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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Have a Mai Thai

Serene Setting on Brady Street

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Amid the hustle and bustle of the July 4 weekend, a new restaurant opened on Brady Street. The former Oriental Coast has been remodeled and is now called Mai Thai. Thai food is not new to the street: Before Oriental Coast arrived, the space was occupied by a different Thai restaurant. However, in becoming Mai Thai, Oriental Coast’s decor has changed significantly.

The exterior is virtually unchanged, except for new orchid plants at the entrance. It’s a different world inside. The front bar is made of dark wood in the style of traditional Thai architecture, whereas an ornate carved teak panel is the centerpiece of the back bar. The old steam table corner now houses a table with three rattan chairs lit by candlelight. The dining room walls are now deep blue hues, and the seating feels more intimate. Overall, Mai Thai is a serene, inviting setting for a meal.

The menu at Mai Thai is intelligently organized as well. The noodle curries and stir fries can be ordered with chicken, beef, pork, tofu or mixed vegetables at the base price. Shrimp and mixed seafood cost extra. Among the appetizers are spring rolls named for the seasons: Spring ($4.95), Summer ($3.95), Fall ($4.95) and Winter ($5.95).

A sampler of the entire year is $10.95. The best of the bunch is probably Spring, with its wrapping of fresh rice papers and a filling of shrimp with clear rice noodles and shredded lettuce and carrot. Summer is your basic Thai fried egg roll with a vegetable filling. Fall is triangular in shape with a thicker fried crust. The filling of chicken and yam has an essence of curry. Winter is steamed rice papers filled with Thai sausage, bean sprouts, cucumber and green scallions. The sampler platter is enough for a light meal. You may want to request that the various sauces be served on the side.

Another Thai favorite is Tod Mun ($5.95). These are fish cakes with a spring texture, smaller than the norm but excellent with just a touch of curry and a dipping condiment of chopped cucumber and onion. Tod Mun is rarely any better than at Mai Thai. Lettuce wraps are currently the rage at trendier Chinese eateries. Mai Thai offers its own version ($7.95), which you build yourself with lettuce leaves, tomato, cucumber, bean sprouts, cilantro and rice noodles. Unlike a Chinese restaurant, these lettuce wraps come with a separate bowl that contains slices of beef with onion.

The Thai beef salad ($7.95) simply needs more beef. The slices of onion vastly outnumber the few slices of grilled beef that otherwise taste fine with the sweet and slightly spicy dressing that accompanies them. It’s one of the few minuses on the menu. The noodles, curries and stir fries are standard items and not for the Thai explorer. The adventurous diner should look for the specialty dishes on the menu. Here one will find kao mok gai ($12.95), a chicken breast covered with curry-fried rice with hints of coconut flavor.

Add a few fried shallots and sprigs of cilantro to complete the picture. Whole snapper is typically the only fin fish served at Thai restaurants. Mai Thai offers a thick filet of pan-seared sea bass, which can be ordered in any one of four unique preparations. I picked ginger, which often finds its way into the background in Thai cookery. Here it is front-and-center: Pieces the size of matchsticks mingle with ground pork, straw mushrooms, scallions and onion. While at first pork and sea bass may seem at odds, they comple ment one another on the plate. The menu says this entree is $17.95, but should really be listed as “market price.” The cost of prime meat and seafood are volatile lately, and I was charged $23.95.

There is much to like about Mai Thai, especially the new dcor, the serv ice and the menu. Thai dining takes an upscale turn with prices that are just a hair above the norm. Perhaps Thai dining will become a permanent feature of Brady Street.

MAI THAI 1230 E. Brady St. (414) 810-3386 $$ Credit cards: all major Smoke-free Handicapped access: yes