Photo by Anne Fishbein
Sometimes change is good. Twenty-five years ago, I used to eat at a crummy little hole in the wall red-sauce Italian joint in a rundown mini-mall on the northeast corner of Sunset and Silver Lake. I fell in love there and, not so long afterward, broke up with the guy in one of its split, red Naugahyde booths. For years, I’d think about him — a big guy with a heartbreaking voice — whenever I drove past; I noted when the Italian place became Mexican, then closed up entirely. I rued the little mall’s ongoing dereliction, and duly noticed, in the last year, that the corner was beginning to pick up; not only is there the new, popular Pho Café, but a new Thai place with a lovely cut-metal sign: Rambutan.
Inside, it sure ain’t the starving-student meatball joint I once frequented. In fact, Rambutan is one of the prettiest, most elegant remakes I’ve seen in a long time — all pepper-sauce red and lime green, with comfortable moss-green leather banquettes and handsome dark wood furniture. One long wall is padded in shimmering silk shantung. A Sputnik-inspired chandelier hangs like a starburst in the bar. A great gold Buddha head carved into wood planks refracts light in the back. The old concrete floor is stylishly distressed.
It’s not surprising that a cool, quintessential Silver Lake crowd comes in for dinner. Rambutan is hip enough for designers and artists, romantic enough for dates, and authentic and passionate enough in its cooking for ethnic-food lovers, and this last fact, in particular, is a heartening find. Many Thai restaurants cater to timid American palates; they play down the chile heat, eschew the fish sauce, and sweeten too many dishes. But the Rambutan kitchen refreshingly and correctly assumes that its clientele has the sophistication and ability to appreciate the full Thai flavors. Well, almost full: The heat level is never scorching, although I’m sure they’d give you red hot on request. At the same time, the ingredients are of above-average quality, and the portions are unusually generous. It should also be said that the kitchen is particularly swift; this is a place to come with a big, immediate appetite.
The front of the long, skinny menu is a lengthy list of “Thai tapas” and should not be ignored. Curry dumplings, stuffed with shrimp and scallops, are sauced with lively green curry; we shared one with the table next to ours and they promptly ordered a plateful. Lime juice, chile and fish sauce dress the “beef waterfall,” a traditional grilled beef salad heaped as individual portions on sturdy cabbage leaves. Larb, the ground meat salad, shares a similar dressing and is also served on cabbage; we had it made with pork, which is especially good here.
The rest of the very large — almost daunting — menu is shot full of pleasures. The seafood hot pot (with scallops, shrimp, clam, calamari) has a compelling broth flavored with kaffir lime, galangal root, lime juice, coconut and subtle, alluring heat — it’s the kind of dish you like more with each mouthful. Similarly, the salad of shredded green papaya, studded with crisp green beans and juicy chunks of tomato, is at once crunchy and quenching. The duck slices on the duck salad are tender and meaty, but the salad itself — spinach with some thin carrot discs — lacks the fullness and interest of other dishes.
With many of the dishes — the wok dishes, the curries, the vegetables — customers choose which meat they’d like with the stated preparation. For example, we tried the spirited panang curry with pork — a good match with the sweetness of tamarind and coconut. Our vegetarian dining companion added fried tofu to the kang dang, another richer, slightly hotter red curry made with chunks of zucchini. But more timid eaters will find plenty of accessible, Americanized crossover hits on the menu’s “from the grill” section. These are rather American-looking square meals with a Thai flair — meat served with rice and steamed vegetables. Crying Tiger is a sliced, marinated and seared rib eye served with a side of pepper sauce — really, nothing there that I see might inspire extreme emotion in human or tiger. But the Siam pork chop is fabulous — the marinade has only amplified the tenderness, succulence and intense flavor of the meat.
Sautéed morning glory, also called “Thai spinach,” is cooked with an adult dose of garlic, while eggplant is made soft and slippery in a mild pepper sauce. Here the most popular Thai noodle dish, pad Thai, has the texture of the best versions — al dente noodles, bean sprouts, scallions and peanuts each add their signature crunch — but is too sweet with tamarind. I’d rather save my sweet tooth for the rich and cool coconut flan for dessert.
Rambutan has such seductive style and atmosphere, I forgot for an entire evening that over there, not far from the middle mirror, my heart was once broken over a plate of mediocre meatballs. In retrospect, of course, I’m glad it was. Sometimes, change is for the better — Rambutan is proof positive of that.
Rambutan Thai, 2835 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (213) 273-8424. Lunch and dinner Sun.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Beer, wine and sake. Lot parking. Entrées $8–$14. AE, MC, V.