Chitralada's dining room is certainly not palatial: One mirrored wall is half-covered with business cards; the other walls are paneled in drab wood. Doodads hang from the ceiling, cartons are stacked in back, dark burgundy carpeting is worse for wear, and, well, the place just looks tired. The mood is brightened somewhat by a congenial family staff who for the most part performed their work ably.
Among the cluster of notices on Chitralada's storefront is a large-lettered sign touting the "famous sunflower soup," further described on the menu as "chicken, coconut milk, and curry powder." It took my dinner companion and me a few tastes to ascertain that the velvety-textured chicken base with shriveled slivers of blandly poached chicken breast did indeed contain coconut milk and the most parsimonious pinch of curry imaginable. But what was most remarkable about the soup was just how unremarkable it was -- no vegetables, no herbs, no snap, crackle, or pop (and, in case you were wondering, no sunflower seeds either).
This same lethargy of flavor plagued other dishes, which were mostly composed of lackluster ingredients prepared in monotonous manner. (If I may suggest a snappy ad slogan for Chitralada: "Looks like Thai, tastes like Chinese!"). Take, for instance, yum woon sen, a traditional salad of clear vermicelli noodles (woon sen) mixed with pork, chicken, or shrimp (some Thais like to combine these three), and a roller coaster of contrasting flavors that usually include mint, cilantro, hot chiles, tamarind, palm sugar, peanuts, and lemongrass. Chitralada's rendition trots out the same insipid snippets of chicken breast that are found in the soup, tossed with onions, red peppers, iceberg lettuce, and faintly seasoned lime juice.
Beef satay was long-ago imported from Indonesia and is now Thailand's favorite fast food. The version served here sticks closer to the norm than the yum woon sen. It includes three skewers of lightly grilled, coconut- and curry-marinated beef brought to the table with a mini-hibachi and side dishes of peanut sauce and vinegared cucumber. It wasn't bad, nor was an appetizer of "jumping" shrimp salad that unfortunately kept its feet on the ground: half a dozen small, pedestrian crustaceans atop shredded onions, peppers, and cabbage dressed semipiquantly in chili-spiked lime juice.
Even the sizzle platter fizzled, our order of Chitralada garlic pork erupting in a puff of smoke as the waitress poured a dark brown, semisweet broth onto the red-hot dish. But when the cloud cleared, all that was left were lean, tough strips of pork with three of this restaurant's holy quintet of vegetables -- cabbage, onions, and peppers (lettuce and broccoli are the remaining two, and I can only surmise that other restaurateurs are green with envy over Chitralada's meager produce bill).
Special fried rice was just like Chinese fried rice, except blander. The special ingredients were thin flakes of beef, chicken, and pork, a couple of shrimp, and pieces of rubbery yellow stuff that offered only vague olfactory clues as to having once been scrambled eggs. There were no tomatoes or cucumbers as the menu promised, but the larger problem was that it tasted like a desperation dinner of rice and soy sauce. Still, while entrées here come accompanied only by steamed jasmine rice, they're reasonably priced at $8.95 to $15.95.
Perhaps the secret to satisfaction is to order only those dishes labeled spicy, as in spicy chili basil duck, by far the best item we tried. The vegetables were still the same peppers and onions, but the half bird was cut up, battered, and fried to a delectably luscious state, bathed in a complexly flavored tomato-chili sauce passionately perfumed with fresh basil.
Pad Thai was tasty too, the rice noodles firmly cooked, the shrimp, chicken, peanuts, and eggs moist and flavorful. Chu chee grouper, listed as a "chef special" on the lengthy menu, featured a deep-fried filet of fresh fish pooled in a mild red curry-and-coconut sauce -- with peppers, onions, and broccoli. Other offerings include variations on whole fried snapper, frog's legs, and squid.
Chitralada saves the best for last (assuming you stop with dessert and don't order the jasmine tea -- so anemic and watery, it might be described as the Calista Flockhart of hot beverages). Boi loy tapioca pudding was not my grandmother Blima's tapioca, differing in dairy (made with coconut milk), color (green from aromatic "pandanus leaf"), and, in the most distinctive variance, served hot -- my senses, expecting a cold bite, were jolted, but the surprise was welcome. So was kao-tom-mud, sticky rice sweetened with bananas and black beans, then steamed in a banana leaf that infused the rice cake with subtle tea-like flavor.
I suppose Chitralada could be considered a worthwhile destination for a dinner of duck and dessert. That's probably not a positive enough recommendation to get this review displayed on the tabletops, but it's the best I can say.