Tasty food, artfully done, is a good reason to try the Ban Thai

August 20, 1993|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

For most people I know, Thai food is not an acquired taste. If they've been brought up with American-Chinese restaurant food, they make the transition easily -- and often feel that Thai cuisine is subtler and lighter. And hotter, of course, but that can be adjusted to suit youor taste.

It's no wonder that other Thai eating places sprang up all over the city once the Thai Restaurant opened in Waverly a few years back and did very well. But now there are so many it's going to be tough for the new Ban Thai to survive. Its location is one that's better for the lunch trade than dinner -- and how regularly are Baltimoreans going to go out for Thai food at lunchtime? And while the Ban Thai is good, it has some tough competition. In fact, I can't name a bad Thai restaurant in Baltimore.

What the Ban Thai has going for it is pleasing food and remarkably reasonable prices. It has a full bar and a freshly renovated space. What it could use more of is customers.

Ban Thai's menu is about as long and just as confusing as those pages and pages at Chinese restaurants, where you wish

someone would simply choose for you. We asked our waiter for suggestions, and he picked beef with fresh ginger in bean sauce. That doesn't really describe the light, highly seasoned brown sauce, aromatic with fresh ginger (although you never actually bite down on a piece). It covered without overwhelming tender slices of beef and a pretty arrangement of carrots, celery and onions. But be warned: this is one of those dishes where the heat sneaks up on you.

(There's an artist in the kitchen, by the way, who carves the garnishes for the main courses: tulips out of carrots and water lilies out of radishes. They have to be seen to be believed.)

At least one person at the table should get pad thai, that satisfying combination of noodles, shrimp and peanut sauce -- especially if you're not familiar with Thai food. Ban Thai's version will win you over.

When soft shell crabs are in season, the Ban Thai takes a fat one, fries it in deep-fat, and serves it with a thickened curry sauce. While that's a lot to do to a soft shell, it actually works pretty well -- except that the sauce was a little oily.

For a first course, Ban Thai's classic clear Thai soups are as good as you'll find anywhere. The soups are sparked with lemon grass or coriander and decorated with scallions, chicken or cubes of bean curd. Satays, skewered meat on skewers served with peanut sauce and a bit of cucumber salad, aren't as delicate as I've had, but the flavor is fine.

What Ban Thai doesn't do very well is fried foods: some of the appetizers I've tried have tasted as if the frying fat had been used once too often. What it does very well indeed is dessert. Oh, not the chocolate ice cream and the lychee nuts, but a seasonal specialty, sweet rice and mango. The rice is something like rice pudding; its sweet blandness is wonderful with the firm, fresh, just slightly tart-sweet fruit.

Ban Thai

Where: 340 N. Charles St.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Credit cards accepted: AE, MC, V

Features: Thai cuisine

Non-smoking section? yes

Call: (410) 727-7971

Prices: Appetizers, $3-$9.50; entrees, $5.95-$9.95

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