By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
I ate my grilled marinated quail with long beans and a palm sugar-lime dressing sitting in a pool of ice water.
I was in the ice water, not the quail. If you've never had freezing liquid poured into your lap while dining, I recommend it just for the frisson of the experience. You could say it kind of knocks you into another dimension, it sharpens your perceptions, it opens you to new physiological sensations.
"That's the first time I've ever done that," our waiter said, apologetically handing me a pile of black napkins to tuck under my butt. "I've never spilled an entire bottle of water on a customer before. Thank God it wasn't the wine."
"First time," my niece, Harper, whispered to her mother. "And he spills it on the food critic. What kind of luck is that?"
And here's the thing: I was shocked, certainly, and a little sorry that I was going to have to walk to the door at some point looking as if I'd wet my pants, but I wasn't angry. Clearly, the universe had meant to thrust upon me an extraordinary experience, a memorable one and if it took a lapful of ice water to fine-tune my consciousness, so be it.
After all, what is a pool of ice water? The Zen masters would say MU, it is nothing. Because the experience of dining at the Four Rivers Contemporary Thai Kitchen, opened in February by a beautiful young Thai couple, Paula Palakawong and Ravin Nakjaroen, fully transcends our preconceived notions of a Fort Lauderdale Thai restaurant transcends, in fact, our preconceived notions of any restaurant. I unscientifically polled my five dining mates the day after dinner, and to a person, they described a lingering sensation of floating, a reverie of bounty and beauty that enveloped them like a cloud perfumed with jasmine and lime leaves.
The Four Rivers, stuck in an unobtrusive plaza next to Croissan'time on Federal Highway, is one of the most beautiful restaurants I've ever set foot in. The design is understated and striking, all the more remarkable because it's the collaborative work of Paula and Ravin and their silent partner, who set every tiny red candle lamp in place, picked out every cast-iron teapot and black wicker sugar basket, and hand-finished all those gorgeous wood tables until the burl of the wood had fully expressed itself. The details of the place settings alone are so remarkable from the heavy, geometric knives and forks to the petite, incised salt and pepper shakers to the palm-sized globular sake cups that I ruefully predict that unless the staff is extra vigilant, they're going to lose a lot of tableware to theft. In fact, I myself made off with a dessert menu, beautifully printed on heavy card stock with their elegant logo (undulant blue lines of cobalt and turquoise that meet in an oval symbolizing the confluence of the four Thai rivers called the Chao Phraya) to make sure I got the details right: "cardamom cream and kaffir lime leaf flan." But I'm getting ahead of myself.
This expansive room, dark and subdued, centers on a raised lily pond emitting the sound of trickling water. Tea lights bob gently on the surface. Stone bas relief covers one wall, depicting Buddhist poems in the elegant, scrolling script of the Thai language (it's actually Styrofoam designed to look exactly like stone bas relief). Back-lit glass cylinders dominate another wall; in the center of each, a single, long-stemmed, perfectly proportioned lotus flower of luscious beauty is poised. The banquettes behind the tables are covered in a buttery ultrasuede, as soft as warm skin. New-agey music emanates from somewhere. The effect is spa-like, designed to relax, to enchant, to entrance.
It works! And if you're not sold yet, there's a menu of great intricacy and imagination, combining the best of East and West. Both Paula and Ravin were formerly employed by Galanga, Ravin as a sous chef, Paula as our favorite waitress there, but this doesn't explain how they learned to do what they do. Ravin is a self-taught chef who picked up a thing or two in his mother's kitchen and presumably refined some of his talent at Galanga. The food at Galanga, a four-year-old Thai restaurant in Wilton Manors, has ranged from quite good to spectacularly disappointing, but it's never gotten close to the level of finesse Ravin and Paula are purveying. Take, for instance, Four Rivers' ahi tuna tartare ($12) with lotus root chips. The lotus chips came perched like lacy butterfly wings in the tartare, and the glistening cubes of tuna had been mined with tart, pickled cubes of Asian pear and dribbled with a bit of red pepper coulis for color. Absolutely stunning, vaguely Asian, vaguely Floribbean, but transcending either. The tuna was fresh and sweet.
We gazed rapturously at our appetizers: dime-sized rounds of thinly sliced pork tenderloin ($10), each topped with a dab of Asian kale, a bit of prune, a walnut, and a peppery microgreen and drizzled with chili garlic-lime vinaigrette. The little circlets were placed in symmetrical rows across the white square of the plate. My grilled quail, split cleanly in half, was arranged on top of a glistening green papaya salad, studded with cherry tomatoes, cashews for crunch, and a frilly hat of microgreens that tasted like cilantro but looked like minuscule fronds of tarragon. Four plump oysters ($13) had been breaded in Singha batter and somehow stuffed (or injected) with scallop mousse, then deep-fried. A beautiful and rarefied idea, this dish was less successful than the others, as the oysters ended up a bit tough and carried a bitter aftertaste. There was deftly seared Hudson Valley foie gras glazed with sweet chili ($16) and served with spiced lychee and pineapple compote. Chicken skewers ($9), that old Thai saw, had been marinated in coconut milk infused with turmeric and served with du Puy lentils, the small green French variety sometimes called the poor man's caviar. And for the table, a composed basket of curling crackers and rice flour discs of almost impossible thinness accompanied by a sweet peanut sauce.