Here's a vote of cautious praise for Angel Thai Westside, which opened in early June on College Way near Newport Avenue.
Having moved into the same low-key plaza cafe that, over the years, has been home to the Mercury Diner, Zucca Italian Kitchen and Sumi's Japanese Restaurant, Angel Thai is off to a good start.
Based upon two recent visits, I like it better than any of its predecessors. Indeed, I prefer it to its parent restaurant north of downtown Bend.
On the other hand, since Typhoon! closed early this year, Bend has been home to a handful of very average Thai restaurants.
The best thing about Angel Thai Westside is its executive chef, Bee Johnson. She may not be Thai, but she knows how to execute many of the dishes very well. In particular, I love her som tum (green papaya) salad and tom kaa gai (chicken coconut soup).
Not every dish wowed me, however, and both service and atmosphere left a lot to be desired.
Angel Thai has been a part of the Bend dining scene since 2006, when it relocated from La Pine to the Whistle Stop Business Center on Division Street, a block north of Revere Avenue.
But nothing really has been done to inject an exotic mood into the new restaurant. It still feels much as it did in 2006 when Neal Kramer opened the Mercury, right down to the formica-topped diner tables. Giant painted fans, more typical of Japanese culture than Thai, hang on some walls.
Dark woods and low lighting create a somewhat somber atmosphere. A cozy patio area is underused; even on sunny evenings, guests are not offered the option of dining outside when they are greeted and seated.
Service is well-intended and speedy. But wading through the 80-item dinner menu takes time, so my dining companion and I had to ask our all-business server three times to wait to take our order. A second server, who delivered most of our plates, was more ready to offer a friendly smile and a little conversation.
What's more, midday menu prices have gone up considerably since the last time I dined at Angel Thai. Lunch specials now start at $7.95 — an increase of $2, or 33 percent, over previous prices. Lunch then included both soup and salad; it now includes only a choice of one or the other. Choose brown rice over white, and you'll pay another 50 cents.
The salad, which my dining companion chose, was basic. Iceberg lettuce was tossed with red cabbage and shredded carrot, and served with a thick peanut sauce. There was nothing original about this preparation.
My “Angel soup" was a better choice. The hot-and-sour coconut milk-based concoction didn't have many ingredients — merely thin carrot slices and undercooked flat noodles — but it had a good flavor that encouraged me to look forward to my main course.
My selection was Prik-ging, a dry curry dish made with pork (my choice of meat), green beans, bell peppers, carrots, tender kaffir lime leaves and chili sauce. I ordered the dish a spicy “four stars" (out of five), but it came to my table as a “zero star" dish; something had been lost in translation between my server and the kitchen. The server brought a tray of spices for me to apply to the food, but seasonings added after cooking are never as good as those blended over heat.
My companion requested massaman curry, a hearty stew simmered in coconut milk with a peanut-rich curry paste. Potatoes, carrots, yellow onions and whole peanuts complemented her choice of chicken as a meat. But it wasn't a thick curry; it was more like a rich soup that couldn't be fully absorbed by her brown rice.
We returned a few days later for dinner and started with a chilled salad roll, one of the few appetizers not deep-fried. Wrapped in translucent rice paper, the two rolls were sliced like sushi so that we could easily read their ingredients — almost entirely lettuce and slivers of carrot, with a touch of cilantro and flavorful basil.
A single chilled shrimp, cut lengthwise and spliced into the middle of the rolls, underwhelmed us. Two dipping sauces — peanut and sweet chili —accompanied.
Coconut soup, known in Thai as “tom kaa," was a highlight. Although I thought it was a little too rich in coconut milk, my companion considered it perfect. The flavors were so well blended — lemongrass, kaffir lime, cilantro, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and galangal, a root similar to ginger — that no additional seasoning was needed.
My own favorite was the green papaya salad, or “som tum." Strips of unripe papaya fruit were mixed with raw green beans, carrots, cherry tomatoes and a handful of bay shrimp, then seasoned with ground peanuts, garlic and lime juice. And this time, the kitchen read my “three-star" request properly: The salad had a lot of spicy zing.
Our three main courses — we had plenty of leftovers, in case you wondered — were satisfying but not extraordinary.
Red curry with duck, simmered in coconut milk, was a nice, savory dish. It had lots of bell peppers as well as basil and bamboo shoots.
We enjoyed a saute of basil eggplant with tofu as a vegetarian choice. Stir-fried with a garlicky chili sauce, this flavorful concoction also had yellow and green onions, red and green bell peppers, and carrots.
Our least favorite was a noodle dish called Pad-C-Eaw, or “pad see ew" in some spellings. Flat rice noodles are pan-fried in soy sauce with a choice of meat (we opted for beef in this one), broccoli, cauliflowers, carrots, egg and garlic.
“I thought it tasted like typical Chinese food," said my companion. “The flavors were as flat as the noodles."
Okay, not everything was great. But I think there are enough good things about Angel Thai Westside to warrant return visits.
Croutons has announced that it intends to open a second restaurant on the east side of Bend, in the former site of Renew Fitness, 564 N.W. Greenwood Ave. at Sixth Street. A projected opening date has not been announced. Croutons specializes in gourmet salads, soups and sandwiches. The San Diego-based company's only Oregon restaurant is presently at 335 S.W. Century Drive, Bend; www.croutons togo.com, 541-330-1133.
Philippe Boulot, the James Beard Award-winning executive chef of Portland's Multnomah Athletic Club, will join chef Adrian Carpenter Saturday night at Brasada Ranch's Range Restaurant and Bar to prepare a gourmet five-course wine-pairing dinner. Halibut, quail and lamb are all on the menu. Reservations are required for dinner, priced at $125 per guest. www.brasada .com, 888-651-4859.