Rarely, if ever, do I review a new restaurant. Several reasons:
The choreography is usually off, the chef is usually nervous, the food is usually inconsistent, the help usually needs help, the place is usually desolately quiet and there is usually a dismal rattle of newness in the air that is both disturbing and heart-rending.
Neither do most new restaurants want to be reviewed. Call it stage fright. Call it time out to put off the evil eye or the ugly karate chop critiques by callous critics who can kill with one stroke of the computer.
Siam Mania, a new restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, had appeared as settled as an old shoe a week after opening. The choreography seemed just fine, the chef was not nervous--he's had years of experience at Bangkok One, from whence he was lured--and the young Thai waitresses in fetching sashes moved like a dream.
I had been hovering over the construction of Siam Mania, a short distance from where I live, while vestiges of previous restaurants (Flamingo and before that, Michael's) were being exorcised and supplanted by a slick, streamlined, high-tech exterior and upbeat interior. The rattle of newness in the air seemed tolerable; the emptiness temporary.
Open Grill at Counter
Then came the next question. What could yet another Thai restaurant offer that hasn't already been done by dozens around town? You can almost recite Thai restaurant menus verbatim, sight unseen. Kaow pahd, pahd Thai, gai yung, thom yum gai.
The switch at this Thai restaurant is the introduction of an open grill, where you can sit at the counter and watch the cook prepare satay, deep-fry chicken wings and toss stir-fry dishes in a wok. The beef or chicken satay is very good served with a peanut sauce surrounded by traditional toast triangles (also dipped in sauce) and greens with orange slices.
What else is new?
"No MSG here," said Sonny Tharachai, one of the six owners of Siam Mania, who is the apparent presence of the place. "It was our decision to eliminate MSG altogether for the health of our customers."
Well, that's good. Thank you very much. So how does the food taste, if, according to Tharachai, MSG is a standard flavor enhancer in most Thai restaurant cooking?
Problems. But none that the chef can't work out, Tharachai thinks. "We are experimenting until we come up with flavor to match the original without MSG," he said.
Our second visit showed promise along those lines. A stir-fry rice dish was considerably improved, I am happy to report. (I'd hate to think MSG has been solely responsible for the fabulous Thai flavors we have come to adore.)
The cooking style is also slightly different from most, although Bangkokian, which more or less covers the hot and spicy cuisine of the north and the milder cuisine of the south, with heavy Chinese and Indian overtones.
The mee krob , the sticky fried rice stick nibbling food, is flavored with tamarind paste, not catsup, making it considerably more palatable than the sickly sweet mee krob found around town. The stuffed chicken wings are not batter-fried, as in most Thai restaurants. They are simply marinated and deep-fried. The fillings, according to the chef, change periodically.
We tried chicken with cashew nuts and chiles, an influence of Chinese settlers. So-so. The soups were milder than most, and, without raising hopes too much, tasty enough. The sweetish dressing on the salads was exceptionally good and the greens exceptionally crisp. Kaow pahd, the basic Thai fried rice, was OK, and the traditional Thai noodle dishes (rad nah and pahd Thai , among others) again fell into the mild category. Tharachai explained that curries brought to Thailand by East Indians also were somewhat mild, although the mussamun (Muslim style) curry made with tamarind sauce had a nice bite.
The bottom line? I liked sitting at the satay grill.
Siam Mania, 7450 Beverly Blvd . , Los Angeles, (213) 939-2466. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Visa, Diner's Club and MasterCard accepted. Street parking . Average dish $4.50.