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By Steve Bjerklie
RESTAURANTS featuring a particular cuisine fight a constant battle ofcompromise. Authentic flavors, textures, and presentation struggle againstthe need to offer food that local patrons will like and buy. This is not muchof a factor anymore for Italian, Mexican, and French restaurants, whoseculinary traditions have been nationalized by Americans, but for newertraditions such as Indian, Moroccan, and Thai the battle of compromise stillrages. Should a chef spice dishes with strict adherence to tradition or holdthe hot stuff to accommodate moderate American palates? Should fat, sodium,and MSG be cut back to respect America's diet obsessions? What about foodsthat are traditional in other parts of the world--monkey, for example--butthat Americans wouldn't lift a fork for?
In the case of Lotus Thai, a cozy 36-seat storefont on the square inHealdsburg, chef Vilaiwan Bentall (she goes by "Jackie") strikes anear-perfect balance between offering authentic dishes of her native Thailandand acknowledging the tastes and desires of Californians: she serves nomonkey. She does serve the best peanut sauce in the county, andarguably the most succulent chicken satay. Some of Lotus Thai's dishes may bea tad mild for devotees of traditional Thai fireworks-in-your-mouth foods,but I found them immensely flavorful and delicious. They accompany the Singhabrand of Thai beer that Lotus Thai serves with grace and aplomb.
And they gave me something new in life to appreciate: the wonders of coconutmilk.
This elixir is to Thai food what cream is to French. It smooths and blendsmotifs and textures as precisely and elegantly as an orchestra stringsection. Bental's Masaman Curry, with slices of beef accented by slivers oforange, swims in the delicate milk. (Indeed, Thai curry, unlike Indian curry,cannot be made authentically without coconut milk). The Beef Pumpkin Curryentrée amazingly creates harmony from a triad of disparate elements.And for the straight stuff, try what Lotus Thai's menu describes as a"refreshing young coconut drink": sweet, milky, and yes--exquisitelyrefreshing.
But coconut milk is not anyone's idea of health food, so order at Lotus Thaiin variety (Bentall points out that this is the way Thais eat anyway). GingerPork presents tender sautéed meat on a bed of organic vegetables. Thenight I enjoyed this dish the pork was a hair dry, left in the pan forperhaps 30 seconds too long, but this is a minor quibble. A bowl of Pad Thai,the noodly signature food of Thailand, was considered just a bit mild andmushy by dining companions who have eaten the stuff in Bangkok, but I thoughtLotus Thai's version as good as any I've eaten stateside. All agreed that theSatay Chicken is nothing short of magnificent--the chicken butter-soft, thepeanut sauce perfection incarnate. High marks also for the Mee Krob appetizer(fried angel-hair rice noodles with egg, green onions, and cilantro).
For dessert, try the crispy and sweet fried banana. Also available to end themeal are tapioca pudding and orange sherbet.
Dinner for three, including appetizers, three entrées, two desserts,and a few Thai beers, cost less than $90 with tip, a definite worth-the-tripvalue.
Jackie Bentall opened Lotus Thai with her husband, Gerald, last Februaryafter running the kitchen at California Thai in Santa Rosa for a year. Shecomes by her talent honestly: several members of her family are in therestaurant business in Thailand. Indeed, this couple met in Bangkok severalyears ago, when Gerald, who now helps out his wife in several capacities(including waiting tables occasionally) was there on assignment for theRockefeller Foundation.
"I like to cook," says Jackie, who glows with smiles beneath a black clocheof short-cropped hair. "In Thailand, everything revolves around food. Allmeetings, all gatherings--food is at the center. It means hospitality andwelcome." Exactly what the food means at Lotus Thai, too.
109 A Plaza St., Healdsburg; 433-5282
Hours: Lunch from 11:30 a.m.; dinner from 5 p.m.; closed Monday
Food: Bangkok meets Healdsburg
Service: Unobtrusive and adequate
Ambience: Neat, clean, well-lit storefront
Price: Relatively inexpensive.
Wine list: California wines; also domestic and imported beers
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From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent
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