MAY 19, 1999

By Phyllis C. Richaman

Thai Notes

Thai Noy—5880 N. WASHINGTON BLVD. , ARLINGTON . 703-534-7474. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday noon to 4 p.m. ; for dinner Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. , Monday 5 to 9:30 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Resevations suggested. No smoking. Price: lunch appetizers $2.95 to $8.95, entrees $5.50 to $9.95; diner appertizers $3.50 to $8.95, entrees $6.95 to $14.95. Full dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip $20 to $30 per person.

At Thai Noy, you don’t have to wait until dessert to see the most festive dishes; the appetizers look worthy of birthday candles. They’re served on square wooden trays or in glass bowls that look like carved ice, with not just a one-posy-fits-all carved carrots, on the other hand, look as plain as can be.

Thai Noy is in a small shopping strip next to the plain-Jane, ever popular Lost Dog Caf´┐Ż. So it’s a surprise to find inside a sea of hand painted tables whose tops you could proudly frame and hang on a wall; some breathtaking Thai artifacts, stencils and sequined and quilted fabrics; and a brightly painted wooden overhang that turns the bar into tropical stage set. The tables are set with napkins folded Into large flowers, out of which arise enormous balloon wineglasses.On every table is a rose the color of salmon mousse.

Even when the dining room is full, with people in line for tables to be cleared, and others waiting for their orders or for their check, the delays with good cheer. Nearly everyone seems to be a regular That’s a good sign, of course. The management knows the customers and the customers know the menu. Most order the fresh spring rolls—called summer rolls elsewhere—as an appetizer. Not that these rice-paper raw-vegetable rolls are uniquely tasty, but they are cut like pieces of sushi and are so colorful that sometime the dining room look like a moving flower garden. They’re a light and refreshing, their greatest asset being a glossy garden dipping sauce that counters its sweetness with plenty of garlic and ginger. Some of the food is so delicious that you’re taken aback when other dishes merely ordinary.
This is a restaurant that stands above the crowd of indistinguishable storefront Thai restaurants. The waiters, dressed in tunics with handwoven sashes, show a well-polished graciousness
In the best of the dishes, every seasoning stand out like a tiny solo yet blends with the others. It’s like jazz, each instrument having its moment. An appetizer of yum woon sen—clear noodles with shrimp and pork—dances on your tongue, its ginger, garlic, chilies, coriander and lime darting and soaring over your taste buds. Nam sod, a ground-pork variation of larb gai, mingles the juicy meat with the crunch of peanuts and an explosion of spices that release as much flavor as heat. Satays are not just skewered pork or chicken, they are the plat-form for a remarkable peanut sauce withhigh note of sweetness and fire. And peninsula yum yum is a platter of scored curls of squid, a few shrimp and scallops ruddy with chili paste, with riffs of seasoning. Another day, though, the food is ordinary: mere talk, not music. Fried crispy roll are bland cabbage packets, papaya salad is lackluster, and other salads of meat or seafood, though lively and puckery with lime, don’t have the brilliance I’ve come to expect. Among entrees, the spiciest dishes are the standouts. “Wild boar basil” pork studded with mushrooms, green pepper-corns and chilies, reverberates. Drunken noodles is hot and herbal, with plenty of potent basil playing against the fat, slightly smoky rice noodles and moist, delicately browned chicken, beef or pork.

Crispy fish has definite crunch under a thick blanket of red and green chilies with basil. While its flesh is cooked too firm, freshness and crispness eclipse the flaws—and Thai Noy invites you to specify the size of your flounder. The curry sauces are very good, though the meats floating in them are sometimes thin and bland. As the satays hint, this is a kitchen that makes much of peanut sauces. “Lover’s scampi” teams large, juicy shrimp with a sauce that’s crunchy and thick with nuts, tingling with spices. The same sauces dresses up Mekong chicken.

Also on this long menu are standard stir-fries, the likes of beef with oyster sauce or chicken with ginger: tame and watery. Even meats with a fetching-sounding himaparn sauce—honey and lemon with cashews, chilies and scallions—taste wan. Thai Noy also demonstrates that you can’t judge a restaurant by its pad thai; here the noodle dish is oversimplified, just sweet and slightly fishy-tasting rice noodles with chewy shrimp, bits of tofu and a sprinkling of peanuts. It’s the least enticing dish I’ve tried.


After the fanciful appetizers, desserts seem startlingly straightforward. Ginger or coconut ice cream is just a bowl of whiteness, yet the flavor is vibrant, especially in an ice cream as light and milky as a sherbet. Sticky rice with mango is wonderfully rustic, a cushion of warm, slightly sweet and properly chewy rice drizzled with coconut milk and accompanied by the sliced, ripe, sweetly acidic fruit.

Thai Noy makes a glamorous first impression, with those imposing wine glasses and festive napkin flowers. Chances are it will still seem special when you leave.

Chef Noi Suwanna’s beautiful, often delicious food—including fresh spring rolls, left—is artfully served.