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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Beverly Ridge: Thai'n One On

Panaeng Curry dish from Lemongrass Thai in Bozeman, Montana (Bev Ridge photo).

Since the demise of Smiler’s a few years ago, Bozeman diners have been left scrambling to cure the craving for Thai cuisine. Sure, there was that amazing, hole-in-the-wall place in Belgrade (also now closed) and many enjoy the tiny Lotus Pad in Big Sky, but both presented subpar options to an actual Thai joint located right here in Bozeman. In the last few months, however, our small town welcomed a couple of new restaurants featuring Asian fare with a distinctly Thai influence. Suddenly, there's a quandary for diners looking for a taste of Southeast Asia—where oh where to dine? In an attempt to help my fellow epicureans with such a pressing dilemma, I took my taste buds on a flavorful tour to both places.

Sweet Chili Asian Bistro and Lemongrass Thai
Lemongrass Thai is located on the southeast corner at the intersection of South Willson and West Kagy in a recently built and architecturally striking new development. This was my second trip to Lemongrass and the experience was vastly improved over the first (which, in fairness, was right after their grand opening). Upon arriving this time, I was politely greeted and seated within seconds; no seven-minute wait to spoil the appetite, as before. I chose to visit for dinner, arriving around 7:30, only to see the dining room fill to capacity by the time I’d finished eating, popularity being a trusted indicator of overall dining quality. After perusing the menu, I placed my order with a pleasant and cordial server who promptly navigated me through the recent revisions to the beer selection.

My first taste of Lemongrass Thai was a noticeably small beef salad bereft of lettuce and adorned with meat overcooked for such a diminuitive cut. The excessive spice level nearly obscured all other flavors, except for the noticeably odd topping that I suspect was grated, Parmesan cheese from Kraft Foods. Not an electrifying start.  Next came my panaeng curry with white rice, presented beautifully in two blue-and-white ceramic crocks (shown above), but it was regrettably greasy and again spice overpowered flavor. I chose chicken, but most dishes offer a choice of beef, chicken, or tofu—options appealing to a variety of diners. Victual aside, the brightly colored atmosphere features funky décor, including a beautiful and ornate woodcarving, but unfortunately overshadowed by the enormous dying tree looming over the middle of the dining room.

Spicy Basil dish from Sweet Chili Asian Bistro in Bozeman, Montana (Bev Ridge photo).
Sweet Chili Asian Bistro is located downtown, on the northwest corner of Black and Main, tucked into the Delaney Building (and conveniently close to the parking garage). The atmosphere is small and metropolitan, a feeling brought about by the high ceilings, large paintings, a towering row of live bamboo, and two communal dining tables set with fresh lilies. Again, I chose to go for dinner and was met at the door by a server who had no trouble stepping in for the busy host, seating me herself, and taking my drink order. Though the restaurant just opened six weeks ago, they’re already serving beer and wine with a staff versed in what compliments the lively cuisine, like a well-chosen Riesling such as I enjoyed with my meal.

Of far greater importance, the cuisine here is exceptional. My beef salad was tender and succulent, presenting the perfect amount of heat to compliment the zesty lime and crunch of the lettuce wraps. The entrée of red curry was noticeably non-greasy, delicate in texture, and filled with tender chicken. Presentation was also excellent - large non-traditional china graced with colorful and visually rich fare. Rick, my server, was conversational (as well as a new face in town, having moved here from L.A. six months ago) and politely attentive to my dining experience.  I must admit that at times he was absent-minded, likely distracted by the kinks of a newly opened restaurant. This is a family-run business—one of the presiding two families has roots in Hong Kong—paying special attention to detail, from the food preparation to the attentive service to the flowers gracing the tables.

Overall, both restaurants are worth your hard earned dollars, but a superior dining experience can be found at Sweet Chili Asian Bistro. By no means is Lemongrass subpar, but it definitely leaves me feeling like I missed out on something important. I also felt that the prices at Lemongrass exceeded the quality and the portion size of the dishes. Lemongrass has improved greatly since opening, but still has much to do before claiming the title of 'Bozeman’s  go-to Thai.' By contrast, the lower prices at Sweet Chili for approximately the same, if not larger, serving sizes are a welcome boost to local pocketbooks. Despite being newer and less visible, Sweet Chili is a welcome addition to the downtown dining scene and, I'll say it, the best Thai restaurant in Bozeman. -BM

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