Flavor: Fresh, traditional Thai
Ambiance: Spare but homey
Service: Gracious, sincere and slightly overwhelmed
When Lenny DiMaio, the co-owner of Noi's Thai Kitchen, informed me that his wife Noi insisted on doing all the cooking at their new restaurant by herself, I was so skeptical it must have shown.
"Really," he insisted. "She won't let anyone else help cook, least of all me. She wants everything to be consistent." But how, I still wondered, can any one person possibly run a restaurant kitchen and handle all of the cooking with no helpers, save the dishwasher and the prep guy?
As it turns out, such hard work is nothing new for Noi. Raised in northern Thailand, she started working in rice fields at an early age. When she was 7, her father passed away, so young Noi took it upon herself to support her family, always working at least two jobs at a time. She put her brother, her sister and then herself through school, and eventually became the prime minister's dentist.
Three years ago, Noi moved to Raleigh, where she worked in commercial kitchens at night and dental offices during the day. Somehow, she still found time to cater for many of the dental patients some of whom begged her to open a restaurant. She decided to grant their request, albeit in Asheville rather than Raleigh. As it turns out, one city's loss is indeed another's gain.
I visited Noi's Thai Kitchen for dinner on Jan. 31, the restaurant's opening night, with my Picky Companion and two other friends in tow. We were greeted by relaxingly mellow music a fortunate touch, since the place was presided over by only one (frazzled yet congenial) waitress, and the city had not yet come through with a beer and wine permit.
We had plenty of time to pore over the menu, delighting over such entries as beef salad with "tasty sauce." ("That's much better than the 'unpalatable sauce' I had in Thailand once," Mr. Picky deadpanned.)
When the waitress, who's also from Thailand, had finished helping some take-out customers while simultaneously greeting newcomers and delivering checks she arrived to take our order. (At this point, we decided that multitasking must be the official sport of Thailand, and had half a mind to applaud her routine.) Unfortunately, exactly half of our requests were met with a sweet smile and a well-rehearsed mantra: "Sorry, we don't have that maybe tomorrow!"
Our first appetizer was a traditional spring roll. One diner judged the dipping sauce, which was sweet and accented with shredded cabbage, to be "pleasantly cruciferous." I remarked that I was glad we'd ordered finger food, since the silverware had yet to arrive, and I was hungry enough to eat half of the menu.
"That's good," Picky Companion replied. "They only have half of the menu."
Any annoyance with the wait dissolved with the appearance of the next appetizer. The Som Tom, or green papaya salad, had excellent depth of flavor and a delightfully crunchy texture, and was perfectly seasoned with fresh chilies, herbs and lime juice.
The Yum tofu arrived next. Although I'm not one to fawn over tofu, this appetizer was fresh, delicious and distinctly devoid of fish sauce (take note, vegetarians). Next, the beef salad, or Yum Near, met with varying reactions: Two of the diners at our table thought the dish was merely satisfactory, but I found it to be flavorful and quite salty in a way that seemed just right. Picky Companion liked it enough to ferret it away at his side of the table.
Although the two entrees we ordered were outshone by the dishes before them, they were still quite good. The vegetables were perfectly done, crunchy and, again, very fresh. When the red curry at first seemed a touch too sweet, Noi threw in some extra spice for us, fixing it right up. And while I thought the Pad Thai was also on the sweet side and a bit heavy on the anise, I noticed several people around us inhaling the same dish like there was no tomorrow.
Everything in Noi's kitchen is prepared fresh every day by a skilled hand, and it shows. All of my dining companions declared this to be one of their favorite Thai food experiences in Asheville to date. Most, if not all, of the flaws we encountered could be chalked up to standard opening-night "working out the kinks." That said, I do remain skeptical of whether Noi can remain the restaurant's sole cook. If her talents attract as much business as I expect they will, even this seasoned pro might need a little help in there.
[Late-breaking update: Shortly before this issue of Xpress went to press, I checked in with Noi's to see how things are going. Less than three weeks after opening, Lenny was proud to report that some 150 diners a record for the restaurant showed up to enjoy Noi's delicious cooking on Valentine's Day. And it turns out that Noi will be accepting a little help after all: The couple will be hiring a trained Thai chef to help with the influx of business.]