Noi - The Art of Taste

Brewsta discovers a great new Thai restaurant, in the Malá Strana building that used to house DownTown Cafe

"Change we can believe in."
Barack Obama
The world has changed.

After a long and lamentable period of stasis and status quo, there was a paradigm shift last week.

This is news you can use. Yes, you can.

And the change is that I have a new favorite Thai restaurant in Prague.

It's called Noi - The Art of Taste. Our first meal there was so enjoyable, it is in strong consideration for Regular Rotation status.

I stumbled on this just-opened place by accident. I love these kinds of surprises.

I was walking down Újezd in Malá Strana, and I noticed the changed signage and new window decorations.

I was on my way to Luka Lu to meet V for Balkan food that night, but I made a mental note and we returned a few days later.

We happily discovered that the food at Noi was almost exactly how we like it, and the dining room was a stylish place to be.

What more do you need? How about decent prices? Yes, they have those, too. This amazed me, given the location and atmosphere. It certainly increased my enjoyment level.

The lights were low, the walls were beige, and the furniture was chosen for its Zen-like qualities (I kid you not -- check the website).

There were cool candleholders on the tables, and some big, comfortable leather chairs with low tables for lounging.

It all appeared to come from the Le Patio Lifestyle shop next door, so you can get a funky lamp to go with a takeout order, if you want.

Not everything was perfect in the dining room. Some tables looked a little too close together for my comfort level.

We felt lucky the restaurant hadn't been discovered yet. It was not full on a Friday night, and we didn't have to sit next to anyone else.

If you really want peace and quiet, there's a lovely outdoor seating area in a courtyard out back, well-isolated from the nearby tram lines.

For our dinner, we sat right near the window for the open kitchen. There is an orange film over the window, which makes it seem otherworldly, and keeps the harsh white kitchen lighting out of the dimly lighted dining room.

I started with a bowl of Tom Kah Kai soup (70 CZK). I loved it for two reasons.

First, it was made with coconut cream, rather than coconut milk. It reminded me of a very creamy Tom Kah Kai I once loved long ago. Second, it was pleasantly sweet.

This may come down to personal taste, but this was exactly how I like it.

It was not a very complex iteration of the soup, but it hit enough of the right notes, with properly cooked, tender chicken, sliced mushrooms, galangal, cilantro, and fish sauce.

All too often, I've run into more savory, less creamy versions of this soup and been disappointed. Now, I know where to go for my fix.

The bowl was on the small side, but I did not mind this at all. I don't need big portions for a big price with a soup course.

V ordered the Tod Mun Koong, better known as shrimp cakes (80 CZK). They were fried to golden perfection.

The cakes were crispy, with very little grease. And they were very shrimpy in texture and taste.

We like shrimp. We like fried things. But I'm almost always disappointed when I order shrimp or fish cakes at an Asian restaurant. They are usually grease sponges with too much bread or batter filler. Not so here.

You could deduct a point for the bottled sweet chili sauce on the side. But I really don't mind the stuff, and the quality of the featured player on the dish overshadowed that issue in my mind.

For a main course, I got the Phad Thai Koong or Thai noodles with shrimp. For me, it is a key dish for judging a Thai restaurant.

This was one of the best versions I've ever had. Seriously. It had a terrific balance of flavor. It had a touch of sweetness, countered by sourness from lemon juice.

There was a perfect mix of chopped peanut, shredded carrots, green onion, sprouts, fried tofu, and even chopped lime leaf. I love lime leaf. I didn't detect much egg.

There were also plenty of fresh, medium-sized shrimp with the tails removed. I was surprised they only charged 160 CZK for it and that they charged the same for the version with chicken. I even asked the waitress if the menu was correct.

But I just looked at the menu on the internet, and the prices there are different. The Phad Thai with chicken is listed at 180 CZK, and the Phad Thai with shrimp is 220 CZK. It seems I got an introductory price.

For perspective, I used to get Pad Thai Koong at Tiger Tiger (RIP) and it cost 260 CZK. At Modrý Zub, it costs 205 CZK.

V ordered Ped Phad Kra-Prao, which is duck with Thai basil. We paid 180 CZK, but the internet menu says it is 190 CZK. Rice was extra (40 CZK).

The meat was quite finely chopped and mixed with the basil, white and green onions, and very spicy red chilies.

We thought it was on the salty side. The basil is meant to help with that, but it was a little overwhelmed.

I'd never had this dish before. It had potential to be great. But I'll probably try something different next time.

We had a variety of drinks. They only had Stella Artois and I believe Staropramen on tap.

Not my favorites (and I am aware these are disliked by many people I know). I really wanted beer so I had two Stellas (50 CZK each).

V had two glasses of Leon Cavallo Chardonnay (60 CZK each).

She said it was "OK and didn't offend." Especially for the price.

V also had a bottle of Bonaqua sparkling water (40 CZK).

And then she decided she wanted a Mojito (130 CZK). On the plus side, it tasted very good, with plenty of squeezed lime wedges in the glass.

On the downside, it was not a very big glass, and it was filled to the brim with crushed ice. So, a few sucks on the straw and that sucker was gone.

I had had enough and was ready to ask for the bill. But V felt that we really had to do a thorough job and see what the desserts were like.

They had a nice display case full of options. After much debate, we chose a chocolate cake. We both thought it was dee-lish.

It was made with vertical layers of yellow sponge cake, with a light mousse-like cream and a dark chocolate icing.

What made it extra special was that there were little pieces of apricot mixed in. And unlike the cakes in many cafés, it was very fresh.

The place just opened, so I make some allowances, but service could have been better.

A beer order was forgotten, and I sat with an empty glass for a while. It took a bit of arm-waving to stir the waiter's memory, and it came soon after.

One other aspect of the service is worth mentioning, and I only realize this as I look over the receipt. They forgot to charge us for the dessert. If I had noticed it that night, I would have pointed it out and paid for it.

The total tab for this meal came to 920 CZK.

Consider that we had two courses each, two glasses of wine, two beers, a cocktail, and water (dessert no charge), and it looks like a bargain. Granted, it appears the regular prices will be a bit higher, based on what the internet menu says.

Still, you could eat and drink more conservatively and have a meal for two in the 500 CZK range.

Noi - The Art of Taste took over the space that was occupied by DownTown Cafe -- a place that never pulled me in for some reason. And it seemed it didn't grab a lot of others, either.

Now, I'm planning a return visit. And I'm pretty sure there will be more people in the dining room the next time. The days of walking in without a reservation on a Friday night will come to an end.

That's change you can believe in.

Noi - The Art of Taste
Újezd 19
Prague 1 - Malá Strana
Tel.: (+420) 257 311 411

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