ALEX THAO OPENED his first restaurant, Celadon, before he could legally clink wineglasses with guests. Now, on the verge of turning 23 (he hits middle age in May), Thao will celebrate his birthday as the proprietor of Rama, a remarkable restaurant that surpasses Celadon as the best Thai eatery in the city.
Much like different vintages of Premiere Cru wines, or first and second novels by masters of the genre, Celadon and Rama can be viewed as stages in maturation—in this case, the growth of a talented restaurateur. Celadon, a Hillcrest favorite that stays busy long after nearby eateries have emptied, is attractive, well-staffed and possesses an engaging menu. Rama, on the Fourth Avenue side of a restaurant-heavy Gaslamp Quarter block, is ravishing, so cool it sizzles, and equipped with a kitchen able to provide tastebuds all the excitement they can handle. The quartet of stars beneath the restaurant’s name in the window may simply be a sign-painter’s conceit, but they seem justified by the décor and cooking.
Just to get this out of the way, “rama-lama-ding-dong.” Sooner or later, the phrase seems to erupt at most tables, though the restaurant’s name honors King Rama V, who Thao says “modernized Thailand with roads, schools and Western ideas.” Apart from a state portrait of the present Thai monarch, the décor exemplifies the sophistication with which East greets West in the Gaslamp Quarter. In the front dining room, tapered draperies frame tall windows that before sunset allow light to pour over a statue of Buddha, a wall of wine and a water sculpture that pumps cascades over the restaurant’s name.
So ask to sit in the back room, which is even cooler— not just in mood—thanks to air chilled by a waterfall that flows over a towering rock wall. Knotted draperies vaguely screen the booths, and the disco ambience inspires a desire to experiment with hotter versions of curries and stir-fries. Rama offers a typical “1 to 10” spice range, which is largely meaningless to those inexperienced with the restaurant itself or with Thai cuisine, which sometimes strives to light a fire on the tongue. On the other hand, this is the place at which to push the envelope, since a key goal of chileheat is to define flavors as brilliantly as the flames flashing inside precious gems.
Menu prices are big enough (Gaslamp Quarter landlords charge Boardwalk rents), but so are the portions, and everything can be shared. Depending on the rest of the order, the hoi jor appetizer ($9.50) can serve one to six diners, and these toothsome, pan-browned slices of seasoned ground shrimp and pork are escorted by a sweet sauce that tingles at the friendly edge of spiciness. The extensive appetizer list frankly tempts less than the soups, and especially the salads. Those who are accustomed to open a Thai meal with spring rolls will find these are memorable ($7).
“Talay” means “ocean,” implying assorted seafood, and at Rama, any dish with talay in its name demands to be tasted. The talay soup ($12.50 for a bowl that serves two to four) combines shrimp, squid and other sea-dwellers in a tart, moderately spiced broth that glistens with flavor.
The only sane way to choose among the 10 salads is to tack the list to a dartboard at any nearby bar, and let the dart make the selection. In varying proportions and associations, such ingredients as chilies, lime juice, ground rice, slivered red onions, lemon grass, mint and cilantro turn meats and seafood into dazzling creations. Tomato wedges, grooved cucumber slices and a few chopped romaine leaves legitimize these dishes as salads in the California sense, but otherwise, they shoot off fireworks never dreamt of by Messrs. Cobb, Louis and Caesar.
It is simply remarkable how plump and “full” the mussels, scallops, shrimp and squid seem in the yum talay ($14), but these qualities are typical at Rama. Even given the boldness of the seasonings, the yum nua salad garnished with thinly sliced grilled steak ($10) is marvelously subtle. Best of all may be the crispy duck salad ($12). Pineapple, herbs and cashews help the wok-crisped duck bring at least a half-dozen sensations to the plate—hot, cool, spicy, sweet, salty and refreshing, this salad has it all.
ENTRÉES COVER FOUR PAGES. There are plenty of rice and noodle dishes for those who want them, but the curries beckon, notably the choo chee shrimp ($20) beguilingly. A “red” curry lightened with coconut milk and enriched with green peas and slivered bell peppers, it is pretty to regard and entertaining to eat, since it plays bold flavors against more muted notes. The shrimp are large, succulent and tender.
Panang curries ($14) tend to be cream-colored, but are orange at Rama —and irresistible thanks to the sweet richness of the coconut milk and the bright perfume of the kaffir lime leaves. They can be made with chicken, pork, beef (excellent), vegetables or tofu (as is standard at Thai restaurants, most entrées can be made with any of these items, as well as with shrimp, squid, scallops or roast duck).
Thao does not advertise the availability of specialties not listed on the menu, but there are several, including the sensational nua kem ($12), a dish of stir-fried, shredded dried beef served with a tart, spicy, salty citrus sauce and sticky rice on the side. It’s a marvel, as is the less-complicated presentation of eggplant and tofu with sweet basil and a few other seasonings ($14.50).
At its most expensive, the menu offers king crab legs ($25) with mushrooms, bamboo shoots and red curry sauce and pla sam rosh ($21), a dish of fried, steamed or grilled striped bass with vegetables and a distinctive sauce. Tasty offerings like pra ram ($12.50)—steamed spinach with peanut sauce and the meat of choice—have a gentler effect on the budget.
Desserts are a sometimes thing at Asian restaurants, but Rama scores in this department as well, especially with a combination of sweet, creamy sticky rice and fresh mango (market price). The wine list is relatively sophisticated, offering choices that pair well with highly seasoned, often spicy foods.
Rama serves lunch and dinner daily at 327 Fourth Avenue in downtown San Diego. Reservations are advised; telephone 619-501-8424.