Written by Jessica Rose
Lemon Leaf and Orange Moon will need to step up their game now that Noi is in town. And not just because it out-hips them both—and all of Malá Strana, for that matter.
My eyes fortuitously caught sight of a sign introducing “Chef Theeravat Ketsuwan and team,” as I wandered along the sidewalk of Újezd street last week, completely unfamiliar with this three-month-old Thai restaurant. Advertising a chef´s name is a confident invitation, one that I enthusiastically accept.
The interior is the first part of the escape from old Europe. Rich plum hues, soft orange lighting, and a stylish mix of dark leather and wicker furniture reflect contemporary Thai design trends, adhering to clean lines and simplicity. Even the subtle integration of classic Thai décor elements, such as tropical vegetation and lotus centerpieces, is tasteful and subdued, so that the atmosphere is warm and elegant, chic but unpretentious.
With a menu preface: “The Art of Taste,” and VOSS water as an option, the anticipation of quality kitchen deliverables becomes magnified.
I experienced the fare in a smooth crescendo.
The starters were little more than mediocre. The deep fried shrimp cakes made me wonder if some of the kitchen freezer space was stocked with pre-packaged food, and the grilled chicken sticks were plain as IKEA dishware. However, both were redeemed by the accompanying sauces: a peanutty satae for the chicken, and a sweet-chili sauce for the shrimp.
In contrast to most of my peers, I can´t handle super-spicy. Although I enjoy the typically spicier ethnic fares of Thai, Indian, and the like, I quietly ask my server, “Can I get that mild, please?”
The Noi menu items are each listed with 1-3 chili peppers. The minced duck salad, “Lab Ped,” is listed with two chili peppers, meaning “pretty spicy”, and I still requested it be taken down to mild (I know, I´m a wimp). If what was served to me was supposed to be mild, a menu item listed with three chili peppers must pack enough heat to melt Antarctica off the planet.
Despite my watery eyes and increased sniffling, I couldn´t stop lifting forkfuls of this moist, spicy rapture, generously portioned over leafy greens, and crowned by rice wafers to offset the spice. A sneaky chili pepper made its way between my teeth and so rung an internal fire alarm. Neither the rice wafers nor my shot-glass-sized Evian (order the large) could rescue me for a few stretching moments. Wiped out my cold, though, with guerilla warfare.
It wasn´t such a bad idea to reach for my wine glass in order to clear the remaining chili smoke. Thais don´t generally drink wine with their food, but Noi accommodates the European dinner tradition with a somewhat short yet selective wine list. While most selections are full-bottle offers, a Leon Cavalio Chardonnay can be ordered by the glass, and this is no random choice. White wine, slightly sweet, actually reduces the heat of the chili.
A fine variety of Moët & Chandon champagne might be cause for celebration and not the other way around. So, too, the enticing cocktail list. My companion and I sunk comfortably into our low leather seats, from which we could have easily ridden a dreamy cocktail wave far into the evening if I wasn´t, ahem, working.
The plump flower-shape of the shrimp indicates the seafood here is fresh, confirmed by its taste when I sampled the sweet Tom Kah Koong soup, a shrimp and coconut milk concoction. Note that I am not much of a soup person. But this was hypnotic, deelish. Note that I don´t say deelish. A ridiculously loud American woman, who was making a scene some tables away from us, caused me to widen my eyes, but did not affect the tempo of my spoon.
“I said MEDIUM spicy, and this is too spicy, and before it wasn´t spicy enough—and now I´ve had to tell you a few times—send it back!!” the woman (of course looking like she´d had more than enough food stored away for winter) yelled loud enough for everyone to hear, as her little Toto dog wandered freely in the area of heavy server-traffic.
For the first time ever, I wished the waitress would dish out some of that Czech attitude that we expatriates love to complain about. But she didn´t. She tried to accommodate the woman without so much as a huff or dirty look, at least not in view of the customers.
That´s not the only voice that trampled the otherwise tranquil Noi air. Three other Americans in an opposite corner clanked glasses and streaked their conversation with lurid obscenities. (These are the times when I shake my head and falsely claim I´m a Canadian.) And all the while, the three servers of the main dining room hustled about attentively, nodding and smiling. Needless to say, I was highly impressed by their teamwork and level of professionalism.
Slowly but surely, the concept of good customer service is evolving in Prague, by way of new restaurants. Hey, better late than never– know one knows that better than the Czechs.
My dinner companion insisted she would be the perfect judge of her favorite dish, the classic phad Thai. Laced with tofu (yes! finally, good tofu in Prague!) and vegetables, the fried rice noodles were perfect, not too sticky or chewy, as they are in the Lemon Leaf, where trying to pick up a bite-sized portion with chopsticks results in lifting the entire heap. The peanut flavoring was also done to perfection, not overwhelming the dish or sending the vegetable flavors backstage.
The “Kang Khew Wan Neur,” a beef filet in green curry and coconut milk with bamboo shoots, egg plant, and fresh basil, was also amazing. Spice-lovers won´t have to request this mild, as I did; it´s a 3-chili listing. Also, the “Phad Priaw Wan Kai” offers an abundant amount of juicy vegetables and pineapples, swimming in a divine sweet-sour sauce. I ordered it with chicken, but guess what, vegetarians? Noi´s menu offers most dishes in a vegetarian version. Although I´m not a vegetarian, everything was so scrumptious I could have equally enjoyed each dish meat-free.
Was anything out of place or unsatisfactory? Well the manager. Shame. When dinner was up and we called him over to ask a few questions about the chef, he neither asked me who I was or who I write for, nor, at the very least, if we enjoyed our dinner.
“The chef is from Bangkok. The whole kitchen staff is from Bangkok,” he replied hurriedly, as though we were bothering him, “Is that all?”
I would have told him about what an incredible experience I had at Noi.
“Yes, that´s all.”
Noi – The Art of Taste
Újezd 19, Prague 1
+420 257 311 411