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REVIEW: Chedi Thai Bistro

Chedi Thai Bistro
Courtesy Photo

You walk in to Chedi Thai and you’re already pretty jazzed. After all, chances are you’ve probably snagged a parking spot nearby; something that can be quite tricky in La Jolla. Believe it or not, this is something the owners of this quaint eatery considered when selecting the spot. That focus on the customer extends beyond the availability of vehicle bays, and no matter what you order once you’re at the restaurant, your parking-induced happiness is bound to be built upon thanks to a staff that, from hostess to back-of-house, is all about making sure patrons are comfortable and sated.

Few restaurant reviews start out with talk about the service component. Usually it’s straight to the food, which is fitting. But these folks deserve top billing. They’re something special; a group that, by and large, is extremely young, yet surprisingly deft in the areas of attentiveness, respectfulness and tact. It’s clear by the way they balance cheerfulness and professionalism (read, they engage you without getting into some lengthy conversation, they don’t tell you their names, but you feel like you know them by meal’s end), that they’ve undergone some effective training by ownership…something that’s sorely missing from many establishments of similar size in San Diego, where service in all industries tends to be sketchy. It’s another testament to the thoughtfulness presiding over this eatery.

If the customer is king (OK, I’ll throw in one royal wedding nod) here, then cuisine is queen (well, maybe two). You won’t find the Asian fusion or ultra-contemporary takes on Bangkok classics. Here, it’s all about traditional Thai food and flavors. While they do dress up their dishes with modern presentations that are vertical and appealing, the kitchen stays true to the tastes that inspired them to open the restaurant in the first place.

As with the majority of Asian restaurants, the menu is voluminous, but the prices are such that sampling a number of items in one sitting is plenty doable…and enjoyable. I would say the best appetizer is the Thai crispy calamari. I have never been a huge fan of calamari since most times I get it, it’s nothing more than chewy rings of blandness caked with blobs of soggy breading served with fresh-from-the-can marinara sauce. However, I couldn’t get enough of this dish, which is surprisingly tender and, even more surprisingly, bursting with sweetness and chili spice. I could take or leave the fried basil garnish, but will gladly glom my chops around as many bites of this crunchy, tasty treat as I can get on future visits.

There are a number of other starters, including shrimp mousse “parcels” wrapped pyramidically (perhaps a reference to chedis, which are mound-shaped Buddhist structures) in wonton skins. They’re served with a kaffir lime curd that comes across as lime-spiked crème fraîche. There’s also steamed vegetable dumplings filled with an exotically sweet mix headed by shiitake mushrooms and spinach, and corn cakes that, while fried, don’t come off “crispy” as they’re billed on the menu, but are pleasant enough. And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the cooling, yet back-of-the-palate zingy green papaya salad. It’s almost like a slaw of julienned fruit with cashews, long beans and a dressing that sings with citrus and spice. These dishes are all have their charm, but entrées is where Chedi’s kitchen excels.

There is a defined focus on seafood here, with dishes like seared Atlantic salmon with caramel soy sauce, in-shell garlic shrimp and stir-fried tilapia. One of the finest and most interesting is the red snapper; two long filets of boneless fish with baby bok choy and a “three flavor sauce” that balances sweet orange with heat and a sourness that brightens up the whole dish. It’s the most fish you’re likely to get at any sit-down restaurant for under $20 and a taste combo that’s hard to come by. Those who aren’t fans of seafood can find skirt steak with tamarind-sesame sauce, a grilled pork chop studded with Thai herbs or a rack of New Zealand lamb with coconut milk and Massaman curry sauce that should sate the need for heartiness just fine.

Truth be told, the best dishes I’ve had at Chedi don’t even include meat. The Drunken Noodles come with chicken, but really don’t add much to the party. It’s all about the noodles, which look like Italian pappardelle and are pleasantly chewy without being gummy. The whole dish is an amalgamation of earthy spices that’s mild at first, but mounts up as you consume. That process is accelerated notably when you hit a chili flake.

The one dish I found myself thinking about, literally, for days to come, was the green curry. Again, its protein component is chicken, and again, it really doesn’t even need to be there. I’d be happy with more of the tender chunks of Thai eggplant that are buried in this velvety, avocado-hued bowlful of curry, coconut milk and soul. You take a bite and get that hey, this is good feeling. The next thing you know, you’ve downed half the bowl, your body temperature has risen several degrees and you have a thin film of sweat across your brow and a deeply satisfied feeling in your stomach. Now that’s good eating.

There are more dessert options here than one might expect. When mango’s in season, they pride themselves on their mango sticky rice, but a nice deviation that doesn’t stray from the heart of Thailand is a taro root custard that’s big on vanilla, creamy and almost bread-like in its density. It’s dressed up with vanilla ice cream, a tasty green tea wafer cookie, pulverized pistachios and sweet potato purée that’s like eating the filling straight from a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. Like everything at Chedi Thai, it comes out from the kitchen at lightning speed and makes for a very nice endnote. It’s certainly worth saving room for…especially since that curry heats up so well the next day!

Details »
  • City: La Jolla
  • Phone: (858) 551-8424
  • Name: Chedi Thai Bistro
  • Address: 737 Pearl Street