But Ann and her 26-year-old son, Ted Liberda, might have taken their biggest gamble yet with the one-month-old Arun Thai Place Grill at Seventh Street and Walnut. For the first restaurant at this location in decades, Ted conceived of an intimate grill setting. But like the restaurant's unusual name, the menu is all Ann. "Arun is my mother's Thai name," says Ted, who oversees this pocket-sized room tucked into a corner of the 85-year-old Western Union Building.
Only the decrepit brick shell of the Grand Opera House across the street lingers as a reminder that this stretch of Seventh Street was once alive and kicking. When the Western Union Building opened in 1919, this neighborhood was a busy transportation center. The Railway Exchange Building occupied the southeast corner (it was razed long ago), and up and down the block, offices housed representatives for railroad, steamship and freight companies. There were publishing and advertising operations and several venues for getting a shave, a decent Cuban cigar or a cheap lunch.
But the neighborhood ran out of steam at about the same time the railroad industry did, and most of its bustle was lost long before highways and "urban renewal" sliced downtown Kansas City into segments. The Arun Thai Place Grill is a pioneer in what's now a wide-open area that's only starting to get attention from redevelopers. The location isn't glamorous, but it boasts a highly uncommon downtown asset: free parking! The paved, fenced-in lot is right across Walnut Street, and it definitely enticed a few midtown friends to join me for dinner.
"There's someplace to park for free?" asked my friend Martha. "North of 12th Street?"
Despite the many surface parking lots scattered between Truman Road and Sixth Street, Kansas City's downtown has a long reputation for being automobile-unfriendly. No one likes having to pay to park, and on-street parking is limited. Thanks to the parking lot, the first urban Thai Place has all the amenities of the suburbs!
But that's only one of the reasons I'm sold on it. There's also its sophisticated design, which is relatively clean and simple (unlike the Westport location, which looks like a set from The King and I), and one of the best waitresses in Kansas City -- the beautiful and intelligent Pam Chaiwan. And the bartender can mix up one of the best cosmopolitans in the city, according to Martha and Carol, who were impressed that their drinks arrived in ice-cold martini glasses.
A chilled cosmo makes the perfect accompaniment to some of the spicier appetizers here, such as the chicken wings sautéed in garlic and basil, or the tiny beet-red pork ribs that come with a fiery siricha hot sauce. My friend Bob adores the coconut-battered shrimp with crispy sweet-potato fries. But my favorite is one of the Liberdas' newer innovations: a plump, soft spring roll stuffed with pieces of grilled satay chicken, cilantro and carrots. The hot meat combined with cool greens and silken peanut sauce makes for a sensual experience.
The night I dined with Carol and Martha, Carol was suffering from a cold -- she knocked backed her cocktail as if it were a shot of NyQuil. I suggested that we share an order of volcano soup, which was loaded with healing ingredients: cilantro, lemon-grass, ginger, Kaffir lime and chicken broth. Carol spooned up every drop in her bowl, raving about how it was "so fresh, so soothing." It is a punchy little soup, though I did nearly choke to death on a chunk of ginger that I had mistaken for chicken. By then, the soup had cleared Carol's head enough that she could spend a few minutes analyzing the décor like the professional interior designer she is. "I love the simplicity of the paper lanterns and the Plexiglas screens that divide the dining room from the bar," she said. "But the artificial flowers have to go."
Each table is set with a twinkling votive candle and a fragrant rose in a pretty glass bud vase -- doesn't Ted know that Kansas City diners are notorious thieves? Dinners are gorgeously presented, too. Tender slices of gingery Duck Paradise, for example, are drenched in a mahogany-colored sauce near a mound of fried rice studded with pineapple and roasted cashews. Slices of grilled tamarind chicken glisten under a shiny glaze made from the sweet syrup of the dish's namesake datelike fruit. And although the word curry evokes pungent chili fare, the creamy, pumpkin-colored panaeng curry is rich with coconut milk and peanut sauce (and, I suspect, a dash of sugar) -- it's an addictive blend of sweet and hot flavors ladled over white rice.
Ann's signature dish, King & Ann Chicken, is also intoxicating thanks to a generous splash of rum added to the garlic marinade; her kitchen crews then sauté the boozy bird with shiitake mushrooms in a satiny ginger sauce. And another option for curing congestion is the high-octane Sweet Thai Basil Stir-Fry, with its combination of fresh basil, searing jalapeños and tart bell peppers.
We might have been too stuffed even to think about sweets, but Carol, emboldened by all that curry, wanted to know what was on the dessert list. Chaiwan almost blushed as she explained that the current offering was that great Venetian pastry, tiramisu. "A relative of one of our chefs makes it," she said. "He's French-Cambodian."
So we shared a piece of the light, fluffy, cocoa-dusted concoction and it was as satisfying and creamy as any I've had in a good Italian restaurant. And leave it to Ted to give the dessert a vaguely Thai garnish, sprinkling the plates with sugared coconut.
The Arun Thai Place Grill is always busy at lunch, but its dinner business is only just starting to pick up, Ted says. I like being able to stroll in and get a table right away, but that kind of luck might run out if more people find out about this place. Opening a new restaurant is always risky, especially in a long-forgotten location. Still, it's on Seventh Street, and seven is almost always a lucky number.