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Thursday, February 1, 2007

KATA TONIC

Fusion lounge invigorates Orlandoâ??s Thai dining scene

Posted on Thu, Feb 1, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Another day, another Thai restaurant opens its doors for business (yawwwn). Seems that over the past decade, sit-downs of the Siamese variety have lotus-blossomed across our fair city and, for the most part, offered a decent mix of cultural authenticity and moderately exotic interiors with their pad thais and panangs. But none really broke from the pack, and most opted for a formulaic, albeit successful, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix itâ?� approach ' a maxim that rings especially true in the restaurant biz.

So when Kata settled into the building that once housed an O'Boys Bar-B-Q, visions of gilded knickknacks, bamboo appurtenances and photos of the King of Siam and his consort swirled in my head. A can of baked beans and barbecue sauce might've made it in too.

To my surprise, however, Kata appropriated a slick, contemporary motif accentuated with cube ottomans, cushioned benches and a sushi bar nestled against a backdrop of deep-red, black and beige-toned walls. Hushed lighting lent an understated elegance and the Buddha Bar music had me bobbing my head while sipping on jasmine green tea out of a square teacup. (Word of advice: Don't bob and sip.)

Owner Ron Prampree and his sister Aou Whitlock modeled their restaurant after Kyoto Sushi & Sake Lounge in Delray Beach, where Ron served as head chef. No surprise that the theme here is decidedly more Japanese than it is Thai, and that sushi comprises a good chunk of the menu (32 rolls are offered). 'Kata,â?� in fact, is a term referring to the practiced movements of Japanese martial arts, as well as a wok-like Thai cooking vessel, and it's clear that Ron utilizes both when preparing his dishes.

Tobacco leaf isn't an ingredient in the Havana roll ($10), but sweet plantain is, providing a pleasantly sweet surprise that meshes well with the eel, avocado and cream cheese center. Fans of edamame ($5) will appreciate having the green soybeans served in a steamer basket ' a purposeful touch. I also liked the spicy conch/octopus ($9) saturated in a fiery kimchee/yuzu-juice mixture, and served with crunchy diced cukes. The sweetness of the conch worked better with the tangy spice than did the octopus, but the starter is a mouth-burner any way you cut it.

Pacing needed improvement ' our entrees were served too soon after the appetizers arrived, and the small table was barely able to contain everything, particularly the enormous plate of chili-sauced beef filet ($25). Yes, I wanted to ride the burn from the spicy conch, but what I got instead was an overly sweet, slightly runny and negligibly peppery dish. You can choose from a variety of meats, such as lamb and duck, or swap out the chili sauce for basil or peanut options.

Green curry with chicken ($13) isn't extraordinary, but will cater to both diners in search of a traditional meal and those prone to intestinal discomfiture. Cooked in a light coconut milk, the curry, with bamboo shoots, bell peppers and zucchini, had the requisite smack of lemongrass.

Rainbow ice cream ($5) was a clever presentation of three espresso cups filled with the intoxicating flavors of silky red bean, green tea and vanilla ice creams. The cheesecake spring roll ($6) was too thick and rich a dessert for my liking.

But props to the siblings for injecting some much-needed verve and élan into a dining scene set in its ways. There's nothing wrong with traditional Thai restaurants, but places like Kata offer an alternative, and do their part to mature a culinary movement.

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