In recent years, though, savvy restaurateurs have figured out that ethnic doesn't mean nondescript. Places like La Tré in Boca Raton, Indochine in Davie, and Mehfil in Sunrise prove that a pleasant setting only enhances a distinctive cuisine.
The Red Thai Room, a new indoor-outdoor storefront café on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, follows the same philosophy. Long and narrow inside, with softly lighted, scarlet-painted walls, Red Thai has as its centerpiece a low, traditional Thai table, topped with brilliantly colored pillows and large wooden bowls filled with coconuts. Though you can't strike a yoga pose or even dine on it, the table is just one feature of the restaurant's eclectic, appealing décor. But in this case, the attractive surroundings don't just harmonize with the cooking; they eclipse it.
Red Thai means well and tries hard. The menu is extensive, authentic, and carefully (albeit politically correctly) marked: Chile peppers before a dish mean it's spicy, one peace sign denotes a vegetarian dish, and two peace signs indicate a vegan dish containing no animal byproduct. The restaurant doesn't have a liquor license, so it has joined forces with a neighboring bar called Club M. "Cocktail persons" from Club M will take your order and deliver your drinks and a separate check. Both the Club M and the Red Thai servers are prompt, though English is a problem in the Red Thai Room, which can result in miscommunications. For instance, though we'd asked for our leftovers to be wrapped up (out of habit, because I hate to see food wasted), only one dish out of five actually made it into a to-go container. We don't know what happened to the rest, and nobody could tell us.
Frankly, though, the food at Red Thai can be stale, starting with the complimentary rice crackers that are served with sweet-and-sour sauce at the beginning of the meal. Much of the fare is fried, and some of it, like the main course of duck in tamarind sauce, tasted as if it had been fried twice -- prepared earlier in the day, and then dunked back into deep fat to freshen it up. Instead it was tough, with ultracrisp skin even KFC wouldn't advertise. The sauce, while tangy with pineapple, was too thin to cling to the bird. Another deep-fried entrée, red snapper blanketed with sautéed mushrooms, pineapple, bell peppers, onions, and scallions, was redolent with ginger, but the fish itself was shriveled and tough under its breading.
Tofu dishes suffered a similar deep-fried fate. Spongy and oily, the bean curd triangles exuded blandness when they topped a dish of clear noodles sautéed with onions, tomatoes, egg, and baby corn. Fortunately the noodles themselves boasted a savory sauce and had just the right springiness. Tofu appeared again in a stir-fry of eggplant and bean sprouts, although it wasn't mentioned in the detailed description of the dish. This time the garlicky flavor of the eggplant boosted the tofu, but only if the two were eaten together. Another sore point in this dish was the basil, which had been cooked so long that it had turned black and lost its bite.
Even items that weren't deep-fried were overcooked. Shrimp with chili sauce were jumbos, tightly curled beneath a garlicky red blanket. But they hadn't been shelled very carefully and had been wokked way past the point of succulence. When sampled as an appetizer -- in a golden, fluffy wrap of fried batter -- the shrimp merely tasted old. They were supposed to have been stuffed with crabmeat and minced chicken, but we saw no evidence of either.
In fact appetizers in general failed to impress us. The cross-cultural, minced-chicken quesadillas were greasy, as were the spring rolls. The white-cabbage/carrot/clear-noodle filling of the spring rolls was flavorful, however, making up somewhat for their palate-dulling exterior. Fried dumplings were just plain soggy. Although a beef-satay starter was listed as part of a combination platter of the aforementioned appetizers, we were served chicken instead.
To its credit Red Thai doesn't pander to the American palate. Ask for it spicy, you get it searing. We loved the sting of chicken massaman, a stew of tender poultry, potatoes, cashews, and onions in red pepper-flecked coconut milk. Both appetizers and entrées are arranged on ceramic plates of varying hues and patterns, and an individual portion of imported white jasmine rice, freshly steamed, is placed in front of each customer.
With desserts, too, Red Thai has something going for it: interesting textures and flavors, as in a dish of delicately melting, pan-fried bananas, mounded with vanilla ice cream and sprinkled with dates, all soaking in a pool of mango sauce. Other sweets include black beans and sticky rice drenched with coconut milk, sweet coconut gelatin with lime syrup, lychee nuts arranged over ice in a puddle of "passion nectar," and deep-fried donuts with a coconut dip. Thai iced tea and coffee were as painstakingly prepared as any cappuccino, and Red Thai offers a variety of hot teas -- jasmine, gunpowder green, ginger black, Assam black, and Singbulli Darjeeling -- to offset our infrequent cold snaps. In warm weather dining is just as pleasant outside on the boulevard as it is inside in rustic Asia. But overall the Red Thai Room has some work to do if it wants to live up to the mission statement printed on the menu and make its Thai cooking "a source of pride and wonder."