This New Southeast Asian Spot Serves a Mean Branzino

And a few other good dishes too.

Inspired by their extensive travels throughout Vietnam and Thailand, husband-and-wife team Braden and Yasmin Wages opened their restaurant concept, Malai Kitchen, in 2011 in Uptown Dallas. Within five years, the couple expanded with a second location in Southlake, and just a few month’s ago, a third restaurant opened in a 3,000-square-foot space at The Shops at Clearfork in Fort Worth. Malai Kitchen showcases a modern take on Southeast Asian cuisine in a sleek environment with scratch-made ingredients and house-brewed beers.

On a recent 80-degree December afternoon, a group of friends and I made our first visit. Surrounded by luxury shopping, Malai is situated on a corner across from the construction site of the upcoming AMC Theatre. The restaurant’s interior features dramatic lighting, an elegant bar area, oversized booths and a central, open-concept kitchen, allowing diners to be in on all the action.

Malai’s version of bread and butter is a complimentary banana-leaf-covered mound of sticky rice. Served alongside it is a small cup of pureed eggplant. Our polite attempt to dig in with chopsticks after unwrapping the leaf proved futile. We gave in and used our hands to pull off clumps of rice and then dipped it in the smoky sauce.

Perusing the shareable appetizers, I was confused to find Shishito Peppers ($6), traditionally a Japanese fare. Malai also has a selection of sakes that seems out of place on a menu featuring cuisine from Southeast Asia.

Unlike the traditional blistered presentation found in Japanese restaurants, Malai’s Shishito Peppers were lightly tempura battered, fried and served with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. What made this dish was the addition of lemon zest, giving it a light and airy essence. My only criticism was that the peppers lacked any kind of kick.

Our table also shared jumbo whole Thai Chicken Wings ($6). They are hearty, enough for four, with an addictive chili garlic glaze topped with toasted sesame seeds.

My Chicken Vietnamese Soup ($7 small, $10 large) arrived next. A small portion was twice as large as I expected. Tender pieces of chicken breast, thin rice noodles, bean sprouts and fresh herbs harmoniously swam in a perfectly spiced chicken broth. It’s a pick-up-the-bowl, slurp-the-last-drop kind of soup.

The pièce de résistance was the Whole Branzino ($24) delivered to the middle of our group as our final taste. Served with the head and tail on, everyone forked pieces from the wok-fried fish served with Tamarind-Soy Moon Sauce, Jasmine rice and a cucumber salad. It’s dramatic in presentation with a papery-crisp skin and tender white flesh.

While many locals’ travels may not take them to the Orient, we can thank the Wages for allowing us a brief taste at Malai Kitchen.

Malai Kitchen
Location: 5289 Monahans Ave.
For Info:
What We Liked: Dishes are packed full of traditional flavors, and the dynamic menu allows guests to eat light or indulge in one of Malai’s noodle dishes.
What We Didn’t: The patio was polluted with construction noise, but that’s a temporary issue.
Recommendations: Malai’s appetizers are just as impressive as its entrees, so don’t skip them and pace yourself. The Mango Sticky Rice Smash dessert is to die for.