September 14, 2007
adventure in taste
by Mike Taylor
The sounds of pleasant chatter and kitchen clatter of a neighborhood joint greeted me at Linda and Casey Chao’s Red Snapper Pan Asian restaurant (8430 Ward Parkway) even before my eyes adjusted to the subdued lighting. A perusal of the parking lot during the walk in revealed only local license plates. A closer look around the 140-seat dining room provided a completely different impression.
As my eyes focused, I saw two, large globe-shaped goldfish bowls suspended in a black frame. Low-backed, oriental chairs surround faux-marble tables dressed only with small vases containing a single flower. Low-hanging lamps illuminate each table, leaving the rest of the room dim. The open kitchen and an 8-stool bar occupied the back wall of the strip mall space. The stylish décor staffed by attractive, black-clad young servers suggested more than just a neighborhood hangout, even though I saw customers in baseball caps and T-shirts as well as sport coats and dresses.
The menu, with such offerings as Thai Coconut Red Curry and Sautéed Sea Cucumber, suggested considerably more than a “neighborhood joint.” I also found the service more polished and efficient than a corner tavern. But then it’s not in just any neighborhood. Red Snapper sits on the border of south Ward Parkway and the older section of Leawood.
Opened in October ‘03, Red Snapper represents what the website calls the culmination of the Chao’s quest of the American dream. Casey, also the chef, grew up in the restaurant business, working first in his family’s Peking Restaurant on Broadway across from the Uptown Theater. Then he and his brother spearheaded the family’s creation of the popular New Peking Restaurant in Westport. After they sold the New Peking, Casey, who received formal training at the Culinary School of Taiwan, created the Red Snapper, which features over 44 entrees from multiple Asian cuisines, including Thai, Japanese, Polynesian, Korean and numerous Chinese styles.
“Let’s try the Calamari ($6.95),” Emily said, as we considered the nine appetizers on the menu featuring selections from the different cuisines. Boy, did we get Calamari, a heaping mound of golden Tempura-battered morsels pulled from the fryer at the perfect moment. The squid had a nice bite and sweetness set off perfectly by the lemon-chili sauce.
I also tried some plump Pot Stickers ($4.95), Chicken Satay ($6.95) and Smoked Salmon Rangoon ($5.25) during another dinner visit and a happy hour foray. Only the Rangoon disappointed me. Healthily stuffed with the cream cheese mixture and deep-fried perfectly, the wontons didn’t have much salmon flavor at all, although a cucumber/rice wine vinegar dipping sauce made the dish interesting.
When it came to the entrees on that first visit, I had to sample the Red Snapper’s namesake dish. I’d heard about it and seen a picture on the Internet, but I didn’t fully appreciate the drama until server Matt placed the platter with a whole upright fish — sans eyeballs — swimming past me surrounded by a mélange of vegetables including slices of jalapenos.
The Chaos offer three variations and three sizes. I opted for the Spicy Garlic Basil Red Snapper (market priced), served in a special sweet tart sauce with a bowl of steamed rice on the side. Carefully avoiding the jalapenos, I enjoyed tender moist fish and the medley of flavors each bite contained. The other options are just the crispy fish without the spicy basil garlic sauce or a sweet and sour version.
The fish was delicious but the Stir-Fried Spicy Basil Duck ($15.95) Emily ordered proved sublime. Linda told me they marinate the duck and roast it before stir-frying the slices to order. Served with vegetables and the steamed rice, it had a rich smoky flavor and, to my pleasure and surprise, tasted even better when I had the cold leftovers for lunch the next day.
“Are you going to try the Cold Jelly Fish?” my friend Alan, the attorney, queried as we pondered the choices on a subsequent visit. Under the heading Asian Classics, it’s described as sliced and served with cucumber, Napa cabbage and a special garlic/vinegar sauce. I have to admit, I wimped out. In fact, when I tried to order another dish from the same section, our server Lance graciously admitted that the jellyfish wasn’t listed but was part of the dish. Instead, I got the Thai Coconut Red Curry Stir-Fry with scallops ($14.95), which included a bowl of a yellow broth with the scallops, red bell peppers, basil, onions, carrots and sugar peas, all floating. The sweet flavor of the coconut prevailed. I didn’t really pick up the taste of the curry until I reheated some leftovers later. The sweet, rich dish proved a wonderful medium for delivering an ample portion of scallops.
Alan and his wife Barbara tried more conventional dishes, House Chicken ($12.95) stir-fried with assorted vegetables and Lo Mein Noodles with beef ($12.95). They, too, came to the table elegantly presented, expertly prepared and as flavorful as the more exotic dishes.
Red Snapper has deserts but they’re imported and turned out to be more style than substance. Of the lot, I liked the Xango Cheesecake ($4) best. The dense, New York-style cheesecake is wrapped in wonton skins and briefly fried. Then, they split the slice and serve half standing on end with sparse squirts of chocolate, caramel and berry sauces around the plate.
I want to say more about the service because as I said, the wait staff on my three visits showed unexpected professionalism. Not only did were they efficient and knowledgeable, they treated us like intelligent people. The first time, Matt the server compared one of the Japanese beers on the menu to Red Stripe. As I already mentioned, Lance steered me away from a dish with cold jellyfish and other chilled seafood. I want to try it someday, but I was too hungry to risk it that night. Service of that quality on separate occasions — including a Saturday and its notorious reputation for sloppy service — suggests to me that it’s the norm, not the exception.
That’s one of the aspects of the Red Snapper Pan Asian bistro that have me wondering how to persuade Emily to move closer. They have a selection of Asian foods not found in one place anywhere else in the city, prepared as well as anywhere in the city. It would make a great place to call my neighborhood joint — especially with the Chao’s great happy hour, $2 domestic bottled beers and half price on some of the appetizers along with other bargains. It’s not a bad drive but what we’d save on gas I could spend on happy hour. Speaking of which, I guess I’ll head up to my local tavern and cry in their $2 beer.
Mike Taylor can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
fork, knife, spoon
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