Benicia’s Expanding Restaurant Scene
Forever Sala Thai
Sitting in the recently opened Forever Sala Thai, Kay Loyola’s third act (the first being the original Sala Thai, and then Petals) I was checking out the welcoming décor. It’s classic Loyola, who knows certainly knows how to outfit a space. From the bamboo garden growing in pots along the restaurant’s exterior to the Thai silk fabrics flowing gracefully from the ceiling, the style reflects the Asian-fusion menu. The dishes here are a mix of Loyola’s favorites from Sala Thai, which she sold six years ago, and her creative take on staples from Pacific Rim cultures. Fresh ingredients are the focus, and we began our flavor adventure with the Miengkum, which, according to our server, is the picnic food of Thailand, where women bring the ingredients in backpacks to assemble and enjoy at a local park. An upscale cousin to the common lettuce wrap, this dish offers tiny cuts of fresh vegetables and other ingredients that, in addition to the piquant flavors, pack a color and fragrance punch. Medium-hot green peppers, red onion, fresh ginger, lime, red bell pepper, toasted fresh coconut and peanuts deposited on a spinach leaf, topped with sweet sesame sauce, captivated the palate and left us wanting more. A nice follow-up is the aromatic Tom Kha Gai soup, and with coconut milk, tender chunks of chicken, thai basil, mushroom and onion, it tempered the chilly drizzle that surprised us in early July. Kay’s signature plate was an artful concoction sautéed chicken, tiger prawns, Thai basil and grilled zucchini. Although the sauce was a bit sweet for my taste, I enjoyed the flavors and textures of the dish. Even with two of us splitting the entrée, it took a herculean effort to get through the Fried Banana with Ice Cream we ordered for dessert. The tiny fruits and sauce that came with it were gratuitous—the fried banana stood on it’s own. Open every day for lunch and dinner, Mon-Fri 11am-3pm and 5-10pm, Sat & Sun 12-10pm, 718 First Street.
Some folks are calling Kimono “BeniciaHana” due to its similarity to the Benihana chain. The Teppanyaki-style restaurant (food grilled tableside on an iron griddle) opened in May, to rave reviews and some who indicated, as with most restaurant openings, still had some kinks to work out. The valet parking in the restaurant lot is mandatory and free. Inside, the transformation is pretty dramatic, with a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The Teppan chef at our communal table was entertaining; demonstrating his knife skills while diners tackled the soup and appetizer course. The miso soup is far more flavorful than the standard fare in many Japanese restaurants. The soft-shell crab sushi, a real highlight, was followed by an exceptional chicken-fried rice which was a meal in itself. Onions were chopped and arranged into a “volcano,” complete with smoke erupting from the top, as the chef tried to fling pieces of chicken with his knife into the mouths of guests. The sea scallop Tentrée with grilled zucchini was good, however, they were slightly overcooked so next time I’ll ask for them medium rare. The steak, a tender and juicy rib eye, was cooked just right, and all the diners at our table seemed happily sated, lingering over wine and conversation. Diners looking for a faster turnover should sit at the sushi bar or in the back room, as Teppan table orders are cooked in sequence by type, which takes some time. Chicken orders were grilled first, then seafood, then steaks, so by the time the steaks were cooked, those with chicken dishes had finished their meal. But we were enjoying the general buzz of the place, so it didn’t detract too much from the experience. Replete, we skipped dessert on this trip, but look forward to indulging in something sweet next time. Kimono is attracting diners from all over the Bay, so reservations are a must if you want the Teppan experience. Walk-ins can sit at the bar, sushi bar or in the back room at individual tables. Open every day, Mon-Sat 11:30am-10pm and Sun 12-10pm. 1654 East Second Street, kimonorestaurants.com.