Tuesday, February 2, 2010

You will never forget The Smiling Elephant

Today my Partner in Dine (aka Mom) tried The Smiling Elephant: Best Pad Thai Restaurant for lunch and I am still floating on a cloud of delight more than a day afterward.  The first thing that you notice upon stepping inside is the wave of delightful smells from the open kitchen.  Olive oil, fresh chili peppers, herbs, the list of delightful smells goes on and on, but they were by no means overwhelming, just maddeningly delicious.  In fact assuming that I had a full tummy, I would love to spend and afternoon sipping tea and just smelling The Smiling Elephant's kitchen.  The second thing that you will notice is the warm, blond wood that covers almost every available surface.  Apparently Sam, the owner, has spent the last 3 years crafting the interior of the restaurant by hand and it shows.  While it is foreign to western eyes, the homey vibe transcends any cultural barriers and invites you to settle in and get comfortable.  There are serene images of the Buddha, colorful pictures of daily life in Thailand and hand painted Thai signs adorning every wall.  We were greeted as soon as we walked in and it became apparent that everyone that works there is friendly and happy in what they do.  We were directed to choose our own seat in the tiny, but lovely dining room.

     The emphasis at The Smiling Elephant is on their food being light, fresh & healthy in a warm, friendly environment.  This is the first restaurant that I have ever been to that makes the offer of custom dishes if they have the ingredients, this should be bonus for the hardcore Thai food junkies out there.  I was just excited to try what is already on the menu as many of the dishes I have never heard of before.  They have, compared to other Thai restaurants in town, a limited menu.  This is not to say that there isn't something for everyone on it and to be honest it makes the decision making process much easier when you are being driven half-mad by all the delicious smells emanating from the kitchen.  A smaller menu also means that what they do make, they make very, very well. We started with fresh rolls, which are always a favorite of mine, but these were particularly delicious.  They were served precut into bite-sized pieces and top with some sort of mystery vegetable that honestly I meant to inquire about, but I was too busy stuffing my face to remember to do so!  They offer the option of just ordering an entree or what they call a "set," which is vegetarian soup (add $1 for meat), an entree and dessert.  I opted for a set, while mom got just the entree, I ordered the Pad Kra Pao, a spicy pork dish, and mom had the Gai Yang, a sweet & sour chicken dish, both were amazing.  For my soup I got Tom Kha, their version being less milky than others that I have had and including far more vegetables.  The layers of flavor in this soup made me sad when it was all gone, I was half tempted to lick the bowl, but I managed to restrain myself.  The entrees arrived quickly, piping hot and fresh, we gleefully dug in an barely had time to mumble out a garbled & emphatic "Good!" in between bites.  We shared with one another after the initial wave of unrestrained hunger washed away and were both pleased with what the other had.  Again the layers of flavor are what blew me away.  The fresh lime, cilantro & garlic worked so well together, but I could taste them individually as well.  I always find it amazing how in really good, fresh Thai food there can be so many tastes in one dish and it never seems to overwhelm.  The other magic of my entree was the fried egg that came with it.  You can ask anyone, I'm not really an egg person, but this little guy was a gift from heaven.  I'm not sure that I understand how they were able to make the white so fluffy and still keep the yolk runny and delicious, it must be an ancient Thai secret.  I never knew how good a fried egg with spicy, savory food could be, not only does it take some of the heat out of the dish, but it blends seamlessly with the rest of the food on my plate.  Marvelous!  I periodically had to remind myself to stop and really enjoy every bite, it was so delicious it took everything I had not to cram it all in my mouth at once. (I'm an instant gratification kind of gal)
     After I had finished my entree it was time for dessert which I had very much been looking forward to, Jack Fruit with milk & syrup!  Now I have only ever seen Jack Fruit in the Asian market, I've never purchased one because they are enormous and frankly look like something that an alien pod creature bent on world domination would come out of and try to eat my brain.   (the picture of the Jack Fruit to the right is to give you some scale)  That being said,  I was extremely curious as to how they tasted, I mean a fruit the size of a small child is quite an investment when you don't know what you're getting.  I was not disappointed, the Jack Fruit dessert was the perfect finish to my meal.  The Jack Fruit tastes like tender, very fresh, sweet cantaloupe with a lemony/citrus taste.  It's served over ice with coconut milk which is light and cooling, just perfect if maybe you overdid it with the chili peppers.
     I could not have been more pleased with the service, the atmosphere or the food at The Smiling Elephant, every last detail has been see to in this charming establishment and I would give it a resounding thumbs up to anyone who asks.  It is obvious that this is a labor of love for Sam & his wife, a dream finally realized that they graciously share with anyone who walks through their front door.  They have a gong by the door with a note that says, "If you like the food, hit the Gong!"  If I could have, I would have played The Carol of the Bells on that thing on my way out, I had to settle for a single clear note and a cheer from the kitchen as I walked out the door.
The Smiling Elephant: Best Pad Thai Restaurant
2213 8th Ave South
Nashville, TN 37204
(615) 891-4488
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The Smiling Elephant on Urbanspoon

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