Crystal Thai

Arlington Forest Shopping Center

4819 Arlington Blvd. (Route 50 and Park Drive)

Arlington

522-1311

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday. Noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers and soups, $2.50 to $7.95. Lunch entrees, $5.25 to $9.95. Dinner entrees, $5.25 to $10.95.

Credit cards: MasterCard and Visa.

Nonsmoking area available.

More new Thai restaurants are opening in Northern Virginia, continuing a trend of the past few years. One of the newest is the four-month-old Crystal Thai, a sparkling example of the attractiveness of this Southeast Asian cuisine.

Here the attractiveness also extends to the decor, which appropriately includes two crystal chandeliers.

The softly lighted dining room is carpeted in soothing sea green and the color is repeated in a series of pictures along one wall. On the opposite wall is a handsome mural showing a sunlit Thai cityscape.

Thai cuisine draws on bold, complex seasonings, such as lemon grass, basil, mint and coriander. And, of course, there is the ubiquitous hot thai pepper, prikee nu. Nonetheless, there are several Thai dishes that require little culinary risk-taking.

Among the appetizers is an excellent pork satay, thin grilled pork strips enhanced with a flavorful marinade.

Another good, mildly seasoned appetizer is hae kuen, finely ground pork and shrimp wrapped in a bean curd skin and served in six slices. The description may sound exotic, but the preparation is similar to that of a hot dog.

For those who want something exotic and spicy, there's the delightful yum pla dook foo, in which shredded catfish is fried to a dark crispy brown. The brittle threads snap, crackle and pop when you pour on the spicy, sweet vinegar sauce and melt in your mouth like cotton candy.

There is a listing of cold appetizers, but they are not all served chilled. In fact, some arrive at room temperature or warm, such as the explosive larb gai, coarsely ground chicken breast meat with crunchy bits of toasted rice. It is tossed in a pepper-packed dressing that compliments the mix of fresh coriander leaves, lemon grass and red and green onions.

Many appetizer portions are entree-size and are priced accordingly.

If there is a weak spot on the menu, it's among the soups.

The pork and noodle soup tasted bland and greasy, and the classic shrimp and lemon grass soup showed no evidence of the latter ingredient. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed a velvety, buttery chicken in coconut milk.

The entrees tend to be of the same high quality as the best appetizers.

One of the owners, Kate Chuntrakul, has created two delicious dishes: cinnamon beef, a lean piece of brisket-like meat roasted until tender in a rich cinnamon-flavored gravy, and grilled pork chops marinated in a spicy curry paste.

Nightly specials have included a terrific sweet, sloppy Joe-like mixture of ground meat, onions, fresh tomatoes and straw mushrooms in combination with wide rice noodles smoky from pan frying.

Another special, a whole black snapper steamed and topped with a light brown sauce perfumed with basil, was a good choice and one of the few dishes over $10.

I would skip the shrimp potpourri, a dish prepared in a hot clay pot where the shrimp are likely to be overcooked.

There are several good Thai desserts. I would opt for the sweet, sticky rice with sliced, fresh mango.

For a lighter ending, there is the refreshing Thai iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk, or the similarly prepared iced lapsang souchong tea with its distinctive smoky taste.