Happy Hour at Malai Kitchen, Where Five Dollars Will Make You Hollar for Another One
The West Village isn't typically a favorite destination 'hood of mine unless I'm seeking fro-yo or a sale on cardigans, but a Yelp search pointed me in the direction of Thai-Vietnamese spot Malai when I found myself in dire need of a drink on a Sunday evening.
I have zero desire to wait 30 minutes in a restaurant full of old people and screaming kids for a $12 dollar plate of improperly cooked eggs and warm mimosas and therefore usually don't venture out on the Sabbath until brunch hours are safely over and many places are closed. Malai, though, offers all-day happy hour on Sundays, so I rounded up an agreeable companion and set sail for Uptown in my never-ending quest for discounted booze.
After an annoyingly lengthy search for a space in the multilevel parking garage, we hustled through the front door and grabbed a couple black wicker stools at the hardwood island bar. The sound of Deadmau5 and Daft Punk emitted from hidden speakers overhead, a gentle reminder that we were in store for a modern (read: trendy) take on southeastern Asian flavors.
All specialty cocktails are five bucks during happy hour; a quick mental calculation revealed that I could sample the whole menu for the bargain price of forty dollars, but I figured I'd start off with just one. I'm a sucker for champagne drinks, so after brief deliberation I started off with the Lemongrass Fizz: Ketel Citroen vodka, St. Germain and a squirt of house-made lemongrass syrup from a squeeze bottle were shaken until frothy and poured into a tall flute, then topped with Gruet rose champagne.
The mixture made for a pretty light pink gradient effect in the glass, but any potentially bright note from the lemongrass was overpowered with the ultra-sweet, perfumey taste of the elderflower liqueur. It's an ingredient that I've noticed a lot of bartenders tend to go overboard with; it's extremely strong and likely to drown out any other flavors in a drink unless used with a delicate hand. In case you're not aware, the delicate elderflower blossoms used to distill this spirit are hand-harvested by adorable old Frenchmen on bicycles for just four weeks out of the year, so please take this as a public service announcement to use the stuff sparingly, okay?
I asked the blonde ponytailed bartender to recommend something a bit less sweet, and she steered me toward the Vietnamese Limeade, a mixture of green tea vodka, lime, palm sugar and mint. She upended a bottle of cloudy jade Monopolowa over a shaker and explained that Malai infuses their own green tea vodka rather than buying one of the commercially made versions. Poured over a mountain of delightfully Sonic-esque crushed ice, the slight bitterness of the green tea was offset by the tartness of the lime juice and a splash of club soda added a mellow fizz. The refreshing drink made a perfect companion to a bowl of the spicy tom kha gai (a surprisingly authentic version of the Thai staple coconut soup filled with thinly sliced shiitakes, tomatoes and cilantro leaves).
My ears must have perked up at the mention of house infusions, because the bartender revealed that Malai also makes a kaffir lime-infused gin that plays a starring role in their nouveau twist on the Tom Collins. If you're reasonably well-versed in the consumption of Thai food, you've no doubt been exposed to the unmistakable aroma of kaffir lime leaf; it's often paired with lemongrass for a one-two punch of unique citrusy flavor. Paired with the traditional lemon juice and club soda, the Kaffir Collins was an interesting riff on a classic. It came as no surprise to me that the one and only Jason Kosmas (of NYC's Employees Only, Bolsa, and Neighborhood Services) created the cocktail menu at Malai, as it seems I'm hard-pressed to belly up to any restaurant bar in the city that's not under his sphere of influence.
I'll continue to hibernate through Sunday brunch mania, but would venture out to Malai again to sample the other five drinks I didn't get to this time around. The flavors may not have been authentically southeast Asian, but for a mere Abe Lincoln apiece, Malai mixes a pretty fine cocktail.