Unless you show up at Lanna Thai an hour before closing time, as we did one recent Wednesday, you'll probably miss a scene that bodes well for the restaurant's food quality and potential longevity.
Just as we were ladling steaming cups of spicy Tom Yum Goong soup ($10.95) midway through our meal, the kitchen staff began filing out a couple at a time and dragging two-tops together to create a long table across from our window booth.
The front-house crew soon joined them, and everyone proceeded to eat a sit-down meal of various rice and noodle dishes together. Laughter and playful banter carried across the by-then-nearly-empty dining room, a large space elegantly adorned with beautiful wooden artwork and dressed in white linens under clean glass tops. (You'd never know it was formerly Culpepper's Louisiana Kitchen.)
A staff that enjoys one another's company that much — in a workplace relaxed enough to allow end-of-shift comingling with guests — is probably pouring more love and attention than stress into their food. And regardless, they're creating a warm atmosphere to which customers will return.
Lanna Thai, which opened in early October and is named after owner Varanya Meyer's daughter, is "not sweetened, not Americanized Thai." You'll find no MSG, only dishes endowed with floral, authentic spices like lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, sweet basil and a range of lively curries.
My aforementioned soup burst with flavor, understandable since between bites of halved mushrooms, tomato slivers and quality shrimp, I pulled huge chunks of galangal root off my spoon. When the product is this vibrant, I don't mind the sorting.
Hefty shrimp-and-chicken-stuffed rice-paper spring rolls ($4.95) make a great starter, filled also with fresh cilantro and basil and accompanied by a tasty chili peanut dipping sauce.
Pad Thai ($9.95), of course, is the universal Thai-restaurant comparison dish, and Lanna's strikes pretty true to touristy Bangkok street corners, though I could go for more generous helpings of peanut garnish and bean sprouts. Otherwise, the chicken, tofu and shrimp portions are fair, and Lanna's cooks are consistent with their heat index. Here, hot is hot; if you don't want a glistening forehead, definitely go medium.
Another standard for comparison, green papaya salad ($8.95), gets a different treatment at Lanna in that it's served as a fairly small portion with a trio of simple grilled chicken skewers. Though solid, it doesn't beat my favorite rendition in town.
Curry dishes are where Lanna really shines. The coconut milk-based Pa-Nang Talay ($15.95) is truly outstanding, packed with buttery scallops, non-chewy calamari, fine shrimp and white fish hunks, plus red bell peppers and ample basil leaves. On my second visit, the Gang Ga-Rhee curry ($10.95 as a full entrée) was up as the lunchtime curry of the day ($6.95), served with a light, clear soup. A touch on the sweet side, like Mus-sa-muhn curry, the Ga-Rhee pleased with chicken, potato and carrot hunks.
My only real complaint for Lanna was that on both visits, only the fried banana dessert ($3.50) was available. Though delicate and lovely with drizzled honey, I desperately wanted to weigh in on the coconut ice cream and Thai egg custard with sweet rice. For now, I'll consider them first among several reasons to go back.