Review: L'Thai - The Thai that binds

The organic food movement finds an unlikely champion in a Tucker Thai restaurant

It's a bit of a hike out to L'Thai, the new organic Thai restaurant in Tucker. Just when you think it can't be any farther, Lawrenceville Highway turns sharply to the left (pay attention or you'll miss it), and the strip mall where the restaurant makes its home appears about a mile-and-a-half up the road. I'm not one to usually make a point of a restaurant's out-of-the-way setting, and I'm happy to travel much farther than this for the promise of a good meal, or even a good croissant. But L'Thai's location raises the question: Is there really a market for organic Thai food in Tucker?

If there's a market for Thai food at all in Tucker, this place should do fine. I went expecting to find an upscale Thai restaurant serving dishes made from the day's selection of seasonal organic ingredients. What I found instead was a fairly run-of-the-mill menu and setting, with the option of organic meat for an extra $3 per dish. This system allows L'Thai to keep prices down for people who don't care about the organic status of their food — and at less than $10 for most dishes, these folks will be getting quite a bargain. But the organic meat is more tender and flavorful, and worth the additional expense, even if you could care less about the politics of the matter. Organic or not, the food at L'Thai is prepared with more than a measure of extra care. Depth of flavor, hospitality and tranquility all matter here.

The dining room is large, with a huge artificial tree in the middle. A fish pond with a waterfall and deeply colored banquettes work to evoke a dark and exotic feel. When you get your menu, I urge you to read the directive passage at the beginning. It asks that you slow down, enjoy your company and appreciate your food as more than just a meal. Your reaction to this will probably depend on your level of cynicism, but it's nice to be reminded that food is the stuff of which life is made, and that a meal can be much more than a simple refueling. But then, this is my job, so I like that kind of positive reinforcement.

L'Thai's main selling point is that it uses the best available ingredients. After scanning the menu and seeing the usual array of meat dishes, stir fries and curries, I didn't know how noticeable the difference would be. I was pleasantly surprised. For example, I ordered three dishes over a couple of weeks that included some form of red curry. The grass-fed beef with curry from the chef's-specials menu came with a deep, rich red curry that was complex without the overwhelming spice or salt that marks even the best store-bought curry pastes. On another day, I tried the chicken with Thai chili curry, and the red curry that accompanied it was quite different, redolent with tamarind. The red curry from the curries section of the menu again was different: creamy with coconut and the lovely mellow flavor of kaffir lime making its presence known. It may come as a surprise to you, but most restaurants do not make their own curry paste — it is as uncommon as a restaurant making its own ketchup.

One grows used to the standard flavors that come with a Thai stir fry, and it's easy to take them for granted without thinking much about it — basil, ginger, chilis. At L'Thai, though, these flavors come zooming at you, and it's a lesson in what freshness can do. A mahi mahi entree from the specials menu was one of the most satisfying fish dishes I have had in months, a pleasant, fruit-sweetened sauce balancing the crispy exterior of the juicy, perfectly cooked fish. I expected the sauce to be sweeter than it was, but realized that I was expecting corn syrup, which is so often used in Asian sauces. But diced peppers and fresh basil are what give this dish its sparkle. If only all restaurants would allow the simple things to please us.

Appetizers seemed less clean, in terms of flavor. While I loved the sauce that came with the tod-man, the patties of ground chicken and shrimp were unremarkable. The ka-nom jeep were decent but ordinary steamed dumplings — I longed for the crisp crunch of water chestnuts that the best jeep often provide. A larb salad of ground meat with lime juice and chilis needed more spice to pull off the wonderful tango of heat and citrus that can make this dish so satisfying. That became a recurring issue at L'Thai: Even when I asked for my food spicy, it came out mild.

L'Thai bills itself as a restaurant and wine bar, but I had a hard time finding a suitable bottle. When dining here, you'd do better to go for the iced tea, which is obviously home brewed (from tea, not powder) and delicious.

Desserts are not to be missed, especially the coconut custard with sweet rice. Even the coffee follows the trend of the rest of the menu, with a choice of Starbuck's or organic. It's a strange dichotomy they've got going here. By giving the customer the option to pick between organic meat or regular meat, or between organic coffee and a behemoth like Starbuck's, L'Thai reminds me of the almost weekly experience I have standing in the supermarket aisle, trying to decide between battery eggs that I can afford and natural eggs that I want to feed my family. I usually pick natural. However customers at L'Thai pick, they are sure to get a meal that is made with care.