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Art Burn: Satay and Mandalas at Malee's

With Southwest tourists galore and more art galleries per square foot than even most Manhattan suburbs, Old Town Scottsdale is a big draw for local artists seeking fame -- or just seeking to draw attention to their works. It's also a hotspot for national artists, whose works can be found lining the walls of Gebert Contemporary or Bentley Gallery's Scottsdale branch.

Considering how hit-and-miss it can be for restaurants to solicit local artists (see "Breakfast with Bob Dylan..."), wouldn't it be easier and wiser to hit up a local gallery and showcase artwork that's not currently on display there? Talk about an easy win-win sitch. The gallery gets tons of exposure for pieces that would otherwise just sit in the storeroom gathering dust, and the restaurant gets a rotating selection of free art to decorate with. Sweet! At least one Scottsdale mainstay has picked up on this fact -- Malee's Thai Bistro on Main St.    

The sweet, slightly spicy scent wafting from Malee's is intoxicating; so much so that it's nearly impossible to walk past and not pop in for an appetizer on their lovely shaded garden patio. Inside, the decor is sparse, with sleek dark wood tables and art on loan from nearby Joan Cawley Gallery under amber sconces on several of the larger walls.

On our most recent visit, two of Mesa-based landscape artist Patrick Coffaro's oil paintings were on display: a wide, colorful painting of a koi pond and a study of large, tropical leaves on a red background, entitled Hearts are Wild. Coffaro's known for his vibrant Southwestern landscapes; you can even score one of his cacti prints on sites like Art.com. Better that Malee's tapped these particular images, as they reflect the exotic, tropical feel the restaurant tries to bring through in their food.   

The images seem flat, almost cartoon-like despite Coffaro's heavy use of shading, but it's the powerful punch of his colors that save them from blending into the background. Interesting, considering that when Coffaro first began his desert landscapes, he painted only in muted, natural tones.

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In contrast, Jeanie Thorn's Mandala is rooted in the soft, earthy tones of Asian art. Mottled river rock strains behind a metal grill, in a sea of flame-kissed black metal. It's a quiet, reflective piece. And, despite its simplicity, one that keeps your eye moving around the subtle variations of each of the stones. Though admittedly, we got a chuckle out of the label, which indicates "used in meditation" as the media. Mixed media, sure. Rocks and metal, sure. Used in meditation? True, but not a medium! 

In all our visits to Malee's, the food has never disappointed, as was true of our latest visit. We skipped our favored Tom Kha (spicy coconut soup) and refreshingly minty summer rolls in favor of two standards: Pad Thai and chicken satay. Why? Though these are both overplayed staples of every Thai restaurant in the nation, it's surprising how many places screw them up! 

Here, the satay was spiced to perfection and perfectly tender, not even needing the requisite peanut sauce (though it was so tasty we lapped it up like mother's milk). The pad Thai was pungent, with just a touch of sweetness -- not the cloyingly sweet concoction that passes for Thai noodles at some other places. At an A for food, a solid B+ for art and an A+ for good business decisions (on the art and the menu), Malee's definitely makes the grade.   

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