The venerable Mali recently expanded into the storefront next door.
Actually, “next up” would be more accurate, given the steep slope of this Thai and sushi joint’s Amsterdam Avenue address. Getting to the new addition from the entrance requires an ascent through a cascade of dining rooms.
When you arrive at peak altitude, you’re dazzled by a glossy bar, a lime-green paint job and anemone-like chandeliers.
If you’re on your first visit to Mali, the choicest perch seems obvious, right? You want the penthouse view.
But the thing is, very few people are on their first visit to Mali. Morningsiders and Emory folk have been flocking here pretty much since pad Thai and California rolls first arrived on the Atlanta scene.
The older, darker dining space in the belly of the building may be less tropically glamorous than the new digs, but it’s also where the regulars’ memories live. And they know that ambiance doesn’t matter much when the food is so perfectly pleasing. (Despite my praise, the restaurant refused our request to photograph some of their more delicious dishes. That’s why the photos you see feature Mali-as-takeout.)
The first sign that Mali is a far cry from Thai chop suey comes from those standard items — the sushi roll and the pad Thai. We got the hamachi-tuna Virginia roll rather than the good ol’ California, because: crab stick. It does the job — plump, pleasantly sea-scented and studded with fun, flame-colored tobiko.
The pad Thai is more remarkable. So often just a cloying clump of rice gum, Mali’s version is very beige, but delicious — nutty, not overly sweet, and so expertly tossed that every al dente noodle seems to be sauced.
Another standard that sings is the red curry. It’s silky and rich and leaves behind a pleasant burn. It’s so intoxicating, we barely minded the fact that the dish’s grilled duck was more fatty than it needed to be, or that its accouterments included canned (or perhaps frozen) peaches and pineapple. We just dodged all that and happily ladled the sauce into our rice bowls.
The duck isn’t the only problematic protein. The beef shavings in our nua nom tok were tough enough to test the jaws and the four shrimp scattered about the pad Thai seemed lonely (though they were perfectly cooked).
The truth is, Mali’s excellent sauces — that curry, the pik king pork’s basil-laced, hot-and-sweet gravy — often make the meat irrelevant. And when the protein is top-notch, as is the case with the crispy, tangily delightful Majestic Catfish, it rightfully becomes a cult favorite.
The only dessert you want at Mali is the salty sticky rice, drenched in coconut milk, dotted with crisped mung beans and served alongside an uncorrupted mango half. It’s simple and lovely — much like Mali’s not-schmancy original dining room. Next time I go, I imagine I’ll head down there and order more of the old favorites that have served so many here so well.
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