It's hard to believe that Seattle's first Thai restaurant opened in 1982. Now, of course, you can find decent Thai food on any corner, and you can even find excellent Thai in a bleak Bellevue strip mall, where Chantanee Family Thai Restaurant serves knockout food with some unusual flourishes.
"This place doesn't need my help," I thought as we squeezed in one Saturday night and looked around at the tables full of families and at the glowing reviews already hanging in the waiting area. I went back for weekday lunch and it was more bustling still, this time with business lunches, power and otherwise.
Lunch includes a cup of daily soup, and on this day the soup was a very light broth dotted with soft bits of onion, scallion and the tiniest shreds of chicken. It was the antithesis of Jewish grandmother soup — you wouldn't eat it as a meal, but it made a perfect and unusual appetizer and a successful exercise in minimalism. Not every soup at Chantanee is told in a whisper, though: creamy coconut-based tom kha and hot and sour tom yam ($6.95-$9.95 depending on choice of meat) are on the menu.
Though the Chantanee family is from Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand, the menu emphasizes the central Thai favorites. There are nods to the northeast, such as the tangy chopped chicken salad (larb) and papaya salad (som tam). And a few flourishes: Anything advertised as "sizzling," such as the Heavenly Beef ($8.95) and the Golden Duck ($13.95), involves an elaborate tableside production involving a smoking hot cast-iron platter and a handful of raw spinach. They never rise to the Benihana-gone-Bangkok effect you might be imagining, but it's quite a spectacle when the spinach is reduced to a dark green bed and — well, I don't want to spoil the ending.
Any fish special is worth considering; a recent special of fried red-snapper fillet with tamarind sauce ($10.95) consisted of perfectly cooked chunks of crispy fish with a surprisingly complex glaze.
The attention to detail extends beyond the food. The dining room at Chantanee is as attractive as the exterior is ugly. The tables are topped with brilliantly colored tablecloths, and the wood-inlay ceilings seem to start dancing when you hit chili overload.
My only complaint about Chantanee is about the rice. The quality of the steamed rice is uneven — it was fine on one visit but dry and clumpy the next. And some of the northeastern Thai dishes, such as larb, go best with sticky rice, which is unavailable except as a dessert.
These are quibbles with a restaurant that is already a deserved success. With the holiday shopping season now at its peak, Chantanee offers another benefit: It's a delightful refuge from the bustle of Bellevue Square.
Miang kham: This traditional Thai appetizer, which deserves to be served all over town but isn't, consists of a platter of raw ingredients (peanuts, roasted coconut, shallots, lime, ginger, fresh chilies and dried shrimp), a tamarind sauce and leaves (often betel but here spinach) for wrapping. It's impossible not to think of soft tacos while you're doing this. Like the chicken soup, it's a true appetizer: pure flavor without substance. Nobody fills up on miang kham, but everybody enjoys it.
Angel wings: A pair of chicken wings overstuffed with cellophane noodles and vegetables are fried and served with a plum dipping sauce. This rich, crispy-skinned chicken stakes out the opposite end of the appetizer continuum from miang kham.
Chantanee noodle with pork: This tamarind-sauced noodle dish was in the same family as phad Thai but subtler and quite spicy; a squeeze of lime brought it to life.
Golden duck: The duck had to sit on the sidelines while the spinach was stir-fried on a superheated cast-iron platter, then all was assembled and topped with a sweet bean sauce. The show was hard to fault, and I enjoyed the sauce and the spinach, but the duck was dry.
Sweet sticky rice with egg custard: The egg custard formed an unremarkable thin layer over the rice, but the rice itself is the best part of any sticky-rice dessert, and I devoured the chewy lot.
Itemized bill, meal for two:
Miang kham: $6.95
Angel wings: $6.95
Chantanee noodle with pork: $47.95
Golden duck: $13.95
Sweet sticky rice with egg custard: $3.95
Matthew Amster-Burton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.