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Thai Food--a Walk On The Gentler Side

April 19, 1987|RUTH REICHL

Talesai, 9043 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 275-9724. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. Beer and wine. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$50.

Seduced by posters of golden temples and smiling women with orchids in their hair, I was not prepared for the boisterous reality of Bangkok. It is a loud and lively city, throbbing with life and sound. Ninety-five percent of all the cars in Thailand can be found here, belching noise and pollution into the air and tying the city up in endless traffic tangles. The streets are never empty; even at 3 a.m., they are filled with people doing what people in Thailand are most fond of doing--eating.

And yet in all this noise and motion there are hidden corners of calm. It is the charm of this city that you can walk down an alley and catch glimpses of peaceful gardens dozing in the sun. Walk any distance at all and you are sure to come upon one of the many temples filled with silent monks. And then there is the Chao Praya River, a quiet presence winding gently through the city.

Most of the Thai restaurants in Los Angeles resemble the city's more boisterous side, and the food that you find in the best of them is akin to the spectacularly spicy food found in the sidewalk cafes of Thailand. But if you want a glimpse of the quiet side of the country, Talesai is the place to go.

This is one of the more peaceful restaurants in town, a gentle oasis where it is hard to imagine anybody raising his voice. The food too has a gentle quality; it is filled with subtle flavors and quiet refinement.

To begin your meal, try a unique dish called hor mok; if I liked nothing else at the restaurant, I would return for this single dish. It arrives on a plate comically covered with a series of little conical caps. Pick these up and you discover that each hides tender pieces of shrimp and squid bathed in an irresistible sauce of lemon grass, Thai basil, coconut and chile.

Also not to be missed is something called "Talesai special." This arrives on two plates. The first holds a tasty combination of minced pork, shrimp, peanuts and coconut milk. On the other are irregular bits of crispy rice with which to scoop up the delicious mixture.

I have never been a fan of mee krob , those sweet rice noodles that have become a hallmark of Thai restaurants in America. The rice noodles are invariably too sugary and too sticky for my taste. The Talesai version, however, is delightful, the noodles so light and crisp they practically dissolve when you pick them up. Each is so perfectly fried that, despite the sweetness of the topping, they never stick together. And this version is so well made that, for once, you do not find yourself wondering what shrimp and chicken are doing in a dish that almost seems like dessert. Talesai also serves a good shrimp toast and a very tasty version of Thai dim sum.

I have heard people complain that Talesai is too expensive; if you order off of the special insert added to the menu, the bill can mount up. But while some of these special dishes are delicious, the dishes on the main menu are also superb--and most are in the $6 range.

To build a varied meal here, I like to start with pad gra-pow with squid, a simple and classic preparation of squid sauteed with chile, onion and fresh mint leaves. (I'm a squid fan, but the squeamish can opt for beef, pork, chicken or shrimp.) The flavors are distinct and thrillingly spicy. The red and green curries make a fine contrast to this spare dish; both are made with coconut milk, but the spice pastes on which they are based are so different that you get a wide range of flavors. I like the red curry with beef and the green one with pork. Another fine counterpoint is a dish called "pleasing garlic"; beef or pork (or chicken) is sauteed with copious amounts of garlic and black pepper. This makes a sort of dry sauce that clings to the meat with a delightfully carmelized quality.

People in Thailand usually eat with large spoons, pushing the food onto them with forks. When eating noodles, however, they normally use chopsticks. And Thai noodles are as varied as they are delicious. At Talesai, the special Pad Thai are excellent, as are the large flat noodles they call "red devil" noodles.

The one dish I would avoid here is the tiger prawn special. Even in Thailand, these giant prawns are hugely expensive; here you get four for $16 and, while they're good, they're not that good. I'd also eschew the crispy duck for the less expensive barbecued chicken; I think it's even more delicious. And to my taste, the regular mixed vegetables were tastier than the fancy version containing asparagus, snow pea and shiitake.

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