Location: 4504 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. 412-681-4373
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 4-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 4-11 p.m.; Sun 4-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and soup, $3.50-7; entrees $9-13
Fare: Thai, with some Chinese
Atmosphere: Do they have 1950s diners in Thailand?
Liquor: None

With its out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new imperative, New Year's seemed the perfect time to stop in at Thai Gourmet, the newest East Asian establishment in Pittsburgh's Little Italy. We remember the former occupant of this tiny storefront at the hinge of Bloomfield and Lawrenceville, the Rose Café, as a true relic of a diner, complete with spinning chrome stools and pink boomerang Formica. Never updated, it existed in old-fashioned limbo for decades before emerging as retro in the 1990s and then abruptly shutting down a couple years back. After a brief run as a Vietnamese restaurant, the space appears to have found its 21st-century niche serving Thai food in a neighborhood transforming from an old immigrant community to new.

The new owners have engaged in extensive redecorating without actually crossing the line into remodeling, so that the Eisenhower-era stools and counter now fall under the watchful gazes of the Thai royal family whose portraits hang on the walls. Add in some tea-light candles flickering against the fluorescent glare, and the place retains the no-frills feel of a neighborhood hangout overlaid with the enticing suggestion of epicurean exoticism.

The menu offers a mix of standard Thai noodle and curry dishes, plus some unique seafood entrees and a smattering of Chinese favorites for those whose taste for Asian food only goes so far. Tempted by more appetizers than we could possibly consume, we took the easy way out by ordering the Thai Gourmet Combo sampler, featuring satay, Thai samosas, spring rolls and the alluringly named Siamese kisses (ground shrimp and chicken in shumai wraps topped with scallion and crispy garlic). More of a summer roll fan, Angelique reserved judgment on the cabbagey spring rolls, but Jason found them fresh and tasty. We were jointly less enthusiastic about the chicken satay, whose lightly charcoal-grilled bird was only moderately moist and tender, and whose peanut dipping sauce was one-note sweet. The samosas -- a Thai twist on the large Indian turnovers -- were petite, crisp-fried purses happily filled with curried sweet potatoes. The Siamese kisses, basically shumai dumplings about which we detected nothing particularly Thai, turned out to be more exotic in name than in fact.

The pad Thai, however, was much better than most restaurant versions of this rather tired old favorite. The shrimp were big, meaty and briny, adding to the excellent mix of salt, sweet and tart flavors which is the hallmark of this dish done right. Texture is also key to a good pad Thai, and Thai Gourmet's pleased us with tender noodles, crunchy peanuts, fresh bean sprouts, and of course those toothsome shrimp.

We also enjoyed a salad of julienned baby lotus root, carrot, Asian mint and ground peanuts in a light lime dressing. One certainly must like the distinctive flavor of lotus root to truly appreciate this dish; Angelique did, and while Jason found it a bit strong at first, he came around after a few bites.

The remainder of our meal could be characterized as a tale of two curries. Green curry with beef featured thin slices of shaved steak simmered with basil leaves, eggplant, peppers, peas and more lotus root in a paste made from green chilies and coconut milk. The ingredients retained their character and freshness through the curry broth, and the overall flavor was lively, verdant and piquant.

Mussaman curry is a classic Thai dish of chicken slow-cooked with potatoes, onions and peanuts in a mild, Indian-inspired broth. To this, Thai Gourmet adds chick peas, which hooked Angelique in, but she was disappointed by chicken chunks too large to fully absorb the curry (and therefore dry), potatoes cooked to mush, and a flavor that lacked depth overall.

Thai Gourmet could be a Thai diner in the best sense, serving classic dishes cooked in the authentic style of home. The pad Thai and green curry hint at this potential, though the rest of the dishes we tried failed to dazzle our palates. Still, there is more to the menu, and when we return we may venture in different directions -- toward the seafood dishes, for instance -- to find the gourmet in this Thai cooking.

Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2 stars

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