Tamarind Thai Cuisine: Pod People

Art of the Meal

It’s Saturday night, and Tamarind Thai Cuisine is jumping: Even at 9 p.m., there’s still a wait for walk-ins, but our reservation clears a path past the framed photos of guests like Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh. (Tamarind’s owners, Charlie and Nan Niyomkul, are the Singhs’ close friends. After Vijay’s 2000 Masters victory, the Niyomkuls traveled to Augusta to prepare the traditional Champions Dinner.) We sail through the chattering knots of diners, past the glass jars of star anise and five-spice, along the bar and back to a table near a small planter, where a row of pendulant orchid blooms gracefully waver to the room’s murmur.

On each table, a small gold pod – the tamarind – is a vase for a slender shoot with a fuscia bloom. The first of many young Thai waitresses in traditional gold-threaded brocade approaches with water and asks if we’re ready to order. Eventually, we will be triple-teamed. The dining room’s crack efficiency is the only thing close to Tamarind’s downside – the pressure to turn tables quickly can sometimes interfere with a long, leisurely dinner. On the other hand, we never longed for more water, a clean fork, another napkin.

It’s Atlanta’s good fortune that the Niyomkuls’ son came to Georgia State University, and his parents followed. They’d already opened another Tamarind in New York City, with a similar goal: unwavering authenticity devoted to complex Thai spicing and a goal of educating customers rather than accommodating American palates.

The result is food that crackles with excitement. Despite its complexity, however, Nan Niyomkul’s cooking is immediately accessible and familiar – like meeting someone for the first time, and knowing you’ll be fast friends.

Each dish is a ballet of hot and sweet, salty and sour, hot and cold. Slightly sweet wines like Rieslings are traditional favorites with Thai food; it also goes well with unfiltered, slightly sweet, cold sake, milky as morning fog. If you’ve eaten Thai food before, you’ll recognize several familiar dishes on Tamarind’s menu, including basil rolls, chicken satay, nam sod, Pad Thai, and panang curry (Singh’s favorite). You won’t find better versions of them anywhere, but Tamarind is also a good place to try more unusual entries, like kung-thod, small crisp-fried rice paper cones stuffed with shrimp and cilantro. Tamarind yum-ped-yang is another instant success, and I can’t imagine entering the place again without wanting to order it: a warm salad of boneless duck with Thai chilis, pineapple, green apple sticks, onions, cashews and lemon juice over Romaine leaves.

Tamarind serves up the sublime and the prosaic with equal panache: By now, almost everyone has tried Pad Thai, the national dish of rice noodles, shrimp, bits of scrambled egg, bean sprouts, lime juice and ground peanuts, with an orange tamarind glaze. Here, the shrimp are big and impeccably clean, the sour tamarind and sweet glaze a perfect balance. Lobster tail panang is beautifully dramatic, the meat set atop the shell like the setting for a diamond. Red panang curry sauce, stippled with red pepper and cooled with coconut milk, surrounds the shell, along with kafir lime leaves and a mound of sauteed spinach with garlic and sliced shiitake mushrooms.

Desserts at Tamarind are relatively simple, with coconut and mango ice cream, or our choice, Thai custard, among the few options. But the custard is, like most dishes here, deceptive – what seems an elementary creme turns out to be subtly flavored with vanilla and coconut. It goes well with an espresso, served with lime zest.

Go to Tamarind. Come out a friend.

Krista Reese is Georgia Trend’s restaurant critic. Contact her at gtcritic@mindspring.com,

Categories: Art of the Meal