Tranquil Thai: Art spices up Rio Hill offerings


With the dizzying array of restaurant options in downtown Charlottesville– new, old, or recently updated– it's easy to lose sight of eateries in other neighborhoods. Especially when the neighborhood in question is more like a series of shopping malls than a recognizable "community," as is the case with Route 29.

And yet, just as new-and-improved commercial centers prepare to open or break ground, so are new restaurants popping up on this busy strip to give shoppers some novel alternatives. The past two years have witnessed the arrival of Five Guys and Panera (Barracks Road), Superstars Pizza and Milan (Emmet Street south of Hydraulic), and The Grounds Café as well as the under-new-management Maharaja (Seminole Square), to name just a few.

Moving north, 2005 welcomes the calm, artful Thai restaurant Lime Leaf to the Rio Hill Shopping Center. Located in an unsuspecting spot between Kroger and Dick's Sporting Goods, just seconds away from Lowe's, this oasis of fragrant tranquility opened last month in the spot formerly occupied by Yamata and then China Bowl.

In contrast to the commercial chaos outside on this busy Friday afternoon, the Lime Leaf seemed more like a spa than a restaurant. A huge bouquet of purple orchids greeted me, along with several Buddha statues and a triangular painting of a lotus flower stretching towards a golden sun. Harmonizing with the natural imagery and building materials (wood, glass, bamboo) were the sounds of water falling and traditional Thai music.

All chefs are artists, of course, but the Lime Leaf's chef-owner, Rungrote Rattanakul, takes his creativity a step beyond the culinary. Rungrote, who co-owns the restaurant with his nephew, Garn Rattanakun, is not only a chef with nearly 20 years of cooking experience in Thailand and numerous Northern Virginia restaurants, but also a resourceful visual artist. He not only painted the acrylic canvases on the walls, but also painted and resin-coated the tables, sketched swirling green leaves on the walls, and designed the restaurant's menu and logo.

"I really want people to feel close to nature when they come in here," he explains. "We also wanted to create a beautiful environment for us to work in every day," added Garn, who manages the restaurant. Since the Lime Leaf is open seven days for lunch, dinner, and carry-out, this was understandably an important consideration.

As for the restaurant's cuisine, the Lime Leaf's over-sized menu has something for every palate and spice tolerance level. You'll find familiar appetizers and soups like chicken satay and tomyum (lemongrass soup with fresh mushrooms and lime-juice sauce), red and green curries and noodle dishes like pad thai and the chef's special "lime leaf noodle" (stir fried wide rice noodles with a sauce of ground meat, onion, fresh pepper, chili, basil and lime).

There are also 20 different vegetarian plates. Since the owners are from spice-loving south Bangkok, lots of dishes bear the warning label of two, or even three red (hot) peppers! Most notable is the pad ped, a stir fry of meat (pork or chicken is suggested) with chili and green peppers, string beans, eggplant, green pepper, basil and bamboo shoots.

Cool it off with a glass of sweet Thai iced tea or a scoop of coconut ice cream. Beer and wine are also available. The menu's final page describes the many herbs and spices used in Thai cooking– lemongrass, basil, cumin and, of course, the refreshing, aromatic kaffir or lime leaf. The fact that 2" leaves are harvested carefully by hand (to avoid the thorny branches) makes the name of this artful oasis seem even more appropriate.

Note: in April, Lime Leaf will begin delivery service to homes and businesses within a three-mile radius of Rio Hill. I'm already considering a move.

Lime Leaf chef Rungrote Rattanakul with his nephew, Garn Rattanakun