For years, I have been happily making massaman curry using the cool little cans of Thai curry paste I get from the closest Asian grocery store. No more. There is a type of transcendent food experience that ruins all inferior experiences. Tamarind Seed, the new Colony Square incarnation of Tamarind, has produced a massaman curry that puts all others to shame. The massaman curry served there is so superior, so wholly different from any other version I've had, I'm afraid the typical stuff simply won't do anymore. Cardamom so fresh it has an intense floral flavor gives the dish an ethereal perfume. Served alongside lemongrass chicken and garnished with creamy avocado and a refreshing cucumber salad, the dish is both delicate and pleasingly overwhelming.
The truth is that even mediocre Thai food is pretty good, so many home cooks and restaurants settle for those curries from a can. Not so here. The transition in quality from the solid, midpriced family Thai restaurants to the heights of Tamarind Seed has little to do with amenities. The Johnson Studio design and hot real estate at the corner of 14th and Peachtree help, but the real distinction is almost entirely the doing of Nan Niyomkul's cooking.
The original Tamarind, owned by chef Niyomkul and her husband Charlie, closed last year after losing the space to eminent domain. I never ate there, but what I am learning is that the massaman experience is typical of what it's like to sample Niyomkul's cooking. She somehow manages to pack so many layers of flavor into her dishes that eating her food can be like watching a mystery unfold. The spicy fish-cakes appetizer comes with an addictive sauce that sparks wonder over the contents: a sweet burst of pineapple, the dark undertone of fish sauce, the assured fruity musk of tamarind, paired with the freshness of cucumber. Flavors such as these work their way into the palate's memory and linger there like a haunting.
The Colony Square location boasts an attractive room full of rich, wood tones, and is decorated with large jars of spices and Thai art objects, backlit in recesses in the walls. Charlie Niyomkul and the couple's son Eddie run the room with an air of warmth and hospitality. Service can be uneven and a little slow, but courtesy is never in short supply. No matter – this is a place to come to have your taste buds pampered, not your ego.
The tom kha gai soup carries a whisper of lemongrass in its silky coconut broth. The soup is no different in concept than any of the countless other versions around town; it's just executed with more precision and flavor.
Try any of the meat salads, and the reward is a riot of flavors. My favorite is the duck salad, the gamey duck offset by lemon, chili, pineapple and cashews. The beef version is lightly warm, comfortingly spicy and tender on the teeth.
Presentation is one of Niyomkul's specialties. Plates are often garnished with a lovely orchid. In one of the coolest plating techniques I've seen in a long time, a special of whole snapper is cut off the bone and then all fried together, the fish's skeleton forming a bowl for the spicy chunks of fried flesh. The fish was salty but otherwise perfect, with a crispy, complexly flavored crust and a delicate interior.
The spicy lamb with basil stands out not just for the rich, delicious sauce, but because the slices of lamb were cooked just slightly, leaving them tender and meaty. Quality ingredients count for a lot here.
And so it's pretty much a safe bet to throw darts at the menu and see what comes out of the kitchen. I prefer the more intriguing entrees to the standard curries, but you won't go wrong with chicken in red curry sauce or pad Thai, either.
Word on the street is that Niyomkul plans to return to her other restaurant, Nan Thai Fine Dining, after the new-restaurant dust has settled at Tamarind Seed. After she's gone the food probably will continue to enthrall diners, but it's still a good idea to get there fast, while she's still inspecting every dish that leaves the kitchen.
Just be prepared to learn that what you thought of as Thai food is just a pale comparison. It's a worthwhile revelation.
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