Restaurant Review - Nahm Thai Cuisine: A step above

Bringing quality Thai to Alpharetta

Windward Parkway in Alpharetta has a lot to offer in terms of eating establishments. Driving up this stretch of road, you'd think that all anyone does in this part of town is eat out — the banks and retail stores are outnumbered 10-to-1 by restaurants. Among the ubiquitous chains and generic family-dining establishments lie a few hidden gems. One of those is Nahm Thai, a restaurant any of us would be lucky to have in our 'hood.

The chef at Nahm, Yuttna Thongyoung, worked at Nan Thai Fine Dining before opening Nahm in December 2006, and Nan's influence can be seen in everything here from food to decor. The restaurant represents the final and most heartening step for ethnic food in our city: First, we get authentic cuisine done by and for specific ethnic communities. Then, those foods go high-end, producing restaurants like Nan. Finally, protégés of those upscale kitchens break out on their own and bring quality and finesse to our neighborhood eateries.

Decorated in elegant wood tones, Nahm Thai looks and feels a step above your standard neighborhood Thai restaurant. But it is also affordable, comfortable and relaxed – on a recent evening, almost every table in the place had at least one well-behaved child in their company.

Working the floor and charming the children at those tables with gifts of lollypop jewelry is Nahm, the lovely wife of Thongyoung. Nahm makes it clear from the moment you step through the door that this is a personal, family-run place with warmth and service to match. "Everything on the menu here is A-plus or A-plus-plus!" she exclaims enthusiastically, and for the most part she is not overstating the case.

Starting with the tom kha kai coconut soup, you can see the attention to quality the kitchen pays, the rich, velvety broth comforting and delicious to the last drop. Duck salad pairs juicy, meaty slices of duck with grilled pineapple and whole cashews, the sweet dressing giving way to a pleasant chili burn on the tongue.

Curries are deft and complex, from the subtle and slightly sweet masaman to a thick, intense panang, which you can get with the regular chicken or beef, or enveloping a series of meaty, bony short ribs.

But you can get all this – good curries, delicious soups – at many Thai restaurants around Atlanta. The dish that is worth the long drive up Ga. 400 for me is the spicy catfish. The fish is perfectly crisped and tossed with savory and crunchy/soft Thai eggplant, galengal, and an obscene amount of fresh green peppercorns. The result is fragrant, spicy, slightly floral, and a dish that builds as you eat it into an ethereal, haunting combination of flavors and textures. Other fish dishes don't quite reach those heights, but all are cooked perfectly and spiced with an assured hand. The sea bass is worth ordering just for the garnish – whole okra battered and fried into spears of crunchy, fresh goodness.

There are places where it seems less thought has been taken. The fresh basil rolls are basically plain iceberg salad with a few basil leaves, rolled up in spring-roll wrappers and drizzled with some peanut sauce. No real flavor or texture contrast works to make the dish cohesive. A lunch side salad was accurately described by a friend as tasting "like they put Skippy on some lettuce." And the pad thai, while perfectly respectable, didn't have the right mixture of fresh and funk that makes for the best pad thais. But these are small quibbles compared to the overwhelming majority of the menu, which smacks of quality and care.

That care extends to the dessert menu. Nahm enthusiastically proclaims that she personally hand-fries the fried banana, but I recommend the silky, delicious coffee custard topped with strong coffee ice cream (it's interesting that the dessert is so flavorful, because the Thai iced coffee I had was disappointingly weak). Chocolate spring rolls are fun as well.

Lucky Windward Parkway to have such a welcoming, quality Thai restaurant amid the corporate madness. Lucky Atlanta that our ethnic food has progressed to this point.