- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

Despite the name, you won't find a combination of California and Asian cooking at Napa Thai in Bethesda. This narrow little restaurant has been serving authentic Thai food at 4924 St. Elmo Ave. for about five months. There's no Pacific Rim in sight.
Napa means "sky" in Thai. The restaurant's walls and ceiling represent an impressionistic night sky, a motif carried out on the lacquered tabletops. Two narrow rooms divide the seating space, with a service bar in the front room. In clement weather, one presumes the huge garbage containers that now sit on a small outdoor patio are put somewhere else.
What really counts at Napa Thai, however, is not the amenities surrounding a meal, but the meal itself, and the food served at Napa Thai is delicious. It's a fine combination of the dishes familiar to Washington area aficionados of Thai cuisine and some unusual ones not found frequently. Everything we tasted was fresh, perfectly cooked and fragrant with complex seasoning.
Appetizers, as always in Thai establishments, are plentiful, and at Napa Thai, they're very good. Chicken satay means five skewers with small pieces of grilled chicken served with a mild peanut sauce (with only a light touch of peanut) and a long curl of paper-thin cucumber.
Several types of dumplings are on the menu steamed and lightly fried chive dumplings; shrimp balls; and steamed shrimp, chicken and mushroom dumplings. The most interesting is a tapioca dumpling stuffed with chicken and peanuts and served with a drizzle of garlic olive oil. The consistency is somewhat gelatinous, but the lettuce leaves with which the dumplings should be eaten give the little morsels some crunchy texture. It's easy to get used to them.
Another type of dumpling, said to be a favorite of the Thai king, was served as a special one evening. Called tung tong, the dumplings are a mixture of diced chicken, corn, carrots and green beans in an egg-roll wrapper, tied up like a little bag and deep-fried. You eat them bag and all. They are very good; had they been piping hot rather than just warm, they would have been outstanding.
Another delicious appetizer is corn tod mun. Deep-fried rounds of sweet corn are served with cucumber relish and a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. Reminiscent of the American Deep South rather than deep Thailand, the fritters are terrific.
Thai salads called yum yum on the menu are fiery combinations of vegetables, seafood or meat and sometimes noodles, tossed with a spicy lime dressing and sprinkled with cilantro. One of the best is yum talay. A small mound of julienned carrots and red onion, shrimp, calamari rings and scallops is sprinkled with cilantro and chopped scallions and topped with marvelous crispy, tempuralike watercress. The whole is surrounded by mussels on the half-shell. The tender little mussels are served at room temperature, and the dish is not only delicious, but very pretty on the plate.
Noodles are divided into stir-fried dishes and soups. A sensational soup so spicy that it brings tears to the eyes served only at lunchtime combines a wonderfully fragrant and spicy broth with minced chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts and rice noodles. The shrimp were a little tough, but otherwise, the soup was splendid.
Wonton soup and a mixed-vegetable soup are mild. Another fine spicy soup is tom ka, made with coconut milk with galangal an aromatic spice from the ginger family chilies, lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves.
The stir-fried noodle dishes include, of course, pad thai, Thailand's national dish; drunken noodles (flat rice noodles with onion, tomatoes, chili, garlic and basil sauce); rice noodles with broccoli, carrots and egg; and rice noodles with vegetables. Diners may choose seafood, shrimp, sliced pork loin, flank steak or chicken breast to be added to the noodle dish. The addition determines the price of the dish.
Main courses are called signature dishes, and some are served only at dinner. Among the latter group is deboned marinated duck rolled with mushrooms, carrots and celery and served on a bed of spinach (ped muan); marinated grilled rack of lamb with Thai spices (Thai lamb); and grilled skewered seafood served with a spicy dipping sauce (grilled talay).
An especially marvelous dish is matsaman nua. Slices of flank steak are simmered in a rich red curry sauce redolent with cinnamon. The meat is fork-tender, the sauce mildly spicy, and the carrots, potato slices and cashews that come with the meat make it a satisfying dish.
Nam pik ong, which our waitress described as a dish from Chiang Mai, in the north of the country, was a recent special. It's a spicy mixture of jumbo grilled prawn topped with minced chicken in a chili sauce and sprinkled with crispy deep-fried scallion threads. Like everything else at Napa Thai, the sauce, despite its spicy heat, is a careful and complex blend of spices. The chicken and shrimp blend well, and the dish as a whole is delectable.
Stir-fries are prepared with different vegetables and, like the noodles, are subject to diners' choices for meat or fish. For those wishing a less rich dish, steamed meat or fish with vegetables and a peanut or spicy ginger sauce are available. Green and red curries are additional options, including a spicy "jungle curry" of assorted vegetables, pepper corn and red curry.
A whole flounder or rockfish is available, the latter served with a choice of sauces. The rockfish also is served grilled with lemon grass and herbs and wrapped in banana leaves. Crispy soft-shell crabs are available in season.
Desserts, like the rest of the menu, offer some out-of-the-ordinary choices, such as Thai tea or coffee ice cream, Thai custard (layered with coconut and taro) and coconut ice cream served with sweetened sticky rice and sliced almonds.
The classic mango with sticky rice is beautiful, topped with an orchid. The rice is drizzled with coconut cream. Our mango on two occasions wasn't quite ripe. The juicy flavor of ripe mangoes should make this a perfect conclusion to an outstanding meal.
The graceful Thai waitresses are attentive, helpful and delightful. Napa Thai's card states simply "Experience the Difference." Good advice.

Napa Thai, 4924 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda, 301/986-8590.
:t-3h$f"Helvetica"> Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Appetizers, soups and yum yum $4 to $8; noodles and stir-fries $8 to $14; signature dishes $7 to $16; whole fish market price; desserts $4 and $5; most prices $1 or $2 less at lunch than at dinner
: All major cards
Metered street parking and city metered parking garage across the street; parking difficult on weekend nights
: Wheelchair accessible

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