Silk Elephant Thai Tapas & Wine Bar | Restaurant Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
Location: 1712 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-421-8801
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.;
Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Prices: Tapas $4-8; entrées $10-19
Fare: Mostly authentic Thai, small and large plates
Atmosphere:Contemporary Thai
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted

Thai tapas is a contemporary dining concept we can really sink our teeth into. It combines one of our favorite dining styles — grazing — with one of our favorite cuisines. If the concept and the cuisine are from two different continents, so be it. As it happens, we think Thai food lends itself especially well to the practice of combining lots of different dishes, each in modest proportion, into a single meal.

Fortunately, Norraset and Eileen Nareedokmai, owners of Bangkok Balcony around the corner on Forbes Avenue, see things our way. Their newest venture is Silk Elephant, housed in a space inherited from a failed Asian chain, with a bar in the front and an open kitchen in the rear. Ebony-stained tables, brocade upholstery and a dramatic silk canopy over the banquette contribute to an atmosphere more modern than traditional Asian. Loudness may be an issue on busy nights — it wasn’t quiet on the weeknight we visited — but then, conviviality is the essence of tapas.

Given the contemporary design of the interior, and the cross-cultural concept of Thai tapas, we would not have been surprised to see a fusion approach to the menu. But through a long list of both small and large plates, the kitchen hews to a refined authenticity. Its offerings showcase inventiveness within what seems to be the true Thai tradition, rather than trotting out a lot of Western innovations.

The tapas are approximately subdivided into rolls, dumplings and “more” — more generally meaning side dishes or sampler-size portions of entrees. The rolls and dumplings neatly exemplify the menu as a whole: Spring rolls and fresh rolls will seem familiar to any southeast Asian restaurant regular, but taro spring roll and seafood dumplings were more unique. The salmon roll — lightly fried like a spring roll — proved irresistible: The filling was a spicy salmon salad, creamy in texture, just poached within the extra-crispy, barely greasy wrapper. Dipping the salmon roll in a piquant concoction based on Vietnamese Sriracha hot sauce, Angelique could have stopped here and eaten this all night.

Crispy rice were square cakes of sticky rice resembling unsweetened Rice Krispie treats and served with a hearty blend of ground shrimp, chicken and peanuts. But while the sweet shrimp, mild chicken and savory nuts blended beautifully, “spicy dipping sauce” this was not, at least to our palates. We found this to be true for several dishes: With Silk Elephant’s spiciness scale of 1 to10 trending milder than most, you may need to double your normal preference.

Morning-glory salad is a dish that defies all expectations of leafy greens. Rather than served raw, watercress is fried so that the greens are encased in brittle bubbles of delicate batter, their texture by turns tender and crunchy. They were accompanied by shrimp and ground chicken dressed in a sauce seasoned with lemongrass, lime juice, green onions, chili paste and cilantro. But where this ingredient list seemed to portend a bright blend of flavors, we found a lugubrious, salty sauce reminiscent of Chinese brown sauce. The textures of the fried greens and plump shrimp were superb, but the flavor of this dish failed to deliver on its promise.

The menu describes Siam Paragon as a “signature dish,” and a stylish signature it is: crab meat lashed to jumbo shrimp with thin egg noodles and deep-fried, creating a crunchy mummy full of sweet, succulent seafood flavors. The triple sauce, with tamarind, coconut and panang curry, provided a rich blend of Asian flavor bases, dominated by the tart tamarind but with earthy undercurrents of peanut.

On first taste, the phuket — paper-thin slices of marinated beef served with lettuce and sticky rice balls — was excellent: tender beef, delectably crisp at the edges, seasoned with depth and dimension on a bed of iceberg lettuce and darker greens. But the flavor of salt grew more prominent with every bite, and the two sauces served alongside — one sesame-based, the other from sweet red peppers — were not strong enough to counter the strong saline note.

Ultimately, Silk Elephant succeeds in translating the Spanish concept of tapas to the vivid cuisine of Thailand. The atmosphere, too, comfortably blends Asian and European notes. We did not try entrées on our visit, but we would next time. If Silk Elephant can sustain the best of our tapas experience for an entire meal, it would make for an extraordinary dining experience.

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