The Electric Temple

Johnson County has been chided for having too many non-distinct chain restaurants lining the corridor.

Of course, people in the know about food in these parts can tsk-tsk that notion. One case in point that shatters the vanilla myth: Fo Thai, the newest addition in One

Nineteen Shopping Center’s trendy lineup. Unless you’ve been spending time in the Venetian’s Tao nightclub in Las Vegas, I can’t think of a comparison in our town.

Fo Thai’s owners live in New York but wisely thought to give Leawood the nod for their concept. That distinction trends perfectly with Kansas City being given the nod as the next up-and-coming destination for foodies in the Dec. 2011 issue of Saveur.

Hearing the buzz for months, Tastebud and I pushed through the massive wooden doors on a cold winter evening.

“It’s kind of like a mysterious medieval castle,” said Tastebud, soaking in the antique appointments inside the foyer that lead into the restaurant like some lavish Hansel and Gretel trail.

“Greetings,” said Alexis McDaniel, Fo Thai’s general manager. Allowing us to marinate briefly, she asked if we’d like a tour of the place.

“There really aren’t many destination restaurants in the area,” she said, leading us past a dimly lit lounge accented with a screen of lucky bamboo.

Thoughts of T-Rex, Trader Vic’s and Rainforest Cafe came bubbling up.

One flight upstairs, exotica of Far Eastern delights opened up. And so did our mouths.

I figured this must be what the republic of heaven looks like.

A two-story, thinner-than-average Buddha casts a serene gaze over the seductive bar, gurgling wall of water, koi pond imbedded into the stone floor, a scenic mural and three Thai huts sheltered under a hillside relief. Whew.

Good fortune followed and we soon found ourselves overlooking all the elements snug inside our private hut.

“What a view,” said Tastebud, glancing toward the Buddha that was now bathed in a rainbow of constantly changing color. “Just like the Power and Light,” she decided.

“He is the original power and light,” I commented as our server Jason appeared, offering instructions for the dinner experience about to unfold.

“We encourage sharing one dish at a time—family style,” he said. “Our modern fusion cuisine is master chef Chee Meng So’s interpretation pairing Western favorites with Thai classics—and yes, we do have Pad Thai,” he concluded.

Tastebud and I are oh-so-modern so we began with chef Meng’s Thai Style Tuna Pizza—a spicy round of sushi-grade tuna, tomato salsa and black pepper sauce with a kick ($15).

Three crispy Curry Chicken spring rolls arrived shortly ($9).

“I love the cool cilantro yogurt aioli with these piping hot rolls. These, plus the ginger/pear tea and fish pizza, and I’m set,” crunched Tastebud.

Not so fast.

We picked up our ebony chopsticks (not typically used in Thailand) and delved into the ‘modern’ green papaya, jicama and mango salad. Sweet julienne veggies with a touch of heat courtesy of the chili-lime truffle dressing made this pretty dish a refreshing hit ($10).

We were well tended to in the 280-seat room, now half full, but I kept thinking, tick-tock. Forget about going anywhere else, this is leisurely dining.
“I imagine lunch could be tense,” said Tastebud, asking Jason for clarification. “We’ve adjusted and now serve promptly so people are in and out,” he responded.

We anticipated our Crispy Taro fries, but they were neither crispy nor tasty ($5). They have little flavor unless you dip into a cloying Thai mango salsa.

Tastebud agreed.

One miss among three hits.

The biggest star of the evening was the immense eight-ounce broiled Saikyo Miso Chilean sea bass and baby bok choy resting atop coconut black sticky rice ($32). Neither Tastebud nor I could talk while the buttery forkfuls melted in our mouths.

“Hands-down, not only is this a gorgeous dish, this is the best fish I’ve eaten anywhere,” said Tastebud.

I was about to agree as Jason appeared, bringing a sculpture of warm Varhona Chocolate cake styled with assorted berries, creamy jackfruit ice cream and topped with a spun sugar ornament.

“We simply can’t,” said Tastebud, summarily indulging in the $15 dessert (worth every penny).

“We simply must,” I construed.

And then...we relaxed.

“You know we did our part not angering ‘Thai,’ female deity-of-rice, who ensures no food is ever wasted,” I said.

“Then let good luck prevail,” Tastebud toasted.

By-the-by, yesterday someone asked me to report if my experience was “Faux” Thai?

“Sort of,” I would reply now, realizing steak and roast chicken, mashed potatoes and baby back ribs share billing with basil ginger chili broth and stir fried Japanese eggplant. Plus, there’s an undercurrent of newish-age fusion melodies constantly percolating.

You deserve an adventure—may you savor this flavorful destination with ample time, fat wallet and abundant joy.

Fo Thai
4331 W. 119th St.
One Nineteen
Leawood, Kan.
(913) 322-3636
Gloria Gale is an Overland Park-based food writer. “On the Menu” is not a restaurant review; it is a summary of dining out across the metro area.