Asiatique Thai Bistro's website catchily bills the restaurant's owner, Ling Robinson, as "the High-Heeled Chef." In this era of mostly male star chefs, it's nice to see a woman claiming the right to self-mythologize, particularly since she's come by it honestly. Originally from Chiang Mai, Thailand, Robinson started out in the American food-service industry as a caterer, then worked for more than two decades in Asian kitchens across Pittsburgh, both for others and for herself.
She first came to our attention at Green Mango. An early entrant in the Thai scene in Pittsburgh, Green Mango began as a well-liked little takeout place in Edgewood, then moved to a proper storefront in Regent Square, and expanded to a Monroeville location. Robinson eventually passed the in-town shop to a protégé. Now, while maintaining the suburban Green Mango location, she's added a sleeker new bistro in the East End's Bakery Square.
At first glance, it was not clear what distinguished Asiatique's menu from the boilerplate at any Thai establishment. It contained the usual noodle, rice and curry categories, with various protein options for each one. But then, tucked within each list, we found innovations, like the avocado summer roll and the spicy lemongrass salad, the latter credited to the High-Heeled Chef herself. And there were certainly more soup options than usual, including roast duck, a couple versions of lak sa (a spicy noodle soup) and roast pork with fish balls.
The avocado summer roll was fundamentally very much like a typical summer roll: vermicelli and herbs in a tender, paper-thin rice wrapper. Not only did rich, firm avocado supplant shrimp, but the noodles — traditionally plain — were Singapore noodles, tossed with a relatively dry, curry-powder-based sauce. The curry flavor could have been a bit more forward, but it nonetheless contributed an additional dimension that sang against the creamy avocado and aromatic herbs. A final, novel touch was a light and fruity dipping sauce, flavored with orange and floating minced peanuts.
The marvelous lemongrass salad was composed almost exclusively of boldly flavored ingredients like lemongrass — sliced into thin rings like scallions — mint and peanuts, all pulled together by a classic larb-style dressing of lime, fish sauce and chili. A few leaves of mixed greens added body, but this dish was the inverse of a typical salad of bland leaves and a few aromatics.
That classic noodle dish, pad Thai, had a texture that leaned toward the clumpy and a sauce that, while good, was a touch unbalanced towards sweetness. Our order included a generous portion of shrimp, but some scrambled egg would have been nice.
Spicy basil fried rice pulled together two more Thai classics, spicy basil stir-fry and fried rice, into an utterly addictive dish. Translucent fried basil leaves studded well-flavored rice that was moist without being heavy. A few vegetables might have been welcome, but we were glad not to see the kitchen-sink approach of all too many stir fries.
Another refreshing characteristic of Asiatique was that our server never asked us about our spiciness preference on the 1-10 scale. Chef Robinson evidently feels that she has a good sense of how spicy her dishes should be, and while the kitchen will add or subtract heat when possible, some dishes are simply meant to be spicy. The panang curry Angelique ordered was exactly as she would have requested it: spicy enough to heat up her palate, but not so hot it dulled her ability to taste. It had the characteristic rich sweetness of this coconut-milk-based curry, balanced by the tangy perfume of keffir lime leaves and brine of fish sauce.
Another entrée, "king chicken," was steamed, dressed in "Ruby Red" sauce (available in bottles by the entrance) and served on a bed of steamed cabbage, broccoli and green beans. The sauce was unfamiliar to us, seeming to borrow from a variety of more common ones, like nam prik pao, a sweet chili sauce; Chinese sweet-and-sour sauce; and some of the more garlicky Thai dipping sauces. In its mildest form, it was well balanced, sweet with hints of tang and heat, but not at all cloying. The overall effect resembled a Chinese stir-fry, but with a far more complex and distinctively tangily Thai flavor profile.
Overall, we liked the High-Heeled Chef's new venture. Her preparation of tried-and-true favorites is solid. Given the exceptional nature of the original dishes we tried, we just wish there had been more of these in this new "bistro" location in trendy Bakery Square.