When Sen Thai, a popular lunch spot that provided a rare downtown option for ethnic food, reincarnated itself last November, it did more than just move a few blocks.
Sen gained space it didn't have in its old basement location in a switch from cramped and subterranean to a sweeping openness that complements food that is the best this side of Bangkok.
The old Sen Thai's success was inextricably linked to a captive crowd of central-business-district office workers looking for lunch and a smattering of downtown homesteaders. Regulars at the old place didn't mind climbing down a steep flight of stairs because the food was so good. But after 6 p.m., the place was dead, just like the rest of downtown. Only true fans ventured eastward at night for a meal from Sen Thai. (Sen means "noodle.")
The new Sen Thai has stayed downtown, moving just six blocks west to the first floor of the historic Shell Building, and it's designed with dining in mind. With Christ Church Cathedral, the main public library and Locust Street Park nearby, Sen Thai rests in a pleasant pocket of urban civility. Inside the restaurant, owner Art Chandanawich -- who could have relocated his operation to swank Clayton or the rakishly hip South Grand area -- presents his diners with an impressive backdrop for his food: eighteen-foot ceilings, orange- and mustard-colored walls, antique Thai masks behind the bar area and a 200-year-old oxcart rail that's used as a banister. There's also a massive mural of two albino elephants, a Thai spiritual symbol of royalty.
The two huge curved windows facing 13th Street allow a view of a small pocket park and the library while giving the room a grander sense; if white tablecloths were on the tables, people would expect to pay double the price for meals. Even the golden flatware adds an elegant touch. With its terraced pillars, recessed lighting and New Age music, Sen is a coolly contemporary-looking space trying to blend an upscale feel with Thai charm.
The new place seats twice as many diners and offers a greatly expanded menu that matches the "Thai-Asian" part of the restaurant's new hyphenated name. These days, many Thai restaurants incorporate other Asian dishes into their menus, just in case someone needs something familiar such as fried rice, crab Rangoon or anything sweet-and-sour. Adding the "bistro" tag line raises expectations, if not prices.
Meals at Sen, which are still reasonably priced in the $8-$13 range, include popular Thai dishes such as pad thai, tom yum and tom ka soups and an assortment of green, red and yellow curry dishes. But now there are Japanese and Chinese selections such as miso soup, the cold noodle dish zaru soba, tempura and, coming later this year, sushi. Like Saabs with their ignition between the seats no matter how new the car's design, one odd but traditional holdover from the old place is the toasted-white-bread appetizer with sweet/spicy peanut dipping sauce that's served upon your arrival. Three appetizer plates offer a good combination of flavors and appeal, and all include the immensely popular corn todmun, delicately breaded spicy corn patties fried to perfect crispiness.
You don't see much miso soup in Asian restaurants, which is surprising, given how easy and flavorful it is. Perhaps it's the seaweed that restaurateurs think will scare off Midwesterners, which may account for the mere slivers we found in two bowls. But the earthiness of the Japanese bean-paste base was true and satisfying.
There are now several Thai restaurants in town, and everybody has his or her favorite, but few make it into the spectacular category. Neither does Sen Thai, but the entrées adhere to Thai culinary traditions and are mostly well-prepared. What sets Sen Thai apart are several special dishes typically not seen in other Thai restaurants, among them choo chee, a grouper fillet sauced with a mild-to-hot coconut-cream mixture containing basil and red pepper.
The selection of spicy salads is another distinctive addition to the new menu. Cold buckwheat soba noodle dishes are solid choices, but nothing remarkable. Noodle bowls such as the bamee barbecue pork, tossed with a sesame sauce, are big servings with lots of rice noodles. For those who like broth in their noodle bowls, Sen Thai offers eight choices. Taking a cue from a dining partner, I ordered the temura udon noodle bowl with the tempura shrimp and veggies on the side for dipping into the rich shiitake-mushroom broth rather than having it become soggy in a too-long hot soak.
One dining companion hit on a perfect combination: yum seafood salad and a cruet of cold sake. Good portions of shrimp, scallops and squid are tossed with a spicy mixture of lime juice, bits of tomato, red onion, mint leaves, chiles and herbs on a bed of lettuce.
Along with sake, there's a limited selection of wine: two blushes, three whites and one red, all served only by the glass.
On two visits, one during the week and one on Saturday night, the room was surprisingly empty. It seems lunch is still Sen Thai's cash cow. That's too bad, because the prices are right, the food is more than passable and the atmosphere is hip enough to draw youngish diners with disposable income, a market the owners surely want to tap -- particularly the Washington Avenue loft-dwellers living right around the corner.
More city dwellers and artists are taking up residence in the area, and it would seem the bistro is positioned to offer an alternate choice in that area, where nightclubs outnumber restaurants. Patrons must walk a block off Washington and may feel that's a risky proposition. But there's no reason Sen Thai-Asian Bistro can't be a destination.
The elephant mural is worth the trip.