Reviewing restaurants is not like reviewing film or theater — and I've done all three.
There aren't many variables in watching a movie. The movie that you sit through on Saturday will be exactly the same film, frame by frame, when you go watch it again on Sunday. Theater is slightly different. The actors depend on each other's energy and spontaneity, as well as that of their live audience, to galvanize their performances. But pros don't typically show us wild swings in mood from night to night.
A restaurant, on the other hand, can feel utterly different from night to night, or even from hour to hour. Behind the scenes are numerous variations in market availability, recipe tinkering and staffing. And out front, another complex set of variables: the patrons. A couple sitting at one table can have a dramatically different dining experience from that of a couple sitting just a few inches away, sometimes because they've brought their own dining baggage to the table.
That's why so many Americans value the consistency and stability of corporate chain restaurants. Say what you want about Applebee's, where the food and service are purposely dull; everybody who goes there can at least depend on a comfortably predictable experience.
Of course, a dining room can suffer from too much personality. Overland Park's four-month-old Sawasdee Thai Cuisine, for instance, presents an excess of visual style that's impossible to ignore. Its soothing, kaffir-lime-colored walls and sleek blond-wood platforms (as hard as church pews and not the most comfortable way to sit for any length of time) make for an immediately striking interior.
That design is one reason that I loved Sawasdee on my first visit. I was dining alone and didn't sample the menu very deeply. But this isn't Applebee's. Different days brought different results, and I was less impressed by two follow-up meals, which revealed food not nearly as lively, spicy or bold as the space in which it's served.
Not everything on the menu here is bland, mind you. But other suburban Thai restaurants not far from here offer a broader, more potent flavor palette, rather than more colorful walls.
Sawasdee (the word, pronounced saw-wat-dee, derives from a Sanskrit term meaning well-being and is used as an affectionate form of hello or farewell) is the creation of Salisa "Ann" Chatani. She's the charming restaurateur who operated the Thai House at 9938 Holmes in south Kansas City for seven years, before selling it a few years ago. It was never in the league of the Thai Place, Hot Basil or Sweet Siam, but the food was fresh and the service attentive.
Chatani's latest venue shows potential, but she needs to seriously up the kitchen's game. Familiar dishes that are loaded with flavor in competing restaurants fall disappointingly flat at Sawasdee. The mint beef salad goes without mint flavor — or any other discernible taste of the "fresh herbs" that the menu promises. The marinated and grilled skewers of Tiger Cry beef I ordered came to me lukewarm, and I found the grilled chicken on satay skewers to be tough as a crow.
Sawasdee's pad Thai — the noodle dish that's typically a bellwether for most Siamese restaurants — was gummy and jarringly sweet when I sampled it.
I preferred the basil chicken wings, shellacked in a pretty mahogany glaze — one that was sadly light on basil. The fried tofu I tried was better: light and fluffy under an evanescent, crispy exterior. And the spring rolls I ordered were so tightly packed with chopped fresh greens, I worried that biting into one might create an explosion of garden-fresh green confetti. (No such luck.)
Among the seven house specialties, one dish was sublime: a spectacularly tasty crispy duck slathered in a piquant sweet-spicy sauce. Order it rather than the catfish, which had been overcooked to the consistency of ancient papyrus the night I tried it.
That's not the only thing this kitchen prepares to the point of exhaustion. A couple of the chicken dishes I sampled were stringy and dry, and an unusual Chiang Mai-style curry — called "Jungle Curry" here, though it's made without the coconut milk that imparts a silky sweetness to the other curry dishes on Chatani's menu — also came out not exotic but overdone.
During one of my later, non-solo meals at Sawasdee, my two dining companions expressed their lack of enthusiasm for the food. (Books, plays, pad Thai — everyone's a critic.) Turns out, we were all sharing a pretty uniform experience after all. If Chatani can find a way to flavor Sawasdee's dishes as singularly as she has styled its space, this restaurant might still become the right kind of inconsistent.