I have visited Thailand several times during a long and adventurous life, floating down the rivers of Bangkok and venturing to the northern area of Chiang Mai, even to the beautiful island of Phuket with its fabulous Aman resort. My L.A. experience with Thai food has been limited to occasional visits to Talesai on Sunset and the bitingly hot Jitlada in Hollywood. So when knowledgeable food fancier Martha DeLaurentis told me that the three generations of women responsible for 15 years of Talesai's success had embarked on a new journey with another restaurant, I immediately called a friend and went for dinner to Si Laa (1128 S. Robertson Blvd, 2 blocks south of Olympic on the east side of the street, plenty of street parking (310)-858-7738). And thus began another unexpected, wonderful culinary journey, one which will affect me most positively from hereon in.
Hidden Treasure is the name of this amazing starter, a delicious entry to the food.
I had called on Monday for a reservation, leaving word, not knowing that the restaurant is normally closed that day. But a pleasant-voiced woman called back to confirm my table, and when Steve Shulman and I arrived we realized that there was a private party of eight doctors in the side room, which explained why they were open. A charming youngish woman greeted us and we settled into the long main dining room, which looked more like a modern art gallery than a dining spot, with elegant table settings and a small bar in the rear. Martha had suggested a few dishes, and we began our dinner with Hidden Treasure ($13). The charming woman chef, Ben Yenbamroong, emerged from the kitchen carrying a metal platter with seven recesses, each topped with a capsule. The recesses contained one small prawn topped with a dab of blue crab and drizzled with a piquant, complex yellowgrass curry sauce and a sliver of kaffir lime. It was a perfect one-bite. My companion, who is a board member of a prominent New York restaurant chain, rolled his eyes and said, "This is fabulous." He repeated that many times that first evening. That dish was followed by Short Ribs ($17) braised in a green coconut curry sauce, served with warm, buttery roti flat bread, addictive.
Ben Yenbamroong is the co-owner and head chef of Si Laa.
... and her mother, 80-year old Wilai, is also cooking from her famous recipes.
Ben's sister Tee, who with the chef's daughter Lin runs the front of the house, said that the three generations of women are part of the family which has been behind Talesai and Café Talesai for the past 25 years. They recently left their nephew in charge of the fold to open their own place, this stunning little gem on South Robertson. Soon a smiling small gray-haired woman came out of the kitchen to greet us, Khun yei Wilai, the 80-year-old grandmother and matriarch of the family, the master cook. She reached over and rubbed the stomach of the 100-year old sacred jade Buddha which I always wear around my neck, saying in her broken English, "This for luck." She knew why I am never without it... and it has brought me incredible luck in the ten years I have been wearing it. (Given to me by a Vietnamese restaurateur after I helped get her a liquor license.)
Short ribs in green curry sauce with warm flatbread.
At which point several dishes appeared on our table, and Steve and I dug in to a remarkable feast of incredible taste delights. Potstickers ($6), chicken and vegetables with a ginger soy sauce, followed by Asian eggplant ($9), with garlic and Thai basil. "Your whole fried Branzino ($26) will be out in a moment," we were told. Steve had examined the boutique wine list and selected a Chateau Montelena Cab ($86) for our dinner, a fine choice. The wine list is surprising, with some unusual and exciting offerings in all price ranges.
The whole fried Branzino is superb, crispy and succulent.
I have eaten fried fish all over the world, especially in Chinese and Greek restaurants... but none surpassed a magnificent sea bass delivered on a sizzling platter. The breading was light and tasty, the flesh was sweet and firm, not overcooked, and I confiscated the head and tail for myself, as usual. We ended the meal with their legendary coconut ice cream, rich with shreds of the nut, so refreshing. The bill was reasonable for the Michelin-quality food we had eaten, and I told the women that I would be back shortly to continue the review.
Pad Thai is the signature dish of all Thai restaurants, here in a delicious version.
On Sunday, following an afternoon performance of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, at the Music Center (glorious, frivolous, such fun!), I convinced my ex, Annabelle, now Steve's wife, to accompany me to a follow-up meal, promising her that she would not be disappointed. She wasn't. We arrived on Sunday at 6 pm without a reservation, and found several other tables already occupied. Our waitress told us that the previous night, Saturday, they had been so busy that no one could get in without a reservation. The word must be out... good! We began our dinner with the Crispy Soft Shell Crab ($12), slivers of lightly-breaded crab served with a sweet chili- lime-garlic sauce. As Annabelle took one bite, then a second, I knew we would be alright.
Martha had recommended two dishes which I wanted to try, the Chilean Sea Bass ($20), a hefty fish filet which was crispy on the outside, succulently soft inside, served with a tamarind sauce. And we then had the Filet Mignon ($21) served with green beans, with a garlic soy sauce. The morsels of beef were tender and juicy, very enticing, while the beans were crispy. Still not full, I ordered the traditional Pad Thai noodle dish ($16), rice noodles mixed with shrimp, crabmeat, egg, scallions, roasted peanuts, one of the best versions of this signature dish I have ever had. Of course we finished with the coconut ice cream, sprinkled with berries and crushed nuts.
The Filet Mignon with green beans is a real winner!
A few days later I returned with two women, both vegetarians, who love and know Thai food. We began with crispy Garden Rolls ($6), with a sweet plum sauce, followed by Green Papaya Salad ($11), spicy, with cashew nuts, baby tomato, and a garlic-chili-lime sauce. Knowing that Ben visited the Santa Monica Farmer's market several times a week, gourmet 'Raw Chef' Kirsten Gum ordered the Farmer's Market Vegetables ($12), with red coconut curry, so tangy and fresh-tasting. I deviated from their regime by ordering the New Zealand Lamb Chops ($23), grilled with a kicking Thai-chili-garlic sauce. Probably the best lamb chops I have eaten in many, many months... and I am something of a lamb aficionado. The Spicy Crab Noodles ($14) were delicious, with half coming home for lunch. Yet to be explored are the crispy duck and the roasted chicken, as well as many of the noodle dishes. Think Devil Noodles, wide rice noodles with short ribs, in a chili garlic Thai basil sauce. So much more to explore here... all in due time, but this is one of those rare restaurants where I anticipate my next visit with great glee.
All meals should end with a dish of their refreshing coconut ice cream.
This is Thai food on a higher level than ever before. I can compare it to Wolfgang Puck's WP 24, which lifts Chinese food to an ethereal stage. With its simple, tasteful art-filled decor, and the three smiling, charming women running it, SiLaa, which means 'rock' in Thai, is a true gourmet dining find of the highest order. The people in Bangkok should be jealous. The restaurant is open Tuesday to Sunday from 5:30 to 10 pm. Reservations are recommended.
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