“Health food” may well be the least appetizing phrase in the English language. It calls to mind thoughts of virtuous yet joyless dishes. Murky green juices that smell like lawn clippings and taste of pond water, or steadfastly unmeltable vegan cheese with the flavor and consistency of Silly Putty. To this day, I have nightmares about being tricked into eating a carob-coated candy bar one Halloween. So chalky!

Cheevitdee, which opened in April in an expensively renovated space in Portland’s Old Port, is determined to rehabilitate health food’s poor image, using tricks from the arsenal of Thai cuisine.

Chef/co-owner Jay Pranadsri, who until recently was a chef at Portland’s Mi Sen, Cheevitdee’s well-established sister restaurant, takes this mission seriously, embracing organic ingredients and eschewing deep-fried and otherwise oily foods completely. That means no greasy crowd pleasers like crab rangoons (which, to be fair, aren’t actually Thai) or even pad thai.

Even the phrase “Chee Vit Dee” translates as “good life” in Thai. Front-of-house staffer Nick Thonglamun explains, “We try to make food that also makes you healthy and gives you a good life.”

It all starts with riceberry, a crossbreed of jasmine and non-glutinous purple rice that is so important to Cheevitdee, it is rendered in silhouette on the restaurant’s logo. When cooked, riceberry is a deep maroon, with a soft texture and largely neutral flavor. And although full of dietary fiber, riceberry is free from the rubberiness and husk-like, papery mouthfeel that sometimes make regular brown rice intolerable.

“Riceberry has lots of nutrition,” Thonglamun told me. “It’s a superfood.” Bolstering his claim are a couple of dodgy scientific studies from Thailand that gesture imprecisely at the hybrid cereal grain’s salutary properties. While the jury may still be out on riceberry’s health benefits, there’s little doubt that it is not universally successful as a replacement for traditional white jasmine rice.

When it works, the substitution seems like a brilliant idea, as in Cheevitdee’s ping ngob ($22), banana-leaf wrapped spicy salmon from the Hua Hin district in coastal Thailand – the restaurant’s signature plate. To prepare it, Pranadsri layers red curry-marinated salmon with napa cabbage, basil leaves, kaffir lime leaves and par-cooked riceberry, then enfolds the mixture in a tight, flat parcel before grilling. It is a delightful dish with a perfectly calibrated balance of spicy heat and tang.

In the khao mun gai ($16), on the other hand, riceberry makes a disappointing stand-in for its paler cousin. Next to a simple, unadorned steamed chicken thigh sit a mound of ginger-garlic riceberry, slices of cucumber and a small bowl of thin sauce. All fine and good, as the dish’s simplicity is intentional; khao mun gai derives part of its charm from camouflaged jolts of flavor, startling the diner with the richness of its chicken-fat infused rice, the megawatt heat of its sauce and the cucumber’s ability to cool off your tongue while knitting all the flavors together.

Not here. Cheevitdee’s sauce is arch and acidic, with no spice whatsoever. The steamed riceberry substitute: downright austere. This khao mun gai is strictly what-you-see-is-what-you-get, and it looks dull, including the flavorless, unnecessary winter melon soup served alongside. It’s the sort of dish you might expect to be served when recovering from surgery, not out to eat on Fore Street.

So too, the po pia sod ($7), rice paper-wrapped fresh spring rolls filled with tofu and fine matchsticks of carrot, beet, cabbage and cucumber. Even doused in garlic-lime dipping sauce, they taste of little other than the earthy minerality of raw root vegetables.

Pla goong (spicy shrimp bites) soars with flavors of lime juice, chili, kaffir lime leaf and cilantro. Staff photos by Ben McCanna

Or the tom jub chai ($15), a turbid, lavender-hued vegetable stew bulked up with chubby glass vermicelli and seasoned with nothing other than a little salt and black pepper. According to Thonglamun, “all the flavor comes from the vegetables.” Sadly, there’s precious little of it, apart from a hint of sweetness from the carrot and a sulfuric undercurrent from the cabbage and Chinese broccoli.

Even the som tum ($10) – normally a tart, crunchy and umami-rich salad of shaved unripe papaya, green beans, tomatoes and peanuts, all roughed up with a mortar and pestle to create tiny tears in the vegetables that trap palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice – tastes dreary and underseasoned, like something out of a wartime rationing cookbook.

A few dishes do possess clearer flavor profiles. One, the ba me pu ($19), moroheiya-flavored noodles topped with bok choi, sweet black soy sauce and fresh-picked Maine crabmeat, is an inventive experiment that deserves further exploration (and a squeeze of lime). The green algal flavors of the moroheiya – another purported superfood and the same plant used to make jute fiber – match well with musky, sweet crabmeat. That is, as long as the crab is not dried out, as it was when I visited recently.

There’s also something intriguing, if incomplete, about Pranadsri’s take on the classic spicy-sour soup, tom yum nam sai ($7). For her rendition, she adds generous chunks of North Spore oyster mushrooms to a clear chicken-broth base infused with racy Thai basil. As it is now, the balance tips too far toward volatile, herbal aromatics, away from the heat and acid that make tom yum an enduring classic. Cheevitdee’s is still a tweak or two away from greatness.

By contrast, the lemongrass-scented sauce for the pla goong ($9), spicy shrimp bites, gets the harmony exactly right, exploiting the extremes of lime juice, chili, kaffir lime leaf and cilantro to spotlight the sweetness of a single steamed shrimp served in a curvy spoon. Incontrovertibly healthful, yet sparkling with lively flavors, this simple appetizer embodies everything Cheevitdee sets out to do.

Here and there, it all comes together – sometimes beautifully. But for now at least, I’ll keep believing in my own version of the “good life,” one that allows for an occasional taste of wheat noodles, jasmine rice and chicken fat.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME