Review: Think Tank Bistrotheque

Southeast Asian treats among some head-scratchers
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  August 17, 2011
2.0 2.0 Stars

think tank
WORTHY HEIRLOOM While not exactly ethnic, the Viet skinny pork chops are worth a try, served with mango chutney and some tasty mixed vegetables.

We all know a few nerds who are really amazing at computers but can be kind of ditzy at the common-sense level. Think Tank Bistrotheque isn't just aimed at such people, it embodies their mentality. The owners have some very good ideas about food and drink — Southeast Asian treats are cool, and craft cocktails go better with them than wine does — but they have also produced some decisions that make the rest of us scratch our heads. For example, the proprietors took a lease on a space below street level at One Kendall Square, and apparently didn't check the drainage. They opened in June 2010. All that rain early last summer? A foot and a half of water. Think Tank was more like Fish Tank — it took months for them to get going again. Now, you might think this was just bad luck, but note that the Blue Room across the courtyard is at the same level, and took in some water, but was back in business post-haste. Some people get what it means to operate in basement spaces.

As for calling the place a "bistrotheque"? You can see the little wheels turning — "gastropub" is dreadful, we dig the retro thing, we're doing DJs four nights a week — but this new sobriquet puns on discothèque, arguably the most unappetizing word in all of French for native English speakers. If you want to sell Anglophones flatbread pizza and fried bananas, you don't want them to be thinking about the Bee Gees.

Speaking of flatbread, you do want to be thinking about the naan ($6), partly because the accompanying edamame hummus is prettier and carries more garlic than the chickpea kind, but mostly because crisp triangles of the Indian bread are such excellent toasts for dipping.

Some days there is an early-bird special of smaller versions of appetizers for $5. The portion was ideal with "crispy salt-and-pepper" shrimp (usually $9), as we had four breaded and fried shrimp with a chili-mayo dip, and a bit of corn-tomato salad. A cucumber-and-beet salad ($8) was completely successful. Although red beets almost always taste better than golden, and striped beets are never so good, they are all improved by a wasabi-mayonnaise sauce.

Adobo mussels ($12) are the usual big bowl of small shellfish in a red curry sauce with some coconut milk — nothing special. "Lemongrass sticky ribs" ($9) also fall short. First of all, they are poached and baked to falling-off-the-bone, and the crust tasted mostly of pepper, not the citronella flavor of lemongrass or anything else Cambodian. House-made kimchi comes on the side.

There's nothing very ethnic about the taste of Viet skinny pork chops ($17), but I still recommend them. If not the best heirloom pork ever, they're close enough, and so what if the mango chutney is like mango applesauce — at least the potato salad is what you think you are ordering, and the accompanying diced mixed vegetables were outstanding. Even better was the "daily catch" one of our nights, a special on hake ($19). I didn't expect a lot from hake, one of the blander local fish, but this was fresh and sweet, in a simple sautéed meuniere. It rested on a superb, buttery mess of lentils, with a side dish of gingery cabbage, and one of those Bibb salads with shaved radishes, carrot, and cucumber.

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