Service With A Furrowed Brow

Bangkok House

2539 Nicollet Ave., Mpls.; 871-2763

It's both endearing and heart-wrenching to watch a person try something new. First of all, you can't help but admire the way the new are (usually) intent on doing things the right way, cutting no corners, sparing no attention. Secondly, you can't help but be reminded of how jaded you've become by comparison, how good you've gotten at cutting corners. Of course, people are easily taken advantage of when new--the eager performers suckered into lousy contracts, the new assistant who gets bombarded with everyone else's work, the slighted virgins of the world, etc. I was conscious of these things during my visits to Bangkok House, a Thai/Chinese restaurant recently arrived on the scene of Asian restaurants and groceries on Nicollet Avenue.

As soon as we stepped in, we were the object of the wait staff's rapt attention. During the first five minutes after we sat down, our server unfolded our napkins into our laps and filled our glasses four times; even the most bird-like of sips would prompt someone with a pitcher to be at our side. The whole thing proved to be a little nerve-wracking, like marrying into royalty for love and then discovering your every move being nervously watched by the staff. But no matter; the intention is for you to feel regal, at least during your meal, and the salt-filled street outside is worlds away from this freshly painted and trimmed cafe. The embroidered pictures of elephants hang perfectly straight, the tablecloths are neatly ironed, the water glasses (before fills and refills) stuffed with intricately folded cloth napkins. Even the fish in the nearby bowl seem prime examples of their species--orange, fat, and happy. A disco ball and karaoke videos showing pensive couples strolling the beach just about puts this atmosphere over the top.

The menu is eclectic, and more than likely it will take you a while to figure out your favorites. The times we visited brought a few discordant notes among the ranks as to which dishes were great and which ones were "merely good," but everyone who went with me loved the restaurant as a whole. Maybe the menu is too ambitious, filled as it is with wide selections of soup, Thai salads, appetizers, Chinese dinners, Thai entrées, fried rice, and noodles dishes. But on our first visit we were won over by the fried tofu, deep-fried and sautéed in a dark, savory basil sauce, with a delightfully soft, pillow-like texture under its golden crisp "crust" ($3.95).

The Thai shrimp rolls looked spectacular, like two whales with curled little shrimp tails stuck on behind, a bit on the greasy side but stuffed with a mixture of glass noodles and carrots ($2.95). Best of the starters that we tried (and this was over the course of three visits, in case you thought we were being exceedingly gluttonous) were the coconut soup with chicken ($5.50) and the yum squid, a cold Thai salad ($6.25). Although the menu states that the soup serves two, the three of us nearly finished off three bowls' worth. Served in a bundt-cake pan with a flame shooting out of middle, it was paradise, bobbing with a fleet of button mushrooms and whole Thai chilies, with a sheen of chili oil on top. The cold squid salad was a mass of marinated red onion, carrots, and diamond-patterned spirals of chewy squid. We probably would have sparred over it more if we hadn't had the equally tasty soup to distract us.

Meanwhile, two waitresses busily dealt with the plates on our small table, one spacing them out perfectly, the other rearranging the work of the first. "Is everything okay?" they often asked, as if afraid we had been injured somehow during the process. Yes, everything is fine and wonderful, except that we felt a little guilty about being the cause of so much concern. You have to be careful; when my friend, a vegetarian, pushed his egg roll to the side, the waitress who passed by pushed it neatly back in place, as if the perfect geometry of the table setting was not something to be toyed with. When our soup orders were brought out and set in front of us in reverse, we smiled at the waitress and waited for her to turn before we switched, not wanting her to be upset. But to no avail; she saw out of the corner of the eye and rushed back, apologizing profusely for minutes. We felt terrible for making her feel terrible. Nothing like a guilt-ridden meal.

Drunken noodles were my favorite entrée, medium-sized noodles cut with lots of heated Thai peppers, cooked with basil sauce, and mixed with your choice of vegetable, pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, or all of the above ($6.95-8.95). The chicken curry soup ($5.75) I had for lunch was a little less thrilling, a bit too thin and dull for my taste. The Thai seafood in claypot ($15.95) was another mixed bag; I loved it, as it was bubbling hot and stuffed with scallops, shrimp, snow peas, baby corn, puckered mussels, and fish in a glass noodle base. But others with me thought it tasted a little bland and, tinged as it was with yellow and brown tones, too visually drab. Can't please everyone I guess.

