Currying Flavor 

Thep Naaree

As I clunkily folded myself into my seat at Thep Naaree, I remembered the childhood hours I spent imitating Olga Korbut, throwing myself around the lawn executing perfect-ten back flips. Now my hip twanged as I knocked my nose with my knee, and I renewed my resolution to give the yoga studio a call.

There I was, sitting on the raised platform that takes up half the room at Thep Naaree, Albany's newest Thai restaurant. The seating platform is set up so that diners sit on straight-backed cushions at tables several inches above the platform "floor," with their legs dangling into recessed wells underneath. The temptation to play footsie is strong, so choose your tablemates carefully.

The restaurant has gone through quite a makeover since its last incarnation as an Indian-Singaporean restaurant, acquiring rich green carpeting, golden-hued wood paneling on the walls, and wood detailing on the painted ceiling. "Tasteful" music tinkles in the background; all that's missing are the diners, who are only starting to discover the place.

But the most striking element of the decor is a large pastel-hued mural depicting a dozen bare-breasted bathing beauties, the kinnaaree. Kinnaaree are Thai goddesses, the avian equivalent of mermaids, who shed their feathered tails only when they descend to bathe. Matching the painted goddesses for grace were our servers, who seamlessly shucked their shoes to mount the steps of the platform, full tray in one hand, and kneeled next to the table to pass our dishes to us. From first smile to the whisking away of the check, we never felt unattended. I have eaten at two kinds of Thai restaurants in the States. One sticks to the canon of Thai-American food, straying little from the established dishes that everyone knows, and uses a sweeter, milder palate of flavors. The other -- a far, far rarer breed -- cooks vivid, pungent fare redolent with searingly hot chiles, fragrant aromatics, and fermented seafood pastes. Thep Naaree falls into the first category, but nevertheless accomplishes its intention excellently.

I spied only a few unfamiliar dishes on the large but not overwhelming menu, which highlighted spicy items and vegetarian-convertible dishes with colorful symbols. Prices fall into the affordable range we associate with Thai food -- from $5.95 for most appetizers to $10.95 for seafood.

One of the new discoveries on Thep Naaree's menu was a plate of corn cakes. Golf-ball-sized scoops of soft wheat fritter dough studded with corn kernels had been fried until their shells were thin, crisp, and glossy. Like all the dishes that followed, the fritters were arrayed on celadon-green dishes, ornamented with radish roses, spiky cucumber leaves, and other fanciful touches. A small, jade-colored bowl of clear, sweet-sour syrup finished the plate.

The same syrup, topped with ground peanuts, accompanied two other fried appetizers. The hot oil had kissed, not mauled, the appetizers, leaving their interiors greaseless. Inside a foursome of tightly wrapped egg rolls, the size of a good Cuban and far tastier, we found cabbage and cellophane noodles. Not one but two fried delights -- triangles of tofu and spiky clusters of battered, julienned sweet potatoes -- made up the "vegetarian delight."

For diners who steer clear of the fryer, Thep Naaree also offers several soups by the bowl and an array of salads. Small servings of soup are a bonus for small parties, but the soup itself fell flat: The coconut milk in the thick, mild tom kha overbalanced the lime juice, lemongrass, and galangal so that the barely blanched vegetables within tasted like a salad coated with cream.

A much stronger hit of lemongrass perfumed the flavorful larb gai -- minced chicken salad mixed with red onions, green onions, mint, and lime -- but I still preferred the papaya salad. A large mound of shredded green papaya was tossed with bits of long bean and scallions and dressed in a spicy, tart vinaigrette that didn't overwhelm the palate. I didn't sense its pungency until I hopped on public transit, where I became aware of the fog of garlic emanating from the tiny brown doggie bag on my lap. By the time I arrived at my destination all the seats around me had cleared.

Main courses are divided into curries, sautéed dishes (both vegetarian and meat-focused), seafood dishes, and noodle and rice entrées. Several of the sautéed dishes didn't come together, such as pork with bamboo shoots, barely heated red and green bell peppers, and basil leaves. Its sauce tasted of oxidized garlic and little else, leaving the ingredients to fend for themselves, which they did poorly. Melted peanut brittle covered fried tofu, tender cabbage, and steamed spinach in the vegetarian pra ram, which is a dish I rarely order but other people love precisely for its sweet peanut sauce.

But all the other entrées succeeded, particularly the curries, whose mélange of spices were enough to flavor several bowls of white rice. Which is as it should be. Thai curries may be rich with coconut milk, but like Indian curries they are meant to be eaten in small portions with rice and condiments. Eating a curry alone is like downing a bowl of gravy for dinner. Chunks of chicken breast meat and tender potatoes completed a thick yellow curry redolent of coriander and coconut, a fine sheen of red oil on top. In a zingier red curry touched with kaffir lime, strips of meaty roasted duck breast mixed well with pineapples and a surprising addition: peeled red grapes, whose fresh, sugary juices burst through the spicy richness. Both curries came with a sweet cucumber and red onion salad.

Thin slices of snow white sea bass, edged with deep-sea fat, were sprinkled with lime juice, garlic, and Thai chiles and steamed atop a mound of thinly sliced cabbage. Their delicate, clear flavors mingled in the juices on the plate. An honorable rendition of pad thai proved neither sickly sweet nor tart. A well-balanced tamarind-fish sauce coating covered the rice noodles, plump prawns, scallions, and bean sprouts.

Owner and chef Pantip Chawalit trained in the school of the five-star Dusip Thani Hotel in Bangkok. She opened Thep Naaree, her first restaurant, at the end of August in order to serve the kind of food she liked. "My husband and I are really picky, and dine at a lot of places around here. [I decided] I'd rather do it myself, make what I want to eat."

Chawalit is good at making the food she likes to eat, and diners willing to take off their shoes in public will enjoy the platform seating. I certainly felt better about my inelegant descent when I saw another couple enter, take one look at where my friends and I were sitting, and head straight for the Western-style tables on the other half of the room.


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