New Times at an Old Standard
Waverly's Thai Restaurant (3316 Greenmount Ave.,  889-6002) seems to be everyone's Thai restaurant--the first place many locals got their first taste of fish sauce. Opened in 1981, it was Charm City's Thai pioneer, the benchmark for the Siamese eateries that would come (and go) after.
Last year, however, change came to the venerable establishment itself--new ownership and a new chef. The immediately noticeable differences, before you sample the cooking, are good ones: A handful of dishes have been added to the menu, expanding its scope.
For appetizers, we ordered two longtime favorites and a dumpling special. Gai sawan ($5.95) are an especially entertaining choice; they look like chicken drumsticks but are actually chopped crab, shrimp, and chicken, stuffed inside the skin of a chicken wing. A chicken bone is inserted as a sort of handle, and the whole package is deep-fried. The unspiced meat was mild but served as a rich foil to a tangy-sweet tamarind sauce, and we admired the kitchen's adept handling of the crisp and greaseless batter.
A spicier selection was hoy-ob ($5.95), six plump steamed mussels topped with a chili sauce. The peppery sauce, its heat tempered by sweet, garlic, and ginger overtones, was good, but there was entirely too much of it drowning the pleasantly chewy mussels. The dumplings ($4.95)--chopped shrimp and chicken wrapped in rice skin and steamed--offered savor that was, again, subtle but rich. For flavor contrast, there was soy-sesame-ginger sauce to drizzle on top.
I've had so many gummy, uninspired pad Thais that I had forgotten how good this simple noodle dish can be. The Thai's version ($9.95) remains the area's best. A good pad Thai depends on the interplay of stir-fried garlic, shrimp, tofu, peanuts, fish sauce, and sugar, with the noodles tossed in last. But many cooks forget the essential second act: garnishes. Without the brightening effects of bean sprouts, lime wedges, and cilantro, pad Thai can be dry, heavy, and bland. Thai Restaurant works the combination perfectly.
A new menu entry, drunken noodles ($10.95 with chicken), is a lesser-known but intriguing Thai noodle dish, a complexly flavored mélange of chili heat, licorice-y basil, and bitter broccoli raab in a lightly sweetened sauce over wide pan-fried rice noodles. We tried the most traditional version, chicken, which was very enjoyable, if not quite so intensely or brightly flavored as it could have been.
We also sampled two curries, panang with shrimp ($12.95) and yellow with tofu ($8.95). The two bowls of creamy golden curry looked nearly identical but tasted radically different. Though both had a two-star (moderately spicy) rating, the panang curry was sweat-breakingly spicy ("Let's put it this way," one diner quipped, "the cold I thought I was getting is gone."), while the yellow offered a sweeter, more subtle heat. Both were good, although various tasters agreed that the yellow's mix of tomatoes, pineapple, and onions was more compelling than the panang's broccoli and peppers.
Sadly, yum (with squid, $11.95), another old favorite from Thai Restaurant's illustrious past, has slipped more than a few notches. Yum is a sort of warm salad made from a mix of ingredients that varies from kitchen to kitchen. The Thai's version uses tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, and onions with the protein of your choice served over lettuce; there is a heated ramekin of sauce to warm and slightly wilt the salad. (This is supposed to happen--it's a good thing!) Unfortunately, we didn't taste the hyper-saline chili-soy sauce before dressing the salad, and it ruined an entire plate of otherwise yummy yum (c'mon, you saw that coming). It was simply too salty to eat.
The staple Thai dessert, sticky rice with mango ($3.95), is a deliciously simple concept. Sanpatong sweet rice is cooked with coconut milk to the point of opulent creaminess, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, and served with sliced ripe mango. The contrast between the lush, sweet rice and succulent mango creates a heavenly sensation, and Thai Restaurant's version is spot on (if a little too small a serving, but that could just be the greed talking). We also tried a Thai taro custard ($3.95), a sort of grainy, semisweet square of custard topped with, of all things, deep-fried shallots and grated egg custard. Interesting and unusual by Western dessert standards, but completely eclipsed by the sticky rice and mango.
One member of the Dish party--an experienced Thai-food aficionado--has been dining regularly at the Thai since it opened, and it's his opinion that "they have lost a step from where they used to be." I'm afraid I concur. Thai Restaurant is still very good, especially by Baltimore standards, and there's no one definable problem to finger for the decline. But just isn't what she used to be.
Open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday. All you can eat: firstname.lastname@example.org.