First Take Restaurant Review: Malai Kitchen in Uptown’s West Village

Malai Kitchen patio (left), Vang Vieng cocktail. (Photos by Desirée Espada.)

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.

Shaved cucumber salad. (Photo by Desirée Espada.)

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.

Tom Kha Gai. (Photo by Desirée Espada.)

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.

Drunken noodles made with house made noodles. (Photo by Desirée Espada.)

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.

Executive chef Keith Cedotal (left), steamed sea bass (right). (Photo by Desirée Espada.)

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.

Rattan lighting and cozy booths (left) are the perfect spot to tuck into the mango sticky rice dessert (right). (Photos by Desirée Espada.)

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.

22 comments on “First Take Restaurant Review: Malai Kitchen in Uptown’s West Village

  1. Is it just me, or is it weird to see hyperlinks and directory listings for places you aren’t reviewing in this post? It’s almost like you are advertising for those other restaurants in a review for a different restaurant.

  2. I think the links here are appropriate for the post.

    I can’t turn down a good mango sticky rice! looks awesome.

    looks like you went on a great weather day too.

  3. From seafood watch website…

    “Chilean seabass is severely overfished and is rated “Avoid.” In addition, most Chilean seabass in the U.S. market come from boats that are fishing illegally and using unmodified bottom longlines. This unmodified fishing gear hooks and drowns thousands of seabirds each year, most notably endangered albatross.”

  4. I, also, am very aware of our sea’s overfishing and have committed to only using sustainable seafood that is MSC Certified. MSC is the Marine Stewardship Council, an organization that helps fisheries and seafood companies practice sustainable fishing. At Malai Kitchen, we only use seafood that has this certification to help ensure that it is not negatively affecting our world’s ocean life. I appreciate the concern you have and for voicing it. If you have other questions, please call me at the restaurant or visit http://www.msc.org.

  5. My friends and I went like 2 weeks ago. We thought all food was horrible. The sticky rice tasted like nothing. Plain Rice. I tried the Salmon and my frozen bag salmon from Target tastes 10 times better.

    Sorry but they need to redesign their food.

    Also, if you want tasty Vietnamese food that you will lick the plate…go to Green Papaya down in Oak Lawn.

  6. Keith, nice to hear that you’re aware of the problem and committed to sustainable seafood. I want to make it clear that most Chilean Seabass is not MSC certified. Only a very small percentage, derived from one specific fishery, has been awarded the MSC certification. I’m glad to hear that you’re using the certified product – but I don’t want people to have the general impression that Chilean Seabass is ok to eat.

  7. Seriously! green papaya? Juan stick to coffee! Or,
    Get out more often!
    The food at Malai is awesome just for starters the chicken soup with coconut(hangover remedy) is awesome.
    everything I have had is top notch. This is the kind of stuff you pair with great Burgundy or a good Cali Pinot maybe a Dry Reisling.
    Delicate and well prepared.
    Congrats!

  8. I went to Malai about a month ago – was surprised that you’re just now getting around to reviewing it! The drinks were delicious – my dining companion and I had several, but the food was so-so, and for the price of my entree it was much too small. I’ll probably return again, as this is a relatively new restaurant perhaps they’ll make some menu adjustments.

  9. Went to Malai twice now to give them another chance. Service is a joke and the menu is not what i expected. the food is really, really not good. the desserts however were the only good part. sorry guys.. just not good and not going to last. and both times i went, it was almost empty.

  10. I had avoided Malai for the reasons sited in the article. I never loved Tom Tom and thought that Malai would just be a Tom Tom Redux. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I ordered 2 cocktails – the frozen Vietnamese limeade (delicious) and the cucumber cream (thumbs down-not sure what generated the aftertaste, but it was unpleasant) – and enjoyed my drinks outside on the patio. For dinner I ordered the drunken noodles (hold the bell peppers), which were flavorful and delicious. I also had the green papaya salad — not my favorite, as it just offered just a singular flavor, but it was refreshing and light. I would absolutely return for a casual dinner based on food alone. However, by far the best part of the dining experience was the friendly and attentive wait staff. I can’t remember our server’s name, but she was a delight. Our party arrived before 6 pm and left just after 11 that night and received excellent service throughout the entire evening. Look forward my next visit.

  11. I went on St. Patrick’s Day…
    The food is excellent, and the service was exceptional…

    The food was among the freshest I’ve had, and the drinks were an inspiration…

  12. I thought the curry was crap. My better half loved her salad and tolerated her mussels, but since the curry was rubbish we are ONE AND DONE.
    Where can I find a tolerable curry in Dallas?

  13. Harry, I am terribly concerned that you did not enjoy your curry at Malai. Curries, like Italian pastas, have many variations in sauce, seasonings and ingredients. We are particularly proud of ours because it is laboriously made from scratch daily (a practice that is not even common in Thailand due to effort and cost necessary) resulting a healthier fresher flavor of the herbs and ingredients. However, we clearly didn’t leave you with that impression on your last visit and I know we can do better. Please ask for me on your next visit and I will personally ensure you have a better experience.
    Otherwise, the best curry I have had outside of Malai (naturally my first choice) is at the Sunday Market at the Buddhist Center of Dallas. (10a-2p) 

  14. Tired of the high sodium in our Thai food

    BUT IF THIS IS TRUE THAT ITS ALMOST NON EXISTENT ( JUST DO AWAY WITH IT AND LET PEOPLE SALT TO TASTE) THEN WE WILL CHECK IT OUT

  15. I like Malai, but there’s no lunch menu. My office is close by and I would put it in the lunch rotation if they had a lunch menu, but as stands I would be relegated to the appetizer menu for lunch, and that’s no fun.

  16. Pingback: Things to Do in Dallas Tonight: April 19 | FrontBurner

  17. WD, thanks to comments like yours, we have adjusted our lunch menu to be more value driven and included a few more lunch specific items. Check it out on our website: http://www.malaikitchen.com. Hope to see you soon!

  18. I have been once and it was not good. Our sweet server seemed a bit uncomfortable but tried her best. The cocktails were great. But, the food overall was really bland. I was completely unimpressed. There is only one shrimp dish on the menu – which I ordered bc I LOVE SHRIMP and it was just bad… the shrimp was not cooked correctly and tasted like it had been in the freezer too long.The curry was absolutely awful too. The dessert was great. I don’t know.. I feel badly, but I feel like the owners just needed to stick to a menu that is more approachable. There are like 6 entrees or so to choose from and only one shrimp dish. Vietnamese and Thai food are honestly my favorite so I was so excited when I heard about it. But I would go to Mai’s 1000x over this even though its a dump. Mai’s Vietnamese or Toys Cafe is unbelievable. NO pretentious feeling over at those places!! I feel like so much thought was put into this place but maybe the owners really think too highly of themselves and did not think about the diner. I do not want to be educated about my vietnamese or thai food. I just want to eat and LOVE IT!!

  19. The only thing I associate with Tom Toms is they offered beef rendang which I would choose as my last meal given the choice. I overlooked a lot of things about Tom Toms for beef rendang as I know a lot of people in Dallas did because it was literarily one of the only places in the metroplex that served it

    Can someone please tell me in a post Tom Toms world how I can find beef rendang again?

  20. Pingback: You Ask; We Provide. Mango Smash From Malai Kitchen. | SideDish