In Bangkok, Jennifer Politanont and Saravut Nawasangarun operate two Italian restaurants and a wine bar. To realize their dream of a restaurant serving the regional foods of Thailand, they came to America.
In March, the couple opened Isarn Thai Soul Kitchen in Kirkland, partnering with their longtime friends at Bai Tong, a Thai favorite here for 25 years. (Bai Tong, incidentally, opens a third branch this month in the Issaquah Highlands, adding to locations in Redmond and Tukwila.)
Isarn’s large and varied menu comprises dishes both familiar and new. Lunch and dinner menus, though formatted differently, are very similar, with some items priced a few dollars less at lunch.
Go then, if you must have pad thai. It’s not on the dinner menu but is part of a lunch combo with chicken in chu chi red curry and steamed rice. I thought the velvety, coconut curry sauce, bright with ginger and lemon grass, was more compelling than the pad thai, but at $11.95 this twofer is a value meal.
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Other noodle dishes worth a twirl include thin, pale pink Isarn rice noodles served with a peanutty coconut sauce thickened with minced pork and tofu. Slender vermicelli came with a Southern Thai curry whose sweet-hot complexity and fragrant floral notes complemented the mound of flaked blue crab on top.
Both of those noodle dishes arrived deconstructed; diners merge the noodles with the sauce at the table. The crabmeat curry included a side of vegetable stir-ins — slivered cabbage, fennel fronds and pickled mustard greens among them — that added an extra dimension of texture and flavor.
Fermented pork sausage — garlicky, rice-flecked meat with an appealing sourness — is similarly enhanced by its array of accompaniments. Watch out for the dried chilies, though, tucked in among the peanuts, fresh ginger and cabbage, or you may hiccup your way to dessert — which ought to be sticky rice with fresh mango, when it’s available.
Among entrees, mashed, salted egg yolks made an appropriately briny sauce for tender, stir-fried squid ringlets and tentacles. Thai basil leaves brightened minced lamb. Onion and bell pepper turned up in both dishes; the squid also had the welcome crunch of celery.
Roasted pork ribs, crisped on the grill, were awash in a gravylike tamarind sauce enriched with meat juices and sweetened with pineapple, though the meat was plenty moist on its own.
Fried chicken, a breast and leg joint, is cut into chunks, bones and all. It’s very good, though the sautéed garlic slices liberally scattered over the sturdy brown crust were a bit too burnt and bitter.
The kitchen does an especially good job of frying. A starter of frilly, deep-fried oyster mushroom, speckled with sesame seeds and dipped in sweet plum sauce, disappeared quickly. So did crunchy green papaya salad. Cherry tomatoes, chopped green beans, peanuts and herbs bobbed in their bowl of piquant dressing, served alongside, to be spooned over the golden threads of deep-fried fruit.
On the flip side of fried, soft, sweet, grilled eggplant forms the foundation of a salad that’s an exhilarating onslaught of textures and flavors: ground chicken and hard-boiled egg, garlic and herbs, red onion and chilies. It’s billed as spicy but heat levels here, calculated on a scale of 1 to 3, tend toward the mild side: Two stars was pretty tame.
To quell any lingering burn, quaff a Thaicoon. Three pearly bites of lycheelike longan garnish this fruity, not-too-sweet vodka and plum wine cocktail, ruddy under a cap of egg-white foam. It’s perfect for the balmy days of summer, as is Isarn, whose glass front opens to the sidewalk along Lake Street, providing a glimpse of Lake Washington between the buildings across the street.
The restaurant’s glowing interior is equally alluring. A comfortable bar and lounge sit perpendicular to a cozy, wood-trimmed dining room. Rice baskets dangle from the ceiling and decorate the walls. Throw pillows buffer the backs of chairs flanking thick wooden tabletops cut like jigsaw pieces.
The largely Thai staff greet you with a smile and a wai. This gesture of respect, made with a slight bow, palms pressed together at chin level, fingers pointing up, is also how they say goodbye.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.