The original Sawasdee opened in 1999 in a low-slung commercial building behind an Asian market on Capital Boulevard. It was an unassuming family-run eatery, serving a limited Thai menu on Styrofoam plates in a tiny space with only five tables. The food was very good, though, and the restaurant thrived. The menu expanded over the next few years, and the dining room got a makeover.
In 2004, the owners sold the restaurant to Deanne Sriphetcharawut and her brother, Jeff. An accomplished cook, Deanne Sriphetcharawut gradually began imprinting the menu with the flavors of Bangkok and central Thailand, where she grew up and attended college. Presentations are typically more refined and sauces a bit sweeter in this region than in the outlying areas represented by many Thai restaurants, including the original Sawasdee. But the new chef's tweaks were subtle enough that Sawasdee's customer base remained solid.
If the changes up to that point were baby steps, the next would be a giant one. Last November, the partners opened a second restaurant that - on the surface at least - bears little resemblance to the first. The new Sawasdee is vastly larger than the original, for one thing, and offers two private banquet rooms in addition to the expansive main dining room. Batik tapestries, Thai woodcarvings and carpeting in rich shades of rust, blue and green give a warmly inviting feel to a space that would otherwise feel cavernous. In the center of the room, the bar - itself roughly the size of the dining area in the original restaurant - dispenses exotic cocktails and a selection of draft and bottled beers and wines that's a cut above the ethnic restaurant norm.
An extensive menu
With some 75 listings, including an impressive 14 vegetarian entrees, the new menu is among the area's most extensive. It's certainly the most ambitious in terms of variety, and to my knowledge the only one to offer a seasonally changing selection of chef's specials. Current specials, available until late April, cover a varied spectrum from peanut Panang lamb chops to choo chee goong, which features jumbo shrimp in a rich coconut curry that's named for the sound the sauce makes as it boils and thickens. Tamarind tilapia, another special, serves up a whole fish, filleted and cut into bite-size pieces that are deep-fried and returned to the frame (which is also deep-fried). Topped with a colorful confetti of julienne carrots, red onion, ginger and toasted peanuts in a lemongrass-flecked tamarind sauce, the dish is a multisensory extravaganza.
The distinctive features of central Thai cooking are more evident in some dishes than others, as a sampling of the regular menu reveals. Curries, noodle dishes and other familiar specialties are similar in character to what you'd find in other Thai restaurants, though at Sawasdee the execution is generally superior and presentations more attractive than most.
In a few instances, the flavor of a dish may come off as restrained in comparison to the more rustic versions of other regions. But they're no less satisfying in classics such as green papaya salad and yum neau (grilled beef salad), in whose dressings the heat of Thai chiles and the saline pungency of fish sauce are balanced by sugar and lime.
Bangkok's urbane influence is evident in Sawasdee's presentation of hor mok talay, a mixed seafood curry casserole traditionally steamed in banana leaf. Here it's cooked in foil, which is peeled back to resemble lotus petals for serving. And in pad prik kra paw, a traditional stir-fry familiarly known as "spicy basil," the basil is amply represented but the "spicy" takes a back to "sweet" in the sauce.
Don't be fooled by those refined presentations, however, into thinking that you'll be short-changed on flavor. The kitchen doesn't skimp on lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal when they're called for, and the spice level of most dishes can be adjusted to your preference. (A word to the wise: If you order a dish "make me cry" hot, you'd better mean it.)
The original Sawasdee has reaped the windfall of an expanded menu that's essentially the same at both restaurants, though this review is based on visits to the Glenwood Avenue location. I can say that I've consistently experienced efficient, warmly hospitable service at both restaurants. Then again, what else would you expect from a restaurant whose name (it's pronounced sah-wah-TEE) is a friendly greeting, roughly translated as "hi!"