Review: Thai pop-up mixes classic technique with modern panache


It’s about 7:30 on a Saturday night, and a stocky, bespectacled guy wearing a green T-shirt is hunched over a cutting board slicing scallions.

The chef sprinkles the green onions on a dish of red catfish curry tossed with eggplant, green beans, lime basil and Thai lime leaves. Cupping the bowl in his hands, he moves from behind the counter to our table. He places the “pla duk pat prik king” before us. No sooner than we can say “thank you,” he goes back to work.

It’s crunch time at Talat Market, the 12-week-old, weekend pop-up dinner at Gato Bizco Cafe in Candler Park, and the chef, 27-year-old Parnass Savang, is working his butt off.

While would-be diners wait outside for a coveted spot in the 25-seat diner, Savang has rice porridge to ladle into bowls, whole black sea bass to steam, sweet durian custard to spoon over pinkish-red, beet-dyed coconut sticky rice.

It’s an exhilarating scene: A thoughtful, creative chef on a mission to marry the wok cookery and exotic flavors of Thailand with the bounty of fresh local produce at his fingertips. A rapt audience of hungry onlookers with their BYOB beer and wine, waiting to see what the young master will bring out next.

In a city where authentic Thai can be hard to find, where many restaurants deliver an Americanized, overly sweet version of this complex cuisine, Savang takes his own approach.

When he’s good, he’s excellent. When he’s a little off, he’s still pretty damn good.

Working in the space where Atlanta chef Jarrett Stieber created a buzz with his Eat Me Speak Me pop-up, Savang has become an overnight sensation with his so-called “Georgian Thai” style.

It’s a philosophy that bears explaining.

Savang was born in California but grew up in Gwinnett County, where his family owns the Lawrenceville Thai restaurant Danthai. A 2011 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he learned about seasonal produce while cooking at Empire State South under then-chef Ryan Smith. Just before opening Talat Market, he did double duty at both Kimball House and Staplehouse (again under Smith), where he absorbed ideas about pickling, preserving, powdering and using scraps of food.

“I try to do things based in traditional Thai technique but really let the terroir of Georgia inspire and inform whatever comes to the plate,” he tells me in a phone interview.

Like the shoppers at Pak Khlong Talat — the iconic Bangkok flower, fruit and vegetable market from which his pop-up borrows its name — Savang browses Atlanta’s weekly neighborhood markets (as well as Buford Highway Farmers Market and DeKalb Farmers Market), then designs a tightly focused menu of five or so dishes.

In his twists of Thai classics, he often verges off into uncharted territory, which is when things can get really interesting, and delicious.

On Fridays through Sundays a little before 6 p.m., the Talat team hangs a waiting list on Gato’s front door. (Reservations are not accepted.) On a recent Saturday, I arrive at 6, only to discover that the big secret was out. After waiting a little over an hour, my party of three sits down and orders the entire menu: four smaller dishes, a whole-fish entree and that durian dessert.

I love the way the experience has a frenzied feel. Service is charming but brisk. Dishes get plopped down, sometimes without benefit of explanation, much as they would at a frenetic Asian lunch counter.

“Yum khao poht pla grop,” a salad of grilled corn and cherry tomatoes, was a lovely starter. Perked up with smoked fish powder and crunchy fried garlic, cooled down with herbs, topped with a perfect dollop of salty flying fish roe, it was a lively dance of char, tang and smoke.

Another fine cold dish, “yum nam prik num,” was a melange of charred banana and shishito peppers, shallots, garlic, cilantro and crispy house-made fingerling potato chips. Not quite as nuanced or memorable as the tomato-and-corn show stopper. But surprising, fun.

I could eat Savang’s “jok muu” (rice porridge) and the “pla duk pat prik king” (dry catfish curry) every day.

The former is a homespun bowl studded with house-made pork sausage. If you opt for the addition of a raw egg (we didn’t, simply because no one asked us), just stir it up. Top with a few pieces of the fried bread that comes on the side, and slurp. So good, so comforting.

The catfish has many of the same ingredients you find in standard spicy Thai catfish (green beans, eggplant, bamboo). But Savang swaps out the typical garnish of fried basil leaves for fresh lime basil and aromatic Thai lime leaves. Instead of the usual sprigs of green peppercorns, he offers pickled green tomatoes on the side. Eat the fish with a bit of plain jasmine rice and a bite of pickle, and it’s a dazzler. We liked it so much we ordered seconds.

“Pla neung see ew,” a whole black sea bass steamed and gently sauced with a broth of soy sauce, ginger, scallions, garlic and shiitakes, was nicely executed, though we could have done without the scales that ended up in our mouths. With such a small menu, I’m not sure why the chef would offer two fish dishes on the same night.

Where’s the broken clam omelet we’ve been lusting over on Instagram? The massaman beef rib with baby potatoes, pearl onions, Georgia pecans and side of watermelon?

The genius of Talat Market is that it keeps you guessing. We can’t wait to see what this smart young chef puts in front of us next.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Food

Standing up to the heat: Wines for chipotle-salmon tacos
Standing up to the heat: Wines for chipotle-salmon tacos

This dish, with its rich, smoky and spicy qualities, needs a wine that can stand up to it. In addition to having enough ripe fruit for the job, these three whites — from Spain, Oregon and California — also deliver various herbal and spicy notes all their own. Make this: Chipotle Salmon Tacos Rub cooked salmon fillets (10 ounces) with 1...
Ice cream made out of snow turns a cold shoulder to safety concerns
Ice cream made out of snow turns a cold shoulder to safety concerns

Who among us hasn’t stuck their tongue out on a wintry day to catch a few falling snowflakes? The taste, or thirst, for snow seems to be at an all-time high lately, with mouthwatering pictures of snow cream and slushy drinks popping up on Instagram feeds and Pinterest — along with recipes. But is it safe to eat snow? That depends, scientists...
Diabetes Quick Fix: Ham and Lentil Soup with Garlic Toast

This thick and hearty soup made with lentils, ham and tomatoes takes only 30 minutes to make. It’s a whole meal in one bowl. Soups and casseroles are great family fare, but usually take too long to make for a midweek meal. This quick meal fits the bill. Helpful hints: Canned whole tomatoes can be used instead of diced...
Recipe of the Week: How to turn roasted carrots from a side to a main
Recipe of the Week: How to turn roasted carrots from a side to a main

Healthy eating resolutions can be hard to keep, especially if you’re trying to make a dramatic change in your diet. At first, it might be hard to think of roasted carrots as a main dish. However, as Kathryne Taylor points out in “Love Real Food: More Than 100 Feel-Good Vegetarian Favorites to Delight the Senses and Nourish the Body&rdquo...
BuzzFeed ‘Tasty’ food videos now in a cookbook
BuzzFeed ‘Tasty’ food videos now in a cookbook

Anyone who’s opened Facebook or Instagram has seen those food video recipes, typically shot from above, from Tasty. Whether you share, like or make them many are destined to whet the appetite. Now, instead of logging into Facebook you can reach for your very own cookbook featuring many of those recipes. Tasty, the instructional cooking arm of...
More Stories