Satay Ria, an independent, moderately upscale Malay-Thai restaurant, recently replaced the deservedly shuttered Miami Subs fast-food outlet on Peachtree between Palisades and Collier roads.
Ria means "happy" in Malay. Satay well, you know what that means marinated, skewered, charcoal-grilled bits of meat and seafood served with peanut sauce. Satays chicken, beef, lamb, goat, seafood are a favorite snack in markets and teahouses all over Southeast Asia.
Satay Ria's owners also operate Little Malaysia on Buford Highway. Buckhead, even South Buckhead, is a hard place to make a living. Dressed in dark suits, batik shirts, traditional caps and sympathetic smiles, the Satay Ria team seems determined to make the venture a success.
To judge by the best of the food, they're off to a fast start. Chicken satay served a week after the restaurant opened was the best I've had in Atlanta ($6.50 for four). The white meat was tender and juicy, the superb dipping sauce properly hot, rich and layered with flavor. On the side, rice cakes and a cucumber-onion salad added interest. Beef and shrimp versions are offered, the latter at a $1 supplement.
The shrimp sticks suggest the inconsistency of a new kitchen. Gray, greasy, wizened and apt to fall apart when pried off their skewers, these expensive appetizers need to be reconfigured or withdrawn from the menu.
Roti canai, a large, folded, Asian-style crepe served with a bland lentil curry for dipping and moistening ($3.50), though worth checking out, is less engaging than its chicken-curry cousin at Penang on Buford Highway. Curious culinarians can combine one or two of Satay Ria's roti with an order of its delicious kari ayam chicken and potato curry ($9.25) thereby creating the best of all possible sop-and-sup worlds. Taken alone, with its side of steamed rice, the curry is correctly oil-rich, the chicken skinless, the hunks of potato creamy inside and tasty throughout.
Acar, a traditional Malaysian salad with crushed peanuts, is composed of marinated green beans, carrots, zucchini and other vegetables ($3.95). The portion is large enough for two or three to share. Rojak salad, combining mung bean sprouts, crunchy jicama, sliced carrots, red cabbage, fried tofu, hard-cooked eggs and peanut-ginger dressing, is equally large and appealing ($4.95).
An appetizer listed as Thai shrimp cake, but which resembled Boston codfish cakes, failed the authenticity test but was fun to eat nonetheless ($6.25). Thin, crisp and deep-fried, with an interior closer to creamy than solid, the cakes were delectable but definitely non-traditional. Lobak roll, fried tofu skin stuffed with shrimp-and-meat paste, was heavy as monsoon mud and not saved by a sliced tomato garnish ($5.95).
Soups are served in pretty, covered crocks. Tom yum goong, a Thai hot-and-sour soup containing two shrimp and a few wisps of chicken, lacked subtlety ($3.25). After that discouraging introduction, my research went no further.
Best to skip such false starters and move right to Nasi goreng, a peppy, tomato-flavored fried rice entrée with seafood ($9.95). Most of the world's rice-based cuisines boast a dish like this, one incorporating onions, peppers, local seasonings and twice-cooked rice. Satay Ria's shrimp-laced pilaf, aside from the addition of tough, overcooked squid, reminds me of Carolina red rice cooked in a private home. There can be no higher compliment.
Keep in mind that Satay Ria's chefs are holding their spice spoons firmly in check. Do they fear that the tongues of SoBuck and Ansley Park are not attuned to a little pepper and garlic? That women will run screaming from the room at the hint of ginger and lemongrass? Whatever the case, when we observed that the meal lacked fire-power, our waiter rushed to the kitchen and returned with a small dish of green chili paste spiked with lemongrass and fish sauce. Dabs of it, mixed in with the nasi goreng, picked up and emphasized the garlic undertone in the rice. No, the dish didn't suddenly become objectionably garlicky or blazing hot, just more interesting. Try it.
Try the market-priced Asam sea bass with Asian eggplant in hot-and-sour sauce at your own risk. Mine cost $17.95. Some of the pieces of breaded and fried fillet tasted fishy and none too fresh. Ouch, ouch.
Everything is attractively served, including the Asam fish, which arrived in a flounder-shaped dish with eyes fashioned from Maraschino cherries.
Green tea ice cream (the menu says homemade) tastes right and is dipped with a generous hand ($2.50). Coconut and red bean ice creams also are offered as are more distinctly Asian desserts. Wine and beer, unavailable during the restaurant's first few weeks of operation, are now sold.
From the street, the former Miami Subs outpost still looks distressingly fast-foodie. Don't be fooled. Everything inside has changed for the better. Hand-blocked fabrics, Southeast Asian folk art, colorful kites, musical instruments, wedding baskets, bamboo room dividers and low-level lighting provide the desirable sense of mysterious otherness while remaining safely this side of kitsch.
Same for the service, which aside from the suggestion that I invest in the sea bass is helpful, friendly and deferential in equal measure.
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