January 29, 2006, Sunday

DINING OUT: To Fight the Cold, Thai Dishes With Spice

THAI GARDEN, a restaurant that evokes all seasons, is especially welcome in the chill of winter. Strings of festive lights trace the entrance and remind us of picnics and amusement parks, summer's pleasures.

The dining room is ablaze with the seaside colors we long for: scarlet, aqua and vivid lime. Against turquoise backdrops, silver and golden fish swim languidly in tanks, and nooks burgeon with tropical plants never mind that some are made of silk.

The food delivers as well, offering seemingly infinite variations of sweet, mellow, tangy and hot. Chilies, ginger, basil, lemon grass, tamarind, citrus and curry pastes spark this cuisine that features seafood and poultry, and loads of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Diners coming in from the cold may want to warm up with the heat of a classic soup based on spicy tomato broth: hot and sour (tom yum) with shrimp and a bracing jolt of lime juice or a smoother version with chicken sweetened with coconut milk (tom kha). A succulent blend of meat, seafood and vegetables filled a number of appetizers like steamed Thai dumplings and deep-fried won tons.

Although several appetizers depended on rolls, no two were alike. Fat, soft rice-paper rolls held shrimp, chicken and a fine julienne of vegetables. Excellent prawn rolls (goong nong wong) were deep fried, the skin beautifully crisped. So were Thai spring rolls (poa pia) that had the additional texture of crystal noodles in the vegetable and pork mix. For a sampler, try the Thai garden appetizer platter, which included won tons, spring rolls and prawn rolls.

Only Crispy Cups a misnomer, for they were thick, heavy and not at all crispy and filled with a bland mixture of minced chicken, peas and corn were disappointing, an odd misstep for this kitchen so tuned into lively flavors.

Thai food is so satisfying that soup and an appetizer may be all that is required to create a meal. Then again, maybe not. It would be a shame to miss crunchy green papaya salad, with sweet peanuts and a pleasantly sharp citrus dressing, a personal favorite; or to skip Thailand's most popular dish: pad Thai. Bean sprouts added a lovely freshness to this savory mix of slippery rice noodles, egg, peanuts, tofu, chicken and shrimp. For a fiery hit, try Thai spicy fried rice. Unlike the familiar Chinese fried rice, this Thai version, with chicken and lots of chili, was moist and marvelously tasty.

The batter may have been too thick on deep-fried whole red snapper and the fish perhaps a tad overdone, but the sauce was all about ginger, big lovely chunks of it drifting in black bean sauce.

Many dishes offer a choice of chicken, pork or shrimp and in some cases, duck, for a few dollars more. Shrimp made good additions to the stir-fry technique that added chili, garlic and basil leaves. Chunks of roasted duck in a similar preparation (pad kra prow) was terrifically flavorful, although duck with pineapple, ginger and a sweet and sour sauce (ped preow whan) had more complexity.

Served in a banana leaf bowl, an assortment of steamed seafood and vegetables in a coconut-milk base tasted less dramatic than it looked, the reliable shrimp outclassing the mussel and the chewy, unpleasant pressed squid.

A peppy green curry added zing to large pieces of chicken breast matched with chopped vegetables. From the extensive vegetarian menu, tofu replaced meat and fish.

Thai desserts are worth a try. Their sweetness often comes from the fruit or honey sauce, which diners can avoid. Three sections of fried banana in crispy wrappers came with a honey dip, perfect in small doses. Ice creams ginger, mango, coconut and vanilla were good enough without a dome of whipped cream and a cherry.

There is a full bar for patrons in the mood for drinks, some adorned with summery umbrellas. Several teas were available, including Thai tea. And Singha beer went well with the assertive seasonings served here.

Thai Garden
128 Cortlandt Street,
(Between Beekman and College Avenues),
Sleepy Hollow.
(914) 524-5003.


ATMOSPHERE Bright, cheery bar and dining areas with tropical foliage and lime green walls hung with Thai artifacts and prints. Helpful service. Valet parking.

RECOMMENDED DISHES: Tom yum (soup), tom kha (soup), Thai Garden appetizer platter, Thai spring rolls, prawn rolls, jumbo shrimp or boneless duck with chili and basil leaves, green curry with chicken, green papaya salad, pan-fried rice noodles (pad Thai), Thai spicy fried rice, fried banana in crispy dough.

PRICES Main dishes, $11 to $20; from the vegetarian menu, $11 to $13.

CREDIT CARDS Major cards.

HOURS Dinner only, Tuesday to Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.



THE RATINGS Excellent. Very Good. Good. Satisfactory. Poor. Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction primarily to food, with ambience and service taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.

Review published: Jan. 29, 2006