"Oh. I get it. this is Asian food for pretty people,” said my friend with a smirk. I understood his cynicism. No one dines at the über trendy West Village for authentic fare. They go to sip and nosh on stylish patios as lithesome beauties slink by. It’s a twenty-something party where food is an afterthought.
But I have hopes that the newly opened Malai Kitchen might dispel those elitist notions. It’s certainly off to a bright start. Owner Yasmin Wages has transformed the old Tom Tom Noodle House into a space that is equal parts moody, sexy Asian den at night and bright-and-airy lunch spot during the day. Likewise, the menu helmed by executive chef Keith Cedotal is a blend of traditional Thai and Vietnamese fare with some Asian fusion thrown in for kicks.
Start with Malai’s spring rolls. Chef Cedotal keeps it fairly traditional: broth-seasoned shrimp, herbs, and noodles wrapped in rice paper. The addition of pickled bean sprouts gives the ubiquitous appetizer a nice sour twist. Thai chilies, kaffir lime, mint, and lemongrass also add a spicy Laotian spin to the beef tenderloin tartare. Dallas has always been mussels crazy. Malai’s version—a fragrant broth of lemongrass, sauvignon blanc, and coconut—should keep the masses pleased.
Though tasty, entrées aren’t quite as consistent. Let’s start with the highest of highs: Malai’s shrimp pad Thai. So many Asian restaurants ruin this Thai staple with gummy noodles and flavors that are either too sweet or too spicy. Malai delivers a perfect Goldilocks moment. This pad Thai is just right. The wok-tossed rice noodles are toothsome and tossed with shrimp, tofu, chopped peanuts, and an addictively sweet and spicy tamarind sauce. It’s one of my favorite noodle dishes in town. Pad kee mow — also known as drunken noodles — was earthy and fragrant. The spicy chopped tenderloin’s richness was cut with tangy bell peppers and Thai basil.
If only Malai’s handmade curries had delivered like the noodle dishes. They certainly sounded promising. Alas, a peanut-crusted duck breast with Panang curry sauce was so nutty and sweet that all I could taste were peanuts.
The iron pot chicken curry fared better. Green curry sauce coated diced chicken breast, apple eggplant, and carrots. It was soothing, if not remarkable, with a lingering heat. Personally, I prefer complex flavors, and the coriander chicken was a citrusy-sweet palate pleaser. A side of cucumber salad added the right tangy note.
If you’re prone to a cocktail or two at lunch (and, honestly, who isn’t, right?), skip Malai’s adequate-but-nothing-exciting desserts for one of its handcrafted drinks. Master mixologist Jason Kosmas’ Asian-inspired creations are highlighted by his Kaffir Collins (Kaffir-infused Old Tom gin, lime, and soda) and Ginger Bird margarita (tequila, lime, agave, and muddled ginger). With drink in hand, grab a spot on Malai’s patio and watch the parade of beautiful people. It’s all very West Village. Tasty, too.
Thai and Vietnamese
The Cost: Average lunch entrée price $11
Full Bar: Yes
Who's There: Henry S. Miller III, Jonas Woods, Ted Strauss
The Power Table: Table one—also known as the family table—is an oval table with a chandelier overhead, seats up to 12, and is conducive to conversation.