Despite the ethnic overtones of its name, Sorn Dang resembles any number of the area's trendy eateries: blond wood tables decked with crisp linens and fresh flowers, fresh fruit daiquiri specials from the bar and the obligatory hanging greenery. Even the crowd looks appropriately urban, though there is no dress code. If it weren't for the Oriental prints and the smell of lemon grass and ginger root that greets visitors, you'd expect to find burgers and quiche on the bill of fare.
Instead, we discovered fiery neam-sodh, curried chicken, fried noodles and a myriad of other specialties on the menu of this gracious Thai restaurant, Alexandria's first.
Presentation is as polished as the dining room is attractive. Whether displaying entree or appetizer, plates bear the look of solicitous attention. Sprightly greens and carved radishes might adorn an appetizer of golden-fried squid, and entrees arrive in attractive terrines and single serving pots. (Some hors d'oeuvres have arrived so quickly, you'd think they could read minds in the kitchen, but ours were warm or fresh tasting enough to discount such speculation.)
A typical yet well-executed array of Thai offerings has proven rather impressive: Beef and pork satays are crispy around the edges, juicy and lean, offering just a hint of spiciness. Egg rolls are plentifully stuffed pancakes with bits of crunchy, fresh vegetables and sweet sausage. More adventurous palates might wish spicier offerings, and for them there are a number of dishes, including Neam-Sodh (No. 14) -- a blend of ground pork, peanuts and cool, sliced onions, with a suitably intense foil of ginger slices and green chilies.
Certainly the soups should not be missed. Though the basic stock is used in several choices, such as seaweed, and tofu with pork, the fillings of delicately flavored alga and subtly textured rectangles of tofu and crumbly ground pork lend themselves to light and pleasant supping. A variety of hot and sour and coconut-laced broths also are listed.
A dish of yellow curry with chicken and tender potato chunks was not very meaty and only slighty hot; peanuts gave it some crunch, but couldn't carry the dish beyond mere adequateness. Noodle dishes, however, are good bets here, especially item No. 122, fried noodles with a choice of beef, pork or chicken.
Pay attention to Sorn Dang's specialties: the Seafood Combination, a good example of the restaurant's "Thai-style Chinese food," was a deliciously filling mix of firm broccoli, water chestnuts, thinly cut carrot strips, decent shrimp and lobster chunks. Baked Shrimp Bean Threads, doused in cognac and oyster sauce, appeared in a small earthenware pot, brimming with silky textured bean threads and encasing fresh-tasting jumbo shrimp. Another reliable treat is Subgum Wonton, a pleasant, texturally interesting dish of lightly fried wontons mixed with meat and vegetables.
"Flame Fish" is the kind of fare diners either relish or avoid, for the fish arrives whole in a bath of bubbling "palm sauce" soup, kept hot and simmering by a candle heater, thus giving the effect of a still-breathing fish. The well-seasoned broth complemented the lightness of the fish, tender and succulent as it was.
Sorn Dang is a little jewel of a place -- pleasantly inviting, fresh and youthful -- and as sole purveyor of a sought-after cuisine, an inexpensive banquet.