The set-up: As a culture, we seem to enjoy watching people fail far more than we like to see them succeed. In fact, in my line of work, it’s harder to really like something than it is to dislike or even revile it. The truth is that readers don’t trust a rave unless there’s a catch. Lucky for me, I have a lot of the former and enough of the latter for even the cynics to know I’m telling the truth.
A good number of people I’ve talked to have avoided Malai Kitchen in West Village because of some lingering association with the space’s former tenant, Tom Tom Noodle. Not having to battle against this particular preconception, I visited twice in the last week, once for dinner and once for cocktails.
jump for the review and photos…
Owners Yasmin and Braden Wages are both graduates of Cornell University’s School of Hospitality Management. Yasmin cut her teeth as the former assistant GM at Park; Braden managed R+D Kitchen. Executive chef Keith Cedotal (whom the two knew from his stint as sous chef at Park) was brought in to collaborate on a Thai-Vietnamese fusion menu that touts low sodium, unexpected combinations, and from-scratch bases.
On the menu: The cocktail lineup, designed by Jason Kosmas and reasonably priced at $5 during happy hour (5 to 7 pm daily), contains numerous highlights. The frozen Vietnamese limeade (green-tea vodka, lime, palm sugar, and Thai basil), vang vieng (spiced Thai rum, ginger beer, lime, and green papaya), and ginger bird margarita (tequila, lime, agave, muddled ginger, and Thai chilis) all contain the winning convergence of freshness, bright flavors, and an unexpected red herring (basil, papaya, and chilis, respectively). The lemongrass fizz (Ketel Citron, St. Germain, lemongrass syrup, sparkling wine) succeeded by the fact that the flavors changed and improved as it warmed. The low point on the cocktail menu came from the cucumber cream. While the Hendricks Gin, coconut milk, Thai basil, and bitters may appeal on a gastronomic level, the combination had a top note that none of us actually liked and one of our group likened to canned meat.
Luckily, that was only one low note in a solid panel of contenders. The appetizer and entrée menu left us astonished, most specifically with the drunken noodles, a generous bowl of freshly made flat noodles, spicy chopped tenderloin, bell peppers, and Thai basil ($13); tom kha gai/Thai coconut soup thick with chicken breast, galangal, Texas organic shiitake mushrooms, scallions, and flavorful cherry tomatoes ($6/$11); and a cucumber salad that was so thinly shaved and expertly marinated in chilis, vinegar, and sugar that more than one person suggested making a meal of it.
In the entrée lineup, the iron pot chicken curry, a from-scratch, low-sodium green curry with diced chicken breast, golf ball-size apple eggplant, and carrots over jasmine rice ($15) is worth the trip if only for the lesson that a solid, flavorful curry need not rely on sodium to carry the flavor. But the steamed Chilean sea bass with baby bok choy, chili lime broth, and fresh, pliant rice noodles ($22) is what’s keeping me awake at night. The fish was not just moist; it was buttery, juicy, and seductively silky.
For dessert, you are a fool if you don’t order the interactive mango sticky rice smash, a layered combination of sticky rice, sweet coconut custard, diced ripe mango, and—wait for it—a rice crispy treat disc ($7), all of which is meant to be vigorously broken apart and mixed with a spoon. The dessert was as luxurious on the tongue as it was amusing to eat.
Who was there: As it was Uptown, I’d imagine the usual suspects, but to be fair I have no idea who else was there. I was so focused on my plate that I took little notice of anyone else in the room. While it may not seem so at first, this in itself is the ultimate compliment.
Where to sit: The patio, by all means. Apart from great people watching, the outdoor frontage is partially shaded, making it less brutal in the coming heat. If you must sit indoors, call ahead to request the large, round booth in the bar.
Price: Dinner for two, with two cocktails, three appetizers, two entrees, and one dessert ran us $107 after tip. And we tipped well considering we enjoyed the most delightful server, Ricky. For the first time ever, I actually requested him again on a return visit.
Nice details: Malai Kitchen dispenses with a bread service in favor of a small brick of sticky rice wrapped artfully in a banana leaf and served with a flavorful eggplant puree. Wash your hands because you’re eating this one with your fingers. Other highlights: crunchy bits of ginger in the ginger bird margarita; pliable, slippery, fun-to-capture fresh noodles; and cherry tomatoes exploding with more than their share of just-off-the-vine flavor.
The takeaway: Every time this old world starts a-getting me down, I need to remember that there is—at least for now—a table waiting for me at Malai Kitchen. But the place is small, and the reviews so far have been glowing, so don’t expect that table to be available without a reservation for much longer.
Click here to learn more about Malai Kitchen.