In contrast to the insidious spread of American eating habits throughout the world, a much quieter, more pleasing culinary invasion has been taking hold for the past 30 years. And if St. Louis is any indication, there are a lot of Thai restaurants studding the landscape of English-speaking cities worldwide.
But like everyone else who dines frequently on Thai cuisine (and who is excited with every new Thai restaurant opening), I end up asking: Is there any distinguishing factor, any set of objective criteria, any test, anything at all, that sets one Thai restaurant apart from the next one....and the next?
Of course, if you've traveled to Thailand -- sadly, I haven't -- probably nothing between San Francisco and Manhattan will ever satisfy. Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten writes in his latest book, It Must've Been Something I Ate, that "even some of the simplest Thai flavorings and ingredients and the principles of combining them are alien to the Western palate." Granted, this observation comes from the man who travels the Thai countryside eating traditional dishes of insects, crisp bamboo worms, roasted wasp larvae and red-ant eggs. The rest of us are usually happy if our palates are stimulated with something beyond sweet and sour. Thai food is multilayered and intense even without the addition of chiles, producing flavors from subtle to gushing, sometimes in the same dish. Striking the proper balance between the four primary flavor sensations is what Thai seasoning is all about: sweet (granulated and palm sugar); sour (vinegar, lime juice, tamarind, green mangoes and wild or pickled plums); salty (fermented fish sauce and table salt); and bitter (leaves, bitter-orange rind, tiny Thai eggplants). In short, the appeal of Thai food is that its flavors are simultaneously subtle and complex.
Here are the criteria I've managed to settle on: Keep me interested. Don't muck things up with a "please-them-all," half-Thai, half-Chinese menu. Finally -- and this is where St. Louis Thai spots tend to fall woefully short -- surprise me with tastes from Thailand's diverse geographic regions.
Based on those admittedly subjective standards, Blue Elephant, located in downtown Clayton, hits the mark -- at least partially.
Several dishes were instantly satisfying, capturing the senses of sight, smell and taste. But a few seemed uninspired and pedestrian, specifically a forgettable crab rangoon (please, no more of this insipid appetizer in any place other than Chinese restaurants) and a disappointing chicken larb, a traditional chopped-meat salad. With mint leaves, green onions, lime juice, chiles and roasted crushed rice, it sounded like a nice beginning to a Thai mini-feast. Try as I might, however, I found neither mint leaves nor signs of the intriguing-sounding rice.
Thai spring rolls, though, were a pleasant surprise: two long, rice-paper wrappers rolled with plain and baked tofu, egg and vegetables, then drizzled with a tangy honey-mustard sauce.
At this point it should be noted that Blue Elephant appears to be the first local Thai restaurant to tap on that psychological ceiling of the $20 entrée. While one can dine modestly here (eight entrées are priced at $10, while noodle and rice dishes run $9), the so-called house specialties range from $12 to $20. That's not a bad thing, of course, but most St. Louisans are spoiled with cheap Asian eats. Still, my party thought nothing of trying the salmon in green curry, known as gaeng khiao wan. I love how green curries sneak up on you, and this one was quiet, the chunks of salmon fillet and vegetables looking oh-so-innocent in their coconut milk bath. The first bite is pleasant, flavorful. The heat emerges slowly, enveloping your mouth with a pleasant spiciness, striking a nice harmony of flavors. The dish was rated "hot" on the menu, but we could have gone up another notch without subverting the delicacy of the fresh salmon. Massaman curry is thicker and milder, but no less interesting. Our massaman selection was full of gentle spice (undertones of cardamom and cumin?), green pepper, onion, cashews and thick chunks of potato to soak up the sauce. We chose the sliced beef version, but chicken is also available.
Two dishes received very high marks: Thai barbecued chicken and roasted duck with red curry. With the barbecue dish, the sheer size of the half-chicken portion was arresting. The sauce leaned toward sweet, but not syrupy-sweet like too many Asian barbecue sauces. A bit chunky and with a background of heat, the sauce melded well with the flavors of the soy sauce-rich accompaniment, shrimp fried rice. The duck with red curry (gaeng ped), meanwhile, was a boneless breast that boasted a crisp skin. Inside, the meat was moist, rich and succulent, the red curry not as spicy as its green cousin. Here the heat of the curry was counterbalanced by sweet chunks of pineapple. Tomatoes added astringency, while fresh basil provided another layer to chew on.
Blue Elephant offers a decent wine selection, all priced under $50 and many available by the glass. It was reassuring to note that of the dozen or so whites, only four were (Asian food-unfriendly) chardonnays. Though it's harder to pair red wine with Thai food, plenty of reds are present on the list; among these, the 2000 David Bruce pinot noir makes an interesting match with the barbecued chicken.
The restaurant's interior is upscale, featuring creamy yellow walls, matchstick bamboo wainscoting, frosted-glass hanging light fixtures and even Norah Jones filtering through on the sound system. The atmosphere is more appealing when the place gets crowded; the space becomes warmer when it's more densely inhabited.
But while the kitchen reliably turns out tasty fare, the adventure factor is missing. For example, it would be nice to see more dishes from Isan, in Thailand's rural northeast, where Laotian-influenced foods rule. (The ill-fated larb was one lonely representative from this region.) Even more familiar dishes, such as som tum (green papaya salad), fail to appear on Blue Elephant's menu. It's not necessary to serve up larvae or ant eggs in St. Louis, but how about broadening the Asian horizons a little? In other words, keep us interested.