When I first noticed a construction Dumpster outside the old Mezzaluna, I crossed my fingers.
The Italian restaurant had opened with a flourish in 1998, only to linger well past its prime. When the debris finally settled at the end of January, Sweet Siam, a Thai bistro owned by Shawnee Mission East graduate Michael Brillhart, opened its doors.
The space, in a fairly typical Lenexa strip mall at 79th Street and Quivira Road, has taken on an appealing glow of rejuvenation, thanks to a new coat of paint in vibrant hues of tangerine, kiwi and butter yellow. Adding to the ambience are an illuminated green and blue bar and a ceiling baffle laced with delicate silk panels that flutter like a mobile from the activity below.
On a recent Friday night, nearly every table is full. An Asian woman dressed in black greets us enthusiastically, saying she recognizes my husband after serving him lunch a few weeks earlier. “Hello! Thank you for coming back!” she says.
Meanwhile, Brillhart, a young man in dress jeans and a casual shirt, keeps a watchful eye on the dining room. Brillhart has spent the last 18 years working as a kitchen manager at high-volume Thai restaurants in Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta. He convinced three Thai chefs and two other staffers to join him in Kansas when he decided to move closer to family.
The menu at Sweet Siam (Thailand was once known as Siam) offers some traditional riffs, including a rainbow of curries, silky noodle and throaty basil-infused dishes — but it also strays just a bit with eclectic interpretations, such as pan-fried catfish in a ginger-soy sauce lettuce and ka proud grilled lamb chops served in a basil sauce with shrimp-fried rice.
For most diners, pad Thai is the standard by which they evaluate a Thai restaurant. But my yardstick is panang curry. Curries can be too rich or too thin; too hot or too mild; too sweet or too salty. And I always order a mild version to gauge how hot the kitchen is running. This version of panang was no hotter than most but definitely thinner than I am used to, served on a plate rather than in a bowl.
But the plate is so full of fresh, brightly colored vegetables that I could see the argument for laying it out that way. Visual presentation is a feature of Thai cuisine — whole watermelons are often carved into a bouquet of chrysanthemums. Nearly every dish is garnished with carrot “flowers” or “cranes” and delicate ruffles of kale. Red pepper strips set off the pumpkin-colored, cream-enriched sauce.
That same attention to artistic detail also is visible in the bacon-wrapped shrimp in a blanket, whole shrimp tightly wrapped in eggroll dough and fried to a light camel color. The fingers were served on a lace doily in a scallop plate, accompanied by a bouquet of bean sprouts, cilantro and shredded carrot and a ramekin of sweet sauce. I can’t say I really tasted any bacon, but the appetizer had eye appeal.
The pot stickers were the only major disappointment on the nights we dined; the edges of the dough were stiff and uncooked. It’s a common problem I’ve noticed elsewhere. Perhaps more oil in the pan when cooking will render a fully tender dumpling. Instead, I’d recommend the yum woon sen — thin mung-bean noodles garnished with shrimp, squid and ground chicken that is marked with two chile pepper icons but had a pleasantly mild fish and chile flavor.
The nam tok beef entrée is much spicier, even if it has no chili icons. Tender, thinly sliced filets of beef rib-eye are sliced, grilled and sliced again before they receive a dusting in toasted rice that has been ground into a powder.
The preparation, a play on Tiger Cry beef, gives the meat a slightly nutty crunch while lime, chili and basil add the requisite heat and tang. On one night, a dining companion mopped the top of his hairless head with a paper napkin and continued forking, smiling all the while like a Cheshire cat.
All of the entrees we tried were solidly executed, with fresh ingredients and lovely presentation. The prices are budget-friendly as well: entrées range from $11 to $19.
But if there is a dish that really left an impression, it was the soft shell crabs, a seasonal delight that is not all that common this far from the coasts.
The season for soft-shell crab runs roughly April to September. Here, two lightly breaded crabs that have shed their winter shell are served with what seemed like a pound of tender, pencil-thin asparagus served in a “Thai sauce.” With Thai cuisine’s heavy reliance on soy and fish sauces, head chef Dang Ongya skillfully adjusts it to the lighter side to enhance rather than cover up the delicate ingredients.
“The American palate doesn’t like those strong fish flavors,” Brillhart says when I ask about the adaptations he has made to the menu.
Although the portions at Sweet Siam are more than ample, leave room for the house-made desserts. Although the sugar crust on the crème brulee isn’t as hard as I like, when my spoon hits the bottom of the ramekin, I see a streak of vanilla seeds, and the shaggy house-made coconut layer cake is yet another fanciful flourish to a satisfying meal.