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Richmond's first Thai restaurant gets points for atmosphere but doesn't spice things up.

Tame Thai

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The Thai Room, open again after a fire several months ago, has an enviable restaurant space. Located downtown in a handsome refurbished 19th-century residence, it has the best of both worlds. The outdoor dining areas are perhaps the pleasantest in the city, one tucked away in an enclosed, shady garden terrace and the other on the sunken terrace out front. The English basement, with a bar and two dining areas, is stylish and comfortable. Upstairs the two high-ceilinged rooms with the architectural delights of another time are unfortunately no longer used except for special occasions or as extra dining space is needed.

Many will remember when this building was home to one of the first restaurants that brought a new level of dining to a town starved for interesting dining establishments. Poor Richard's was a welcome addition to our dining scene when it opened there back in the '70s. And the Thai Room has its own little bit of restaurant history, too, being the first dining place to offer a Thai menu in the area. That was a fledgling effort. In fact, like one of the other early Thai restaurants here, the restaurant had a kind of double identity with two menus. An American menu was in effect on the ground floor, but you went upstairs for the exotic Thai food. And the American menu was eventually dropped.

It was not long before there were other Thai eateries, but the Thai Room has always had the edge of an elegant ambience. With that goes, perhaps, a kind of assimilation. It seems more Western than Eastern, Now that most adventurous American palates have become accustomed to the fiery chilies in Southwestern and Tex-Mex food, the peppers of a Cajun dish, the incendiary spices of Indian or Szechuan cuisine, we take Thai spices in stride. And it seems that the Thai Room is a bit timid. Not that I want to have my palate anesthetized by fire, but I do expect a complexity of flavors in Thai food that includes a certain amount of "hot."

Starters can include one of three soups ($3.95), a salad ($2.75 - $8.95), or one of the 10 appetizers ($5.95 - $8.75). A Siam sampler was a choice to share - a spring roll and satays of shrimp, chicken, and beef. Along with delicate sweet-sour and peanut sauces, these were accompanied by a good cucumber salad, which accompanies several of the appetizers and main dishes. Steamed dumplings filled with ground shrimp and pork and served with a sprightlier chile sauce added a nice complement to the satays.

The main courses ( $8.95 - $15.95) at the Thai Room are divided among chicken, beef, seafood and some traditional pads which may include some or all of the above. There are usually some specials, also. When we were there these included three fish dishes and alligator. (It tastes more like alligator than it does chicken!) Shellfish caught our fancy among the three dozen offerings. Shrimp with cellophane noodles (goong pad woon sen ) turned out to be very bland. The accompanying rice was redundant and added to the blandness. Scallops Siam was a bit more flavorful, but the promised bed of sweet bell peppers didn't materialize, and the red curry sauce was very mild. The scallops were sauteed to perfect doneness, but the sum of the dish was rather ordinary.

There are several American-style desserts, all made in-house. The chocolate and black-walnut ice creams are seductive, and the delicate Amaretto cheesecake is a winner.

The service was amiable and efficient, the ambience comfortable and soothing. And if you're looking for a nice Thai place to take your mother, stop by. It's tame Thai. Or is my palate jaded from overdoses of chilies?



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