5 Bridge Square, Westport, (203) 557-9000, rainbowthaict.com
When someone told me that there was a good Thai restaurant in Westport, I didn't believe it. But it's true. Tucked into Peter's Bridge Corner, not looking like much from the outside, is Rainbow Thai. Just three months old, inside it's a cute little place overlooking the Saugatuck River and the bridges. The old wood building has been spruced up. Dark gleaming floors look like wood but probably aren't. The low ceiling is painted sea blue, and jewel-like lamps hang over the tiny bar area. The seats are comfortable.
At a recent weekday lunch, business was steady. An Asian family sat at one table, the father leaving the table frequently to take telephone calls. At another table were an Asian mother and young child who, after eating, ordered a big bag of take-out. At another table were a cheerful group of men in their 30s and 40s, business associates, it seemed. They ordered a bottle of wine, talked and laughed. When one guy's order of crispy whole red snapper (head and tail on), heaped with onions and bell peppers in red chili paste, arrived, it elicited lots of "ooohs" from the table. That guy had that "I ordered right" smile on his face. But so did the guys who ordered the crispy, panko-crusted calamari.
Sadly, much Thai food I've had over the years in Connecticut has been too sweet and stripped of spiciness. It's been dumbed down for timid palates. But Thai food is lively. It's sour, sweet, limey, herby, sharp with the bite of onion, soft with chewy noodles. The defining flavors of Thai food are strongly present in larb. This room-temperature salad of ground meat, lots of chopped raw onions, scallions, hot chili and herbs is dressed in a pungent sweetened, lime-spiked fish sauce, and sprinkled with toasted rice powder. It's a spicy, bright dish that awakens the appetite. I ordered it with a sense of trepidation. Would it be spicy? Well, there's a Thai cook in Rainbow's kitchen and he's not holding back. Rainbow Thai's larb woke me up. It left a lingering heat, a hot chile pepper high. Another thing I like about larb is how it's served on a big piece of lettuce, which tastes great with the sauce.
Larb is from northern Thailand and Laos, where blood is an ingredient in some versions. It's cooked with the meat. There are raw versions too, in which the meat is chopped with blood, kidney, liver and the like. While at first this seems gross, it's actually kind of like meat ceviche. The meat does get "cooked" by the acids in the sauce, onions and chiles. Still, I'll take it cooked, thank you. Papaya salad goes well with larb — the thin ribbons of green papaya are more starchy vegetable than the sweet fruit of a ripe papaya. It's dressed in sweet-sour tamarind sauce and sprinkled with peanuts.
We were trying to figure out whether to order Pad Thai or Drunken noodles. Our waitress guided us with a little encouraging smile, "the drunken noodles are spicy." Decision made: Drunken noodles with shrimp. ($9.95 at lunch/$10.95 at dinner) The wide noodles had a pleasant, soft elastic quality and a smoky, sweet, sour, spicy flavor. The seared shrimp were plump. There were lots of strips of onions and red and green pepper in the dish. Some say that red and green peppers have no place in Thai food, that it's an Americanism. Most of the dishes we ordered had a lot of green and red peppers, and it became a repetitive flavor. But I was happy with the Drunken noodles' edible garnishes, strips of carrot, shredded purple cabbage, and frizzy endive.
Red and green pepper returned in the least successful dish I recently tried, mussels. The description sounded great: with basil and lemongrass, and served with a spicy sauce. The green-tipped New Zealand mussels were too separate from the steaming liquid, which though full of lively Thai spices, was thin. I longed for some emulsion, a bit of coconut milk, perhaps. We made do with the "house spicy sauce," potent and zingy fish-sauce-based, which we spooned onto each mussel. It wasn't a satisfying dish.
Rainbow Thai is owned by the same man who owns Planet Noodle, an Asian fusion place in Fairfield that opened in October of last year, and Ayuthai in Guilford. Like the latter, Rainbow Thai has a few Vietnamese specialties on the menu. The French influence on Vietnamese food is evident in the sizzling pancake, a big crepe filled with shrimp, crab, ground pork, mushrooms, onions, bean sprouts and ground peanuts ($15.95). It's one of the most popular dishes on the menu. Rainbow Thai also makes Vietnamese summer rolls, filled with shrimp, rice noodles, lettuce, basil and cilantro, wrapped in rice paper and served with peanut sauce.
The worst thing about Rainbow Thai is the small, crowded parking lot. But I'd brave the parking lot again for a spicy lunch overlooking the river.