701 West 135th Street and Twelfth Avenue
$104 for two, with 3 drinks, without tip
If anyone in the restaurant industry deserves a break, it’s King Phojanakong, owner and chef of Kuma Inn in the lower east side. I don’t know if it’s the Filipino-Thai upbringing that keeps him humble but I’m sure he’s worked hard enough to keep Kuma Inn as unpretentious as possible. I believe that it’s his time to shine with Talay, his new Asian-Latin restaurant in West Harlem with co-chef Phet Schwader.
They couldn’t have picked a better neighborhood, too. Harlem is going through some major changes and Talay joins the new Body Club next door and old favorites Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and Fairway Supermarket. Ignore the irritating name the real estate agents are trying to christen the area–ViVa for Viaduct Valley–and check out this micro-neighborhood as it transforms warehouses to nightclubs.
We visited during a more sane Sunday night and sat at the bar in front of the kitchen to watch all the action. The green papaya beef salad was delicious and only made me salivate for more food. We loved the pork sausage spring rolls as well. We also ordered the octopus salad, a dish that I think caters to the few uptowners who want to be more adventurous. Talay does it pretty well. The summer roll had more vermicelli noodles than vegetables, but they cleansed the palate just in time for our blackened ahi tuna dish. With all the flavorful tastes in our mouths, the ahi tuna came out bland in comparison–we should have skipped it or at least ordered it first. There are some Latin-influenced dishes so as not to alienate the targeted crowd–arroz Valencia, ropa vieja, bistek churrasco–but the Asian dishes stick out and are among the tastiest.
After dinner, I asked the maitre ‘d to walk me upstairs to check out the party space. Talay is making up for what Kuma Inn lacked in space. There is bottle service and curtains can be drawn to keep a room more private–just the way the uptown and New Jersey crowd coming from across the bridge like it. While I don’t think the downtown crowd will make the trek past 42nd Street, Talay is a good reason for the uptown crowd to stay uptown.