For Starters, This Is The Place To Be


January 15, 1995|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Maithai, 1032 Light St., (410) 539-5611. Open Tuesdays to Saturdays for lunch and dinner, for dinner only Sundays. AE, MC, No-smoking area: yes. Appetizers, $4.50-$4.95; entrees, $6.95- ***

I've never met a Thai restaurant I didn't like, so perhaps I'm not the most discriminating critic to judge a new one when it opens up.

I love the variety of fresh vegetables and fruits used in Thai cooking -- one dish might include, for instance, tender-crisp green beans, shiitake mushrooms and pomegranate seeds.

I love the distinctive flavors of cilantro, lemon grass and coconut milk.

I love the way complexity of flavor isn't sacrificed for pure heat, even though this is as fiery as any Asian cuisine.

And I love the delicacy of the sauces and the beauty of presentation, which you get even at the cheapest hole-in-the-wall restaurants.

Baltimoreans were introduced to Thai cuisine by a small restaurant on Greenmount Avenue near 33rd Street called, appropriately enough, the Thai Restaurant. Various Thai places have opened since then, but that didn't seem to affect the Thai. In fact, owner Tusnee Singparu has done so well at the original location that she recently opened a second place in Federal Hill. Rumor had it that she was going to close the location on Greenmount, but it hasn't happened yet and Ms. Singparu says it won't in the foreseeable future.

The new place, called Maithai, isn't a clone of the first. While the original restaurant has a cozy shoestring charm, some serious decorating took place before the Maithai opened. The lower-level dining room has chic gray walls above the chair rail and faux marbling below, crystal chandeliers, white clothed tables and Thai art. The upper-level dining room is a warmer room, with lots of mirrors and wood paneling.

I was most struck by the difference between the two places when I opened the menu. At the Thai, the menu goes on for ages. There's a whole section of curries alone. The Maithai's menu is a distilled version. It's the Best of the Thai. That will change, the owner says, when she has the kitchen fully trained in her recipes. (It may have happened already by the time you read this.)

There are only three appetizers, but they were all wonderful -- the high point of the meal. What the menu calls fresh spring rolls were a new one on me, the crepelike shell filled with sauteed vegetables, then drizzled with a sour-sweet tamarind sauce. Crab meat was piled lavishly on top.

These are not to be confused with the "golden fried shrimp rolls," much like conventional egg rolls except each one contains a large whole shrimp with the tail sticking out of one end. Lovely.

You must, of course, have beef satay. These two restaurants do it better than any Thai restaurant I've been to. The beef, threaded on small skewers, was tender and flavorful; its peanut sauce good enough to eat on its own. A salad of cucumber, sweet red pepper and onion with a vinegar and sugar dressing was the perfect garnish.

If you don't want one of these three first courses, start with a silky soup of hot coconut milk tinged with lime juice. Arranged decoratively at the center were a mound of crab meat, emerald-green broccoli florets and bright red pepper.

And, of course, you must have pad thai, the so-called national dish of Thailand, with its rice noodles and bean sprouts tossed with a peanutty sauce and a few fat shrimp.

After that, you're on your own. You're given a choice of eight different vegetable-sauce combinations and you choose which of six meats and seafoods you mix and match with it. We decided on a woodsy-flavored shiitake mushroom sauce that included broccoli, onion, fresh green beans and cashews; we paired it with slices of beef.

A special that evening featured shrimp and scallops in a medium-spicy chili sauce with ginger, garlic, scallions, peas, mushrooms and tomatoes. Medium spicy is about as hot as the cowards among us (I'm one of them) are going to be happy with.

Thai meals often include a main-course salad along with other dishes. Ours was "larb chicken." The grilled chicken, onions and tomatoes on iceberg lettuce were perked up by a zingy lime juice and chili dressing. Glistening bright red pomegranate seeds gave a burst of sweet flavor. All three of these entrees were good, but they didn't throw me into paroxysms of joy the way our first courses had.

Thai cooking has desserts that are more appealing to American palates than most Asian cuisines. My favorite is fresh mango slices with sticky rice, but I also like the homemade ice creams. Maithai, alas, didn't offer the former the night we were there. But its coconut ice cream, made from coconut milk and curls of fresh coconut, was light and refreshing -- more like ice milk than ice cream. A coconut custard wasn't particularly memorable, but it was a pleasant enough way to finish off a meal of intense flavors and vibrant spicing.

Next: Tio Pepe

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