After our original plans didn't work out Frinday night, my wife and I ended up trying a new (opened in May) Thai restaurant in Morris. Here is my write-up of our experience:
312 and the Red Room Lounge
The biggest issue that we had going to 312 for dinner on Friday was finding out if the place really existed. I had read a blurb in a local paper about a new restaurant opening in Morris that had a chef trained in Thailand with good atmosphere. First, I tried to find a web page using many different searches (it turns out their web page is still under construction). Next, I tried to look up their phone number using an on-line directory - no luck. Information did not list them either. Just before giving up, I was able to find an old copy of the newpaper article and I got the number. I called and made a reservation.
The restaurant is located at 312 Liberty in Morris. The restaurant is named 312 both because of the address and because, the manager told me, they want to be considered in a class with any Thai restaurant located in the "312" area of Chicago.
Upon entering the establishment, I was a little suprised by the size: it is smaller than I had pictured it. Thre front half of the room is the Red Room Lounge, a cigar and Martini bar. The space is dominated by a large, curved wood bar. A couch and a couple of chairs are also in this area. The bar is well stocked with premium gins and vodkas and their humidor had a decent selection of cigars.
The staff was friendly and we were seated immediately. We were asked if we would like the "window seat". This turned out to be a table set up in the former storefront display window. The table actually protrudes out onto the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. We declined that option and sat at a regular table in the dining area.
The tables were small but each is covered with a red velvet table cloth. Also waiting on the table was a small tea light candle, a small plate and chopsticks (real laquer sticks topped with metal end caps, not disposable or plastic). Our very friendly server brought our menus and introduced herself. The menus were a little bit of a suprise because they were little tri folded paper menus of the takeout variety.
We placed drink orders: I had a traditional Bombay martini (medium, not dry) and my wife tried a specialty martini (a Blues-tini). The drinks arrived promptly and were excellent. As one of the few people who prefers a martini made the traditional way, I very often find that bartenders either ignore my request for a medium martini or dump in so much vermooth I feel like they are trying to punish me. This martini was perfect. My wife's "martini" was some fruity blue concoction in a sugar-rimmed martini glass. She loved it. I tried it and though the closest thing it tasted like was a blue-rasberry slushy.
We started our meal off with the appitizer sampler. This was a combination of crab rangoon, Thai shrimp and spring rolls. The waitress was helpfull and knowledgeable as we talked to her about the food. She was able to clearly describe their spring rolls (smaller, deep fried rolls in won ton wrappers, not the larger, unfried spring rolls popular at some places).
The appitizer plate arrived and the food was all nice and hot. Their were three of each item surrounding a small bowl of house-made sweet and sour sauce. The rangoon was a pouch of crab/cream cheese mix in a won ton with the four ends up-turned to points (not the little triangles). They were delicious and went sooo well with the sauce. They could have used a stightly stronger crab presence, but overall they were very good. The spring rolls were good but were garden variety deep fried spring rolls. I think we enjoyed them most as a way to eat more of the sweet and sour sauce. The Thai shrimp were a fun suprise: medium sized shrimp straightened out, seasoned and wrapped in won ton, then deep fried. They were light, crisp and full of flavor. Reading the menu, I noticed that if they are orderedd alone, they are served with a "spicey sauce". I asked the waitress (the waitresses did a lot of shared work, so although we had a "primary" waitress, three different women helped us during the meal) about the sauce and she informed us that it was basically a zippy cocktail sauce. She offered and quickly brought some out for us. It was, as she described, a standard cocktail sauce that was heavier than usual on the horseradish. I thought it really added a new dimension to the shrimp, my wife thought the horseradish overpowered the subtle seasonings of the shrimp.
For main courses, the manu was broken out into: Salads, Noodles, Curry, Specialties and Wok. We ordered one dish from the Noodle section: my Thai favorite Spicy Basil noodles and one from the Wok section: Peanut with chicken. It took us a minute to figure out the Wok section of the menu. Basically, it was a list of one word descriptions (Peanut, Cashew, Garlic, etc) of the dish. Under each one word heading was a list of what was included in the stir fry. There is no mention of meat in the descriptions; a small list on the top of the menu informs you that any dish can be served with beef, chicken or tofu. Shrimp is a dollar extra.
When the food came, the waitress asked "who had the..." (which was expected because I told the waitress both orders). We asked her to put the covered dishes in the center because we would be sharing (we planned on using our small appitizer plates). Without being asked, she quickly got us to larger plates, serving spoons for the covered dishes and a second bowl of rice (the noodles did not come with rice).
The Wok dish called simple "Peanut" was a real treat. If you have ever eaten good satay with peanut sauce this is the exact same taste. The sauce was less thick than a regular peanut sauce but was an excellent gravy for the dish. Also in with the chicken were carrots, zucchini, snow pea pods and chuncks of red and green peppers. My wife and I both enjoyed not just the dish, but spooning the creamy sauce over a mound of the sticky rice.
The Spicy Basil noodles came with one big disapointment for us: there was NOTHING spicy about them. There were a few dried chilies in the dish, but they were not at all incorporated into the dish. A waitress later, after we commented about this, said that the dishes can be requested extra spicy, but I was a little suprised at how mild the dish was given it's name. The dish was a very standard, but well made, basil noodle dish. The basil flavor was very prevelent in the sauce and there were many strips of fresh basil mixed in with the rice noodles. Unlike many Thai restaurants, 312 used thin rice noodles instead of the wide noodles for this dish.
There was a selection of 5-7 desserts on the menu, but we were too full to experiment further.
One other note; before our appitizer came to the table, I enquired about a spiral iron staircase between the lounge and dining area. I was told that there was an additional lounge upstairs and was invited to have a look. Upstairs, in a space converted from an old apartment, were two rooms used for private parties (the former bedrooms) and an open area at the top of the stairs with a large overstuffed couch and loveseat. A small stereo played in the background. I was told that, if we sat up there instead of the bar, a waitress would be up regularly for drink orders. The area reminded me of nothing so much as a 70's era rec room, but it would be a nice place to sit and have a drink with friends.
Overall, I give 312 very high marks. The food was great, the service was outstanding and the atmosphere was very nice. As claimed by the manager, 312 would stand up to the Thai restaurants in Chicago. Would it be a top-tier Thai restaurant in the city? I'm not sure. That may be a little too subjective. But for those of us out in the southwest area, 312 is the first, and only, exceptional oriental restaurant around. The fact that the service and ambiance match the food makes this place worth a visit if you are ever out near Morris, and worth the drive if you are not in Chicago and have a craving for some great Thai.
312 and the Red Room Lounge
312 Liberty Street
I included a link to their website in progress. It gives a nice picture of the lounge area.
Oh, and why the trouble with the phone? The manager explained to me that when they took over the space at the beginning of the year, they had negotiated with the previous owners (a chinese couple who ran a run-of-the-mill cantonese place at the location) to keep the phone number. However, they forgot to sign one of the account transfer papers before they left the country. So, even though 312 has a phone and is paying the phone bills, the phone company refuses to change the listing name for the business.