Pusadee’s Garden Sets an Opening Date

PM Dining Critic Hal B. Klein previews the much-anticipated relaunch of the Upper Lawrenceville Thai restaurant.
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PHOTOS BY HAL B. KLEIN

“When is Pusadee’s Garden going to reopen? What will they do with it? Will the garden still be there?” are among the questions I’m most often asked when people want to know about what’s going on with Pittsburgh restaurants.

It’s been a little more than three years since the announcement that Pusadee’s Garden, a beloved Thai restaurant with one of the city’s dreamiest outdoors dining landscapes, was closing for renovations. Owners Watcheree Tongdee, Busaba Tongdee and Michael Johnson said they had big plans for the next iteration of the Upper Lawrenceville restaurant.

I previewed the restaurant last week, and I now have answers to those frequently asked questions. Here’s the most important one: Barring any major setbacks, Pusadee’s Garden will reopen on Dec. 15. Reservations will be available beginning on Dec. 1.

“There were times when I was starting to wonder if this was ever going to be finished,” says Johnson. “But, in reality, this was a six-year project in the making,” he adds, noting that the new Pusadee’s Garden is the fulfillment of a longstanding vision to bring homestyle Thai cuisine served in an elegant setting to Pittsburgh.

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The culinary direction of the restaurant is a family collaboration. Busaba Tongdee runs the kitchen, and matriarch Pusadee Tongdee will still be on-site most days, preparing curries, nam prik and other items. “She’ll be cooking, but she won’t be working the line,” says Watcheree Tongdee.

The family and kitchen crew are preparing the food in a picturesque open kitchen at the back of the restaurant. There is a massive, spice-laden marble counter where the culinary team eventually will offer multi-course meals. The Tongdees added tao stoves — the Thai method of charcoal cookery uses long, slow-burning coals made from the rambutan tree — to the lineup of appliances in the kitchen.

The family spent the past two years developing the menu, which, as of now, is organized into seven sections. The Pusadee’s Garden team decided to move beyond the typical, Americanized, Thai menu. “We want to serve what we eat. We didn’t want to have a menu like every other restaurant,” says Watcheree Tongdee.

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The dishes, a panoply of textures, colors and flavor profiles, are meant for sharing; tricky, of course, in the COVID-era but will make for some pretty epic meals in the long-term. I was treated to various dishes representing a cross-geography of Thai cuisine when I previewed the menu last week.

Among the opening snacks, shiitake jerky is an excellent place to start. With a texture that has the tug of beef (there is a nice beef option, too) and a salty, savory marinade, it’s an ideal bite to pair with head bartender Curran “Curry” Dewhirst’s slightly herbaceous, slightly bitter and touch floral house tonic. (Yes, Pusadee’s Garden now has a liquor license.) Crisp curry puffs, stuffed with comforting purple potato or taro, are a tasty snack, too.

Among the starters, dolloping nam prik ong, a northern Thai relish of chili, fermented soybeans, tomato and pork into the accompanying herbs and lettuce was a standout for me. There are a few salads on the menu, and I’m digging mushroom laab. Bright with vinegar and herbs, the mixed mushrooms are an enticing combination of sour, sweet and hot.

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I suspect Pusadee’s Garden’s charcoal-cooked dishes will be among the restaurant’s most popular offerings. Rich, luscious lemongrass meatballs, one of the few holdovers from the old Pusadee’s Garden menu, shine even brighter now that they are kissed by smoke. The marinated chicken thighs might be my favorite bite so far; the depth-of-flavor and crisp-succulent texture were spectacular.

Two northern Thai curries stood out for me in that section of the menu: gaeng hung lay, slow-cooked pork belly with five-spice powder, brought full-bodied heat; and a piquant, vibrant chicken curry had me longing for humid summer nights.

“We want to serve meals that would be like you’re coming to our house,” Johnson says.

It sure is a beautiful house. You know that feeling when you walk into a newly built space, and it instantly feels like it’s part of the framework of a city’s dining landscape? That’s the feeling I got when I stepped into the elegant front arcade of the building.

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The new restaurant, designed by mossArchitects, consists of two renovated buildings connected by two new buildings that contain an entry arcade, a stunning, glass-box bar and open kitchen. Inside all of it is the garden courtyard.

The original Pusadee’s Garden building is partitioned into three smaller dining rooms; each space has its personality, with the color pattern and art changing as you walk toward the kitchen, which spans the back of the restaurant. On the other side of the restaurant is a small room for larger parties, which also will serve as a space for tastings and wine dinners.

Throughout the softly lit rooms are Watcheree Tongee’s floral arrangements; she’ll keep a small studio on the second floor of one of the buildings; she’ll also prepare the floral arrangements for Noodlehead, which she owns with Johnson. Acoustic damping tiles in the ceiling and walls, as well as soft fabrics, will keep ambient noise to a minimum.

And then there is the garden, which is visible from just about every corner of the restaurant. The lush landscape of the previous iteration is gone, but the new, more modernist courtyard designed by Ground Stories is just as beautiful in its way. And it’ll keep getting better, too; they planted semi-mature trees, but it’s going to grow into itself and transform over the next few years. Shadyside’s Toadflax serves as the space’s gardeners and also interior stylists. The courtyard won’t be heated or set up for outdoor dining this winter, but it’ll be available for pre- and post-dinner physically distant cocktails, wine and beer.

It’s hard to predict how a much-anticipated restaurant will fare once it’s operational, but I have a strong feeling that this new version Pusadee’s Garden — though a very different establishment than its previous iteration — is going to be a destination.

5321 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412/252-2821, pusadeesgarden.com

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