One night not long ago, I had that wistful experience of looking in on someone else's fun. There, out of reach, were the trendy folks at Spago--chatting, eating, table hopping, making contacts and whatever else they do. Framed by the broad expanse of window and spotlighted by the warm glow within, they looked like actors on a giant television screen. The illusion was appropriate, given Spago's reputation for celebrities.
Outside, it was cold and dark, the only action the traffic flashing by impersonally along Sunset Boulevard. Shivering and hungry in the lonely night, I --------. But no, that's the wrong story. On the night in question, I was spying from a cozy fireside, sipping French Chardonnay, listening to the latest music, meditating on contemporary art and eating something not available to those unfortunate Spago customers--Thai food.
My vantage point was the Rama Garden Thai restaurant, which is situated inconspicuously across the street. Rama Garden has its own small window facing Sunset. (Could anyone in Spago have been spying on us?) It also has a waitress in trendy clothes and spiky haircut; blue and pink neon accents, a wine list, a tiny bar, the aforementioned fireplace, artwork and some awfully nice food.
Well Prepared, Well Presented
The menu runs to the reliable dishes served by most Thai restaurants. Nothing is extremely hot. And there are Americanisms such as an abundance of green peas in certain dishes. They are even in the stuffed chicken wings, which might upset purists. But the food is well prepared, well presented and pleasant for everyday eating.
The Thai toast (crisply fried bread topped with minced pork and shrimp) comes tucked in a basket, like garlic bread or French fries. The Thai sticks, a house specialty, are deep-fried crunchy lollipops of shrimp coated with ground pork, served with a syrupy dip.
I loved the yum yai, even though it seemed more like a California patio salad with Thai accents than an authentic Thai dish. Visualize romaine mixed with shreds of red onion, carrot and crisp black fungus, hard-cooked egg, beef, pork, chicken and shrimp and bathed in a spicy-sweet dressing. A big bowl of this would be stunning for Memorial Day or Fourth of July.
Rama Garden presents its barbecued chicken dramatically on a sizzling platter. Too bad that the chicken was a little dry, perhaps from sizzling too long. But the seasoning was nice.
The only dish I didn't care for was crab and shrimp curry, a casserole of crab claws, shrimp and vegetables in broth flavored with curry powder. The flavor was ordinary, unlike most Thai curries with their exiting blends of chiles and garlic, lemon grass and other seasonings. In compensation there was an entrancing dish called spicy noodles, composed of rice noodles cut into large squares and combined with shrimp, meat, broccoli and mint in a sweet-hot sauce.
Of course Rama Garden has mee krob. What Thai restaurant doesn't? Given a reasonably skilled cook, there is little to distinguish one version of these crisp, sticky rice noodles from another. I can only say that Rama Garden's mee krob is very good, retains its crispness if not eaten promptly and is bright enough in color to match the orange slices that garnish the plate. Pad Thai, the soft rice noodle dish that is especially popular with Americans, is also well done here.
Rama Garden may be the only Thai restaurant that has a $90 bottle on its wine list. The wine is Dom Perignon Champagne, which would probably go quite well with Thai food, maybe even better than the ever-present Thai iced tea. However, the availability of this or any other wine on the list remains a question. No matter what white wine I chose, I always received the same French Chardonnay.
Aside from Dom Perignon, prices are reasonable. They range from $2.95 for egg rolls to $12 for a combination of seafood steamed with vegetables and noodles. The spicy noodles and mee krob are $3.95, and for $4.95, you can have your choice of beef sate, the Thai sticks, stuffed chicken wings or barbecued chicken.
Rama Garden, 8828 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 855-1214 . Open Monday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, from 5 to 11 p.m. Reservations accepted. Takes MasterCard and Visa. Street parking only.