Dining review: Rice takes diners on a trip around Asia

SPECIAL TO THE IDAHO STATESMANMay 24, 2013 

  • RICE

    Address: 228 E. Plaza St., Eagle

    Phone: (208) 939-2595

    Hours: lunch: Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner: Monday-Thursday 4 to 9 p.m.; Friday 4 to 10 p.m.; Saturday noon to 10 p.m.

    Menu price range: appetizers $2.99-$8.99; soups, salads and entrees $5.99-$21.99

    Libation situation: Expect to find around a dozen beers on tap, bottles of Japanese and Thai lager, sake, plum wine and Asian-inspired cocktails.

    Family friendly? Yes. Most kids like chicken satay.

    Wheelchair Accessible? Yes

    Opened: February 2013

It's safe to say that Fon Tavijaroen and Toffee Dullaphan have long ago polished their vibrant Thai fare at Sa-Wad-Dee, a Bangkok-inspired eatery the women started nearly 10 years ago in Meridian.

These cousins, who grew up in Bangkok, broadened their culinary repertoire earlier this year when they opened a pan-Asian place called Rice near downtown Eagle, where the former River Rock Ale House spent more than a decade.

Rice's contemporary decor is also a fusion of concepts. It's eclectic to a fault. Colorful, glowing lamps and lanterns - no two are alike - hang from the ceiling, giving the dining room the appearance of a lighting-fixture showroom. Modern Asian art mingles with traditional-looking Oriental screens on the gold-hued walls. The stylish lounge area boasts an attractive wood bar, strewn with little Buddha statues and some other familiar Thai icons.

Diners can certainly travel beyond Siam here. Besides Thailand, Rice's contemporary menu also makes stops in Vietnam, mainland China and Japan, with a few excursions to Korea and India.

The menu itself, though, is rather disorganized (a jumble of home-printed sheets of paper), and surprisingly, not many pork dishes can be found within the copious pages. But there's lots of shrimp, beef, chicken and tofu intertwined into the various Asian cuisines.

While the cooks at Rice do try hard to get everything right, it's obvious the food from Thailand shines the brightest, considering most of the kitchen crew hails from the Indochina peninsula.

One night, I worked my way through some of the many vegetarian dishes. The Thai-inspired Buddha Noodles ($12.99) is a delectable tangle of silky rice noodles, asparagus, galangal root, tofu cubes, cilantro, hard-boiled quail eggs (vegans can have these left out) and crushed peanuts, drenched in a coconut milk-infused red curry broth, served in a colossal bowl. A side of aromatic jasmine rice helps to soak up the piquant curry - in our case, ordered about medium on the Thai-spice scale.

The fried green beans ($5.99) draw from a Vietnamese influence, yet Rice's version - a stack of battered, crispy green beans, served with Sriracha and sweet chili dipping sauces - is relatively pedestrian. In all fairness, it's easy to get spoiled dining on fried green beans at Vietnamese restaurants on the West Coast, where this dish is often incredible.

My palate dozed off for a moment while eating the Asian eggplant salsa ($5.99), a fusion appetizer lost somewhere between the East and the West. Lightly browned eggplant gets put to sleep in this bland salsa, with no other real discernable flavors, served with a scattering of multi-colored tortilla chips.

On the other hand, the green papaya salad ($9.99), a northern Thai specialty, is a refreshing knot of shredded pale papaya, carrot, green beans, grape tomatoes and toasted peanuts, tossed in a lime dressing that hints of Thai chilies and fermented anchovy sauce. The last ingredient, obviously, takes this salad out of the vegetarian category.

Rice dishes up Hanoi-style fresh rolls ($7.99), which are similar to the kinds served at Thai restaurants. Here, plump shrimp, basil, mint, lettuce, vermicelli rice noodles and shredded carrot get rolled tightly with moist rice paper into four tubes, served with a syrupy sweet-chili dipping sauce.

We went big with beef bulgogi ($17.99), a traditional Korean stir-fry of tender sirloin, onion and green bell pepper in a sweet and garlicky soy-based sauce, accompanied by little dabs of kimchi, pickled daikon radish and brick-red chili paste. The only problem with this dish, in our experience, was that the cast-iron sizzler the stir-fry was served on had lost its sizzle - due to our frantic server who carried the plate around for a few minutes before bringing it to our table. (Service here is sometimes reminiscent of the Keystone Cops.)

Later, during another visit, I focused on the restaurant's Japanese and Chinese offerings, most of which will be recognizable to American palates.

Rice's chicken tonkatsu ($12.99) is a straightforward version of this Nipponese hot-food classic: a crispy, panko-breaded chicken breast, sliced and fanned out over a dark and vinegary katsu sauce, next to a mound of fragrant rice and steamed broccoli and cabbage.

Barbecued pork fried rice ($12.99) is one of the few pork dishes on Rice's menu, but unfortunately, it's no more remarkable than any other wok-fried rice sold at Chinese restaurants in the Boise area.

We also weren't impressed by the Cashew Leeks ($13.99), a Mandarin stir-fry of shrimp, wood mushrooms, sliced leek, water chestnuts, bell pepper, toasted cashews and celery, in a watery brown sauce with no pronounced flavor. This stir-fry, served with chewy brown rice, could have used a few more minutes in a sizzling wok - to properly meld everything.

The hit of the night absolutely was the Japanese-style mochi ice cream ($5.99), an ornately designed dessert with delicious sesame and green tea ice creams, stuffed into pounded sticky rice skins, with caramel and dark chocolate sauces.

Email James Patrick Kelly: scene@idahostatesman.com

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