Go: 2942 Wasson Road, Oakley
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; and 4-9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Several
Accessibility: Fully accessible
Stepping inside Green Papaya, I'm immediately tuned in to the knowledge that I'm about to receive a wonderful meal. The pale green glow of the dining room makes my boyfriend think of photosynthesis, and later I can't stop thinking about it as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of food, environment and people at the new Oakley restaurant.
Besides serving a diverse menu of inspired Thai dishes and gorgeous sushi at reasonable prices, it's the overall calming effect of the space and service that will make you want to return.
The dining room feels spacious but intimate. Tables keep to the outer edges of the room, with a small fountain in the center. The high, vaulted ceiling is painted a deep brown. Midway through our meal we notice that an angled ceiling mirror gives us a bird's-eye view of our table, where plates are carefully placed and removed by the harmonious staff.
The owners are a young, husband-and-wife team: Sak Kertpet, who worked as a chef in Boston before moving to Cincinnati in 2000, and Ta Panichluechachli, who runs the front of the house. Ta says they wanted the place to feel like Cincinnati and Thailand combined and to have a relaxing effect.
Before opening our menus, we take a moment to admire their craftsmanship.
They're bound with a ribbon, covered in the same nicely textured fabric as the tables and embroidered with the restaurant's logo, a simple contour drawing of the midsection of a papaya.
Our server, the only staff member of non-Asian descent, seems to have picked up on Thailand's famous hospitality. On her recommendation, we start with Golden Bag ($5.95), four tofu-skin-wrapped gift bags of firm, juicy shrimp, water chestnuts and mushrooms, all tied up with nori, steamed, lightly fried and served with sweet plum sauce.
We also try a sample platter of Nigiri Sushi ($14.95), a colorful assortment of red and white tuna, yellowtail, salmon, shrimp and tamago (egg). The evenly cut fish is so fresh that I'm careful to use only small amounts of wasabi and soy sauce. If I were dining alone, I'd sit at the sushi bar in the corner so I could watch the sushi chef (Ta's brother) at work.
Included with the Nigiri is a simple green salad and miso soup. The former is nice, the latter entrancing. Storm clouds of miso particles rise up amid a swirl of tofu and seaweed as I move my spoon through the bowl, and the sensation of the broth in my mouth matches this aesthetic perfectly.
Green Papaya Salad ($5.95) follows. It's one of several menu items highlighting fresh fruit. Big on flavor and light on calories, Ta says it's a popular diet dish in Thailand. Papaya, string beans, carrots, tomato, garlic and roasted peanuts are tossed in a nice balance of fish sauce and lime juice. It makes a deep, crunching sound in the mouth, but the sweet, sour and spicy flavors ring like tiny bells.
We order everything "medium" on their spice scale. In this dish the spice is most evident, but not overpowering.
Thai entrée choices are many, categorized into noodles and fried rice, curries, stir-fries and fish. There are creative dishes you won't find in other Thai restaurants, including a section devoted to health-conscious choices. Translation: Maybe it's time to branch out from the Pad Thai.
We try Green Curry with Duck ($13.95) and Beef Macadamia ($11.95). The duck is tender and rich; the curry lighter than most and the accompanying vegetables are fresh and not overcooked.
The beef is the standout of the meal. The well-marinated tenderloin is stir-fried with creamy macadamia nuts, chunky mushrooms, broccoli, bell peppers and snow peas in a faintly sweet, complex brown sauce. Every bite is so intensely satisfying that it's easy to stop eating when I'm full.
Green Papaya doesn't have a liquor license yet, but they do have something most Cincinnati restaurants don't: Bubble Tea ($3.50). For the uninitiated, this Asian beverage swept the globe in the 1980s. If black tapioca pearls slurped up a fat, neon-colored straw doesn't make you cool, I don't know what does. If this doesn't appeal to you, the Jasmine Lime iced tea ($1.95) is refreshing and grown-up.
There are several good lunch deals, including Lunch Box ($8.95-$9.95) take-out options that include soup, appetizer, fruit and a nice selection of sushi and Thai dishes.
Having worked briefly as a server in a fairly standard, Americanized Thai restaurant, I've seen firsthand the amount of sugar and flavor enhancers added to your typical order of Pad Thai. Good, authentic Thai food balances sweet and salty with more complex spicy, sour and bitter flavors. If you've never experienced anything other than Thai food modified for farangs (the Thai word for gringos), you're in for a real treat at Green Papaya.