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Thai tapas

Luis Fábregas
| Friday, May 4, 2012, 5:02 a.m.

When it comes to a fun gathering with friends, nothing beats tapas -- the lively bar food of Spain so easy to wash down with a glass of wine.

Order four, five or six tapas, add a few adventurous eaters, and you may find yourself the perfect evening.

Simply put, these intriguing little appetizers are a great way to socialize.

So it's no surprise that the tapas trend, found locally at Ibiza on the South Side, La Casa in Shadyside, and several other spots, is spreading to French, Cuban and Japanese cuisine.

The latest variety in town• Thai tapas.

They are a welcome, inventive version, and they're at the heart of the menu at Silk Elephant, a new spot along a busy stretch of Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, across from the Barnes & Noble bookstore.

Silk Elephant opened in early May and fits perfectly in the neighborhood. It is owned by Norraset and Eileen Nareedokmai, the couple who operate the wonderful Bangkok Balcony a half a block away on Forbes Avenue.

Norraset Nareedokmai, a Thailand native who obtained a master's degree in business administration from Duquesne University, said he wanted to create a place that could offer an alternative to the typical dinner.

"In the Thai culture, we always like to share small dishes," he said. "We never eat just one thing. It's always four or five things."

The Nareedokmais' 8-year-old son, Nolen, came up with the name of the restaurant, whose dining room fittingly features a large mural by a local artist depicting how silk is made in Thailand.

Indeed, the dining room and bar area evoke Asian themes, with striking design elements such as a colorful silk canopy with bright reds and yellows. It is elegant but warm, and the open kitchen gives it a casual, urban feel.

The Silk Elephant's seven-page menu is so extensive you should keep it at the table through your visit.

We used it as a cheat sheet to remember the ingredients in the tapas we ordered. Is this won-ton bite supposed to have crab• What's that lemony flavor in the souffle•

It is a rather playful menu, and decidedly wine-friendly, with tapas divided into several categories including rolls, dumplings and vegetarian. It's a helpful presentation that even tells you how many tapas you get per order.

All the tapas are made on the premises and reasonably priced. You can probably order, say, five dishes with two or three pieces each, and spend no more than $30. They arrive in artful square-sized dishes placed on the center of the table, perfect for sharing.

Our favorite was the steamed dumplings, not-so-big but so fresh they almost melted in your mouth. The Moo and Goong Steamed Dumplings ($3.25), were bites of minced pork and shrimp enveloped in translucent rice-paper wraps. They were served with a ginger sesame soy sauce that gave them a perfect kick.

We loved the Thai Crab Crowns ($3.95), perhaps because they were deep-fried. They're a tasty mix of cream cheese and crab, wrapped in won-ton skin.

The Corn Fritters ($3.95) were crispy and appealing but a pinch bland. They definitely benefitted from the accompanying sweet chili paste sauce, which tasted almost like a sweet-and-sour sauce.

In fact, we noticed that was the case for most of the tapas: They came alive with their dipping sauces, whether it was made with avocado or curry.

Our waiter recommended the Haw Mork Fish ($5.95), an unusual, salmon-colored souffle that we attempted to like. Made with red curry and tilapia, it was topped with coconut milk and served in a bowl made with a banana leaf. It was fluffy and moist, but it took a while to get used to its overpowering citrus flavor.

We also tried the Chicken Wrapped in Pandanus Leaf ($4.95). We couldn't figure out if we were supposed to eat the leaf, but the chicken was tasty -- even though it could have used a pinch more salt.

The Satay Beef ($4.95) was a hit, with three marinated skewers grilled to a slightly sweet finish. It came with a homemade peanut-and-cucumber sauce, a nice complement.

Other tapas include Crispy Calamari ($4.95) marinated with fresh herbs and garlic, Chicken or Vegetable Spring Rolls ($3.95) and the popular Silk Elephant Rice Wrapper Rolls ($5.95), a mix of cucumber, carrot, lettuce, cream cheese and crab wrapped in rice paper.

At Silk Elephant, you can bypass the tapas and order from an equally appealing list of entrees.

We tried the Pad Thai , one of Thailand's most-popular dishes. We asked for ours to be laced with chicken and were pleased to get a perfect blend of silky noodles, eggs and scallions. It was served with a side of crushed peanuts and bean sprouts. It was delicious.

The Bamboo Chicken ($11.95) came alive with a spicy brown sauce. The Rack of Lamb ($19.95), served on a subtle green curry sauce, was equally pleasing with just the right amount of curry.

The most interesting dish was the Basil Duck ($17.95). The small pieces of duck, marinated in a dark basil sauce, won raves from our dining companions for its distinct presentation, on a bed of crispy basil leaves. The meat was tender and flavorful, with the right hint of sweetness. If you have room after all those tapas, this is definitely the dish to try.

And don't forget the fried rice. We shared a different take on it -- a heaping plate of Basil Fried Rice ($9.95) that had a perfect hint of garlic and chili. It was almost all gone, even after eating a good bit of tapas.

Desserts include a Taro Custard Cake ($4.95), Thai custard with Coconut Sticky Rice ($4.25) and Jack Fruit Seeds , a sweet yellow paste hand formed like marzipan ($4.25).

Silk Elephant is a wonderful addition to Squirrel Hill.

Ticket restaurant reviewers visit restaurants anonymously. They pay in full for all food, wines and services. Interviews are done only after meals and services have been appraised. Additional Information:

Silk Elephant

Cuisine: Thai tapas and wine bar

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays

Tapas price range: $2.95-$7.95

Entrees price range: $8.95-$19.95

Notes: Non-smoking. Most credit cards accepted

Location: 1712 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill

Details: 412-421-8801

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