It never occurred to Kansas-born Michael Brillhart to open any other kind of dining venue than a Thai restaurant. "It's what I know," he says. For nearly two decades, Brillhart worked in his uncle's successful Thai restaurants in Birmingham, Alabama. When he decided it was time to launch his own place, he returned to Kansas. And he brought a solid Thai kitchen staff with him.
A few months ago, Brillhart opened Sweet Siam, a very pretty little dining room tucked into a modest retail strip called Lenexa Plaza. (The once-popular Mezzaluna Italian restaurant formerly occupied the space.) Sweet Siam is so sleekly designed and attractive that it feels somewhat out of place in this locale. The Chinese takeout joint next door is one of those cramped places, perfumed with cooking oil, where you order from illuminated color photographs mounted on the wall.
Brillhart is a big guy but without the oversized personality to match — which I mean as a compliment. Sweet Siam, which he bills as a Thai bistro, shares with its owner a cool, laid-back ambience that sets it apart from the brassy bad taste defining some of its contemporaries. It's a clean, attractive and intimate room, painted in tropical shades, with a snazzy translucent bar top that flashes different colors, like the dance floor in a smoky Bangkok nightclub. If one of the potent house cocktails doesn't intoxicate you, then staring at the surface of the bar probably will.
My friend Berry paced herself by taking slow sips of a punchy mai tai on the night she and Crystal joined me for dinner. "I don't want to get woozy before the main course arrives," she explained.
Good call. That first course, an array of traditional fried starters, was a leisurely affair. It wasn't until the small dishes arrived that we realized we had leaned a little too heavily on the crunchy delicacies from the deep fryer, unintentionally ignoring the yum woon sen (seafood and ground-chicken lettuce wraps) and the Thai larb (a beef-and-mint concoction).
"But these are the popular choices," explained the server, pointing to egg rolls, some golden wedges of fried tofu, and the pinched wonton purses filled with cream cheese (and, allegedly, crab).
The appetizer options for vegetarian Crystal, however, were limited to the vegetable spring rolls (fried in vegetable oil), the triangles of slightly chewy fried tofu and the freshly boiled edamame. When she wasn't looking, Berry and I indulged on the not-very-crabby wontons, the airy puffs of battered calamari, and the fried shrimp practically mummified in a tight-bound sheath of crispy wonton wrapper.
Almost every starter is served with the sticky "original sweet and sour sauce," a simple blend of vinegar, sugar syrup and red-chili flakes. (There's a little garlic, too — it could use more.) I've had variations of this made with fermented fish sauce (nam pla), which has more character, but there's a reason that this restaurant is called Sweet Siam. Even the savory sauces have a slightly cloying top note, and the desserts are extraordinary. Life may hand us the bitter and the sweet, but in Lenexa, the sweet gets top billing.
So it's surprising that the pad Thai, a bellwether dish for local Thai restaurants, is seasoned here quite subtly. Most recipes for this dish call for at least a couple of tablespoons of sugar, and a few Thai venues in the metro sweeten the sauce with such a heavy hand that the noodles taste like taffy.
The servers didn't ask, on any of my visits, which intensity of spiciness I preferred. Why would they? One is supposed to draw conclusions from the number of little pepper illustrations next to items on the menu: one pepper equals spicy, two peppers represent hot, three stand for Thai hot. Now, I've tasted some tongue-searing "Thai hot" at other restaurants, but no one is going to taste Sweet Siam's three-peppers-boasting green curry — which is delicious — and reach for a glass of water. It's strictly a one-alarm fire.
Diners who don't give a damn about the nuances of seasoning and just want a sinus-clearing burn, however, can just order the "spice tray" and call it a day. It's a do-it-yourself trio of condiments: marinated jalapeño slices, a Thai chili paste, and dried red-chili flakes.
The house specialties don't require condiments. The pan-fried snapper is a marvel: a light and flaky fillet, lightly pan-sautéed until there's an almost evanescent crust and then draped in ribbons of lemon grass, ginger, red onion and red bell peppers. Equally satisfying is a tender breast of duck, sliced and dusted with flour, flash fried and draped in a supple, fragrant basil broth.
Roasted garlic and hot chilies dominate a provocatively silky sauce spooned over a plate of jade-green asparagus stalks, plump scallops and pink shrimp. Like the other entrées here, it's sided with a ball of white rice, but the elegant sauces at Sweet Siam — coconut-milk panang curry, soothing peanut masaman curry, even the pineapple-speckled sweet and sour — make those starchy orbs palatable.
There's a more elaborate dessert list at Sweet Siam than you might expect — in some places, you're lucky to find coconut ice cream — including a house-made vanilla crème brûlée, fried bananas, chocolate-filled wontons and a hefty slab of house-made coconut layer cake.
"People tell us it's the best in the city," advised that night's server, a frustrated poet. (He recited one of his poems to us; it ended in a punch line that went over everyone's head, including, I think, his own.) The cake, however, lived up to its billing: a gorgeously moist pastry with a thick band of fresh coconut cream in the center. It's a memorable sweet for a Thai restaurant that is exactly what its name claims.