Location: 5846 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-521-0728
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m..
Prices: Weekday lunch specials $7.95; dinner soups, salads and appetizers $3.50-8.95; entrees $11.95-17.95
Fare: Traditional Thai
Atmosphere: Asian elegance
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted
For Pittsburghers who crave the colorful ingredients and vibrant flavors of Southeast Asian cooking, the past 10 years have brought a dramatic change for the tastier in the local dining landscape. Thai cuisine, in particular, has blossomed. Where there had once been just a few Thai restaurants of middling quality, we now enjoy almost an embarrassment of riches, from immigrant-run storefronts serving authentic curries and stir-fries to gracious fine-dining rooms whose refinement rivals that of more established cuisines such as French, Italian and American.
The restaurant space upstairs at 5846 Forbes Ave. has exemplified this transformation under one roof: Jason recalls going there one name change and two renovations ago, when the novelty of Thai dining helped him turn a blind eye to the fact that the restaurant itself was nothing special. But since 2004, as Bangkok Balcony, this second-floor space with a commanding view of Squirrel Hill's boutique shopping district has re-emerged as an elegant jewel box that promises exquisite Thai and Thai-inspired dishes.
In a busy dining room painted gold and red and overhung with sail-shaped arcs of wood, we looked over chef Norraset Nareedokmai's menu. In it, he has blended the familiar array of Thai dishes -- curry, spicy basil, pad Thai and so forth -- and his own sophisticated specialties, in which seafood features prominently. We also found a specials menu card, which included a number of items unfamiliar to us.
Two of those specials were appetizers with tantalizing, if not precisely descriptive, names: "golden bites" and stuffed boneless angel wing. The latter was a chicken wing partially deboned and packed with ground chicken, vegetables and bean thread. Beneath an extra-crispy tempura-like coating, the chicken was tender and richly flavored, with a spicy-sweet sauce to brighten its savory notes.
We found the golden bites, which are tiny, deep-fried sweet-potato dumplings, too sweet, however. The crackly crust was indeed golden, and well proportioned to the creamy pureed sweet-potato within. But the extremely sweet filling cried out for more contrast than the syrupy, sweetened vinegar cucumber-studded sauce that accompanied it.
Flavoring was much more successful with the traditional chicken satay, thin planks of white meat grilled on skewers and served with an intensely seasoned, spicy peanut butter. Once the chicken was gone, we kept looking for other things to spread the satay sauce on.
Angelique was unable to resist her favorite Thai curry, panang, a heady, potent mixture of garlic, chilies, lemongrass, galangal and other spices, in a coconut milk broth. All curries at Bangkok Balcony are available with a choice of protein or vegetarian; Angelique chose beef, the traditional main ingredient in panang curry. The meat and vegetables -- bell pepper, broccoli and baby corn -- were tender, plentiful and infused with the aromatic, assertive flavor of the curry, which was also redolent of Asian herbs such as Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves. With every swallow, the curry was thick and warm on the throat, a satisfying winter meal to awaken hibernating taste buds.
Jason chose seafood with a roasted curry sauce off the list labeled "Bangkok Balcony Recommends." Alas, we cannot pass on the recommendation. The roasted curry was hardly in evidence in a sauce that was strongly reminiscent of a standard Chinese brown sauce, complete with a slightly too-thick consistency. The flavor was pleasant, if not distinctive, but the lack of vegetables -- there were only onions and spring onions -- left the dish relying on one note, and the seafood itself failed to rise to the occasion. Mussels were soft, squid a bit chewy, scallops tough; only shrimp and chunks of tilapia were satisfactorily cooked, resulting in a very disappointing dish all in all.
Thai sausage fried rice had a much better blend of flavors: a medley of well-cooked vegetables and egg plus thin disks of sweet Asian sausage. But it was still not perfectly prepared. Far too much oil made for a greasy dish, and the rice was too firm, failing to carry the other flavors.
While Bangkok Balcony's atmosphere is among the loveliest this side of an actual Thai temple, our food there ranged widely from disappointing to delicious. We would go back for more panang curry in a second, and would love to sample our way through the appetizer menu. Other favorites at Bangkok Balcony, we hope, wait to be discovered.