A restaurant's service can be a make-or-break proposition. There are people who will let an unfilled water glass ruin the bliss brought on by multiple courses of gastronomic delight. Such fussy perfectionism is not how the vast majority of diners approach the restaurant experience. The food is the main attraction, and as long as it's delivered accurately and in a timely fashion, it's the quality of the dishes that determine whether or not a restaurant leaves a positive impression.
Sometimes, however, what appears to be decent if unexceptional service may prevent a diner from walking away from a meal with an accurate sense of what that particular establishment is capable of.
Such was the case with a sojourn to Ayothaya, a new "authentic" Thai place in the Dr. Phillips area. Given the level of competition among restaurants on that stretch of Sand Lake Road, I could be forgiven for expecting Ayothaya to be more than just another place to grab some mussaman curry. Though the teak-heavy décor was nice, the small dining room was cramped and possessed of none of the sumptuous and spacious elegance of Thai Thani, a nearby restaurant that hasn't let their strip-mall location prevent the proprietors from creating a relaxed oasis.
But, real estate being what it is, this is the sort of thing I'd be willing to forgive. Except that within this small space, the owners have made the bizarre decision to install two unavoidable televisions on the premises … tuned to Central Florida News 13, no less. Here's a headline: Some people like to go out to dinner and not be distracted by nine-minute news cycles. (For the record, this trend of multiple televisions in supposedly "upscale" restaurants is a sin against nature. You run an Applebee's or a barbecue joint? Fine. Anywhere else, it's inexcusable.)
Still, a too-cozy space, visually polluted by television, can be redeemed by a skillful kitchen. Perhaps one day I'll find out if Ayothaya has one. You see, our server forgot to tell us about the specials. Under some circumstances, such an omission would be a minor mistake we'd miss the fish of the day or the chef's best effort to put an inventive spin on overstocked ingredients. And given the seemingly vast selection on Ayothaya's misspelling-riddled menu a none-too-shabby 45 items it didn't even occur to us to ask about the specials. A closer examination of the menu, however, revealed it to be filled with the standard dishes found in so many Thai restaurants, with a few surprises here and there. Somehow, it was both overwhelming and uninspiring, and our server didn't provide much assistance in navigating us through it.
Eventually, our party of four settled on a combination of "the usual" and the unexpected. A sampler plate ($12.95) of six of Ayothaya's appetizers chicken satay, spring rolls, shrimp dumplings, Thai crab cake, fried wontons and fried shrimp rolls was wholly average. (The dumplings came out cold, adding to the disappointment.) Tom kha gai soup ($5.95) was the opposite of cold, as it was invigoratingly spiced and amply filled with massive shrimp, rather than the hide-and-seek variety many Thai places use. The wonton soup ($4.95) wasn't nearly as nuclear but was equally substantial, with sizable chicken- and shrimp-filled dumplings.
Continuing with "the usual," we ordered a red curry with chicken ($12.95) and a shrimp and broccoli in oyster sauce ($12.95). Neither held any surprises, positive or negative. The red curry was flavorful and not overpoweringly spicy, while the oyster sauce had the right kind of salty zing. Moving out of familiar territory, it was on to a deliciously greasy, vegetable-heavy and appropriately named "spicy duck" ($14.95) and, the tour de force, a whole red snapper, fried and topped with a salsa-like concoction of red onions, basil, chilis, garlic and an excellent, spicy red sauce. Called pla chom suan, it wound up being a bit pricey ($28.95/market price), difficult to plate and too large for one person, but none of those things mattered in the slightest while we were greedily stuffing our gullets. The super-crispy exterior provided that perfectly pleasing contrast with the soft, flaky flesh, and the fresh spiciness of the topping made the dish that much more pleasingly complex.
The entire latter part of Ayothaya's menu is comprised of 10 such "creations," all but one of which are centered around fresh fish. These dishes are rather costly, but they are the closest the restaurant gets to breaking out of the standard fare found at so many other Thai restaurants. Or so we thought.
On our way out the door, I noticed a lengthy specials board that told me what might have been. This list of exciting-sounding seafood dishes (most notably a lobster curry) and other impressive concoctions were a drag to run across at the meal's end. Potentially, here was the exceptional food that would make the obnoxious televisions worth putting up with; here were the chef's personal signatures that would make what seemed like a run-of-the-mill restaurant the kind you tell friends about. And it was too late to try any of them.
So that, folks, is why good service is so important.