We happened upon this charming Thai restaurant during a stroll through Harvard Square. A bright blue awning with the name 9Tastes caught our eye, and as we were still debating what kind of a place it could be, we spied the menu. We ran through the list -- veggie puff, mango fried rice, spicy fish with basil, lemon grass chicken -- and there was no turning away. We were greeted by lively chatter from a mostly student crowd as we entered the basement restaurant. Soft, multicolored lights added elegance in both the dining rooms. Kitschy souvenirs adorned the walls of the smaller room, which included the bar. Mirror panels alternated with pictures of Thai scenes in the larger room.
Panja Lymswan of Bangkok, who also co-owns Spice in Cambridge, said he was striving for a different kind of Thai restaurant when he opened 9Tastes last December. (The square has seen Thai restaurants come and go; the previous occupant in this space was Bangkok House.) He included common street snacks and specialties from northern Thailand on the menu.
"We named it 9Tastes because nine is a lucky number," Lymswan said. But with a preparation and execution to the nines, he does not need to bank on luck.
The kitchen sticks to the essence of Thai cooking with a careful balance of hot, sour, salty, and sweet in the fare. We started with miang kum ($6.95), an appetizer from northern Thailand, which came with a sweet and sour sauce mixed with coconut. It was pretty -- with tiny pieces of toasted chicken, onion, peanuts, and diced mango on a spinach leaf -- and the flavor delicate and fresh.
Khao tang na tang ($5.95, puffed rice cake crackers) were perfect for snacking, and we understood why the menu stated they are popular in Thailand. The crackers were light and crisp and the taste was amplified when they were dipped into the shrimp and chicken sauce.
The papaya salad ($5.95) was crunchy and fresh with a shredded mix of the tropical fruit, cabbage, and carrot, and diminutive pieces of chopped green chili that sneaked up on us. A good squirt of lemon juice and a topping of crushed peanuts completed the mosaic of flavors. We only wished that the salad had more papaya than cabbage.
Veggie puffs ($5.95) were delectable and the filling in the turnovers had an aromatic kick from the curry powder. Although the shrimp blanket ($6.95) had a lovely gingery flavor, the shrimp, fried in spring roll wraps, were overcooked and chewy.
The fruit smoothies helped to cleanse the palate after the fried appetizers. They looked fancy in the tall glasses and were topped with cocktail umbrellas and cherries. A standout was the lemonade smoothie ($2.95). The verdant drink was light and sweet and tart at once.
Service between courses was pokey. But the young waiters were always gracious and friendly when they did show up.
Vegetables dominated the entrees even in the meat dishes. The Bangkok jungle ($11.95) was robust in color and flavors. Pieces of moist and tender chicken came with brightly hued vegetables such as red peppers, green beans, baby corn, bamboo shoots, kaffir lime leaves, and slices of banana. But what is with the name jungle? "The dish has a combination of everything, like a jungle," Lymswan said.
Pad ped pla kra pow ($13.95, sea bass cooked in chili sauce) was delicate and bursted with the piquant flavors of lemon grass, garlic, and basil. It came with an array of vegetables similar to those in the chicken dish. Mango fried rice ($8.95) was out of this world. The sweet mango cubes worked well with the peas, carrots, tofu, scallions, and egg.
We would skip the pattaya noodles with chicken ($7.95) the next time around. Nothing meshed. The crispy egg noodles, chicken, vegetables, and the brown sauce all seemed to clamor for attention individually.
The dessert list was short and simple. We were not particularly excited about the honey banana ($2.95, pieces of bananas fried in a spring roll wrap). Even the honey could not erase the oily aftertaste. But the ginger ice cream ($2.95), studded with pieces of preserved ginger, was creamy and ecstatically delicious.
A final few sips of the lemonade smoothie was the kind of sweet ending that let us know that a good meal was truly over.