Location: 5901 Bryant St., Highland Park. 412-362-3200. www.smilingbananaleaf.com
Hours: Mon. 4-9 p.m.; Tue.-Thu. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads $3-7; lunch $7-8.50; dinner entrees $8.50-12.50
Atmosphere: Small and serene
Fairy tales trade in transformations: a servant into a princess, a frog into a prince. In these stories, inner goodness is ultimately revealed as outer beauty. But, of course, fairy tales are just that: magical yarns spun of wonder and enchantment. Every generation recounts these ancient tales anew for its children, but grown-ups know the truth. In real life -- alas -- there are no fairy godmothers.
Maybe not, but there are Cinderella stories, and one of them has happened in Highland Park. Here, a humble sandwich-takeout shop has donned the architectural equivalent of an evening gown to become Smiling Banana Leaf, an absolute jewel-box of a Thai restaurant. As we approached, on a temperate late-summer evening, we were initially sorry to see that all of the sidewalk tables were taken. Our disappointment vanished once we walked inside and took in the tiny dining room -- just big enough to fit, comfortably, five polished ebony tables. It was painted in serene shades of green, decorated with contemporary Thai motifs (the banana leaf predominating, of course), and lit by stylish lamps. Curved profiles on some of the walls gave a sinuous feel to what could otherwise have been a choppy little space.
There were no disappointments, either, as we perused the menu, which emphasized authentic Thai dishes rather than the sort of Thai-inflected Chinese food that some places proffer to broaden their appeal.
We began with moo yang -- grilled marinated pork -- and nerh num tok -- grilled steak "Thai style." Though the former was listed as an appetizer and the latter as a salad, they turned out to be essentially the same dish. Both were served with sticky rice, a healthy heap of spring greens, and, apparently, the same little dish of sweet plum sauce for dipping. This was extraneous, given the beautifully seasoned preparations of both pork and beef. The steak was said to be mixed with spicy lime juice and cilantro; however, we did not find either meat to be spicy. Instead, each resonated on the palate with complex herbal and savory notes which brought out the meats' native flavors, grounded in vegetal freshness by the tender, undressed greens.
Pad Thai is not the most adventurous dish to order at a Thai restaurant, but we always order it, partly because we find it a good yardstick of a kitchen's approach and partly because we just like it. Smiling Banana Leaf's version had a lively balance of ingredients, with fluffy eggs, zingy scallions, earthy ground peanuts, crunchy bean sprouts and briny shrimp each adding its texture and taste. However, the sauce in which all were tossed was a bit syrupy, throwing off the subtle sweet-tart balance that is at the heart of this dish. A wedge of lime to squeeze over it all would have helped.
For his entrée, Jason ordered prik poa talay -- stir-fried seafood with onion and sweet chili paste -- from the chef's specials list. He was impressed by both the variety of seafood and the accomplishment of cooking bay scallops, shrimp and calamari together in one dish but each to its own peak of succulent doneness. In addition, there were chunks of fried tilapia mixed in, adding tender, mild contrast to the more assertive shellfish. The dish was served over rice in a sweet-spicy brown sauce accented with the pungency of kefir lime leaves.
Angelique pored over the curry list, finally choosing pumpkin curry after learning that it is made with a special variety of Thai gourd. Along with a protein of choice (Angelique chose chicken from among pork, beef or tofu), this was cut into largish, firm but pliant chunks and mixed with a few other vegetables. The red curry sauce offered an assertive spiciness that played vigorously with the pumpkin's autumnal sweetness.
In fairy tales, the small prove mighty and goodness is rewarded in the end. So it is with Smiling Banana Leaf, a tiny restaurant whose big flavors and inner beauty conjured a princely dining experience.