Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Baan Thai | 1117 Blanshard Street | Victoria

UPDATE, September 2010:  I've returned to Baan Thai several times and had meals that are vastly superior to the one described here.  I have now happily climbed aboard the Baan Thai bandwagon.  The Baandwagon?  I'm so sorry. 

I loathe buzzwords and the way they've penetrated popular language. An afternoon of coffee and biscuits in the Shoal Point Moka House can be ruined as soon as some goon drops a phrase like "Derek, we need to drill-down and start pushing the envelope". My heart beats faster, the adrenaline flows and I swell, Incredible Hulk style, to a towering giant of rage that wants to hit Chet & Derek so hard their skin flies off. Instead I sit, eat my Hobknobs and die just a little bit more inside.

"Global village" is another one that never fails to rile me, long-hair shorthand for the way telecommunications & travel have brought the many cultures of the world closer together. Not usually mentioned is that after being brought together they're split up like British children in wartime, shuffled into unmarked van and then then co-opted by people too lazy to develop personalities of their own. Growing up in Revelstoke, B.C. where ethnic food began & ended at Tony's Roma, I never learned to differentiate between one type of food and another. You ate at Tony's because his cannelloni was legendary and it was the only restaurant in town that sold anything other than hamburgers. There was never any particular value assigned to the fact that the style of cooking originated in the ancestral home of the pompadour.

Now I walk past The Noodle Box and see crowds of surly, humorless university students tucking into overcooked Asian food prepared by surly, humorless university graduates, everyone toe-top-full with pride at their culinary diversity. I cannot prove this, but it seems unlikely that deep in the hills of Vietnam, Hmong villagers sit down at meal-time to high-five one another over platefuls of hamburgers.

Years ago my eyes were opened to the huge array of exotic food available in the lower mainland and I was hooked. I didn't care whether what I was eating as authentic as long as it tasted good and didn't fight back. Eventually I picked some favorites and when I finally moved to Victoria thought I was in Elysian fields. The downtown was full of restaurants of every stripe, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, even Ethiopian, and I wanted to try them all. Of course what I ended up doing was continually eating in the first place I tried, and my experience of local Thai restaurants began and ended with Siam, on Fort Street. Coincidentally, after Max moved here he settled on the same place and so until now, we'd never gone very far afield. When the subject of lunch came up on this rainy day we decided to branch out and Baan Thai had come recommended. We arrived at the tail end of the lunch rush and were warmly greeted and seated immediately.

I finally settled on the Baan Thai Talay, "Burmese white prawns and squid, sautéed with red and green peppers, mushrooms, celery, carrot, kaffir lime leaves, fresh basil leaves and fresh chili" with a side of rice. Max's pick was the Pad Thai Moo, "rice noodles flash fried with pork, extra firm tofu, salted radish, egg, oyster sauce, tamarind, green onions, fresh bean sprouts, topped with roasted ground peanuts and spiced with chili." Thai food is of course known for its spice and the menu offered us our choice, from mild to "extra hot". Max went with medium because he is a weak-kneed woman and I went with the extra hot, because I am stupid.

Once our orders had been taken we surveyed our surroundings. The ubiquity of Thai restaurants means that some are starting to show the same kind of homogeneity found in Chinese places; plastic foliage, baffling wall decorations and lighting so dim you half expect to hear Mr. Kurtz draw his last breath. We were pleased to see that Baan Thai is a cut above those places - it's bright, clean and tastefully decorated, with high ceilings that help the place feel open and airy. The noise level was a bit high and being right near the kitchen we heard every note played by the spastic marching band they evidently keep in there but it was still better than an evening spent at the Irish Times and we could hear one another speak.

The waitress made sure that our waters were never empty during the brief wait for our food and checked in on us once it had arrived. It was here that my Baan Thai experience began to sputter a bit. The squid & vegetables were cooked just right and the various flavors were nicely balanced but it failed to coalesce into anything beyond the sum of its parts. Add in a disappointing lack of bite in the spice department and you've got the meal equivalent of a post-Joshua Tree U2 album: a couple hits but nothing memorable.

Max's meal on the other hand was a lot more appealing. Ordering a medium spice meant that heat was entirely absent but the taste more than made up for it. Max adores peanuts & peanut sauce and so a restaurant has to bring out their "A" game to impress him and Baan Thai failed to excite his enthusiasm. He said that the meal was "nice" but "lacked any defining taste or significant bite", which made him sound like half of my ex-girlfriends. Unlike them however Max didn't expect me to cover the cheque and my half coming to under $14 with tip makes Baan Thai's lunch a relatively inexpensive way to be bored.



Baan Thai on Urbanspoon

Website for Baan Thai Victoria



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