- Heather Mull
- Tropical Island Tilapia
172 Lincoln Ave., Bellevue. 412-766-1899
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thu. 4:30-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 4:30-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads $4-10, entrees $11-14
If life is, as someone once said, 98 percent anticipation, then it's hardly surprising that our expectations often color our opinions. Is that song any good, or is it just different from the band's previous hit? Is the movie dragging on because it's poorly made, or because it's not living up to the hype of its reviews? Was our meal perfect, or were we simply having a wonderful time?
As regular restaurant-goers, we tend to focus on the food, but we know that the entire experience -- from décor to ambience to service -- is fundamental to dining out. A magical setting can spice up a mediocre dish, while Styrofoam or an indifferent server can leave a bad taste.
All of this led to complicated feelings about Thai Suan Thip, which recently opened in a charming little storefront in Bellevue. Dark-stained wood, silk-upholstered cushions and candlelight flickering over a collection of beautiful artifacts from Thailand created a warm, welcoming ambience while suggesting the exotic flavors that awaited us.
Or, as it increasingly came to seem, were we awaiting them? Two servers plus a host bustled about the half-full restaurant, but other than menus and water when we were seated, we received no service at all for nearly a quarter of an hour.
At least we had spare water glasses and a screw-top bottle of wine to sustain us. We watched a couple at another table sit, wait and leave, taking their uncorked bottle with them. Meanwhile, every few minutes we jumped up to close the front door, which let in an arctic blast of air every time someone went in or out, but didn't close all the way.
Thai Suan Thip's menu covered all the standard bases -- curries, noodles, fried rice, pad Thai -- and added to them a full page of chef's specialties that we were eager to try. But when we finally gave our order, we were a bit disappointed that one dish was unavailable, and surprised to hear that another -- larb, a Thai salad topped with spicy ground meat -- would take so long that our server advised against it. Larb lovers to the core, we told him we'd happily eat it whenever it arrived.
But first came a fresh spring roll, sliced and arranged on a rectangular plate like sushi maki. This novel and attractive presentation showed off the layers of herbs and lettuce, shrimp, pork, vermicelli and tiny batons of carrot within. An adjustment to these ingredients' proportions would have improved the flavor; the collar of greens was too thick, obscuring the myriad other flavors that should have balanced one another.
Chicken satay is a simple dish, one that too many restaurants seem to offer without paying much attention to how it is prepared. Not Thai Suan Thip. This satay came with a flavorful curry-coconut milk marinade that really enriched the chicken. Moist and savory on its own, this chicken was also delicious dipped in the thick, yet not pasty, peanut sauce that is the hallmark of this dish. Thai Suan Thip's was enlivened by hints of sesame and cucumber, which broadened the sweetness of its traditional main ingredient, peanut butter. It was good enough to eat with a spoon.
Tropical Island Tilapia, served on a bed of stir-fried vegetables with chunks of mango and pineapple, arrived in a sauce that bore an alarming resemblance to Chinese-style sweet and sour. The fish, a large filet, was battered and fried, but all crispiness had wilted beneath the thin, syrupy sauce that was flecked with chili peppers but mostly tasted sweet. Chunks of pineapple predominated over a few pieces of mango, furthering the Chinese flavor profile. The blend of vegetables, meanwhile, was neither inspired nor evenly cooked -- some were crisp, others tender.
The "signature spicy sauce" on the Pad-Ped Thai Suan Thip, a seafood stir-fry, was not appreciably different than that on the tilapia. But the ingredients in this dish -- smallish shrimp, tiny calamari rings and a couple of scallops -- were better cooked and held together better. Nonetheless, neither dish came close to the salty-sweet-spicy-tangy flavor combination that defines Thai cooking in America.
Far more satisfying was the massaman curry. Made with meat and winter vegetables -- potatoes, onions and carrots -- in a coconut-milk sauce studded with crunchy toasted peanuts, massaman is the cashmere coat of curries: warm and substantial without being heavy or bulky. Thai Suan Thip's version was subtle, but included bright cherry tomatoes that lent a juicy astringency to the bites that included them.
In the end -- which was, as promised, when we finally received our credible larb -- our experience of Thai Suan Thip suffered by contrast with our expectations: of prompt service, of not having to wear our coats during dinner, of Thai cuisine that is definitively different from Chinese. To be fair, we could have eaten in the (less attractive, but draft-proof) basement dining room. But unless the service was more attentive or the food more consistently satisfying there, we might still have wished we could dine exclusively on chicken satay.