Patou Thai sits in Belmont Center in a space that was so forlorn before, customers gasp when they see it now: Walls the green color of young banana leaves and sea blue, a yellow ceiling, and brown and orange silk pendant lamps hanging in clusters. Could this really be where the B & D deli opened and served rewarmed food? Or where the famous Pentimento, house of scones and omelets, had queues by day and went quiet at sundown?
The 100-seat Patou is the best-looking place in Belmont, the staff is a joy, and the owners managed to procure one of the coveted beer and wine licenses in this once-dry town. So it would be a terrific place to hang out even if the food was so-so.
But what food! Waiters in plum mock turtlenecks serve family-style, so there's not an array of plates garnished with carrot flowers. Everything tastes so fresh that these cooks redefine some dishes. I've never eaten beef satay ($6.50) right from the grill with hot caramelized edges that are succulent as lollipops -- at least not in a restaurant -- nor fresh garden rolls ($4.95 for two) so plump and juicy that the noodles and grilled chicken are sublime without the spicy dipping sauce.
Papaya comes in a salad topped with grilled shrimp ($6.75). The familiar orange fruit turned out to be white and crunchy (though in the light of day the color is very pale green). This is young papaya, explains co-owner Dan Tanabat. Long strands of the fruit, tossed with carrots and lots of lime, make the most refreshing opener to the meal, not unlike salads on Japanese and Korean menus.
Mushrooms floated on top of the flavorful glass noodles soup ($3.50), the slippery noodles, shrimp, and snow peas clustered on the bottom. Chicken coconut soup ($3.50), had a mellow lemony taste, but it wasn't hot when it arrived at the table.
Tanabat opened Patou, which means "darling" or "beloved," with his business partner Paul Viriyabontorn. The two met when Tanabat finished a masters degree at Johnson & Wales in hotel and restaurant management. He went to work at Siam Lotus in Norwood, which Viriyabontorn has owned for 15 years. Viriyabontorn also owns the 10-year-old Pakarang in Providence.
Patou is their first venture together, and they hired Charles Intha, a Thai designer, to transform the space with those warming colors.
So you can sit back and sample very modern Thai food: spicy strips of sirloin with cucumbers and tomatoes on a bed of lettuce ($8.95); scallops in a garlicky miso sauce with strips of sauteed Asian eggplant ($12.95); tender stir-fried beef tossed with watercress and plump macadamias ($12.95); and our favorite, country-style chicken basil ($10.95), a kind of hot and spicy Thai chili. Tanabat says that there are customers at Siam Lotus so enamored with the chicken dish that they always order it -- some for a dozen years.
Even the brown rice ($1.50) is perfect, so nutty you have to wonder if there aren't toasted pignoli tucked into the grains.
The place is spotless. Did I tell you about the saucer-like plates that look like ordinary white china at first glance before you realize they're delightfully off center? It's nice to see so many things done right.