Equator possesses an evocative name for a restaurant, suggesting sultry nights and exotically flavored food decorated with fruit and flowers. The interior: dark, polished woods, stone floors, Thai statues, a pretty bar on one side matched to a mantlepiece on the other, expansive windows looking out to the street -- carries the theme, too, with a cool ambience greeting those who step in on a humid evening.
Opened in late May, the restaurant is one of a small group of pioneers on this far end of Washington Street near Massachusetts Avenue. It's housed in Minot Hall, a handsome brick mid-19th-century building that has been rehabbed into residential and retail space, and joins a few other nearby food-related establishments, including Flour Bakery & Cafe and Code 10. The ferment of the east end of Washington, where restaurants and new condominiums crowd the blocks, hasn't quite reached here yet -- Gallia, another restaurant located several blocks from Equator, closed recently -- but change is in the air.
Equator, though, has a split personality. Much of its menu is Thai. The owners, Somchai (Sam) Sriweawnetr and his daughter and son-in-law, Siriluck and Somphol Plabutong, also run Thai Village on Tremont Street, a South End fixture with a long, moderately priced menu. Here, the picture is more muddled. Along with pad Thai, curries, lemongrass soup, and a few Indonesian specialities, Equator offers a selection of pasta dishes, several Korean dishes, and prime rib and steaks. The intent is to appeal to a wider range of diners than just those interested in Thai food, but confusion is the result. After all, prime rib, and even Korean bulgoki, are foods not exactly associated with equatorial dining. In fact, I found it difficult to get dining companions to even look at the ersatz offerings from other parts of the globe. Sicilian shrimp pasta with housemade marinara sauce or Caesar salad are pretty much nonstarters, I found, when the diner has his eye on tamarind duck. One friend did agree to order a ribeye steak, a decision regretted later.
Sticking around the equator proves to be wise. An appetizer of chicken satay boasts meat moist from a coconut milk marinade, beautifully grilled and served with a small bowl of peanut sauce and a spicy cucumber relish. Shredded green papaya tossed with chunks of tomato and a few shrimps has a tart lime dressing with an underlying surprise of chilies. The tamarind duck turns out to be a little disappointing. Presented on a pretty white platter vaguely shaped like a palm leaf, the roasted duck with a lightly crisped exterior didn't retain enough of the sour bite of the tamarind sauce to be very interesting, possibly because the platter, while attractive, is too shallow to hold much sauce. Duck curry, roasted the same way but in a red sauce, is much better. The duck meat, onions, and red peppers soak up the sauce, a balance of chili heat and cool coconut milk, in all an irresistible combination. A similar red curry sauce complements large shrimp and slices of avocado, giving an intensity to a salad-like dish. Yellow curry over shrimp, potatoes, and pineapple is a drier mix with more of an Indian influence in its spicing.
Branching out, I try the Korean specialty, bi bim bap, served in a stone hot pot. The braised beef, greens, and other vegetables over rice are hidden under a sunny side-up fried egg. Tossed with a barbecue-style sauce, the mixture is flavorful but would have been improved if the egg yolk had been soft and runny enough to melt over the rest of the ingredients.
Even so, it's a better choice than the ribeye. This looks as though the 99 had made a takeout delivery, down to the finely chopped parsley sprinkled on top, the baked potato, and the triangular cut of the vegetables. The steak, a large, fairly thin cut, is overly chewy, and even the hefty knife provided to cut it has some trouble getting through. There's too much mediocre steak in the world to add it to a predominantly Asian menu. Luckily at lunch, the pandemic approach is dropped, and the cuisine sticks to Thai. A stirfry of onions, red peppers, squash, and other vegetables with Thai basil offers plenty of appealing chili heat. Pad Thai, the quintessential Thai dish to most Americans, flirts with too much sweetness and then draws back just a bit with a pronounced flavor of fish sauce and caramelized onions.
Of the desserts, the rice-based ones are the most appealing, and a soupy coconut milk pudding with rice, tapioca, and corn coats the tongue with sweetness, and then adds the intriguing texture of the corn.Equator has many things going for it. The family feeling of the place and its gracious and very helpful waitstaff make diners feel welcome, even pampered. Soon a liquor license will be in place as well as outdoor seating for 28. There's an attention to freshness and detail in many of the dishes that's commendable, and the Thai selections are delicious. Although I can well understand the thinking of spreading a wider net to catch diners who might not want Thai, at least staying in the culinary boundaries of Asia might be a better plan. Being all things to all diners often backfires.
Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants.
West on Centre 1732 Centre St., West Roxbury. 617-323-4199. A neighborhood restaurant slanted toward a more upscale model, this sleek place offers appealing fare to a wide range of eaters. (8/5/04)
Aujourd'hui 1/2 200 Boylston St., Four Seasons, Boston. 617-351-2071. Aujourd'hui gets a new look, a new French chef, and a new bar. While other restaurants are moving toward the casual, Aujourd'hui is upping the ante into Modern French -- with generally good results. (7/29/04)
Atasca 1/2 50 Hampshire St., Cambridge. 617-621-6991. Though fish soups and hearty stews might come to mind when Portuguese fare is suggested, the traditional small plates, slightly larger than tapas portions, are a big draw at this family-run restaurant. The wine list, all Portuguese, is also excellent. (7/22/04)
Maxwell's 148 148 East Central St., Natick. 508-907-6262. Italian and Asian cuisines coexist on the menu in an upscale spot. Sometimes the dishes soar, sometimes they fall. Soliticious and friendly service, however, is consistent. (7/15/04)
Piattini 226 Newbury St., Boston. 617-536-2020. Little plates are the way to go in this cozy spot on Newbury Street. Nibble sauteed shrimp and tomatoes on bruschetta, or maybe a salad, and watch the fashionable world go by. (7/8/04)
Cygnet 24 West St., Beverly Farms. 978-922-9221. Combining the feeling of a neighborhood spot with sophistication in the food and wine, Cygnet manages to appeal to a wide swath of eaters. (7/1/04)
Sophia's 1/2 1270 Boylston St., Boston. 617-351-7001. Chef Jeffrey Fournier creates magic with small plates in a funky dance club. Each is intelligently composed as well as delicious. And the liquor and food pairings are intriguing. (6/17/04)
Atria 137 Main St, Edgartown. 508-627-5850. Bleu 7 Market St., Mashpee Commons, Mashpee. 508-539-7907. Two resort restaurants appeal to year-round residents also. Atria's attention to detail and dedication to locally grown shows on the plate. Bleu's French heritage infuses the best dishes. (6/10/04)
Grill 23 & Bar 1/2 161 Berkeley St., Boston. 617-542-2255. Crowds flock to this big restaurant with a luxe men's club look. The steaks, especially the fantastic Kobe ribeye cap, and seafood are attractions. (6/3/04) The Federalist Bar 1/2 15 Beacon St., Boston. 617-670-2515. Jer.Ne Bar 12 Avery St., Boston. 617-574-7175. These hotel restaurant bars offer full menus. The Federalist's small plates are as ambitious as the main menu; Jer.Ne's more casual fare features a great burger. (5/27/04)