Thai ‘Tapas’ at Silk Elephant

I haven’t quite been able to accept tapas as a language-neutral word meaning ’small plates.’ In my mind, it’s still in Spanish, referring to Spanish food, but my visits to Silk Elephant have me much closer to accepting tapas as a general term than I had been.

It’s not that I think smaller portions ought to be limited to Iberian cuisine; it’s more that I want there to be an English word or a Thai word or an {ethnicity of restaurant} word that meets the same need without having to use the Spanish word to describe southeast Asian cuisine. But there’s not, apart from the awkward ’small plates,’ a two-word construct that doesn’t flow from the tongue.

When the food is well-prepared, though, the etymology falls by the wayside as you enjoy a smattering of what the restaurant has to offer. It’s an opportunity to construct your own tasting menu. And whatever your tastes are, you’ll find three or four options that pique your curiosity.

At Silk Elephant in Pittsburgh, I had expected a pureed asparagus soup, because that’s what I’m accustomed to; my fear with any other construction is that overcooked asparagus is slimy. Silk Elephant gets around this issue, though, by either throwing the asparagus in (apparently) to order. I can’t remember precisely because I had the soup during my first visit almost a month ago—but for many of Silk Elephant’s soups, the vegetables are just thrown in raw. That was the case with the mushrooms, onions, and peppers that appear in their Tom Yum and Tom Kah. I was a bit disconcerted by this raw vegetable concept at first, because I’m a big proponent of building a flavor base in soups by sauteeing the vegetables to start: caramelizing the onions, the garlic, the mushrooms; deglazing with sherry and reducing; adding the stock to let simmer and envelop what’s been infused in the oil. If I want to add garnishes, I’ll usually sautee them briefly and add to order. A culinary school maxim, really, that as a cooked dish, soup ought not to contain raw ingredients. But with Silk Elephant’s soups, though, I think it works. They slice the vegetables thinly so they’re not tough to chew; the broth is full-bodied. It’s not what I would have done, but it works, which means that to start the meal, I’m already enjoying myself because I’m not thinking I could have done it better.

If there’s a flaw with Silk Elephant’s salads it’s that the lettuce is very American: romaine for the most part; and there may have been some iceberg in the mix. No bitter greens. The foci of the two salads I tasted, though, were not the lettuce. Mango was the star attraction of one, crispy duck the other. The crispy duck was also offered as ‘faux duck,’ I should have, but did not ask what the faux duck consists of. Both had tasty, sesame-oil-based dressings (and sesame is one of my favorite salad oils).

Silk Elephant’s tapas are available with chicken, beef, pork, seafood, or vegetarian components. The menu is long and builds upon themes: several menu options are available with your choice of filling. It’s a fairly easy and very considerate way to make diners with most any dietary inclination be easily able to find something to order.

All of our tapas were attractively presented and well prepared.The pork chop, though thin, was still moist and had a faint trace of pink to it. The scallops, though thin, were seared in a smoking hot pan for the appropriately brief instant. The rice wrapper rolls had a pleasing variety of fine-julienned vegetables to accompany the crab mousse. Aurora and I highly enjoyed every option we ordered. The small portions made it easy for us to share everything as a couple (you’d need to order more than one of each dish to share everything among a larger party), and we left pleasantly sated as opposed to overly stuffed.

The atmosphere was pleasant, with curious wood carvings adorning the walls. The ceiling in the main dining room area is an illusion of woven ropes that eliminates the cavernous feel that may have existed had they not painted the true ceiling matte black.

All in all, my visits to Silk Elephant were the most pleasing dining experiences I have had in quite some time. It’s obvious that the restaurant hired a top notch staff. Don’t tell anybody about this restaurant because I want to still be able to easily get a seat next time I go back.

Rating: 4 oranges.

I did not taste the Thai iced tea, and so I can’t testify to its exact flavor, but the three folks at my table who ordered it found it to be sickeningly sweet. When the situation was pointed out to the manager at the end of the meal, he discovered our waitress had mistakenly used the syrupy tea that’s supposed to be featured in a dessert sundae.

2 Responses to “Thai ‘Tapas’ at Silk Elephant”

  1. Troy Says:

    Enjoyed the review, but I think you should include the address/location/website (if applicable) of the place you are reviewing. I had to go to another site to find where Silk Elephant was located.

  2. jwsharrard Says:

    Sorry about that—the link at the top of the article was supposed to take you to their website. That problem has now been fixed. Silk Elephant is located at 1712 Murray Avenue, near the corner of Murray and Forbes in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. Their phone number is 412.421.8801.

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