It was Saturday around 7 p.m. Prime time for a restaurant. Yet there you are, one of only two parties at the Coconut Rabbit, a 3-month-old Thai bistro on a relatively obscure bit of Katella Avenue in Los Alamitos. You look around the empty room—at the crisply pressed linens, the flickering votive candles, the beautiful moss-covered logs decorating the walls—and wonder: Where is everybody?
You'd been there a few days earlier, and it was exactly the same scene: barely a handful of customers in a romantically lit space with the capacity to handle at least five times that. That night, after finishing one of the most flawless Thai meals you had ever eaten, you realized that you'd stumbled into the best Thai restaurant since Thai Nakorn. Coconut Rabbit, you think, should've had them lining up for blocks.
It must be said that Thai Nakorn and Coconut Rabbit are very different in appearance, menu and mission. If Thai Nakorn is a grand department store of Thai cuisine, Coconut Rabbit is more of an intimate, carefully curated boutique. Though some entrées are served family-style, a lot of the dishes follow the French school of plating and presentation, with swipes of sauce on some and deliberately dramatic garnishes on others. This makes more sense when you find out more about the chef from the young lady in charge of the dining room. She reveals the chef is actually her aunt, a Thai mother who, after a lifetime of cooking for her family, decided to go back to school at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. And the young woman is a Le Cordon Bleu Paris graduate and serves as the restaurant's pastry chef.
You discover that if there were one dish that demonstrates what wonders could result when a master of Thai home cooking gets formal Le Cordon Bleu training, it would be the corn fritters. On the plate are about six, each the size of an hors d'oeuvre, each served in a tiny, crispy shell filled with the delicately battered kernels and a thimble of spicy-sour-sweet sauce for dribbling. You eat one fritter, then two, then three . . . only stopping when you realize your date hadn't yet caught up. There's a mushroom-and-chicken-filled bowl of tom kloeng gai, a chicken soup made tangy by tamarind juice. As you sip this obscure cousin of tom yum, you navigate your spoon around the big stalks of lemongrass, the whole kaffir lime leaves and the galangal slices that nearly crowd the bowl. Though inherently inedible, these herbs continued to intensify and perfume the broth, making your next sip tastier and more aromatic than the last.
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A main course of pad prik king—a stir-fry with a soulful, fermented, shrimp funk in its red-ginger curry paste—had filaments of kaffir lime leaves scattered as though confetti, while the sambal-like paste stuck like napalm on the carefully trimmed Blue Lake green beans and scraps of tender pork. And then there was a dish you never expected to find in a Thai restaurant: a carpaccio of wild king salmon, sliced thin and raw and resting atop tumbleweeds of shredded romaine hearts with curls of cucumber and pineapple chunks, then brushed with a dressing made from passion fruit. It was everything a carpaccio should be—refreshing, balanced and cosmopolitan.
You try more entrées. There's the braised beef short rib swimming in an almost-soupy panang curry you soak into a side of rice. There's the tamarind chicken, its fingers of white meat flash-fried so the outer surface remains taut and firm after being coated in a sticky-sweet tamarind-and-coconut-sugar sauce and tossed around in a wok with deep-fried kaffir lime leaves, shaved crispy lemongrass and wisps of crispy fried kale. There are satays, very good ones that can come on their own with a traditional peanut sauce and toast or paired as the protein in entrée salads of fancy greens dressed in the restaurant's own Thai vinaigrette. Also offered are the tried-and-true: a flawless pad see ew, a curry-laced pineapple fried rice, and the ka-prow—a basil and onion stir-fry with a meat of your choice—served simply and fuming from the wok.
Dessert is just as sublime as the meal that preceded it. A mango with sweet, sticky rice is made extra-special here. The rice is formed into a neat cylinder on a banana leaf, still warm and sprinkled with just-toasted sesame seeds, and then topped with a tuile, a lacy, homemade French wafer the young pastry chef carefully baked just for the purpose. You also discover she makes a panna cotta worthy of a Top Chef. It's about then that you ask again: Where is everybody?