A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
2650 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls.; (612) 377-4418
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11:00 p.m., Sunday noon-10:00 p.m.
In Italian Renaissance art, identifying the light source is a big deal. Does your painting make use of the clear light of God's reason, coming from all directions, leaving no shadows (like in one of those Gap-cult commercials)? Is it lit by the sun, geometric shadows predictable through the logical application of science? Or is your light all man-made and wonky, coming from a candle here, a fireplace there, and perhaps, in the corner, the slothful burning of lusty hearts? (Mr. Caravaggio, how could you?) But the option of lighting with beer-sign neon, gas-station incandescent, and passing headlights has never been fully explored. Until now. Please, students of art and light, report to the front atrium at the new Uptown Sawatdee: There's new ground being broken here.
The unconventional lighting scheme isn't as unpleasant as you might think: The yellow streetlight outside and Amoco's bluish fluorescence combine to create a vaguely flattering yellow-gray wash. It may not facilitate reading the Sawatdee menu's sometimes tiny type, but it is very, perfectly, Uptown: If you liked the way your date looked in the dim light of Lyle's or the C.C. Club, no unpleasant surprises await you at Sawatdee. And the cozy tables feel just like the relaxed, boozy back of an Uptown bar, without the smoke.
All of which is more evidence of how smartly Supenn Supatanasinkasem Harrison, the chain's founder, has tailored each of the now seven Sawatdees to their individual locations. Where the Washington Avenue Sawatdee is a destination restaurant complete with larger-than-life faux elephant tusks and fabulous art, and the Nicollet Mall location is a cafeteria-bright quick-lunch central, Harrison's Uptown outpost has now debuted as the cozy, quiet, casual, and significantly meat-free Sawatdee--even the Beef Delight can be ordered with mock duck. The low-shtick atmosphere, dim light, and boutique beer list mark this as a restaurant that considers pad thai no more remarkable than spaghetti.
So how is that pad thai? It's a pretty good, sweet, mild version of what's been called the Thai national dish, a stir-fried combination of rice noodles, garlic, chili and fish sauces, ground shrimp, eggs, and lime juice. The Uptown incarnation pairs the noodles with a notably thick, almost saladlike lid of bean sprouts, scallions, and cilantro. I tend to like my pad thai a good deal more assertive than that, but all my dining companions thought it was fine--call it Thai comfort food. (Pad thai is available without any extras for $7.50; with tofu or chicken for $8.25; or with shrimp for $9.95.)
Overall I found the food at the Uptown location to be a mixed bag: There were some swell things and a couple of stinkers, but almost everything was rock-solid pretty-good. I don't know whether they're spreading themselves too thin, but for the last year or so the various Sawatdees have seemed to be losing their edge, letting other restaurants best them on individual dishes: Chiang Mai Thai does better seafood, Cheng Heng does a better beef salad, Royal Orchid comes through with a superior coconut tom yum soup, Ketsana and Ruam Mit Thai excel in pad thai, and any number of places have better spring rolls. Then again, Sawatdee trumps all of those restaurants on reliability, so I guess they're losing battles and winning the war. Or something.
Let's get the lost battles out of the way first: Conveniently, the stinkers also tend to be the most expensive dishes. The Tail of Two Cities ($17.95)--lobster tail with the meat pulled out and tossed with string beans and a red curry--was the worst: The dish is made from a once-frozen rock lobster tail, not those fresh, whole red lobsters with the big claws. I think the meat from rock-lobster tails is tough and salty because it's frozen in a salt solution, and when these tough chunks are combined with a salty curry, they become truly awful. My table was actually picking out the fresh, crisp string beans and leaving the lobster behind.
The pattaya crab ($15.95) is made with similarly lackluster seafood, briny crab claws cooked and frozen far away. But the tasty sour-salty yellow curry that cloaks the dish can also be ordered on shrimp or squid (both are $13.95), and in that case it makes a swell, zingy dish. A walleye fillet in a coconut-milk curry ($14.95) featured an unexpectedly fried, overcooked fish fillet, though the sauce itself was delicate.
