Upon setting foot in Rama, Alex Thao's celebrated Thai restaurant on Fourth Avenue Downtown, I am not swept away. That happens after about 50 feet, which is about the length of the dark passageway that leads from the front door to the main dining room. It is then, at the end of the corridor, that I find myself letting out a gasp of both surprise and awe, for I suddenly find myself amid a dramatic, stunning space awash in mystery and allure.
The corridor opens to a cavernous space, a dream-like setting that seems both mystical and modern. The first thing that strikes me is the air—it is still and cool, and emanates calm. In a slow, sweeping glance, I take in the dramatic space. High ceilings host dozens of glittering sheer curtains, which hang from ceiling to floor, unmoving in the still air. A back wall stretches high into the darkness, a temple-like mantel of uneven, slate-like stone. In the center of the wall, a giant white buddha statue rests peacefully, while a slow trickle of running water flows down the stones behind him. For a brief moment, I forget that I am in a restaurant; I feel as if I have arrived at a spiritual retreat.
We settle into one of many cavernous curved booths that line the wall, a sheer curtain shielding us from the low banquettes and freestanding tables that fill the center of the room. Curtains hang between nearly every table, in a flexible design that both affords privacy and easily accommodates large tables. When a party of eight arrives, a staff member simply—and gracefully—ties a sheer panel in a large, elegant knot about six feet in the air, transforming it from a divider to a decorative pendant. Tables are easily pushed together beneath it.
The space fills quickly, both with large parties and smaller tables of two and four. While the restaurant would make a dramatic setting for a date or celebration, the family-style portions make it particularly suited to larger groups. And there is plenty of space—in addition to the main dining room, there is a large front room, which offers a more casual alternative to the dramatic dining room. This room boasts an open, airy feel, with light tan walls, simply set tables, and a wall of windows open to the street. An adjacent patio and a separate bar hug both sides of the room, with the patio a prime spot for casual people watching.
Nestled in the main room, however, we practically forget the street exists. Amid the dark light, the mysterious curtains, and the trickling water, it is as if we are in another land. As if on cue, a menu labeled "Drink Voyage" arrives, enticing us to surrender to our journey. I opt for a classic, the Rama Thai Mojito, which proves fresh and pure, a perfect blend of mint leaves, 10-Cane rum, course cane sugar, and fresh lime juice. My companion opts for the unique, the "Tao of Rama," a blend of Skyy Melon vodka and lychee juice, strained into a martini glass and garnished with a whole lychee. A sip is elegant and exotic, the silky texture both sweet and smoky, cleansing and pure.
The menu is vast and expansive, with an enticing selection of traditional Thai dishes that will challenge even the sharpest decision-making skills. There are dozens of salads, curries, noodles, entrees, and house specialties—all Thao family recipes—but the selection doesn’t end with what’s listed on the menu. Nearly all the dishes are customizable, with guests being able to choose the heat level of many dishes and the protein accompaniment to others—chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, tofu, shrimp, squid, scallops, and duck are all options offered for the noodle and curry dishes. Luckily, in the face of so many choices, the staff is eager to make recommendations and explain anything on the menu.
A plate of Heaven Rolls is one such recommendation, and for good reason. Six plump rolls sit in a pyramid on one end of an elongated plate, accompanied by a bowl of glistening peanut sauce and a garnish of crumbled roasted peanuts. Each roll is lusciously plump, its translucent rice paper bulging with the overstuffed layers within. A bite is all about texture—the silky coating pushes against the tongue, giving way to several variations of crunch: crisp greens, fresh cucumber, bursting sprouts. A core of velvety tofu and a dip in creamy, rich peanut sauce adds decadence to each bite. The appetizer is a welcome indication of the pleasures to come.
