I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't know how my little Dodge fared in the miles-per-gallon department until I had to drive out to Olathe just to eat in a restaurant. Twice. After the first visit to Tannahs Asian Fusion, I was telling a friend how much I liked this cozy little suburban restaurant. "But at roughly $3.60 a gallon," he asked, "is it really worth 2 gallons of gas to eat Mongolian beef or Thai peanut tofu when you can get the same thing at restaurants closer to your house?"
I put pencil to paper and calculated that it did, in fact, take about a gallon to get from my driveway to the Olathe Pointe Shopping Center at 119th Street and Blackbob and another gallon to get home. That's not only 2 gallons of gas but also the price of most of the appetizers and desserts on the Tannahs menu. So on my second visit, I had to justify the expedition this way: I either hitchhiked to get there or I didn't order the $7 crème brûlée cheesecake. I'm only half-kidding; it's hard to pretend to be such a penny pincher when I recently paid five bucks for the pleasure of parking near the Power & Light District just to eat an expensive lunch at the Bristol.
The thing about Nathan and Mendy Tannahill's namesake restaurant — Tannahs is a chopped-off version of their distinctly non-Asian last name — is that the food is interesting and visually appealing, and the service is so comforting that I'm perfectly happy driving out to this bustling consumer mecca.
I was a few minutes late getting to Tannahs on my first foray to the restaurant, and my friends Jennifer and Erik were already at the bar, sipping cocktails and talking to Nathan Tannahill, who was tending bar. He was explaining to them that before he and his wife changed the name of their Asian-fusion bistro, it had been a franchise operation of the Las Vegas-based Gimme Sum Fresh Asian Grill. I remember reading that a Gimme Sum had been listed among the potential restaurants scheduled to open in the Power & Light District; it's not mentioned on the P&L Web site, though. Besides its vaguely suggestive name, Gimme Sum sounded a little like a knockoff of Pei Wei, the inexpensive order-at-the-counter concept created by the parent company of P.F. Chang's.
Other Gimme Sum franchises were very much in the lowbrow Pei Wei mold, but the Tannahills went their own way from the start, insisting on sit-down service and trained waiters and waitresses. And after a year, they decided to legally separate from the chain. The first change was the name: "The name Gimme Sum hurt us more than helped us," Nathan says. "It suggested a fast-casual place, and we're not that at all."
Nathan stresses that his six-month-old place is not a traditional Chinese restaurant but an eclectic mix of culinary influences. Yes, there are spring rolls and pot stickers and Cantonese scallops and Szechuan shrimp. But there are also a couple of Japanese and Thai choices and a cranberry-spinach salad that sounds downright Midwestern to me. Ditto the molten chocolate cake and the crème brûlée cheesecake.
Not surprisingly, the Tannahills draw most of their clientele from Olathe (though one regular customer drives in from Ottawa once a week). Erik, who lives in Prairie Village, had never heard of the restaurant in either of its incarnations, but he and Jennifer were impressed with the sleek décor, the shiny steel exhibition kitchen behind a glass wall and the extensive menu. We made quick work of three excellent starters: topaz-colored spicy shrimp; fat little meaty spare ribs in this joint's signature "silk" sauce (a fancy name for teriyaki sauce mixed with chili-garlic sauce); and crunchy pot stickers stuffed with a gingery concoction of diced chicken, scallions and mushrooms.
Erik liked the egg-drop soup made with golden corn kernels: "This is a fusion of Cantonese and Kansas," he said. He was disappointed when the duck dish he ordered wasn't available. "The duck shipment doesn't arrive until tomorrow," our server explained. Instead, he was talked into a plate of Mongolian beef that was plenty tender and delicately seasoned with soy and garlic but not exciting enough for his taste. "You can get a dish like this at any Chinese restaurant," he said.
I'm not sure you could say the same about Jennifer's meal, a plate of shiny candied walnut shrimp, dotted with sugared walnuts and pale-green melon balls. It was so cloyingly sweet that it must have been a fusion of Asian and Russell Stover.
I scored that night's winning dish with the twice-cooked sambal pork, which had a punchy chili kick that I was able to cool down with a few bites of a terrific side of soft tofu, lightly caramelized in a silky peanut sauce. I'd eaten too much of everyone's dinners to join in the dessert action, so I sat out the final course: a spring roll wrapped around a fluffy filling of whipped cream and banana and sided by a softball-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream.
I took Bob out a few days later. He's not the greatest fan of Asian food, but he was impressed with Tannahs' look and the polished service. It was a Friday night, and the dining room was crowded, mostly with young, clean-cut families with well-behaved kids.
Bob wasn't sure what he thought about the spring rolls stuffed with creamy mashed potatoes — Chinese fused with Idaho? — but he was thrilled with the pink squares of lightly wok-seared Ahi tuna crusted with crunchy black and white sesame seeds.
Since that week's duck shipment had finally arrived, I ordered the silk spicy duck — dainty little "tenders" cooked with garlic and snow peas in a sweet chili sauce. I've preferred other preparations of an Asian bird, but I lapped it up anyway.
After our server assured beef-lovin' Bob that the black-pepper-crusted beef was one of her favorites, he settled on this luscious dish of tender beef, slightly caramelized in onion, soy and pepper so that each shiny slice was faintly crispy and jumbled up with pieces of fat asparagus and shiitake mushrooms.
Bob couldn't be goaded into sampling the Taste of Asia dessert plate, with small portions of caramel-banana cake, molten chocolate cake and a banana spring roll.
"I'm tired," he groused, "and this restaurant is so far away."
Actually, it was less than 29 minutes from his door, but for some people, Olathe is as far away as Beijing. For me, Tannahs is worth the trip.