Friday, February 21, 1997
Thai to be tried
Arloi Dee restaurant spices up Backstage District with exciting ethnic menu

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It's not surprising that Thai restaurants are springing up from Montgomery to Alexandria. Now that Chinese food has become as familiar and American as pizza, many need new culinary territory to explore.

While Thai is similar to Chinese, it makes additions to the flavor palette -- complex curries, hot peppers, herbal coriander, sweet coconut, unusual vegetables -- that give the food a more exotic and racy profile.

Unfortunately, not every Thai restaurant exploits the exotic. But Arloi Dee in downtown's Backstage District, does, and that's why it's such an exciting addition to the ethnic dining landscape.

From roast duck curry to strawberry chicken and hot chili squid, I bet there's something on the menu you've never had before and that you're going to love.

The restaurant opened in early December in the old China Palace location on Seventh Street. Inside is a rather startling combination of pink walls and orange booths and chairs. There are silk lotus blossoms on the tables and travel posters of Thailand on the walls. Preecsa Lumsum is the owner. His wife, Mali, cooks, and their two daughters work in the dining room. Mr. Lumsum plans to hire another cook from Thailand.

Outstanding starters

Soup or salad is the best way to start. Thai soups are a wonder with their combination of coconut, lime and chili. Tom Kha Gai, or spicy chicken coconut milk soup ($3.95, or $7.95 for a hot pot), contains all those flavors in just the right balance. Som Tam, or spicy papaya salad ($5.95), is a perfect taste bud wake-up. The papayas are unripe, which means they're tart and crunchy, and are dressed in lime juice and a bit of chili. The salty, fishy dried shrimp in the dressing makes it an acquired taste.

There are other appetizers. I'm kicking myself for not trying the out-of-the-ordinary green mussels (''boiled with juicy sauce,'' $5.95). Many of the appetizers I tried were deep-fried, like a very good spring roll ($1.50), married shrimp ($5.95; the bride and groom are shrimp and pork) and fried scallops ($5.95). There's also a decent moo sate -- pork skewers with a peanut sauce ($4.95) -- and mediocre gyoza dumplings ($4.95).

These are all good with the classic Chinese restaurant drinks, Blue Lagoon, with umbrella, or the Bangkok Iced Tea in a Fu Manchu mug -- full of liquor if you want to Thai one on.

Refined, robust entrees

Entrees run the gamut from mild and refined to searingly hot and robust. On the mild side is steamed whole fish, which is priced daily, and was a splurge at $30. The fish is delicate and mild, covered with minced mushrooms, ginger and pork.

I could have stopped right there, but then I would have missed out on eggplant Thai-style ($6.95). One of several vegetarian choices on the menu, this is an unusual preparation. The eggplant is tender but firm and is infused with a deep, dark bean sauce flavored with sweet spices -- I'm guessing Chinese five-spice.

The heavy Chinese influences on Thai food are obvious in some of the stir-fried dishes. (There also are separate Chinese and Japanese sections of the menu.) Phad Poey Sien, or Eight Angels ($13.95), came off as bland in comparison to some of the other dishes, but it couldn't be faulted for the amount and quality of ingredients: shrimp, scallops, crab and something called pork mown. We never determined what this was, pork maw, or stomach, maybe. It turned out to be little, soft pieces of meat.

Strawberry chicken ($9.95) is an unusual and delicious variation on Chinese sweet-and-sour. Deep fried chicken, plus the usual carrots, tomatoes and pineapple, is transformed by the addition of fresh strawberries, which lend their fragrant flavor to the whole dish.

Indian cooking, the other big influence on Thai food, is obvious in several curry dishes. Roast duck curry ($9.95) is an unusual choice and one I highly recommend. Pieces of dark duck are combined with tiny round Thai eggplant, red curry paste and coconut milk for a robust dish.

Thai can do spicy, too, of course. The first time I ate at Arloi Dee, I had Shu Shee Shrimp ($10.95) and Crazy Noodles ($8.95). It was hard to tell which was hotter, after having numbed my tongue with a bite of chili pepper in my first bite of shrimp. And we'd ordered the shrimp at ''mild.'' Other dishes ordered hot were not nearly as spicy; it was hard to predict. But if you like tingling lips and your mouth afire, let them know.

One night, we experienced late food and mixed-up orders. Our waiter was apologetic, obviously aware that things weren't going well, and my guess is that this problem isn't going to continue. The only other service problem is that some of the waiters have rather shaky English, but that doesn't bother me. When you're off on a culinary adventure, you can't always expect the guides to speak your language.

Reviews are done anonymously at Enquirer expense. Ratings take into consideration quality of food, service, presentation and atmosphere, balanced against price.

- Arloi Dee

***

Food: Excellent.

Service: Fair.

Atmosphere: Good.

Value: Good.

What: Adventurous Thai restaurant.

Where: 18 E. Seventh St., downtown.

When: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 3-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 3-11 p.m., Friday-Saturday. Starting in March, 4-10 p.m. Sunday.

Recommended dishes: spicy chicken coconut milk soup, eggplant Thai-style, steamed whole fish, Shu Shee Shrimp, roast duck curry, strawberry chicken.

Vegetarian choices: Vegetable curries and stir-fries on menu.

Prices: Appetizers $1.50-$6.95; entrees $6.95-$13.95, but up to $30 for Hot Pot or whole fish, $40 for Shark Fin Soup.

Noise Level: An extremely quiet 64-68 decibels on Saturday night; a moderate 72 on a pre-theater Saturday. (Most restaurants range from 60 decibels, a dignified calm, to 90 decibels, a din).

Reservations: Taken.

Miscellaneous: No-smoking section, high chairs and booster chairs, bar and lounge, carryout available. Not wheelchair-accessible (step up from street, narrow front door).

Paying for it: American Express, MasterCard, VISA, Diner's, Discover.

Phone: 421-1304.