In its 20th year in business, Nan Thai Fine Dining serves the familiar flavors of Thailand with a posh backdrop and polished service
Takeout Thai food is easy to come by in Atlanta. Casual spots dot the city with exemplary renditions of the spices and flavors of Thailand’s moniker, “the land of smiles.” Sometimes, though, a girl wants to put on a little black dress and taste the discernible lemongrass, coconut and peanut sauces with a white tablecloth as a backdrop.
Facing the corner of Spring and 17th streets with a hulking golden tamarind pod sculpture prominently displayed out front, Nan Thai is a commanding presence. The restaurant celebrates 20 years in business this year, a remarkable accomplishment given the unpredictable nature of the industry. Executive Chef Nan Niyomkul and her husband, Charlie, came to Atlanta in 1996, opening the second iteration of Tamarind, their eatery in Manhattan. One year later, they embarked on something fancier, combining Nan’s fine dining experience in New York with recipes from her mother, a street food vendor in Thailand. The broad space, with its high ceilings, soaring windows and views of bustling Midtown (and that big ol’ bean), is elegant and almost zen-like.
Every table is dressed with a white tablecloth, wine glasses, blue water glasses shaped like flowers, gold-tone flatware, a single artificial orchid in a glass pot and blue and gold plates. Comfy rattan chairs are nestled precisely. Regal columns of red and gold, a giant gong and a rickshaw add to the ambience. The air is pleasant, with scents of coconut and lemongrass wafting from the vast, open kitchen.
At lunchtime, the clientele skews heavily corporate; conversations are peppered with legal jargon and talk of company box seats. Servers dressed head-to-toe in black deliver bottled water. In the evenings, the crowd is younger, hipper (think tight dresses and flashy cars).
The crowd may be hip but the food is classic. Thai food is about the balance of four flavors and heat. Chili peppers bring the spice, cane sugar and coconut milk deliver sweetness, shrimp paste adds a salty component, lime and tamarind lend sour, and bitter melon and raw leaves contribute pleasant astringency. It’s the interplay of a couple or a few of these with masterful blending that harmonizes a Thai dish.
Most of the suit-wearing patrons seated around us had one of Nan’s tasting trees on their tables. The tiered, wonky apparatus holds the day’s assortment of starters and is a great way for diners to share bites. On this visit, the selection is golden fried shrimp with a tamarind sauce, shumai-like dumplings stuffed with ground chicken and shrimp, spring rolls, grilled chicken satay and crisp calamari. Solid. Lovely bowls of the tom ka kung soup are reason enough to visit Nan. It is impossibly silky, lightly sweet and beautifully aromatic.
Unlike others around town, it had bits of soft coconut along with shiitake and straw mushrooms, tender briny shrimp and mild spice notes of galangal (similar to ginger). My friend’s order comes without shellfish; a request Nan’s staff gladly accommodates, swapping in tender slices of chicken instead.
We ordered a showstopper in the chau maung. These time-honored tapioca flour-skin dumplings are a sweet served to the royal Thai family. I will warn you: They are strikingly pink. Six delicate looking rosettes surround a beet cut to resemble a rose. Sprays of cilantro act as rose leaves. While beautiful and certainly intriguing, a little goes a long way. The minced chicken and ground peanuts are sticky, a bit mushy and sweet. Note that this is exactly how they are supposed to taste. Remember, they are a “sweet.”
Entrees fall under “Traditional Thai Sauté” or “Chef’s Selections.” Presentation is lovely. Thai-style BBQ lamb chops come propped up, bones interlacing. They have a crisp sear, and the meat is tender with a slightly smoky flavor. The crisp, green papaya salad with lime works with the sweetness of the sauce for a more dynamic flavor. Pan-seared scallops have an interesting presentation with the four merged in an over-laying crust atop a disk of pineapple fried rice. The tangy red curry sauce is chock full of green beans and cubes of fresh pumpkin.
The scallops come cooked well, but each one had a significant amount of grit. Kai yang masaman is much like others around town, with chunks of avocado, green beans and cashews. The chicken, however, is grilled to tender perfection, and with large slices of breast meat (save for one big hunk on the bone). Pickled shallots are a zesty addition. Roasted duck in red curry is super tender but otherwise less seasoned than other dishes. The green beans and basil are the best parts of the dish.
One could easily fill up for lunch on an appetizer and a salad, such as the larb kai, a bright, fresh and zingy mixture of minced chicken, lime juice, chopped scallion, galangal, red onion, mint and chili pepper tucked inside small, fresh cabbage leaves.
My meal paired well with a dry Sauvignon Blanc but the action around the bar piqued my curiosity. Towering bar shelving separates the Bamboo Lounge from the restaurant. Lots of old-school selections line the shelves: cognac, sambuca, the colors of Johnnie Walker, Seagram’s 7. A large bottle of Dom Perignon is displayed proudly. Wine choices are safe, familiar.
Desserts are where the Thai flavors really sparkle at Nan. Classics are presented with green tea, lemongrass and tropical fruit interpretations. Thai tea crème brûlée comes in a long dish similar to an olive tray. A delightful tea flavor comes through in the velvety custard with a thin sugar crackle atop. Coconut cake would appease any Southern grandmother.
You can expect to pay more for fancier presentation and atmosphere at Nan than you would at your neighborhood Thai takeout spot. Lunch for two with appetizers and entrees comes to around $100 with tip. Dishes taste very similar to those versions, leaning safely when it comes to spice, skewing to the milder side. But if setting and dedicated service mean something to you, it may be worth every penny.
NAN THAI FINE DINING
1350 Spring St. N.W. #1, 30309
Recommendations: Thai BBQ lamb chop ($34), larb kai ($14), tom kha soup ($9), Thai tea crème brûlée ($9).
Bottom line: Masterful Thai for business lunches or when you want to get dressed up for comfort food
STORY: Angela Hansberger
PHOTOS: Erik Meadows