Monday, November 28, 2011

Now Open: Fo Thai, where you do it their way

It's an experience as much as a dinner.

Posted By on Mon, Nov 28, 2011 at 6:19 PM

Local artist Matheus Leonhard created the massive Buddha for the Fo Thai dining room.
  • Local artist Matheus Leonhard created the massive Buddha for the Fo Thai dining room.

There's a quote attributed to Buddha: "To live a pure, unselfish life, one must count nothing as one's own in the midst of abundance."

But sometimes, the temptation to be selfish is too great, despite one's best intentions. There's a very big Buddha — and an abundance of culinary offerings — to be found in the stylish dining room of Fo Thai restaurant in Leawood's One Nineteen Shopping Center. The place is actually an overload for the senses, unless you're seated at one of the darker corners of the room, where the lighting is so dim, you practically need to hold up a flashlight to see the faces of the servers bringing out the food. And you'll want to see their faces: The restaurant must have hired the front-of-the-house staff from the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.

Today, the three-week-old restaurant began serving lunch; Fo Thai has offered its eclectic dinner menu — it's not traditional Thai cuisine, but executive chef Chee Meng So's "fusion" of Asian influences — since it opened in November. The lunch dishes, priced between $9 and $16, are smaller portions of the dinner choices but include a "complimentary featured appetizer and beverage" as part of the package.

The dinner menu is much more costly. A glass of vanilla-scented Thai red leaf iced tea — a lovely amber brew served with cream and a flask of simple syrup — is $4, and many of the entrees are priced at $20 or more. For diners accustomed to the Thai Place or Bangkok Pavilion, there might be a little shock when the bill arrives. But it's unfair to compare Fo Thai with any other local dining venue; it's like the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts of local Thai restaurants.

Look Ma! Goldfish in the bathroom!
  • Look Ma! Goldfish in the bathroom!
The dining room is wildly theatrical: There's a second-floor mezzanine that looks down on the main dining room's focal point: a giant Buddha constantly swathed in different colors — orchid! sapphire blue! — from a cleverly concealed light source. Under Buddha's big feet, a waterfall splashes into a big koi pond (it needs a few more fish) and parts of this meandering pond — an illuminated chamber — can be seen under a panel of plexiglass in the bathrooms, right below the sink. It will be a more attractive feature, I think, when a golden koi or two swim into the chamber for a little aquatic action to watch while one is sitting there bored, perched on the potty. But as I said, there's a spartan koi population at the moment. "We just incorporated the fish into the pond on Friday," says marketing manager Angela Cunningham. "They're young fish right now, so they seem kind of incognito."

The servers are polished and attractive but are cagey about revealing too many details about the restaurant's owners.

"They're from New York and they prefer to remain anonymous," said one waiter.

That's pretty much the party line here. "Our owners were originally from New York, which is where they created the concept for Fo Thai after traveling all over the country, for over two years, doing research," Cunningham says. "The owners live here in Kansas City now and they do prefer to remain anonymous."

I was convinced, with so much secrecy and all, that Leawood's Fo Thai — currently the first and only restaurant operating under that name — was created as a prototype restaurant for a future chain.

"No," Cunningham says. "We'll possibly open one or two others, but there's no intention of going corporate."

There's another detail that sets Fo Thai apart from its local competition.

The best vegetarian choice: green papaya and mango salad.
  • The best vegetarian choice: green papaya and mango salad.
"Our dinners are served family-style,"our server Justin informed us on Sunday night. "That doesn't mean a lot of food that's passed around. We encourage our patrons to order all their food at once because we bring out each dish, one at a time, so everything can be shared."

It's a great concept if you have time for a long leisurely dinner. A three-course dinner with a starter and a salad took over two hours to eat. It was a very pleasant experience, although it involved a lot of plates and silverware (the place settings are changed for each new course, which must be hell on the dishwasher on a busy weekend night).

How do customers react to this style of service, I asked Cunningham.

"We've had mixed reactions," she said. "But chef Meng and the owners want to bring the traditional Thai style of eating to this area. Some people aren't used to the idea of eating continuously through the meal, although other cultures do it. You know, like the Italians." (That's news to me, but since my Sicilian-American family fought over every scrap at the table, maybe we should have eaten one dish at a time.)

The soundtrack in the dining room, on a mellow Sunday night anyway, was bouncy light jazz. Nothing too Oriental, you know, because Fo Thai isn't your little neighborhood Thai restaurant but something much snazzier and sleek. You don't just dine at this restaurant; you experience it. And there's a price to pay for the attractive details, the theatrical setting and the Leawood location: A charred chili-rubbed Kobe beef sirloin, for example, is priced at $59. I'd like to taste it someday, but I'm selfish that way.

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