For owners Eileen and Norraset Nareedokmai, Silk Elephant Thai Tapas and Wine Bar and Bangkok Balcony are more than just restaurants -- they also are educational centers.
Their passion for the restaurant business stems from their love of the cuisine and from the duty they feel to "give back to the community and to shape people's ideas about the cultural heritage of Thailand," Ms. Nareedokmai said.
They've participated for several years in a government-sponsored exchange program to help keep authentic Thai culture alive in the United States, and they hope to soon sponsor their first group of visiting Thai chefs.
1 1/2 stars = Good+
1712 Murray Ave.
- Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
- Basics: An overflowing menu of small and large plates, including frequently changing specials and many out-of-the-ordinary Thai dishes in an eclectic, but refined, setting with a partially open kitchen.
- Recommended dishes: Asparagus soup, chicken in pandanus leaf, haw mork fish, tamarind supreme with sea bass, soft shell crabs, grilled chicken and papaya salad, pad kee maw with shrimp, taro cake.
- Prices: (For the first time in three years, Silk Elephant's prices will increase slightly in the near future.) Soups, salads and tapas, $3.95-8.95; entrees, $12.95-20.95; noodles and rice, $9.25-12.95; desserts, $4-6.
- Drinks: A long list of specialty cocktails and martinis, $8 for well liquor; a variety of beers including some microbrews; wine list and inventory will be updated in the next few weeks.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations accepted; corkage, $15.
- Noise level: Low to medium loud.
"I'll teach them English and everyone will get front and back of the house experience," Ms. Nareedokmai said.
They also hope to include them in the trainings offered by the Allegheny County Health Department.
Mr. Nareedokmai does a lot of demonstration cooking as well. Recently, Silk Elephant certified its first group of Girl Scouts who wanted to earn their cooking badge at the restaurant.
Their two restaurants are only a half block apart in Squirrel Hill, but each has a distinct personality. Bangkok Balcony is a more traditional Thai restaurant with a serene dining room and a menu of curries, stir-fries and noodle dishes. Silk Elephant incorporates many more daily specials and lots of Thai snacks, labeled as Thai tapas. The incredible variety of small plates makes for a fun and different Thai dining experience.
Packages are something of a theme. Chicken in pandanus leaf ($4.95), an aromatic leaf used in Southeast Asian cooking, arrives all bundled up. Once the toothpicks are pulled out and the long leaves unwrapped, small chunks of fragrant, moist chicken are revealed, perfect one-bite snacks. Slices of marinated Phuket beef ($6.95) come on a bed of herbs, the plate adorned by a small globe of tin foil, which, unwrapped, reveals a ball of sticky (very sticky) rice, a delicious excuse to eat with your hands.
Crustaceans are arranged as beautifully as a flower in the Potak seafood soup, a bouquet of shrimp, scallop, mussel and calamari in a refreshing lemongrass broth ($6.95).
Seafood dishes stood out with high quality ingredients, careful cooking and interesting preparations. Haw mork fish, a souffle of red curry and tilapia with a hint of coconut milk, was served in a banana leaf cup. Delicate and flavorful, with a subtle heat, it was an incredibly sophisticated starter ($5.95).
A martini glass heaped with shredded papaya and carrot in a lime chile vinaigrette was topped with skewers of sweet, large shrimp, kissed with charcoal from the grill ($8.95). A number of seafood entrees also shined, like a sea bass filet served on top of a bed of sauteed greens and carrot in a thin, pleasantly sour tamarind sauce (Tamarind Supreme, $19.95). A late spring special of crispy soft shell crab was covered in heaps of fried basil and kaffir lime leaves and drizzled with a sweet, soy-based sauce ($8.95).
Oddly, basil seemed to be deployed with an extremely generous hand in almost every dish besides the fresh rolls (often called summer rolls, $5.50). Delicate fresh rolls usually get most of their flavor from a bounty of fresh herbs, but these contained only a tiny piece of basil and not a shred of mint.
Meals were generally short on vegetables, partly because if you want vegetables in certain dishes, you may have to order them. Pad Thai with shrimp was a plate of pale beige, and only later did I realize that vegetables were included on the usual list of protein choices (chicken, beef, pork, tofu, vegetable or shrimp). Overall, meals felt slightly heavier than those at the average Thai restaurant.
Fruit, however, was used frequently and often to good effect. Papaya showed up again in a refreshing salad garnished with grape tomatoes and crushed peanuts, one half of a stunning summer dinner plate of juicy, flavorful grilled chicken ($13.95).
Fruity fried rice overflowed with grapes, apple, pineapple, raisins and thin slices of orange. The delicious rice, salty and just slightly slick from frying, was set off beautifully by the small bursts of sweetness ($10.95).
The menu is long and diverse, and there are a lot of delicious, interesting dishes. There also were a number of dishes that were below average, such as the lackluster pad thai ($11.95), a duck curry with tiny shreds of slightly dry duck ($14.95), and a bedraggled salad of seed-filled eggplant laid over iceberg lettuce ($6.95).
The wine list also was disappointing, in part because calling the restaurant a wine bar significantly elevates expectations. While it certainly has a longer list of wines with more choices by the glass than most Pittsburgh Thai restaurants, the list and selection haven't been updated in several years. The youngest vintages listed is 2006, and many white whites that should have been drunk within a year or two of bottling were past their prime. According to Ms. Nareedokmai, the wine list and inventory will be updated by mid-June. Servers also need a lot more training and information about the list, or at least a clear point person whose help could be solicited when people have questions.
Wine knowledge aside, servers did a good job of pacing meals made up of lots of small plates into several waves, and they were able to answer questions about some of the more unusual menu items, like a dessert of jackfruit dumplings, which were small sweet dumplings made from jackfruit and bean paste with a chewy, starchy texture. Other desserts included black sticky rice (almost too sticky) with steamed custard or slices of mango and a steamed chocolate cake. My favorite, however, was the taro cake, which had a texture similar to a steamed pudding and a delicate, sweet flavor, which Ms. Nareedokmai compared to caramel.
Silk Elephant is distinctly less serene than its sister restaurant. The space is busy and a bit crowded, an open kitchen topped with a pagoda-like construction, a low ceiling created from crisscrossed ropes, ornate pillars breaking up the space. But the busy, intricate space is a suitable background for the overflowing menu, full of interesting tastes and textures, ready on each visit to offer up something new and potentially delicious.