There’s no need to look around for Thai starter staples like a green papaya salad or satay when the Nam Prik Ong platter is an option. You dunk this spread of crispy lotus chips, curly cue pork cracklings and fresh cucumber slices into a chunky dip of chiles, ground pork and roasted tomatoes. Between bites, you sip on sparkling lychee sake, perhaps a Thai lager or even the nonalcoholic Lemongrass Lily served in a coupe glass.
It’s not only a fine way to start off an evening at Chai Yo, but a reminder that a chef’s willingness to push boundaries is exactly how a cuisine — and a dining scene — evolves.
Chai Yo does precisely this in dusting off ingrained ideas about what Thai food should be. Here, it’s about exploring possibilities. The outlook is as fresh as the food.
Chai Yo Modern Thai certainly embraces the modern in its name. A new concept from DeeDee Niyomkul, the young chef and force behind Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft, and whose parents gave Atlanta spots like Nan Thai Fine Dining, the now-defunct Tamarind and the temporarily closed Tamarind Seed, Chai Yo is contemporary in look, feel and flavor.
Open since January in Two Buckhead Plaza, Chai Yo fits in just fine next to glam neighbors Umi, Atlas, Chops Lobster Bar, Seasons 52 and King + Duke in the heart of see-and-be-seen Buckhead. Marked by wood, clean lines, Zen-inducing back-lit sculptures and artwork, the space is stylish but still calm and comfortable whether you are seated at the bar with a view into the kitchen or parked on a long banquette with colorful patterned silk pillows that separate dining parties.
Most dishes — and even drinks — at Chai Yo are as composed as the space. Take, for example, the Saku Sai Kai. The appetizer brings a rustic log serving platter that holds five round tapioca dumplings filled with shrimp and chicken and topped with bits of red chile peppers and crushed peanuts. Credit the chile peppers that these dumplings are more like fireballs, which is why you need to chase them with a wad of cooling bibb lettuce upon which they rest.
The Lemongrass Lily is one of a number of nonalcoholic beverages (these “refreshers” are listed on the lunch menu but are available during dinner service) that impress not just for the presentation — frothy egg white topper with a few dashes of bitters and served in respectable glassware — but the effort to create a lineup of teetotaler drinks that are balanced, beautiful and reasonably priced at $6.
Chai Yo is not just about looks. Niyomkul keeps things relevant and lively, incorporating ingredients from here and techniques from now. Think back to that tasty Nam Prik Ong and the decision to include a Southern snack like pork cracklings into the mix.
She also disses authenticity when she gives a decidedly non-Thai protein like beef cheeks some non-Thai cooking treatment (a sous vide bath) to turn out the melt-in-your-mouth Neau Panang entree. The beef cheeks sit in a lap-it-up, rich red curry served in a charming mini chafing dish. The same dare-to-be-different attitude can be said for including octopus in lemongrass salad, although results met with less success: The grilled octo came out rubbery. It was still more memorable than the Lobster Tom Kha coconut soup and vegetarian spring rolls that hold more garnish than substance.
It is far less of a pocketbook stretch to peruse the appetizer section of the menu than the mains. The beef cheeks hold value, but lobster curry was a waste of $45 since peanut drowned out all other flavors. Lamb chops were of steakhouse quality, but the accompanying dipping sauce was mouthpuckeringly sour. Duck Leg Stew brought a drab brown braised leg over jasmine rice, which surprised, considering the numerous other decorated dishes coming from the kitchen. Neither tea egg nor tofu helped to dress it up or bring cohesion to the dish.
Pad Thai traditionalists will find a version with eggs that are used as a crepe base upon which cellophane noodles et al. are piled. Although generous in portion, as most Chai Yo dishes are, tamarind permeated the entire dish, with citrus and sour notes commanding everything.
The seared Chilean sea bass, though, was a surprise delight. The white fish was fresh, moist and flaky, complemented by a light, almost delicate, crab fried rice, wilted bok choy and a garlic-cilantro-black pepper sauce that I spooned onto every bite.
The fish also cost $42.
Then again, when we go to Buckhead, we know the drill: Expensive real estate equals expensive plates. What’s unexpected — and unacceptable at a restaurant of this price point — is not fixing its restroom locks even when the staff knows they are broken. Doubly so when those restrooms are unisex. In the least, putting a sign on the door stating that the lock is broken would give patrons a heads-up when their pants are down, an embarrassment that occurred to two people in my party.
It’s a level of hospitality I would have expected from a place that otherwise attends quite well to the needs of its patrons. Sometimes, the waitstaff can overly attend, as when a server came by the table at least six times during one visit to top off water glasses the size of chemistry vials.
These complaints aside, I’m encouraged by Niyomkul’s undertaking. As with dining ventures from other children of immigrant restaurateurs in Atlanta, the food coming out of Chai Yo feels at once personal to her, approachable for diners, relevant to this place and time and still respectful of the cuisine from the motherland. That’s an accomplishment, and one not nearly as easy to achieve as phoning a locksmith to fix the loo.
Chai Yo Modern Thai
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: upscale, contemporary Thai
Service: gracious and attentive
Best dishes: Saku Sai Kai (tapioca dumplings), Nam Prik Ong (northern Thai-style chile dip), Neau Panang (Panang beef cheeks), Pla Kra Tiem Prik Thai (Garlic sea bass)
Vegetarian selections: Pho Pia Thod (spring rolls), curries and Tom Kha (coconut soup) can be prepared vegetarian.
Price range: $$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays, 5-11 p.m. Saturdays, 5-10 p.m. Sundays
Children: not recommended
Parking: paid parking garage ($2 valet with validation)
MARTA station: Lenox
Reservations: not necessary
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: medium
Takeout: not recommended
Address, phone: 3050 Peachtree Road NW, Atlanta. 404-464-7980