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Dining fit for the king and I

Royal Palace Thai on S Howard in Tampa perfectly balances sweet and heat in its delicious presentation of Thai favorites you already love with new dishes you'll come to love.

Is there a more perfect fruit than the banana? Aside from the taste, friendly texture and nutrition, there's the portability. I didn't think you could improve on the packaging.

Well, good Thai cooks, like those at Royal Palace Thai restaurant, have done the impossible. They envelop that exceptional fruit in a paper-thin wrapper and fry it, warming and enriching the flavor and creating a sensuous contrast between crackling crisp pastry and lusciously velvet banana. Dust with sesame seeds and set it against cold vanilla ice cream and you can forget bananas Foster.

Royal Palace does much the same thing for Thai cooking in general, putting the traditional range of flavors in an upscale package befitting its high-priced address on Howard Avenue, Tampa's Restaurant Row. Restaurateur Tapanee Damrongwatanasuk and husband Randall Knowles have had a place in Dunedin for seven years (closed temporarily until new chefs arrive) but they've given the Tampa restaurant extra trimmings.

South Tampa Thai fans who watched hungrily during the lengthy renovation have reason to thank Pinellas. They'll find that what had been a tiny cramped space is now a surprisingly open dining room with beautiful woodwork, a tropical aquarium and striking sculptures of gold and sequined deer in repose.

Although the food is not on the cutting edge of Pacific Rim, the cooking is authentic and the setting gives Thai cuisine the respect (and prices) it deserves, a cut above the ethnic bargain meal sought out by underground gourmands. Atmosphere and presentation make this sharp enough for a Gen Y date or other modest rites of friendship.

Most noticeably, Royal Palace tries to raise the bar on service. Granted when it's bad, it's bumbling, forgetful and clumsy, but when it's good, it's very, very good. One server had the polish of a grand hotel maitre d', culinary savvy of a New American foodie and more warmth than either one. He carefully explained each of the day's chalkboard specials and went the extra mile on the 1-5 heat rating."Two is medium, I'll bring a Three on the appetizer, then you can decide on the entree . . . we can make it Three and a Half if you want." Indeed, that'd be as far as the Nibbler goes.

The menu is divided between novice-friendly dishes like chicken breast and more genuine and relatively rare Thai dishes like tord kra-tiam, meat and vegetables in a garlic and black pepper sauce. It has all my favorites, lively meat salads, duck, frog legs and a rainbow of curries, and goes beyond.

There's lobster for the big spender _ handsomely presented with peanuts and tomatoes or chili paste; penny pinchers can get salad or lunch entrees with Chinese sausage, a cross between dry salami and a good chorizo with a sweet licorice taste I love. Besides tomato and pineapple sweet and sour concoctions, the most imaginative sauce steams snapper with peppers, onions and the usual vegetables with prunes.

The different taste of Royal Thai started at the beginning, and I never pass up Thai starters. The Nibbler and you are indebted to Thailand for giving us satay _ barbecue with peanuts and cucumber! _ but my favorites are soups and salads. Here tom khar spikes chicken soup with coconut milk, galanga, lemongrass and lime, perfect for flu season. When we're back to beating the heat, the Nibbler prescribes nam sod, an odd combination of chicken and mushrooms punched up with ginger and lime; like no chicken salad you know.

In entrees, the staple noodle dish of pad Thai was bland stuff, light on peanut crunch and scallion zing, so might as well start at the top with the seafood dishes. Tender lobster tail came out great with a modestly fired curry sauce as did the big butterflied shrimp scampi (proving there's a world of seafood preparations yet to try). Big frog legs (like chicken, yes, but much better) were crisply done with minty basil mixed in with the vegetables. By the way, vegetables were invariably crisp and bright, from snow peas to carrots and zucchini.

Red curry on the shrimp was lively stuff and I look forward to trying the full range, from more temperate yellow to the fiery green. Ideally I'd like to taste a Thai curry sometime made without coconut milk, to see if you can have the flavor with a little less fat.

The only misstep Royal Thai has made in its move up the food chain is in wine. On the plus side, there is a fair-sized wine list, on the minus, by-the-glass prices are too high and the whites are virtually all chardonnays. Too mushy and creamy for me, I'd like crisp sauvignon blancs or the refreshing spice of riesling or gewurztraminer, U.S. or French, I don't care. Both are terrific with Thai.

In the meantime I'll stick to Singha beer, or better yet, Thai tea, so milky and sweetly perfumed I might skip the fried bananas.

Naaah.

RESTAURANT REVIEW

Royal Palace Thai Restaurant

811 S Howard Ave.; Tampa; (813) 258-5893

HOURS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. nightly; Sunday brunch, noon to 3:30 p.m.

CREDIT CARDS: V, MC, D

DETAILS: Beer and wine; No smoking

RESERVATIONS: Recommended

PRICES: Lunch, $5.95 to $6.95; dinner, $7.95 to $14.95.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Outdoor seating

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