Nan sets a glamorous stage for upscale, mild-mannered Thai fare

"Purple?! Boy, what kind of restaurant critic are you anyway? Those aren't purple, mister -- that color is maaauuuuve."

My tablemate flings out this Angels in America-inspired zinger after I comment on the startling color of the dumplings our server at Nan has set before us. He's right. They're undeniably mauve. Then I take an admiring glance around the sumptuous room and note one artful presentation after another setting forth from the kitchen. Every detail about this Midtown newcomer (not to be confused with the fledgling Vietnamese eatery Nam) encourages you to reach for more colorful adjectives to describe it.

And that's exactly what owners Nan and Charlie Niyomkul intended for their second Atlanta venture, which was two years in the planning. I'll admit that I scratched my head when I learned that the folks behind Tamarind were planning another upscale Thai restaurant only three blocks away. Then I thought of Virginia-Highland. What are there, six Thai joints in that neighborhood alone? Atlantans are unquenchable freaks for this particular cuisine.

But they've never had their Pad Thai in such splendorous digs before. There's serious wow factor from the moment you step through the door. The soft smell of coconut mingling with spices wraps around you. Hostesses bow toward you with their hands pressed together Buddhist-style.

Then you turn to the right and take in the scene. Tall, tall columns painted red (er, crimson) and gold anchor the vast, multi-leveled room. A thousand tiny particulars vie for your attention: statuettes from Thailand; an arts-and-crafty display of ingredients in the center of the room; the busy kitchen where Nan Niyomkul can often be seen expediting orders; the surprisingly dressy crowd. A bar off to the right would be perfect for appetizers before a show at the Woodruff. And look up! Not one hip, industrial pipe running through the ceiling.

The Johnson Studio really did a number on this space. The only misstep is an unappetizing bronze sculpture out front. It's supposed to be a tamarind pod, but it sure looks like ...

No, let's not go there. We don't want to lose our appetites. The food is much the same as Tamarind -- careful, elevated preparations of familiar Thai restaurant offerings. On your first visit, you'll want to splurge for Chef Nan's Blue Plate, an appetizer phantasmagoria so extensive it comes on two serving dishes. Chicken and beef satay, basil rolls with crab, coconut shrimp, calamari with chili sauce and more are posed on the platter like a culinary Cirque du Soleil. It allows you to sample most every starter on the menu. Next time I'm going for a full order of Kanom Jeeb -- delicate chicken and shrimp dumplings that burst in your mouth with a welcome absence of sweetness.

And those mauve dumplings? They look like rosettes on a birthday cake and are stuffed with minced chicken, pickled radish, peanuts and palm sugar. The effect tastes like a strange, Thai-injected PB&J, though these morsels are so visually arresting it would be hard to resist ordering them again.

Nan has invested in machinery that allows them to produce their own coconut milk, and the rewards are immediately evident. Tom kha kung, the ubiquitous coconut soup flavored with galanga and shrimp, is utterly silken. Creamy panang curry -- showcased in a simple melange of shrimp, clams, mussels and scallops -- is particularly beguiling. There's such a riot of spice and heat I find myself taking spoonful after spoonful to try and unravel its mystery.

The majority of menu items are mild. So when I ask our ever-present and solicitous server to recommend something fiery, she points me to the whole fish with dry green curry. It comes to the table looking like a gastronomic jigsaw puzzle. The head, tail and bottom half of the fish have been left intact, but the upper body has been removed, cut into chunks and fried to a voluptuous texture. And the green curry does indeed provide a welcome burn.

My one nagging grumble about the food at Nan is how safe the kitchen plays it. Yes, I understand that, generally speaking, Americans like their ethnic food approachable, and you need to please the people. But dining at the level I think the Niyomkuls are striving for should also have an element of the unknown. They might offer something outside the box for people who like to have their buttons pushed, perhaps some unusual Thai ingredients or preparations not heretofore seen in Atlanta.

I honestly didn't try one entree that I could point to and say, stay away from that. But duck breast in masaman with avocado, pork tenderloin in red curry, lobster in rice flour cream sauce with basil and garlic, low-grease noodle dishes -- we've tasted these kinds of dishes all around town, albeit not with the same quality and consideration. I'm just ready for something gutsier.

Dessert soothes my fault-finding viewpoint. Lovely, gently flavored lemongrass pot de créme (no burnt sugar top, hallelujah) comes with coconut ice cream and pleasantly chewy pieces of palm. Tangy, tropical fruit sorbets (jack fruit and lychee the night I try them) are made with the same coddled attention as the rest of the food here.

Ooh! Before you retrieve your car from the valet, check out the bathrooms. They're real lookers. The swanky sinks are filled with those smooth black rocks sold with tabletop fountains. The colors of the walls are ... hmmm, now, let me see. Pomegranate? Cranberry? Claret? Check it out for yourself and let me know.

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