Thai Aroma adds local fare (crabs) to Asian recipes

Ellicott City restaurant is both classic and inventive

September 01, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Lotte Plaza on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City has become a culinary destination for anyone who likes Asian food. In addition to the sprawling Lotte supermarket, with its enormous selection of sauces, spices, seafood and vegetables, there are several Asian restaurants in the shopping center.

Relatively new to the plaza is Thai Aroma, which took over the spot vacated by House of Asia about a year ago. The restaurant is pleasantly spacious, the tables covered with white cloths and the service attentive. The mood is more functional than festive.

Even though it is not exactly a special-occasion destination, Thai Aroma has a lot going for it. The kitchen treats meats and vegetables with respect, can fry without creating a greasy mess, makes an effort with presentation and definitely gets points for creativity.

Specials featuring in-season ingredients are offered nightly, and items such as a deep-fried coconut crab cake show that efforts are being made to incorporate local ingredients, while staying true to the flavors and philosophy of Thai cooking. (Those flavors would be coconut, lemongrass, peanuts, cilantro, etc.; the philosophy would be that sweet, sour, salty and hot flavors should work in harmony.)

While Thai Aroma's efforts are always entirely edible, they do not always result in spectacular fare. The crab cakes, for example, made with a mix of shrimp and crab and coated in coconutty batter, had a pleasant flavor, but were too dense and dry to be truly appealing, even when doused with the mildly tart cucumber relish served alongside.

Another appetizer, garden rolls wrapped in rice paper, also seemed like a good idea but disappointed in execution. Though they contained a small amount of the promised steamed shrimp, the thin wrappers were filled mostly with mint, bean sprouts and cilantro. The result was basically cylinders of salad with hardly any seasoning. The peanut sauce helped only a little.

Other stabs at creativity, such as curry puffs, were more successful. These little deep-fried triangles, filled with minced chicken and potato, were complex and flavorful, with a fine, crackly exterior.

Thai Aroma serves everyone's favorite Thai dishes, including green curry and Pho beef, a beef noodle soup.

Of course, any list of favorite Thai dishes includes Pad Thai. At Thai Aroma, this popular dish, though dusted in crushed peanuts and seasoned with scallions, lacked zing. It was less a gorgeous mess of flavors and textures than a composed platter of ingredients, containing, disappointingly, either chicken or shrimp, not both, and served with still-crunchy bean sprouts along one side of the plate instead of mixed in.

My dining companion and I were happier with PaNang Shrimp, which arrived in a sweet coconut broth containing only a tantalizing hint of heat, probably because we requested a mild interpretation of this often searing dish. We found no fault with the mix of plump shrimp and slightly crunchy green pepper slices and snow peas.

We also liked the grilled lemongrass beef, which featured thin, tender slices of steak flavored with a sweet and sour marinade, alongside pickled carrots, crunchy bean sprouts, translucent noodles and, of course, the lemongrass.

Desserts at Thai Aroma include a deep-fried cheesecake, the creamy filling wrapped in rice paper and fried to a crisp. It was attractively arranged on the plate and served warm, with a dollop of whipped cream. A lighter, also appealing, choice was sticky rice with mango, featuring a mound of warm, sweet rice and slices of remarkably fresh mango.

Thai Aroma also has a liquor license. With its pleasant atmosphere and mix of classic dishes and more inventive fare, it is a fine place to satisfy a craving for Thai food.

Thai Aroma

Where: 8815 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City

Call: 410-480-5100

Open: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Tuesday

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$8.95; entrees, $9.95-$14.95

Credit cards: All major

Food: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Service: *** (3 stars)

Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

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