There is only one dessert listed on the menu, "fried banana" ($2.50), so we had to try it. They weren't kidding about the fried part, though I would advise making the "banana" plural. With a thick batter on top and a most generous drizzling of honey and chopped peanuts, this is surely one of the most delicious and gratifying things you can pop into your mouth. If I ever had a wish to quickly put on 10 pounds, I'd feast on this for a couple of days.

Checks arrive adorned with orange slices carved into swans (or maybe they were snails), and fortune cookies, all of our leftover food neatly bundled up into separate containers. For the price, Bangkok House is a great deal. It will just take some sleuthing to figure out which dishes to head toward, and how to not feel guilty that the staff is bending so far over backwards for little old you.

TABLEHOPPING

IT'S A GREAT DAY FOR THE TUNEFUL:
A reminder to tenors (especially those who do things at the last minute) that Murray's is holding "The Best 'Irish' Tenor Contest" on Monday, March 10, the proceeds of which will be donated to the Children's Program of Northern Ireland. The rules are easy: you don't have to be Irish, but you do need to render an Irish tune. The program begins at 7:30 p.m. sharp; any tenor wishing to compete should call Linda Lindquist at 333-2507. If you can't shake that Irish out of you, come back the following week, for on March 17, Murray's will be up to their four-leaf clovers in Irish beer specials, corned beef, cabbage, and Irish stew. Murray's is located at 26 S. Sixth St., Mpls.... Speaking of goodwill, Kozlak's Royal Oak Restaurant is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a benefit for Kids' Cafes drop-off centers in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, where children can receive a hot meal after school. During March, 10 percent of sales from their deluxe Salmon Royal Oak entrées will be donated to this valuable resource. Royal Oak also kicks up its heels with a weekly drawing at their notable New Orleans's Brunch throughout 1997 for restaurant gift certificates. The Grand Prize is a week's stay at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Florida. You can find Kozlak's at 4785 Hodgson Road, Shoreview; 484-8484.

HEE-HAW: Lacking excitement? Well, the Wild Wild Western Chef Showdown probably won't provide much blood sport (unless someone nicks himself with a paring knife), but it should be fun anyway. Sponsored by Best Foods through its Western Salad Dressing brand on March 10 at the Mall of America, this is your chance to see brawny chefs from all over the Midwest, including Minneapolis's own Chef Aaron Neururer from Market Bar-B-Que, do fancy things with salad dressing. Recipes will be judged on taste, originality, ease of preparation, creativity, presentation and practicality by a panel of judges that includes the newly crowned Miss Rodeo, Donna Stricklen. For you old ranch hands, the Wild Wild Western consumer contest begins on March 3. Call 1-800-417-6325 to receive contest information and/or prize-winning recipes.

THE ROAD AHEAD: According to "Foodcast," Kraft Creative Kitchens' food trends report, "Generation X is steadily shaping and redefining the notion of 'American' food for generations to come." But don't panic; their research also breaks the startling news that "America's love affair with pasta and other Italian foods remains strong." To confuse you even more about The Future as told by Kraft products, here's their recommended recipe for Mexican Chicken Pizza (bonus points for a recipe that begins its instruction with "spray"):

* 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts,
cut into cubes

* 1 1/2 cups salsa

* 1 (12 inch) Italian bread shell

* 1/2 cup red pepper strips

* 1 tsp. chopped cilantro

* 1 pkg. (8 oz.) Kraft Pizza Natural Shredded Low-Moisture Cheese

* Mozzarella and Cheddar cheeses

Spray large skillet with no-stick cooking spray. Add chicken; cook on medium heat until chicken is cooked through. Stir in salsa; cook on low heat for five minutes.

Spoon chicken mixture over pizza crust; sprinkle with red pepper and cilantro. Top with cheese.

Bake at 400 F for 10 to 15 minutes or until cheese is melted.

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