Asian Fusion | Malai Thai-Vietnamese Kitchen
One of my girlfriends met me for dinner at Malai. Neither of us had been to the sexy spot in West Village. We figured it was a see-and-be-seen spot for the young and the restless crowd that prefers stiff drinks over fine dining. We figured wrong. The drinks, Asian-inspired creations designed by master mixologist Jason Kosmas, are stiff, yes. But the food is stunning. I fell in love with the whole concept after one—well, maybe four—sips of the exotic Vang, a cocktail of spiced Thai rum, ginger beer, lime, and fresh green papaya. My gal pal, not much of a drinker, downed two Ginger Bird margaritas made with tequila, lime, agave, muddled ginger, and Thai chilies.
Owners Yasmin and Braden Wages and chef Keith Cedotal have put together a Thai-Vietnamese fusion menu that touts low-sodium, unexpected combinations, and from-scratch bases. The stock for their soups and pho are made each morning, and they run out frequently. Go early or call ahead if you want to warm your soul with a bowl of kaffir-scented hot and sour lemongrass soup filled with black tiger shrimp and shiitake mushrooms. Stay for the inventive Laotian beef tartare with delicate tenderloin mixed with bits of piquant Thai chilies, mint, and muddled lemongrass. Thick, fried wontons serve as sturdy triangular shovels for you to transfer the mixture from the plate to your mouth, where hot peppers, cool mint, and sour lemongrass bounce across your tongue.
The green chicken curry is a thing of beauty. Chef Cedotal pounds fresh lemongrass, galangal, kaffir leaves, shallots, cilantro, roasted coriander, cumin, white pepper, and turmeric in a mortar until he has a paste that he can blend with coconut milk and fish sauce. (They will hold the fish sauce for vegetarians.) The result is a balanced, slightly sweet, spicy sauce that is poured into a small pot and filled with chunks of fresh chicken, balls of apple eggplant, and jasmine rice. A lighter alternative is the steamed cod from Georges Bank surrounded by a pool of chile-spiked lime broth, baby bok choy, and pliant rice noodles. If pad Thai is your thing, be prepared for the unusual. Instead of a glob of noodles in a cloying sweet sauce covered with peanuts, Malai’s rice noodles are tossed in a spicy tamarind sauce, the likes of which I haven’t tasted since I was in Bangkok.