The hibiscus blooms into trumpets of floral beauty. "But it's also stubborn as hell," says Nongyao "Moon" Krapugthong. "Just like me."
"The flower is so delicate it won't live if you cut it," the Bangkok-born chef says. "But the plant itself is a survivor. Take just one stick and put it in the ground, and it will grow in the sand or mud."
After two surgeries for breast cancer in 2001 and 2002, Krapugthong knows a few things about surviving a cruel cut. So it's little wonder the Bangkok-born chef gave her Manayunk restaurant the Thai name for hibiscus: Chabaa.
The parallel is apt. The two-year-old Chabaa Thai Bistro has blossomed into a beautiful space, a bilevel room draped in silk fabrics, with gold-leafed walls and art that pays homage to the culture and spiritual life of Thailand. From the earth plow and Buddha imagery on the first floor to the silken lanterns, bamboo fishing traps, and floating market photography on the larger second floor, Chabaa exudes exotic serenity - even when the space hums.
And it so often does, with a polished young Main Line crowd that has "date night" written all over its plates of pad Thai.
Of course, Manayunk has long been a destination for pretty places with less-than- stellar food (save for venerable Jake's Restaurant next door). So I was leery of whether Chabaa was just another paper flower in the mud flat - or whether it was the real thing.
When I visited Chabaa shortly after it opened, skepticism was indeed my first impression, as the food's Thai flavors were tuned down to the point of being tame. It was pleasant but bland, perhaps because Krapugthong, a business school grad and performance artist turned first-time chef, was still sounding out her clientele's palate.
Upon returning recently, however, I discovered a kitchen more at ease. The flavors are still on the mild side, but they are vibrant and fresh, with a harmonious balance of salty, sour, sweet and spicy that is a more accurate barometer of Thai authenticity than simple blazing heat.
Lift the lid from the clay pot holding Chabaa's po teak, a seafood medley steeping in tom yum soup, and the most aromatic steam floats up to greet you like a Bangkok dream, the tang of fresh lime and funky fish sauce woven with kaffir lime, lemongrass and galangal that tingles on the nose. Little Thai bird chiles light the broth, too, as it soaks into the tender scallops, plump shrimp and leggy nests of baby squid legs.
Homemade sai grog sausages are among the more unusual items, the garlicky pork links sparked with lemongrass and a touch of jasmine rice in the northeast Thai style. Krapugthong has resisted the urge to give them the racier kick of fermented fish typical of her northern Thai heritage. But she may indulge what she calls her "wacky" side with more cutting-edge items (like pig-ear sausages) at a new Thai lounge, Mango Moon, planned for next year nearby at 4161 Main Street.
Chabaa's focus, meanwhile, remains on producing more familiar Thai favorites with good ingredients, including spot-on skewers of chicken satay, and one of the best pad Thais in town.
Balance is also the key with pad Thai, as the firm rice noodles are tossed in a dark glaze that rings with the sour fruit of tamarind, the sweetness of brown palm sugar, and a subtle oceanic twinge of fish sauce. The menu lists 10 variations on the noodle dish, with embellishments ranging from crispy duck to king prawns. I didn't love the Bangkok-style pad Thai wrapped in crepe, which was thick and eggy. But the salmon pad Thai was memorable, the noodles warmed by a spoonful of chile paste spice, with a thick slice of crisply seared wild salmon on the side.
I owe that entree to a suggestion from our enthusiastic first server, who clearly knew the menu well, down to a detailed explanation of how sticky rice is made. The Waterfall salad of warm grilled beef seasoned in a piquant vinaigrette or roasted rice was another winner.
The rest of the young staff was pleasant, if not quite as plugged in. Some more guidance from them would be useful, as some dishes were better than others. The soft-shell crab special appetizer was so delicately battered, the crust had gone a little soggy by the time it was served. The fried spring rolls were also a little greasy. The tamarind duck entree special had a wonderfully tangy pineapple-tamarind sauce, but the leg meat was tough and the portion too small for $22.
Chabaa is a shade more expensive than your typical Thai place, but for the most part, I found that the cooking and ingredients merited the price.
Some beautifully grilled scallops came as a special starter nestled in their shells over a puddle of brown sauce vibrating with lime and a potent chile kick. Huge and tender shrimps basked in a bowl of green curry that was also a firecracker of fresh pepper heat. The red curry that came with chicken was milder than the green, its rich coconut-milk broth roasty with dry peppers and gingery galangal.
The best curried dish here, though, was the mildest, a slow-stewed beef that was tenderized by its kaffir leaf-infused panang curry. A separate dish of pineapple stir-fried rice added even more balance to the meal, the sweet chunks of fruit quenching any lingering spicy fire. A sweet gulp of milky Thai iced tea washed it all down.
As for actual desserts, there weren't many to choose from other than pre-made Bindi sorbets and shallow cups of warm sticky rice topped with coconut custard.
But the rest of our meal was too enjoyable to let a weak finish matter. I'm hoping Chabaa lives up to its namesake hibiscus - and continues to bloom.