Thai Pavilion

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

A Modern Home For Classic Thai

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Feb. 15, 2008

At first glance: With its curved picture windows, sweeping spiral staircase and swirling steel mobiles, Thai Pavilion is one of Rockville Town Center's most stunning spaces -- a welcome departure from both the old-fashioned lilac-and-carved-wood decor and the tidal wave of submarine blue lacquer of so many Thai restaurants. One of the mobiles resembles a huge kitchen whisk twisted into a figure eight. The other is a cross between a Slinky and a snail-shell spiral -- Thai for the number one -- that is the restaurant's logo. (It also resembles the topknot mark of Buddha, surely a lucky sign.) A second bar on the mezzanine draws some of the lounge noise upstairs and away from the tables.

On the menu: In general, the cooking is as up-to-date as the look. The various curries are distinctly flavored, and chilies are added with the other vegetables rather than stewed or sauteed first, so they taste fresh rather than merely strong. Though a few of the more elaborate dishes are oddly showy (such as the five-spice braised duck, fried and topped with crab and sweet and sour sauce, which tips the scales at $29.95), most are relatively familiar and half the price.

At your service: Servers are attentive, though some of the less experienced ones can seem a trifle anxious and on the verge of hovering. Dishes come out of the kitchen fairly rapidly, so if you want to linger over appetizers -- and remember, Thai soups and salads are considered dishes, not minis -- resist the invitation to order your entrees at the same time.

On the table: The coconut and lemon grass soup, tom ka, is a given on Thai menus; the version here, given extra citrus punch with galangal and kaffir limes, is superb. Even more indulgent, it is available with rich pieces of duck as well as chicken. Tom yum has the same fragrant broth without the coconut milk. Milky corn soup with lumps of crabmeat is also extremely good and lighter than it might sound. Crab and shrimp wontons are crisp; steamed dumplings are dependable. Meats in Panang-style curry are carefully cooked to remain tender, and the peanut flavor in the curry is rich but not cloying. Pad see ew, the stir-fry of flat rice noodles, broccoli and beef or (better) pork, is a best bet here because the noodles are dense and chewy but not gluey. Excellent Thai comfort food.

The quail -- three birds, cut in half -- are pan-fried rather than roasted, so the texture is a little dry, but the flavor is fine. (Something sweeter than the typical squeeze-bottle sriracha chili sauce would be a more complementary dip, however.)

Among the vegetarian dishes are an unusually flavorful sauteed tofu and mushroom with ginger; spicy eggplant with a delicate batter; the fine tofu, eggplant, bamboo shoots and string beans in green coconut curry; and a clay pot of cellophane noodles and mushrooms. At $10.95, it is cheaper and a lot more pleasant than a drugstore bag of cold remedies.

What to avoid: Don't order the plantain tempura as an appetizer. Rolled in coconut and battered, the sweet fruit makes a fine dessert but a heavy starter. (Actually, there's an even richer version, battered with crushed almonds wrapped in a won ton and fried.) The Peking-style duck rolls are also fried, which makes the meat stringy and bland. The crab and shrimp spring rolls aren't as flavorful as the won tons; the cellophane noodles and carrots outweigh the seafood.

Wet your whistle: There's a full bar, complete with pseudo-exotic cocktails that include ginger, litchis, lemon grass or pomegranate juice, and a fair assortment of wines and beers.