Take Me to the River

Thai is tough to master, but River Spice makes a good showing

There are three of them in Dallas. Thai is one. Indian is another. And Italian. OK, there's Chinese, but that's an easy one to decipher: no Chinatown.

The former are three types of cuisine that, with rare exceptions, stumble in Dallas. No matter who inspires the food or where they're from, no matter how authentic their chops, the food just doesn't sing.

Not long ago I had a conversation with Nick & Sam's General Manager Joe Palladino, the former New York cop who snapped his knee and shattered his ribs and shoulder chasing burglars through a burned-out building when the staircase he was scaling collapsed. "They craned me out of there," he said. Cranes spawn fascinating career changes.

River Spice is one of the few Dallas restaurants to do Thai right.
Karlisch
River Spice is one of the few Dallas restaurants to do Thai right.

Details

Fried calamari $8.95
Crispy salmon rolls $8.95
Pad Thai $14.95
Panang pork $11.95
Grilled sea bass $16.95
Fried whole red snapper $24
Thai spring rolls $6.95
Crispy curry dumplings $6.95

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Anyway, I asked him why New York-bred chefs and operators of Italian extraction can't seem to duplicate their sublime workmanship in Dallas. (Notable exceptions were Rick Robbins at the defunct eccolo, the brief Sharon Hage spurt at the defunct Salve! and occasional episodes at Mi Piaci. That two of these spots are closed does not bode well for Italian nourishment in Dallas.) The theory is that it's the water. Palladino says pasta and pizza dough as well as stocks for perfect risotto require fresh, clean water to come out as the sort of lusty dishes places like Tuscany are known for. And New York tap water is extraordinary: so clean that a perceptible sweetness floods the palate.

It's hard to choke down a glass of unfiltered Dallas tap. It's burdened with deposits that form a coarse and crusty white powder on surfaces when faced with extended exposure in aquariums or indoor fountains.

Indian food, on the other hand, is so complex and potent it takes a chef with an unusual touch to pull it off--unusual for Dallas anyway. Thai suffers from the same problems; not many here can handle the potency without turning spice complexity into a peculiar form of mud. Thai is a freewheeling cuisine in which ingredients aren't measured and blended as much as they are pinched and tossed about. Recipes are assembled by tongue and tongue alone, and only a set of buds with an effectively internalized system of flavor balances can hack the kitchen challenges.

So hopes weren't hovering much above pavement level when we pulled into River Spice, tucked in an L-shaped North Dallas strip mall that also houses the northern outpost of Blue Fish, the sushi restaurant that popped onto Lower Greenville a few years back.

While the menu is fairly typical, preparation is a bit atypical. Not in that it is terribly innovative, but in that it is so tight. Pad Thai is often an effective barometer of Thai kitchen brilliance. If this dish is all it is supposed to be--supple noodles, a dash of real crushed peanuts, a sauce that is at once lubricous and sticky without leaning too much into one or the other, turning the dish into either a gluey knot or a viscous soup--it's a fair bet the curries, the chilies, the cilantro and the lemongrass on the rest of the menu will be handled with reverence.

River Spice adds visual flair to its pad Thai. At the far end of the plate is a curved cup of sheer rice paper that reaches a few inches above the plate. It resembles a concert shell, except for the veins threading through the surface, so it is perhaps crafted to resemble a leaf. The pad Thai spills from this curvature; a river of gently twisting noodles at once tossing and submerging crisp bean sprouts and scallion cuttings in a culinary freeze frame on the plate. The twisting flow is capped with crushed nuts and bright yellow little pads of egg, mini English muffins stained Hummer-yellow. The textures were near perfect. Pricked with pepper, the flavors threaded with just the right amount of sweet and tang to keep from leaning precipitously in either direction.

Panang pork carried this touch forward. Panang is a rust-tinged curry usually simmered in coconut milk. It creates a beige, creamy-yet-thin medium framed and speckled with ruddy pin pricks of oil. Strips of tender, juicy pork, bell pepper, gently bending green beans and basil leaf are deposited into the soup. It's a remarkable balance with stabs of chili heat quickly soothed by the gentle coconut-milk salve.

River Spice seems to takes its name and render it in tiny hidden visual eruptions throughout the dining room. Water floods over a glass wall near the entrance. An "S" installation rests in the center of the dining room, banquettes tucked into the letter's loops. This flow is in contrast with the walls: grids of mirrors framed in wood strips. Yet injected into this geometry are gently curving wall sconces with ribbon strips of glass.

There are stumbles here, to be sure. It will be a long time before I am able to make peace with fried calamari, and River Spice did little to close the gap. There is simply too much of it clogging menus, most of it subpar and assembled without a hint of imagination. Here there is potential, an unintentional interplay that never amounts to anything. The dish is an array of golden, crisp, greasy strips with squishy white meat in the center. No rings, no tentacles. Just those uniform strips resting on a bed of blemish-free romaine leaves and fried rice-noodle tangles.

The possibility that these rice noodles were clever stand-ins for tentacles--a wink at diner squeamishness over these suction-cupped limbs--led me to assume something clever might be at work here, but the crispy salmon rolls arrived on the same canvas, so this was generic appetizer bedding. These salmon rolls really were clever, though. Sweet and rich salmon meat is mingled with spinach, tightly wrapped in rice paper and fried. One end is tied off with a strip of scallion--a clever fastener if there ever was one--and they look like pouches subjected to a session on the rack. They're assembled in a circular pattern with the tied-off ends leaning into the center. Though tasty and crisp, these, too, were greasy.

Yet these items mark the weak points in the menu. Well, not exactly. The grilled sea bass was ripe with possibilities, but they were squandered in a "special gravy" that was watery and tended to mush things a bit. Surrounded by mushrooms and crisp baby corn, onion and snow peas, the meat was buttery on its own, and it flaked with the slightest pressure. But it lacked vibrancy on the tongue, an emphatic spark of seasoning, leaving the fish to float in limbo rather than serving a point of arousal.

It's rare in dining experience that intact corpses are delivered to the table. Cadaver remnants are usually delivered in pieces, or a piece. The exception is baby octopus and maybe a grilled quail. But the latter is hardly intact, headless and feetless as it is.

The other exception--a compelling one--is whole fried fish. Here you get fins, tail, bones, head, eye sockets, the whole cadaver, save for the slit in the belly from which the entrails were pulled. And while it might be disconcerting to see a whole spit-roasted pig dropped at your table, a whole fish barely registers a flinch. Pla lad prik is a monstrously delicious red snapper coated, fried and forced to mingle with red, yellow and green bell pepper slices, mushrooms and cilantro flecks. It wades in a tarry pool of tamarind sauce: a merging of sugar and oyster sauce with spices. The crisp, greaseless sheath sheltered creamy white meat that was juicy and resilient.

This was a high point from the River Spice fryer. But there were a pair of others. Resting on that same bed of lettuce and fried rice noodles, Thai spring rolls jammed with carrot, cabbage, pork and vermicelli were savory, with the ingredients never losing their distinctness in a core of overfried mush. But the real stars sprung from oil depths are the fried curry dumplings, bumpy half-moon pillows puffed into shape by a gut filled with chicken scraps mixed with yellow curry powder, coconut milk, cilantro and bean paste. The flavors burst from the paste core, and when the crusty greaseless dumpling case was split, rich curry aromas were carried in the steam billows, much like they would if there really was a River Spice.

18111 Dallas Parkway, Suite 200, 469-533-8424. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$

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