Cafe Reviews


Royal Barge, 8220 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 443-1953. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Remember Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve? She won an Oscar depicting a woman with multiple personalities. In the final reel, she discovers the source of her illness and emerges wise and well-adjusted.

But until her moment of revelation, she chews up the scenery, the character swinging wildly between two disordered personalities: a good-time hussy with an unquenchable interest in men and booze, and a mousy prude who's submissive, fearful and dull.

I know how she felt, at least as far as eating is concerned.
By day I lack every impulse of culinary adventure. My diet is about as varied as my goldfish's. Every morning I eat the same breakfast: fruit, tea and whole-wheat toast with feta cheese. At noon, with the maniacal regularity of an obsessive-compulsive, I munch on a bagel and cottage cheese, washed down with coffee. I don't need a calendar to tell me what day of the week it is--I just count the number of bagels in the freezer. That's how many days it is until Sunday, when I buy another week's supply.

When the sun goes down, though, the Mr. Blandly Predictable personality disappears. Awakening from the culinary crypt, my alter ego arises, stalking the night in search of fresh taste experiences. And almost nothing gets my taste buds primed like the prospect of Thai food.

This exotic cuisine borrows from China the technique of blending contrasting tastes of sweet, sour, hot, bitter and salty. From India come the creamy texture of coconut milk and the pungent aroma of curries. And Southeast Asia furnishes the lime leaf, lemon grass and gingerlike galangal that give Thai cooking its distinctive zest.

As you might expect from a Thai restaurant in Scottsdale, Royal Barge throws in a touch of elegance as well. An elaborately carved bench and table, featuring gods, goddesses and elephants, greet you by the door. The eating areas are separated by dark wood partitions with fancy knobs and glass panels etched with Thai scenes. Embossed cloth panels, heavy with sequins, hang on the walls. In a glass case sits a model of the royal barge itself, carved out of a single piece of teak. And the room is done up in a soothing mix of light and dark blues, with an elaborate fabric chandelier overhead.

But do you know how good old Charlie Brown always thinks that this will be the time Lucy lets him kick the football, not whisk it away? That's how I feel whenever I order appetizers at Thai restaurants. Maybe this time, I tell myself, they'll be interesting and tasty enough to be worth the cost, which just about matches the price of the main dishes. Unfortunately, once again I landed on my back like Charlie Brown. Royal Barge's combination appetizer for two features a taste of just about everything. Fried won tons, spring roll and Thai toast, though, were completely undistinguished, just something to put in an empty stomach. Mee krob, a classic noodle dish, was one-dimensionally sweet. Only the batter-dipped shrimp and deep-fried, meaty chicken wings came close to jump-starting the meal.

Soup is a much better way to edge into dinner. The fisherman soup was particularly fragrant, with lots of seafood, including shrimp and scallops, swimming in a delicate broth. And Royal Barge thoughtfully lets you order individual bowls as well as big tureens for sharing.

We jumped all around the ample menu to put dinner together. Green curry with eggplant gave us a chance to savor vegetarian fare and the Indian side of Thai cooking at the same time.

The luscious, creamy curry came rich with coconut milk and sharp green chiles. I'm certain it would improve the flavor of anything cooked in it, even my mother's specialty, hot-dog-stuffed meat loaf.

A problem arose, though, because the eggplant seemed to have spent less time in it than George Bush in the Texas hotel room he calls home. Instead of tender, pulpy eggplant, long-simmered and infused with curry, the vegetable here tasted much too firm, as if it had been thrown in at the last minute.

We had no quibbles with the crab noodle dish, though. A large portion of medium-thick rice noodles arrived seasoned with onion, garlic, chile and egg. Unlike the Chinese version of this dish, there's little sauce to overwhelm the flavors. Happily, it also sported a decent amount of real crab, which really perks this dish up.

