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Something special 

Spicy lunch plates at pumped-up Thai Chili suit summer's sizzle

"Special" is one of those inexact words like "sale" and "survivor" that means whatever somebody wants it to mean. In restaurant terms, "special" originally referred to a dish prepared from discounted or seasonal ingredients and served at a price significantly less than the menu's average. Later, off-menu specials became popular tools for marketing unusual items or recipes, even if regularly served. Unfamiliar or costly items that do not appear on printed menus allow persuasive managers and servers to do what is called hand selling. When properly marketed, such specials can add gold to the bottom line.

For repeat customers, easily bored chefs or a limited clientele, specials also provide needed culinary variety. Today the word special is more or less synonymous with specialty. Despite what customers may hope and remember about the good old days, specials typically run higher than the restaurant's average. Specials often appear on separate menus -- as they were once chalked up on blackboards. At Asian restaurants in Atlanta, choosing from lists of either specials or house specialties is generally a wise course to follow.

That's all true at the newly fluffed and enlarged Thai Chili, and particularly at lunch. Specials are presented in their own illustrated folder. Many are Chef Robert Khankiew's interpretations of palace-hotel dishes created in Thailand. Prices are a dollar or two higher than the lunch menu's standard curries and noodle dishes. The extra charge is justified more often than not.

Last week, a lawyer friend and I tucked into plates of spicy basil lamb, three chops per order ($11.25). The lean, tender meat is charbroiled on the bone, moistened with a thin, bracingly spicy gravy and presented on a crunchy melange of chopped peppers, onions and greens, with a mound of aromatic jasmine rice on the side. Though the portion is large enough for athletic office workers such as my buddy and I, both of us gnawed the baby bones for every last succulent morsel of meat, caramelized fat and seasonings.

Khankiew's basil lamb chops have been around for at least a decade. Masaman curry short ribs with steamed vegetables ($8.95) is a newer example of what this kitchen can do when fusing American and Thai methods and ingredients. The beef is lean, the curry flavor permeates the meat but doesn't mask the charac- teristic sweet-beef flavor, and there's plenty of lovely thick sauce to mix with the rice. Steamed carrots, broccoli and cauliflower served with the curry are tasty and crunchy. This is the kind of cooking that brings fans back to Thai Chili again and again. But masaman chicken with avocado and cashews ordered off the regular lunch menu the same day was blah -- hard, tasteless, flat ribbons of fowl dunked in a characterless yellow sauce ($7.95). No more for me, thanks.

Duck and vegetables in green curry sauce with coconut milk, much closer to standard Thai-American cooking, is less memorable than the short ribs ($10.25). The meat is moderately lean, the carrots and broccoli cooked al dente, the steamed rice, as always, interesting, itself, yet neutral enough to set off the complex play of sauce, meat and vegetables. Choo chee salmon, a red-curry variation involving grilled slices of fish, is easily as satisfying and no doubt healthier ($10.25). Basil scallops with bell peppers and onions suffers from a pepper-flake brown sauce that delivers heat but no breadth or depth ($10.95). The scallops are thinly sliced but com- paratively tasteless, making the portion appear larger but sacrificing flavor for looks.

Several delicious home-style Thai dishes lurk among the regular menu's ho-hum collection of basil chickens and cashew porks. Wild catfish with green peppercorns and Thai eggplant -- the golf-ball size, hard, round variety -- is tasty, very traditional and moderately hot, in short a good introduction to Thai cooking for folks who don't consume red meat. The boneless catfish pieces are fried and then tossed in a clear but dark sauce with the vegetables. Again, steamed rice accompanies the dish.

Coconut milk soup with chicken, mushrooms, lemon grass and basil -- today's Thai equivalent of Chinese wonton soup -- is also included with lunch plates. Fresh basil rolls -- the cold rice-paper kind, not the fried kind -- containing roast pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and herbs -- can be added for an additional charge. They're small for the money ($3.25 for two). Thai egg rolls -- the fried ones -- are also modest in proportion to the price ($2.75 for two).

The restaurant, meanwhile, has doubled in size, taking over a storefront next door. The slot has become a separate Western-style dining room with tables, chairs and banquettes. At the rear of the original space, a semi-enclosed, Thai- style banquet room has been installed, complete with carpets, triangular floor pillows and long, low tables. Decorations are tasteful and under-stated, the sort of thing to be expected in a well-to-do Bangkok neighborhood.

For an adventurous crowd dining at night, the banquet space would be a good choice for sampling larger, costlier versions of Thai Chili's lunch specialties. Called Chef's Specials on the regular menu, the list of shareable platters includes spicy basil lamb chops ($17.95), masaman short ribs ($13.95), choo chee salmon ($14.95), panang squid curry ($13.95) and duck curry ($16.25). Depending upon the size of the party, I'd add such items as squid salad ($7.25), pad Thai (rice noodles with egg, tofu and shrimp; $9.95), spicy fried rice ($9.25), ice cream and Thai iced coffee or Singha, Thailand's excellent beer.

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

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