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Sawadee snared me the moment I slipped into its pale-aqua universe, washed in a cool undersea light that gave its midnight-blue aquarium a surreal glow. "Please let the food be good," I silently entreated the restaurant gods, charmed by the prim and slightly daffy sweetness of the place, with its crisp white linens and woodwork, its chipper juxtaposition of motifs. Broken pediments crowning doors and windows said, "George Washington slept here"; glittering, pagoda-style Thai headgear said, "No, he didn't."
Then I spied a Thai-food fanatic of my acquaintance chowing down in a corner, a beatific smile on his face. "Taste this," he commanded, spearing a golden morsel of his seafood pancake and brandishing it imperiously. I obeyed -- and discovered, to my relief, that Sawadee and I were going to get along just fine. Crisp and melting, verdant and electric, this crepe/omelet hybrid didn't even need its gingery dipping sauce. "Try the yum voon sen," my friend suggested. "It's so good that it's as if Renu had made it herself."
Indeed it was. Renu Premkamol, who introduced a generation of Houston eaters to Thai food before returning to Bangkok, could hardly have improved on Sawadee's version of this summery glass-noodle salad. Vibrant with lime, crunchy with peanuts, embellished with the reddest of Roma tomatoes, it had a fresh, herbal quality and an arresting chile bite.
That dish alone -- coupled with Sawadee's engaging look and feel -- is ample reason to forgive the restaurant's definite peccadilloes. But fortunately, plenty of factors compensate for the kitchen's sugar fixation (a style of cookery that's prevalent in some areas of Thailand), and for the extreme oiliness that can sabotage its otherwise attractive curries.
Much of the seasoning here is thoughtful and complex. The kitchen is in love with kaffir lime leaves, which impart their fascinating, almost perfumey undertow to many of Sawadee's dishes. Fresh vegetables get more play than they usually do in Thai restaurants -- all those Kodachrome red peppers and broccoli florets and asparagus spears read like a yuppie-friendly nod to the West U world that unfolds beyond this little corner of Weslayan and Bellaire. And while the food here doesn't hammer you flat with chiles, if you ask for it spicy, your mouth will pay attention.
Case in point: tender chicken with kaffir lime and al dente green beans, wokked with a glistening red-brown chili paste that lights up your lips and the roof of your mouth. This is a dish that grew on me despite its insistent sweetness; caramelized onion strings and lime leaves in fine, floral shreds gave it a certain subtlety, and that chile burn just kept building. The visible orange grease made me nervous, but not so nervous that I left anything on the plate.
Sawadee's yum neua, the lime-dressed beef salad, may not be as sharp and zesty as some, but it is lovely and complicated: voluptuously aromatic with kaffir lime and more piercing lemon grass; spruce with marinated red onion, cucumber and perfect tomato; crackly with pearly bits of polished rice; alive with a front-of-the-tongue chile afterburn.
While nearly everything here sports an undercurrent of sugar, it's more of a liability in some dishes than others. A pad Thai of rice-stick noodles in two widths urgently needs the lift of lime or vinegar -- and the pungent tang of the traditional preserved radish -- to offset its considerable sweetness. (Lavished with broccoli and carrot stars, it may not be the pad Thai of my dreams, but it's still pretty fair; just be sure to ask for lots of extra lime.)
Asparagus and red peppers lend a baroque air to the chicken with emphatic, anise-scented basil and not-so-hot chiles; why the kitchen feels the need to add sugar to this elemental dish is beyond me. I like it, but I'd like it better if it weren't sweet.
And so it goes at this puzzling but endearing restaurant. Dish after dish shows promise and flair; but many prove troublesome in some small, but non-terminal, way. A splendid red chicken curry, pleasantly hot and gentled with coconut cream, oozes with such outrageous amounts of orange oil that one's joy in its potent herbs and uptown vegetables is significantly tempered. An admirably non-rubbery version of tod mun pla, the vividly herbed Thai fish cakes, arrives too aggressively fried, with a wimpy, too-sweet dipping sauce. Dryish, overcooked chicken detracts from -- but can't come close to ruining -- the exhilarating tom kha gai, an unusually creamy version of the tart coconut-milk soup charged with lemon grass, kaffir lime and ginger, fleshed out here with tangy scallion branches, asparagus and onion crescents.
Plump, spicy mussels from a supplemental specials list are gorgeous and gorgeously seasoned: strewn with red peppers, laid out with broccoli in a vivid still life, singing with basil and chiles. Too bad that on a recent evening, the shellfish were the strong-tasting kind that seemed a bit past their prime. Crispy catfish with spicy herb sauce made the mussels look stellar in comparison, though. Oily, sweet, clumsily fried, the fish was neither crisp nor tender inside (a couple of pieces resembled fish jerky); even its delirious dose of kaffir lime couldn't save it.
And what to say of fried tofu with grilled pineapple from the special "extra" menu? That its dipping sauce was one-dimensionally sweet; that the sight of a grilled circle of canned pineapple on the plate was a grave disappointment. Why not use fresh, with its vastly more interesting taste and texture, both here and in the restaurant's red curries? Sure, it's more trouble, but this kitchen is gifted enough to take itself more seriously.
Still, Sawadee is only five months old. Its glitches are easily correctable. And its appeal is undeniable: its dining room the perfect, pastel refuge from summer's heat; its proprietress, Kye Heckler, an ebullient hostess who'll offer to produce an off-the-menu green curry on demand, or slip a young customer a gratis bowl of delicate coconut ice cream. She and her husband, Yut, both of them from restaurateuring families, hauled away truckloads of debris to transform this former lamp shop into a place that fits -- and amusingly transcends -- its West U environment.
The good burghers of the neighborhood have adopted Sawadee, but Kye Heckler -- a confessed "party person" -- laments that her staid clientele goes home early, leaving her hungry for an infusion of wilder blood. With yum voon sen and yum neua this convincing, perhaps she'll get it.
Sawadee Thai Restaurant, 6719 Weslayan, 666-7872.
yum voon sen, $8.95;
tom kha gai, $6.95;
chicken curry, $7.95;
chicken with kaffir lime and green beans, $8.95.
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