No way could my nighttime persona pass up an entree intriguingly called "octopus's great grandchild" and made with squid. Still, I did pause a moment, because I've faced some pretty tough and rubbery squid platters with tantalizing names. But this chile-laden dish served up an extremely high percentage of tender morsels, good enough to forgive the occasional chewy tidbit. The spicy sauce combines well with the mild squid, and goes well over the gummy rice.

Nothing wrong, either, with roasted duck curry. Sliced, boneless duck, with the life-shortening but taste-enhancing fatty layer of skin still attached, came in a mild curry paste. The strong flavor of duck goes surprisingly well with curry. But the pineapple cubes nestling alongside should be put back in the can and permanently retired. Desserts, like those at most Oriental restaurants, are nothing special. Homemade coconut ice cream tasted, well, homemade, with unappealing little clumps of ice. Thai custard won't have anyone doing cartwheels, either. If you must have something sweet, get some Thai iced tea, a lip-smacking blend of tea, half and half and condensed milk that will instantly give you the cholesterol level of a moose. Mint Thai, 1111 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert, 497-5366. Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.

Tucked away in a Gilbert minimall, Mint Thai has little of Royal Barge's "It's Saturday night, let's eat out" ambiance. In contrast it offers a homey, neighborhood feel.

The restaurant-supply business that furnished Mint Thai must have had the color green on sale the week the place decorated. Green booths, green tablecloths, green chairs, green carpets, green-and-tan wallpaper, green-and-white plates and tinted green glasses had me thinking I'd stumbled into an Oriental Sherwood Forest.

But even Robin Hood and his Merry Men would have no problem with the prices here: Most every dish is priced between $5 and $7. As usual, the appetizers cost just about as much as the main dishes, without quite measuring up in the taste department. But the stuffed chicken wings came pretty close: oversize boneless critters filled with ground pork and chicken, blended with a few vegetables and glass noodles. Rubbery, strongly flavored Thai fish cakes, though, served with cucumber sauce, are an acquired taste that I haven't completely acquired. The menu offers a pretty thorough tour of Thai cuisine. We started off with Mussulman curry, whose name is derived from the Indian Muslim traders who brought their traditional dishes with them. Mint Thai's version came with some tender chunks of beef resting alongside lots of mild green chiles. But for some reason, the coconut curry sauce it all swam in seemed a bit watery and seasoned not quite pungently enough. I got no hint of cumin or cloves, two spices not routinely used in Thai food but that often appear in this dish.

Better was the vegetarian curry, stocked with fresh mushrooms, carrots and cauliflower in a somewhat sharper coconut red curry. This dish had plenty of the complex and exotic aromas you associate with Thai fare.

Thai pasta, large rice noodles topped with ground beef, onion and tomato, set us off on an unanticipated treasure hunt to find the noodles. Every time I dug in, all I seemed to extract were forkfuls of bean sprouts. And I couldn't blame my bad luck on a lack of excavation skills, either--my companions had no more success than I did. When I order a noodle dish, I expect a heap of noodles.

The Sea Delight promised a combination of seafood. Again, I felt like calling in Lloyd Bridges. The seafood turned out to be mostly squid, and despite vigorous trolling, I only managed to fish up two measly scallops. But the accompanying chile sauce, heavy with the fragrance of the sea and the tang of chile peppers, really zipped up the rice.

We finished up with pad woon sen, an unmemorable collection of glass noodles teamed with small amounts of broccoli, snow peas, cabbage and chicken.

The kitchen was very erratic in meeting our requests for varying degrees of chile heat. Those we requested very hot arrived with barely a tingle, while one of the supposedly mild dishes packed a little punch. Along with homemade ice cream and custard, Mint Thai offers pleasing sticky rice with mangoes, a traditional Thai seasonal delight. Glutinous rice is stirred around in sweetened coconut milk and served with fresh mango, peeled and sliced. Needless to say, you don't see too much of this treat in the desert Southwest.

But if that sounds just a little too foreign, get some Thai iced coffee, a concoction just as fattening as the iced tea. And with the caffeine jolt, you'll be awake counting calories instead of sheep.

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Howard Seftel