There are several criteria I use when judging a restaurant, but I don't use all of them all the time. Food, setting, service, atmosphere, and wine selection are all important but not necessarily equally important. Sometimes one thing is more important than another. After all, there are different expectations and standards for different types of dining experiences. I try not to compare apples with oranges, as they say, or use the standards for haute cuisine to appraise road food.
At an expensive French or New American restaurant, I expect all the details--from the wallpaper to the table appointments--to be well-thought out, to complement the food and enhance the aesthetic enjoyment of my dinner. But I don't come down hard on a Mexican restaurant if it doesn't have a great wine selection and, as a rule, I don't expect a lot from the decor of a small Vietnamese or Thai restaurant--they should be clean and neat, but that's all that'snecessary.
Royal Thai is undoubtedly the prettiest Thai restaurant in town. In an undistinguished storefront at Old Town, the little two-level interior is finished with weathered brick and aubergine paneling, accented with ornate gilded carvings and Thai antiques. It sets off the prettiest table settings I've seen in a restaurant: polished brass pepper and salt cellars and vases and complicated blue and white dishes with domed lids that are removed dramatically to unveil a complex red curry or coconut soup under a cloud of fragrant steam, garnished perhaps with red turnip rose.
Even the menu is beautiful--a folder of deep blue wood with embossed metal corners. All this prettiness and the best sinus relief in the world. What more could you ask from a restaurant?
And there are even some things on the menu that you don't find on other Thai menus around town. Gai ho bang tong may not translate exactly to "chicken wrapped in banana leaves," but that's what you get when you order it: little triangular packages of spice-rubbed chicken, the meat marinated and wrapped in green leaves, then grilled so it steams to a tender mouthful. It came with a complimentary plate of mee grob, that strange candied noodle dish, which was molded almost like a popcorn ball so it was hard to get a forkful.
Then, with heat building, a salad, yahm nuah, seems hearty and refreshing at the same time--rare sliced beef mixed with tomatoes, red onion bits, and mint dressed with lime juice and hot pepper, so the effect is somewhat like beef ceviche, if you can imagine it.
Soups prove the alchemy of a kitchen--at their best, they transform their ingredients into a brew that heals as it excites. Royal Thai serves an incredible soup, tom kha gai: tender white chicken in a thin, creamy red broth with hints of sweetness under the fire, fresh galanga (Thai ginger), sour lemon grass, rich coconut milk, and mushrooms. It's soothing, satisfying, and stimulates your taste buds and sates your hunger at the same time.
I can't eat Thai without eating curry; those magical mixtures of red or green spices are addictive, and I ordered gaeng ped this time, a red curry with chicken and that bright, anise-tasting Thai basil. And for seafood, I had goong op, a pot of glass noodles baked with shrimp, vegetables, mushrooms, and ginger.
Thai food is pretty food. It's not necessarily lovely to look at, but its fragrance, complication, and subtlety are aesthetically pleasing and the flavors soothe body and soul. Royal Thai is one of the few places in town where the setting really complements the food.
--Mary Brown Malouf
Royal Thai, 5500 Greenville Ave., (in Old Town Shopping Center), 691-3555. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday-Thursday 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5:30-11 p.m.
Gai Ho Bang Tong (chicken in banana leaves) $4.75
Tom Kha Gai (spicy chicken soup) $6.95
Yahm Nuah $7.50
Gaeng Ped Red Curry $7.50
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