If it sometimes seems as though fusion cuisine bypassed New Orleans and its tried-and-true dining sensibilities altogether, one need only to examine the career path of Punnee Benjaray. Along with her Thai-Cajun children, Diana and Merlin Chauvin, the Bangkok native operates not only the city's largest Thai empire, but also an abundance of its fusion-minded kitchens. The kingdom originated in 1984 when Bangkok Cuisine began serving the kinds of traditional Thai dishes you find at Thai restaurants throughout America. The family's affection for blending cooking styles blossomed roughly two years ago with La Thai Cuisine's fusion of Louisiana, French and Thai cooking styles. The fourth and latest addition, Benjarong, is a similar merging of Creole and Thai flavors.
Last December arrived the family's middle child of fusion, Panasia, billed as a purveyor of old and new Thai cooking. Panasia's repertoire caters to its CBD neighborhood, where during any given lunch hour there's liable to be as many connoisseurs of pad Thai as there are diners ravenous for something slightly more familiar -- perhaps a grilled chicken salad prepared with a Thai bent. Although it makes significant fumbles of service and taste, Panasia eases newbies into the expansive flavors of Thai cuisine, meanwhile offering its longtime fans something new to chew on.
I belong to the latter sect, having hungered for traditional Thai cooking ever since I first tasted how lemon grass can turn coconut-chicken soup into a habit. And so I surprised myself by liking a few combinations at Panasia that suggest cross-cultural inspiration. The lamb shank, for example, wasn't exactly fall-apart luscious, but its inherent gaminess paired superbly with a masaman curry sauce redolent of Thai spices and thyme (thyme!). Duck is no foreigner to Asian kitchens, but Panasia's duck breast was something else: braised to the gentleness of pot roast, touched with Chinese five-spice and served with hoisin sauce over thin Thai noodles. And escolar, the moist-meaty Gulf fish, was a natural match for sweet, coconut green curry and a side of bok choy.
Two other entrees combined familiar ingredients in rather unfamiliar ways, to varying success. Shredded green papaya enlivened with garlic and fish sauce is a staple salad at many hole-in-the-wall Thai joints; at Panasia it's served as a side dish with grilled and glazed chicken breast and a ball of sticky rice. During one lunch, a powerful and nutty-textured red coconut curry did wonders for firm, egg-flavored noodles; shrimp and crawfish mixed into the pasta, however, exhibited no signs of freshness.
Because the kitchen's use of non-traditional ingredients and techniques is understated, its pretty dishes taste more like gussied-up Thai food than radical Asian fusion. The dining room is another story: Not one detail indicates that you're in an Asian restaurant. Located in the space that formerly housed Gerard's Downtown, its visuals have hardly changed since Gerard Maras ran the kitchen. The window wall lining St. Charles Avenue is now etched with Panasia's logo, but a patch of earth-toned stained glass between the dining room and the kitchen is still the room's showpiece. Sunlight trims the space during busy lunches, while white paper tablecloths, shimmering table lamps and fresh flowers lend an air of nonspecific romance at night.
The service shifts from exacting to shaky as quickly as the sun sets, perhaps because thinner crowds offer the nighttime staff little practice. And beverages are problematic. One night we requested three wines from the short list before landing on one in stock. Another time a single Budweiser was the only beer in the house, and someone else ordered it. Twice the Thai iced tea, a marvel of terra cotta color and sweetened condensed milk, came topped with an unorthodox swirl of whipped cream, turning it into a dessert rather than a cooling accompaniment to a spicy meal.
Appetizers tend towards the traditional, except for the oddball Japanese-styled tuna tataki salad, which is fine but much less interesting than fried Golden Bags stuffed with an aromatic crawfish filling, or even basic summer rolls fattened with, among other ingredients, shrimp, tofu and a bit too much lettuce.
One glaring hitch runs unbridled through many of Panasia's dishes: an unappetizing imbalance of flavors due sometimes to excessive amounts of raw garlic and other times to the extreme saltiness caused by too much fish sauce or soy sauce. The glass noodle salad, the ground chicken salad (lap kai) and the hot-and-sour soup (tom yam goong) all suffered from such dramatic imbalances when I tried them. The second time I ordered pad Thai, the standard-bearing noodle dish, it also wept large amounts of dark, wet saltiness. It was an improvement on the spicy but otherwise lifeless version I had tried two months earlier, but I still couldn't eat much of it.
Panasia's perfect, sun-colored mango with coconut sticky rice had also changed, albeit not drastically, by the second time I ordered it. The rice, now made with long grains, was no longer sticky, and a jammy, red fruit sauce covered most of the mango. While such tweaks to traditional combinations might annoy the purists, other diners will eat onward, grateful for Panasia's notable contribution to New Orleans' limited fusion movement.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Sunlight trims PANASIA's interior during busy lunches, while shimmering table lamps and fresh flowers add romance at night.