A first visit to striking and delicious Nan, plus Green Sprout Vegetarian
When Nan and Charlie Niyomkul opened Tamarind in Midtown five years ago, they changed our understanding of Thai food. The most popular of the Southeast Asian cuisines had long been available in our city, but with few exceptions — like the Laotian-tinged Zab-E-Lee and Robert Khankiew's Thai Chili — there wasn't much to distinguish one restaurant from the next.
The Niyomkuls changed that by ratcheting up the quality of Thai dining so high that nobody has come close, even though newcomers, like Thai Palate on Ponce de Leon, are trying their best. Now the couple has opened a new restaurant that would be staggering in any city. Nan (1350 Spring St., 404-870-9933) is the coolest restaurant I've seen open in town in a very long time.
Just under 7,000 square feet, the restaurant's interior is another project of the Johnson Studio and it is glorious. At its best, the Johnson Studio produces something like a romantic postmodernism that seems especially well suited to an Asian theme. Nan, fronted by a fountain featuring a gold tamarind pod, is in a building that is part of a development planned over the next three years.
It's a big, airy space, like most high-end restaurants located in commercial buildings — think Joël and Midcity Cuisine — but the Johnson Studio has made it a showcase with warm woods, subtly gilt pillars and Thai artifacts. The lighting has unusual touches, like a glass platform full of candles floating above one large table. The restrooms out-Joël Joël. Red anthuriums wave erotically on each table. The staff is gorgeous. You want to eat with your fingers while you stare at them. I could go on. Just go see it.
You'll want to go, anyway, for the food. Chef Nan is running the kitchen here with Joey Riley. The food is very much like Tamarind's but cranked up a few notches, especially in terms of presentation. Wayne and I started with "Chef Nan's Blue Plate," an assortment of the appetizers, so giddily produced it requires two large plates. It is a pu-pu platter turned into high art. We sampled chicken and beef satay, chicken and shrimp dumplings, coconut shrimp and calamari. These are mainstays of Thai cuisine but, like so much of Tamarind's fare, seasonings are unusually complex, textures are meltingly tender, sauces lend mathematically correct counterpoints.
For my entree I ordered barbecued lamb over green papaya salad with little cakes of sticky rice. (Normally, lamb chops are used, but the evening of our visit, a rack of lamb — available as another entree — was used.) This is a fancy version of a favorite dish featuring beef jerky instead of lamb that I order at Little Bangkok on Tuesday nights.
Wayne ordered the whole sizzling fish with dry green curry. Your eyes will pop out when you see it. The head and tail are there but the body of the fish has been taken apart, the flesh fried in pieces and mixed with vegetables. The green curry lightly flavors the fish, though it is pooled at the bottom of the plate to showcase its intensity.
Don't assume the fancy decor means you will necessarily drop a lot of cash here. Although the featured entrees hover around $20, there are traditional curries for $13 and all appetizers except the assortment are under $10. Nan absolutely breaks new ground in our city — perhaps in the nation — and should be at the top of your list.
br>?Meanwhile, there's tofu
Green Sprout Vegetarian Cuisine (1529 Piedmont Ave., 404-874-7373) has opened at Clear Creek Mall, across from Ansley Mall. (A second location of the Thai-Malaysian Top Spice has also opened there, under Ru-San's, down the sidewalk from Raging Burrito.)
Green Sprout has great heart. During a dinner and two lunches there, staff have been friendly and anxious to explain what they are doing. This is, like Harmony on Buford Highway, a Chinese restaurant that prepares "meat" dishes using tempeh and other substitutes. The restaurant's opening is good news for Midtown people who want to avoid Demon Meat. For the rest of us, it's, well ... it's kind of weird.
I should confess I've never understood the point of vegetarian substitutes for meat. A friend converted to the vegan cult once told me he missed the texture of meat so he liked to go to Harmony and order mock-chicken delivered to the table, as it once was to mine, in the form of a cartoon-like bird. To me this is rather like a reformed drunk guzzling alcohol-free beer.
In my experience, and it's duplicated at Green Sprout, vegetarian food is best when it's not masking as something else. Thus my dinner of a seaweed tofu roll was very pleasing. It featured tofu wrapped in nori and then quickly fried with a panko coating. The roll was sliced and arranged around a mound of mildly sharp fermented cabbage.
But a lunch of "chicken curry" was weird. The "chicken," made on the premises, has nothing in common with chicken. It was actually tasty enough when taken as tofu in an oniony sauce, but why call it chicken? Totally beyond the pale was an earlier lunch featuring "shrimp," a yellow pasty substance that should be immediately banished from the phenomenal world.
The good news is that the restaurant is alarmingly cheap. Lunch specials, including rice, a decent vegetable egg roll and an entree, are only $4.95. Stick to those dishes not wearing animal costumes and you will do OK.
br>?Here and there
Brad Lapin and I had a great lunch at Cafe de Nice on Pharr Road in Buckhead. The restaurant is quite unpredictable but enjoyable when it's running smoothly. I don't know another restaurant in town where you can get socca, fried cubes of chickpea flour popular in Provence, and the restaurant's coq au vin is among the city's best (though not always available).
Last week, I had a lunch entree of grilled chicken breast in a very intense Dijon mustard sauce while Brad had a heart-healthy sandwich. ...
Sundown Cafe is now serving a special taco menu on Monday evenings when sister restaurants Taqueria del Sol in Decatur and Westside are closed. The tacos and standard dinner menu will be available with full table service.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.