Rice so elegantly occupies a former home (that until recently housed the tea room Rose on Canton Street) that it almost resembles the day spas that are its neighbors. The recently opened Thai restaurant already gets an "A" for presentation, from its comfy porch and sunny front lawn to its two entertainingly decorated dining rooms -- one with blue walls and kooky oil paintings, the other with gray walls and black-and-white photorealistic paintings of kids, models, dogs, etc.
From the fashionable one-word name to the elephant-patterns on the server's aprons, Rice's managers are clearly students of tasteful restaurant trends. The mellow music suggests the kind you'd hear after dark at a bookstore chain, while the table centerpieces have a patriotic touch: Small flowerpots contain either a large garlic clove or a miniature pumpkin with a wee American flag on the top. Curry dishes for the rice-based entrees arrived on a long, attractive (and rather sharp) bamboo leaf.
The surroundings at Rice can actually overshadow some of the actual cooking, which nevertheless mostly pleases, and shows every sign of a thoughtful and creative kitchen. The Basil Rolls ($4 at lunch), identified as "mom's favorite," include fresh basil, cilantro, carrot and mint around tofu and are served in sushi-shaped slices. While not very substantial or complex in flavor (the roasted peanut sauce provides most of the taste), they nonetheless proved cool and refreshing, almost preferable as a palate cleanser than a proper appetizer.
The chicken coconut soup ($3 at lunch, $5 at dinner) included more sophisticated touches than the usual take on the traditional soup (e.g. the use of cherry tomatoes among the lemon grass and young coconut meat), but had a surprisingly mild, basic flavor. I can't claim to be a connoisseur of larb, or spicy minced beef salad ($7 at lunch), but my wife is, and she was a bit disappointed with hers. She found too little of the lime juice and too much of the roasted sticky rice, making the meat a bit mealy in flavor and appearance.
With options of sliced chicken breast, beef, pork, shrimp or vegetarian, I chose some plump, juicy shrimp to accompany my masaman curry ($9 at lunch), which arrived creamy and just spicy enough to have a little kick, but not too strong for curry wimps like me. The plate comes with a cute little garnish -- a light papaya salad relish with cubes of yellow pepper.
The pork ordered for the pad Thai entree ($9 at lunch) was chopped in bite-sized morsels larger than you typically find in Asian pork dishes, keeping the meat's own juicy flavor from being overwhelmed by the tamarind sauce. The chathaburi rice noodles had nearly a buttery flavor and texture that was quite delectable with the pieces of scallion, peanuts and molar-sized tofu chunks.
Roswell's Rice is still ironing out a few kinks. Order hot tea and you get a choice of store-bought teabags and a semi-functional teapot prone to spill boiling water on the table. We didn't receive the tofu promised for an entree of vegetarian green curry (which also included a spicy melange of bamboo shoots, eggplant and shallots). Delays proved a bit long at a recent lunch, but the staff was sufficiently conscious of and apologetic. But once the restaurant gets over those bumps, and perhaps branches out its menu a bit, diners looking for cool but comfortable surroundings should be on it like white on rice.
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