Classic Thai Goes Tapas Chic 

Anchalee's savory dishes and serene ambience are a welcome addition.

Maybe it's the soft, leafy green shade on three of Anchalee's walls, or the clean exposed brick of the fourth. Maybe it's the Zen fountain's gentle gurgle or the soothing elephant paintings made by the inky feet of an actual elephant. Hell, maybe these folks are pumping negative ions into the place — because that's the feeling you get upon entering this new restaurant on Dwight Way, just south of the gussied-up strip of San Pablo that anchors what real estate types have dubbed Berkeley's Left Bank.

Just around the corner from the much-loved Sea Salt, Anchalee occupies the spot that used to belong to Vanni Innovative Cuisine. I never made it to Vanni, a Thai place that patrons past have described as having had good food and a staid, white-tablecloth atmosphere somewhat lacking in energy. The restaurant also lacked a liquor license, and it took seven months for the Anchalee team of chef Chuck Natasiri and general manager Tou Meechukant, both of whom spent almost ten years at Amarin in Lafayette, to secure one. In the meantime, they renovated — adding new window treatments, waxing the wood floor, painting, and expanding the dining room so patrons could see more of that southern wall of exposed brick and no longer would have to walk through the kitchen to use the rest room. The energy began to flow, and by Thanksgiving of last year, Anchalee was ready for business.

For our first visit, we brought our own Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and a dry rosé and paid the $7 corkage fee (see Wineau, "Fuzzy Money"), but Anchalee's wine list also features inexpensive crowd-pleasers, with several $6-a-glass options. The menu is equally crowd-pleasing — unless there's a hater of seafood in your crowd, in which case cautious ordering is all that's necessary for a happy Anchalee experience. The restaurant has abandoned the "starter" and "appetizer" labels in favor of embracing tapas chic with "small plates," which Meechukant says is more reflective of traditional Thai cuisine and also differentiates Anchalee from competitors. One mysterious but delicious item among these small plates was the Kanom Pak Kard — steamed radish cakes sautéed with bean sprouts and chives. We were hard-pressed to identify the radish in this dish — the cakes were almost chicken McNuggety in their denseness and flavor. But a little research indicates that the vegetables are ground up first, then steamed in a baking tin before being sautéed with garlic. Our seafood hater didn't care for these — despite the all-veggie list of ingredients, he tasted fish — but the rest of us devoured them.

Familiar Thai classics like Pad Thai and Popiah (crispy vegetable rolls) were as comforting as we'd hoped — none of us could articulate why those Popiah were so good (the grease, perhaps?), but they disappeared in a flash, with nary a drop of plum sauce remaining. To me the Pad Thai — rice noodles stir-fried with tofu, egg, prawns, bean sprouts, peanut, green onion, and chives — steered clear of the glommed-together noodle effect that can make the dish taste a little tired. Instead its flavors were lively, with the green onion making a statement rather than getting lost amid the eggy tofu mush. The dish was still a bit too heavy for one of my companions, but she'd been marveling at the overall lightness (in a good way) of Anchalee's other entrées.

Veggie-only options are hard to come by among Anchalee's salad offerings; on a list of six salads, only one is made exclusively with vegetables, with the rest featuring pork, prawns, beef, calamari, and/or chicken. At least one of these salads, a dainty dish of grilled asparagus and fried shallots with a spicy dressing — could definitely have done without the prawns, which mainly seemed to function as a garnish.

"Tastes like chicken" — in texture, at least — was our first reaction to the Spicy Pork with Eggplant, which featured sautéed pork in a curry sauce sprinkled with peppercorns and served over grilled eggplant and steamed bok choy. Tasting like chicken isn't a bad thing — everyone loved this dish, especially enjoying the extremely tender pork (which we always seem to overcook at home). The real surprise here was a delayed spiciness — a bite, a swallow, and just when you think you're safe, your mouth explodes with fire. Luckily the Riesling we had BYO'd doused the flames in an instant.

At dessert our prawned-out Seafood Hater happily consoled himself with Anchalee's signature dessert: fried banana with ice cream. You really have to like fried banana for this to work for you, and I'm not a fan, so to me it tasted like banana Bubblicious. But those who are fans vouched for the dish's perfect execution, and I was quite content to focus instead on the generous portions of coconut and mango ice cream served on the side.

The Wednesday night we dined at Anchalee, business was slow, but you could hear the oohs and aahs coming from the few other occupied tables. The restaurant is sure to generate more business as word spreads about its great food, intimate atmosphere, and overall affordability, and as the neighborhood continues to evolve (Sea Salt has plans in the works for a casual pizza joint on the same block). In the meantime, you'll be lucky to enjoy more personal attention from Meechukant, who seemed delighted to share Anchalee's story, wine pairing tips, menu recommendations, and more. We learned that Anchalee happens to be the first name of the restaurant's co-owner and the chef's wife, Anchalee Natasiri — but it's also the first movement (palms placed together before the chest) of a traditional Thai greeting. "So it means welcome," explained Meechukant, "but in a way it also means first impression."

So far, so good. 

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