A restaurant is risky business in the best of circumstances, but establishing a neighborhood boîte amid several first-rate competitors sounds downright suicidal. Nevertheless, Arunothai opened about four months ago in the Cranston’s Pawtuxet Village. Since we’d been hearing good things from several quarters— described in more than one comparison as “near the other Thai place” (Rim Nahm) — we decided to check it out.
|Arunothai | 2168 Broad St, Cranston | Mon-Thurs, 11:30 am-10 pm; Fri-Sun, 12-10 pm | Major credit cards | BYOB | Sidewalk-level access | 401.383.9545|
For an inexpensive place, it certainly has upscale ambience: burgundy walls with a light aubergine partition, painstakingly folded napkins and bistro paper atop tablecloths. And for a place whose name promises Thai cuisine, it offers ingredients from plenty of other traditions: tempura-fried this, Szechuaned that, satay sauce here, Japanese edamami there.
Trying to offer everything has resulted in many a pan-Asian restaurant getting little right. But Arunothai stays mainly Thai, spicing things up with assorted Asian exotica. Chef Bunkerk Namakun, from Bangkok, managed to deliver a side of kim chi ($2.50) that was much better than the pickled cabbage I’d most recently had at two Korean restaurants — the chili paste more complex, the garlic finally punchy enough. I don’t know which nationality should get the credit for the “Rock and Roll Wings” ($5.95), which are marinated with ginger, garlic and a house sauce, so maybe the name was a kitchen compromise.
You can learn a lot about a restaurant, fast, with an appetizer sampler, so we started with what they call “the Platter” ($6.95) for preliminary instruction. It consisted of two each of four appetizers that are $4.95 or less as full portions. The Thai vegetarian spring rolls and the fried tofu had bright, clean tastes; the fried pork and vegetable dumplings (available steamed when ordered separately) were mostly meat and tasty. Japanese shumai are normally steamed, but this fried version was light, and the crisp texture contrast to the shrimp and onion filling was welcome.
Regulars at the next table were touting the scallion pancakes ($4.95), which proved another crispy delight. The Thai spring rolls ($4.95) had too much lettuce and not enough bean sprouts for my tastes, but the chicken satay ($5.95) was gloriously moist and flavorful. The sweet and sour vinegar sauce for the spring rolls was usual, but the tamarind and peanut sauces were especially well-balanced.
Five soups are offered in starter portions for $3.95 or less, from simple miso to robust kim chi. As a big fan of chicken broth and coconut milk combinations, I went without my usual spicy tom yum and enjoyed the mild chicken coconut soup, which nicely balanced the two complementary flavors, accented with lime.
As well as chef’s suggestions, there is a longer list of purportedly “Unbelievable Dishes,” such as shrimp-asparagus in a garlic black bean sauce ($16.95) and pork loin ($13.95), billed as “Wild Boar Basil,” with eggplant and other vegetables in a spicy basil sauce. We chose the lemon chicken ($11.95) and enjoyed a velvety sauce with just the right acid tang. Its description noted a tempura preparation, and Johnnie found the meat to be thin and tough inside the thick batter. But I thought the sturdy chunks were designed to hold up well under liquid; a traditional light tempura covering would have melted away. That and the two other main dishes we tried contained red bell pepper for decorative color against vegetal greenery, not stir-fried to death, that changed somewhat depending on the host ingredient on the plate. That meant baby corn and pea pods with the chicken and the Bangkok macadamia.
The latter had a handful of nuts sprinkled on top and slices of beef, rather than the cubed meat of the description, and green beans for its departure vegetable. Again, the sauce was delicious, with a slight sweetness that was a back note to the Salmon Lover chef’s suggestion dish of grilled fish. It also had a marvelous red curry hotness that they forgot to identify with the two chilies it rated on the menu.
The place is the creation of restaurant businesswoman Arunothai Asawabowornan, her partner John Garos, and financial backer Michael Tourigny. Garos pointed out to us, not perceptibly flinching, that a couple of previous eateries in this space each lasted only about a year. But he’s working on his Ph.D. in economics at Brown, so there must be a course there in mini-micro-economics. Apparently, they’ve already learned that a new restaurant’s survival begins with good food.
Bill Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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