One Night in Bangkok
Dinner at Talay Thai Makes a Hard Man Humble
I’ve been wishing for a Thai restaurant that was different from the other, assertively drab spots around town—those harshly lit, drop-ceilinged, gray-carpeted rooms with the failing rubber plants. I wanted someplace different, with a little attitude. Maybe I mentioned tablecloths. Well, I guess in a way I got my wish, because Talay Thai has opened in Fells Point, and while this new Thai joint has stinted nothing in the way of institutional grimness (the space heater and television are novel touches), it has introduced an exciting new twist—really horrible service.
Unless it’s egregiously bad, I tend not to report back much about service. But something about our server’s exasperated, peremptory manner, the grudging way he dealt with our table, made us think that he hated us. Defending him, my friend said, “I think he just doesn’t like people.” Dyspeptic, and graceless, too: “Fork,” he said, as he removed an appetizer plate, meaning, Please take your fork off this plate and keep it for the main dish.
The food, if it had been glorious or even good, could have turned our experience into a perverse Seinfeldian pleasure—Hey, they break your spirit, but the kang liang’s to die for! Not the case. I generally find tod man pla ($7.95), those deep-fried cakes of minced fish, to be a reliable bellwether at Thai restaurants. If the cakes are fearsomely fishy, almost off-puttingly so, and if no one else at the table will have anything to do with them, I know I’m in for a good time. The cakes here were bland, gummy, absent any interesting flavor, fish included. The shrimp, chicken, and meat stuffed inside two spring rolls ($4.95) was minced beyond repair into a mealy white oblivion. And the unidentified (by the menu) filling in the fried won tons ($4.95) remained so—we couldn’t even tell the table’s vegetarian if they were OK for him to eat.
Entrées were scarcely better. A decent masaman curry (with chicken $12.95) was full of flavor but suffered from excessive saltiness and soupiness. Still, it was, compared with the earlier offerings, and considering the setting, a pass. Similarly, a plate of drunken noodles (with pork $14.95), had it been served in a happier room, would have passed muster. I appreciated the free hand with the fresh broccoli and dark, green basil leaves that went into preparing it, but the dish wanted much more fire. Talay Thai is playing it very safe with its chilis, and heat-seekers, if they come here, will want to ask for upward adjustments to the menu’s star system. If they dare ask.
Some heat would also have helped a stir-fry of basil and green peas (with beef $13.95), an otherwise competent sauté of dried chili, onions, and carrots, although the meat was too chewy. The sauce on a stir-fry of asparagus, tofu, and cashew nuts (with shrimp $15.95), laced with onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and scallions, was the thing I liked best—simple, almost elegant. Firm jumbo shrimp were apportioned generously, but the asparagus was all stalks, no tips.
We came into Talay Thai looking for an ordinary, pleasant weeknight meal, so we passed over some of the menu’s more expensive fare (half-roasted duck, $16.95; shrimp and crabmeat with chili and vegetables, $21.95). Nor did we even consider selections from the menu’s American corner (fillet of beef, pan-roasted salmon, shrimp cocktail). Suffice it to say, our meal turned about to be neither ordinary nor particularly pleasant. Service aside, I have to say I kept my palate open to the kitchen’s redemptive possibilities. But as it turned out, it’s back to daydreaming about finding a Thai place that won’t sink me into a funk the moment I walk through the front doors.