Thai On Mercer Has Light, Flavorful Fare

Restaurant review

Thai on Mercer, 7691 SE 27th, Mercer Island; 236-9990. Major credit cards and personal checks accepted. Beer, wine. Takeout. Wheelchair-accessible. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Saturday 5-10 p.m. Sunday 5-9 p.m. -----------------------------------------------------------------

If ever a single word could describe the total dining experience of an entire restaurant, then "delicate" is the perfect description for Thai on Mercer.

Owner-chef Eddie Khoabtrakool, eschewing overpoweringly hot Thai preparations, has created a light but still spicy "nouvelle Thai" cuisine that blends Northwest ingredients with American and Thai spices.

"Thai food is really naturally flavorful," Khoabtrakool says, "but overpowering hot spices mask the flavor - all you can taste is the hotness. The problem is that spices from northern Thailand aren't as hot as those grown in the east of the country. Sometimes they're mixed together, sometimes not. That's why I don't use them - you can never count on always getting the same uniform degree of hotness."

Every subtle flavor is readily discernible in Khoabtrakool's cooking, and his concern for quality control extends to preparation as well as ingredients.

His delicious phad Thai, far better than any I've ever had elsewhere, features extremely light, thin rice noodles and wonderfully fresh, crisp vegetables (with ground peanut and chicken or shrimp, $6.50). Khoabtrakool's secret is to flash-cook the dish for a mere 45 seconds in a 75,000-BTU wok, thus avoiding the heavier, harder food textures typically achieved by most other cooks who only set their electric woks on half power.

The delicate atmosphere is underscored by pastel green walls, subdued chandelier lighting, colorful tall flower arrangements on each table, and Muzak instrumentals playing softly in the background. The ceiling is draped by wide bolts of soft fabric, creating the illusion of a cozy tent.

Appetizers ($5.25-$6.25) are limited to tenderloin barbecue pork, a chicken-beef-prawn satay combo, and spring rolls. The refreshing satay sauce was not as thick or heavily peanut-y as that in most Thai restaurants, and the chicken was especially tender. The four spring rolls were crispy, light and not greasy.

Don't miss the wonderful tomato-onion-garlic soup ($6.50), an entree large enough to feed four people that also serves as an admirable conversation piece as you try to guess the exotic ingredients (cilantro, parsley, Thai pepper, chicken stock, lime juice and sugar).

Four entree salads ($5.75-$6.95) include a large vinegar beef salad with cilantro and butter lettuce heart, which could have benefited from a greater proportion of the excellently seasoned, tender beef strips.

House specialties conveniently are listed in descending order of price ($12.50-$8.75) and include many seafood dishes: halibut with a sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce; grilled salmon with pineapple and apricot sauce; skewers of grilled jumbo prawns; saute shrimp with sweet chili sauce; and Alaskan cod with light green spicy coconut sauce.

A poached calamari steak with cashews and coconut sauce had a perfectly cooked texture but was over-breaded and bland. The butter-fried red snapper, with ginger, sugar, basil and a mild coconut-red pepper sauce, was outstanding.

Thai on Mercer's chicken dishes, such as the seven-spice roast chicken with a light sweet-sour sauce, are as fall-apart-at-a-touch tender as if they came out of an Indian restaurant's tandoori oven. The chicken curry with vegetables ($8.50), one of only two curry entrees, was so decidedly unhot it teetered on the brink of blandness.

Service is quiet, efficient and gracious, and the restaurant's emphasis on customer service is apparent. When only one of our party ordered soup and salad, Khoabtrakool came out from the kitchen to discuss the order in which everyone's food should be brought to the table. After dinner, he readily answered questions about the food and discussed his cooking philosophy at length.

No desserts are offered, but examine your fortune cookies closely: instead of fortunes, two of us found small coupons for different free dinner entrees on our next visit.