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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Savoring the Flavors of Thailand : Exceptional soups and curries blend hot and cool spices at Charn Thai.


Thai restaurants are so often lumped together as outposts of a single cuisine marked by lemon grass, chili pepper and coconut milk. But the only real common denominator of Thai restaurants in these parts is, with perhaps the exception of Tipp's Thai in Ventura, bland storefront architecture and no-frills table appointments. Plainly, Thai cuisine is as individual and differentiated as it is among purveyors of barbecue or Italian or Chinese.

Charn Thai in Camarillo is happy proof.

The kitchen wizards in this popular storefront--it can be jampacked on any given weeknight--are among the most competent anywhere when soups and curries are the fare. Yes, standards are high elsewhere on the menu--the ubiquitous spring roll is decidedly light--but it is in the realm of heady flamed brews and pungent complex saucing that Charn calls out to all who value boldly wrought dishes from impeccably fresh ingredients.

This is joined by other telltale signs of specific, celebratory attentions. Yes, Charn is a humble place with Formica tabletops. But it is lent a homeyness, even dignity, by the daily placement atop each table of fresh hybrid tea roses cut from the owners' gardens. This seemingly minor event--a four-inch candy-yellow blossom--is as transformative as the food itself.

Start with any of the soups, and feel confident in specifying spice levels: Charn has calibrated "mild," "medium," and "spicy" into highly reliable gradations to which you'll make quick adjustment. (Note: "Medium" is sufficiently incendiary for most spice junkies.)

Best among the soups is spicy shrimp with kafir lime leaf and mushrooms ($6.95 for two). It arrives in the standard-issue aluminum ring pot with Sterno sending blue flames up the center hole. Blow it out immediately to save the shrimp from overcooking, and settle in for a cascading set of flavors: chili hot, mint and lime cool, clear transparent stock, plump and tender fresh shrimp. Frankly, this and a plate of rice could be enough to send you home.

Also outstanding is the humble Thai won-ton soup ($6.50). It is anything but common. The broth is vividly flavored chicken stock, the won-ton wrappers fresh with deeply flavored ground meats within--if there could be an Asian Auntie Hilda get-well chicken soup, this would be it. Spicy chicken soup ($6.50) with herbs seems to bridge the extremes, offering a bounty of seared chicken with vegetables in a slightly heavier broth.

Other reliable appetizers or first courses would be tofu Sa-Tay ($4.95), in which the bean curd cubes are lightly fried and free of excess oils and served up with a sharp peanut sauce; or Sa-Tay ($5.95), marinated chicken breast strips grilled on skewers and served with the same sauce. But neither of these dishes is particularly memorable.

If the kitchen prepares one dish under divine guidance, it has to be the peasant-style stew called Garee-Gai ($7.50), or chicken with potatoes in yellow curry. This rustic preparation is amber-gold in color, hauntingly perfumed with infinite flavor sets from a moderately thin but deeply spiced curry that bolsters both meat and root vegetable. Long after the dish looks finished, you will drag plain rice through the sauce for final savoring and to ask the question: How could something so simple carry so much flavor?

A close second is red curry with sweet basil and chicken or beef ($7.50). Here, the fragrant basil acts as complement to the somewhat more earthy curry, though this one, too, is jacked up to searing heights with red pepper. Green curry with chicken ($7.50) also benefited from basil's presence but fell a shade duller than its curry competitors; it was merely very, very good. (All curries, it is worth noting, can be prepared with non-dairy cream for those wishing to avoid the cholesterol-heavy coconut milk that is curry's base.)

Special house noodles ($6.50) are superb, as fettuccine-wide sweet rice noodles are spiked with ground spicy chicken and an abundance of fresh sweet basil leaves. The result is fragrant, restorative, and contrapuntal in its alternating sweet/hot flavor cadence.

Less special, perhaps, but perfectly fresh and turned out are both the scallops ($11.95) and sauteed squid ($7.50), each tossed with chili sauce and sweet basil. The squid takes a slight nod, however, for its perfect handling of plump, tender, abundant meat strips. Only the squid with mushrooms in garlic sauce ($7.50) arrived lost and wan.

This is a niggling complaint against a backdrop of Charn's impressive consistency and high success rate. It's an even smaller beef when considering Charn's franchise--an unwitting one, probably--in soups and curries of memorable distinction. This circumstance, coupled with unfailingly cheerful and competent table servers, makes Charn an unqualified winner.


* WHAT: Charn Thai.

* WHEN: Lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, till 9:30 Friday and Saturday, and from 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

* WHERE: 65 Daily Drive, Camarillo (in the Las Posas Shopping Center).

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, food only, from $15 to $45.

* FYI: Major credit cards.

* CALL 388-1138.

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