Chef Braden Wages and his wife (and business partner), Yasmin, of Malai Kitchen recently returned from an annual, multi-city research excursion throughout various harbors, villages, and local community markets in Thailand and Vietnam. The purpose of this recurring venture is to refine existing dishes and discover new flavor profiles.
Malai Kitchen acts as one of my favorite decompression spots, particularly during the early days of the week by way of their inviting happy hour. I routinely find myself diving into the spicy flash-fried chicken wings coated with a Thai-chili and garlic glaze, peanut marinated chicken skewers, and the Vietnamese “meatballs” which resemble bun-less pork sliders.
Malai brews Thai-inspired beers. My personal favorite, the Thai-P-A, encapsulates a traditional IPA with a blend of five separate hops, brewed with lemongrass, ginger, galangal, kaffir, turmeric, coriander, and cumin. Beverage director, Joel Levin, has assembled a creative wine list, which is a welcoming addition to the refreshing summer cocktail menu.
Malai Kitchen’s tasting menu, affectionately named “Thai Me Up,” is on a monthly rotation. Largely influenced by their recent visit to the island of Phu Quoc (located off the southern tip of Vietnam) the Malai team gathered extensive notes from the local natives of the small fishing community who have been perfecting these dishes for generations. The five-course tasting menu showcases the fresh seafood that residents of Phu Quoc regularly eat. The current offering begins with a diver scallop seared with Red Boat nuoc mam cham (“fish sauce”), scallions and peanuts. The dish is served on a pristine scallop shell. Chef Wages masterfully grills the scallop just to the point of firmness.
The second plate is inspired by visit to a local market. A lime-poached sardine salad roll with onions, cucumber, freshly shaved coconut, perilla mint, and peanuts is served alongside a spicy pineapple nuoc mam cham. Many people shy away from sardines, mainly due to an unfair stigma learned as children. However, provided proper deboning and preparation, it is a wonderfully salty fish that acts as the perfect complement to the heat stemming from the nuoc cham. Quite creative.
The third bite consists of a play on crostini, this rendition utilizing grilled sticky rice which is topped with minced Maple Leaf Farms duck and shrimp. Chef Wages seasons the crostini with black wood ear mushrooms and crispy shallots, made complete with “pork silk,” house-made sriracha and a tamarind drizzle.
The stir-fried Dungeness Crab is the most picturesque dish. The crab is served whole with a spicy tamarind glaze. Sautéed Tonkin Jasmin Flowers cooked in garlic and Red Boat fish sauce support the sweet flavor profile of the crab. These flowers are common in many Asian dishes, and resemble a smaller version of broccolini.
The final dish is the most creative. Erring away from an overtly sweet grand finale, Chef has assembled an array of unfamiliar-to-most fruit including custard apple, dragon fruit, longans, rambutans, lychee, mango, mangosteen, and dried strawberries and blackberries procured from Dalat, Vietnam.
Malai Kitchen still offers its classic specialties, such as Vietnamese barbecue pork ribs with green papaya slaw. But, the tasting menu is an adventurous way to obtain a glimpse of a real life culinary adventure – essentially an album utilizing food and drink rather than photographs.
“Thai Me Up” runs $58 per person, with an additional $30 wine or cocktail pairing available. This particular tasting menu runs through the end of July, after which these dishes will not return. I am already eager to discover the next rendition.