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Friday, December 7, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Mother knows best when it comes to tasty Thai food in hip Toi land

Seattle Times restaurant critic

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One look at Toi and you can blow off any preconceived notions about Seattle's Thai restaurants. Here in the hallowed husk of the original Dahlia Lounge, it's ixnay on the pastel palette with nary a portrait of the Thai royal family in sight. Toi favors instead a Revlonesque "Really, Really Red" color scheme in a deep, dark room balanced by feng-shui techniques and illuminated by light projections of the Buddha.

At Toi (repeat after moi: "toy" — as in "R" Us), you can forget about personally dictating your food's heat quotient or enjoying the polite ministrations of Thai-accented servers. It's not that kind of place.

But there's something else you should know before you show up to take in the Zen-goes-zonkers scene, the sequestered, second-story lounge and the svelte, sexy waitstaff. Before you check out the cooing couples in the wraparound banquettes, or stop in for a quick business lunch or after a downtown-shopping spree. Before you drop in late to sip cocktails at the smoky bar running the length of the downstairs dining room. Like every other worthy Thai restaurant, this one has its heart in the right place: the kitchen.

Toi

1904 Fourth Ave., Seattle.

Thai

**½

$$

Reservations: 206-267-1017.

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner 5-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; late-night appetizers served 10-11 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays.

Prices: lunch starters $4-$9; entrees $7-$10.50; dinner starters $5-$9; entrees $7-$13.

Parking: on street; pay lots nearby.

Sound: seductive "Down Tempo" soundtrack; the volume pumps up after 10 p.m. with occasional live jazz or DJ.

Full bar / credit cards: AE, MC, V / smoking permitted in the upstairs lounge and at the downstairs bar / no wheelchair access to second-story bar/lounge.

That kitchen is the province of erstwhile home-cook Toi Borthwick, a Bangkok native whose son, Max, put his head together with some like-minded young fellows, intent on parlaying his mother's name and recipes into a business venture. The concept: tasty Thai food meets hip hangout. The result? Bingo!

Toi underwent big changes shortly after its June debut, including the ouster of the opening chef, whose contemporary take on "mom's" home-style cuisine failed to thrill the restaurant's namesake. That's when Borthwick did what mothers everywhere are wont to do: She said, "If you want something done right, do it yourself!"

Today, Mama Borthwick is hard at it with the help of Ericka Burke, who made a name for herself at Carmelita and recently made her debut in Toi's kitchen. Together they offer mellow Thai food generously presented with an artistic flourish. The menu is brief and, in general, reasonably priced, particularly given Toi's prime downtown real estate; so try not to balk at paying $4 for a bracing Thai iced tea or two bucks for a side of jasmine rice.

Four plump "Crackling Prawns" enveloped in spring roll wrappers and fried ($9) wear the visual imprint of a Thai basil leaf. Two dipping sauces and a seductively sour tamarind glaze add excitement — not that this study in flavor and crunch needs any. Pork satay ($5.25 lunch/$5.75 dinner) erred on the dry side. The star of the satay show is "Firecracker Prawns with Thai Pesto" ($6.95/$7.50), bursting with basil oil and escorted by a magical mixture of garlic, curry, coconut milk and black-bean paste.

Explore the finer nuances of "Garden Under Glass" ($5/$6.25) and you'll find translucent rice-paper pancakes enfolding a refresher course of lettuce, mint, cilantro and carrots. Keeping with the theme, take a stroll through "Buddha's Garden" ($8) and meet up with stir-fried broccoli, bok choy, snow peas and green beans as you wend your way past eggplant and fried tofu. Simpler — and simply spectacular — are crisp wok-seared green beans mingling with black bean garlic sauce ($4/$7).

Those who rate Thai restaurants by the successful balance of hot and sour ingredients in the classic tom ka (a coconut-milk-enhanced soup) will find no fault here ($8.50). But those whose measuring stick involves the taste and texture of phad thai ($8.50/$9) should take heed. "Phad Toi Thai" promises "smoke, fire and crunch." Those descriptors were certainly apt — if "smoke" and "fire" translate as dry and flavorless, and "crunch" means the rice noodles quickly revert to their dehydrated state.

Looking for truth in advertising? "Mama's Heavenly Thai Beef Salad" sings with Thai fish sauce and cilantro, the greens crowned with gorgeous, pink-tinged slices of charbroiled steak. At $9, they're giving this away. Beef also fares well in a happy marriage of coconut curry, eggplant and sweet peppers ($8 lunch/$9 dinner). Curry enthusiasts with seafood in mind will appreciate the soothing composition of mussels, prawns and sea scallops in rich red curry ($9 lunch/$13 dinner).

If, by meal's end, you haven't eaten your fill of earthy, black "Forbidden" rice ($2), do yourself a favor and order sticky rice with mango, perfumed with sweet coconut milk ($5). Don't like mango? I'd wager it's not the only sweet and perfumed "dish" available at Toi.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

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