NEISHA THAI CUISINE -- 6037 LEESBURG PIKE, BAILEYS CROSSROADS. 703-933-3788. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 3:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No smoking. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.95 to $4.95, entrees $4.95 to $12.95; dinner appetizers $3.50 to $5.95, entrees $6.95 to $12.95. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip $20 to $30 per person.
Fifty years ago, a taste for the exotic might have driven you to a Polynesian restaurant. Trader Vic's, say, or the Luau Hut. Nowadays, Thai restaurants are edging into that tropical-paradise niche. None establishes that bridge more clearly than Neisha Thai, right down to the orchids in the fruit daiquiris and fried rice piled into a pineapple shell.
Neisha Thai is at its core a small neighborhood Thai restaurant with a familiar menu and prices low enough to encourage frequent visits. It's just down the street from Duangrat's, which was the first of our Thai restaurants to achieve some elegance. Neisha's owner, Rick Kitchrayotin, was a manager at Tara Thai, and the witty, seafood-heavy menu shows that influence.
What Kitchrayotin has done is turn the space into a small fantasy setting. And he welcomes diners as if they were guests in his home. Neisha looks like a cloud garden, with flat, free-form cutouts covering walls and ceiling and bursts of neon-bright red and blue lights blazing among them. The plastic-laminated tables seem to glow.
Reality seeps in with hassled service that leads to wrong orders and forgotten dishes. The blender at the bar inhibits conversation at the back tables. Long waits for food alternate with periods of rushing. Your second course might arrive before you've eaten the first, and busboys ask several times whether you're finished, when you're clearly not. On the other hand, no staffer passes your table without inquiring whether everything is all right, as if your satisfaction were every waiter's responsibility. I've rarely seen customers happier to put up with glitches. The place has spirit.
Thai menus are inevitably a pleasure to read, they offer so long a list with such a variety of fragrances and tastes. Few Thai restaurants are truly disappointing: The interplay of herbs and garlic, lime and chilies, basil and ginger with aromatic fish sauce can hardly go wrong. The sauces are light, the cooking is quick enough to preserve flavor and texture. It's a cuisine that can be accomplished by modestly trained cooks, as well as one in which talent can shine.
Neisha goes to some trouble to provide good ingredients and cook them carefully. The shrimp are kept juicy and delicate, though the distinction between prawns (in a tart and fiery soup) and black tiger shrimp (in red curry paste or "gourmet" roasted red chili paste) seems a mere promotional ploy. They all are ordinary frozen shrimp.
Like most Thai restaurants, Neisha invites you to request your food as hot as you like. If you don't speak up, you may find it too tame. In the interest of pleasing everyone, Neisha cooks on the mild side and uses sauces that play up sweetness. It's Thai cooking with a Polynesian sensibility.
Satays are skewers of tender white chicken buried in a peanut sauce no spicier than you'd find on a PB&J. Larb gai, with its two-asterisk warning, is nevertheless a fairly gentle mix of ground chicken and lime, dressed up with fluffs of bright shredded carrots and red cabbage and thinly sliced cucumbers. Other lime-and-chili salads with seafood, flank steak or cellophane noodles are hot enough only for beginners. It's logical, then, that such no-asterisk dishes as crab-stuffed chicken wings can be bland. The delicate touch works, though, in hoi obb, small wild mussels steamed in a clay pot with ginger, lemon grass and galanga. Taste them alone, swished in the broth, before you overwhelm them with their syrupy, chili-hot dipping sauce.
The most dramatic entree is barbecue talay, a large platter of seafood brought sizzling noisily to the table. It's not the pineapple that makes it oddly Americanized, but the barbecue sauce, which could have come straight from Texas. It's hard to taste the seafood in all that ketchup-thick puree.
Pad thai, the noodle standard for Thai restaurants, is a particularly nice, restrained version here, its sugar and coriander barely noticeable and the noodles upstaging the bits of shrimp, bean sprouts, egg and ground peanuts. But Thai fried rice -- we usually think of fried rice as Chinese -- makes for a welcome change. Most everyone orders the showy one, tossed with shrimp, pork, cashews and pineapple cubes, and brought in the pineapple shell. I can see why, since it's savory and fruity rather than cloying. But I like the added heat of the kao pad talay, a seafood fried rice with a kick. And for serious heat, the green curry chicken looks as benign as melted pistachio ice cream, but fills your head with basil, then brings tears to your eyes. Half a dozen of the entrees are available in vegetarian versions.
Neisha makes major efforts with fish, frying them whole or steaming fillets. Salmon is the best entree I've tried, the thick pink fillet draped with basil leaves and more, then wrapped in a banana leaf to seal in the juices as it grills. It's all the more exciting for its puckery lime-chili dip, but its clump of half-steamed vegetables tastes like an afterthought.
This is a seafood-heavy menu for good reason. Passion beef is sticky-sweet slices of meat the texture of pot roast, and the duck seems long-ago roasted and compacted, its skin flabby.
Illusions of Thailand are shattered at dessert, with its emphasis on mousse cakes. More in the spirit are the familiar Asian coconut custard and mango with coconut-infused sticky rice. The warm, sweet rice and cool, slightly tart fruit prove once again to be one of the great secrets of the East.
Roberto Donna has opened a new dining room and turned over a new leaf. Laboratorio del Galileo, in the back of his highly celebrated Galileo, is a demonstration kitchen with just a handful of tables, serving 11-course fixed-price dinners about three evenings a week, but only when Donna is there to cook them. The menu changes nightly, but features rare delicacies (salted dried tuna belly) and luxuries (zucchini flowers stuffed with foie gras and chicken mousse). It shows Donna's talent for magnificent simplicity in yellow tomato soup with eggplant mousse; it also shows the lengths to which he is willing to go, serving a plate of lamb cooked four different ways, from roast to stew, or monkfish with squid-studded caponata and 30-year-old balsamic vinegar. And most important, it offers several fabulous pastas, from timballo (remember "Big Night"?) to striped noodles in a pesto that tastes like technicolor to most other pestos' black-and-white. This is a marathon dinner, as well it might be for $85 (plus an optional $45 per person for wines to match). Is it a cooking lesson? Not unless you get up and stand by the stove; from the tables, the cooking is hard to see. But the show on the plates is Donna's talent up close and personal. The number for reservations is 202-331-0880. -- P.C.R.