01/30/2005: Restaurant Review: Bhan Thai Restaurant
1324 Peabody Ave. (Peabody just west of Cleveland)
Memphis, TN 38104
One of the things that Brock and I talked about when we were talking about collaborating on this blog was doing a series of Memphis restaurant reviews. Ideally, I think we'd like to do them together, Siskel and Ebert style (yes, I know it's now "Ebert and Roeper" since Gene passed away, but old habits die hard....), so I feel a little bad about jumping the gun about this. However, a good friend called yesterday evening (before I'd gotten around to arranging for dinner, thankfully), and said she had a serious Thai food itch that needed scratching. It's been observed that hackers, geeks, and other techno-dweebs (I plead guilty to being a geek/techno-dweeb; unfortunately I'm not a good enough programmer to be a hacker) "display an intense tropism towards oriental cuisine" in general, and towards the spicier versions of such cuisine in particular (and I plead guilty to that count as well), so a Thai restaurant excursion definitely piqued my interest. (The other incentive was that my friend, who attends a lot of economic development trade shows, had picked up a shot glass with a St. Louis Cardinals logo and the legend, "2004 National League Champions", a must-have for my collection of glassware, and she thought that I'd give it a good home (she's a Braves fan, herself)). (If you're interested, read more below the fold....)
Bhan Thai is located in a historic residential section in (what I think) is the outskirts of Midtown (or maybe more accurately, that borderland between the Medical Center neighborhood (it's within walking distance of Methodist-University Hospital Central complex on Union) and Midtown). The building itself was a residence, though it's apparently housed at least one restaurant prior to the opening of Bhan Thai in October of 2002. The converted residential venue makes for a very nice ambience (it's not that much of a stretch to imagine one has been invited to a private dinner party there...), though the crowds that the restaurant draws means that it's a bit, um, "cozy" in the entryway during their busiest times. Our party was lucky in that we were seated immediately even though there was a small crowd in the entrance lobby when we got there (the nice thing, I suppose, about coming to such a place in a party of two, when most of the parties there seemed to be in sizes of 4 or more). When we left, there was quite a collection of diners waiting to be seated. A good sign.
I'll note that the Bhan Thai webpage and a few reviews note that they have a deck out back, on which live entertainment might be had (weather permitting). It being the end of January, even in Memphis, the weather was (obviously) not permitting, but I'm not sure the lack of outdoor dining was a downcheck. The back deck's view isn't the best I've seen; basically you can see the underside of the grandstands of E.H. Crump Stadium and Methodist-University Hospital Central off in the "distance" (if several short city blocks count as a "distance"). I'll withhold judgment on the aesthetics of the view from the deck until I've actually experienced it, though.
We shared an appetizer of Thai spring rolls, my friend ordered the Penang curry chicken, and I ordered the Northern Thai Curry Chicken (a "house specialty"), washed down (for both of us) with Singha beer, a Thai import (my philosophy, which my friend shares, is that ethnic cuisine deserves a beer (or other alcoholic beverage) of the same ethnicity--sake or Kirin with Japanese food, a good India Pale Ale with Indian cuisine.... you get the picture). The spring rolls were made fresh, with crisp vegetables, and topped with what I think is a sweet (vice spicy) ginger sauce. Very good, even though I could have used a little more bite in the sauce (I like, for example, the slices of pickled ginger that come with a sushi platter). The beer was pretty damn good. By way of a biographical digression, I've mentioned here several times that I am a veteran of the Navy JAG Corps, and I spent two years at the naval base in Subic Bay, RP. During that time, I became quite a partisan of San Miguel Beer, which was damn good and also damn cheap (about a quarter USC for a 12 oz. bottle, at 1984 prices/rates of exchange). Ever since I've been trying to find some San Mig that approaches the taste of the San Mig I enjoyed in the Philippines, to no avail (the San Mig you find for sale here in the U.S. (when you can find it) is but a pale imitation of the stuff that's available in the land of its birth). Unless my memory's playing tricks with me, the Singha I had last night came closest.
The curry dishes were excellent. I don't know why my companion and I both ordered curry chicken (though at least we didn't order the same exact entree); usually I try to order something radically different from what my dinner companion(s) is(are) ordering, because inevitably in such an excursion there's some mutual sharing of each other's dishes. In this case there was. The Penang curry was very good, though much more subdued than the Northern Thai Chicken Curry. (The Penang curry was a "do it yourself" kind of dish; one section of the menu is basically a set of dishes in which you can specify the "meat"--chicken or seafood, maybe beef (alas, I wasn't paying close attention there), or tofu, if you're a vegetarian (like Brock)--of course many if not most oriental cuisines tend to be very vegetarian friendly, probably because of the Buddhist influence.)
No doubt because Thai cuisine has a reputation of being quite spicy, the menu comes with a handy key for the spiciness of each dish: one "wishbone" (that's what it looks like) means that there is a little bite to it, two wishbones means that it's spicier than a lot of Americans will probably like, and a little Bhan Thai icon (see the webpage for what it looks like enlarged) to indicate "Thai hot" (I noticed with amusement, though, that no dish was marked as being "Thai hot"--no doubt if you're a real spice fiend you'll have to ask for that when you order). The Northern Thai Chicken Curry was marked with two wishbones, and I must confess a bit of disappointment that the dish wasn't quite as spicy as I was expecting--it was still excellent, but I had my taste buds prepared for a bit more bite than I actually got. Keep in mind that I like spicy (at my all time favorite Indian restaurant, The Jaipur Brewing Company Indian Restaurant and Brew Pub in Omaha, Nebraska, my favorite dish, the lamb vindaloo, can be accurately described as "like eating live coals"), so the disappointment is surely a personal thing. For what it's worth, though, there's a much more distinctly curry taste to the Northern Thai Chicken Curry (of which I wholeheartedly approve) than there is to the Penang curry. Both dishes came with white rice on the side, and the presentation of the Northern Thai Curry Chicken was superb, in a elongated china bowl.
Prices are reasonable (even for the most expensive house specialties, the price is less than $20), the quality of the food is superb, and the ambience is wonderful. Highly recommended!
Len on 01.30.05 @ 10:45 AM CST
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