At 9 years old, my satay-loving son Arthur is still an optimist. It's the only way to explain why he agreed to a $100 bet during a recent family meal at Thai Kuu in Chestnut Hill.
I predicted that our empty appetizer plates, which we'd been staring at for 45 minutes, wouldn't be cleared before the main courses arrived. Arthur, in a friendly vote for the servers, boldly predicted they would.
The chances weren't good. Dinner had already sputtered quickly from promise to disaster in one of the most inept displays of service I'd experienced this year. With crowds swelling both in and around Thai Kuu, whose 40-seat glass box of a room and 46 outdoor seats were already overwhelmed beneath the strip mall's portico, we'd waited nearly an hour to receive our appetizers.
In the meanwhile, the waitress had mauled the cork from my BYO wine, obliviously presenting it like a piece of half-exploded performance art (the rest was floating in our wine). A food-runner was positively flummoxed at a simple question when he hastily delivered our soups. ("I don't know if this is 'tom ka' or 'tom yum' - my head is spinning!") The poor fellow then nearly melted down when we asked for more water: "I can't get you water or silverware, I'll need to get your waiter," he said. "Can you give me a physical description? Is he Asian?"
An all-points bulletin wouldn't have been enough to snag the speeding blur that was our server. When he finally did stop - entree plates in hand! - he waited impatiently, as if it were our job to clear the ruins of our first course.
After a wrangling plate exchange to settle our entrees, Arthur, naturally, didn't miss a beat in executing one of those slippery 9-year-old-boy kind of flip-flops: "You lose, Daddy, you owe me a hundred bucks!"
The joke looked to be on me all around. Because not only did I just lose a bet that I'd actually won, none of the food we'd eaten that night was even remotely worthy of the wait or expense. The cooking at Thai Kuu - frustratingly bland, surprisingly pricey, consistently underwhelming - was as disappointing as the service.
But ultimately, the big losers are the diners of Chestnut Hill. That's frustrating, because it just seemed that Germantown Avenue was getting some culinary traction with ambitious Mica. The rest of Philly, too, has gotten an injection of new Thai options with surprising Circles (the ambitiously authentic and polished cafe in Newbold) and just-opened Sawatdee glowing lime-green on the corner at South and 15th.
Thai Kuu makes the most upscale splash of the lot, with a white-leather-chair and illuminated-bar revamp of the earthy-but-tasty former Persian grill known as Shundeez. It's owned by Steve Cooley, who works in aerospace engineering, and his Thai-born wife, Atchara Cooley, who worked as a server at several local restaurants (Thai Pepper, Chabaa Thai, Azie) before launching her own venture. She'd previously managed her sister's restaurant in northern Thailand, too. But instead of the vividly spiced and exotic flavors that I've come to expect from truly authentic Thai fare, the overly timid dishes here were shooting mostly blanks.
When my guest at a subsequent meal asked that his Chu Chee on Fire duck be served "spicy," we couldn't have found a better metaphor for its flavor than the shredded vegetables that arrived on top, weakly flickering like a nearly extinguished birthday candle with a splash of ignited rum. The duck, bought pre-roasted from an Asian market in South Philadelphia, then flash-fried to life here for a few minutes, was fatty and chewy. The red chili sauce was a salty brown gravy with no discernible spice.
I detected a little more flavor from the standard red and green curries, which get rehydrated from store-bought pastes with a little coconut milk, fish sauce, and lemongrass, and come with your choice of protein. These were more than acceptable with slices of beef (best with the red) and plump shrimp (with the brighter green). I also found a reasonable level of sour and spicy savor in the ground chicken laab, which comes splashed with lime juice, fish sauce, lemon leaf, and galangal. A tempura-crisped soft-shell crab starter, full of sweet fresh meat, was among my favorite bites. The earthiness of deep-fried "golden bag" dumplings of minced duck was set off nicely by a sweet and spicy chili dip.
For the large part, though, dull flavors were the rule, whether it was the chicken satay (overcooked as well as bland, despite an Indian curry marinade), a pointless salad of bland, chopped, grilled chicken bits over what seemed to be undressed mixed greens, or the stir-fried chicken lettuce wrap, a starter so dull it made the P.F. Chang's version seem electric.
Ditto for the pad Thai, which was sweet with no trace of sour tang, and not even a pinch of enlivening heat. Oddly, the Chilean sea bass we ordered to garnish it, at $21.95, arrived on top as a big slice, battered and deep-fried like a piece of fish and chips that had lost its way from one of the pubs down the street.
Such pallid cooking is unexpected from a place that makes a big show of tableside sizzle. The specialty gimmick here is the 700-degree hot flat rocks that come to the table topped with ingredients you're supposed to cook yourself. But these were not just the most expensive entrees on the menu (from $22 for tuna to $29 for mixed grill - the $35 kobe steak has been nixed), they were also the biggest disappointment.
It's clearly too much to ask of diners to do the task properly themselves - especially when a $27 New York strip arrives already sizzling on the rock medium rare, as ours did, because the server had neglected to bring it out promptly. Plus, there were no side plates provided to remove the cooked food - so we had to eat fast, or eat it overcooked. It's even more problematic when it comes to the fast-cooking seafood. On a mixed grill of unseasoned shellfish and fish, only the salmon was hardy enough to endure steady heat without turning to rubber. Among the most disconcerting were the large scallops, weeping a milky ooze that frothed up on the hot stone - a trait typical of "wet" scallops (pumped with preserving solution) rather than the dry-packed mollusks Thai Kuu says it buys. The house sauces, which range from thick and sweet (teriyaki) to jarringly sour and spicy (Ocean), are worth avoiding.
Dessert, it turns out, was among my favorite courses, with a gingery crème brûlée and a coconut-creamed sticky rice with luscious mango. Of course, it was a chore simply to order. The servers, grouped only a few feet from our table, were so deeply engrossed in glass-polishing and fork-sorting for the next day, they seemed flustered to be interrupted.
Unless Thai Kuu wakes up to focus its flavors and service, I don't think even the most optimistic among us would bet in its favor.