Less is more
“Oh, I just adore those sculpted vegetable flowers,” cooed my dinner companion, admiring the cherry tomato “rose” that garnished my first course at Café de Thai. “I don’t care if they are old-fashioned. They really add to the presentation. They add style.”
At Café de Thai, presentation and style matter.
The server placed simple cups of hot tea ($2) on the table as if making an offering. Instead of hackneyed travel posters, intricate Thai carvings and opalescent tapestries hung on the dining room walls. Water slipped quietly through a fountain made from a giant, 50-year-old grapevine. Screens, soft music and bamboo blinds utterly cocooned my party from the strip mall and fast food just outside.
While a few courses faltered—and though kitchen clatter was often too loud—the food at Café de Thai was, without fail, beautifully plated and graciously served.
Case in point: the hoy gooay deo ($7.50), the dish that featured the tomato flower. Four scallop shells each held a plump sea scallop squatting happily on a bed of poached noodles and bean sprouts. Chef J.J. (as he’s called) drizzled the shellfish with a peanut curry and tamarind sauce finished with cilantro.
The dish performed an exquisite tug-of-war, the soft noodles and scallop flesh almost melting into the sweet curry, only to be pulled back by the pungent cilantro and sour notes of tamarind.
The crêpe tod ($7.25) comprised a similarly deft interplay of tastes. Atop a lightly fried crepe cut into squares, J.J. paired shrimp with two very different partners: gently seasoned sausage and the insistently biting cilantro. In the same mouthful, the dance of flavors was a friendly two-step or an energetic tango. With garlic and chili pepper dipping sauces added to the mix, the dance became an all-out rumba.
But the cilantro accents used early on to such good effect disrupted the Zen of the tom yum goong—hot and sour shrimp soup ($5.50). Thanks to an overgenerous dose of the herb, the broth was more bitter than sour, a misstep not even the heat of Thai chili peppers or the sourness of lime juice could redeem.
A single element also marred the goong pad mak kay paek ($12.50). By themselves, the fat, juicy shrimp stir-fried with onions, garlic, cilantro, bell peppers and roasted chili peppers would have been an essay in the classic Thai fusion of hot, sweet, salty and sour flavors. Unfortunately, the shrimp were smothered in a cloying, syrupy tamarind sauce. The sauce was so heavily applied that a pool of it remained on the serving dish after the course was finished.
Balance returned with kao nar gai ($9.50). Oriental sausage lent saltiness to stir-fried chicken pieces, while bamboo shoots and shallots played foil to piquant touches of ginger and garlic. This dish confirmed my initial impression of the chef as a skillful weaver of herbs and spices.
Chef J.J. is ambitious, too, refusing to be satisfied with the mishmash of lemon grass chicken, pad thai and satays that some Thai restaurants are content to serve. He takes a familiar roast rack of lamb and reinterprets it, using Thai vegetables and yellow curry ($18.50). He poaches a standard filet of salmon in coconut milk and ginger ($13.50) until the fish sings with a zesty sweetness. Chef J.J. even prepares seven-course tasting dinners accompanied by flights of wine ($18.50, $20.50).
This abundant culinary prowess made the evening’s two disappointments all the more troubling. Like flowers in extravagant bloom, these dishes were carried away by their own power, their own pyrotechnics. A more restrained approach to spicing would have made these courses—and dinner as a whole—truly outstanding.