spanning the walls on either side of Bangkok Thai's 12-table jewel box of a dining room are large wood panels, stained a soft honeyed oak. At the center of each panel is a single miniature carved wooden crane - or a pair of them - painted in muted shades of rose and robin's egg blue.

The panels are otherwise unadorned, and except for a splash of color here and there - gilded flowers and lotus pods on a low table near the entrance, lanterns fashioned from red and white paper roses overhead - the dining room decor is restrained by Thai restaurant standards.

It's a fitting backdrop for exploring flavors that, while unmistakably Thai, are frequently as light and subdued as the colors of those carved wooden cranes. "Thai spa cuisine" wouldn't be far off the mark, in fact, to describe an offering characterized by an emphasis on fresh vegetables and light, clean flavors.

In Bangkok Thai's take on summer rolls, diced avocado combines with the usual fillings of shrimp, noodles and shredded vegetables in a pastiche of pastels visible through translucent rice flour wrappers. Spring rolls are lighter and less greasy than most in their shatter-crisp shells. Tod mun pla, diminutive homemade fish cakes flecked with kaffir lime leaf, are a dainty delight.

In other restaurants, Thai coconut curries are a full-throated chorus of exotic herbs and spices. Here, they sing gently in a narrower range of flavors. Basil takes the lead in the melody line of a slightly tart green shrimp curry, with tender green beans and julienne peppers singing bright harmony. Pineapple adds sweet counterpoint to a red duck curry, and cashews punctuate the creamier - but still light - Panang. Regardless of which curry you opt for, you can be sure it won't be upstaged by chiles unless you order it extra hot.

Steamed ginger fish is a study in delicately balanced flavors, pairing a moist mahi filet with broccoli, mushrooms and cabbage under a shower of gingerroot slivers.

Thai spicy basil - beef is popular, but salmon and soft-shell crab are also available - is a bolder option. Pad kee mao serves up an ample tangle of authentic egg noodles, fresh vegetables, and your choice of half a dozen protein options.

Truly vegetarian

What you won't find in any of these dishes is fish sauce. A staple ingredient in traditional Thai cuisine, fish sauce has been omitted in all but a handful of dishes on Bangkok Thai's menu. The omission no doubt accounts, at least in part, for the light, uncomplicated flavors. It also means that virtually every entree and noodle dish is available in two truly vegetarian versions: organic tofu and mixed vegetables.

The menu doesn't note which dishes contain fish sauce, but according to Durapon Pousujja, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Kittipong (he does most of the cooking) there are only four. All are found under the "Salads" heading, a fact that may strike the Western mind as counterintuitive.

Durapon Pousujja explains that fish sauce is a defining flavor in the pungent chile-flecked lime juice dressings of these salads. Without it, Tiger's Tear (thin slices of sautéed lean beef, served warm over lettuce and sprinkled with ground toasted rice) just wouldn't be Tiger's Tear. Same goes for seafood salad (squid, shrimp and mussels), larb (minced chicken) and som tam (green papaya salad). Having tasted a couple of them myself, I'm not inclined to dispute the matter.

Disappointments are infrequent, and can generally be attributed to attention lapses in the kitchen: a couple of pieces of gristly beef that find their way onto the plate, say, or overcooked chicken saté.

Subtle sweets, too

Durapon Pousujja's homemade ice creams - Thai tea, Thai coffee and coconut - head up a dessert offering that stands out from the crowd as much as the savory fare. Mangoes are out of season (the Pousujjas insist on using Thai mangoes), but the sweet sticky rice that traditionally accompanies them is still available with Thai custard. The rice is steeped with pandan leaf, which gives it a subtle citrusy-floral perfume and dyes it a pale jade green - a fitting color for a restaurant defined by understatement, and a delightful conclusion to the meal.

NOTE: Bangkok Thai will be closed Sunday and Monday.

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