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Restaurant review: Talesai in West Hollywood

Don't be fooled by the smart re-invention of this favorite Thai spot on the Sunset Strip. Owner-chef Kris Yenbamroong keeps the family's homey, high-quality cooking in focus.

January 07, 2009|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Several generations of a Thai family are seated around a long table at Talesai in West Hollywood. After they've finished eating, the beautifully dressed elderly man at the center of the table leans forward and begins to sing, his face etched with nostalgia and sadness. His voice is soft and quavery, and as he sings in Thai, he waves his hands to mark the beat. Some of his family joins in from time to time, following the words to this song when they can.

Step outside and you're on the Sunset Strip, the Key Club's giant sign pulsing to a disco beat, spewing light across the street and onto the facing buildings. Talesai, serving owner Prakas Yenbamroong's mother Vilai's homey Thai cooking in a modest low-slung building, has stood at this end of the Strip, half a block from Doheny, for 25 years, drawing music industry insiders, the foodie faithful and anybody looking for a quiet, civilized spot for dinner.

This year marks a new beginning for the restaurant. After closing for three months for an extensive renovation, Talesai reopened in November with young Kris Yenbamroong, Vilai's grandson, as owner and chef. You'll see him occasionally pop into the dining room to say hello to a friend, looking like a Thai Harry Potter in his black-framed glasses. He grew up in L.A. but went back to Thailand for high school, then studied film and graphic arts in New York and worked with filmmaker Richard Kern. His cooking teacher, though, was his grandmother, now 74 years old.

Refined focus

His new menu is shorter and more focused, and he's introduced some of the rustic regional dishes he came to love when he was living in Thailand. He's also putting a new emphasis on the quality of the ingredients. But like his grandmother's, his cooking is refined and much more subtle than the typical Los Angeles Thai restaurant's. If you're looking for nothing more than a mouth-numbing chile burn, this may not be your place.

The new owner has smartened up the room too, with mirrors, a colorful mural in the bar and a glassed-in wine storage area at the back of the dining room. Now there's a big picture window in the front (maybe too stark) and a comfy black leather banquette.

The appetizers don't miss a beat. You'll want to order the signature Hidden Treasures, delicate bites of crab, shrimp and calamari fired with chile and sweetened with coconut, served in the special dish in which they're baked, each with a tiny dome over the top.

And when it's nippy out, there's no better way to warm up than with a bowl of thom kar, coconut milk soup laced with lemon grass and chile with mushrooms and three fat shrimp to fish out of the broth. It's one of the best versions I've found.

Green papaya salad is shredded perfectly, dressed with lime juice and decorated with halved cherry tomatoes to add contrasting color. Like any kid, I loved fried wontons when I was growing up and though these "bags of gold" are much more sophisticated, stuffed with shrimp and drizzled with plum sauce, they're still irresistible little bites.

Beef larb (salad) is made with rare, hand-chopped filet mignon, intricately spiced and incredibly delicious. I just wish the chef had used a cut that was less soft and tender, something like skirt steak maybe. (I feel the same about the main course steak dish: The beef doesn't have any heft to it, going too far in the refined direction.)

Portions are on the smaller side but are still easily shared. Order up a slew of dishes and everybody will get a few bites of the larb and especially the wonderful house-made sausage cut in thick slices and served with coconut-scented sticky rice.

As for the more substantial dishes, I'd choose the Thai boxing chicken marinated in spices, cut into strips, grilled and served with a sweet little plum sauce. But then again the fried chicken is awfully good. And you can spice it up with noom salsa -- eggplant and hot peppers -- made fresh every day. I also enjoyed the salmon steamed in a banana leaf, which seems to make the spices penetrate to the center of the fish. And I liked the hearty pork ragu -- something like a Thai Bolognese -- served over noodles.

Sticky rice comes in lidded baskets lined with a plastic bag. You definitely want to order some to soak up all the stray sauce from your dishes.

Wine and spirits

Part of the reinvention of Talesai includes an expanded wine program. The list is just one page long, but it includes about 10 wines by the glass, and, by the bottle, the Champagnes, Rieslings, Gruner Veltliners and Sauvignon Blancs that work so well with Thai food. It's nice to see some sturdy Burgundies and Bordeaux too, even a Cahors and a cru Beaujolais -- and come dessert, several sweet wines in half bottles. Cocktails are appealing too, such as the house Bloody Mary made with noom salsa, sriracha and lemon grass or the Mekong old-fashioned made with Thai whiskey and litchi.

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