Restaurant News & Reviews

Thai Spices serves unique delights

Just inside the entrance to Thai Spices & Sushi, a statue of a mermaid sitting in a pool at the foot of a stone waterfall greets you.

The restaurant is small, and it's usually so quiet that you can hear the gentle splashing of the water. Listen closely, and you might even hear the mermaid speak. At first indistinguishable from the liquid sounds of the water, her whispered words slowly begin to become intelligible. Even then, you'll have to concentrate to make out her multilingual mutterings. "Start with the mieng khum," she's saying. "Then try the udon pad kee mao."

Take her advice. Both dishes are utterly delightful, and to my knowledge you won't find either elsewhere in the Triangle. Order the mieng khum, and you'll be brought a platter of lettuce (or baby spinach) leaves, finely diced ginger, red onion and lime, toasted coconut, peanuts and a sweet-spicy dipping sauce. Pick up one of the leaves, load it with the toppings of your choice and roll it up. Then dip your bite-size creation in the sauce and pop it into your mouth for the perfect refreshing summertime nibble.

I can practically guarantee you won't find udon pad kee mao elsewhere. Owner Chanatsip Sukhothai, who worked for more than a decade in her aunt's restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., before moving here, says it's their own family creation: a Japanese-Thai fusion of udon noodles stir-fried with chiles, basil leaves, tender-crunchy vegetables and your choice of chicken, beef or the plump, sweet shrimp I enjoyed.

But don't get the idea that Thai Spices & Sushi is a fusion restaurant. In fact, udon pad kee mao is the only aberration -- albeit a most agreeable one -- on a menu of otherwise traditional Thai and Japanese fare. Unless, of course, you count the specialty sushi rolls, which cater to American tastes as does pretty much every sushi bar nowadays. The Preston, for instance, a multicultural hodgepodge of shrimp tempura, avocado and cream cheese topped with coconut flakes, eel sauce and mayo.

Sushi, however, isn't the restaurant's main attraction. With the exception of a couple of pieces of somewhat dry yellowtail, the fish I sampled was reasonably fresh. But the inconsistent cut of the fish and the construction of nigiri sushi in particular are, well, let's say they're not the work of a master sushi chef.

It's the first half of the restaurant's name, not the second, that is the star of the show at Thai Spices & Sushi. Save the sushi for a Japanese restaurant and instead start off with mieng khum or Thai beef salad or refreshingly light vegetarian summer rolls (called "fresh roll" on the menu). If you must have a taste of Japanese, lightly battered shrimp and vegetable tempura won't let you down.

Not surprisingly, the fragrant coconut curries of Sukhothai's native Thailand are expertly rendered. If you've never tried Panang curry, then Sukhothai's rendition -- crisp-tender green beans, a colorful melange of bell peppers and your choice of chicken, beef, shrimp or tofu in a spice-perfumed sauce that's similar to red curry but a bit thicker -- is an excellent introduction.

Spicy basil beef, another Thai classic, is likewise rewarding. So is a dish unassumingly listed as "sautéed assorted seafood" under the Thai Chef's Special heading: jumbo shrimp, green-lipped mussels and scallops in a moderately spicy chile sauce perfumed with fresh basil and kaffir lime leaves.

The dining room is attractively decorated in rich tropical hues, from the wall-spanning mural of an ancient Thai capital to the lush potted greenery against a backdrop of an Asian pergola. Thai Spices & Sushi is clearly a family-run eatery, however, with a modest menu to match. The offering is hardly the most extensive in the area, though there are a few temptations I have yet to try. Deep-fried sweet and spicy fish, for instance, and chicken with cashew nuts.

And I'm pretty sure, as I was leaving last time, I heard the mermaid whisper, "Next time, try the pineapple curry."