Venue Review: Deejai Thai Restaurant
The Charlotte Observer
613 Providence Road
In the elegant nook that once was Salute, near the Manor in Myers Park, a Thai place called Deejai (say "deejye," meaning happy) is careful not to assume diners know Thai food.
Hence the menu descriptions, which are usually wonderfully explicit ("This is a spicy stir fry curry" or "skewered & char-grilled lean sliced chicken breast or beef filets marinated overnight with curry") and occasionally cryptic ("This is enough for one hungry appetite to share"). Ingredients are specified and sauces are noted as sweet or spicy.
Friendly greetings and frequent check-backs from servers also aim to make the cuisine approachable. A spare décor, relying on subtle pattern and color and a few simple pieces of artwork rather than distracting color and costuming, helps keep focus on the food as well.
That does put pressure on the food to be excellent, and on servers to be up to the task of explaining preparations and ingredients, and here, Deejai proves less consistent.
Omjai Budsri (she goes by Jai, and pronounces that "jay") and her husband own the place, and Budsri's mother, Maneejun Sihavong, is chef. Sihavong is from Isan, in northeastern Thailand, but the menu includes dishes from several regions, and jasmine rice - not the glutinous rice preferred in the north and northeast - comes on the side of most entrees.
Best of what we had were lighter dishes, from a not-hot salmon curry to sliced beef in sweet sauce with broccoli (dubbed Mountain Beef) to a truly marvelous larb (ground chicken with roasted rice powder and a housemade chile sauce, served with both cabbage and lettuce leaves to roll the meat in).
Least successful were dishes described as having heat that did not: the chile lime soup called tom yum; the coconut broth known as tom kha; "drunken noodles" marked with two asterisks; and namsod, which is ground pork with chiles and ginger. Some dishes simply suffered from execution problems, such as the thick-skinned, coarse potstickers fried heavily, and a sea bass special (with a well-done ginger-herb sauce) cooked to toughness on one side.
Budsri, whose family has run Thai restaurants in the Atlanta area for years, says she's working to better assess diners' desires on spiciness. "I'm trying to take the stars (denoting heat) out of the menu and have servers talk to guests (and ask): Have they been to Thailand... do they really like it hot?" She says the kitchen is happy to oblige.
But she doesn't want to make people think all Thai food is spicy - and indeed, several dishes are not, especially at Deejai. Pad thai, the well-known dish of thin rice noodles pan-fried with egg and choice of meat, served with bean sprouts, peanuts and more, appears here in an even sweeter form than usual, and is tasty as long as you're expecting that. And a dessert of sticky rice with mango and vanilla ice cream was nearly perfect.
I'll be back, if only to dig into some larb and that sticky rice on the narrow terrace, which should be lovely in these next few weeks.