Let me be the first to admit here that I don't know a great deal about Thai food outside of a few really great meals at the Star of Siam in Chicago, and one or two other less than memorable meals on the West Coast. Thai food attracts a certain type of loyal aficionado, the sort who generally sounds as if he knows what he"s talking about. For that reason, I generally listen carefully to fans of Thai food when they try to explain it to me. I've always believed, just because a certain style of cuisine, or a particular dish, doesn"t necessarily appeal to my taste, that it is nobody"s fault but my own. After all, who am I to judge whether something is a good or bad example if I don"t possess the yardstick by which to measure it?
Before its owner's untimely demise a few years ago, Indy's own Bangkok was considered by many to be as good as Thai got in these parts. Although I paid a few visits, I never really took to the ferocious heat, the frankly raw spicing and the extremity of flavors. Despite the fact that this kind of food wasn't really to my taste, I believed my more savvy friends when they assured me that this was as close to being authentic as you were likely to encounter in Indianapolis.
Having mentioned the word "authentic," I suppose it's worth taking a moment or two to explore the subject of authenticity. As you'll see later in this column, there are some restauranteurs who don't consider the authenticity of style (or content) to be especially significant in ethnic or regional cuisine as long as the food tastes good. After all, how many Chinese restaurants do we know of that offer anything even vaguely approximating true Cantonese cookery? How many of us would eat tripe, brains, pig trotters and fried locusts at a truly authentic Central Mexican establishment if such a place existed in these parts? I suspect few.
In my limited experience, Thai food is quite straightforward (with the exception of a few "Royal Thai" dishes), and derives much of its individuality from super fresh ingredients, bright flavors and the harmonious use of such flavoring agents as hot peppers, coconut milk and, occasionally, tomato. The menu at Sawasdee features an extensive menu of authentic-looking Thai dishes, with names like pud med ma muang him ma phan (cashew chicken) or gang jead woonsen (glass noodle soup) that certainly sound genuine enough.
A plate of appetizers sampled recently, however, yielded a number of differently-shaped, yet similar-tasting items that bore little distinction, either empirically, or between themselves. For $8.95, the platter consisted of: chicken satay (not deep fried), springrolls, fried pork wontons, fried vegetable pieces, fried something else I couldn't readily recognize, then fried other things with which I was hopelessly ill-acquainted. The batter in which all these items were cooked was identical in flavor and consistency. This appetizer dish, although ample, offers little to write home about, and wouldn't be out of place on the menu of one of the city's many chain Chinese takeaways.
All entrÈes at Sawasdee are served with a noodle soup (beef, I think), which was fine, but not especially challenging. As a main course, I had a duck curry, which consisted of thin slices of fatty duck breast in a red curry broth, garnished with cherry tomatoes and grapes. The sauce was dominated by tomato, excessively so, I think, giving the impression that I was eating some sort of Californian Pacific Rim fusion concoction rather than an authentically Thai dish.
My friend tried the Padd Thai, a traditional, benchmark dish if there ever was one. For $8.95, this was a generous serving of noodles, chicken, peanuts and dried shrimp. The flavors, however, were nowhere near as vivid as some similar dishes we had enjoyed at a Vietnamese restaurant just days earlier. My friend ate three desultory forkfuls, then pushed the plate aside. It wasn't as if the dish was poor, merely uninspired. The service at Sawasdee is friendly and very efficient. The dÈcor is unassuming. The food here is just fine if you're not looking for anything too special. An equivocal review? Yes, because my expectations, quite low to begin with, were amply satisfied. If you're looking for authentic Thai, you should probably look elsewhere; if you just want a good, cheap feed, then you can do a lot worse.
An out of town diversion
It helps to have a good sense of irony when you're a restaurant owner. A few days ago, Lance Stacey, owner of Divino in Bloomington and Columbus, was recalling to me over breakfast that a local reviewer had recently accused him of lacking authenticity. He took the accusation with precisely the correct dose of salt. "What the hell do I care? I'm not exactly trying to be authentic," he pointed out. "What"s their problem? I just want to make good fresh food using the ingredients that make sense to my budget and to my diners."
It's difficult running a genuine Mediterranean restaurant in the heart of the Midwest, and the irony isn't lost on Stacey. Although freshness is a prerequisite to his philosophy, he smiles broadly when the subject of authenticity is raised. "We live in Central Indiana. Certainly, some of the right ingredients are available, but not always. What we do is as much true to the spirit of Mediterranean food as it is to the letter."
Stacey's restaurants, now into their collective third year of operation, offer unpretentious, soundly-prepared, Mediterranean-based menus using fresh, locally-produced ingredients wherever possible, and whatever else seems appropriate the rest of the time. Stacey's father grows many of the tomatoes used in both operations, over 20 heirloom varieties at the last count, and the young restaurateur isn't afraid to praise his father's green thumb as long as anyone is prepared to listen to him. He's justly proud of these magical fruits, some of which weigh in at over a pound and are packed with the intense, concentrated flavors that take my tastebuds back to the '60s, the last time that commercial tomatoes actually tasted of something.
It's not easy to find quality ingredients, stylish design, fair prices and a sense of humor under the same roof these days, but Divino does it with style. Next time you're in Bloomington, check out their classy new digs on Walnut, in the space formerly occupied by L'Opera Ristorante. Make sure to book ahead for weekends, though, because, authentic or not, Lance Stacey is packing them in with his tapas-based Mediterranean cuisine and moderately-priced wine list. You can"t be all things to all people, apparently, but that just leaves more for the rest of us.