Cee Fine Thai Dining

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Finding Thai food in the Washington area isn't a problem. There seems to be a Thai restaurant in every shopping center. But finding a Thai restaurant with really good food and a decor appropriate for a business dinner or a special celebration is more difficult. Cee Fine Thai Dining, which opened last fall on Fairfax Boulevard in Fairfax City, is lovely to look at and serves food that tastes as good as it looks.

Cee, which stands for creativity, elegance and education, is the creation of Kate Juntrakul, who for 17 years was a partner in Crystal Thai in Arlington, an elegant Thai restaurant long popular with Washington's diplomatic corps.

Juntrakul traveled to her native Thailand for artifacts with which to decorate Cee, which has the feeling of a sophisticated glass box on a hill overlooking Route 50. The main dining room is mostly glass; one side has solid panels, one each of coral, silver and gold, with insets of small elephants with their trunks upturned as a symbol of good luck. The decor is restrained -- a crystal chandelier is the room's focal point amid booths and a banquette in dark wood and deep green upholstery.

The white tablecloths are appointed at dinner with service plates hand painted in Thailand with gold. Dishes arrive on white porcelain, the shape of which is dictated by the dish. A full-service bar flanks the entrance, and there is a large private dining room in the rear. Selections from Cee's extensive wine list fill a niche in the room.

There is a patio for outdoor dining, and the large umbrellas offer shelter from the sun and help block the view of commercial surroundings.

Cee also offers cooking classes and wine dinners.

The menu is huge, featuring more than 100 dishes, including the familiar pad thai and the pad kra-proa (chicken, beef or shrimp with basil, onion and chili pepper); Juntrakul's own dishes; Australian rib-eye cooked in an herbal soup and served with a dipping sauce; and Cee's mini-soft roll (soft rice noodles wrapped with shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, roasted peanuts, minced pork and mint leaves, and served with a sour, spicy dipping sauce).

Heat, and how much, is an essential topic when discussing Thai food. Many restaurants have toned down the spiciness across the board, often to attract a larger American audience. For others, the fiery originals are the only choice.

At Cee, I found it difficult to gauge the heat of a dish, either by what was on the menu or in discussions with the servers.

A small pepper next to a menu listing indicates that the dish is spicy but not its intensity. Fearing a mouth-numbing experience, I asked that an order of num tok (a salad of flank steak, red onion, cilantro, chilies and lime juice) be prepared medium. But the dish was only mildly spicy, at least on my personal scale. In contrast, a bowl of tom yum chicken (lemongrass soup with mushrooms and sliced chicken) was about as hot as I have ever had, not too hot for me, but maybe a six or seven on a scale of 10.

That said, the dainty porcelain soup bowl was filled to the brim with pale slices of chicken, plump mushrooms, slivers of lemongrass and bits of green pepper, all in an intensely flavorful broth with just a glaze of pepper floating on the top. It was one of the best versions I have tasted.

You won't have any problem regarding heat with the jacket shrimp -- crisp, clean-tasting shrimp wrapped in rice paper and quickly fried. The deep-fried wrapping was nearly greaseless and the mild dipping sauce a nice complement.

On the other hand, the spicy green-papaya salad was a bit tame, as was the chicken larb (chicken with lime juice, red onion, cilantro and chilies), though both were tasty.

The Cee crispy roll (rice paper stuffed with bean thread noodles, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and cabbage) was properly crisp on the outside but mushy on the inside, as if the stuffing had been overcooked before being wrapped in the rice paper.

The spiciness of the entrees I tasted was more in line with what I have come to expect. Chicken kra proa was pleasantly spiced with a surprisingly flavorful sauce. An order of Lobster Two Seasons, one of the more luxurious dishes on the menu, included two perfectly cooked lobster tails (in the shell but with the shell split so there was no fighting to extricate the tender meat). One of the tails was cooked in a mild garlic sauce that didn't add much. The other tail was cooked in a more pungent chili paste sauce that was a better marriage with the sweet lobster meat.

On a separate menu (a laminated page), several entree-size noodle soups are listed. One featuring succulent roast duck, barely wilted Chinese greens, thin noodles and duck broth was among the best dishes I sampled. The soup, perhaps a distant relative of the more familiar Vietnamese pho, was much richer and more satisfying, with a fresh taste. Served in a large oval bowl, the noodle soup was as intense as a French pot au feu.

Juntrakul's menu features several Thai specialty desserts, including custards and unusual gelatins. The old standbys, fried bananas and sticky rice with mango, were excellent preparations. The bananas were coated in a tempura batter, deep-fried, drizzled with honey and served with coconut ice cream. The sticky rice was not too sweet and was a great foil for the just-ripe mangoes.

--Nancy Lewis (May 24, 2007)