Water, Water Everywhere

It all comes together at Four Rivers

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.

Are you catching the drift? At Four Rivers, the ingredients of each dish are distinct, as individual as human personality. You're as far from the green/red/or massaman curry sauce dumped on chicken/beef/or pork variety of Thai restaurant as it's possible to get and still inhabit the same planet. Which restaurants in these parts can you name that bother to source du Puy lentils? Or order their pork from Niman Ranch or their beef from Wolfe's Neck farms or insist on line-caught fish? The pink shrimp in that mixed seafood soup ($10) come from Key West and the mussels from Prince Edward Island, and the fish is the catch of the day — and in this case, that "of the day" is no euphemism.

There was a pause between courses while we drank our wine (a Les Jamelles French pinot, $33) and our sake (a cold, refreshing, milky Gekkeikan, $28) — Four Rivers has excellent wine and sake lists. The first entrée came as a copper pot set over a flaming chafing dish. The waiter set this down without incident. That copper pot was filled with roasted spice-rubbed duck breast ($26). Another flaming dish at the other end of the table held wok-braised monk fish ($25).

I'd won the coriander cumin marinated rack of lamb ($32) by default, since we agreed somebody should order it but nobody wanted to. The lamb turned out to be the smash hit of the evening — baby chops set over a pool of fragrant, delicate massaman curry with yukon mashed potatoes, chick peas, pearl onions, and... blueberries! The berries were a stroke of genius, their wild sweetness a fine foil for the salty pink meat. Something similar was happening with Amy's double-cut pork chops ($30); a pretty package of toasted sticky rice, set alongside, came wrapped in a banana leaf and pinned with a decorative bamboo skewer. The pork was bursting with sweet juices that pooled in roasted rice powder and lime dressing, and the rice had an earthy, satisfying crunch. Susan's whole fried snapper looked like a sliver of golden moon fallen to Earth, shaped into a crescent that brought the fish fully and energetically alive, ready to leap off the plate. Its moist white flesh was heavily infused with lime, fresh Thai basil, and roasted tomatoes.

The boys were having trouble eating from their flaming raised chafing dishes, which should have been removed during service. In a restaurant where everything is exactly right, only the service was wrong — not because our server was anything less than willing but because he hadn't been trained. This lapse needs to be attended to immediately — as Four Rivers gets busier, it's only going to get harder for the servers; they need to study now for their lives. Our waiter knew nothing about the cooking — he gamely tried to make recommendations and identify ingredients but got it all half wrong. The owners should sit down with their servers and their menu and drill until it's all second nature. When asked for recommendations, don't tell us what's "popular" (the lobster, the lamb) — tell us instead what's unique. There's so much here to work with.

Unique: the monkfish ($25) braised with holy basil and wild ginger in green curry. Accompanied by hearts of palm and baby Japanese eggplants, sauced in the creamiest of coconut curries, this is an amazing use of monkfish, a difficult fish to deal with anyway, in a dish that seems quintessentially Thai yet unlike any curry you've tasted (the pointed heat of the ginger is remarkable). Unique: a crab cake ($12) flavored with a sweet-and-sour hot red curry, served with corn and cucumber relish and sweet chili aioli. Unique: venison loin ($33) served in a Thai restaurant at all, with sweet potatoes and jasmine rice. Not unique: A pan of overly fatty duck breast ($26) with grapes, lychees, and pineapple that needs to be thought through again.

Desserts were as graceful as the final stroke from a calligraphic pen. Sorbets and ice creams are homemade and artfully paired with finger-sized banana spring rolls ($10, with caramel ice cream); Kaffir lime leaf flan ($10, with lemongrass sorbet and a cardamom crème fraîche that has an almost cheesy consistency); chocolate ganache cake ($10, with Earl Grey ice cream); a trio of sorbets — lychee, mango, raspberry — all endearingly strange and refreshing. We topped these off with sweet ice wine and a glass of muscato.

My heart's out, my hat's off, to the Four Rivers for all its verve, its guts and style and imagination, its poignant eco-friendliness, its rare beauty. This is the first restaurant of an almost insanely talented couple. In a just world, a restaurant like this would meander on forever. May they go with the flow.

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