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Curb appeal

Thai Palate completes Midtown's new culinary community


Restaurants in strip malls are a time-honored institution here in the ATL. But I see we have a new trend emerging, particularly in Midtown: eateries on the ground floors of condo buildings. The most ambitious example yet of this burgeoning movement is the eclectic cluster of dining options on the corner of Ponce and Penn.

For many a moon, this downtrodden corner of our city was home only to the venerated, pre-corporate expansion Krispy Kreme. It was a rite of passage to come at 2 a.m. and watch the gloppy waterfall of glaze coat the "Hot Donuts Now" as they glided by on the conveyor belt. It was like a gritty Willy Wonka fantasy as seen through the eyes of Stanley Kubrick.

An Old Spaghetti Factory next pioneered the area, which attracted the family factor. Then came the upscale, pastel-colored condo buildings a year ago, with plenty of room for valet parking (the developers knew what they were doing). MF Sushi Bar, last year's biggest drawing beacon for beautiful people and cheering critics, was the first commercial resident to open its doors in the building's base. A sleek coffeehouse, Tarrazu, and a branch of Nancy's Pizza soon followed suit.

The last available slot on the valet parking sign has gone to Thai Palate, a dashing little space that follows in the footsteps of Top Spice in Toco Hills with its modern, bold look and mixed menu of Thai and Malaysian offerings. It's an apt addition to the neighborhood. The reasonable prices and casual air make it just right for a quick weeknight meal.

Not that it isn't tempting to linger here. The choices are so numerous; it's almost easier to avoid making a decision about what to eat. I've watched a number of would-be diners nurse glasses of wine and launch into deep conversations with menu pushed aside. It certainly isn't a problem to see the list of options once you're ready to decide, though. The restaurant may have a dim glow as you look in from the street, but fixtures directly over the tables beam down intense shafts of light that illuminate every crease and crow's foot on your face. Blanche Dubois would not approve.

Once you do dive in, the food is an ambitious blend of well-rendered standards with a few adventurous and unusual dishes. Roti Canai, a favorite Malaysian starter featuring a sproingy, bread-like pancake and a bowl of mild curry for dipping, is average stuff. Instead try the Roti Telur, a variation where the pancake has been griddled with scrambled eggs and scallions and rolled up. Those added ingredients give the whole affair a heightened layer of appealing earthiness.

Don't be afraid to ask the soft-spoken servers for descriptions of unfamiliar items -- they're happy to enlighten you and offer opinions of their favorites. One of them suggested the Thai sausage salad, an intriguing concoction that even the timid eaters at my table enjoyed. The sausage is cut into bite-size pieces and tossed with lettuce and slivered vegetables in a lightly vinegary dressing. It has a consistency somewhere between salami and pepperoni, with a sweet edge to it.

There's a long list of specials from which to choose, and while they all sounded impressive and imaginative, most of them suffered in execution. "Chicken baskets" are a nifty idea: Chicken has been minced with peanuts and chili sauce and spooned into deep-fried wanton wrappers. They look fetching on the brightly-hued, next-generation Fiestaware on which all the food is served, but they are served room temperature and surprisingly low on the spicy quotient.

For an entree special, poached salmon is rolled with a thin slice of zucchini, plunged into the deep fryer to crisp the outside and cement it in its spiral shape, and draped with balachan, a feisty sauce whose primary ingredient is fermented shrimp paste. The flavors work in harmony -- the sweet salmon, the bitter-tinged zucchini, the salty sauce -- though the salmon is woefully overcooked.

A similar problem occurs with prawns in mango sauce. Both fresh and sauteed mango imbue a gutsy, sensual perfume that makes me eager to wolf the dish down. Sadly, the prawns have been frizzled into tough nubs. A little less time on the stove and this dish would be exquisite.

One frequent special that does come together succinctly is the sea bass with three flavors. The multifaceted sauce has the consistency of a chunky chutney, and its pungent contrasts of spicy, sharp and sour bring out the sweetness of the gently cooked fish.

Interestingly, the kitchen has a knowing way with the typical Thai repertoire. Masaman and green curries are vibrant and fresh. Tom yum chicken soup, with less coconut milk than usual, has a spicy, aromatic broth and lots of plump pieces of chicken (no McNugget meat here). Even the Pad Thai is noteworthy: The shrimp are large and cooked just until tender, and the noodles have an addictive, nutty depth.

And really, that's just what this neighborhood needs: a dependable Thai joint that does the basics justice. The folks behind Thai Palate have wisely created a comfortable spot offering a likable contrast to the other restaurants ensconced in this quirky, unexpected dining destination.

Oh, and in case you're not quite ready to head home after your meal? Krispy Kremes are surprisingly scrumptious after Thai food.

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