Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. Prices: A la carte entrees: $4.50-10.95. Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
Being introduced to a new cuisine is like waltzing with a stranger: You have to collect your nerve for the first lunge forward, teeter for two beats, yield gracefully to the aftertaste and then come in again at a slightly different angle.
Dancing and cooking -- and eating -- are balancing acts, half restraint and half adventure. The Thai Gallery, after a stumbling start, has found its feet and, though not fully spit-and-polished, has a couple of real Fred Astaire moves on the menu.
In contrast to the intense, almost lush sauces at Thai Taste, another new Thai restaurant in town, Thai Gallery dishes have a deceptive delicacy. The sauces are complex but light-bodied and slower blooming (although the hot dishes have a more than respectable burn time) -- a gewurtztraminer compared with a chardonnay.
It might almost be considered nouvelle Thai, in a perverse way; now that American diners no longer demand cornstarchy sweet sauces, and Asian kitchens increasingly abjure MSG, the cuisine has regained its clarity. And because it features so much seafood and chicken, and the spiciness masquerades as richness, Thai makes for luxurious diet food. The menu at Thai Gallery opens with a page of appetizers (not counting the five soups), among them some of the kitchen's best and biggest productions. The family of cool, "spicy and sour" dishes includes a sassy lemon-sharp and chili-flaked squid and a sliced marinated flank steak, charcoal-seared and sweetly rare.
Fingery food includes stuffed chicken wings, with the meat pushed away from the bone and rounded out with crab meat and herbs (they could become the takeout TV food of the year).
Spicy and sour coconut soup with chicken, a seductive concoction, is only a kissing cousin of Chinese hot and sour soup. Although they share that signature fragrance of white pepper and vinegar, the Thai version has an unthickened broth, pale yellow with coconut milk and redolent of lemon grass rather than ginger.
Most of the main dishes are variations on basic themes: shrimp, scallops, squid, fish, chicken, pork or beef; dressed in black bean sauce, for example, or garlic sauce and white pepper, or chili and basil.
"Thai Garden Style" is the house special sauce, light and rich at the same time, spicy and clear. Combination seafood Thai Garden Style is somewhat restrained in its variety, more an assortment of tidbits than a kitchen-sink stew; but it is highlighted by half-bodied crabs so sweet and tender the meat can be squeezed out with the teeth like artichoke leaves.
Squid (five varieties) is carefully handled, but the scallops are better -- dressed in a curry sauce with a hint of tomato sweetness and cooked to perfection.
Desserts are a mystery, many untranslated and often unavailable, but one, among the "daily" desserts has been a breathtaking custardy cake that varies from bite to bite -- coconut? allspice? -- like Mary Poppins' uncle's magic whatever-you-like tea cakes.