Sweet style

A swell, sophisticated new Thai place downtown.


1904 Fourth, 267-1017 lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner 5-10:30 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 5-11:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. AE, MC, V / full bar IT'S NOT EASY to open a new restaurant in the hull of a former beloved institution, as the proprietors of Toi did in June. The new Thai restaurant is in the old Dahlia Lounge space on Fourth, a supremely fitted and well-located room, and comparisons to its erstwhile tenant are inevitable. Those planning dinner at Toi might therefore reflexively wonder if their credit card has a high enough limit, or if they have a swell enough wardrobe, or if they're in the mood for such an adventurous dining experience—all questions that Toi dispatches quite neatly. (Except the clothes thing: Nearly everyone dining here and the entire staff is as taut and ravishing as a cast member of Survivor, if Survivors got to dress like characters on soap operas.) Toi (pronounced "toy") is stylish like its predecessor. Impossibly, the walls—now featuring dramatic light projections of the Buddha—seem even redder than in the Dahlia days; the upstairs room, now a kind of temple, seems even more exotic. The place shimmers in a sexy carnelian twilight, making Toi the ideal locale for a date you want to end very, very well—or any kind of date at all, for that matter. For Toi is, unlike its predecessor, affordable. On one dinner visit, three hungry people dined amply for $65—an unusually low figure for good food and sophisticated surroundings downtown. And it is good food, toeing a fairly classic Thai line without much undue adventure. Nothing's going to explode your sinuses, for example: Spicewise, the kitchen doesn't venture into three- or four-star territory at all. The menu features a restrained selection of satays, soups, greens, noodles, curries, and saut鳬 all homages to the recipes co-owner Max Borthwick's mother, Toi, reportedly has cooked for years for gatherings at her home on Capitol Hill. A DINER IS INSTANTLY transported to mother Toi's hearthside, for instance, upon sampling the phad see iew ($8.50), a big, steaming bowl of wide rice noodles, carrots, and broccoli in a sweet Thai soy sauce. The phad Thai ($9) is a little more complex; it's a solid version that's sweeter than most, with seared rice noodles and big cubes of fried tofu and plenty of sprouts and peanuts for crunch. A bowl of tom ka soup ($8.50 with chicken, $9.50 with prawns) is similarly homey—that is, if you're from a home where lime juice is routinely squeezed into cracked coconuts for dinner. In this case, they've squeezed a lot of limes, resulting in an uncommonly tart version of the silky classic. Mama's Heavenly Thai Beef Salad ($9) is similarly verdant, with a limey wash vying for prominence with approximately a ton of fresh cilantro. Tomato, peppers, cucumber, onions, lettuces, and other fragrant greens fill out the plate, along with thin slices of cold marinated charbroiled beef; this salad would make a refreshing light dinner. So would a selection of starters. Toi's vegetarian spring rolls ($5.25) are crisp and tasty; the chicken satay ($5.25), marinated in cumin, cilantro, and coconut curry, is charry and keen (and both are underpriced). Sumptuous firecracker prawns ($7.50) are even better, with six big grilled and skewered shrimp bursting with juice, and Thai basil and curry sauces for dipping. The delectable crackling prawn appetizer ($9) offers little packages of pastry-wrapped prawns with tamarind dipping sauce; they're sensational, down to the artful basil leaf baked into each pastry shell. If there's a complaint to be made about Toi, it's a more-than-occasional lack of finesse in seasoning. The extra-sweet phad Thai was no anomaly: Thai Emerald ($9.25), a saut頯f broccoli, beef, and vegetables lacquered with a gingery black-bean sauce, is almost cloying. Panang chicken curry ($9) is a delicious red peanut curry with flawlessly cooked chicken in a sweet, sweet silken sauce. The seafood red curry ($13) is far better, with a stunning festival of wok-fried prawns, scallops, and mussels; the sauce is pure velvet with a welcome fiery bite, the seafood cooked not a moment too long. (Toi's apparent inability to overcook meat or fish is admirable, especially among its Thai peers.) Servers were friendly but dim, presenting bowls without serving spoons and neglecting to mention that diners needed to order rice ࠬa carte. This was a serious omission, as the rices ($2 each)—one sticky, one a fluffy jasmine, and a black rice that's crunchy as nuts—are anything but forgettable. Good food in a stylish setting at affordable prices—there's a lot to like about Toi. So the flavors aren't as complex as the best Thai in town or as exotic as the last joint to hold the lease here—"good," "stylish," and "affordable" just don't show up in the same sentence that often, let alone the same restaurant. krobinson@seattleweekly.com

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