The good news is that Malai Kitchen is a vast improvement over Tom Tom Noodle House, the Asian-styled restaurant that once occupied West Village. The less than good news is Malai restaurant still faces some growing pains.
Asian fusion can be catastrophic, but compared with Tom Tom, there is something less blasphemous about Malai. Gone are the days of inexplicably popular but pedestrian food, the sense of arrogance associated with being THE Asian fusion restaurant in the heavily trafficked (and overrated) West Village and the bizarre lingering scent of sewage. Contrarily, Malai is a restaurant that actually strives to create authentic flavor profiles, possesses a staff that goes out of their way to please and delivers aromas divine enough to make the belly gurgle.
The décor -- dramatic yet still invitingly casual -- also is a noteworthy upgrade. An expanded bar, an open kitchen and the dining room's dark, sexy earth tones will make Malai the new place to see and be seen in no time. With the summer coming up soon, the elegant patio will be filling up with Dallasites imbibing on the bar's insanely picturesque cocktails.
Malai owner Yasmin Wages evidently has an acute eye for detail. What does this mean in terms of the food? Like the engaging staff, the earnest proprietor and the alluring set-up, the food is well intentioned.
When I asked Wages -- a native Texan of Indian descent -- what drew her to opening a Vietnamese/Thai restaurant, she said that the cuisine wasn't very foreign to her at all. Her husband -- who co-owns the restaurant -- and she have always loved Southeast Asian cuisine and make their own soups and sauces from scratch at home. When I asked her about the coincidence of opening an Asian restaurant in the old location of Tom Tom, she insisted that the concept came before the location. She is, however, highly aware of the centralized location of West Village, and she's feeling the pressure that the spotlight brings.
On my visit to the "Thai-Vietnamese" restaurant a couple of weeks ago, I sampled the basics.
The prices were not as outrageous as I expected, but it doesn't mean they were cheap, either. My neighbor's large bowl of Korean beef flat noodle was a West Village bargain for $12. As for myself, I ordered a small pho (the restaurant has small and large soup options) for $9, a small tom yum soup for $6 and a $15 shrimp pad Thai.
Flavorwise, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all three dishes tasted as they should. The soups were indeed fresh, the proteins were cooked well, and the produce was gorgeous. Everything even was served with limes! (I've mentioned in recent posts the abomination of lemon for lime substitutions at pho restaurants.)
The tom yum soup was by far the best offering of all three dishes. It was the right balance of sour and sweet and didn't come in as nearly as small of a bowl as I thought it would. The shrimp and vegetables looked beautiful swimming in the lightly golden broth. The bowl of rice served with it is a nice touch and makes the $6 dish quite fulfilling for such a gentle price tag.
Onto the not so great: Remember that bowl of rice? The cooks need to learn the proper water to grain ratio when cooking rice. Both the long grain rice served with the tom yum and the freebie starter sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf offered at the beginning of the meal were too dry. It is called sticky rice, after all. Another example of problems with execution would be the pho. Between the beefiness of the broth and the accurate representation of spices, the pho should have been very good. Unfortunately, the evening I visited, the pho was immensely salty and got saltier with each bite. That first bite, however, showed promise. Despite all the issues with execution, the restaurant isn't off the hook concept-wise.
Whoever decided on the use of such a thick and tough rice noodle for both the pho and pad Thai made a poor decision. Food is as much about textures as it is about flavors. Both pho and pad Thai require a less dense, chewier rice noodle. The consistency of the rice noodle used in both dishes ruined what incredible ingredients were already in the dish. Change this and the salt issues with the pho, and I would come back for both.
What worries me is the thought that the inevitable growth in popularity will stunt the further development of the food. I don't want to believe this to be true, because Malai Kitchen is on to something.