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First Look: Noi Thai Cuisine in Waikīkī

This new upscale Thai restaurant is heavy on the presentation—and price.


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Presentation is everything at Noi Thai Cuisine, an upscale Thai restaurant that held its grand opening in the Royal Hawaiian Center in January. This is the Thai larb, served in an ice sculpture to keep the minced-meat mixture chilled.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox

 

I don’t usually equate Thai food with upscale fine dining. My experience is more often like chicken pad thai and sticky rice in takeout containers so packed with food I’m set for a week.

 

But Noi Thai Cuisine, which held its grand opening in the Royal Hawaiian Center in January, is trying to change that perception, at least in Hawai‘i.

 

This is the sixth location for the restaurant group, which originally started in Washington in 1989 with Bai Tong Thai. Its first Noi Thai restaurant opened in Bend, Oregon in 2012, with another slated to open in Seattle this year. Co-owner Chadillada “Noi” Lapangkura decided to open a restaurant in Hawai‘i after visiting the Islands, when she noticed a lack of upscale Thai restaurants here.

 

“We want our diners to have the ultimate dining experience, starting with the ambiance, the service and the taste,” says Ying Rosawan, the restaurant’s general manager.

 

It’s obvious from the moment you approach the restaurant on the third floor of the rejuvenated shopping-and-retail complex that this is not your ordinary neighborhood Thai restaurant. The dark woods, plush seating and pre-set tables with china, woven plate mats and black napkins cinched with gold wreaths make it look nothing like the hole-in-the-wall Thai spots I’m familiar with. This 160-seat restaurant sprawls across 5,500 square feet—a space formerly occupied by Five Star International Buffet—in a setting befitting Thai royalty. (Which, incidentally, is the theme of the restaurant.)

 

Inside Noi Thai Cuisine, tucked away on the third floor of this retail-and-restaurant complex. This restaurant sprawls over 5,500 square feet of space.

 

Here, presentation is everything. The restaurant has a chef dedicated to just the carved garnishes for each dish, which can run from a small flower that takes a couple of minutes to create to a carved watermelon that takes up to half an hour.

 

“We want you to eat with your eyes first,” Rosawan says. “Taste comes afterward.”

 

The price reflects this effort. Curries run from $31 for a bowl of yellow crab curry to $54 for green curry with wagyu beef served sizzling in a hot-stone bowl. And the pad thai with prawns—one of its most popular dishes—costs $28.

 

Then you have dishes like the Angry Ocean, a stir-fry seafood spread with lobster, squid, prawns, scallops and mussels served in dramatic fashion for $49. Or the highly Instagrammable Royal Hawaiian Dream ($39), with mahimahi and Thai spices presented tableside and topped with cotton candy. (Yes, cotton candy.) The server drizzles a garlic-lime sauce over the sugar fluff, melting it into the dish while adding sweetness. It was more a novelty than something I would order again.

 

We started with an appetizer that, at least on the menu, was one I was familiar with: Thai larb ($28), a minced-meat salad that usually arrives on a plate with lettuce leaves large enough to serve as cups for the meat mixture. Here, though, the presentation was over-the-top, with the larb—including slivers of carrots and red onions and whole mint leaves—served in a small ice sculpture that looked like an acorn. Surrounding it were julienned carrots, daikon and shoots, a stack of super-green butter lettuce and celery carved into a flower. The larb’s flavor was enhanced with ground toasted rice tossed in a zesty lime dressing, and the addition of chili peppers give it a much-needed kick. The ice sculpture kept the mixture nice and chilled, though it likely drove up the price, too.

 

The house specialty is the crispy garlic chicken ($29), a dish of lightly battered boneless chicken pieces that are deep fried, then stir fried in a sweet, garlic-infused sauce and topped with crispy-fried basil leaves and slices of red bell peppers. This cluster of sticky-sweet, highly addictive chicken bites was served with jasmine rice in a small glass container in which you’d imagine a genie lives. Pricey, but definitely worth it.

 

The candy-coated crispy garlic chicken is one of the restaurant’s house specialties. 

 

Another popular dish is the yellow crab curry ($31). Served in a beautiful, gold-laden porcelain bowl, this aromatic curry boasted a generous helping of tender Alaskan crab meat cooked with coconut milk and betel leaves. There was almost too much crab—if that’s possible!—though the spicy, smooth curry created a nice balance for the sweet crab meat.

 

Don’t expect large, family-style plates here, though the portions are just big enough to split between two. Unless you’re starving, in which case you’ll likely polish off this bowl of curry all by yourself.

 

Noi Thai Cuisine doesn’t skimp on crab in its yellow crab curry. The claws add a nice touch to the presentation.

 

Noi Thai serves three desserts (not counting several Häagen-Dazs ice cream flavors): black sticky rice pudding served hot with coconut milk, mango sticky rice, and gluay baud chi ($9), a dish with half-ripened banana simmered in coconut milk and palm sugar. Served warm and without much ado, this was a nice, comforting ending to a very decadent meal.

 

Probably the simplest dish of the night, the gluay baud chi is a dessert featuring half-ripened bananas that have simmered in coconut milk and palm sugar.

 

The restaurant also has a decent lunch menu, serving smaller portions of its popular dishes such as the crispy garlic chicken and prawn pad thai, with combo sets for $17.95, from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. It also has a variety of vegetarian options, including a spicy Thai basil stir-fry ($22) and a rich red curry ($23) with red chili paste, bamboo shoots, kaffir lime leaves and fried tofu with pineapple rice. Happy hour runs from 3 p.m. to closing at the bar and lānai seating only, with discounted cocktails and appetizers.

 

This isn’t the first place I’d hit up to satisfy an emergency Thai craving. And it’s too upscale and pricey for a casual weeknight dinner. But for special occasions—birthdays, anniversaries, big Vegas wins—this would be definitely be a consideration. The menu here is interesting enough to make the meal memorable, and the ambiance and impeccable service elevate the entire experience.

 

But if I just want chicken pad thai, stuffed chicken wings or panang, I have other places in mind.

 

Royal Hawaiian Center, 2301 Kalākaua Ave., Building C, Suite 308, 664-4039, noithaicuisine.com

 

READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX

 

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