During the past decade or so, it has become standard practice here in the New World for Asian restaurants to offer sushi. Doesn't matter what ethnicity these eateries are -- Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai -- they gotta have that big-draw raw bar. And as good Miami-Americans, we've come to expect the option of ordering Japanese fare at virtually any Asian joint in town. But we're usually wise to the catch: The sushi, rarely better than middling, comes in second to whatever the cuisine of the house really is.
Thai House Café turns that rule on its head. Located on that confounding business-loop-under-construction called Sunny Isles Boulevard in North Miami Beach, the restaurant has a sushi bar in the corner, and offers an extensive Japanese menu alongside its thorough list of Thai items. This place, though rather hidden from view, is an offshoot of Thai House II, also in North Miami Beach. Thai House II's owner, Khruawan Russmetes, had added a fairly decent sushi bar called O-Shin to the restaurant several years ago, but for me the real draw there has always remained the piquant curries and fresh stir-fry dishes.
So at Thai House Café, which Russmetes opened in March 1998, the month after Thai House II closed for repairs following a fire, I ordered the Japanese stuff conservatively. Not cautiously, because I could see that the fish looked bright and fresh. (One thing I've always liked about sushi bars is that customers can view their food before eating it.) I held back though, 'cause let's face it, there's nothing worse than poorly cut, stringy, lukewarm raw fish. You'd do better to fillet the koi fish from your neighbor's back-yard pond.
Thai House Caf
171 Sunny Isles Blvd, North Miami Beach; 305-956-3909.
Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. till 10:00 p.m.
But I stray. The point is, I asked for a boat for two to serve five people as an appetizer, and I was sorry. Not because the fish was bad, but because the ruby-color tuna was so tender, the salmon and yellowtail so buttery, and the mackerel so succulent I wished I had ordered a boat for four. Every piece of sushi and sashimi, including a couple of jumbo shrimp, had been expertly filleted and properly chilled, and a pleasant bonus filled out one end of the bamboo structure: delicate little pieces of white fish, deep-fried and laced with a delicious honeyed mayonnaise.
That was the highlight of the meal.
As rare as it is to find really great sushi in a Thai restaurant, it's even more uncommon for the cuisine for which the eatery is named to be a disappointment. Which must be why places like Thai House Café are on the endangered list: The Thai food here was prepared indifferently enough to make us believe that the owners are actually Japanese, and that the restaurant should be called Sushi Bar Café.
While the raw fish was both excellent and understated, a special appetizer, clams steamed with cabbage, was outrageously spoiled; those of us brave (or stupid) enough to try it also crunched down on a mouthful of sand for our trouble. The lingering taste of iodine convinced us to forgo the remainder of the dish, and though the mum's-the-word server never offered an apology, she at least took the item off the check.
I didn't even bother to sample the shrimp in another special starter that evening, a spring roll wrapped in rice paper Vietnamese-style. The roll, which had been sliced in half-a-dozen pieces, clearly displayed some black-smeared shrimp about as clean as Biscayne Bay on a good day. The rest of the roll tasted overwhelmingly like celery, a state of affairs even a rich peanut dipping sauce couldn't remedy.
The shrimp were more acceptable in the tempura we'd ordered as a main course, but the coating on the crustaceans was so greasy it was impossible to rate their freshness. We also questioned the quality of the squid, sautéed with garlic and pepper. The squid, which was actually cuttlefish (a relative of squid), was chewy and bland at first, but it had such a potent aftertaste we gave it a wide berth.
We were slightly relieved to find that a whole, two-pound snapper, deep-fried and drenched with chili sauce, was edible, despite the fact that the skin of the fish had been browned to jerky, and the flesh was dry and flaky. We enjoyed the sauce, which had been made with preserved chili peppers and a little fresh basil.
Another sauce delighted us: the gingery chili paste laced with scallions that dressed the sautéed chicken with chili paste entrée. But we were dismayed by the miniscule portion. Next to the fish, the chicken was practically Lilliputian. There's also a misnomer here. While the title of the poultry indicates a sauté, its description says it's fried. And it is -- deep-fried and garnished with sesame seeds. Cholesterol watchers, beware.
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One aspect I like best about Thai House II is that the staff takes you at your word. If you say spicy, they don't assume you're a pansy American who can't handle it. But at Thai House Café, every dish we ordered had been dumbed down at least two degrees, including the mixed vegetable curry. As far as we were concerned, this medley of broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, snow peas, and green peas, which we asked for "medium," was cooked in plain coconut sauce for all the piquancy it exhibited. Dishes we wanted superhot, like the snapper and chicken, were barely tongue-tingling.
Not all the Japanese food rated and all the Thai fare failed, however. Teriyaki steak, an entrée, was served at a ruined well-done rather than the medium-rare that I ordered. And the Thai sticks we had for dessert, lightly browned fried dough napped with a honey-sesame sauce, were delightful.
But for the most part, the perceptible care the kitchen and waitstaff take with the food just about matches the shabby décor. Thai House Café has been a number of different Thai and Japanese restaurants in the past, including the most recent, a Japanese "bistro" called Daidomon. Hence the sushi bar. But with each incarnation, the place just looks worse. There are so many nicks and cuts on the baseboards that I kept looking closer to see if the dark spots were bugs. A mural of the ocean on one wall looks newish, but the amateur styling makes the human figures in low-riding boats look like herds of cows. And it appears that Russmetes didn't even bother to print up menus for this venture: The lists, stained and disintegrating, were most likely taken straight from Thai House II. Even the take-out menus say Thai House II, with that restaurant's phone number and address on them. With so little regard paid to the details at Thai House Café, why should the public be expected to give any more attention?