Wayne cultivates mosquito larvae in a tub out back that he likes to feed to Paddy. It's his way of taking revenge on the bloodsuckers. "Paddy can eat thousands of them in an hour," he says breathlessly. "I can hear them screaming."
But now Wayne is eating pad ped pla duk, the Thai dish of fried catfish that gives its name to his pet.
"Do you think it's OK to eat Paddy's namesake?" I ask.
"Sure," he said.
"Well of course you think that. You keep him in that tiny glass bowl. Do you think Paddy is happy?"
He slowly chewed the crispy fish, slightly sweet and stinging in a coconut milk sauce seasoned with young white peppercorns. "Yes," he said, finally. "Paddy's kind are used to living in muddy pools of water not an inch deep," he said, dishing up eggplant and bamboo shoots with more fish. "Paddy thinks he's in a palace."
We were at Zab-E-Lee (4837 Old National Highway, College Park, 404-768-2705). This restaurant near the airport opened 11 years ago. Though located in a shopping center that has fallen on hard times, Zab-E-Lee ("very delicious") is a palace itself compared to its opening as a tiny dim dining room with a few tables. Even still, it was without doubt the best Thai restaurant in our area for years. It expanded and decorated itself, though minimally, fairly rapidly.
The reason for our visit, the first in a year or longer, was counterpoint. We had only a few days earlier been to the more mainstream Surin (810 N. Highland Ave., 404-892-7789). I had not dined there in years, since my last review of the place enraged the owner. I had compared the cavernous banner-festooned ambience to a banquet hall during the regime of a certain Chinese leader, but that's all in the past now, yes?
Actually, I found the ambience more to my liking. The huge room, with its long tables and high ceiling of pressed tin, still feels a bit chilly to me, but some good use of paint and some entertaining black and white photographs of Thailand make the place more congenial. It certainly beats the cookie-cutter decor of most Asian spots. Still, the restaurant's cuisine remains a version of Thai cuisine meant to accommodate an American palate that doesn't want anything too spicy or too strange and is willing to pay a lot more for the relative blandness.
Thus, the piquant pad ped pla duk at Zab-E-Lee costs $8.50 while the "succulent catfish" at Surin, in a comparatively bland ginger-soy sauce, is $12.95. I'm going to give Surin credit, though, for a dish called "three-flavor fish." It features a fried red snapper filet in a sauce whose name understates its flavors' complexity. Very nice and by far the best dish I sampled there.
Instead of grousing from the outset about the menu's compromises, I decided to just go with the restaurant's specialties and cut them a break on the question of authenticity in the use of spices. But my little rack of lamb ($14.95), divided into chops, was a wholesale failure. The grilled meat was tough and did not have the wild bloom of flavor that should underlie even a faintly minty basil-like sauce. Inferior lamb. Skip it.
A starter called "wing of angel" ($6.95) was very strange. It is two wings from a chicken that must have been on steroids. The wings are somehow stuffed to a huge size with shrimp, chicken, pork and low-key spices, then fried. It's served with a sweet honey sauce. It's execution is impressive. Its taste is nowhere. It's like a chicken wing turned into bland imperial rolls.
Wayne started with the green papaya salad ($5.95), a classic Thai dish, here served with sticky rice and beef jerky. Perhaps this dish most clearly focused the contrast to our meal at Zab-E-Lee, where he ordered the same dish. While Surin's was tasty enough, it lacked the challenging fish flavors of Zab-E-Lee's somtom ($5.50), which may be ordered, Thai-style, with dried shrimp and peanuts, or Laotian-style, with anchovy sauce. Similarly, Surin's shrimp salad ($6.95) doesn't come close to the fiery-hot complexity of Zab-E-Lee's yum talay, a salad of squid, scallops, shrimp, ginger, shredded black mushrooms and lemon grass with chopped lettuce ($8.50).
I have eaten frequently enough at Zab-E-Lee over the years that I know nearly all the sauces and soups are expeditions of subtle flavors, but I did manage to order a dish this time that I found unimpressive. I love pan-fried rice noodles, such as those used in pad Thai, so I ordered basil noodles with shrimp ($6.50) this trip. The waitress told me they were cooked with a very faintly sweet oyster sauce, basil, tomatoes and some romaine lettuce and green beans. The dish was not good. The basil was not detectable, the green beans were inedibly tough and the tomatoes were flavorless and mealy wedges of pinkness. The noodles themselves, and their generous garnish of shrimp in the shell, were fine.
I suggest you stick to Zab-E-Lee's soups, like a bowl of egg noodles with duck, or the classic curries. As for Surin, which recently opened a new location in Buckhead I haven't visited, indulge your taste for seeing and being seen, but don't expect much that's very exciting.
E-mail Cliff Bostock or call his voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504 with restaurant comments.
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Soon to be shuttered. We ate there last night and the review is spot on!
Morels are already gone. Stop teasing us :).