Restaurant Reviews

True Lies

Thai Bistro's maxim is "a true dining experience"; at least that's what's italicized on the front of the menu. I'm not sure what a true dining experience is, or even a false one. Perhaps the latter would include wax fruit, Velveeta, and veggie venison served in a karaoke bistro on Barry Manilow night.

But what is a true dining experience? Well, judging by Thai Bistro, it doesn't include alcohol (they don't serve it). It does, however, include a refrigerated display case packed with cans of soda, which leaves one wondering what role the Pepsi dispenser on the counter plays in a true dining experience. A true dining experience must also include a lot of pink. The walls are textured mauve hung with paintings of Paris street scenes and dark abstract works.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of the true dining experience is to be out of the first two choices that your diner orders (deep-fried golden brown jumbo soft shell crab and roasted duck) so that you can default to the third and create some true three-strikes-and-you're-out dining tension. Thank God they weren't out of white rice.

Thank God they weren't out of spring rolls either. Or is it, "God, I wish they had been"? Fried, greasy, and sliced, these rolls were cored with cabbage, mushroom, carrot and other strands of spring roll entrails that were hard to decipher. A cabbage leaf cradled threads of cerated carrot that were limp, faded, and woody. The menu describes the dipping sauce as sweet-and-sour peanut. Yet there was no hint of goober residing in this little dipping puddle, a fluid that tasted simply like fish sauce spiked with rice vinegar.

The soup was much better. Napa cabbage soup (Gang jude pug gard) with pork, shrimp, mushrooms, tofu, and glass rice noodles was clean and sedate with only cuttings of scallion providing any semblance of zing. The only drawbacks were the brown spots peppering the cabbage leaves and the dry, arid pieces of pork that tasted like simmered cardboard.

Pud gra prow, meat and vegetables sautéed with chili, garlic, and mint, was crowded with crisp bell pepper, carrot, and bamboo shoots interspersed with chunks of moist chicken. This throng mingled in a delicate sauce that throbbed with heat but didn't singe, and instead sweated with sumptuous balance.

But the sizzling mixed seafood with vegetables (prig phow ta lay) listed a bit. The vegetables--carrot, bell pepper, onion, and scallion--were crisp and tasted fine. But a couple of the seafood specimens--surimi and scallops--were fishy and mushy. Piling onto this culinary tilt was the shrimp and calamari, which were tough. The only flesh that was seaworthy was the mussel, a tiny, chewy, and briny golden-gray piece of meat loosely resting in a half shell.

Is sizzling service a characteristic of a "true dining experience?" That one is hard to answer. The most notable quality of the service was the outages and the length of time it took to inform us about them. In addition to overall sluggishness, there were other little "true annoying experiences." A dirty spoon was at our place setting, and it was an effort to get two pairs of chopsticks delivered to our table. Yet overall the service was very friendly, if slightly inept.

The surprising thing was how often the food came out that way, though they could be using that Pepsi dispenser as a Cuisinart. Chicken with red Thai sauce was cluttered with huge, yellowing broccoli florets that looked like little bonsai trees that had been forced to endure August in the concrete planters along Central Expressway. Sweetness pervaded the sauce, as did spice heat, but again it wasn't overly pricked with heat. Hovering around in the slurry were tiny slices of mushrooms, crisp strips of green pepper, onion, large celery stalk segments, tiny half-medallions of zucchini, and razor-cut carrots that looked suspiciously like they came from bag with the Green Giant's picture on it. The red Thai sauce was a little oily, but it tasted OK and helped defray the terror induced by the fried tofu cubes (ordered in lieu of chicken). These brown segments were reminiscent of chewing on an old sponge (we've done this after wiping up a tipped-over bottle of Tequila), with a lingering flavor of oil-soaked cardboard.

Lunch is preceded by cups of vegetable soup, a red curried broth with bamboo, celery, broccoli, mushroom, and onion. The vegetable scraps were far too vast, almost folded in two between the walls of the tiny cups. Similarly, the vegetables were overcooked, robbed of their richness. Yet the broth was clean with balanced flavor and a zing fired with pepper and curry.

Pad Thai was delicious, with gracefully limp, separate noodles entwined in a voluptuous hump blushed with a reddish peanut sauce that had just enough tang to keep the mouth attentive. The peanut flavor was present, but only in the shadows, lending it subtle richness. The pad Thai was amply sewn with bean sprouts, scallions, bits of peanut, chewy shrimp, and small patches of egg. This is a simple, well-balanced rendition of Thailand's most famous dish.

So maybe that's what a true dining experience is: whipping up a good dish of noodles, nuts, and eggs. Somehow this true experience would ring truer if they'd run some lager through the Pepsi dispenser.