What is it about the initial aroma of a restaurant that can instantly put a smile on your face, even -- as was the case when we walked into the new Thai Kitchen for the first time -- when we had to stand for a few minutes to wait for the capacity crowd of about 60 to thin out by one table?
I always associate the first whiff of a good Thai restaurant with an incense somewhere in the realm of cedar, coconut, peanut and cinnamon, a newly sanded tray of nuts and spices that immediately elevates your mood and incites a craving for some sort of exotic mixture ladled over rice or noodles. Thai Kitchen is a bit lighter on its ethnicity than many of the other Thai restaurants in town -- the primary decorative elements, other than butterscotch walls and a concentration of paneling around the bar area, are a collection of framed black-and-white Thai-themed photographs and a little shrine comprising three smiling cats -- but that familiar mixture of scents makes any visuals purely complementary.
And although Thai restaurants are no longer rarities in St. Louis, having spread out from the pioneer in the South Grand district some 20 years ago to a concentration in the U. City Loop and then to individual locations -- some successful, some short-lived -- in pretty much every corner of local suburbia, it's interesting to note that one of the first suburban Thai spots was a place known variously as Thai Orchid and the Orchid Garden. Closed for a few years now, that restaurant was located just across the parking lot in the Dorsett Village shopping center that Thai Kitchen now calls home.
Thai Kitchen is the third local venture of Dan Rifenberg, whose Manee Thai and Sukho Thai have developed loyal clienteles in the Manchester/Ballwin and Shrewsbury areas, respectively. In this latest endeavor, says Rifenberg, he's looking to replicate the everyday food found at street vendors and small family restaurants in his native country (he came here from Thailand about six years ago; his Americanized name comes from his adoptive father).
As a result, virtually everything at Thai Kitchen is priced at $5.95 (3 bucks extra for shrimp) and makes it to your table at a pace designed to accommodate reasonably quick dining. Choices include about a dozen appetizers, followed by main dishes of seven entrées (described by their main ingredient or flavor and available with pork, chicken, tofu, shrimp or vegetables); five curries; and 20 noodle or rice dishes, including a couple of cross-cultural choices, sukiyaki and chow mein. In a variation from many other Thai places, the lyrical, almost melodic Thai language and its masterpiece of a character set are used sparingly on the menu, with most items presented in straightforward English, plus the occasional translation.
Both the prices and the variety led us to eat family-style. We ordered a bunch of dishes and passed them around, thereby managing to make a wide-ranging sweep through the menu. Among the appetizers, we sampled the Thai spring roll, a thin, rice-paper-wrapped version full of mainly fresh and crisp vegetables, along with a prepared tofu that had almost a jerky texture, all served in a sweet soy-based sauce with honey mustard on top; nam tok beef, thin, grill-seared slices flavored with chiles, lime and onion but carrying more tartness than fire in its finish; som tum, listed on the menu as a papaya salad but perhaps more accurately described as a papaya-dressed green-bean salad, its spiciness cut with fruity sweetness, served with a cabbage wedge on the side to further help extinguish the fire.
We also tested out a couple of the standards with good results: satay was just a hint spicy, relying primarily on coconut and peanut flavorings and the omnipresent waterfront essence of Thai fish sauce, served with a delicately carved cucumber on the side. Thai dumplings had shapes like tiny lopsided volcanoes, decorated at their peaks with bright shreds of carrot and dipped into a soy sauce cut with vinegar and ignited by chile seeds.
If the restaurant has a signature dish, it's probably the Thai Kitchen noodles, broad rice noodles in a translucent sauce redolent of basil but also, like most dishes here, sweet and nutty, served with shrimp, processed-fish buttons and squid carved like the trunk of a palm tree. Among the curries, we chose the musaman (which you might also know as masman or any of multiple other transliterations), an aromatic brown sauce covering slivers of onion, bite-sized pieces of potato and about a dozen medium-sized shrimp, our main ingredient of choice.
Duck lovers should be sure to try out the keoy teaw ped, a Malaysian-influenced dish of a duck leg quarter, falling apart but still firm, in a broth full of thin, round egg noodles and deep- yet bright-colored greens. The sweet edge to the broth might not be for all tastes, but it goes well with the full body and flavor of the duck.
The entrée choices are ginger, cashew, broccoli, baby corn, garlic-and-black-pepper, spicy eggplant and stir-fried vegetables; we tried the ginger with slightly browned cubes of tofu as the principal ingredient. Served with a mass of sliced and even artistically carved garden vegetables -- celery, squash, carrot, baby corn and onion, along with some mushrooms -- this was the most average part of our meal, not as rich in ginger flavor as something called "ginger" might have been. We did get a big smile, though, out of the big smile (red bell pepper pieces for eyes, a long slice of carrot for a mouth) added to the accompanying inverted dome of white rice.
Thai Kitchen is staffed by an energetic but finite staff, with what looked like, at most, three waitresses working a packed room. The main difficulty here was coordinating speed with staging; on both of our visits, elements of one or more of the courses arrived at different times. We also noted that a special spice tray of seasonings, chile sauce and other condiments showed up at some tables but was not offered as a matter of course -- and if you want alcohol, you'll have to brown-bag it, because Thai Kitchen has no liquor license yet and probably won't for at least a couple of months.
But you really can't beat the ability to get that much food -- and some interesting alternatives, if you're up for a little adventure -- and easily stay under $20 for two people. Just inhale deeply, and relax.