The "Thai-ed" is rising in Pinellas County, and Suda Deowpawaropas has a lot to do with it. She's an owner of the King and I and Chiang Mai in St. Petersburg, and in October she launched Sabai at the border of Safety Harbor and Clearwater. It's a bold move in a way: Ban Thai and Thai Spice across the street are the 900-pound gorillas among Thai restaurants in this area. Sabai also offers a sushi menu — going head to head with the established Ocean Blue Sushi, also just across the way. The question then becomes, is there room for another one? Sabai is doing lots of things right. It's a bright, sprightly place in shades of new-grass-green, with manager Whan Ponttush a lovely presence in the dining room. The sushi menu leans heavily to the familiar, with not a ton of signature rolls. Sushi presentations are tidy and straightforward, on simple white square platters. The kitchen goes light on the volcano and eel sauces (a plus in my book).
Still, the sushi isn't dramatic or unique enough to generate droves of fans. The Thai food is more apt to accomplish that, with a vibrancy and verve that puts it pretty high up in Pinellas County's Thai offerings. You have seen this menu before: red, yellow, green, panang and jungle curries; pad Thai and fat, slithery pad se-ew; fresh rolls and spring rolls. But it's the grace with which these are accomplished, paired with a short list of house specialties, that elevates Sabai (a Thai word that translates roughly as "happy" or "comfortable").
One night, we ordered a specialty of tempura eggplant ($11.95). Simple enough, but, wow, was it good. Rounds of eggplant thickly battered and fried crunchy, on a bed of still-crisp mixed veggies, all of it paired with a generous tub of coconut-tinged peanut sauce, not too sweet. Dipped or poured, the sauce brought the elements together lusciously.
A textbook pad se-ew with tofu ($8.95) featured spongy fried cubes hiding amongst the wide rice noodles glistening with a sweet-savory black bean sauce, fluffs of egg and mini florets of broccoli lending texture and depth.
A duo of fresh rolls ($4.95) seemed fairly pedestrian, with planks of fake crab dominating the more delicate flavors of shrimp, rice noodles and bean sprouts, but the house chicken satay ($5.95) were delicious enough with their smoky, coconut curry marinade that they didn't strictly need the ramekins of peanut sauce and sweet, quickly pickled cukes, but we scooped it all up avidly nonetheless.
Lime juice, lemongrass and chili paste dominate on a variety of snappy salads, from the crunchy shreds of green papaya ($5.95) with a flurry of chopped peanuts and lengths of green beans, to the larb (chicken or pork, $7.95), a texturally interesting dish that pairs ground meat in a lime-forward salad with ground roasted rice and wisps of red onion and cilantro. This whole section of the menu is refreshing and punchy.
As with most Thai restaurants in these parts, the beer and wine list is small and modestly priced, the Thai iced tea and coffee the more interesting beverage route. And for dessert, coconut ice cream with battered fried bananas is the standout, the lush cold creaminess the perfect foil for crunchy hot banana discs.
Okay, you're going to see a lot of similar menu items at nearby Ban Thai and Thai Spice, or even at Deowpawaropas' other properties. It's a "greatest hits" approach that offers a lot of crowd pleasers, but in this case it's served graciously and in a setting that embodies the definition of "sabai."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.