Thai Flavor 3709 Macomb St. NW 966-0200 Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday.Prices: Dinner appetizers $2.50 to $6.50, dinner entrees $5.50 to $10.95. Cards: All major credit cards accepted.
When the tried and sometimes true Thai Garden changed hands (and names) earlier in the summer, I wondered what might replace that busy if merely satisfactory neighborhood outpost.
As it turns out, the menu retains the ethnic identity of its predecessor. And the restaurant's name -- Thai Flavor -- doesn't reflect much of a change, either.
But the food here is so improved -- it's prettier, more varied and more intensely seasoned than that offered by the previous kitchen -- as to suggest an altogether different cuisine.
Gone are the bouncy fish cakes, the vaguely spicy charcoal beef, the mushy pad thai. Gone, too, are the bargain prices: Thai Flavor charges more for just about everything, although the prices are consistent with both the quantity and quality of the food.
Alone, the two pages of appetizers will tempt you to come back for further exploration, so varied and tantalizing are the possibilities. Moreover, starters are nearly as plentiful as entrees, making them a good deal as well.
Consequently, a good course of action would be to construct a meal from among the first courses, which ably reflect the diversity of Thai cooking and its mingling of sweet and sour, hot and mild flavors.
Two meat-based salads, larb and nam, typify the range of this multidimensional cuisine. Larb, served atop a bed of greens, is beef or chicken dressed with an astringent citrus-mint-onion blend. Even hotter and more tart is nam, minced pork laced with an abundance of ginger, chilies and red pepper flakes, its intensity balanced by a sprinkling of ground peanuts and the perfume of coriander. The seafood equivalent comes in the form of the aptly named spicy shrimp, which is similarly stoked with the likes of ginger and chilies.
Thai soups are among the most intriguing -- the lemon grass soup in particular is a marvel of a broth, at once hot and tangy, boldly seasoned with ginger. Equally aromatic is galanga, which teams velvety slices of chicken (or shrimp) and coconut milk with mushrooms, lemon grass and chilies.
On a tamer note, there are Thai Flavor Golden Baskets -- thin little pastry shells plumped with a blend of fresh corn, peas and ground pork and prettily garnished with red pepper and a sprig of coriander -- as well as deep-fried rice noodles, which would resemble moist shredded wheat if it weren't for their topping of minced pork.
There are mere rhinestones among the jewels: The fish cakes are unexceptional except for their accompanying sweet and sour sauce, embellished with diced cucumber, ground peanuts and chilies. And the thinnish spring rolls pale in comparison to the rest of the starters.
What appears to be an impressively large array of main dishes gets smaller once you discover that most of the preparations vary only by a single main ingredient, so that beef, chicken and pork all get paired with red basil, ginger and chilies for a total of nine dishes. That is not a fault, but rather a word of advice to those who want to sample the maximum number of tastes at any one meal.
Among the star attractions are the duck curry and the beef with fried garlic, strips of marinated meat showered with cracked black pepper and decorated with carrot and sprigs of fresh herbs. Fish fans should look into the crispy fish with chili sauce, with its moist, meaty interior and fiery sweet-and-sour coating.
Dishes to steer clear from include the cloying and limp honey duck, and the tough and chewy squid selections.
While I rarely feel compelled to order desserts in Thai restaurants, I'd make an exception here with what amounts to Oriental bread pudding -- a nutty-tasting, firm-textured confection made from taro root -- or perhaps a creamy and mellow fried banana.
Happily, one doesn't have to sacrifice comfort for good, inexpensive cooking -- the two dining rooms achieve modest elegance with soft lighting (sometimes so dim as to warrant a flashlight at night), fresh flowers on each table, and a fashionably dressed hostess, who seems to consistently outsmile even Miss America.
And the service? Graciousness abounds. Eagerness is evident. But for those who prefer less frenzied dining, I'd opt for a weeknight foray -- and a table distanced from the kitchen and its two swinging doors. The in and out, back and forth motions of the staff one busy Friday night resembled a Keystone Kops routine as employes narrowly escaped colliding with one another.
Given a choice, I'd prefer to focus on the show on my plate, not that of the staff.Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.