Revelations in wonderful cuisine at Bangkok Garden

Restaurant profile

Howard Live

Arts and entertainment in Howard County

July 29, 2005|By Sheila Young | Sheila Young,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Recently, I asked friends from Silver Spring who know Thai food and culture very well to recommend a good Thai restaurant in Howard County. They immediately suggested Bangkok Garden.

My husband and I invited them to accompany us because my friends, Adele and David Schwartz, are experts who also pronounce the names of Thai dishes correctly. To expand the number of new dishes we could try, Adele brought along her sister and brother-in-law, Sheila and Reuven Lev-Tov.

Reuven said that whenever he goes to a Thai restaurant, he compares it with Bangkok Garden - his gold standard. After the wondrous meal we had there, I think he's right.

I've been eating Thai food for about 20 years. Like most people I know, after my first couple of meals of discovery I settled in to a few dishes that I really enjoy - pad Thai, mild or medium-hot curries with coconut milk, and spring rolls. Though I love hot food, I've found over the years that many Thai dishes were beyond my heat index. So for all these years, Thai food was all about trying to keep straight whether red curry was hotter than yellow curry. It was all about the heat, and I stayed with what I knew.

But the Schwartzes opened my eyes to a new world in what had been a familiar cuisine. It was like finding new love in an old friend.

I would not have thought, for example, that I would enjoy a salad of unripe papaya. But I did. I would not, on my own, have ordered a dessert of sticky rice and mango. But it was wonderful.

Adele was our tour guide, selecting several appetizers and the main courses. And all of our new friends enhanced our knowledge of Thai food and culture throughout the meal.

The restaurant decor makes a good case for itself, too. Outside is a pretty garden with burbling fountains. The space inside is lovely and serene - with lots of windows, lighting that enhances conversation but is still bright enough to read a menu, and tables bearing artistic designs.

Adele started us off with a full-range of appetizers using meat, seafood and the garden. For the spicy dishes, Adele ordered everything medium hot. Reuven's translation: "Very spicy but not mean."

Among our favorites was an unusual combination: steamed pork and crabmeat dumplings, kanom jeeb. I've seen crabmeat team with a lot of unusual ingredients over the years, but never with pork, and now I can't figure out why so few kitchens attempt it. Both are delicate meats, and the rich crab flavor balanced perfectly with the mild pork.

An even bigger surprise among the appetizers, however, was som tam, a salad of shredded, unripe papaya sprinkled with peanuts and a hint of lime dressing. Unripe papaya? Who knew it could taste so refreshing when combined with the right ingredients? It is a totally different look and taste from a ripe papaya - crisp and very slightly bitter, like mild endive.

Lemon grass soup with shrimp, tom yum goong, was a revelation - that "new love in an old friend" experience. I've had lemon grass soup and enjoyed it. But this version was outstanding. It was very simple - broth, perfectly cooked shrimp, shreds of lemon grass, with a splash of lime, a sprinkle of coriander and a few chilies. But the balance of flavors and the quality of the broth made it exquisite.

The entrees that followed were even better.

Massaman curry, shrimp in a brown coconut and peanut curry, was the consensus favorite of the table - we ordered a second round. The dish is usually served with potatoes, but Bangkok Garden substitutes avocados, and they are a wonderful innovation. The dish is delicate, hot and slightly sweet. The avocados match perfectly with the sauce and the shrimp. And all the ingredients of the sauce blended so well that no single flavor dominated.

We would also highly recommend the crispy whole fish with hot chili and garlic sauce. The concept is a staple of most Asian restaurants in the area, but at Bangkok Garden, the dish is a step or two above the rest of the crowd. The night we were there, the kitchen was using flounder, and its very tender, very fresh flavors stood up surprisingly well to its spicy preparation.

We also enjoyed chicken with basil leaves - a curry I've had before, but not with a sauce as good as Bangkok Garden's - and roasted half duck with Chinese broccoli (you have to ask for the broccoli). Our only complaint about the duck was that the pieces were chopped awkwardly for table-sharing.

Dessert brought another revelation. It was a pretty heavy meal, but David forged ahead and ordered a dessert of mango and sticky rice.

I'm not a huge fan of rice desserts, but this one was special. Slices of ripe mango lay beside a portion of sticky rice covered with coconut cream sauce and tangy, crunchy yellow sprinkles (which turned out to be a surprise in more ways than one).

The sticky rice toned down the intense mango flavor a bit, and the mango sharpened the sticky rice a bit. The coconut cream heightened the sweetness of the other flavors, and the yellow sprinkles added a pleasant surprise of pop and zing. Those yellow sprinkles had us all puzzled, so we asked what they were. Bean seeds, we were told. And if that isn't finding new love in an old friend, I don't know what is.

Bangkok Garden

Where: Oakland Mills Village Center, 5810 Robert Oliver Place, Columbia

Call: 410-992-9553

Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday; 4 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday

Prices: Appetizers, $1.95-$7.95; entrees, $7.50-$16.95.

Food: **** (4 stars)

Service: **** (4 stars)

Ambience: **** (4 stars)

Rating system: Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *

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