It’s more than three decades now since my first visit to a restaurant. But I still have vivid memories of the experience. I was about 7, and my parents had taken me and my two younger siblings out for dinner in a sparkling new diner on the well-traveled highway between Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia. It was a disaster. We all spilled milknot simultaneously, of course, but at 10- to 15-minute intervals throughout the meal. My father yelled and my mother got a migraine while we three children threw everything we could touch onto the floor. After that, we may have made the occasional visit to a burger place, but I don’t remember us eating out again until every child in the family had reached adulthood.
My parents have certainly made up for lost time. When they visit their far-flung children now, one of their greatest pleasures is sampling the new restaurants in Houston, Austin, Wilmington and Nashville. Especially in Nashville. Especially with Their Daughter, The Restaurant Critic.
Even so, when my parents visited here a couple of years ago and I suggested a trip to the new Thai restaurant in town, the galloping gourmands screeched to a halt. My mother responded with an “Ugh.”
My father pleaded, “Isn’t that new brew pub open yet?”
Nevertheless, I insisted that they try it. I promised good beer. If they were still hungry after dinner, I assured them, we could make a run to Gerst Haus for some sausage. Reluctantly, they acquiesced and we were off to The Orchid.
An hour later, my father could scarcely restrain himself from licking the last bits of massamun curry from his plate, and my mother was snatching what was left of the green curry from the serving bowl. Now it’s all I can do to persuade them to try another place. There aren’t many Thai restaurants in their neck of the woods in Hot Springs, Ark.
Just five years ago, there weren’t that many Thai restaurants in our neck of the woods either. But when Royal Thai opened three months ago on Commerce Street, midway between the Ryman and the Wildhorse in the heart of Gaylordland, it brought Nashville’s Thai restaurant total to five.
For our visit to Royal Thai, our party of eight included four Thai devotees and one couple who, we were shocked to discover, had never even sampled the cuisine. We arrived late on a weeknight, and except for one table of music-biz typesthey have radar when it comes to sniffing out coconut milk and lemon grasswe had the place to ourselves. We weren’t complaining. We had plenty of time to admire the decor: dark green walls, caramel-colored wood panels, elegant light sconces on the walls, and tall black lacquered screens give the place a James-Bond-in-the-Far-East feelthe perfect place, we all agreed, for a future Mavericks party.
Our only complaint was the glaring fluorescent light over the bar. After only a little whining on our part, Taheerah, the enchanting hostess, agreed to turn it off. On a subsequent visit, we discovered that it had disappeared completely.
We ordered a couple bottles of wine and then dove into the extensive menu. Owner Saravoot Siriyutwatanayou can understand why his staff calls him “Woody”brought in several chefs from Bangkok to train his kitchen staff, and the proof is in the puddingor, in this case, the Pad Thai. Early reports from Royal Thai were not good, but I urge any previously disappointed diners to try again.
Much of the Royal Thai repertoire is familiar, but we were delighted to find dishes that are unavailable elsewhere in Nashville. The steamed dumplings were good, chewy but not rubbery. Steer clear of the greasy and uninteresting spring rolls for now. The satay kai boasted a terrific peanut sauce, but the chicken itself needed more time in the marinade.
We loved the tod mun plaa plate of traditional Thai fish cakes served with a crunchy cucumber salad, although Woody says the recipe is still being reworked. At a later visit, we raved over the kra-tong thong and the ka-nom bueng, a Thai omelette.
As much as we all adore tom ka kaithe coconut milk soup with chicken and mushrooms, which Royal Thai does so superblywe liked the tom yum koong, a hot and sour soup with shrimp, even better.
Most impressive were the salads, particularly the yum pla-muk (squid with cellophane noodles, mushrooms, onions and peppers). As Bob so delicately pointed out, the squid still tasted like baby doll arms, but very tender baby doll arms, and it was flavored with a nice splash of lime juice and a handful of fresh cilantro. The nam sodground pork with ginger and roasted peanutsis also highly recommended.
Even with such a large party, it was hard to narrow down our choices. And what trip to a Thai restaurant would be complete without The Big Fish? Royal Thai’s pla sam roda whole red snapper deep-fried and topped with three-flavor saucewas stupendous. With a small carrot “coin” covering the fish’s sightless eyeballs, it was aesthetically pleasing as well. The meat fell away from the bone, then melted in our mouths in a burst of sweetness and heat.
Other highlights of the feast were the hor mok ta lay (scallops, shrimp, squid, crabmeat and nappa cabbage steamed in foil and cranked up with red curry paste), the khaeng keow-warn (shrimp in green curry with coconut milk and fresh basil), and the exquisitely simple pad kee mao noodle dish featuring chicken and plenty of crisp stir-fried vegetables.
Each dish provided evidence of a devotion to quality ingredients and fresh vegetables and herbs. Marion, one of the Thai novices, observed that at Royal Thai, unlike most Chinese restaurants in town, the sauces were not a cover-up. Instead, they are vital components and complements to the dishes. According to The Unofficial Guide to Ethnic Cuisine & Dining in America, Thai food has only one rule: balance. Single dishes are supposed to combine the four essencessour, salty, sweet and hot. You can ask for a fire levelfrom mild to nativethat fits your comfort zone. In several instances, we went native, which may explain our prodigious wine consumption.
Be prepared for a wait between courseseach dish is prepared fresh, and patience is well rewarded. Our tab for eightincluding appetizers, soups, salads, entrées, desserts and two bottles of wine, was $295.96. You can do it much more cheaply.
Now that the fluorescent light problem has been taken care of, our only other suggestion would be the addition of a condiment tray.
Since the initial visit one month ago, one couple from our party has been back a half-dozen times (on their own tab). They are now on a first-name basis with the entire staff.
With the exception of some special events, Nashvillians have pretty much abandoned The District to roving gangs of touristas and wide-eyed suburbanites making the trek from Antioch, Donelson and Brentwood. But truly, I don’t think there will be many Oklahomans chowing down on pad see sa-hai before two-stepping it over to The Wildhorse for line-dance lessons. Royal Thai gives locals a reason to go downtown again, and the convenient parking garage next door allows you to slip in and out without fear of being mowed down by the Second Avenue cattle drive.
Royal Thai is located at 204 Commerce St. (255-0821). Open for lunch Mon.-Sat.; dinner 7 days, 4-10 p.m. Wheelchair accessible.