There was a time when local diners balked at anything more exotic than chicken chow mein or spaghetti and meatballs, cowed by the fear of "weird" ingredients and spicy foreign flavors.
Times have changed.
For proof, look no further than Peppermint Thai Cuisine, chef Matt Kanegkasikorn's newest Southeast Asian eatery, now thriving in Pepper Pike. How thriving? Try a 25-minute wait at 6 p.m. on a wintry Sunday evening — in the very heart of white-bread suburbia, no less. (Reservations are accepted, but only for parties of four or more.)
That crowd reflects an enormous surge in sophistication for Northeast Ohio's palate. But while we're cheering, we must acknowledge a niggling wrinkle: Many ethnic restaurants simply aren't as ethnic as they used to be.
For serious tabletop travelers, this "domestication" can lead to certain losses: less robust flavors, fewer exotic ingredients, and fellow diners who are apt to look a lot like you. On the other hand, it's hard to argue against things like charming decor, spotless restrooms, and unusual but approachable dishes that the entire family can enjoy.
That certainly holds true at Peppermint, where the rectangular dining room is done up in fresh flowers, recessed lighting, and wall-to-wall carpet. Along the walls, little niches hold seated Buddhas and framed palm leaves, while on the bare wooden tabletops, white porcelain dishes and red cloth napkins look Pottery Barn perfect.
Peppermint's menu is extensive, beginning with a dozen mostly familiar apps (think pot stickers and a fragrant chicken satay), a quartet of soups, and a handful of green salads. Then it's on to a half-dozen traditional curries (including the Indian-influenced massaman); at least 30 assorted noodle, rice, and fried-rice options (including two versions of the popular pad Thai); 16 "signature" dishes featuring sautéed fish, seafood, chicken, and duck; and finally, nine grilled options, including that perennial crowd-pleaser, the rib-eye steak.
Portions are ample, prices are moderate, and with most entrées checking in at less than $15, budget-minded couples can get out for around $40. For those on looser budgets, we'd also recommend a peek at the beer and wine list, where possibilities include Asian imports Singha (Thai), Tsingtao (China), and Sapporo (Japan) beers; Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, a crisp, citrusy New Zealander that goes particularly well with Thai; and Thai sangria, a refreshing swirl of Merlot, club soda, and orange, mango, and cranberry juices that makes a mouthwatering aperitif.
"Mouthwatering" also was an apt descriptor for the signature Landerwood String Bean, a tasty sauté of chicken strips, green beans, red and green pepper slices, snow peas, and cashews, bursting with tender-crisp texture. Melding it together was a vibrant curry sauce — sweet, buttery, and balanced by well-calibrated heat. To soak up every last drop, nutty brown rice made the perfect "sponge."
But such vibrancy was rare. Almost everything else was milder, like our tom yum goong, the famous "hot-and-sour" soup that should push a palate through some pretty sassy paces. Peppermint's version, in contrast, proved merely pleasant — bright, fresh, a little tart, but not the least bit spicy.
Also fresh but timid was the Lady in Green, a generously sized portion of mild steamed salmon, wrapped in Napa cabbage leaves and served over a bed of steamed broccoli, carrot slices, green beans, zucchini, and snap peas. Somehow, the splash of yellow curry failed to deliver the hoped-for "wow" effect.
Texture trumped taste among the noodle dishes too. Both the "spicy" pad Thai (thin, snappy rice noodles tossed with egg, tail-on shrimp, bits of chicken, scallion, bean sprouts, and ground peanuts) and a tangle of Crazy Noodles (broad rice noodles, pan-fried with onion, shrimp, chicken, broccoli, and carrots) offered a rousing interplay of crisp-versus-plush textures, although the flavor notes seemed sleepy.
But for serious crunch connoisseurs, the deep-fried Shrimp in a Blanket starter should be hard to beat, with five whole shrimp, each embraced in a frangible spring-roll wrapper, with plum sauce for dipping. Also packing crackle were the deep-fried Devil Wings — seven medium-size chicken wings, all crunchy outside and meltingly moist within. And don't worry about that drizzle of red sauce: The ketchup-like condiment offered just the barest hint of heat.
We boarded the dessert barge via a raft of sticky rice, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, translucent coconut jellies, and matchsticks of what proved to be underripe mango. Also available are options like green tea and ginger ice creams, and chocolate cake.
That chocolate cake might not be entirely authentic. But you can bet some timid voyager will like it just fine.