In the "old days" -- let's say before 1980 or so -- when an Asian restaurant "Westernized" its cuisine, gourmets shuddered. Those were the early days of culinary ethnic awareness and the rise of the Sichuan dynasty, and Westernization (which usually meant altering traditional dishes to suit the pusillanimous palate of middle-class Americans)was tantamount to bastardization.
But during the past decade celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and Ken Hom, pioneers of the so-called "East-West" cuisine, and local restaurants such as the Orchid and Stixx set about proving that a mix of Oriental and Western ingredients and techniques could draw from the strengths of both cultures.
No, the Bangkok Oriental is not the most authentic Thai place around. Few dishes bear Thai names, and some, such as "medallion of tenderloin with black mushrooms au demi glace," hardly seem to belong in an Asian place at all, much less one in a shopping strip behind a Denny's. The look is classy, the prices correspondingly high (for Thai). Presentation, and such extras as salads dressed with vinaigrette, are Western. But all this serves not to water down the Thai experience, but to "continentalize" it.
(However, according to owner Dennis Kunaprayoon, old Thai hands can get all their authentic favorites -- even dishes not listed on the trim, two-page menu -- spiced as they like them.)
Scallops with Thai herbs ($5.25) is a textbook case of how to initiate newcomers to Thai food. The succulent scallops were bedded in a grass-green sauce whose ingredients included coriander, lemon grass and shallots. It's a lovely-looking dish, and one that includes some definitively Thai flavors without being dauntingly exotic.
Sauteed oyster mushrooms ($4.95), on the other hand, owed more to Chinese and French cuisine. The suave sherry sauce and a sprinkling of scallions brought out the subtle flavor of the meaty stir-fried mushrooms.
The classic Thai soups, here called tom yum (shrimp with lemon grass, $3.25) and tom kha (chicken with coconut milk, $2.75), are as good as you'll find anywhere, with sophisticated many-layered flavors, and enough heat to make the taste buds tingle.
The understately-named "Fisherman's Stew" ($14.75) was essentially a more elaborate, less spicy version of tom yum. The fresh seafood, which that evening included shrimp, scallops, calamari, clams and catfish, was very gently cooked. (In the case of the catfish, somewhat under-cooked.) The soup itself was a tangy, citrusy broth, pleasurably sour, flavored with lemon grass and lime leaf.
Pa-naeng beef ($9.25), which married the meat with a smooth golden sauce of coconut milk and spices, was a delightfully savory dish, and should please a palate with any sense of adventure.
Desserts included a wedge of coconut custard, which combined the lightness of a flan with the richness of a cheesecake, and rice pudding. The pudding was fine, but my companion, who doesn't much care for sweets but ordered it for the sake of the review, was embarrassed when not only the waiter but the owner stopped by to tut-tut over the fact that he hadn't eaten much. There's a fine line, guys, between attending to customers' needs and playing Mom.
Where: 8043-F Ritchie Highway, Pasadena
Hours: Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays, noon to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays
Credit Cards: AE, MC, V
Features: Thai cuisine