Nan: The Sweet Life

Perched on the lip of the downtown connector’s 14th Street exit in Atlanta, the Niyomkuls’ first restaurant, Tamarind, was a handy place to meet out-of-town guests. But as the place grew more popular, making the left-hand turn got trickier – and worse, you could find yourself banished to the across-the-street parking lot at a rundown gas station.

Inside, however, Tamarind was a revelation in dark teak and live orchids, punctuated by big glass jars filled with spices, and servers dressed in vibrant Thai silks. The food was a wonderment: Atlanta had never sampled such complexity in these beautiful, rich curries, in shades of amber, ochre and celadon, flecked with red and green chilies.

Atlantic Station’s construction doomed Tamarind’s original location, but Charlie and his wife, chef Nan Niyomkul, are deft entrepreneurs: Even before their friendship with champion golfer Vijay Singh put their place on the map, they’d already planned the opening of Nan, a larger and more upscale version of their first restaurant. Their newest restaurant, called Tamarind Seed, is taking up a prime location in Colony Square, but Nan is now the Niyomkuls’ flagship operation.

The Bill Johnson-designed space has sophisticated “Wow!” power, with its wicker-furnished bar, sleek white banquettes and, of course, those big, eyedropper-shaped baskets hanging from the ceiling, nestling tiny white lights. (They’re Thai crab traps.) The wait staff – women in bare-shouldered silk, and the men in uniform – now give you the traditional Thai greeting (with folded hands and bowed head) with every interaction. There are so many discreet eyes on your plate, ready to whisk away dishes, you almost feel like you’ve got your own Secret Service entourage.

While I love Nan’s environment, I always preferred Tamarind’s sharper contrast of flavors. Still, Nan’s dishes are as beautifully arranged as the dining room, and the flavors as consistently sweet as the experience. Among the appetizers, the sampler selection is perfect for a larger group (but a lot of food for two). Crisp calamari with sweet-hot sauce and skewered shrimp with tamarind sauce are sublime; the slightly dry, very sweet, purple-hearted tea rose dumplings (ground chicken, peanuts, palm sugar) a doughy romance novel.

I like the tart green papaya salad with sweet black sticky rice cakes and lump crabmeat – but I wish our waiter had told us the salad and rice cakes also came with one of our entrees. (Unlike on past visits, our server proved to be little real help in choosing a well-rounded selection of dishes.)

The fried red snapper – served in small filets nestled in the curled shell, head still attached, with grape tomato “eyes” – is delicious if somewhat disconcerting, topped with flash-fried basil leaves, kaffir lime and roasted red curry. But the delicious barbecued lamb chops encrusted in a crisp-edged “dry curry” were the meal’s absolute standouts.

I never want dessert after a meal at Nan – perhaps only an espresso or frothy cappuccino. If the flavors here are often a shade too sweet, they’re perfect for certain occasions that need to defy bitterness: family get-togethers, holiday reunions, romantic meetings, the wooing of a special client – or just those days when you need cheering up. On my most recent visit, we were seated near Charlie Niyomkul, entertaining a group of friends and pouring champagne. He might as well have been toasting his own success in achieving the American dream.

Nan Thai Fine Dining

1350 Spring St. NW (near the 17th St. bridge), Atlanta


Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri.; dinner nightly.

Credit cards: All major.

Parking: Complimentary valet.

Dress code: Dressy casual.

Categories: Art of the Meal