Strolling into Noi Thai is like stepping into another world. Clearly, a lot of thought went into the restaurant’s design and concept. That is, to serve up food befitting royalty in a setting conceived with Thailand’s royal palace in mind.
It’s a beautiful restaurant divided into outer, central and inner palace spaces. These include the hidden War Room, which serves as a private space, and the Pavilion Room, festooned with golden bo leaves symbolic of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment. Other spaces pay homage to Thailand’s shadow puppet tradition.
Royal Hawaiian Center Building C, Level 3
Food: * *
Service: * * * 1/2
Ambience: * * * *
Value: * *
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch, 5 to 11 p.m. for dinner and 3 p.m. to closing for happy hour
Cost: Dinner $80 to $120 for two without alcohol
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
* * * * – excellent
* * * – very good
* * – average
* – below average
The restaurant is the first upscale establishment from the Bai Tong family of six restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, now expanding to Hawaii and California.
During a trip to Hawaii, Noi Thai co-owner Chadillada “Noi” Lapangkura fell in love with the islands and longed to bring her family’s Thai dishes here, envisioning a royal experience because of the lack of upscale Thai cuisine on the islands.
Everyone is so sweet here, and the presentation of dishes is exceptional, but none of that compensates for food that, in spite of painstaking effort, didn’t measure up to any local hole in the wall.
It is not just my local taste buds talking. I was also able to consult with individuals from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, who also noted the intense sweetness of Noi Thai’s dishes, adapted to suit a Western palate.
“It needs to be more sour, more spicy,” said Kulpramote Wannalert, and this sentiment was echoed by Lert Narongchaisakun, who grew up in Bangkok.
My inclination was not to review this restaurant, because chances are low that any local would stumble upon it on the third floor at the Royal Hawaiian Center. But what changed my mind was that despite its culinary shortcomings, Wannalert and Narongchaisakun enjoyed the overall experience and were able to suggest some quick at-the-table fixes. For the most part, a condiment tray including limes, fish sauce and chili sauce goes a long way in helping diners adjust flavors to their liking.
I also don’t want to ignore that segment of the population that fears setting foot in hole-in-the-wall restaurants; for them, this might serve as their closest encounter with Thai cuisine.
For the sake of adventure, you might start with Ma Hor (Galloping Horses, $17), a sticky ball of caramelized minced pork that sits astride a wine-cork-size cylinder of pineapple. This popular Thai appetizer is said to be named in honor of King Rama VII’s horsemanship. The sour pineapple cut some of the sweetness of the minced meatball. Narongchaisakun enjoyed it, noting that few Thai people prepare the dish because of the time and patience required for caramelizing the pork.
More to my liking was a lamb satay appetizer ($11), the meat marinated in herbs and mint before being served with a light mint yogurt sauce and sticky rice. The one skewer of lamb seemed skimpy, considering the price and that most local restaurants offer two to three sticks to share. In place of additional lamb, there was the serving of sticky rice. This might have been nice if $11 was all you could afford and this turned it into a complete meal. But most people wouldn’t want the extra carbs as part of their appetizer.
I also had to see what the Cock-A-Doodle-Doo ($16) was about. The presentation stumped me. While every other dish was beautifully appointed, this one had pieces of fried chicken served in jaggedly cut eggshells that were presented in egg cartons. It was a rustic approach that didn’t square with the rest of the ambience. The eggshells’ openings were so small we had to work at extracting the pieces, made soggy by red curry. The only flavor that registered was a bit of salt from the ebiko roe topping the chicken.
Tom Yum Lobster ($32) was among the dishes created to wow guests. Boiled lobster meat was cut into bite-size morsels and inserted back into the tail, then presented in a bowl with straw mushrooms and cilantro. The soup came as a separate component in an hourglass-shaped contraption that, when heated with a torch, sent the steaming broth up to meet a mixture of kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro and onion. These infused flavors were poured over the lobster. The presentation whetted the appetite for a soup that promised to be spicy and sour. When it turned out to be sugary, it was a letdown.
“Angry Ocean” ($49) also brought drama via lobster and other seafood, this time served over dry ice to mimic a roiling ocean. Unfortunately, this stir-fry was as salty as the sea.
Then it was back to sweet with candy-coated crisp garlic chicken ($29) and the Royal Hawaiian Dream ($44) of mahimahi topped with cotton candy that melted into the dish with a sprinkling of lime and garlic sauce. I couldn’t eat this because the fish was overcooked and dry, though dry might be considered “authentic.”
Thailand doesn’t share the American fetish for well-marbled, tender beef, but if you can overlook that difference, one of the best dishes was the chef’s special, Crying Tiger ($38), a platter filled with slices of flatiron beef with a cilantro and chili pepper Thai dipping sauce.
I enjoyed the khao soi, or coconut curry noodle “soup” ($26) with chicken thighs. It was more like a curry than a liquid soup. According to Wannalert, this northern Thai dish needed more fish sauce, lime and heat. The extra lime, minced garlic, onions and pickled green mustard served with the dish boosted it tremendously.
Another favorite, though sweet, dish was a yellow coconut crab curry ($35) from southern Thailand. Ample Alaska crab meat was a big plus. This curry would typically be served with nam pla prik (fish sauce with chilies) to amp up the heat. It would have been nice to have this condiment to cut the sweetness.
The one dish where sweetness was appropriate was the finale, a dessert of bananas in coconut milk.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.