Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Smiling Elephant

Nashville Restaurants and Food
The Smiling Elephant
2213 8th Ave. South

The Kopsombut family takes great care in just about every aspect of this Melrose area Thai restaurant. From the homey cedar interior to the modern stylish dinnerware, there is a delicate spirit to the place, which is an extension of the food itself. The Smiling Elephant is a bit of an adventure. In one dish you might experience a softer touch in the flavor department, and then in another dish you encounter fiery Thai spice.

The short menu is highlighted by the pad Thai. It’s their signature dish, and when you proclaim the best pad Thai you need to live up to expectations. It is a precise rendering with good flavor and distinct textures and tastes. The daily curry specials also receive top billing, and for good reason, they are likely to get your attention quickly. The green curry ordered at normal spice level is like a rocket going off in your throat. That doesn’t mask the great flavor though, and once you settle in with a couple of napkins to mop the brow, it really does feel like the perfect balance of spice and taste. The pork was nicely moist and held its own in the spicy curry.

You can order dishes as entrees or as a set. The set comes with the vegetarian soup, featuring a light slightly vinegar broth and crisp baby corn, cucumber, water chestnut, spinach and mushrooms. A little red pepper provides a pleasant heat. A tiny dessert comes with the set, on this day jack fruit with milk and syrup. While the combo provides a nice array of flavors we found that instead of ordering the set you may want to consider just getting an appetizer. The fresh rolls have thick, chewy rice paper wrappers with cellophane noodles and carrot inside. They are cut into six pieces for a pretty presentation and topped with ginger.

The classic Pad Kra Pao gets a kick from holy basil, which despite the name tastes quite different from Thai basil. The stir fried pork is perfectly cooked and nicely spiced. A fried egg underneath gives a rich note to the dish. You’ll find the portions a bit smaller at the Smiling Elephant. That combined with the prices may turn some people off. In the end you get plenty to eat and the difference in quality of ingredients and execution in the kitchen is worth the money.

Veggie Eater: I ordered my pad Thai native hot, only to find it without any discernable heat. However, what it lacked for in capsaicin, it made up for in other flavors. The noodles were wide bean noodles and perfectly prepared; a little slippery, a little chewy. The sauce was very light and virtually no syrupy gloppiness that pad Thai seems to be prone to. This was then adorned generously with bits of tofu, eggs, and bean sprouts, pea pods, and scallions. Perhaps not the best pad Thai I’ve ever had (I’ve not experienced that since living in Nashville), but certainly better than what I usually get. I understand the curries can bring tears to your eyes and I absolutely must try one next time.

Meat Eater: Restaurants run in this family. The Kopsombuts are relatives of the Myints, Arnold of Cha Cha and Suzy Wongs and Patti of the International Market. The restaurant has a homey touch and at the end of the meal if you have enjoyed what you have eaten, you’re encouraged to bang the little gong on your way out the door. Given the smiling, bustling crowd, even at 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday, there is going to be plenty of gongs heard on 8th Avenue for some time to come.

I paid $20 for the lunch set on one visit, with tax, tip and a drink. For a dinner visit we paid $35 for an appetizer and two entrees.
The Smiling Elephant on Urbanspoon


Lannae said...

I have been driving by the Smiling Elephant nearly daily on my way home from work, and it seems as though it has caught on. The lot is full, and I see lots of people inside. :) Were there people there when you were dining?

BP said...

I'll admit up front that I am far from an expert on Thai cuisine. But I ate at the Smiling Elephant last week and was not very impressed with their pad thai. Maybe I don't know what good pad thai is supposed to taste like, but I found theirs to be overly citrus-y and lacking that nice tamarind flavor that the dish normally has. And I found it to be kind of gloppy, too. I would like to go back and try their green curry, though. Hopefully it will be better.

My favorite Thai restaurant is still Golden Thai on White Bridge Road.

mIKES said...

If you are saying that these folks are somehow related to the Myints, could this be the same relatives that owned the long gone "Salathai" on West End Avenue? That place closed around 2006/7 and disappointed some folks. I did a little sleuthing and got word from John Ayers that the owners were related to the family of International Market. (sisters)

Could this be the new iteration?

And, I am so sorry Kate for your long drought of spicing levels. This seems to happen to you a lot lately. Perhaps you have reached a tolerance level no other mortal considers possible :-)

Eric and Katie said...

Lannae: Yes, they seem to be pulling in sizeable crowds. I hope they can handle the volume. BP-yeah, shouldn't have been gloppy if it's their usual version. mIKES- well perhaps Katie likes things a little spicier than most folks (including me) but on several of our dinners she asks for the most spicy possible and it comes out mild, even to my tastes.

mIKES said...

Next question:

If you get a Pad Thai that is not to your heat requirements, is it possible to remedy? What exactly produces the heat in Pad Thai? Fresh chopped chilies, an infused chili oil, dry chili, curry??

Can't you sent it back for doctoring?

Martin B. Cherry said...

I work at the Smiling Elephant and I am also half-thai. Pad Thai is a really difficult plate to make very spicy. From cooking it and ordering pad thai from several restaurants, Pad Thai is generally a mild thai dish. I think it's either from the noodles or the mixture of the sauces and peanut ingredients which temper the spiciness. We do have dried peppers, chili sauce and "pic" vinegar trays if you want to increase the spiciness your palette. Just ask you server and he/she will gladly accommodate.

Certain dishes are naturally spicy and can be turned up to the "thai hot" standard. The Yum Woosen is probably the best menu item for great taste and spiciness. And like you said, our curries can be very hot.

Thank you for the pleasant review and thank you for coming to the Smiling Elephant. I hope you guys return.

*Also the fresh rolls are topped with caramelized radish.

Eric and Katie said...

Martin: Thanks for clarifying on the fresh roll topping. The radish is a nice touch. We had quite the debate trying to figure it out. As far as pad thai goes, Katie does tend to like it hot and did ad from the tray. I prefer a more savory pad thai myself. Thanks for the insights...and we will indeed be back soon.

EdKing said...

For me, it had too many peanuts...but the Tom Ka kai soup & rolls will keep me coming back. My wife enjoyed her chicken dish very much. GREAT SAUCES abound, and it's always about THE SAUCE. I'll return and keep trying til I get it right. Extremely nice place, great vibe.

Sunny @ the Library said...

I made it last weekend with my mother and aunt, two huge Thai fans, and we all really really enjoyed it.

The Tom Kai Kai was tops and everyone loved the fresh rolls -- even me! And I don't like fresh rolls!

However, a warning for those who want to go: It is really. really. small.

I, like I usually do when I go out, texted a number of friends to see if they wanted to join me. Thank goodness they were all busy!

We went a little early (about 6pm) and that helped.