Tao's Oriental Cuisine works in threes.
First, there are the Thai, Chinese and Korean offerings. Next, there are the dishes built around chicken (gai), pork (moo) and beef (neu) options.
Then there are more subtle, unintended symbols of trinity. For instance: The ultra-modern, exposed ceiling above traditional mahogany seating and Asian art, which itself sits atop bland burgundy carpeting.
Tao's looks like a restaurant awkwardly squeezed into the husk of another, like a determined hermit crab that's wedged into a too-small shell. (Numerous failed food ventures have occupied the space previously.) By walling off a once-open kitchen in stainless-steel panels and turning counter space into a wait station, Tao's has created a focal point of stacked glasses, silverware, linens and catchall items. Yikes!
Good thing the pad Thai is better than the feng shui. At day's end, if my mouth's happy, I couldn't care less about ambience.
Though Tao's doesn't exactly swing a pocket watch before the eyes, the former Little Bangkok proprietors do achieve some sniffle-inducing (and hiccup-inspiring, in the case of one dining mate) solid, spicy dishes. The traditional green curry ($6.50/lunch, $8.50/dinner), ordered "hot" with meat choice and veggies in a sweet basil-infused coconut milk, stands with the finest I've had, here and in Thailand.
I find the pad Thai shrimp ($6.95/lunch, $10.95/dinner) rice noodles, egg and bean sprouts in a peanut-rich, slightly fishy sauce more average, though Hiccup Queen (who, by the way, is pregnant) pounces on it with great delight. Finishing off our Thai samplings, the pad cashew neu ($5.95/lunch, $8.50/dinner) offers tender beef, zucchini, mushrooms, celery, carrots, onions and ample cashews in a mild Thai brown sauce. It's a good choice for those not looking for a spicy fix.
The menu boasts roughly 100 original dishes, but the Korean portion (available only at dinner) is comprised of a beef ribs offering, three bulgogi plates (with marinated, grilled meats) and a loaded soup. Chinese makes up about 50 percent, and Thai the remainder.
Due to its small representation, my girlfriend and I skip the Korean and delve into Tao's "house specialty" Chinese offerings on another visit. She can't resist Tao's Royal Shrimp ($12.95), described as "a favorite of Chinese royalty." She feeds her inner princess with generous shrimp in one of those slightly gelatinous, gooey, unnaturally red sauces sweet and great to soak up with rice, but not far from your average sweet-and-sour dish.
At our attentive server's recommendation, I opt for Tao's Special Combo ($12.95) of shrimp, scallops and chicken with light vegetables in a "special spicy sauce." The dark, thin juice crackles inside a Sterno-heated pot, continuing to steam large chunks of broccoli at the table. The scallops, buttery and perfect in the well-balanced sauce, make the dish.
Tao's, now in its third month, still awaits a liquor license. Oddly enough, it lacks desserts as well, but you can order the fried cheese won- tons ($4.50) for a treat in the interim.
Stop in to say hello to these former downtowners in their new northern digs. And remember, good things happen in threes.
Tao's Oriental Cuisine
13888 Gleneagle Drive, 481- 3418, taosorientalcuisine.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Lunch menu runs until 3 p.m.