Missing Link

Phuket takes the middle road less traveled.

THERE ARE AT LEAST three kinds of Thai restaurants in Seattle. First there's the ritzy, glitzy, downtown kind that serves ahi spring rolls (Typhoon! is a prime example). Then there's the bare-walled room with little decor but awesome inexpensive food (downtown's Mae Phim Thai restaurant fills the bill). Between these two extremes, another breed of Thai restaurant lurks: the kind that pleases the eye without dumbing down the chow. Neither monastery bare nor palace ornate, with a midsized menu of flavorful food that rarely underachieves, Phuket is the missing link between upscale and under the radar. Located in the lesser corridor of Queen Anne's Uptown restaurant district (its neighbors are World Wrapps and Kidd Valley, not 10 Mercer or Perché No), Phuket hits you with the warm smell of curry spices and stir-fried meats and veggies the moment you walk in the door. What greets you more subtly is the decor: Gold and purple throughout, the restaurant envelops you regally, and sitting at one of four elevated booths does impart a sense of royal status. These trappings wouldn't be worth a damn without decent food, howeverand there Phuket declines to disappoint. What a critic once remarked about Jay McInerney's writing just as aptly describes Phuket's take on Thai cuisine: "a perfect power-to-weight ratio," with presentation that's elegant, not flashy, and carefully seasoned soups, small plates, and noodle and rice dishes that exercise a palliative effect on your palate. By all means, try the stellar tom kah ($7.99), a meal-sized portion of the soup that sagely combines lemongrass, aromatic and tart, with its ideal foil: the mild sweetness of coconut milk. Tom kah is the soup equivalent of the Milquetoast in science class asking out the head cheerleadersomehow both quiet and invigoratingand it works like a charm. On some days, Phuket offers miang kum ($6.99), an exquisite palate cleanser consisting of mint leaves served with finely minced red onion, chili pepper, coconut, lime, ginger, and peanuts. As our server kindly demonstrated, you make each mint leaf into a tiny cone and fill it with the aforementioned ingredients, then top it with sweet plum sauce. A refreshing combination of flavors and textures, miang kum pointedly separates starters like mini spring rolls or fried tofu (both $4.99) from main courses without being the least bit filling. It's a good thing, too, because entrées like panang (red curry) or pineapple curry fried rice (both $7.99) reveal a light but memorable touch, not to mention a sense of moderation. If the "pineapple" in "pineapple curry fried rice" scared you off, come back. This isn't "Hawaiian" pizza, it's Thai food as it should be: forceful, delicate, inviting . . . and whatever else is missing from your life. Count on Phuket to fill in the gaps. nschindler@seattleweekly.com

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