Thai Orient tries to find a balance of heat and sweet

Traditional pad Thai is a mild and popular dish

Eats: dining reviews, Table Talk

March 04, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Reisterstown Road sometimes feels like a headache looking for a place to land, with so much traffic, so many stoplights and so many big shopping centers, one right after the other. However, an oasis of calm can be found at Thai Orient, a small restaurant nearly overshadowed by a giant T.J. Maxx in the Valley Centre shopping strip.

The restaurant, nearly nine years old, is perfectly clean, but it looks dated inside, with maroon-clad booths and a giant chandelier hovering over a palm tree in the middle of the room. The far wall is mirrored to make the space appear larger, and murals of Thailand, with maroon accents to complement the furniture, are painted on the walls.

The restaurant serves Chinese basics like General Tso's chicken and lo mein, but we stuck to the Thai food, as do most of the patrons, according to owner Paul Chot.

Chot said he modifies the recipes from his native Thailand by toning down the spice and bumping up the sweetness. Many items still packed serious heat, though. Chicken in green curry, an appealing mix of tender chicken slices, bamboo shoots, squares of eggplant and broccoli florets infused with sweetness of coconut milk, was spicy enough to make me gulp down water after each bite.

Of course, one of the most popular items is pad Thai, the most famous Thai dish and one of the all-time great comfort foods. Everyone seems to love the combination of soft noodles and crunchy peanuts, the dance of flavors between the gentle zing of fish sauce, scallions and lime and the milder tofu, bean sprouts and egg. The version at Thai Orient was on the mild side but more than acceptable, with plump pink shrimp attractively arrayed atop the generous mound of noodles.

The green papaya salad, one of several specials, offered another intriguing mix of flavors. The thin strips of papaya lent crunch but not much fruit flavor to a dish that was intense with the tastes of scallions and vinegar. This lively mix was topped with peanut bits and nestled in a salad of lettuce and tomato.

Another special, Seafood Siam, was a sight to behold, a mound of soft noodles and tender vegetables in a peanuty sauce, topped with a lobster tail, scallops and shrimps and ringed by mussels still in the shell. The lobster, though, was dry and devoid of flavor, and the mussels had an unpleasant fishy flavor. The dish was still more good than bad, especially because the scallops were so sweet and tender.

A fishy flavor also afflicted an appetizer of ka-nom jeeb, steamed patties of minced chicken, shrimp and vegetables. Though the patties were on the dry side, I still liked them. My dining companion, though, declared them inedible. Steamed vegetable dumplings arrived in tender wrappers, but the stuffing was a less-than-thrilling blend dominated by minced onions and carrots.

For dessert, the sticky rice with fresh mango was a treat, with rice that was chewy and not too sweet, surrounded by fat slices of mango. I liked it better than the Thai coconut custard, a pielike triangle adorned with whipped topping, which was so sweet it almost hurt my teeth.

Service was unfailingly polite and unobtrusive. Our water glasses were continually filled, thank goodness, and I particularly liked that our server boxed our leftovers as we went along and returned the boxes to us at the end of the meal. So many places these days make customers box their own food, and then leave the boxes on the table while dessert is served. The Thai Orient way is much more relaxing.

Thai Orient

Where: 9616-I Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills

Call: 410-363-3488

Open: Lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers $2.95-$5.59, entrees $6.50-$16.95

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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