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Absorbing with gentle Buddhist harmony the fragrances of India and the flavors of China, Thai cuisine no longer seems as foreign as a snowplow to most Valley residents. Over the past 15 years, it has given Chinese food a stiff run for the Asian-restaurant dollar.
How have exotic ingredients like lemon grass, coconut milk and galangal-staples of Southeast Asia-managed to excite a region that used to embrace unusual ingredients with all the enthusiasm of gun control?
Thai restaurants have grabbed an ever-growing, hard-core following by proving that tasty dishes, even exotic ones, make for happy diners and repeat business. In the case of Thai cuisine, a little familiarity has bred success.
I don't know a better place for the uninitiated to sample Thai fare than Daa's Thai Room.
The first pleasure is visual. The restaurant's three dining areas are decorated in soothing pinks and grays. Eye-catching artificial flowers spill out of sculpted black vases. While a few pieces of Thai art hang on the wall, Daa's mostly displays contemporary paintings and prints. Painted directly on one wall is a monkey swinging from a tree. On a recent warm spring night, under slow-moving ceiling fans, I thought I felt the moist subtropical air.
From force of habit, we ordered appetizers, the only misstep of the evening. It's not that the combo-egg rolls, fried won tons, beef satay, batter-fried vegetables and fish patties-was unpleasant, although the beef seemed too chewy. But the selections were too ordinary to give up valuable stomach room for the really excellent food that followed.
This began with tohm kha kai, a tomatoey hot-and-sour soup blended with coconut milk. It was served in a doughnut-shaped hot pot, the hole" billowing flames from a Sterno heater. Chunks of chicken and straw mushrooms swam in a fragrant sea flavored with lemon grass, lime leaf, galangal, mint and coriander (seeds from the cilantro, or Chinese parsley, plant).
As she ladled out servings, our waitress carefully pointed out the culinary reefs. Lemon grass is for flavor, not chewing. (It's also supposed to relieve intestinal bloat.) She warned us away from the galangal, a peppery Thai ginger that the unwary could easily mistake for an edible morsel. That's a hazard of unfamiliar food. Years ago I bought some beans from a street vendor in Iran. Although they smelled delicious, they were almost impossible to chew and harder to swallow. But I persevered. Then I noticed other customers eyeing me curiously as they began munching-after first stripping off the inedible outer skin. Obviously I was in the same class as someone who would eat an unpeeled banana. The soup itself, however, had us smacking our lips with delight. The oily broth and the coconut milk don't blend naturally, but they coexisted beautifully on our taste buds-a smooth, spicy-sweet treat.
The main dishes appealed as much to the eye as to the senses of taste and smell. Ped yahng is a house specialty, a large portion of roasted boneless duck on a bed of spinach, with a gingery soy sauce on the side. Too often a greasy, fatty mess, this duck was juicy and lean. It's one duck dish where you won't mind getting the bill. The Chinese influence is obvious in sen yai kraprao: wide rice noodles, stir-fried with beef, broccoli, sprouts, mint and red bell pepper. It's kind of like chow mein for grown-ups. Unlike the beef satay in the appetizer, the meat here was butter-soft, a nice contrast to the crunchy broccoli and colorful pepper.
Our third dish showed how Thai cooking incorporates Indian cuisine but maintains its originality. Kaeng khiao wahn kung is shrimp curried in a green chile coconut broth and seasoned with mint and coriander. Along with a generous portion of shrimp were green beans, bamboo shoots and red and green pepper. Pouring the mixture over rice, I caught such a heady whiff of curry that I almost told my wife to dab a little behind her ears. Thai food is renowned for its heat, and the menu gives a quick lesson in how hot is hot. Daa's mild, it says, compares to Mexican hot. We ordered most of our dishes one step up from mild: medium-hot. None gave our pepper-toughened palates any difficulty, although first-timers should probably go the mild route. As a challenge, though, we asked for the green curry shrimp at Thai high heat.
After the first few tentative bites, I shrugged. This was no test, just Thai hyperbole. But after five minutes, moist beads of perspiration gathered on the crown of my scalp. Within a couple more minutes, I was sweating like my dog in August. Daa's heat is sneaky and explosive. I was ready for a cool dessert. The homemade coconut ice cream comes with a variety of intriguing toppings. I opted for the plum wine. The result was sweet and potent, a nice, offbeat confection.
My wife ordered khanom sang khayah, a traditional coconut custard that Thais occasionally bake inside a hollowed-out pumpkin to impress their guests. Daa's less-showy version came with two layers, an eggy custard topped with a coarser flan that was studded with bits of pumpkin. The waitress brought each dessert with two spoons to aid our sampling. The gesture overestimated our fastidiousness but was typical of the thoughtful service we received. We wondered about Thai espresso, and two bucks relieved our curiosity. It came in one of those vase-shaped sake pitchers, with cups the size of large thimbles. However inauthentic, it was just the right note to end the meal: a caffeine jolt doubled by a heavy dose of sugar. At Thai Lahna we ordered an almost identical meal to the one at Daa's. But in every department-service, decor and taste-this restaurant fell just a bit short. It's not that the service was oafish; it just failed to go beyond perfunctory. It's not that the decor disturbed my aesthetic sensibilities; it just didn't move past utilitarian. And it's not that the food lacked flavor; it just rarely grabbed me by the lapels.