A well-established dining district is one that can withstand the loss of a stalwart without missing a beat. Case in point: Highland Avenue near the increasingly blurry Shadyside-East Liberty border.
Typhoon was not the first noteworthy restaurant on the avenue when it opened more than seven years ago. But its stylish interior and updated riff on Thai cuisine helped set the tone for the wave of hip, buzz-worthy dining that was soon to break on both sides of the intersection of Highland and Centre. No sooner had its doors closed when another Thai restaurant was ready to take up the baton.
Kanok has retained Typhoon's contemporary interior virtually unchanged, but its approach to Thai cuisine is not held over. Kanok serves traditional Thai food, unembellished by fusion ingredients or trendy techniques. But make no mistake: This is no takeout menu. Alongside a familiar array of curries and noodle dishes are a dozen "authentic dishes" that are rare on the local dining scene. We were torn between our obligation to test Kanok's ability to pull off pad Thai and other dishes whose execution we can precisely judge, and our desire to explore facets of Thai cooking previously unknown to us.
We started with appetizers employing three basic proteins: chicken satay, fried tofu and "crying tiger," a beef dish. The satay, using delicate, narrow strips of white meat, was suitably tender, with only a hint of crust; the peanut dipping sauce was a bit on the sweet side, but with a generous topping of finely chopped peanuts for texture. The tofu was served with a sweet cilantro-lime sauce reminiscent of the dressing for Thai cucumber salad, which was a good match. But the tofu seemed to have been breaded, not merely floured, resulting in a too-prominent crust that not only dominated the mild, soft interior, but also tended toward toughness. We had no quibbles with the beef: The strips of meat were tender yet robust, and a spicy sibling to the tofu's sauce was an aptly bold pairing. A generous bed of greens marked the dish as a near cousin to Thailand's iconic beef and shallot salad.
Speaking of icons, Kanok offers Angelique's favorite wintertime curry, mussaman, only with lamb; no mix-and-match protein for this definitive Thai adaptation of Indian spicy sauce. The gravy was extraordinary for its thick, velvety smoothness, and its intense flavor. The curry's level of heat excited the palate without distracting for a moment from tender lamb and potatoes that were doused in the sauce, yet held their earthy character. It's a mystery to us how a dish so perfectly suited to the cold seasons originated in the tropics, but it's one we gladly embrace.
One of the "authentic dishes" was tamarind tilapia, presented, surprisingly, in a stack: One large or two small filets had been cut into large chunks, breaded, fried and topped with thick, sweet tamarind sauce. Tamarind's sweet yet pungent flavor, with dark, molasses-y undertones, makes it a great match for spicy and seasoned foods. The fish's crispy coating helped it stand up to the bold tamarind, but, as with the tofu, it threatened to add an unwelcome toughness. We also wished that grilled red pepper had been included as a proper vegetable, not merely a garnish.
Kung Op WonSen, a new entrée for us, combined shrimp and pork belly with glass noodle in a clay pot. The shrimp were plentiful and held up to a less-than-gentle cooking method; the noodles took on a pleasantly varied texture, fine and soft in places, occasionally brittle from contact with the hot pot. The pork, however, didn't seem to have spent enough time cooking for its connective tissue to break down into the unctuous tenderness that has made it a recent favorite among hip chefs.
Nonetheless, the flavor of the dish made up for any textural shortcomings. The menu mentions ginger, cilantro and black pepper, but the depth of flavor, and the way that it built and transformed with successive bites, was extraordinary. In lesser hands, this dish could tend toward being simplistic, but instead it reminded Jason of how, say, rustic Italian cooking carefully layers elemental ingredients to build extraordinary flavors from seemingly basic components. Its spiciness seemed to come from peppercorns rather than chilies, leading to more warmth than fiery heat, and to an earthier, rather than more herbal, character.
Kanok has placed itself in a middle ground between a casual ethnic eatery and a fine-dining establishment. Presentation is thoughtful, but not belabored, and the menu is distinctive without straying far from authentic Thai ingredients and preparations. If the kitchen fell short of excellence in certain refinements of texture, it worked wonders with the multi-dimensional sauces and exciting flavor profiles native to Thai cuisine.
242 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside. 412-363-8888
Hours: Lunch daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Sun.-Thu. 4:30-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 4:30-11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4-8; entrees $11-15
Liquor: Full bar