By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
Garnishes function as punctuation marks, visual flourishes to call our attention somewhere on the plate before us. It's the parsley sprig or the cherry on top. Except in Thailand, where it can be radish roses, carrot pinecones or incredibly elaborate pineapple birds. The art of fruit and vegetable carving, called kae-sa-luk, dates back more than seven centuries, a serious pursuit that often makes classical French garniture look like Play-Doh time at preschool.
Lanna Thai, a 4-year-old restaurant at Tyrone and Bay Pines boulevards, takes such things seriously. The elegant painted platters, the juxtapositions of colors and shapes, the intricately carved garnishes — the aesthetics of plate presentation are important here. Similarly, owner Willie Pudsone and staff attend to a meal's pacing with care and solicitude. No one is rushed, the table is lovely and even leftovers are whisked attentively into to-go boxes.
I'd heard from several reliable readers that it's among the bay area's top Thai restaurants, and after a couple of visits I tend to agree. Dishes are seasoned to suit a Western palate (sauces can be fairly sweet, heat levels are pitched baby-bottle mild), but there's no denying the talent in the kitchen. Cold yum salads are dazzling and vivacious — lime juice, fish sauce, lemongrass and roasted chilies in a delicate balance that shows off mixed seafood (think Thai-style ceviche, $9.95) or tender, gingery ground pork ($7.95). Very refreshing and crunchy, they make a good introduction to the house specialties.
People in Thailand do not generally use chopsticks (except for Chinese-style noodle dishes or in tandem with a spoon for soups). The primary utensil is the spoon. Forks are used, but often just to push food onto the spoon. And there are no knives at the dinner table. This could track back to times when a knife at table was a sign of aggression toward your tablemates, but it could also be a point of pride for the Thai cook that each dish is crafted of perfectly bite-sized pieces.
This is surely the case with Lanna's volcano shrimp ($16.95) and green curry chicken ($9.95), the latter with perfect breast-meat lengths surrounded by green peas, carrot, bell pepper and swaths of just-wilted basil, the former a similar array of veggies topped with shimmery Thai chili-sauce-slicked tender shrimp.
The kitchen seems to hit its stride most elegantly with seafood dishes (frog's legs lovers will be breathless at the array of options), the sizzling mixed seafood grill ($25.95) a sumptuous pile of lobster, scallops, shrimp and squid in a sweet-salty brown sauce that brings out the briny freshness of the sea creatures.
For dessert, there is one clear winner. Lanna's fried banana with coconut ice cream ($4.95) is a surefire crowd pleaser — the overeager among your party will pay, with the blistering hot banana packets wreaking havoc on the roof of your mouth. Wait a moment, take a bite with a dab of ice cream and it's nothing short of delightful.
The pretty dining room sports an unfortunate vanilla air freshener. Better to remember Lanna Thai by its delicate galangal and lemongrass scents or its elaborately carved kae-sa-luk masterpieces.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.