The irony, ooh the delicious irony. Rover's, for decades a beacon of fine dining when fine dining implied French cuisine, and French cuisine implied foie gras, well, Rovers was Seattle's monument to foie gras. As tastes changed and other opportunities beckoned to Chef-in-the-Hat Thierry Rautureau, Rover's closed and Luc opened, Loulay opened, and the little yellow house in Madison Valley, where Rover's had welcomed the aspirants to (and masticators of) French haute cuisine, Rover's became Araya's Place. Thai and vegan. Thierry would understand Thai, I suppose, because it's southeast Asian and (don't shoot me) reasonably similar to French colonial Vietnamese. But vegan? Quelle horreur! Good God no.
And yet. The setting, in that flowered courtyard, is so welcoming, and the sense of hospitality inside the clean, well-lit house is simply irresistible.
I confess, upfront, that I prefer real meat. Prefer chicken and beef to seitan and tofu. I respect what Araya and her family are doing, but I would like Araya's Place more--a lot more--if were not vegan. That said, Cafe Flora, right across the street, is packed with happy diners, so there's clearly a demand for vegetarian restaurants at the Lake Washington end of Madison Avenue.
Still, despite the ubiquity and popularity of Thai, there are relatively few vegan places. In fact, until 1987, there was not a single restaurant in the Northwest that was both vegan and Thai. Then along came Araya Pudpard, who opened Araya's Place in the University District. An outpost in Bellevue followed. Not one to dally or tarry, Araya would move the restaurants periodically (whenever her landlord would sell the building), but would always stay in the neighborhood. The old Bellevue location may yet return, once the high-rise condo is complete. Her daughter Cheryl is currently operating an Araya's outpost in Hollywood, and her son Fang (along with his wife) has just taken over the Rover's property
A year ago, the Food Network's show about spicy food, "Heat Seekers," taped a segment at the U District Araya's restaurant featuring its "Drunken Mushroom" stir-fry. To quote the menu, "Classic Thai spicy wide rice noodles stir-fried in garlic & chili with veggies beef, Portabello and other mushrooms." The other mushrooms are shiitake and white button mushrooms, and there's also red and green bell pepper, asparagus, and fried Thai basil. Perhaps Araya's son is being polite, but I did not find huge amounts of heat in the stir fry. Flavor, yes, but not heat.
You might want to start with a Tom Yum, a traditional Thai hot & sour soup, flavored with lemon grass and lime leaves, studded with mushrooms and tofu. An order serves the entire table. I also enjoyed the avocado curry, which featured mock-chicken seitan, fried tofu, bell peppers and basil in creamy green curry sauce enriched with coconut milk. Save room for at least a bite of dessert; the chocolate bar is outstanding.
NOTE: A slightly different version of this post appears in the current issue of the Madison Park Times.