Abstaining from those splurgey dishes will allow you to add more of the restaurant's appetizers to your meal. The thick slices of roasted meat in the Thai-style beef jerky ($6.50, or $8.95 with green papaya salad) have the texture of dry satay chicken, but yield a robust, addictive flavor. Both the tempura-style vegetables ($5.95) and tempura-style squid ($6.50) were excellent when I tried them: The squid was moist, sweet, and light as bubbles; the broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, and onions in the vegetable plate were delightfully tender in their fluffy batter jackets. (Penny pinchers, please note: At the Sawatdee Web site, www.sawatdee.com, you can get a coupon for a free appetizer with the purchase of two entrées.)
A few entrées were appealingly fresh and light. The Rama Thai Delight, a dish of steamed spinach leaves dressed with a chopped-peanut curry, was particularly vibrant; sweet green curry made with coconut milk was bright and unfussy. Both dishes are $8.95 for a chicken or tofu version, and $12 for shrimp.)
The restaurant serves three desserts. The Thai custard served on sticky rice and cloaked in coconut milk ($4.25) is intensely sugary, but still very good; the uncomplicated fresh sliced mango ($5) presented with sweet, sticky rice is as good as ever. But I thought the Thai fried banana ($3.95) was weird: The three slices of tempura-battered banana tasted strangely doughy and salty, too much like the tempura vegetables I had during the same meal, making for an odd déjà vu effect.
Really, there's déjà vu in the whole Uptown Sawatdee experience. Between the familiar menu and the elegant way Harrison has erased the previous tenant, Szechuan Empress, it's as if there had always been a Sawatdee on the corner of 27th and Hennepin. (Remember the fateful season they switched from Szechuan Express to Szechuan Empress? Such a brilliant maneuver, done without changing anything at all except one little consonant--and I was convinced that the capuccinofication of Hennepin would one day yield Szechuan Espress(o). But then, without warning: Szechuan Egress! )
Maybe that's why the Uptown Sawatdee doesn't turn on the lamps in the atrium: Keeping the lights low allows a quiet slide into the neighborhood, an artful remembrance of things that seem like they've always been.
I'LL GET YOU, GOURMET, and your little Strib, too! My commentary on the Minneapolis restaurant review in the September issue of Gourmet magazine generated a flood of calls and e-mail, but the gossipiest--and thus the best--by far was from Joan Siegel, the restaurant reviewer for the Minneapolis Star, and then the merged Star and Tribune, from 1980 to 1984. "When I was at the Strib," remembered Siegel, who is retired now and lives in Mexico, "Jodie Foster, who was at Yale at the time, had a summer internship at Esquire. She called me up and said: We're writing an article on what the best restaurants in the country are. What are the best restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul?
"So I said to her: You're not going to come out and test them? She said: No. So I replied: I don't know about Esquire's ethics, young lady, but mine are high, and I'm not going to participate in giving out national rankings that aren't based on a fair evaluation. So I got off the phone with Miss Jodie Foster."
Siegel went on to tell me fascinating war stories of her days at the paper. Like the time she was in contract negotiations "and there wasn't a woman in the room. I didn't call those meetings, I called those gangbangs." To scare her, she says, the paper ran an ad soliciting Joe Public to submit résumés and sample restaurant reviews. But she knew it was all a bluff: In readership surveys, she notes, "I beat out everybody but that damn Sid Hartman." Today Siegel has nothing but disdain for her alma mater:
"Whenever I see it, I think, 'I used to work for that paper?' It's such a rag! There's no business news, there's no international news--though there never was." Siegel got a subscription during a recent visit to her old hometown and found even the delivery subpar: "It would come, at best, maybe four times a week. And I don't know if I'm more disappointed when it does come or when it doesn't! Have you seen Tasteless?" she asks, getting in a last dig at the Strib's food section.
Still, Siegel wouldn't go back to restaurant reviewing for all the tortillas in Oaxaca: "It all became a little stupid to me, people's intensity about it. I wanted to say to them: It's just food. Get a life."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.