Malai Kitchen, 5289 Monahans Av, FW. 682-707-3959. 10am-10pm Sun, 11am-10pm Mon-Thu, 11am-11pm Fri-Sat.
Malai Kitchen isn’t the first Dallas-based eatery to open an auspicious third location in Fort Worth’s tony Clearfork development. Perhaps there’s some geomancy at work — ancient ley lines communing with Southlake or Uptown. Or maybe they’re just following that new-money smell. Whatever the reasons, and despite whatever misgivings old-timers might have about Clearfork generally, it’s a phenomenon that is shaping up to be good for Cowtown diners. If we’re going to be colonized by the Big D, at least they’re sending their A-team.
This is particularly evident at Malai Kitchen, where the spousal team of co-owners Yasmin and Braden Wages has honed a meticulously choreographed concept of upscale Thai and Vietnamese cuisine in a warm, contemporary setting. Finer dining, for Vietnamese food in particular, has had a fitful take-off in Tarrant County, but the Wages seem to have found a formula that moves the ball securely down the field.
On a recent weekend afternoon, the dining room and bar had a languid, sunny glow. The air was tingling with the scent of ginger and chiles. The kitchen doesn’t freeze its ingredients — so there are some staples, like coconut milk, house Sriracha, and fresh curry paste that are prepared daily. All of that production made for a certain vibrancy that my guest and I could sense even before we were seated.
Malai does serve a weekend brunch — banh mi French toast, fried rice with fried eggs and such — but we had come for the lunch menu, available seven days a week.
Diners should be suspicious of any eatery touting a “beverage program,” but the roster of craft cocktails, curated wines, and the roster of house-brewed beer was impressive enough to forgive the cliché. For a non-alcoholic option with adult sophistication, the house-pressed cane juice with ginger and lime is a perfect choice.
We split a banh mi sandwich as an appetizer, a crackling French baguette piled high with sweet and spicy pulled pork, pickled daikon radish, carrots, and cucumbers. Housemade Sriracha and spicy aioli should be requested on the side since they packed a pretty good punch. Two miniature “Imperial Rolls” — egg rolls of shrimp, pork, and herbs in crispy rice paper — flanked the banh mi.
More than half the menu can be prepared without meat, though beef, chicken, and shrimp are available for a modest upcharge. My guest added chicken to his basil and vegetable fried rice, dressed with shiitake mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. The dish was big on flavor but low on heat. Fortunately, the fresh Sriracha on the table put all to rights.
I had asked our very helpful server for her recommendation and was pleased when she advised in favor of the peanut-encrusted ruby trout. This beautiful fish was served half-sauced in a nutty curry, allowing the fuchsia flesh to decorate the table. The iridescent skin (which I might usually have picked around), so golden and crisp, proved an irresistible temptation as tasty as any duck skin I’ve ever eaten. The trout was perched above a bed of cilantro jasmine rice and alongside a salad of lightly dressed field greens with grapefruit and red peppers.
It’s easy for eateries to throw around terms like “fresh” without any way of knowing exactly what they mean by it or, in fact, whether it means anything at all. Likewise, there are plenty of dubious claims about policies, philosophies, and practices that, repeated with shrill urgency, are intended to suggest some kind of corporate ethos. But there’s no faking the real thing. Malai Kitchen, for all its composed style, seems to have the substance to back it up.
Banh mi sandwich $8
Peanut-encrusted ruby trout $16
Basil vegetable fried rice w/chicken $12