GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Server Lori Caporuz presents Ploi Thai's pan fried onaga with spicy garlic.
Upscale Thai may be a tough sell
Restaurants, at Restaurant Row, are ironically, few in number. You can make the rounds in a week, then start over again the next. That might keep some happy for awhile, but after a few months, most would start longing for something new. Fridays tend to be especially quiet because that's when many an office drone feels compelled to fly off to some other area for any type of food that will break the monotony of the workweek. After all, recess is to school as lunchtime is to work, the highlight of the day.
327 Keawe St. / 566-6999
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, and 5 to 9:30 p.m. daily
Cost: About $20 to $25 for two for lunch; dinner about $40 to $60 for two
So my co-workers and I were very happy to discover Ploi Thai across Keawe Street from the soon-to-be-gone Comp USA. At the new restaurant, plate lunches can be had for $8 and sitdown prix fixe meals of an appetizer, entree and starch choice, for $12. Entree choices vary every day, but run the gamut of curries to a black pepper chicken stir-fry heavier on garlic than black pepper.
Lunchtime is booming here, so this restaurant does have what it takes to survive in a spot that has proven to be difficult to several restaurants that have come and gone over a three- or four-year period. Even so, there's a bit of a Catch-22 situation going on in the evening. Life is so complicated now that a restaurant really needs to stand out to cut through the flood of information cluttering our brains and stick to anyone's short list of frequented restaurants. Ploi Thai needed to differentiate itself to stand out in this unlikely location. They're doing that by trying to appeal to upscale tastes, but they'll have to overcome a perception problem.
Many of the Thai restaurants here are moderately priced mom-and-pop sort of places. One of the partners, Vanthana "Abe" Phanphengdy, hails from Champa Thai, so his interest is not in duplicating his successful recipe but in expanding into a fine dining, and potential visitor market, by offering a mix of Thai and Laotian cuisine with a hint of Japanese fusion.
Thus far, the only Thai-centric upscale experiences have been associated with Singha Thai and Keo's Waikiki, where you can see your dining dollars also going toward location and decor. At Ploi Thai, I have the feeling diners will be wondering why they're paying $18 for stir-fries of shrimp and cashews or shrimp with ginger and asparagus when almost any similar restaurant could put the same on the table for closer to $10.
MAKE NO MISTAKE, the food is often very good, but I experienced many a V8 moment, as in, for the money, I could have had ... (uh, $19.95 lamb chops from the Fat Greek).
Although chef Olay Somsanith's cuisine is a cut above the norm, to most people a curry is a curry is a curry. There's not enough differentiation for the prices asked in the evening.
If you're accustomed to paying about $40 for a Thai meal, it's still doable. You'll just have to down-size your meal. If you normally order three dishes for two, you'll have to forgo appetizer or dessert. And who needs pineapple-or garlic-fried rice for $15 and $12 respectively. Stick to plain jasmine, brown or sticky rice for $2 to $3, and just consider it all a part of sticking to your new year diet.
Starters of soups and salads run $6 to $10, with popular spring rolls priced at $8. All the curries -- red, yellow, green, Panang and creamy peanut -- are represented at $12, but this is where you might want to splurge on the curry shrimp saute ($18), with a mellow yellow curry sauce stirred with scrambled egg that gives it a nice thick, velvety texture.
An oyster crepe ($18) also made for good comfort food, with a generous helping of pan-fried oysters, bean sprouts and shallots topping the egg crepe.
Laotian Hor Mok ($18) will probably be new to many diners. It's an arrangement of whitefish and shrimp topped with a mild red curry, wrapped timbale-style in ti leaf, and steamed. The fish was rather bouncy, and while I questioned the wisdom of leaving the tails on the shrimp, which someone could unknowingly bite into, another person I spoke to later complained about biting into one of the toothpicks that held the dish together because he thought it was a piece of carrot.
I also ordered the Ploi Thai Fried Chicken ($15) which doesn't have the crispy surface most would expect. It's instead, basted with Thai herbs, smooth and caramelized to a deep mahoghany color while remaining moist inside, a plus any day.
I'm hoping they find their audience in the evening. They will be adjusting their menu in a couple of weeks. Hopefully, the numbers will be as appealing as the menu.