Asia’s best on a platter

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Byline: CHRIS SHERMAN

I don’t have any figures, but the number of new Thai restaurants opening must have surpassed Chinese eateries around Tampa Bay and much of the country long ago. Thai is the Asian cooking of our time, rice with extra spice, fire and fun.

Any strip center that doesn’t have one of these restaurants now will find Thai entrepreneurs and woodworkers moving in as soon as a space becomes vacant.

Thai restaurants have sprouted for two reasons. First, the heat and the sweet of Thailand’s blend of coconut milk, lemongrass, garlic peppers and nuts. Second, sleek style and a fair hand at sushi, another Asian import of choice.

That has made Thai-Japanese a popular hybrid. It’s popular enough that downtown St. Petersburg already had at least three restaurants with Thai heritage and good sushi – Hook’s, Bangkok 9 and Pacific Wave, plus two Viet-sushi offerings (Sushi Rock and Sa Wa), one sushi bar (in BayWalk), and pure Thai (the elegant Chiang Mai) – but only one Chinese buffet.

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Is there room for one more Thai-sushi? Yes, if it can make a smooth panang curry, punch up duck with crisp basil and deliver a bowl of chirashi that turns tuna, white fish, pickle, egg and crab into a kaleidoscope of flavor.

But can it be done on an odd corner of downtown St. Petersburg that has hosted dismal, short-lived restaurants, from Greek fusion to Mexican (after a successful life as the Patio)? Not to mention that Asian food failed at least twice a block away.

Again, yes. Ratchada, named for a busy Bangkok thoroughfare has already done that. Credit goes to Liam and Pat Mahapirom, veteran local restaurateurs, and a hip young crew that wears as much black as the Aveda student body – and as smartly. It takes the skills of old and young to master both traditional Thai cooking and a bar that makes flashy hand rolls and silly martinis.

Unfortunately, the restaurant has not redone the hand-painted interior left from its earlier lives, which may have included Trading Spaces Behaving Badly with Metallic Paint (and plaster in the restrooms). But the wooden blinds, cobalt pendants and outdoor torches are cool. And you can sit in the more restrained dining room on the left with white brick walls, billowing gold banners and the most regal portrait I’ve seen of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the devotion found in all Thai restaurants.

The art that counts, of course, is on the plate, and Ratchada turns out good eating in both idioms.

In Japanese, the tempura is crisp, the teriyaki rich and the yaki-soba noodle stir-fry robust and long on vegetables (I’d punch up with more ginger and sesame oil). The kitchen picks up the right accent in stylish presentation, obvious in a bento box and its sushi. While it does not have all the ingredients (no sea urchin), the chef makes smart hand rolls; three of those cones for $9.95 is a fun lunch deal.

My clear favorite was the chirashi, a bowl of rice and radish, literally bristling with raw fish, shrimp, egg and crisp asparagus, an edible bouquet of fresh flavors.

In the Thai dishes, duck showed off the distinctive power of Thai basil, the red-stemmed herb that adds clove to the usual mint and licorice flavors; it gave an extra edge to the rich, sweet duck. Panang curry was delicately balanced and elevated by green beans and peapods that still had crunch. That’s important; while wonderful spices and long simmered broths are delightful, the best Thai cooking shows off fresh vegetables (and tropical fruits). Give us more.

The treat here was a special of big Thai prawns, almost lobster tails, stuffed with garlic and a bit of crab – showing a willingness to get better than average seafood. (Oddly Ratchada doesn’t have frog legs, a Thai standard I love.)

When a restaurant has such a lengthy menu, let alone two or three as a Thai-Japanese-sushi restaurant does, it’s churlish to ask for more. Yet I would like more yum and yang. Yum are the tart, cold, often meaty salads, and yang are grilled dishes. Both are great in the Florida summer. I had a lively nam sad (pork) and limey beef laab, but I dream of a yum bar.

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Ratchada has a few kinks to work out, including wine service; there’s no wine list yet, and we made sense of the few, rather high-priced, offerings only after long, confused consultations. Yet it has already made a place for itself on downtown’s lunch menu and will attract a hip evening crowd that may help spread the traffic more than a block beyond BayWalk.

Let’s hope that the continued spread of Thai restaurants fosters quality as well as quantity. Now that we know our curry by the colors and can tell phad thai from phad se-ew, let’s not let familiarity breed contemptible homogenizing.

We’ve really just started to eat Thai. Let us taste the regional differences, from the hot curry of the north to the sweet of the south, the freshest of vegetables and seafood, and the whole range of sweet, spicy, salty and sour.

Ratchada Thai Restaurant & Sushi Bar

270 First Ave. N

St. Petersburg

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m., Friday, Saturday.

Reservations: Accepted.

Details: No smoking indoors; credit cards, full bar, restrooms adapted for the disabled.

Prices: Lunch, $5.95 to $10.95; dinner, $7.95 to $15.95; sushi, $3.50 to $9.

CAPTION(S):

PHOTO, BILL SERNE, (2)

The Ratchada Thai Restaurant and Sushi Bar offers red curry with shrimp, and Panang fish, a deep-fried red snapper served with panang curry, bell peppers, string beans and basil.; Sua Mahapirom and his brother Kang pose with a sushi dragon