Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner, Sun.-Thu. 5-10 p.m., and Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads $5-12, entrees $14-20
Fare: Contemporary Thai
Atmosphere: Understated elegance
There's been a lot of talk of late about political consolidation here in Western PA. Call them crazy, but some people seem to think that 130 governments may not be the most efficient means to run one small county. Still, it's a long way from realizing this to doing anything about it; meanwhile, the past couple of months have seen some impressive socio-gastronomical consolidation right in our own backyard.
Ever since the reopening of Kelly's Lounge, the Highland Avenue corridor has promised to tie together tony Shadyside and hard-luck East Liberty. In recent months, the arrivals of Typhoon, Red Room and Abaya have served to blur, if not obliterate, one of Pittsburgh's starkest neighborhood boundaries. As we strolled to Typhoon in the dwindling light of a long summer evening, all three new restaurants were doing a brisk business serving up the universal diplomacy -- good food -- to customers oblivious to the zip code in which they sat.
Typhoon's modern, minimalist interior beckons to passers-by on Highland Avenue through large plate-glass windows. Dark-stained wood floors contrast with blond tabletops, and niches in the taupe-colored walls serve to display Buddha head statues, bamboo stalks and other relics evocative of the southeast Asian nation that inspired its "new Thai cuisine." The sleek, cosmopolitan atmosphere put us in mind of neighboring Arhaus and Weisshouse furniture emporia.
Typhoon's menu is brief but enticing with upscale interpretations of classic Thai dishes. While offerings such as massaman, panang and green curries would not be out of place at a traditional Thai restaurant, innovative touches like spice-rubbed salmon with an herbal mango sauce suggest the creativity of the cooking here, in which the inspiration of Thailand is as important as slavish recreations of its cuisine.
We would have loved to have tried the Typhoon roll -- with the chef's choice of fresh ingredients -- but alas, it was sold out. The appetizers we did order gave us an idea of how good those rolls must be. Crispy ginger calamari involved meaty, chewy, but not rubbery tentacles coated in a light gingery breading and served with a small bowl of avocado pureed with lime juice. This was a zesty complement to the calamari, while red polka dots of hot chili sauce around the border of the plate provided optional heat. The curry puffs, filled with sweet potato and carrot, reminded us that Typhoon is related to the Sweet Basil half of La Filipiniana, where we had the same crisp, flaky pastries.
Tom Yum soup demonstrates Typhoon's ability to elevate a Thai standard far above the everyday. A clear broth enlivened by chili oil, galanga and lemongrass is packed with plump crescents of shrimp and generous slices of shiitake and oyster mushrooms. While this soup appears on the menu of nearly every Thai restaurant, few so thoughtfully balance spice and tang while allowing the heat of the soup to gently cook the shrimp and mushrooms to perfection.
A salad of crispy morning glory, ground pork, shrimp and hard-boiled egg was nothing short of spectacular, not to mention substantial enough to serve as a small main course. Morning glory, you ask? (We did.) It is a green leafy vegetable that, in this case, is fried to the consistency of tissue paper in a tempura-like batter to form a delicate, lacy outer coating. It bears as much resemblance to standard fried greens as the Taj Mahal to a yurt, and it is delicious. The pork is savory, sweet and spicy all at once, with peanuts and peppers mixed in and a crown of succulent shrimp on top.
Angelique, who adores curry, had a hard time choosing from several tantalizing options, but finally settled on a special pumpkin curry because it sounded like nothing she'd ever tasted before. And, indeed, it wasn't. Pumpkin was pureed and blended with coconut milk and red curry spices for a smooth, light and aromatic sauce. Shanghai bok choi, thinly slivered peppers and mushrooms gave it texture and substance. A large sliced chicken breast topped the dish; brined and grilled, it was exquisitely tender and deeply infused with flavor.
In just the last year, we've discovered escolar, a steak-y white fish that's like a juicier, more tender cousin of swordfish. Seeing it offered here topped with chu chi curry, a hearty, earthy red paste, Jason hardly hesitated. The two modest steaks were simply, beautifully cooked, and the curry was extraordinarily rich, with a complex symphony of spices overwhelming any actual spiciness. Slender stalks of asparagus, lightly battered and fried like the morning glory, provided a bright counterpoint to the savory fish and curry, and the little mound of black sesame-sprinkled rice was just enough to round out the well-balanced dish.
Typhoon has married the riot of flavors inherent in Thai cuisine with refined preparations and exquisite presentations. Add to that professional service and a relaxed yet elegant ambience, and we've rarely had a better meal in Pittsburgh -- or any of the 129 towns surrounding it.
Jason: 4 stars
Angelique: 4 stars