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The cheerful waitress leaned in and beamed. “We also have a very special dessert.” It didn’t seem possible, but her smile grew brighter at the mention.
I thought it strange she would bring up dessert when she’d just jotted down our dinner order, but I guess it was par for the course for Mount Laurel’s charmingly peculiar Bhan Thai, where the soup selection includes tom kha, tom yum and ... French onion. Plus, is there ever a bad time to broach the subject of dessert? Not in my book. I wondered what the special would be, my mind swimming with coconut confections, sesame seeded cakes, mangosteen custards. So imagine my surprise when the waitress explained that the special dessert was, “Chocolate souffle.”
Since souffles, those bastions of haute cuisine, take about half an hour to rise to their signature ethereal poofs, it’s customary to order them with the rest of the dinner. But it’s certainly not customary in a Thai restaurant, where green tea ice cream and fried bananas—Bhan Thai has both—make more typical finales. But what the heck. Sure, we’d take a chocolate souffle. I made a mental note to order a back-up (mango sticky rice, probably) after the dinner dishes had been cleared.
The apricot-colored dining room seemed to glow, or maybe it was just the radiance of the warm and welcoming servers arriving with appetizers. Any dreams of dessert vanished when one lifted the lid off a bowl of mussels, releasing a cloud of intoxicating vapor heady with lemongrass and basil. Bhan Thai uses sweeter, plumper New Zealand specimens instead of their more common Canadian cousins, which might be why there were less than a dozen of them in this $10.95 hot pot. Nestled in their turquoise-rimmed shells, they looked like ripe exotic fruits, something you’d find in Bangkok’s dizzying Chatuchak weekend market. The crimson broth was filled, laced with just the right amount of fish sauce to add that salty, fermented marine flavor.
I wish there had been more heat in those mussels, a recurring theme through my meal at Bhan Thai. We didn’t just want the food hot; we asked for it Thai-style, and our waitress nodded in approval. But the request went ignored, forgotten or (most likely) purposely dialed down. You don’t need to survey the first dates, young families and empty nesters filling Bhan Thai’s dining room to know the restaurant is catering to a predominately non-Asian crowd, an unfortunate byproduct of which is a sanitizing of the spice level.
Bhan Thai might not be cooking with fire, but they are cooking with flavor. Despite the wonky spice levels, I still enjoyed all the dishes I tried. The crab pancake was a flatter, crisper crab cake. Bound with taro and laced with mustard and scallop, it was wide and golden-brown beneath a refreshing, colorful salsa of mango, green apple, red onion and tomato. Speckles of crushed toasted rice added incredible texture to the nam tok, or grilled beef tossed with mint, Thai basil and red onion. This meaty salad was probably the spiciest of the items we ordered, but still it was but a faint glow that lingered on the tongue till creamy Thai iced tea washed it away.
Generous entrees followed, like half a boneless duck fried crisp and arranged in a pool of tangy tamarind sauce, and creamy Massaman curry with tender shrimp and hunks of butternut squash. Mined with onions, green and snow peas, scallions, tomatoes and egg, the Bhan Thai fried rice (one of four varieties) made a nice side dish to share, but it came with chicken when we requested it vegetarian. Not a big deal for two carnivores, but what if we were vegans?
Good thing we’re not; otherwise we’d also have had to miss the greatly-hyped chocolate souffle, which arrived sporting a tall, fluffy toque rising from a warm ramekin. Our server pierced the top and poured a ribbon of fudge down into its core. It welled up and spilled over, staining the whipped cream and accompanying pistachio ice cream. Light as a cloud and bittersweet, it was a textbook example that would have made Escoffier proud. And the mango sticky rice, sprinkled with sesame seeds and a nice kiss of salt, turned out to be a decent back-up plan, too.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 8 (November, 2011).
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