Saturday, May 14, 2011

Zabb Elee Revisited (New York, NY)

Yum Koon Chien

On a recent, beautiful May evening, I went back to Zabb Elee, this time with Justin in tow. He's not terribly picky about his food, generally (happily for me and my often less-than-delicious efforts in the kitchen), but he does have a healthy appreciation for good Thai and I was incredibly excited to share my find with him. At around 6 p.m. on a weekday, the restaurant was already packed. It only became more so as the evening progressed and the line of diners waiting to be seated snaked out the door. 

A friendly waitress / hostess / bar tender seated us at the bar so we didn't have to wait for a table. But that was about the only thing we didn't have an extended wait for that evening. Throughout the meal, we waited and waited, first for someone to give us a menu, then for someone to take our order, bring our food, bring utensils, bring water.... And after that, we waited a long, long while for someone to clear the plates, bring the check,  pack our leftovers, etc... Ours was not an isolated problem. Diners were coming up to the bar to refill their own water glasses (a must to survive the heat of some of these dishes), retrieve  credit cards, even to bus their own dirty dishes as some took pity on the harried, overworked staff. A meal that ought to've lasted an hour or an hour and a half at most ended up lasting nearly three hours because of all the delays. The two women working the front of the house were working their tails off, as I'm sure the kitchen was, in the back. But there was a sense of chaotic, hectic, almost desperate disorder to it all. The restaurant has become so popular within such a short time that it really, really ought to hire more help for the dinner shift, at least. 

Happily, the food was good enough that it mostly made up for the long waits.

This time, no one asked us what spice level we wanted. Everything that was supposed to be spicy came out at what I'd approximate as level two (on the restaurant's scale of one to five), except the som tum korat, which was more a level three or four. 

We completely and ridiculously over-ordered for two, something we quickly realized after all our dishes showed up at the same time, leaving us with almost no space on the bar for our small plates. The larb kai / ground chicken with shallot, fresh mint, scallion, cilantro, chili powder and lime dressing was overcooked, and not just by Lao/Thai standards, which call for the meat to be halfway raw in this dish, if it's cooked at all. This chicken was tough and dry, but it was so beautifully dressed with a good balance of salty, sweet, pungent and acidic, and a generous handful of red bird chiles thrown in for good measure, that it was enjoyable to eat, anyway, especially with Zabb Elee's good, sticky rice. 

Larb Kai

Yum koon chieng / salad of sweet sausage sauteed with shallot, celery, tomato, pickled garlic, fresh chili and lime juice (pictured at the top of this post) was Justin's favorite. The dish is of Chinese derivation and the hard, sweet sausage is very similar or identical to Chinese la chang (臘腸). It actually got better with age. Over the several days it took us to finish the leftovers, the sausage became pleasantly soft in the acidic dressing. I usually find the sweetness of this type of sausage overpowering by itself or with just rice, but the sour, salty, spicy dressing was a good counterbalance to the sweetness. I didn't detect any celery in this dish.

Instead of the papaya salad with preserved crab, which Justin would've balked at, we had the som tum korat / papaya salad with peanut, Thai eggplant, pickled fish, tomato, dried shrimp and chili. This innocuous-sounding salad was blistering hot -- so hot that it took us four more days of dedicated effort to work our way through the leftovers. I could only eat a few bites at a time before the heat became overwhelming for me... but I really, really enjoyed the salad. The vegetables (thinly julienned papaya and eggplant, and a few bits of long bean) were crisp and fresh, though it's clear that the salad had been made a while in advance, since the dressing had thoroughly infused the papaya. The spice, though intense, was also very flavorful. My only nitpick was that many of the toasted peanuts in the dish were burnt and bitter.

Som Tum Korat

A dish of pukk boong moo korb / sauteed morning glory with crispy pork was more disappointing. We'd actually asked for pukk boong fai dang / sauteed morning glory and fresh chili, but they brought out the version with pork, instead (and charged us accordingly). Our waitress explained that they were running low on morning glory greens, so had to mix it with pork to stretch the supply. Unfortunately, with all our other dishes, it made for an overly meat-heavy meal. The version of the dish we were served was also almost inedibly salty and cloyingly sweet at the same time. The crispy pork was in fact crispy at first, but quickly became hard and rubbery and unpleasant with prolonged contact with the dish's moist ingredients. Spicing was uneven: Some bites were intensely, nearly unbearably spicy, while others were not spicy at all.

Pukk Boong Moo Korb

The kai kiaw chai poo / sweet radish omelet was another menu offering that was weak in the execution, on the evening we went. I adore this simple homestyle dish and almost always order it when I see it on a menu, so it was especially disappointing that the one brought to our table was overcooked. Much of the omelet was extremely rubbery and hard, fried to a deep brown that verged on being burnt. It served its purpose of helping temper some of the heat from the other dishes, but it could've been made so much more deliciously than it was.

Kai Kiaw Chai Poo

Our final dish, the nuer yang / grilled marinated beef with garlic pepper lime dip (which I forgot to photograph -- sorry), was admirably tender. It had a pleasant natural smoky taste from the grill and though it was overly sweet by itself, it was perfect with the zippy, acidic sauce.

All in all, it is clear that Zabb Elee's kitchen is powered by at least one chef with a tremendous amount of talent. Most of the weak points of this meal were probably the result of a harried kitchen having to watch too many pots at the same time and a harried front-of-the-house having to watch too many tables at the same time. Hopefully these issues will smooth themselves out over time. I'm awfully happy to see this worthy restaurant garnering as much praise as it has, since it is well deserved. But I hope for their sake as well as for their customers that they find some additional help to manage the dinner rush, quickly. At this point, I doubt the mad rush to eat there will abate anytime soon.

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

Previous review:

1 comment:

  1. So, this place is just not very good, is it? Are you ready to venture out into Queens now?