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Revisiting some exotic, but friendly, shores

IT was a dark and stormy night.

OK, it was raining gently but steadily on a June evening, but still... It was the kind of evening when you want comfort food in a cozy setting, with the staff welcoming you like family. Thai Landing, one of Baltimore's first Thai restaurants, delivered on all counts.

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The last time I ate there was 10 years ago. But the number of new restaurants that have opened up on Thai Landing's section of Charles Street has stirred my interest in the old ones, and I remembered my last meal there -- even though distantly -- with pleasure.

Thai Landing is still very much a neighborhood restaurant. The staff call the regulars by name, and customers know each other. At the same time, I had to admire how the host greeted us as warmly as if we were regulars.

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You know how sometimes you ask your waiter how the special is and he looks at you blankly and says he hasn't served any yet? Or he says, "Everything's good here." I don't know about you, but I don't find either comment particularly helpful.

At the Thai Landing, the host, also our waiter but not the owner, seemed so knowledgeable we asked him to order dinner for the three of us to share. We said we would eat anything, and price was no object. (Not as extravagant as it sounds when the most expensive dish on the menu is $15.95.)

This turned out to be a very good idea. He looked thoughtful and asked us only what degree of heat we could tolerate. The answer was two mild-to-moderates, one anything goes. He instructed the kitchen to tone down the spices in two of the dishes and brought our anything-goes eater a bowl of fish sauce flavored with lime juice with slices of hot pepper floating in it.

The only disappointment was that one of our appetizers was deep-fried spring rolls, which seemed kind of ordinary compared with the rest of our meal. I blame myself for this one because I didn't stress the fact that we were adventuresome eaters. These were very good spring rolls, crisply fried and stuffed with chicken, bean threads and vegetables, but there are more intriguing choices on the menu. I guess he thought he ought to give us one safe dish. They may also be the most popular appetizer on the menu, judging from the foursome next to us, who all ordered them.

I preferred grilled squid, with a moderate amount of heat nicely balanced by lime juice. Most off-the-wall was yum pla duk fu, which translates roughly as catfish scraped off its bones and deep-fried. It's a sort of crisp catfish lace pancake, arranged with matchsticks of fresh ginger, slices of red onion and peanuts, with a fiery, citrusy-sweet sauce on the side. Fiery, sour, sweet and salty are all quite distinct layers of flavor in the dish, typical of Thai cuisine.

A more elegant example is sliced roast duck, beautifully presented with colorful vegetables, the carrots carved with scalloped edges. Grape halves and red peppers float in the hot-sweet sauce served on the side. The same vegetables appear with large, firm shrimp in a coconut milk and curry sauce. Basil adds a depth of flavor, and Kaffir lime leaves give a refreshing citrus note that cuts the sweetness of the coconut milk. Both these dishes are very fine, and I'd order either again in a heartbeat, but I'd probably get something with different vegetables to go with it.

Our third entree sounds more ordinary than it is: "Beef sauteed with garlic and ground pepper." It actually isn't very garlicky and the dark sauce is slightly sweet and subtly complex. But it didn't have quite the pizazz of the other two.

A meal at Thai Landing ends with either mango and sticky rice or Thai rice pudding. The rice pudding pleased the other diners at the table, but I see no reason to order anything but the soft, sweet juicy mango, exploding with tropical flavor, and the salty-sweet sticky rice as a counterpoint.

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There are some wines that would go with Thai food, but you won't find them at Thai Landing. You can get a glass of generic red or white, but why bother? Instead have beer or an exotic-flavored Thai iced tea, sweetened and swirled with cream.

Thai Landing has two small dining rooms, comfortable but not exactly memorable. They have an old-fashioned feel, something of a throwback to when ethnic food automatically meant plentiful and cheap. Not to worry. Thai Landing's food has the elegance the dining rooms lack.

Thai Landing

Food: ***

Service: *** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

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Where: 1207 N. Charles St., Baltimore

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$7.95; Entrees, $11.95-$15.95

Call: 410-727-1234


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