Ten-foot-tall Buddhist temple guardians, their skins forest green and ivory white, their tusks accenting multicolored armor, maintain side-by-side vigilance over the spacious dining room of Bend's new Noi Thai Cuisine restaurant.
Lights that hang overhead mimic the gilled undersides of mushroom caps. Carved wall panels recall medieval culture. A framed photo of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has ruled Thailand since 1946, hangs prominently on one wall. In the lounge, set off by a latticed wooden screen, a back bar re-creates the striking skyline of Bangkok's temple spires above the Chao Phraya river.
In the center of the main dining area, surrounded by floor-length drapes, a table set for six stands atop a platform in a sunken well. Backed by triangular cushions imported from Bangkok, it is a wonderful place for a special-occasion meal.
Noi has taken over the ground floor restaurant space in downtown Bend's Franklin Crossing building in such an impressive fashion, it's easy to forget that less than a year ago, it was home to another fine Thai restaurant, Typhoon!
Owners J.J. Chaiseeha and his wife, Noi Lapangkura, are part of a Seattle-area restaurant family; highly regarded Bai Tong, in Tukwila and Redmond, Wash., was started by Noi's mother and grandmother.
“J.J. wanted to start his own project," said Noi general manager Brianna Brending. “He looked at expanding with a similar idea but a different identity than Bai Tong.
“After Typhoon! closed last February, J.J. was encouraged to look at the space, even though it was further from Seattle than he had planned. When he came down, he immediately fell in love with it."
That was in July. Noi, the restaurant, opened two months later, on Sept. 21.
Noi is not a casual cafe, even if some of its menu offerings resemble Bangkok street food. This is elegant, fine dining in the style of Thailand. The flavors of its dishes are delicately interwoven; even though I recognize coconut milk or lemongrass or basil in an order, it isn't forced upon me.
On three visits, my dining companion and I were able to try a wide variety of dishes, beginning with appetizers.
Noi's crab wontons were one of the best versions of Chinese “crab Rangoon" I've had anywhere. The folded, crispy-fried dumplings were as light and flaky as good Japanese tempura. The excellent filling of crab meat and cream cheese included a bit of crunchy celery, and an accompanying plum dipping sauce added a touch of sweetness.
The fresh rolls had prawns and barbecued pork wrapped in soft rice skin with lettuce, cilantro, basil leaves, carrots, sprouts and rice vermicelli. They were cut into four pieces and served with what Noi calls its “famous peanut sauce." I think it's a bit early for fame, and the sauce was a bit thick for my taste, but it had great nutty flavor.
Both soups are wonderful. Tom yum is the quintessential Thai soup, a spicy-sour broth simmered with lemongrass and sliced galangal (a close relative of ginger). It is also flavored with cilantro, green onions and straw mushrooms, and I enjoy it most with prawns. Its counterpart is tom kah, cooked with coconut milk to give it a milder flavor and slightly creamy consistency. I like it best with chicken.
The soups are served in individual tureens. At many other Thai restaurants, when two or more people share the same soup, they are presented in steaming hot pots with a flame beneath, allowing diners to ladle their own portions. This is something I miss at Noi.
The larb salad is excellent, a characteristic concoction of minced meat (I recently had pork, but chicken is also good) that diners wrap in large leaves of fresh lettuce. The meat is sauteed with red onions, cilantro, green chilies and lime juice.
Entrees and noodles
I rarely have a Thai meal without at least one curry dish. Here, we tried two, both of them simmered in coconut milk with basil, bell peppers and bamboo shoots.
Noi's red curry, with slices of beef, had a very rich flavor that might be attributed in part to kaffir lime leaves and bay leaves in the mix. The green curry, a little spicier than the red with green chilies, added sweetness with lime peel and palm sugar. We enjoyed it with soft squares of tofu.
Crispy garlic chicken is a house favorite, a dish best shared between several diners. A sweet honey-and-garlic glaze locks the juices into the tender bites of chicken breast meat, which are then sauteed with flash-fried basil leaves. Our dish was served on white cabbage.
Simple but tasty, “Swimming Rama" featured pieces of chicken on a bed of fresh baby spinach leaves. Its key ingredient is the same rich and heavy peanut sauce served with the fresh rolls. Were it not for a dash of chilies, it might almost be like peanut butter. All of Noi's entrees come with a choice of rice — nutty brown rice, aromatic jasmine rice, coconut rice, garlic rice, ginger rice or even sticky rice, served in a plastic steamer wrapper within a tiny bamboo basket.
But many diners prefer noodles, principally pad thai, the best known of any Thai dish. Thin rice noodles are stir-fried with tamarind sauce, lending a sweet-and-sour flavor. Other ingredients are eggs, tofu, bean sprouts, ground peanuts, radishes and green onions. At Noi, it was finished with a lacy net of eggs that resembled a yellow spider's web. Even though I liked the restaurant's pad thai, it was one of my least favorite dishes.
My companion preferred the rard nah, made with wide rice noodles stir-fried with egg and garlic in a light soy sauce. They were then blended in a brown gravy with beef, broccoli blossoms, carrots and shiitake mushrooms.
One of my favorite Southeast Asian desserts is black rice pudding, only occasionally found in American Thai restaurants. Unhusked sticky rice is cooked to a glutinous consistency and served warm with sweetened coconut milk on top. Noi's was very good.
My companion preferred pa-tong-ko, or Thai doughnuts, a favorite street snack in Asia. A little like sliced beignets, they are served with two dipping sauces, one of condensed milk flavored with honey, the other of custard from sweet tropical pandan leaves.
If we had a complaint at Noi, it had to do with inconsistent service. For the most part, servers were very gracious, quick to take drink and food orders and to recommend menu selections. But we were once delivered the wrong order (tom kah instead of tom yum soup). My friend's tea order was once delivered with two cups, the other time with only one cup.
And twice in three visits, our server failed to ask how spicy we like our food. Noi offers a “1 to 5" spice measurement that ranges from mild to Thai-hot. I am normally a “3." Yet even a happy-hour plate called “spicy chicken wings" was not spicy in the least. I requested a tray of chilies and other condiments that was subsequently forgotten.
Service is a concern that has not gone unnoticed by Brending, the general manager.
“Training is something we're working on with all of our servers," she said. “It's important that we're all asking the same questions — that diners can return time after time, have different servers but get the same product."
Open since Nov. 2, Crow's Feet Commons, in downtown Bend's former Mirror Pond Gallery, offers a bit of everything in the historic Rademacher House. Baguette sandwiches, meat-and-cheese boards, homemade waffles, sandwiches and freshly baked pastries are just part of the fare. The cafe is also a coffee house and pub — and it's a bicycle shop and a backcountry ski and snowboard outfitter. Open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. 875 N.W. Brooks St., Bend; 541-728-0066, www.crowsfeetcommons.com.