Odd as it may seem at first, it's fitting that Thaiphoon Bistro has two entrances: one facing trendy Glenwood South, and the other (officially the main entrance) around the corner on North Street, framed by a lushly landscaped patio. Regardless of which entrance you choose, you're in for an experience defined by the marriage of two strikingly different styles.
You might even call the décor a shotgun wedding of traditional East and ultramodern West, where Buddha statuary, paper lanterns and Thai prints mingle freely with futuristic molded plastic chairs, abstract glass sculpture and a sleek granite-topped bar against a backdrop of exposed brick and vivid orange tiles. No detail is overlooked, including the tangerine tabletops, where rustic flatware with carved wooden handles sits next to contemporary china in geometric shapes. The menu is cleverly bound in a recycled DVD case, and the beverage list is printed on the "label" of a vintage 78 rpm vinyl record.
The culinary playlist is traditional Thai, and presentations are as fanciful as the décor would lead you to expect. Dishes are liberally garnished with flowers carved from daikon and carrot and with wispy, colorful threads of sweet potato and beet.
By and large, owner/chef Jeerawan Bessinger backs up all this playful style with solid execution. The coconut curry is authentically fragrant and the vegetables snap-tender in her green curry, which she offers with your choice of jumbo shrimp, scallops, tofu or chicken. Her rendition of pad thai, for many the definitive dish in the Thai repertoire, is a decided cut above the norm. So is her grilled beef salad, which is distinguished by the subtly smoky flavor of the grill in the beef and by the small mound of crushed red Thai chiles with which you can spice the dish to your liking.
Bessinger, a native of Thailand who owned several restaurants in New York before moving to the Triangle with her family to open Thaiphoon Bistro, also has a few surprises in store. One of these is roasted duck in red curry sauce, topped with pineapple, broccoli and tomato, and served with a bonus in the form of a skein of rice noodles in addition to the expected jasmine rice. Another is som tam, a green papaya salad that's traditionally served alone or with sticky rice. At Thaiphoon Bistro, it becomes an elaborate shareable first course presentation, topped with grilled shrimp.
But the most delightful surprise I've discovered is an appetizer offering of miniature pastry cups filled with shrimp, chicken and diced taro root in a light brown sauce. My curiosity piqued by the fluted pastry shells, which for all the world resemble something you'd see passed around at a cocktail party, I couldn't resist asking the chef whether the dish is indeed authentic. She confirmed that it is and went on to describe how she makes the shells with rice flour and two kinds of wheat flour.
There are, it must be noted, occasional miscues in the kitchen. Vegetables, in curries and stir-fried in sauces, are sometimes bright and snappy, sometimes overcooked. Pad ma mung, a dish that the menu enticingly describes as "sautéed with cashew nut, pineapple and mixed vegetables in roasted chile," turns out to be disappointingly bland. The chile and garlic sauce that topped a deep-fried whole red snapper, on the other hand, was spicy as promised -- but not spicy enough to hide the fishy smell of the snapper.
Service is welcoming, but attentiveness can be spotty. In my experience, the level of service tends to drop off as the meal wears on, to the point that you find yourself flagging down your waiter from across the room for a drink refill or the check. Oddly, it doesn't seem to matter how busy the restaurant is.
Still, the Thaiphoon Bistro adventure is for the most part a rewarding one. The food is generally satisfying and sometimes exceptional. Besides, where else can you sit down next to a koi pond, spoon Massaman curry out of an elegant asymmetrical bowl and wash it down with beer served in a Mason jar?