Monday, August 4, 2008

Restaurant Review: Noi

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 26/07/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

When I visit a Thai restaurant for the first time, I always make sure to taste their pad Thai. The salty-sweet noodle dish is one of Thailand's signature culinary exports, and sampling it can be a good measure of how serious a restaurant is about making quality ethnic cuisine.
Noi's version (180 CZK with chicken, 220 CZK with shrimp) passes the test. The flat rice noodles had been cooked just right and they were coated in enough oil to keep them moist, but not so much as to make them heavy on the stomach (in fact, "real" pad Thai – the kind served from food carts on the streets of Bangkok – is drier and less rich than the Western version, but it's rarely made that way outside of Asia). Many Asian restaurants, including some in Prague, use monosodium glutamate to enhance their dishes' flavor, but Noi doesn't seem to be one of them – their pad Thai wasn't overpoweringly salty, as it can be in kitchens that do use artificial flavor enhancers.

All the right ingredients were there: scallions, peanuts, fried tofu, scrambled egg, and cilantro, with a hint of fish sauce and tamarind. I would have added some fresh bean sprouts, and my shrimp were a little undercooked, but this was nonetheless one of the better pad Thais I've had in Prague.

The good food was a pleasant surprise. Just a couple of months ago, Noi was Downtown Café, a hip restaurant serving up salads and sandwiches and house music. The thumping beats are still there, courtesy of a DJ booth nestled into the corner (I'm not sure if it gels with the supposedly Zen-like atmosphere, but whatever), and you can still order a club sandwich off their breakfast menu. Now, though, Thai food is the focus, and the switchover doesn't seem to have been a bad idea at all.

On a recent midweek visit, Noi was packed with customers – a testament, perhaps, to the popularity of Thai cuisine among local restaurant-goers. Behind an orange glass wall, Thai chefs could be seen chopping fresh vegetables and frying up noodles in woks as hungry patrons reclined in leather armchairs. If the colonial-style décor seems a little familiar, it might be because it's been brought in from the Le Patio store next door. Le Patio made its name importing furniture and decorative items from Southeast Asia, and since the mid-'90s, the shop's distinctive goods have been spotted in many a restaurant around town. So the interior isn't the most original, but at least it's well-suited to the overall theme.

I prefer the small courtyard out back, where stone statues rest alongside laurel trees and fresh flowers adorn the tables. The relaxed atmosphere is complemented by a laid-back approach to table service on the part of the wait staff – and that's putting it kindly. During both of my meals at Noi, the servers were friendly but seemed disorganized, frazzled, and forgetful; they came off more as first-timers than professionals.

For one thing, they didn't seem to know much about the food. When I asked what distinguishes the red and green curries (the difference tends to be quite subtle, but one is usually spicier than the other; on Noi's menu, though, their description and spiciness level were the same), our waitress simply shrugged and said she had no idea. And when my companion requested chopsticks with his meal, she ran off without asking if the rest of the table might want some, too.

I'm hoping the service will improve as Noi settles in over the next few months. For their part, the kitchen staff seems to have their routines figured out – minus the occasional hiccup, such as when one of my main courses appeared at the table long before I was finished with my starter.

What's more important is that the food they're whipping up back there really is good. The green curry with chicken (160 CZK) was properly spicy and packed with vegetables, including eggplant, bell peppers, pea pods, fresh ginger, and Thai basil. Miraculously, the veggies hadn't been overcooked to death; they retained their crunchiness and natural color, which together with the creamy green curry sauce made for a meal as aesthetically pleasing as it was flavorful.

I also enjoyed Noi's tom kah kai (70 CZK), a rich soup made with coconut cream and lemongrass and served with mushrooms and chicken, but I was less satisfied with the vegetarian spring rolls (80 CZK). They weren't bad – I did like the crispy texture of the roll itself – but the stuffing of glass noodles, shiitake mushrooms, and carrots was a little bland and could have used some more fresh vegetables. Plus, the dipping sauce the rolls came with was the usual sweet-and-sour from a bottle that you find almost anyplace else. A homemade sauce would go a long way towards differentiating Noi from other Thai restaurants.

It does stand out from most of the rest, anyway. For reasonable prices, it offers more or less authentic Thai cuisine prepared with fresh ingredients and careful attention. If they'd tighten up the service and a few of the problems in the kitchen, Noi could very well become the best Thai restaurant in Prague. Which isn't saying much, of course. But we have to start somewhere.

Újezd 19
Praha 1 - Malá Strana
tel.: +420 257 311 411



Anonymous said...

I've eaten their twice now and really enjoyed it.

The service was great compared to most places in the city.

The food was nice... but I agree with you on the bottled sauce.

Antiquated Tory said...

How would you say it compares to Modry Zub? I've eaten at Noi once and multiple times at MZ, but have a hard time saying which I prefer.

Laura Baranik said...

I do like Modry Zub, but I'm pretty sure they use a ton of MSG (monosodium glutamate) in their food to make it taste better. I don't think that's the case at Noi.

Also, the atmosphere at Noi is better. But Modry Zub is good at doing food to go...

Tom Hofmann said...

I am sorry but after several experiences is for me NOI the best Thai restaurant in Prague by far. Nice place with very friendly service and excellent food! (You can tell by good number of Thai customers in this place!)

Anonymous said...

Recommend Reservations?