Roller-coaster Thai

From decadent crab to minimalist pork at Bangkok 54

Release Date: 2010-05-19

There are some items on Bangkok 54’s menu that suggest this relatively new addition to the local Thai canon has a few tricks up its sleeve. Soft-shell crab with basil was one; so was a welcome-sounding change on the usual calamari dish: fried squid with spicy garlic-chili sauce and crispy basil leaves. The explanation of chili heat levels, ranging from zero (no peppers) to six (“911-hot”), also attracted attention.

I made my first foray at lunch with a friend whose chili tolerance is, let’s say, underdeveloped. It was possibly perverse of me (OK, truly perverse), but I asked for our two dishes at levels three (“American hot”) and four (“Thai hot”). He went through several glasses of water — in part because there seemed to be no detectable difference in heat levels, with the balance tipped toward Thai heat. It remains to be seen if we’ll have lunch together again anytime soon.

Otherwise, lunch at Asian restaurants is rarely a true test of the kitchen. Or friendships. But the drunken noodles did stand out over the good but not remarkable chicken basil. And so did the soup of the day that automatically appeared. Normally almost a throwaway, this was an unexpected gem bursting with spice-box flavor and generously endowed with barely cooked mushrooms, pieces of chicken breast, tomato, and scallion. The equally automatic spring roll was forgettable but at least not insulting.

When I returned with more seasoned diners, we determined to take it easy on the heat, ordering the soft-shell crab dish at a wimpy level two (“medium”) and the remainder at level three. As an even more cautious warm-up, we also ordered an appetizer of Kanom Jeep — steamed dumplings whose only spiciness comes from a sweet brown sauce. They’re filled with ground pork and nestled into tender wonton wrappers, and you could easily eat them by the dozens.

The crab dish (listed at “market price,” which turned out to be $17.95) is startling if only by virtue of its size. Here’s how the menu read: “soft-shell crabs over battered eggplant with freshly ground hot peppers, basil leaves, and garlic.” Sounds like a nicely layered composition of discrete parts. Here’s what arrived: an oval platter brimming with a chunky-looking sauce, further chunked out with tiny corn and pieces of red and green bell pepper, that all but disguised everything beneath. Excavation revealed that large rounds of eggplant had been topped by equally (and unusually) large specimens of crab.

You might be thinking at this point that the dish was a disaster. Not so. True, the sauce pretty much ran roughshod over the tender and delicate crab, but the sauce was so good that it almost didn’t matter. And the beautifully battered eggplant put up a valiant fight, so here’s what I suggest: Order the vegetarian eggplant with tofu and basil. It’s only $10.95, the eggplant and sauce should be the same, and tofu is meant to be dominated anyway.

“Pork prepared in a spicy Thai chili paste with garlic and green beans,” on the other hand, turned out to be an exercise in minimalism: tender pork, crisp green beans, flecks of chili, and little sauce to speak of. This, too, was good in its own way.

Think very rich and coconut-creamy when contemplating the Massaman curry with chicken, peanuts, and potatoes. Like tofu, the cubed potato is subservient to the sauce, the peanuts add welcome crunch, and the chilies round out the composition. For that reason, go as hot as you think you can tolerate. For altogether different reasons, do the same with the yum talay. Augmented with lettuce, sliced red onion, cilantro, and lemon juice, this medley of room-temperature seafood is really more of a salad, and the chili heat plays nicely against the lemon and the otherwise unseasoned — but fresh and tender — scallops, shrimp, squid, and mussels. There’s nothing spectacular here, but as a contrasting cast member in Bagkok 54’s animated flavor circus, it works just fine.

If you should happen to google Bangkok 54, you’ll find a sister operation outside of Washington D.C., where the owner is the older sibling of the local B54’s owner. D.C.’s décor is a good deal more sophisticated looking, and the menu is longer — though not necessarily better. Washington apparently doesn’t offer the Thai custard with sweet rice in coconut cream for dessert, for example. The custard is made with taro root, and we found this unassuming and judiciously sweetened dish the perfect ending to a roller-coaster ride of an evening. Especially when fresh mango is in season, don’t order the jackfruit dessert — this according to the owner. This large and spiny fruit may sound exotic, but, she says, it’s canned. Thanks for the warning, but we’ll be tempted to try it when mangos disappear from the market. •

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