I think I might be addicted to Thai food. In college, I lived one street over from a block that housed four Thai restaurants, which were supported by a population of college students with the munchies. All four stirred up some of the best pad Thai this side of Siam. Even now, three years later, I still get weekly cravings for tod-man and spicy basil noodle.
Unfortunately, this street is in New Haven, Connecticut, not Tampa Bay. Though there is no lack of Thai joints here, it's tough to find some that match the sheer excellence of the eateries on Chapel Street. I'm always on the lookout for new Thai joints, hoping with every bean sprout to find something that brings to mind my bright college years. I like Clearwater's Thai Coconut. I'm crazy about Countryside's upscale Sukkothai (currently closed for relocation and renovation). But I'm still looking.
Last week, my search took me to Ratchada, a stylish little restaurant in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg. There, the normal Thai restaurant trappings (carved wood, orchids and delicate tea sets) shared space with nifty mini track lights and urban chic sensibilities. It's comfortable and cozy, and on a busy weekend evening, a diner can do a lot of people-watching from the cozy booths overlooking First Avenue.
Ratchada's menu is a grab bag of Asian fusion: Thai standards, Japanese teriyaki, tempura and soba noodle dishes, and trendy sushi.
I much preferred the Thai portion of the menu. Vegetarian spring rolls ($2.95) were served with a thick, chunky plum sauce. Though our crab Rangoon ($4.95) arrived so quickly we suspected that it had been sitting in the kitchen, it was still quite delicious. I'm wary of this particular dish, which can be a tart pink mush inside a wonton wrapper, but Ratchada's version bypassed these pitfalls with a smooth, almost silky texture and a flavor combining equal parts crab and cream cheese.
Our entrées were more of a mixed bag. The pad Thai ($7.95) was bland and a bit on the gummy side. It lacked the sweet-tart taste that is usually created by the carefully balanced mix of peanut, lime and fish oil. Since the noodle dish is such a classic, I became concerned that the more advanced entrées might be beyond the restaurants reach.
Fortunately, this is not the case. My date's "Ship Wrecked" entrée ($14.95) featured a spicy mix of squid, shrimp, mussels, scallops and crab baked with bean threads, veggies, sweet chilies and basil leaf in an aluminum foil steamer. When the makeshift basket was sliced open at the table, we all received an impromptu, basil-scented facial that had our mouths watering. The "Ship Wrecked" proved a satisfactory, if not overtly spectacular dish.
Our final entrée selection, deep fried red snapper with chili sauce ($14.95 for a filet, market price for the whole fish) is one of my favorite Thai dishes, and Ratchada's version passed the test. When done right, the skin of the snapper turns into a crispy crust and the meat falls apart at the first touch of your fork. I went for the whole snapper, of course, to the dismay of my more squeamish friend, who protested that the fish would be staring at me while I ate. Fortunately, I lack any predator's regrets, and enjoyed the tender meat despite the disapproving glares from both the girl across the table and the snapper on the plate.
In addition to the usual catalogue of Thai dishes, Ratchada also offers an extensive selection of sushi, adding to its downtown disposition. (Every yuppie loves sushi.) The list ranges from the ubiquitous California ($4.50), spider ($8.50), tekka ($4.50) and rainbow rolls ($8.50) to items that sound more like health-food shakes than Japanese finger food. The "super protein" roll comes with tuna, salmon, yellowtail and cucumbers ($9) and the "ginseng stamina" roll includes spicy tuna, cream cheese and salmon ($8). The house roll is a kitchen sink of snow crab and asparagus, topped with smoked salmon, eels, avocado and shrimp ($11.50). Though the sushi is by no means the best in town (or even in downtown) there were no complaints at my table.
Alongside the sushi there's standard teriyaki, tempura and soba noodle dishes. It seemed like the proprietors wanted to incorporate a sushi bar, but felt obliged to shove a halfhearted Japanese lunch counter into the mix. I found the Japanese entrées to be a bit of a distraction from the main Thai menu.
For dessert, we tried the super-sweet fried cheesecake ($4.50), which followed a similar pattern to fried ice cream ($2.50). The substance is frozen solid, flash fried in tempura batter, topped with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a maraschino cherry, then served before it starts getting sloppy. I found the concoction a little gooey for my taste, but my date, always a fan of sundaes, etc., gobbled it up. I much preferred the Spartan look and more subtle taste of the banana delight ($2.50). Tiny squares of pastry skin were wrapped around slices of banana, deep fried and drizzled with honey and toasted sesame seeds. The hot pastry almost liquefied the fruit, leaving behind a creamy filling and a fresh, almost juicy tang. I'm not usually a fan of banana-flavored foods - often cloying and overripe - but I found the simple square rows in this dessert were the perfect alternative to the towering chaos of fried cheesecake.
Though I'd happily visit Ratchada again the next time I'm in the neighborhood, it does not fill the longing in my heart for the perfect Thai joint. While pretty enough, and skillful with both its premier seafood items and the smaller dishes that bookend the meals, I found the standard noodle dishes left a bit to be desired. The sushi bar is decent - and probably a good moneymaker in Ratchada's prime downtown location, but the Japanese portion of the menu seemed tacked on. Asian fusion may be all the rage, but I'd rather a great Thai restaurant or a great sushi bar than a place that just misses the mark in both.
Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.