On its way through University City and Olivette, Olive Boulevard provides a comfortable home to many restaurants. Most are Chinese and Vietnamese, but there are Japanese, Indian, Caribbean, Mexican and American establishments as well. And now there’s Thai cuisine, too, at Land of Smile.
And while smile is singular in the restaurant’s name, it became plural for most diners on the evening we visited. Many seemed to be regulars, given the number of enthusiastic greetings from the staff. In addition, several of the things we ate we later saw traveling to other tables, the sort of omen we take as a good one.
The menu displays more than six dozen items, some we haven’t seen before. Many show a Chinese-American influence, like the crab delight appetizer. While the fried dumplings are shaped like wontons, they’re essentially a very good crab Rangoon, light and crispy, not at all greasy. On the other hand, the Thai sausage appetizer was something completely new for us. Diagonal slices of a coarse-ground sausage ("very hot,"warned the young server), arrived with a handful of dry-roasted peanuts. The sausage was quite spicy, maybe a 6 or 7 on a scale of 10, but not blistering. Juicy and full of other flavors like lemongrass and galangal, it was simple, but definitely a hit.
Phla shrimp, in the salad section, was a lettuce salad dressed with the chili-lime dressing that’s often used with the ground-meat salads in Thai restaurants. Thin slices of red onion, a few pieces of green onion, and several cold shrimp were tossed in as well. A dish with practically no fat, it’s dieter-friendly, if the dieter can take the heat, which also was in the 6 to 7 range of that same scale.
However, most Asian restaurants that indicate spicy dishes also can adjust the heater, either up or down. Just ask the server.
We recently read on the Internet that phad Thai is a relatively recent addition to Thai cuisine, a dish created in a contest for a "national dish." If true, it’s a let-down, but true or not, it’s something we often suggest to Thai food novices. As one of those basic dishes that everyone does a little differently, it can show how much skill the kitchen possesses. At Land of Smile, the dish is perhaps not as handsomely garnished as some we’ve seen, but it certainly scores in the taste department. Made with tamarind in the sauce, it’s tangy without being peppery, the rice noodles not oversoaked to gooeyness. It’s made with the diner’s choice of meat; our option, pork, appeared as thin cross-grain slices that had been seasoned and quickly sauteed before being added to the tossed noodles and sauce. A tasty rendition of a classic.
Phad cha showcased some immense green-lip mussels that were stirfried with onion, pepper, garlic, holy basil and a seasoning called krachai, a rhizome known in English as fingerroot. The latter’s contribution to the dish was subtle, but the resulting pan juices were delicious, not fiery but a happy seasoning for rice. Another stir fry, phad eggplant, had rounds of sweet, tender Asian eggplant, nuggets of chicken breast, onion, pepper, garlic and basil, but we thought we detected a little ginger in there as well.
Pataya shrimp was a winner. Somewhere between a stir-fry and a curry, the shrimp arrived with some scrambled egg in a yellow sauce rich with coconut milk, its slight sweetness a good match with the shrimp. All in all, a luxurious dish, even if it was not quite as spicy-hot as we would have liked.
Fruit pops up here and there on the dessert list. We ordered the rambutan with pineapple. Rambutan is like a large lychee, similar in texture, although slightly more tart. These are canned, of course; we occasionally see fresh lychees in the market, but have yet to come across fresh rambutan in the United States. The rambutan arrived without the pineapple, but served the way lychee often is, mixed with ice cubes to chill the fruit. Fried bananas were wrapped in wonton skins and deep-fried, arriving in a tulip glass with vanilla ice cream. More interesting was black rice, which refers to the variety of rice, not some ingredient that colors it. Creamy but still slightly al dente, a little sweet, it was delicious. The other rice dessert was sweet rice with custard. It’s a short-grain sticky rice that’s been cooked in coconut milk and topped with some custard, a little sweeter than the black rice, but with texture that was more complex in the mouth.
The servers were young and friendly, although we had a long gap after the main courses until the table was cleared and desserts were offered. But frankly, if the food is this good, we can live with that – and smile as we wait.
Land of Smile
9641 Olive Blvd, Olivette
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Fair