Bangkok Oriental isn't like any other Thai restaurant. There are Thai preparations, yes, but also other interesting, assertive dishes that combine both European and Oriental methods and spices. What is not "true Thai" is not watered down or condescending. Everything we tasted was distinguished by an intelligent respect for curious Western palates.
Neither a shoestring operation nor a big-budget job, BangkoOriental is a modest, attractive two-room restaurant in a shopping center behind a Denny's. Minutes south of where Route 100 crosses Ritchie Highway, it sits on the east side of what is a depressingly, repetitiously tawdry stretch of real estate. Enter the door and inhale the ravishing cooking smells, though, and figure the shopping center location is meaningless, except that a lot of people live and work in the area.
The room is simple and calming. Comfortable, padded blond-wood chairs; white walls; framed rural scenes of Thailand; small, carved temple dragons that keep guard from above on a plate rail; pink tablecloths and napkins; fresh flowers, and a staff whose manners are notably gentle -- all of these have a part in the hospitable atmosphere.
At first, we mumbled over a menu with such un-Thai dishes as a "wild mushrooms with sherry" appetizer, a "roasted bell peppers and eggplant" salad, and an entree of "prime sirloin topped with green peppercorns, basil and brandy sauce." Still, the menu was predominantly Thai, so we began our meal with "tod mun" ($4.95), or deep-fried spiced shrimp and fish cakes, "tom yum" ($3.25), a soup of shrimp and aromatics, and "pinky in blanket" ($3.95), shrimp in a thin, folded dough wrapper.
"Tod," say books on Thai cooking, means deep-fried, and "tom" means boiled or poached. The juicy, hot, deep-fried fish cakes, rich with ground shrimp, were golden, greaseless and light, unlike so much fryer food. They were enhanced by an accompanying clear, hot, sweet and sour sauce textured with ground peanuts.
Tom yum consisted of shrimp in a chili-hot, lemon-cool seafood broth flavored with Chinese straw mushrooms and lemon grass. (Lemon grass? Planted in the garden, it looks a little like couch grass. One eats the thick, pale center stalk, an extended node above the roots and below the green blades. Sliced and cooked, the stalk combines, to my mind, the taste of field grass with the taste of lemon.)
We ordered pinky in blanket because it sounded coyly frivolous. (For reasons we didn't pursue, our waiter steered us away from the other intriguing dish on the menu, "fried candy," or "golden brown wrappings of blended meats"). Dipped into what tasted something like chili-ed applesauce, the three "pinkies" were pleasantly simple.
A stunningly crisp salad of immaculately fresh romaine, carrot and slivers of red cabbage was served between courses. Lightly dressed with oil, vinegar and garlic, it took well to a jaunty scattering of less standard ingredients that included Chinese parsley and pimiento.
We chose one of our entrees, fishermen's stew ($14.95), because we couldn't resist the idea of a "Thai bouillabaisse." Though it was similar to tom yum, a greater variety of seafood gave greater depth to the broth of the stew. Tender rings of calamari, swordfish, scallops, shrimp and liquid came together in what the Chinese call a "sandpot," a plain earthen casserole that functions as a soup bowl. One of the soup's flavorings was a lime leaf, which contributes a subtle and pleasing, mildly acid lime flavor to foods.
A plate of anise duckling ($11.50) was superb. A duck breast, well-done, thin on fat, and formally patterned in a careful arrangement of slices, was cooked in a delicious, healthy sauce intensely perfumed with star anise but supported by other complex spices and tastes that included caramel, Chinese five-spice powder (anise, fennel, cloves, cinnamon and brown peppercorns), garlic, coriander and bean sauce.
Western in conception, Mae-Yong pork ($10.95) was based on the pleasures of half-inch thick, sauteed pork loin steaks. What made the dish exceptional was a mysterious, tawny "ginger paste sauce" over the top, a beautifully modulated paste composed of ginger, chili paste, lime leaves, lemon grass, white pepper and curry spicings.
All three entrees came with Chinese fried rice, and a lovely, just-stir-fried combination of snap peas, broccoli, carrot and Chinese ears of corn.
For dessert we shared a slice of sweet coconut custard tart ($2.25), which set a bottom layer of coconut custard and a top layer of plain custard over a light, almost invisible crust.
It was a strong three-star meal, in short -- seductively perfumed, skillfully executed, vigorous in tastes, and imaginative. *
Next: Inn at Perry Cabin
Bangkok Oriental, 8043F Ritchie Highway, Pasadena, 766-0973
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, until 11 p.m. Fridays, noon to 11 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays
Features: Thai-based cuisine