A man sitting on the other side of the dining room stood and, without hesitation, approached our table. "I'm sorry," he said. "I just have to see what that is."
The "that" to which he referred was my wife's entrée at Thai Sawadee: pineapple fried rice. The menu makes clear that this is served in a pineapple shell, but judging by my wife's reaction when the dish arrived, she'd missed this detail.
"What?" She laughed, embarrassed. Other diners nudged one another, nodding at our table. "Wow."
Behold the pineapple fried rice: The kitchen had sliced a pineapple in half lengthwise, removed the fruit and filled the cavity of one half with a generous mound of fried rice, chicken, egg, onion, cashews and, of course, pineapple. This pineapple half was served with its long leaves — the longest I've ever seen — still attached so that the whole dish resembled the prow of a great sailing ship.
The presentation was awesome, but once the hubbub passed, what impressed me most about the dish were the little things: the textural play between the exceptionally tender chicken, the crunchy cashews and the practically molten pineapple chunks; the warming note of curry powder imbuing everything. The kitchen could have served this in a plastic bowl swiped from Taco Bell, and it would have been impressive.
The pineapple fried rice is listed among Thai Sawadee's specialties, which is appropriate. It's the ultimate expression of what makes this restaurant appealing: bold, but harmonious, flavors, attention to detail and visual flair.
(The easily embarrassed needn't fear: Only one other dish, shrimp pineapple curry, is served in a hollowed-out pineapple half.)
Thai Sawadee opened late last year in Hilltown Village Center, the shopping plaza that faces Olive Boulevard just before it intersects with I-64 and becomes Clarkson Road in Chesterfield. It's the second restaurant from Patrick Chau and Andi Chompupong, who also own Thai Kitchen in St. Peters.
The modest interior, a single dining room with seating for a few dozen and a bar in one corner, follows what seems to be the standard Thai-restaurant template: hardwood floor, wood-paneled walls, spare décor and the obligatory portrait of Thailand's king.
"We have a lot of Thai restaurants," a colleague remarked when I told him this week's review subject. Now, I don't have the math chops to determine what, exactly, a lot of a particular kind of restaurant would be. If St. Louis has a lot of Thai restaurants, how on earth would you quantify how many Italian restaurants there are? But in my gut I agreed with my colleague. So many of our Thai restaurants are so similar — which is not to say bad — that they blur together into one endless numbered menu of pad thai, red curry and tom kha soup.
Thai Sawadee isn't radically different from all the other Thai restaurants, but it possesses more focus than most. Take the curries. There are only four: yellow, red, panang and massaman. What's more, you can't mix and match the protein and the curry of your choice. The red and yellow curries are served with chicken, the panang with beef, the massaman with shrimp.
The panang curry, served with basil and green and red bell peppers as well as thinly sliced beef, is terrific. The sauce has a savory depth that balances the sweetness of its coconut-cream base, and the chile factor (I opted for "very hot," four on a five-point scale) sparked all the flavors, tying together the entire dish. The red curry with chicken, bell peppers, basil and bamboo shoots might not have been as distinctive as the panang, but it was a fine example of the dish, spicy and a tad sweet. As with the pineapple fried rice, I was impressed in both cases at how tender the meat was.
Nam tok beef, another house specialty, brought a generous serving of thinly sliced grilled beef with red onion, scallions and chiles, tossed with fresh lime juice. The beef had the satisfying chew of a good hanger steak, and the one-two punch of lime juice and chile added an addictive edge to its already full flavor.
A nice touch: The nam tok beef is served without steamed rice, but if you're like me, you'll want some to soak up all the delicious juices. Just as I was about to order a side dish of rice, our server offered to bring me some at no extra charge. In general, service at Thai Sawadee is friendly, attentive and brisk. If you want to linger over your meal, you might want to order dishes in phases rather than all at once.
Though the menu isn't as long as those at many Thai restaurants, it offers more dishes than even this critic could hope to try. Besides the house specialties and curries, there are appetizers, soups, salads, fried-rice dishes, noodle dishes and "entrées," this last a catch-all category for stir-fried and sautéed meat and vegetables.
From among the entrées, I tried "Thai Sawadee Chicken" on the not unreasonable assumption that this would be a signature dish. It was — though unexpectedly so. Large pieces of dark-meat chicken fried to a crisp, lacquered with a rich, spicy brown sauce and served over steamed broccoli, it was evocative of my favorite Chinese American food, like the kung pao chicken that In Soo Jung used to dish up at her namesake University City restaurant.
Tom yam, the traditional hot-and-sour soup, served here with shrimp, packs the usual sinus-clearing wallop of ginger, lemongrass and lime juice. At Thai Sawadee, though, I was especially taken with the clear, delicate broth. Equally delicious is the tiny bowl of the vegetable soup always included with your lunch.
On my final visit, I began my meal with larb gai. On the one hand, this is simple to describe: ground chicken, scallions, chiles and crushed or "broken" rice in lime juice. Yet I'm constantly mystified by this dish. At some Thai restaurants, the crushed rice dominates, adding a unique crunch. At Thai Sawadee, I barely noticed the rice, yet the lime and chile flavors were overpowering. Which is better? Which is more authentic?
Honestly, I don't know. But it's one reason I'll never complain when another Thai restaurant opens. Each is its own door into this fascinating cuisine.