Venue Review: NaRai Thai Restaurant
When we ordered the hot and sour Tom Yam Kum shrimp soup at NaRai Thai, a new Rockrimmon restaurant sure to become a neighborhood favorite, the server asked the most dreaded question in Thai cuisine.
“Do you want mild, medium, hot or Thai hot?”
It’s hard to know. There is no government bureau of Thai heat standards that gives ratings on the Scoville scale. Even if you know you want to sweat a little, the question is whether the kitchen has Americanized the spice levels so that “hot” really isn’t that hot, or whether, in true Thai fashion, ordering hot will result in a dish so spicy that, to quote Lisa Simpson, you can “see through time.”
“It’s like women’s clothing sizes,” a friend eating with me said. “Sometimes I’m a 2, sometimes I’m an 8.” We ordered the hot. “Are you sure? It’s pretty hot,” the server said with concern. Sure, we were sure. We wanted to sweat a little. “OK,” she said., “I’ll bring you some more water.” The soup arrived perfectly spiced and brimming with fresh ingredients that showed that NaRai is a place worth spending the time to find your right spice level. Good Thai is all about fresh ingredients in dishes made from scratch. That’s what is going on here. With good prices and a stylish dining room, NaRai Thai should be a regular stop for anyone living on the north side of town.
The clear Tom Yam Kum broth was perfumed with lime leaves, chunks of lemon grass stalk and thin slices of a wonderfully weird, somewhat soapy and astringent root called galangal, which makes for a magical broth. In it floated fresh mushrooms, crescents of pearly onion and shrimp, and had just enough heat to make me dab my brow.
The shrimp felt slightly overcooked, but it was a small detail in a delightful dish.
The rest of the menu is all Thai — no Chinese section or yakitori thrown in. Instead, you get hot-weather delicacies such as cool green papaya salad ($7.25) or translucent spring rolls stuffed with rice noodles and fresh sprigs of peppery Thai basil.
Thai basil is used to good effect in nearly every dish.
Pad Egg Plant ($8.95), a simple plate of eggplant stir-fried with beef (or your choice of proteins) in a simple black bean sauce, came swimming with schools of the pointy-leafed herb. (We ordered “medium,” which was mild.)
That unmistakably anise-y taste showed up, too, in the green curry ($8.95). Green curry can be a gamble. Often at Thai joints, it devolves to a sweet, bland, crowd-pleasing goo. Not at NaRai Thai. The steaming stew, full of slices of winter melon and limp basil sprigs, is light on sugar. Spices and herbs take center stage. (We ordered “hot,” which was pretty darned hot.) It’s wonderful sopped up by rice, and at Na-Rai, you can order brown rice, too.
The sweet flavor bomb here is the Massaman Curry, ($8.95) an Indian-influenced dish of potatoes and meat cooked in a rich, amber sauce of coconut milk, roasted peanuts, cardamom, cinnamon, fish sauce, sugar and a bright, acidic bite of tamarind. (We ordered “hot,” which was less hot than our other curry. Go figure.) A surprise on the menu was Gai Yan ($9.50), a half chicken marinaded in fish sauce, garlic, turmeric, coriander root, and pepper, then slow roasted until it almost falls off the bone. It was a deliciously tame escort to the spicy curries on the table.
Perfectly ripe mango with sticky coconut rice ($5.45) was a nice, light touch at the end. And thankfully, at dessert, you don’t have to decide your spice level.