Celadon has graced the streets of Hillcrest for over 25 years, all the while performing a slow and evolving dance. The restaurant’s performance started out modest and unobtrusive—opening in 1981 in a renovated house on Fifth Avenue—but gradually became grander, more eloquent, and more impressive. The restaurant has moved locations twice, each time graduating in both style and form, with a brighter décor, more formal setting, and an evolution of elegance, confidence, and charm. With the debut of its third location in 2007, Celadon has proven itself a star—an enchanting performer who not only lands every step right, but exudes grace and charm along the way. If you have yet to experience Celadon, you are in for a breathtaking performance that promises to both woo and win you over.
The modest white stucco building that houses the restaurant is quaint and unobtrusive, giving no hint of the grandeur that waits inside. The first-floor bar and lounge is a study in eclectic modernism, a warm, comforting space that both treads on history and departs entirely from it. A five-person bar stands in front of the entrance, modern leather bar stools lined perfectly askew against the dark wood grain. To the right, lavish wingback chairs and chaise lounges evoke the opulence of 18th-century decor, while a white baby grand piano waits to be occupied. A wall of mirrors seems to extend the whimsical space, while a half flight of stairs entices guests further into the restaurant.
Where the first floor lounge greets with loud colors and bold designs, the upstairs dining room is a complete turnaround. Here, a minimalist elegance takes over, with a room awash in white—white tables, white chairs, white walls, and white banquettes. Black starkly accents the otherwise monochrome room, strategically transforming elements that would otherwise fade into the background into centerpieces of design: black molding defines the ceiling, black trim outlines drapes that break up the space, and black buttons stud white leather banquettes. Select bold colors permeate the black-and-white motif: a vibrant chartreuse green, in the form of wallpaper and ceiling paint, suggests a playful liveliness, while dark wood brings an earthy undertone, through the floors, chair legs, and the only wall decoration: an enormous woodcarving of a face whose sage, serene expression overlooks the room.
As we set foot in the dining room, I feel as if I am walking into a dream. The late evening light filters through open French doors, the back patio beckoning with its peaceful serenity. We are seated at one of many tables along the north wall, easing into the comfortable banquettes as the room quickly fills around us. The tables are close together but I find I don't mind the proximity of my neighbors—with the convivial din of conversation peppering the room, no one conversation stands out.
With glasses of house-wine in front of us—from a temporary limited selection while owner Alex Thao works to redesign the wine list—it is time to tackle the menu. Like its sister restaurant, Rama, Celadon offers a wide, diverse array of traditional Thai dishes that make deciding on a meal a pleasurable challenge. The kitchen is overseen by Alex's mother, Joanne Thao, who pulls from decades of experience and frequent return trips to Thailand. With the new location, she introduced even more choices, with a rotating seasonal selection of specials bolstering the regular menu.
We begin with Kratong Tong, a festive and playful appetizer. A tumble of crisp wonton shells, molded into flower-shaped cups and flash fried, rests on a whole Napa cabbage leaf, which forms a cradle beneath the delicate flowers. A bowl of a vibrant curry medley sits alongside the leaf, as does a ramekin of glistening plum sauce. The dish requires assembly, and we set to work scooping the curry medley—potatoes, peas, carrots, and chicken—into the paper-thin cups, then drizzling our creations with the sweet sauce. The contrast between the delicate, almost dainty shell and the hearty, bold filling is delightful—the crisp of the shell gives way to a soft, creamy core. Tangy plum sauce transforms the entire dish, lifting it from savory to sweet. Despite its vibrant yellow color, the curry is not too bold or strong, and the dish provides a mild and elegant introduction to the restaurant's cuisine.
