Malai Kitchen Improves, Diversifies Preston Center Dining

As an occasional user of Malai Kitchen’s West Village location, I was already familiar with the Vietnamese/Thai cuisine that arrived in Preston Center back in November. I’ve long been a fan of the crispy Thai tacos stuffed with shredded pork, the sweet and spicy green papaya salad, and the mango sweet rice dessert. In fact, that’s all I’ve ever ordered there because those menu items are just so dang good – so much flavor, the perfect balance of heat, acid and sour in the savory items and tart, sweet and crispy in the dessert.  I’d become downright territorial about my chosen menu items until I was invited by owners Yasmin and Chef Braden Wages to have dinner at the new Preston Center location of Malai Kitchen.

The restaurant is beautiful, with soothing but faintly exotic interiors. The warm, black brick walls and brown sound-absorbing ceiling tiles that corral a wood-beamed bar area make for a clubby atmosphere. It’s impressive and a completely new look for that space. The large patio has retractable screens to provide a climatized environment, complete with an enclosed fireplace for added ambiance. Does the West Village location look like this?  I never noticed, to be honest. I was so impressed by this décor I couldn’t remember a context in which I’d seen it before.

The visual centerpieces of the restaurant revolve around alcohol. One, the handsome U-shaped bar that seats 22 guests and two, the 500-bottle wine room that draws your eye toward the back of the restaurant. I noticed it had a lot of red wines in the collection which, admittedly, I never much considered pairing with Vietnamese or Thai food.

The menu is well developed and starts with rows and rows of craft cocktail options, in-house brewed beers, and non-alcoholic swills and, of course, lots of wine; more than 16 varieties by the glass.

We sampled the Singapore Sling for Two which arrived in a carafe. It was tropical and sweet, not particularly strong in alcohol taste which sometimes makes those kinds of drinks dangerous. My husband and I also shared a beer flight, choosing the Bia Hoi lager, Peach Tea Wheat beer, and the Thai PA. One of my sons is a Siebel Master Brewer and professional beer judge. The family joke is that I only like Coors Light and they’re mostly right, which is convenient because Sam works for Molson Coors. Surprisingly, I liked the taste and quality of the Peach Tea Wheat beer so much that I’m planning a visit to the Wage’s microbrewery to write an entire story on the Malai Kitchen beer.

PHOTO: K.Rettig

A symbol of hospitality and welcome amenity is the banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice served with a side of silky eggplant dip with a little punch of Thai chilis that arrives at each table. We devoured that then let Yasmin choose our menu items.

She started us with Ahi Tuna Tartare and the Burmese Tea Leaf salad. The pink tourmaline chunks of tuna were tossed with kaffir lime, chilis, shallots, lime, and other Thai flavors. It was a large portion, so tender and so fresh.  I envisioned the tea leaf salad to be like something Panda bears would munch all day, but it was colorful with napa cabbage, tomatoes, crispy carrots, and crunchy Burmese nuts. The tea leaves are mashed and mixed with ingredients to become the salad’s dressing. We ordered it spicy, and it was, you don’t mess around with Thai chilis. It wasn’t too spicy, though, to taste the unique southeast Asian flavors which we really enjoyed.

Our main courses were robust curries, which are deeply flavorful and balanced. One of the things Yasmin and Braden were uncompromising about when they created Malai Kitchen was to make all curry pastes in house.  “I don’t care how hard it is, how many machines we have to go through,” Yasmin says, they will be made in house.  “In Asia,” she adds, “curry pastes are made with a mortar and pestle which isn’t practical here, so we use a very high-grade commercial blender.” It’s still labor intensive, despite the modern machinery.

Curry pastes are blends between 15-18 different herbs, spices, and aromatics, depending on the type of curry made: red, green, massaman, panang, etc. Because they make their curries in-house, the red curry you get here might not taste the same as it does at another Thai restaurant.

My Panang Curry Bowl with Beef Tenderloin was sublime, with tender chunks of beef and Thai eggplant which was seeped in flavor, but still had a nice crunch. True to Yasmin’s word, this panang sauce was unlike any I’d had before, a little lighter in the keffir lime and not as sweet.  She paired it with a Hunt & Harvest Cabernet Sauvignon which was a perfect match and one I would have not made on my own.

My husband had the Red Curry Icelandic Cod which was also excellent and showcased Malai Kitchen’s dedication to serving fresh, never frozen seafood that’s sustainably sourced.  This curry was completely different from mine with a nice, clean heat to it and the vegetables still had a nice snap to them. Yasmin paired this with a Tempranillo.

For dessert, I reasserted my ordering dominance and chose my favorite dish – the Mango Sticky Rice Smash.  Coconut, mango, crunchy, sweet, tart served in a cute coconut.  I can’t give you anymore on that, you just have to order it for yourself.

We thoroughly enjoyed the dinner and hospitality, hopped in our ride share, and went home. It was a phenomenal meal, but I needed another visit to satisfy my curiosity.

PHOTO: K. Rettig

A few Saturdays later, I checked out Malai Kitchen’s Brunch menu.  Specifically, the Congee with Chicken and Egg.  There are certain words I don’t like; moist is one, porridge is another, and Congee (con-jee) is yet another. Despite this aversion, I ordered it expecting a moist, thick porridge but it’s more like chicken and rice soup with crisped bread and a poached egg on top. The flavors were punchy for 10 a.m. but the soup was fantastic, hearty, and comforting, and I felt energized after eating it. The dish is widely eaten throughout Asia with different versions found in different countries.  Malai Kitchen’s Congee is more Thai than another Asian influence and was truly, and surprisingly, delicious.  

Also on the Brunch menu is Banh Mi French Toast, which I ordered with without bananas. It was ethereal with fluffy bread, crisp on the edges, and dipped in coconut syrup. Not quite as healthy as the Congee, but so delicious.

If the menu items I mentioned here don’t float your long-tail boat, Malai Kitchen has a comprehensive menu of noodle dishes, shareables, Pad Thais, and a children’s menu for picky as well as adventurous eaters. It’s worth a try and worthy of being added to your dining out rotation. Look for daily specials and Happy Hours on the website www.malaikitchen.com

I hope the community supports the Wages and the Malai Kitchen.  They are wonderful people and share a special kind of food and hospitality.  I whole heartedly recommend Malai Kitchen.

Kersten Rettig

Kersten Rettig has represented some of world's best known brands in her 30+ years in marketing and PR, including Montblanc, Rosewood Hotels, Highland Park Village and Taco Bell. As a former restaurant owner, she knows the business and has a deep affection for the hospitality industry. She is a Park Cities resident and a happy wife, mom of three and dogmother. Follow her @KerstenEats.

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