Thai Orient specializes in variety

January 11, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

I'm sitting here musing about the new Thai Orient's slogan: "contemporary Thai and Chinese cuisines." Three of us had dinner there, but I'm still not sure what it means.

Healthier? Yes, if you order "Shrimp De Levine" -- "A dish created by a famous doctor from the city of Baltimore," according to the menu. Fat steamed shrimp are tossed with roasted garlic and scallions, then laid on a bed of lightly steamed fresh vegetables. The shrimp's seasonings pack such a punch you won't notice the lack of oil or sauce.

But then dinner starts with a bowl of fried noodles, crisp bites of pure grease, so you've probably had your fat allotment before you ever start in on the shrimp. (Show a little restraint and stick to the bowl of Chinese sweet cabbage that also comes to the table. It's a kind of Chinese slaw dressed with, well, sugar water. But it must be good for you.)

You could get the best, or worst, of both worlds by ordering "mee grob" as an appetizer. This is a sort of bird's nest of deep-fried noodles and bean sprouts soaking in sweet and sour sauce with a few shrimp thrown in for good measure. Or try the "Stuffed Heavenly Wings" if you crave high-calorie food with a difference. They are partially boned, stuffed with minced shrimp, water chestnuts and mushrooms and deep fried. And served with sweet and sour sauce, of course.

To get back to the contemporary cuisine concept: At some places that could mean fusion cuisine, but not here. The Thai Orient has quite separate Thai and Chinese dishes; and as I understand it, there's one chef to cook one, another to cook the other. The Chinese food includes the traditional favorites, from General Tso's chicken to orange beef. The Thai dishes strike me as more interesting, like the sliced pork with fresh basil leaves and vegetables in a delicate, complex sauce infused with a faint sweetness.

Although I'm not sure the Thai Orient offers anything very new in either Thai or Chinese cuisine, what it does offer is a good selection of both. So you can tell your kids you're going to a Chinese restaurant (egg rolls and sweet and sour chicken for them) while you know it's really a Thai restaurant (squid in a spicy Thai herb sauce for you).

And who can resist the over-the-top decor? Maybe the orange vinyl banquettes are left over from the defunct Chow Dynasty. (I just don't remember, and it seemed rude to ask.) But you hardly notice them with the palm tree in the center of the dining room, the crystal chandeliers and mirrors, the elaborate murals of Thai landscapes.

And if you're lucky enough to go when the Thai Orient has a ripe mango on hand, you can finish your meal with sticky rice and mango, the juicy tart-sweet fruit the perfect counterpoint to the warm, sweet rice.

Thai Orient

Valley Centre, Owings Mills

(410) 363-3488

Major credit cards

Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-10 p.m.

Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$4.95; entrees, $6.95-$16.95

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