Chicken Satay is a familiar appetizer, featuring long strips of breast meat skewered onto thin bamboo sticks, accompanied by a rich peanut-plum sauce and a light medley of marinated cucumbers and red onions. The presentation is dramatic, the skewers layered atop one another so that the bamboo rods stick out from the plate like haphazard buttresses. The meat is dyed a vibrant red, from a red-curry-and-coconut marinade that brings a rush of coconut flavor with the first bite. The meat is delightfully tender, almost soft and sweet. The thick, velvety peanut sauce is the second textural delight of the dish, thickly coating the skewers and cloaking each bite in a robe of luxury. The flavors of peanut and tangy plum sauce dance on the tongue, but there is no worry of spice. This is a mild dish, bringing out the best in the ingredients' flavors but keeping the heat reserved.
We segue into our main courses with Pineapple Fried Rice, and are delighted with its stunning presentation. An oversized white platter arrives bearing an entire pineapple, knocked onto its side, sliced open, and hollowed. Inside, it holds a golden medley of pineapple, cashews, cherry tomatoes, scallions, chicken, shrimp, and egg-coated rice. The dish is festive and ornate, and is to the palate what it is to the eye. Each bite brings an explosion of flavors: the sweet juice of the pineapple marries with the tartness of tomatoes, while the nutty sweet cashews bring a welcome crunch. The chicken is tender and hearty, the shrimp pure and soft, and the scallions lend the perfect sharpness to counteract the otherwise rich ingredients. Despite the eclectic blend of ingredients, the dish is a harmonious whole, a welcome blend of sweetness with a savory undertone.
Spicy Lobster appears on the seasonal selection, and is recommended to us by Joanne herself. The dish is one of contrasts—dark sauce pools around pale pieces of spiny lobster, the thinness of the sauce contrasted by the plump, succulent flesh. Tucked amid the curled crustaceans is a colorful medley: diced red and green bell pepper, red onion, stewed tomatoes, and generous amounts of wilted basil. The dish is aromatic and enticing, the smell of basil greeting the nose and promising to please the palate. The sweet, soft onions and cooked tomato bring a comforting, familiar flavor, while the soy-based sauce seems refreshingly new. The most stunning bites of the dish are ones that combine the smoky, flavorful basil with the sweet, resonant lobster. The combination is beguiling and complex, a hint of spice tempered by natural sweetness. It is elegant and exotic, a perfect marriage of earth and sea.
Our last dish, Choo Chee Duck, is a showstopper. The dish is rich and decadent, with subtly layered flavors and a dichotomy of textures that absolutely captivates the palate. Like its predecessors, it is served on an enormous white platter that looks like it could easily accommodate four, if not more, servings. A blanket of thick, creamy coconut and red curry sauce blankets the slivered red peppers, lime leaves, peas and roast duck that comprise the dish. The first thing that hits me is richness—the sauce is an intriguing blend of sweet coconut and an underlying spicy curry that is not so much hot as it is flavorful. The second is texture—the thick, velvety sauce gives way to a surprise: the pieces of duck have been roasted, skin-on, prior to being added to the sauce, resulting in a delightfully crunchy skin. The duality of soup-like cream and crisp, sultry crunch is exhilarating, and despite its richness I find myself addicted to the dish. Each bite brings a complex rush of sweet and savory, creamy and spicy, soft and crunchy, all of which somehow play perfectly off one another. Who knew decadence could hit so many notes?
There seems no more fitting conclusion to this decadent meal than the simplest dish: mango with sticky rice. However, even this simple combination of fruit and starch is luxurious, thanks to a creamy, glistening coconut sauce that blankets the warm mound of sticky rice. The ring of mango that surrounds the pale rice is cool and moist, its temperature brining a welcoming contrast to the warm rice. A bite is sweet and soothing, the fresh diced mango lending a pureness to the decadent sauce.
While we have only tried a sampling of Celadon’s dishes, I feel I am left with a solid understanding of their cuisine. No one dish has been too powerful, or too spicy; each seems a rendition that emphasizes elegance and harmony over boldness or spice. As a result, the restaurant offers a seamless and smooth introduction to the flavors of Thai cuisine, filling a meal not only with enticing flavors, but with grace, elegance, and dazzling charm. With such exquisite eloquence in both cuisine and decor, Celadon promises to be one of Hillcrest’s star performers for some time.