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.

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