We had been hearing a lot of buzz about this new restaurant that opened where the old Cafe le Royale used to be, so in we went. Phuket is a spiffy, sleek place that serves traditional Thai food and some new twists on old dishes. Though the space is small (it seats 40), you sit on pretty pink banquettes and booths in both a front and back dining room, which are separated by a small service bar.
The divine chicken coconut soup ($4) alone makes the trip worthwhile. This velvety offering is fragrant and heady with a coconut broth that doesn't drown out the other flavors: lime, scallions, and galangal, a Thai herb closely related to ginger but more intense. There's plenty of shredded chicken and straw mushrooms floating in this delectable dish, which was the top hit with all five of us at the table. The steamed dumplings ($6) are delicate and light and filled with pork and veggies.
Pad Thai ($9) is the most popular, and overworked, dish in the culture. Here, the flavor was superlative, though there weren't many vegetables to be found among the noodles and chicken, not a bean sprout in sight. The peanuts were finely ground and scattered throughout the dish, providing a nice uniformity of taste with every bite.
We also loved the whale tails ($7), plump shrimp wrapped in crisp egg roll skins and served with a plum sauce. They were pretty on the plate, and when you see them, you understand their name.
At this point, I should say a word -- or many -- about the service. It's not the restaurant's strong point. We're willing to chalk it up to the freshman jitters since the place just opened last month. Still, it's Service 101 to take entree orders when appetizers are served, if not before; to ask if diners would like water at the start and coffee at the end; to check on them regularly; and not to bring four entrees out while the fifth appears five full minutes later. (Polite folks don't like to eat until all plates are delivered; I say eat when the food arrives or you've ruined a meal).
Then there's the wine glass contretemps. When you order a second glass of wine here, instead of whisking your first glass away, the waitress brings a small carafe and refills your old glass. My friend Brenda was appalled. She's a lipstick gal, and she wanted a new wine glass, the better to banish her traces of Coco Pink. We waited forever for dishes to be cleared, to order dessert, and to pay the bill -- and we had to flag down people to do those things.
But the food is worth a visit. The food and presentation -- lots of color on oversized white dishes -- are excellent. Owner Na Dongparteep grew up in Bangkok, came here as a child, and spent 15 years working at the popular Amarin of Thailand in Newton, cooking, creating dishes, and learning the business. She says she wanted to offer a few dishes for those who weren't familiar with Thai food. That explains the honey spareribs ($14), a succulent, sweet dish that mixes both Thai and American spices.
The bird nest ($14) was a steaming dish that featured lots of shrimp and vegetables (red peppers, baby corn, broccoli, peapods and straw mushrooms) served on a crisp bed of yellow noodles. It's got a kick to it, thanks to a chili-garlic paste. The lemon scallops ($15) included several large scallops grilled just right, with wilted spinach and other vegetables with a slight lemony flavor.
You can't leave a Thai restaurant without trying its curry. It's like Thanksgiving without turkey or Hannukah without latkes. All curries are not created equal. Here you can choose from six types, including the milder yellow curry and the kickier jungle curry, and also from among six meats or fish. We went with the beef masaman curry ($12), which was unfortunately bland with undercooked sweet potatoes and carrots.
About dessert: don't bother. Cheesecake, creme brulee, and tiramisu at a Thai restaurant? Please. If you're still hungry, order another plate of that sweet and fabulous pad Thai.