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Tongue Thaied

Liz Feltham steps into the delightful downtown dining room of Cha Baa Thai

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When Victor Woo opened his Thai Chili House downtown in 2001, he cleared the way for a profusion of Thai restaurants to follow suit, in a culinary wave topped only by the sushi tsunami of a few years back.

The latest entry in Thai land is the lovely Cha Baa, an elegant, understated dining room, where the focus is on beautifully presented and skillfully prepared Thai cuisine.

We're seated by one of the windows overlooking Queen (the other side of the restaurant provides a view of Birmingham) and have time to take in the enjoyable surroundings after we place our order. Blue and orange-red shaded pendant lights illuminate each spacious wooden table. Dark hardwood flooring anchors the light and airy room.

We're looking at a beautiful modern chandelier, wondering why it's not lit, when our starters arrive.

Bean curd rolls ($8.50) are served in a ceramic boat, the stern end of which contains dipping sauce. They are delicious, with the bean curd skins wrapped around ground, seasoned pork and black mushrooms. The cucumber soup ($6.75) is a richly flavoured herb broth, featuring not only sliced cucumber but also scallions, glass noodles and pork "dumplings."

Som Tam is Thai papaya salad ($8.95), not for the faint of taste bud. Its shredded green papaya and long beans are no match for the heat of its chilies and we're left wiping our noses, and the sweat off our brows. It's a good heat, though, and passes quickly.

The menu is quite large, but we've been able (though it was difficult) to select just a few main courses: Each one of them is as good as the appetizers.

Vegetarian glass noodles ($11) provide a nest for fried egg, black mushrooms, garlic and sliced onions. Another dish is named mixed vegetables ($10.50)—and it's a name that fails to do justice to the crunchy, crisp collection of baby corn, Chinese napa cabbage, carrots and broccoli that make it up.

Spicy basil chicken ($11.95) is strips of tender chicken, stir-fried with bamboo shoots and eggplant and, of course, the ubiquitous chilies. Although all of our main courses have some heat, this one has the most. While not as fiery as the Som Tam, the chicken goes down with a pleasant afterburn. Some heat relief is supplied by the masaman curry ($11). Not nearly as deadly as red curry, masaman curry paste is mixed with coconut milk for cooling sweetness and exemplifies the layering and depth of flavours that is the trademark of most Asian cuisine. Chunks of chicken, sweet potato, onions and peanuts dot the curry. We love all of our meal, but this part is definitely our favourite.

For dessert, we share the classic dish of sticky rice with mango ($6.50). The sweet sticky rice is formed into a flat rectangle, with the mango sliced and served next to it. Sesame seeds add a somewhat smoky taste. Sadly, it's not mango season, so the fruit is a pale imitation of a really ripe mango, but this doesn't detract from our enjoyment of these last bites of the meal.

Everything, including dessert, is garnished beautifully with carved vegetables and small mounds of shredded slaw. This great attention to detail is also carried through in the restaurant's service, where nothing is overlooked: especially, thankfully, our water glasses.

Cha Baa Thai1546 Queen 406-3008Lunch: Mon-Sat noon-2:30pmDinner: 5pm-10pmClosed Sundays

If you can’t stand the heat, get onto the internet: There’s more Liz Feltham at foodcritic.ca.

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