Sometimes, there don't seem to be many differences among the dozens of Thai restaurants that have opened in the Washington area in the past decade. Many of the menus are similar, and the execution of the dishes is often much the same. Many restaurants have toned down the fiery spiciness of their offerings to appeal to a wider American audience.
And then there is tiny Thailand, Royal St. It's a sliver of a space, with seats for no more than 50 people, in a block of office and retail buildings that stretches along North Royal Street between Montgomery and Madison streets in Alexandria's Old Town.
The interior is spare, with uncovered windows, pendant lights, brilliantly colored walls and accents of a few batik blocks and some embroidered pieces. Comfortable leather chairs surround bare wooden tables.
The menu is expansive, offering traditional favorites and specialties such as crispy duck and Thailand's Hot Beach, an assortment of tiger prawns, scallops, mussels and calamari, deep fried and then sauteed with a garlic-chili-basil sauce.
For the colder months, the restaurant, has added an assortment of entree soups and other winter favorites that showcase the true diversity of Thai cuisine. The jasmine rice soup isn't fiery like tom yum or tom mah, versions of lemongrass soup. The gentle broth has a hint of spiciness but allows the subtle flavor of the rice to shine through. Like many other dishes at Thailand, Royal St., the soup may be accented with chicken, pork or seafood.
The winter menu also features fresh garden spring rolls (slices of chicken, vegetables and cilantro wrapped in rice paper) and a grilled lamb dish of four flavorful chops around a tangle of fried noodles and a mound of jasmine rice. The winter dessert is a pumpkin custard that is lighter than pumpkin pie filling and not so sweet.
Thailand, Royal St., is the domain of Kem McCombie, a Thai native, and her British husband, Philip McCombie, who opened Perk's Coffeehouse seven years ago on the opposite side of the same block. Perk's serves breakfast sandwiches and luncheon sandwiches, soups and salads. The McCombies opened the Thai restaurant 18 months ago.
Kem McCombie manages the dining room and oversees the kitchen of Thai chefs, who prepare elegant displays. Carrot flowers are commonplace decorations, and often they are chunky and clunky. Here, the carrot petals are paper thin, and the accents really look like flowers. All of the dishes are beautifully arrayed, with entrees on gleaming white china and appetizers on specialty dishes, such as a green plate with an attached cup for dipping sauces. For the sticky rice with mango dessert, the mango isn't simply fanned out on the plates, the thin slices are perfectly aligned to form a frame for the rice.
Thailand, Royal St., also stays true to the spiciness of Thai food; a two-chili marking on the menu -- its highest -- means the dish really packs a punch. The noodle dish -- called Drunkard's Noodles here and more commonly known as drunken noodles -- was so hot at two chilies that my mouth burned for 15 minutes after I finished eating. I thought the fieriness overwhelmed other aspects of the dish. But when I asked for a toned-down version of the two-chili ground chicken ka prow (fiery basil), it was spicy but not overwhelmingly so.
In contrast, I found several of the sweet sauces to be achingly so. The sweet soy sauce served with the excellent Thai steamed dumplings was almost cloying. And the tamarind-wine dipping sauce with the crispy duck was too sweet for the rich meat. But the execution of the duck was flawless: a large breast was deep-fried in a tempura-light batter. The breast was sliced thinly and presented on a platter with the sauce on the side.
Kem McCombie said the most popular dishes at lunch, which is the busier time for the restaurant, are the Drunkard's Noodles and the sliced chicken ka prow.
Service is often friendly and speedy at lunch but can be inconsistent, even at dinnertime when one expects a slower pace.
The restaurant has a busy takeout service, but the ease of parking makes it a good choice for a sit-down dinner.
--Nancy Lewis (Jan. 24, 2008)