Rice Barn harvests a mix of Asian flavors

The Rice Barn
1037 Great Plain Ave., Needham
Telephone: 781-449-8300
Website: thericebarn.com
Hours: Monday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5-9:30 p.m.
Reservations accepted
Accessible to the handicapped
Major credit cards

Only two and a half months passed between the closing of Joy Luck Café and the opening of the Rice Barn in its place in Needham Center. Despite tough competition with area hotspots such as Sweet Basil and Fava, the Rice Barn seems to be gathering a following since opening in January 2007. Unless you’re familiar with the storage and drying of harvested rice, the restaurant’s name may seem odd, and is certainly incongruous set against its upscale interior.

The large, airy space is divided into three dining areas; one has a full bar and is perfect for private parties. Overall, there is seating for 85. Pristine hardwood floors reflect the dim lights, which are accented by flickering tea lights set in small white dishes filled with dry rice. The rooms are painted with soothing earth tones, and sage-colored velvet curtains surround the large storefront windows, which look onto Great Plain Avenue.

The Rice Barn combines flavors of Thailand, China, Malaysia, and Japan. Chef Tipjutha Intarapaint previously worked at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Bangkok, and at Kitti Chai in Manhattan’s chic SoHo hotel, 60 Thompson.

While the menu offers traditional fare, like shao-mai – steamed dumplings with ground chicken and shrimp ($7) – and satay – grilled beef or chicken skewers served with peanut sauce and cucumber salad ($8) – we decided to taste the more unusual and began with roti canai, Malaysian crepes served with chicken curry ($7). The crepes were a bit on the oily side, and the chicken curry, which was a nice combination of tangy and sweet, was spooned on top.

Next was tom yom soup with scallops, a popular Thai spicy and sour soup in lemongrass broth with mushrooms and lime. It can be ordered with chicken or tofu ($4) or shrimp or scallops ($5). Very tasty.

Curry puffs ($6), small pastries filled with chicken, onions, and potatoes, arrived with a cucumber salad – very reminiscent of the Indian samosa.

Another appetizer, Let’s Wrap ($12-$15), is offered with either chicken or shrimp. The do-it-yourself plate came with five layers of soft rice paper and Boston lettuce, used to wrap grilled shrimp, fresh crisp bean sprouts, carrots, crushed peanuts, and blocks of rice noodles. A Thai vinaigrette sauce was on the side for dipping, definitely a favorite.

Our server, Ann, was terrific. Ann came to the United States four years ago from Thailand to get a master’s degree in teaching. She’s now taking classes in graphic design and working part time in Needham. She is a family friend of Ladda Arakputhanun, one of the restaurant’s three owners. Arakputhanun moved to Boston in 1984, originally to study.

For our main courses, we opted for pad see-ew, wide rice noodles stir-fried with broccoli, carrots and egg. It’s offered with chicken ($11) or shrimp ($14). Tasty, yet a bit oily, and most reminiscent of the traditional chow fun dishes in Chinatown, without the fermented black beans.

We also tried the Rice Barn ribs ($17), grilled baby-back ribs marinated in a honey-and-spice barbecue sauce. Very tender and flavorful. The cole slaw served with the ribs was fresh, and included purple cabbage and carrots.

The next dish was met with a question from Ann, our server: “Have you ever had a whole fish before?”

As expected, the steamed wild bass ($29) arrived in its entirety: head, tail, and skin. Cooked either Thai-style with chili garlic lime, or with ginger scallion, we chose the latter. The fish was moist, though the overall display took some getting used to.

The sides of rice were artfully displayed like Egyptian pyramids, complete with sharp angular sides and a base of white topped with brown.

Rice dishes offered as a main course include basil fried rice with chicken or tofu ($11), beef or shrimp ($13), or duck slices ($13); and seafood fried rice pad cha style ($16), which includes shrimp, scallops, ginger, peppercorns, shredded lime leaves, and sweet basil.

There are a large number of vegetarian options available, such as eggplant basil ($15), stir-fried in a Thai chili jam.

We ended with a dessert of fried bananas with honey ($5) and chocolate basil ice cream ($6), also made on the premises.

The next day, I returned for some lunch take-out: jungle tofu curry ($8.50), made with a coconut-free sauce (which means less saturated fat and calories). It features a red chili paste simmered in clear broth with tofu, bamboo shoots, string beans, bell peppers, and Thai sweet basil.

Although the food was good, the Rice Barn could upgrade its take-out containers; I had to fish out the styrofoam box from a sea of curry broth that had seeped into the bag.

SUSAN CHAITYN LEBOVITS

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

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