When it was announced last year that Teak Sushi & Thai Cuisine would be reopening in Over-the-Rhine, one word kept popping up in news coverage—beloved. I’d never been to the original Mt. Adams location, so I can’t speak firsthand to what made the place so special.
But during one of my visits to Teak, a man at the table next to mine loudly proclaimed for the entire dining room to hear, “I love this place!” He then went on to explain to his dining companion (in quieter tones) that he’d loved the old incarnation and this was his first time at the new spot. I glanced over to see the speaker’s face lit with glee. So, yeah, beloved is fitting. Owner Chanaka De Lanerolle has said that he decided to bring back Teak’s take on Thai because of the renewed vibrancy in Over-the-Rhine, which he compared to the energy he felt in Mt. Adams during his time there. But for all of the hype around the restaurant’s re-emergence on the scene, it’s probably best to consider it a reimagining rather than a reopening. While long-time favorites show up on the menu, prepared by many of the same kitchen staff members from Mt. Adams, some adaptations have been made to better meet expectations of modern diners. Letting go of preconceived notions about Teak will serve you well.
While it’s true that the new location is downsized (2,100 square feet, a smaller footprint than the original), the dining room doesn’t feel cramped. Upscale decor features—like leather-backed chairs, wooden tabletops, and visually striking liquor shelves—cleverly disguise Teak’s affordable menu offerings.
And about that menu: It’s a lot. With a two-sided, standalone sushi menu and a wide variety of main plates ranging from small bites to signature dishes, you have plenty of room to craft your own dining experience.
For appetizers, we chose the spicy fried calamari as well as an order of the coconut shrimp. The calamari, dusted with rice flour and served with a chili sauce, was a delicious start to the meal, crunchy and chewy, with a subtle sweetness imparted by the rice flour and dialed up by the dipping sauce. The coconut shrimp (which, to be transparent, we ordered two extra servings of at meal’s end) featured an airy, crispy breading with strong coconut sweetness coating the big, briny shrimp inside.
The sushi menu has been overhauled from the Mt. Adams incarnation to, according to De Lanerolle, fit better in Over-the-Rhine. From the chef’s special rolls, we tried the Playboy, a shrimp tempura and avocado roll, topped with deep red tuna and two sauces—a sweet eel sauce and spicy mayo drizzle. The crunchy tempura and creamy avocado made for a nice blend of taste and texture, though the spicy mayo could have brought a bit more heat. You’ll find a host of other amusingly named offerings on the sushi menu, from the J. Lo (the chef used to serve the roll’s namesake in New York) to Monkey Brain (fried avocado with spicy tuna and cream cheese).
When it comes to the main Thai offerings, it’s important to start with a note about heat. The server will ask you for a number from three to 10 when you place your order, and it’s worth a moment of consideration.
Food from Thailand (and De Lanerolle’s home country of Sri Lanka, for that matter) is known for bringing high levels of heat, often featuring fiery Thai peppers traditionally used to preserve food in hot, humid climates. But calling Thai food spicy is, of course, an overgeneralization—there are regional differences in cuisine throughout Thailand, with a variety of flavors at play, from sweet coconut to savory seafood to heavier umami in northern areas closer to China. With that said, there’s no getting around that heat, and spiciness is important at Teak, with the chef using Thai peppers and pepper flakes to dial in different heat levels for its spiciness scale.
The restaurant serves a selection of stir fry dishes that the menu claims are “best of the rest.” I think this is a cheeky acknowledgement that it’s on the back of a two-page menu developed over a couple of decades, but I also believe it reaffirms what I feel is the theme of Teak’s sprawling menu: home. It’s true that the offerings in this section are simple, making no bold attempts to be “elevated.”
From the “House Specials” section, we tried the crispy pork belly, a cut of meat popular in Asia that Teak has recently brought in to replace pork loin, a conscious choice to upgrade ingredients for the downtown crowd. The pork, cooked just right for texture and flavor, is sliced and served on a steaming mix of Asian vegetables (crunchy, savory green beans, sliced peppers, carrots, etc.), then topped with a sweet anise glaze. Kimchi is served as a garnish, which adds a nice funky heat. The dish is served with a bowl of white rice and a separate plate for assembling the perfect bite. The dish is a recent addition, but the Thai menu features the old hits, too, for longtime fans. So you’ll find jungle noodles, crispy duck, Siam chicken, ginger salmon, and more familiar names among the newer offerings.
While this was my first encounter with the restaurant, I’m sure it won’t be the last. Maybe it’ll become like home to me. And perhaps I already consider Teak OTR beloved.
Teak, 1200 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 421-8325