Monday, May 18, 2009

Walk, Don't Run, to Elephant Walk

Given that Cambodian-French cuisine often proves to be challenging hunting down in the suburbs, Paul’s Palate donned his own safari hat and ventured into the jungles of Boston in search of a particular elephant – Elephant Walk, that is – to appease his dining desires. Much praise has been heaped upon the unique, sometimes adventurous ingredients and flavors emanating from this revered restaurant’s kitchens (additional locations in Cambridge and Waltham), so I decided to see if this Elephant was worth trumpeting about.

With its Boston location practically bordering upon Brookline (Beacon Street), Elephant Walk’s ambience is casually cool. Particularly noteworthy is its funky South Pacific-themed dining room, which includes several versions of elephants propped up against yellow walls. Be prepared, however: the open-aired room eliminates any possibility for an intimate meal. Also, what gives with the untidy bathrooms – located downstairs, no less - for such a moderately upscale restaurant?

Appetizers start our meal off on a positive note. Rouleaux – Cambodian spring rolls – are moist and flavorful. These are not your average spring rolls – nothing on the menu is traditional, for that matter – and are stuffed with a combination of ground pork, crushed peanut, bean thread, carrot and onion. Sweet tuk trey dipping sauce is merely a bonus, since the spring rolls are stand-alone scrumptious. Even better: the Nataing - ground porked simmered in coconut milk with sliced garlic, crushed peanut, and chili pods – which is served alongside crispy jasmine rice to be dipped into the concoction. What might sound a bit unconventional is pure culinary bliss. It’s the Cambodian equivalent of chili and nachos, only infinitely better.

Second courses are a mixed bag. Salade de Bleu au Poire William - tossed greens with Gorgonzola cheese, toasted walnut, balsamic vinaigrette, pan-roasted pear, and Poire William coulis – sounds like a delicious meshing of flavors, but sadly falls flat. There’s surprisingly little of the pear (which is delicious), and the vinaigrette – a sweet and sour glaze which should pull together all of the ingredients – is bland. Faring much better is the avocado soup – deliberately served cold – that is the perfect light and refreshing solution for a hot summer day. Add in succulent mushrooms along with citrus-lemon juice and cilantro for some bite, and there you have your Cambodian version of gazpacho.

Entrees, in one word, soar. Khar Saiko Kroeung – braised short ribs – is a spectacular success. What’s more rare to find in this area – an elephant or meaty, perfectly cooked, tender short ribs? Sometimes, I think it’s the latter, but Elephant Walk’s version is stellar, served alongside Shanghai noodles sauteed with baby bok choy, bean sprouts and scallion, a perfect compliment to suck up the juices flowing from the meat. Curry de Crevettes is not your mother’s traditional Thai curry, which is sometimes bland and heavy. This dish, served with jumbo shrimp, asparagus, baby bok choy (can one ever have enough of this wonderful Chinese cabbage?), eggplant, snow peas, and yellow squash, is spiced up with red pepper and a wonderfully light red curry sauce. While I detect a slight hint of fishiness to the curry (though not off-putting in the least), my companion finds this concoction to be her favorite one from our evening’s selections. Given the large portion sizes that preceded dinner, the two of us decide to pass on dessert.

Service is capable enough, though far from perfect. Although our waitress is genial enough, she’s a bit too prompt with our meals. The three courses seem to immediately follow one another, leaving little time to digest and appreciate what we have just eaten (we were seated for an hour).

Pass on the cocktails, which sound appealing but are rather blasé by this imbiber’s standards. A green tea mojito is refreshing enough and packed with mint, but its taste is not all that distinct from your average mojito filled with rum. A ginger-lemon martini is loaded with an exorbitant amount of ginger and not enough lemon. It’s far too bitter and lacks tartness. While we’re at it, pass on the bread as well, which is nearly stale and virtually inedible. Thankfully, the remainder our meals wash out this bad taste from our mouths.

Value cannot be beaten at this establishment. Prix-fixe menus range from $29.95 for three courses, and $33.95 for four. If you’re seeking out additional dinner options, starters average around $7-8, entrees at $16-18, and desserts at $8. Vegan and gluten-free menus are also available, a nice gesture from the owners not lost on this reviewer. Valet parking is $7, though there is a bevy of meter parking available alongside Beacon Street.

Would Paul’s Palate book a return trip to Elephant Walk? Surely, especially with his wallet not all that much lighter from when he entered the restaurant (and in this economy, that is most certainly a good thing). Would Elephant Walk be the first place worth visiting on his safari itinerary? Let’s just say I’d like to travel to other dining destinations beforehand.