Thursday, April 25, 2002

Middle ground

Posted on Thu, Apr 25, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Everyone has a favorite Thai restaurant. The town is full of them, some with bold and unique takes on the multicultural and ancient cuisine of Thailand, some sticking to basic noodle-and-chicken recipes.

Like every other variety of cuisine, there are interpretations of Thai that range from great to OK to really bad. Fortunately, Thai Villa falls into the middle category -- it's OK, doing certain things well and others, just passably.

Open since February 2001, the location formerly housed the Garden Chinese restaurant. As with other eateries on that crowded stretch of road in east Winter Park (Red's Caribbean Market and Stefano's Trattoria, for example), if you don't keep your eyes open, you will miss it. The parking lot is only slightly larger than the 10-table dining area, which is artfully paneled in slightly rough wood. There's an electric piano just inside the door, but fortunately, they don't ask for an audition before you're seated.

The menu doesn't hold many unusual items (it's amazing how familiar Orlandoans have become with Thai cuisine), although I was taken aback by the size of the stuffed chicken wings ($5.95). Stuffed with ground chicken and mildly sweet spices, then deep-fried, it's a pleasant dish, and there's a lot of it. Spinach and mushroom salad ($7.95) doesn't sound very Thai and it wasn't -- a bed of baby spinach leaves, sliced mushroom buttons and a sliced chicken fillet come doused in a peppery wine vinaigrette that I would have liked more without the dried bits of spices.

Noodle dishes, curries and "main" dishes are available with chicken, beef, pork, vegetable or tofu, and they're mostly variations of stir-fries, combinations of vegetables and different sauces. The ever-popular phad Thai was surprisingly bland, with neither lime flavor nor an abundance of peanuts to jazz it up ($7.95 to $8.95, depending on the meat).

A house special "seafood delight" ($9.95), offering tender squid and scallops, was not terribly interesting. The marvelously sharp smell of fresh ginger gave me a moment of hope when the "ginger duck" arrived, but I've had tastier, and tenderer, duck ($11.95).

One dish I sampled did step out of the mediocre; "spicy eggplant" ($8.50 to $9.50 with choice of meat) was very nice, with firm chunks of eggplant complemented by a touch of chili and Thai basil.

If you're hungry and in the neighborhood, you could do worse than this serviceable standby.


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