Review: Spoon - Lovin' spoonful

A genuine neighborhood spot, Spoon has become an instrument of praise for downtown

Spoon is one of those restaurants that's liable to sneak up on you. Located on Marietta Street just west of downtown, Spoon's open, airy dining room has become a favorite lunch spot for many office workers in the area. The prices are decent, the space is pleasant and service is snappy. But once you've been there a couple of times, you may pause over your curry and mound of perfectly textured rice and think, "Damn. This place is really good."

At least that's how it happened for me. There's nothing about Spoon that screams originality, at least not until you get deeper into the menu than a basic lunch will take you. Lunch is broken down into curries, noodles, fried rice and stir-fries, all of which come with a spring roll. Some of the dishes are about what you'd expect — none of the stir-fries are exceptional (the three-chili version is more flavorful than the rest), and the fried rice offers no revelations. But the curries are rich, fresh and satisfying, and just keep getting better as you move from green to red to massaman.

Green curry is rich with coconut milk. Red curry is thick with spice, sweet and spicy and intense. Massaman curry is redolent of tamarind, its ethereal sweetness beautifully balancing a dish that can often end up too heavy.

Spoon offers three levels of heat — medium, hot and Thai hot. At lunch, I have been able to discern only two spice levels: hot and nuclear. Lucky for me, I like nuclear. It is a constant battle to get curry that satisfies my urge to sweat profusely over a meal. At dinner, there must be someone else in the kitchen — food comes out much tamer in terms of heat.

Apart from the curries, gems on the menu turn up where you may not expect them. The coconut soup is a sure winner, thick and creamy with just enough lime to set it off. Of the appetizers, pot stickers have a little too much bite to the wrappers, and basil rolls are slightly skimpy, but the tofu corn cakes should have vegetarians coming here in droves. With the appearance and texture of the best crab cakes, but with a sweet, feathery, savory flavor, the corn cakes are a study in satisfying snackage.

The nam tok beef salad manages to pull off what most salads of this nature fail to do, which is to retain the beefy, steaky flavor of the meat. The citrus-spice balance and tender beef make for a delicious light lunch or shared appetizer.

At dinner, the menu offers some seafood entrees, including a couple of snapper dishes that arrive on a sizzling platter. These dishes are perfectly seasoned and quite tasty, accompanied by subtle ginger or chili sauce. But for my money, they are not worth bypassing the curries. Other entrees are done well, but the curries are where it's at.

Spoon has done us all a favor by bringing the spring roll to the dessert table with its blueberry and chocolate version served with mango dipping sauce and coconut ice cream. While I found the ice cream too soft and leaning toward the suntan oil side of coconut flavor, the spring rolls themselves are a dream of melted dark chocolate, fresh blueberries and crispy wrapper. Get them while they're hot, but be careful not to burn yourself on hot dripping chocolate in mid-scarf.

Spoon's space hints that the restaurant would like to branch out into the realm of after-work lounge. Red and black leather cushioned benches are as pleasing to look at as they are hard to sit on for any length of time. But the bar offers a few cocktails that do the sleek decor justice — like the Thai tea martini, which takes sweet tea to a whole new level. The wine list also has some decent finds, all very reasonable.

For all of its successes, perhaps the coolest thing about Spoon is its emergence as a place of character run by real people — chef Aim Suteeluxnaporn and her sister, Sujaree, can be seen greeting people at the door — that is doing a lot to bring personality and vibrancy to this part of town. There can never be too many genuine neighborhood spots, especially ones with as much style and substance as Spoon. It's always nice when the pleasant surprise is just how enjoyable a place is.