While some of Southeast Asia's best restaurants can be found in restored vintage houses, some of the best Asian food in Seattle is served in a Wallingford house only a few decades old. Formerly known as Janny's Curry House, Mandalay Cafe specializes in curry and offers cozy winter warmth in its wood-floored interior and pleasant dining outdoors during spring and summer.
The Mandalay menu cuts a swath across South and Southeast Asia, skimming the best curries on the way and serving them up in shiny gravy boats.
Where else can you find Sumatran White Curry ($10.95-$12.95 depending on choice of meat), made with ground mixed nuts as well as herbs and spices, or fragrant Laotian Lemongrass Curry ($10.95-$12.95), loaded with fresh herbs? They take their herbs and spices seriously at Mandalay; the menu will list as many as seven spices in a dish, which then arrives tasting like it has even more.
Non-curry entrees are available as well. Fish specials are always a good bet, and grilled lamb chops ($14.95) are always available. There are stir-fries such as the Thai basil with vegetables and tofu or meat ($10.95-$12.95) served over crisp shreds of green papaya. When the weather warms up, you can sit on the outdoor terrace (OK, it's the front yard) and try the Vietnamese Pork Noodle, stir-fried pork and vegetables over cold noodles.
Summer's warm weather is distant, but the Taiwanese Summer Wraps ($8.95) are always a star appetizer on the Mandalay menu. Six mandarin pancakes arrive with stir-fried tofu, shredded vegetables, cilantro, tamarind sauce and ground peanuts roasted with palm sugar. (When the wraps are gone, it's hard to refrain from eating the peanuts with a spoon.)
It's difficult to create a wine list to go with a menu this varied and spicy, but Mandalay has risen to the challenge, offering a compact and geographically diverse list that includes half a dozen available by the glass. Understanding, perhaps, that many diners will need a little extra encouragement to choose wine over beer with Asian food, they've given each wine a helpful and amusing description, such as the Rhone red that is "our chef's choice chug, whenever the cooking sake runs low."
That same sake-chugging chef is always eager to come out of the kitchen to talk wine or food with his customers. The regular servers are just as knowledgeable and excited about the food; service is brisk and friendly and it's hard to stump your waiter with a question about the esoteric ingredients.
Chicken satay tray: Instead of the ubiquitous peanut sauce, these five skewers of grilled chicken are served with Mandarin pancakes, shredded marinated vegetables, noodles and a light, tangy sauce. The resulting wraps are messy and delicious. For some reason, this delightful appetizer isn't described on the menu; you're exhorted to "ask server for details."
By all means, do so.
Lotus bread: The house flatbread is pale green and studded with fresh herbs. It makes an ideal utensil for dipping into your friends' curries.
Pineapple panang curry with prawns: This kitchen has a generous hand with shrimp and a knack for cooking them right. I'm not sold on the large chunks of fresh pineapple (smaller pieces might work), but every other part of this rich red curry made me swoon.
Five-spice tomato soup: This powerful soup was all about its title ingredients. The spices were fun on the first bite but too intense by the last. It could have been mellowed out with a bit of coconut milk (or even cream).
Indonesian spice cake: Thin slices of dense, flavorful cake (the consistency is like a Fig Newton) are garnished with cardamom whipped cream and arranged around a scoop of vanilla ice cream. All is topped with a light caramel sauce.
Itemized bill, meal for two:
Chicken satay tray: $8.95
Lotus bread: $2.95
Five-spice tomato soup: $4.95
Pineapple panang curry with prawns: $12.95
Indonesian spice cake: $4.95
Ginger beer: $2.00
Matthew Amster-Burton: firstname.lastname@example.org.