There is a problem with the smart new Cafe Talesai, on Olympic just a few blocks west of Doheny. The space is certainly pretty enough: The gleaming, glass-walled room at one end of a small mini-mall has all the allure of an outdoor cafe, with all the virtues of a climate-controlled interior — it’s a chic little fishbowl. The faintly industrial spareness is mitigated by well-chosen, colorful art, and an especially good collection of small Asian statuary and artifacts. A truly other-planetary cactus guards the door. The chairs couldn‘t be cuter: little aluminum tube frames with plastic webbing. On a busy night, noise boomerangs off all the hard surfaces, and the sound system’s cranked just high enough so everybody has to yell to converse, which in our case leads to discussion No. 3,078 on why any restaurateur in his or her right mind thinks a restaurant has to be noisy, for god‘s sake — but even this is not the essential problem of Cafe Tal-esai.
And the wait staff — well, any restaurant should be so lucky. The women are knowledgeable, helpful and friendly, and very handsome. The prices, too, are not objectionable. The original Tal-esai on Sunset, known for its good food, also has a reputation for priceyness. But this more casual spinoff is on a price par with most any midrange Thai restaurant in Los Angeles.
In fact, this spinoff seems to embody the wisdom of a well-seasoned restaurateur: It’s a pitch-perfect, joyful improvisation — but with a flaw.
Which isn‘t, by the way, in the food. Overall, the food is as bright and clearly conceived as everything else in this little jewel box. Thai cooks in general are fanatics for freshness, and the Cafe Tal-esai cooks compound this with an insistence on excellent ingredients, so even when a dish falls a little flat, it’s of inarguable quality.
But the majority of dishes sing. Take the corn-fritter appetizers. A standard Thai snack food, these chewy little fritters are mostly sweet corn bound in a minimum of batter, fried until crisp, then drenched with a light, clear, salty-sweet sauce. They‘re eaten topped with a cool, juicy cucumber salad. We liked them so much that we ordered another batch — these, fried a little longer, were even more delicious. Thai “latkes” is a name given deep-fried strands of taro root; they’re essentially bland, crisp curlicues, a vehicle for tamarind sauce. The chiengmai-wrapped chicken appetizer is really a classic larb, or ground-meat salad, with a lime and chili-spiked, minted fish sauce. And it‘s not wrapped — you wrap it yourself in romaine-lettuce spears (this is not important, except that the menu leads one to expect something else).
Tom khar, another Thai classic, is a coconut-chicken soup with little mushrooms and a near-perfect, delicate proportioning of lemongrass, galangal root and kafir lime. I like to add sticky rice to this soup — the rice is served in individual plastic bags tucked into adorable straw baskets.
The quenching shredded-green-papaya salad is a rhapsody of textures, studded with green beans, roasted peanuts and “Thai prosciutto,” a jerkylike (but more toothsome) dried beef. The spicy rib-eye salad is one case where the high quality of the meat seems almost too much of a good thing — the traditional Thai grilled-beef salad, like carne asada, relies on the excellent flavor of the cheapest cut of beef, and while the street version is usually a little tough, one’s patience is seduced with minted, spicy fish sauce. This melt-in-your-mouth version is an instant seduction, no effort required. The “Southern Thai Border Beef” sauced with chili paste is somehow a more gratifying, bracing beef dish.
I‘d forgo the steamed pompano, a bland, slightly fishy soft fish, and Thai barbecue chicken is not memorable. The blistered, garlicky green beans are sublime, but the spicy eggplant is soggy. I’m of two minds about the grilled Mongolian lamb: The quality of the tasty, marinated meat is unmistakable; the presentation, with a tablespoon of lightly pickled cabbage and carrots, is a little stark. But yellow chicken curry is brilliant: The gravy is complex and warmly spiced, and the unexpected, occasional chunk of dense, sweet yam made me want to shout with pleasure.
One night the homemade coconut ice cream had a perfect chime of saltiness, subsequent versions less so (I had to order some on each visit). Fresh mango is always the right note at the end of a Thai meal; you can have it with sticky rice or alongside ice cream. The Thai custard is also terrific, and the slippery, sticky fried bananas — in short, all the desserts are excellent, so be sure to save room.
Which reminds me of Cafe Tal-esai‘s essential problem.
One night, in a packed, clattery, noisome restaurant, I caught a distinct whiff. “I smell hair burning,” I said to two friends.
They sniffed the air. No. They didn’t smell anything.
But then the waitress came by, clutching her ponytail, wrinkling her own face — while squeezing through the tables, her long ponytail had brushed a candle. “This place is dangerous!” she said. “The cactus by the door scratches me every time I pass, and now the candles! There‘s not enough room!”
And there it is. Cafe Tal-esai simply isn’t big enough. Even with every table possible shoehorned into the space, and the slim waitresses risking hair and limb to squeeze through the crowds, the place can‘t accommodate all the customers it deserves.
9198 Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 271-9345. Open for lunch Mon.–Fri. and for dinner seven nights. Entrees, $7.95–$16.95 (for specials). Beer, wine and sake. Free delivery within two miles. Parking in lot. AE, DC, MC, V.