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February 25, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, February 25, 2005

Pan-Asian delights Pan-Asian delights (February 25, 2005)

Thaiphoon's power emerges at dinnertime

by Mandy Erickson

The coconut palm is a useful tree. Its wood makes beautiful furniture, its shells perfect soup bowls, its fibers sturdy ropes, its root a narcotic.

Best is its delicious fruit, whose versatility is appreciated by cooks from the tropical lands where coconut palms thrive. Thai chefs, especially, are adept at exploiting its subtle flavor, richness and al dente texture, creating from the coconut a wide variety of dishes: soups, curries, pastries, beverages and frozen desserts.

Newly opened Thaiphoon (which honors a tradition among Thai restaurants of creating a pun from "Thai") knows how to finesse the flavorsome fruit. Its coconut-milk soups and curries radiate its flavor, and the restaurant offers a refreshing coconut juice beverage and delectable coconut desserts.

Other dishes, including some stir-fries, noodles and clear-broth soups, were also quite good, though Thaiphoon's dinner dishes met with more success than its lunch offerings, and the main courses outshone humdrum appetizers.

Thaiphoon's managers have created an inviting establishment in the space formerly occupied by New Bamboo. The front part of the restaurant lies outside, where a waterfall cascades along one wall and bright yellow umbrellas shade tables. Both indoors and out, tropical plants arch gracefully over the furniture. Along one wall of the restaurant, large Thai bas-relief figures serenely "observe" diners, while wicker chairs add to the tropical-vacation feel.

Though most of its dishes are Thai, Thaiphoon describes itself as "pan-Asian." So at dinner we tried two appetizers (both $5.95) not usually listed on a Thai menu. The pot stickers, smaller than the usual Chinese-restaurant variety, were full of ginger and pork flavor, but the dough-to-meat ratio was too high.

The egg roll samosas, egg roll wrappers filled with potato-and-pea curry and fried, make for a neat gimmick, but the crispy texture of the fried wrappers clashed with the softer potato and peas. Samosas with bland fillings such as these cry out for an assertive chutney, but they were served with a thick, slightly sweet peanut dip, which only added more starchiness.

The dinner improved, however, as new dishes arrived. Panang tofu curry ($6.95), fried cubes of tofu, peas and green beans in a turmeric and coconut milk sauce, was terrifically redolent of coconut, the vegetables perfectly cooked.

Pad see ew ($7.25) -- broad rice noodles stir-fried with egg and your choice of chicken, pork, beef or tofu -- featured nicely cooked broccoli and carrots and chewy noodles in a slightly sweet sauce made of soy and a small amount of chili.

The calamari with Thai basil ($8.95) was a stir-fry of cross-hatched squid filets, beans, red bell peppers and onions. Calamari is difficult to cook just right: a minute too little or too long in the pan, and diners are eating squid that's either raw or rubbery. Thaiphoon's calamari, happily, was perfectly done.

Our desserts were typically Thai, in that they were only lightly sweet. The mango with sticky rice ($4.50) featured an under-ripe mango that was still good, but I missed the heady perfume and succulence of the ripe fruit. Unlike many other Thai restaurants, Thaiphoon doesn't skimp on the coconut for the sticky rice.

The fried banana with coconut ice cream ($4.50) was terrific: The banana, partially encased in an egg roll wrapper, was plenty sweet on its own, the crust providing a crisp contrast to the soft fruit. Its companion was a cross between ice cream and sorbet; lighter in texture than traditional ice cream, it screamed coconut.

I washed this meal down with a large glass of young coconut juice ($2.75), a refreshing, lightly opaque drink with a subtle coconut flavor and a hint of sweetness. It's different from coconut milk, which is made from soaking grated coconut meat in water and squeezing out the resultant liquid; coconut juice is the liquid you hear sloshing around inside a coconut when you shake it.

Another good non-alcoholic choice is soy milk ($2.50), especially if you've chosen some of the spicier dishes, as the soy effectively absorbs the heat. Thaiphoon offers beer, wine and some of its own Thai-influenced cocktails, but the liquor selection is rather sparse.

The menu features lunch specials, but these didn't shine the way its dinner entrees did. The pieces of chicken breast in the Thai lemon grass chicken ($6.95) were tough, as were the Asian long beans. The sauce was piquant, however. The Indian-style spicy lamb and spinach ($8.95) was a comforting stew of finely chopped spinach and cubes of lamb, but the spinach was gray and listless.

Lunch specials come with a clear-broth vegetable soup pleasantly flavored with lime and chili oil and, naturally, rice. They also include a salad, but this was better left on the plate: The wilted shreds of iceberg lettuce and tired slices of cucumber sulked under the same peanut sauce that was served with the samosas.

A good choice for a light lunch was the tom kha kai ($3.95), a classic Thai soup of coconut milk, lemon grass, mushrooms, chicken and cilantro. Once again, terrifically rich coconut flavor dominated the dish.

For all its meals, Thaiphoon offers a choice of white or brown rice: I found that brown rice added a chewy texture and pleasant nutty taste for the more robust sauces, but overwhelmed the more delicately sauced dishes, such as the calamari.

The service was competent and efficient, though at dinner the two waitresses fielding the nearly full restaurant were clearly understaffed. They tended to drop our food on the table and rush away.

Fortunately for East Indian cooks, coconuts can float for miles across an ocean to land on a remote island, sprout and grow into a tree. Unfortunately for Palo Alto gourmands, the Bay Area is too cold to cultivate coconut palms. But a new restaurant knows how to celebrate its culinary contributions.

Reservations --yes Credit cards -- yes Parking -- street Liquor -- yes wheelchair accessibility -- yes outdoor dining -- yes banquet facility -- yes catering -- yes Highchairs -- yes Takeout -- yes Bathrooms are clean Noise level moderate

Thaiphoon, 543 Emerson St. in Palo Alto; (650) 323-7700

Hours; Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday


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