701 West 135th Street, New York NY 10031 (at Twelfth Avenue; map); 212-491-8301; talayrestaurant.com
Service: Friendly and attentive, if a little inexperienced. There's even free valet parking
Setting: Is it a restaurant-club, a lovely al fresco dining spot, or a lounge? In fact, it's all three
Compare It To: Asia de Cuba
Must-Haves: Crispy shrimp, Thai beef salad, whole crisp snapper, arroz Valenciana
Cost: $60 for three courses, including a glass of wine, tax, and tip
There's a new restaurant row in town, and it's in a most unlikely location: Twelfth Avenue in the 130s. Tucked among Riverside Park, the West Side Highway, and the huge Uptown Fairway digital billboard, this newly formed aglomeration of restaurants includes the seminal Dinosaur Barbecue, the Hudson River Club (no relation to the now-defunct downtown restaurant of the same name), Covo, and Talay, an Asian-Latin restaurant-lounge comprising three distinct spaces—a lovely outdoor dining space facing an old Riverside Park retaining wall, an indoor dining room featuring clublike lighting and a pulsating hip-hop and rap soundtrack, and an upstairs lounge that starts to get going around 11 o'clock most nights.
The look and feel of the indoor dining room, not to mention the upstairs lounge, would have you believe Talay is more lounge and club than restaurant, but don't let looks fool you. Talay is actually a pretty serious Asian-Latin restaurant featuring the handiwork of two talented chefs, Phet Schwader (AZ, now closed) and King Phojanakong (Kuma Inn chef-owner). Order carefully from the ridiculously friendly waitstaff presided over with aplomb by an unflappable cheerleader–general manager Romi Macasaet, and you can eat very well here.
The menu is divided into small and large plates and noodle and rice dishes. The kitchen fries like a dream. The crispy shrimp ($12) with strips of fried plaintain in a sweet chili aioli dipping sauce are a pu-pu platter's dream item—crunchy, crisp, and greaseless. Crisp pork spring rolls ($8) are well-executed little barrels of porky deliciousness.
The grilled lemongrass pork sausage ($11) needed a shake of salt to bring it to life. The grilled jumbo prawns ($12) with a not very hot Sriracha aioli were big, meaty, not overcooked, a little hard to eat (the shells didn't come off easily), and seriously delicious. The simultaneously tart, sweet, and savory Thai beef salad ($11), made with juicy strips of skirt steak, strips of green papaya, and Granny Smith apples, is an inventive riff on that Thai menu staple. Ropa vieja beef brisket ($12) was a chunk of too-dry pot roast. The tuna and avocado summer roll ($12) was a perfect Vietnamse-inspired hot-weather starter. The tuna was meaty and the avocado was creamy and ripe.
The whole crisp snapper ($24) served with a sweet sauce, had firm flesh and, texturewise, lived up to its name. Slightly dull roast chicken breast ($18) was rescued by a pool of insanely creamy and rich mashed yucca purée. Chewy lemongrass-garlic-marinated baby back ribs ($15) in a sweetish glaze are satisfying if a little tame.
Do not leave the restaurant without trying the arroz Valenciana ($12 for small plate, $24 for large), a paella-like melange of saffron rice, chicken, sausage, shrimp, and mussels. It's mercifully light on the saffron but full of robust Latino accents and flavors. Pineapple fried rice ($8, $15) was gummy, and the pad Thai stir ($12) is the usual sweet pile of noodles.
Rotating flan, ice cream, and sorbet flavors make up the bulk of the dessert offerings. I loved the lime basil sorbet and the coconut ice cream (both from Il Laboratorio del Gelato). If you insist on your dessert being fried, get the fried sweet plaintains.
Talay is great fun to eat in. Don't let the loungy look and feel of the place fool you. Order well and you'll have a satisfying meal in an unusual spot filled with great energy and an infectious spirit.
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