Unlike its predecessor, the well-loved Japanese restaurant Tani Guchi's Place, there's nothing kosher about Maleewan Thai and Sushi. The specials board sports something that looks like a six-point Star of David, but it's actually the six-petal vine flower from which Maleewan takes its name. Silk flowers are now a main feature of the space's spruced-up décor, along with elephant art indicative of another change: The restaurant is more Thai than Japanese.
That means pork, scale-less fish (like eel), shellfish, and crab are back on the menu. As at most sushi spots, crab means surimi, that bland blend of processed fish, texturizing gels, flavorings, and colorants. But the bogus stuff is at its best in a signature Maleewan maki, an inside-out roll enclosing surimi plus shrimp, avocado, cucumber, and pickled Japanese squash, with a topping of masago (smelt roe) and yellowtail tempura. Though the lightly battered hamachi was the showstopper, the pickled squash — sweet, savory, and crunchy — was equally responsible for the roll's tastiness, making me wonder why more sushi bars don't use this traditional, unique pickle.
Just as terrific was a sea roll: strips of meaty yellowtail tempura and rich salmon plus avocado, asparagus, scallion, spicy mayo, and masago. Although both the above makis feature cooked fish (the sizable pieces of paper towel embedded in the rather dry-looking salmon fillet behind the sushi bar made raw fish items seem less appealing), they tasted quite different. And Maleewan's thoughtful provision of a sweet/savory Thai-style dip, along with plain soy sauce, made the rolls intriguing to the last bite — which was a long time coming. They were easily twice the size of most makis.
Maleewan Thai and Sushi
2224 NE 123rd St, North Miami; 305-895-0393. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Saturday noon to 3:00 p.m.; dinner daily 5:00 to 10:30 p.m.
Oddly the Thai items lacked the sushi's skillful execution, as well as some ingredients. A Thai roll's filling of desiccated minced chicken and vermicelli (plus a few carrot specks) sorely needed the crunchy balance of bean sprouts and onions promised but absent (though a zippy peanut-topped hot/sour dip helped). A pleasant but oversweet red curry came packed with dry, tough beef and none of the described eggplant.
Much more tender were the quicker-cooked meat strips atop a grilled spicy beef salad, which also contained tomato wedges, onions, iceberg lettuce, and cilantro. The dish came swimming in a heavily chili-flake-spiked dressing that would please heat seekers. What was missing: Thailand's typical multidimensional flavors, the complex balance of sweet, sour, salty, and hot that makes the country's cuisine so intriguing.
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What's not missing here: a clientele of repeat patrons and an informally friendly ambience that, continuing Tani Guchi's tradition, makes first-time customers feel immediately like regulars. It's not our town's most sophisticated destination for Thai food or sushi, but the warm welcome makes Maleewan a solidly satisfying little neighborhood restaurant.