Yum Nua is a stunning incarnation of Thai steak salad. A heaping platter of thinly sliced, chilled New York strip steak rests on a bed of baby mesclun mix, studded with wilted red onions, sliced cherry tomatoes, napa cabbage, and cilantro. Where the Heaven Rolls were a delight in texture, this dish is purely about flavor. The steak's marinade, a bewitching concoction of lime juice, chilies, and ground rice, is sweet and tangy, lending a sweet citrus rush to each bite. Red onions creep into every forkful, adding a sharp, pungent undertone that perfectly balances the lime's sweetness. The bed of baby greens hides shreds of mint and green onion and is bathed in the same tangy, refreshing mixture that comprised the marinade. Between the myriad of textures and the wide array of flavors—sweet, tart, savory and salty—this is an absolutely sensational dish.
Drunken Noodles are another signature and one of Rama’s most popular dishes. The dish features wide, flat, and fresh noodles saturated with a reddish, dark brown sauce, weaving among tender slivers of pork, tangy cherry tomatoes, broccoli, and wilted basil. The lush, silky noodles grip the equally silky sauce, a bewitching blend of soy sauce, chilies, and basil. At an “eight” spice level, the sauce boasts delicious balance of heat and flavor, with a gentle kick that pleasantly permeates without overpowering. The dish is a blend of silky elegance and exotic spice, an introduction to the pleasures that lie within another country's cuisine.
The Crying Tiger, by contrast, is an approachable dish that would please even picky eaters weary of trying new things. The dish resembles the Yum Nua in presentation, although in much more generous portions. Thick slices of New York strip sit in a nest-like tangle between sliced cherry tomatoes and slivered cucumbers. The flavors here are muted and subtle, with only a simple marinade of lemongrass lending flavor to the rich beef. An accompanying ramekin of chili sauce is pungent and tangy, the unmistakable flavor of nam pla blended with chilies, lime, and ground rice. The plump, velvety beef is luscious on its own; dipped in the sauce it provides a sultry introduction to classic Thai flavors.
Pla Kra Trim is a treat, a generous serving of a whole Red Snapper fillet, bathed in a textured blanket of rich, resonant garlic sauce. The pale, boneless filet is perfectly moist, flaking apart with the touch of a fork and boasting a rich, almost milky flavor. The gentle fish elegantly embraces the feisty garlic sauce, a blend of rich oil, fish sauce, and chunky pieces of roasted garlic. A garnish of deep fried cilantro is playful and sultry, the crisp herb lending a cleansing, smoky flavor. The dish is feisty and bold, a balance between muted, moist fish and explosive sauce, and unlike any fish preparation I have tasted.
When it comes time to conclude the meal, the Deep Fried Bananas with Chocolate Chip Ice Cream are comforting and familiar, reminiscent of childish, county fair treats. Five balls the size of donut holes sit atop a deep bowl of glistening ice cream, the dark color of toasted coconut contrasting with the pale vanilla cream. A bite is comforting, the sweet, crisp coconut shell giving way to soft banana in a simple satisfaction. The ice cream is fresh and granular, and as it melts into a sweet, milky cream, I discover that it is studded with the smoky bursts of toasted sesame seeds.
Despite the comfort of the fried bananas, I am seduced by the Mango with Sticky Rice. The traditional sweet dessert is subtle and elegant and seems the perfect last indulgence before departing such a sultry setting. A fanned half mango balances atop a ball of sticky rice, the sweet, plump fruit garnished with a thick, pale coconut sauce. The rice is sweet and warm, and each bite provides a moment of comfort to relish.
Relish is something we have done often throughout this meal. It has not only been each dish’s captivating flavors and comforting textures, but the dining room’s dramatic setting and serene vibe. With Rama, Alex Thao has created a world where a meal is holistic—where appetites are sated, but, perhaps more importantly, guests find solace in a space that is simultaneously calm and energetic, inviting both relaxation and renewal. It is this combination of food and setting that allows Rama to live up to the true, original meaning of “restaurant”—it is a place that restores, in every sense of the word.