Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thai restaurant's appetizers could make a meal in themselves

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The setting is simple but stylish, with lime-green walls and eggplant-coloured leatherette booths, with the only suggestions of Asia in the delicate bamboo patterns etched into the windows and decorating the long, slender forks and spoons. Sabai Thai looks like a tranquil kind of place, and it is, until it fills up, when the decibel level rises dramatically.

Appetizers are $6.50 to $10, while curries and noodle dishes are $9.50 to $18, most of them mix-matched with a choice of tofu, chicken or beef. Shrimp are an extra $3, and rice -- coconut-jasmine -- $2 more. Most of the food will be familiar to anyone who has eaten in other Thai restaurants, and most of it will taste freshly cooked and good. The seasoning is expert, but milder than most -- this is one of the few Thai menus that doesn't use those little red peppers to denote degrees of heat, and doesn't need them since there isn't much heat in most of the dishes, not even in the few that are described as spicy. Nor were we asked how hot we wanted our food, and nothing I tried would have raised a bead of sweat, so if you like yours incendiary, be sure to let them know.

I could happily make a meal on a few of the appetizers and soups alone. One of them would always be the wonderful laap -- a kind of salad of cooked beef strips (not raw, like some laaps) or chicken (I prefer beef), moistened with lime juice and flecked with mint and scallions. It was less chili-fired than most laaps, but it was also one of the most flavourful I've had. Another would be the breaded, fried chicken wings, stuffed with a meaty blend of minced chicken and glass vermicelli, packing a tiny delayed kick of spice, and nicely complemented by a sweet chili sauce.

The marinated chicken skewers were terrifically tasty, but they deserved a better dip than the one they came with, which tasted like diluted peanut butter, only with less flavour. The green mango salad was relatively mild, but it had a depth of flavour with a slight degree of sweetness from the mango, a slight tang of lime juice and a nice crunch of cashews.

The tom kai chicken soup (sometimes called tom kha kai or tom ka gai) was one of the standouts, velvety with coconut milk and enhanced by galangal and kaffir lime leaves. The clear, hot-sour tom yum was another, pungent with lemongrass and galangal (each $6 small, $11 large, but the small will yield four small sampler bowls).

The red coconut milk curry with bamboo shoots and a mixture of vegetables was one of the better curries. Another was the nicely textured three mushroom panang curry with long beans and basil in an ultra-rich coconut milk sauce, although both would have been better still if the chicken in each hadn't tasted pre-cooked. Curried eggplant was overcooked almost to shreds and had little flavour, and the matsuman beef curry was a total flop, with stringy beef in a flavourless sauce.

I've often ordered pad Thai more out of duty than desire since my usual descriptions have ranged from "gummy and too sweet" to a mere "better than most," but I finally found one here that I loved. There was a touch of sweetness but no more than a touch, the perfectly balanced flavours didn't taste ketchupy, the flat rice noodles didn't clump together, there was a wealth of bean sprouts and a few peanuts for crunch, and the shrimp we chose for our garnish were plump, moist and generous.sab

I also liked the Chiang Mai vermicelli noodles with shredded veggies in a light yellow curry, topped by crisp egg noodles for contrast -- my Asian maven (just back from years in Chiang Mai) also pronounced them good and authentic in flavour, albeit not as saucy as they should be. The drunken noodles were less successful -- we didn't expect any alcohol (there isn't supposed to be any), but we also didn't expect the flat rice noodles with gai lan to be so bland.

There are a few fusion dishes, among them salmon ceviche. I prefer my ceviche in slices rather than little cubes that are tossed with a heap of shredded lettuce, but that said, the lime juice-infused salmon was delicious. I can't say the same for the overcooked-to-dry pickerel cheeks, their flavour extinguished by the peppery fried watercress and the peanut and sesame dressing.

I was underwhelmed by the most expensive item on the menu: lychee curry duck, at $18, which combines Chinese barbecued duck with lychees, each of which would have been better on its own. The duck is the kind one can buy in Chinese supermarkets -- invariably delicious but, in this case, its flavour diminished by reheating in the mild red curry sauce, which also reduced the plump juiciness of the very few lychees.

The dessert of honeyed fried bananas with ice cream and almonds, sounds delicious, but the banana tasted like plantain, which is starchier than bananas. Not to my taste, but possibly others may like it ($6). The alternative is mango with sweet rice and coconut cream ($5).

There are three white and three red moderately priced wines, but many more beers, both domestic and imported, including one from Thailand. Service was attentive and accommodating. However, since a number of the dishes have similar sauces, some guidance in ordering would have been helpful.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.

Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 3, 2013 C5

History

Updated on Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 9:55 AM CDT: Changes headline, replaces photo, adds map

8:37 PM: Adds name of restaurant to first paragraph.

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