Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Zabb Elee (New York, NY)

Food-motivated Manhattanites love to complain. We complain about NYC's (and by NYC's, we mean Manhattan's) dearth of good Mexican, good Thai, good Chinese, good Vietnamese, good Indonesian, etc... I'm happy to report that Zabb Elee just gave us one less thing to complain about. Manhattan now has good -- nay, great -- Thai food.

Like its Queens counterpart, Zabb Elee's menu focuses on Isan (north-eastern Thai) cuisine, which shares some similarities with Laos cuisine. Unlike the Queens location, though, the new East Village location on 2nd Ave. does have a part of the menu dedicated to Bangkok rice and noodle dishes.

My fellow food blogger, Au Gourmand, and I stopped by for a meal, recently. Since it's a quintessential Isan dish and a specialty at Zabb Elee, we knew we had to order some sort of papaya salad. Au Gourmand, whom I'm happy to report is a wonderfully adventurous eater, suggested we try the som tum poo plara / papaya salad with preserved crab and pickled fish ($8) and of course I was game. We had the choice of adjusting the spice level from one to five. Not wanting to seem like weenies, we opted for what we thought would be a safe, middling level 3. Boy am I glad we didn't go for level 5. Level 3 had me sweating profusely and crying -- but in a good way. The dish was excellent. It was a perfect balance of pungent, acidic, (barely) sweet and salty, with a mix of crunchy, good quality vegetables and some pieces of perfectly fried, non-greasy pork rind on the side. Diced tomatoes were mostly hard, wintry ones, but the kitchen made up for it by including juicy, ripe grape tomatoes in the mix, as well. I had a hard time eating the preserved crab, since I wasn't sure how to go about getting the innards without a pick. But what I sucked out of the legs was nicely gelatinous and flavorful. I would order this dish again in a heartbeat -- but maybe at level 2. :)

I think hor mok might be more of a southern Thai dish than an Isan dish, but some of my fondest food memories of Thailand relate to scarfing down order after order of hor mok in outdoor markets in Bangkok and Phuket. I'd had a decent, but not wonderful, version at Sripraphai a few weeks ago and wanted to see how Zabb Elee's would compare. I'm glad I tried it. Zabb Elee's hor mok / Thai curry fish custard wrapped in banana leaf ($11; pictured at the top of this post) was fantastic, really one of the best versions I've had anywhere in the world. The custard was very tender and fragrant, without any "fishiness" and with just a light touch of coconut milk (which acted as a nice foil for the heat). At the bottom, there were delicious, tender sweet basil leaves and a bit of what tasted to me like very soft, cooked cabbage, which added a nice texture to the dish.

Our waitress recommended trying the pad tua / sauteed bean sprouts with crispy pork and fresh chili ($7). This was another milder dish that helped us keep from internally combusting after bites of the papaya salad. Bean sprouts were very fresh, white, and crisp, cooked with a little bit of bite left. The crispy pork -- thickly cut strips of I think pork belly -- was initially really quite crispy and fantastic, though it was a time limited ingredient: It became a rubbery as it sat in the moist dish. The sweetness of the dish also helped temper the heat. I'm not sure about the geographic origins of this dish. I know pork belly and fatty cuts are popular in the northeast.

Au Gourmand ordered the larb pla korb / crispy whole Thai tilapia with shallot, mint, cilantro, and chili lime dressing ($14), which was a substantial size, meaty, and served with beautiful, blackened skin and a spicy, sour dipping sauce. I'm not usually a huge fan of tilapia, but this preparation was not "muddy" tasting and the dipping sauce really enlivened the fish. (It reminded me oddly of Africa Kine's Senegalese rendition.) Green herbs had been stuffed into, and cooked in, the cavity of the fish.

Great meal, great company. There is much, much more of the menu I want to try.

75 2nd Ave
(between 4th St & 5th St)
Manhattan, NY 10003
(212) 505-9533

1 comment:

  1. You are quick! There are so many other things that I want to try on their menu, which is a rather rare sentiment for me these days. Now, I want to go back to Thailand again.