Ban Thai offers reliable fare downtown

Restaurant Review

Palate

March 19, 2006|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

WHEN I LAST REVIEWED BAN THAI, I worried that it might not survive. That was in 1993.

I'm not sure how this pleasant and decidedly unhip little Thai restaurant has managed to hang on -- and not only survive but flourish for 13 years. Ban Thai has good food if you order right, but that's not always enough to save a Charles Street restaurant. The problem is that it has the feel of a neighborhood eatery, but the neighborhood is mostly office buildings, empty at night.

After 13 years, Ban Thai is beginning to have a comfy retro appeal, so maybe people try it at lunch and come back for dinner. Wine, for instance, is still $3.95 a glass and comes in three flavors: white, red or rose. Have a Thai beer or Thai iced tea instead.

People know about Ban Thai now, and it's won a couple of local "Best of" awards for its reliable Thai cuisine. That and its affable staff make up for what could be perceived as, let's say, a certain lack of excitement in the surroundings.

The unadventurous will find old favorites such as pad Thai and satays with peanut sauce on the menu, but why not branch out a little? For instance, the restaurant is still offering its Winter Warm-Ups, signature noodle soups. This is a three-step, create-your-own process. You pick your type of noodles, your combination of meat or vegetables and your broth.

True, experimentation won't always be successful. Mee krob, an appetizer of sweet and crunchy noodles, tasted like oversweetened breakfast cereal with two shrimp.

On the other hand, nuer yang, prosaically described as grilled beef with Thai spices, turned out to be excellent: rosy-centered slices of beef with a clean-flavored, pungent sauce. A warm, moist, freshly steamed ball of dough, the dumpling special that night, which surrounded fresh parsley and chives, was also a winner.

You would never guess that toong tong, little purses of crisply fried wonton wrapper, were filled with chicken; the minced stuffing tasted like something else entirely. But they were seductive little snacks anyway.

Instead of pad Thai, try one of the six other noodle dishes on Ban Thai's menu. Ba-mee mu-dang, the one we had, featured tender slices of roast pork nestled among skinny egg noodles. If curry is your thing, have the red curry with chicken and coconut milk. But if you aren't ready for Thai spicing, order it very, very mild. Even mild made us weep.

Ban Thai's honey-roasted boneless duck with broccoli had a homey appeal and a smoky flavor, but it was cooked too long for current tastes. If you shut your eyes, it tasted more like ham than duck. Seafood with snow peas and mushrooms was an exciting dish, with shrimp, enormous mussels on the half shell, squid and scallops brightened with ginger.

All these dishes were raised to another level by the appealing Thai flavors of lemongrass, coriander and basil, creating fresh, bright notes in the various sauces. Presentation was an important part of the evening, with the seafood served on a fish-shaped platter, the curry in a pretty pottery dish over heat, and everything garnished with vegetables carved into leaves, chrysanthemums and roses.

Traditional Thai desserts are available as well as coconut, mango or green tea ice cream. The kitchen had run out of egg custard, but it had sticky rice, that salty-sweet version of rice pudding made with coconut milk. It marries almost perfectly with slices of ripe mango.

Ban Thai is one of those restaurants that show downtown Baltimore is alive and kicking at night in spite of everything you might hear otherwise. On a chilly weeknight the place wasn't packed, but a steady flow of customers kept coming in the whole time we were there, both to eat in and carry out.

......................

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

FOOD *** (3 STARS)

SERVICE *** (3 STARS)

ATMOSPHERE ** 1 / 2 (2 1/2 STARS)

BAN THAI

Address: 340 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday.

Prices: Appetizers: $3.95-$12.95, entrees: $10.50-$18.95.

Call: 410-727-0125

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