“W.When will Pusadees garden open again? What are you going to do with it? Will the garden still be there? “One of the most common questions I get asked when people want to know what’s going on with restaurants in Pittsburgh.
It’s been a little over three years since the announcement that Pusadee’s Garden, a popular Thai restaurant with one of the city’s most dreamy open-air landscapes, was closed for renovations. Owners Watcheree Tongdee, Busaba Tongdee and Michael Johnson said they have big plans for the next iteration of Upper Lawrenceville restaurant.
I saw a preview of the restaurant last week and now I have answers to the frequently asked questions. Here’s the most important thing: Barring any major setbacks, Pusadee’s Garden will reopen on December 15th. Reservations are possible from December 5th. These reservations are strongly recommended. According to Johnson, the restaurant has limited availability for walk-in guests due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“There were times when I wondered if this would ever end,” says Johnson. “In reality, however, this was a six-year project,” he adds, noting that the new Pusadee’s Garden is the fulfillment of a long-standing vision of bringing Thai cuisine to Pittsburgh in an elegant setting.
The culinary management of the restaurant is a family collaboration. Busaba Tongdee is in charge of the kitchen, and matriarch Pusadee Tongdee will be there most days, preparing curries, nam prik and other products. “She’ll cook, but she won’t work on the line,” says Watcheree Tongdee.
The family and kitchen staff prepare the meal in a quaint open kitchen in the back of the restaurant. There is a massive marble counter laden with spices, where the kitchen team will eventually offer multi-course meals. The Tongdees added Tao stoves – the Thai method of charcoal cooking that uses long, slow-burning coals from the rambutan tree – to the appliances in the kitchen.
The family has developed the menu over the past two years, which is now divided into seven sections. The Pusadee’s Garden team decided to go beyond the typical Americanized Thai menu. “We want to serve what we eat. We didn’t want a menu like any other restaurant, ”says Watcheree Tongdee.
The dishes, a variety of textures, colors, and flavor profiles, are meant to be shared. Difficult in the COVID era, of course, but it will be some pretty epic meals in the long run. When I previewed the menu last week, I was offered several dishes that represent a geographical crossroads of Thai cuisine.
Among the opening snacks, Shiitake Jerky is an excellent place to start. With a texture that includes pulling beef (there’s a nice beef option too) and a salty, savory marinade, it’s an ideal bite to pair with the head bartender’s slightly herbaceous, slightly bitter, and slightly floral house tonic Combine Curran “Curry” Dewhirst. (Yes, Pusadee’s Garden now has a liquor license.) Crunchy curry puffs filled with soothing purple potatoes or taro are also a tasty snack.
Among the starters, for me it was an outstanding example of Nam Prik Ong, a northern Thai relish made from chilli, fermented soybeans, tomatoes and pork in the accompanying herbs and salad. There are a few salads on the menu and I dig mushroom loaf. The mixed mushrooms are light with vinegar and herbs and a tempting combination of sour, sweet, and hot.
I suspect the charcoal cooked dishes from Pusadee’s Garden will be some of the restaurant’s most popular offerings. Rich, luscious lemongrass meatballs, one of the few holdovers from the old Pusadee’s Garden menu, now shine even brighter as they are kissed by smoke. The marinated chicken legs might be my favorite bite so far; The depth of taste and the crispy-juicy texture were spectacular.
Two northern Thai curries stood out for me in this section of the menu: Gaeng hung Lay, slowly cooked pork belly with five spice powder, brought full-bodied heat; and a piquant, lively chicken curry made me long for damp summer nights.
“We want to serve meals that look like you are coming to our home,” says Johnson.
It sure is a nice house. You know that feeling when you walk into a newly built space and it immediately feels like it’s part of the frame of a city’s food landscape? That’s the feeling I got when I stepped into the elegant front arcade of the building.
The new restaurant, designed by mossArchitects, consists of two renovated buildings connected by two new buildings that contain an entrance passage, a stunning glass box bar and an open kitchen. Inside is the garden courtyard.
The original Pusadee’s Garden building is divided into three smaller dining rooms. Every room has its own personality. The color pattern and art change as you head towards the kitchen which extends across the back of the restaurant. On the other side of the restaurant is a small room for larger parties, which also doubles as a room for tastings and wine evenings.
The flower arrangements by Watcheree Tongee are in the dimly lit rooms. She will have a small studio on the second floor of one of the buildings. She will also prepare the flower arrangements for Noodlehead that she and Johnson own. Acoustic damping tiles on the ceiling and walls as well as soft fabrics keep ambient noise to a minimum.
And then there is the garden, which is visible from almost every corner of the restaurant. The lush landscape of the previous iteration has gone, but the new, more modern courtyard designed by Ground Stories is just as beautiful of its own. And it will always get better; You planted semi-mature trees, but it will grow in on itself and transform over the next few years. Shadyside’s Toadflax serves as the gardener and interior designer of the space. The courtyard will not be heated or set up for al fresco dining this winter, but will be available for physically distant cocktails, wine, and beer before and after dinner.
It’s hard to predict how a highly anticipated restaurant will perform once it goes live, but I have a strong feeling that this new take on Pusadee’s Garden – albeit a very different setup from the previous iteration – will be a destination.
5321 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412 / 252-2683, pusadeesgarden.com
Update: Pusadee’s Garden has postponed its reservation start date to December 5th.