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From mild to fiery, Malaysian-Thai theatrics heat up The Spice

Like an Asian country inn's inviting gate, the snug entryway to The Spice, a handsome Thai and Malaysian restaurant in the revamped Toco Hill Shopping Center, is at once rustic and artful. Water trickling from bamboo pipes into three ceramic pots makes its own music. A brightly lit statuette of elephants above, a handful of casually strewn water lilies below -- the composition not only welcomes visitors but introduces themes to be further developed and celebrated beyond the inmost glass doors.

In keeping with recent trends in Asian-fusion restaurant design, the restaurant's interior is as unabashedly theatrical as the foyer. There's not a tourist-agency poster or funny hat in sight. Track lighting allows accurate pinpointing of tabletops. Menus can be read without effort, and chefs' intricate presentations more easily admired. Bamboo handrails, spirit houses, deftly lit spice bottles, fiber matting, butterfly lampshades, crisp uniforms and more carved elephants than one can count promise that this is definitely not your father's Chinatown flashback.

Roti canai, a buttery, Malaysian-style crepe served with rich, complex chicken curry for dipping (and dripping), is delectable and authentic, arguably the best version in town ($3.25). At the moment, as a grand-opening special, the roti appetizer is free with a $20 minimum order. The meal also ought to include the very good chicken satay with a dynamite peanut sauce ($6.95 for four pieces). Satay beef and Thai shrimp cakes are other options ($6.95 each).

Skip the Thai spring rolls with bland sweet-and-sour sauce unless you're a big fan of Chinese cabbage ($2.75 for two). Instead, spring for the shareable and delicious -- if slightly inauthentic -- yum woon sen. The classic Thai glass-noodle salad with pork, shrimp, red onions, lime juice and chilies is served hot with chopped tomatoes on iceberg lettuce ($7.95). Assigned two chili peppers out of a possible three on the menu's rating system, the hot-sour salad is a delicious and effective treatment for snow-snogged winter noses and sinus glands.

There's a fine line between sensitive adaptation of a cuisine and ruthless bastardization. The mostly Malaysian cadre of chefs at The Spice seem to stay well this side of rutabaga fried rice and bloomin' onions. Beef rendang, hunks of lean meat that are rubbed with chilies and spices and then slowly simmered in curry-coconut gravy, is bracing and satisfying, albeit somewhat toned down and shy. I'd also have been happier had the tough, almost invisible cardamom pods lurking in the stew been either pulverized or removed before serving ($11.95).

Keri ayam kering -- Malaysian chicken and potatoes with red curry sauce and fresh curry leaves -- is unusual and distinctive, nothing like an Indian curry ($10.95). Masaman Thai curry with chicken, butter, coconut milk, cashews and (not enough) avocado slices, though closer to the stews of India, has its own charms and alternative South Asian identification ($12.95). Tofu and other meats can be substituted. Portions are large. With appetizers, one entree can serve two.

As a lark, we risked deep-fried soft-shell crabs with shrimp, asparagus, bell pepper, green curry and basil, listed as a Thai chefs' specialty ($15.95 for two crabs). Though the stacked-up presentation was as pretty as a page out of Food Arts, and the sauce and garnishes tasty and well made, the crabs, alas, were tough and leathery. So much for luxury ingredients.

Service is brisk, generally unsmiling and correct, with no apparent language difficulties. There is also a bar, and a make-do wine list is offered. The menu is extensive, running from pad Thai and pineapple fried rice to whole snapper with a pungent Malay sauce.

Were I to suggest but two changes, they'd concern mainstream comfort, not cuisine or service: Lower all tabletops a couple of inches in relation to the seating. That or provide pillows. And retire the elephant-pattern flatware. The forks and spoons are eye-catching and thematic, true. But in big hands, the round-handled implements are not only impractical but frustrating. Can't eat art nor, in this case, with it.

Contact Elliott Mackle at elkcam1@hotmail.com or leave voice mail at 404-614-2514.

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