If more restaurants were willing to change what doesn't work, fewer would find themselves throwing in the kitchen towel. Case in point: Busara, the upscale Thai eatery at 1435 Market Street, has gone from barely making it to standing room only in the six months since I reviewed it ("How Thai Can You Go?" March 25).
But to reach this point, Busara had to make many changes along the way, ranging from ingredient choices to staffing upheavals. Part-owner Bryan Chunton moved up to Boulder to open another Thai venture; his brother, Suchat "Arthur" Chunton, remained at Busara, keeping things cooking in the kitchen. And Arthur's old friend from New York, the enthusiastic and self-assured Andrea Stahr, moved here to oversee the dining room. Her first act was to throw the entire waitstaff out the door -- "Okay, things were not what they should have been," Stahr says -- and start over.
Meanwhile, Arthur realized that in the time that it was taking for food to come out of Busara's kitchen, diners could have flown to Thailand and back. So he spent the summer searching high and low for Thai cooks -- yes, they had to be Thai -- to flesh out his kitchen, which once again seems up to speed. "We knew there were getting to be really long waits between courses," says Stahr. "The kitchen was really, really slow, and it has taken Arthur a while to get things running smoothly back there. But we realized that people were coming down here to see a show or do things that had a time constraint, and so he knew he had to do something."
With a competent staff in place, the kitchen then took a hard look at what was and wasn't working. One of the first items to go was the thin, chewy triangle of tofu that had come as part of the Blue Plate ($14 for two people), an appetizer sampler platter. Billed as a "golden triangle," the tofu in question more closely resembled a dry cosmetic sponge. So instead of the tofu being crispy, Arthur now uses a soybean curd with a silkier texture, which soaks up the ginger-infused marinade. A light frying gave this tofu an excellent, custardy quality.
The rest of the tidbits on the Blue Plate -- an actual cobalt-colored plate -- were as good as on my first go-round: crispy-but-greaseless spring rolls wrapped in many layers of ultra-thin rice paper; succulent, well-seasoned steamed dumplings; a char-grilled chicken satay. All came with corresponding dipping sauces that tasted freshly prepared and fairly exploded with flavor.
Although I'd found the soups fairly light on flavor, that's changed, too. The tom kha gai ($4 for a small) now came with a kick, a well-melded chile bite that balanced out the sour lemongrass and the rich, sweet coconut milk. Another soup, the tom yum ($4 for a small), was less spicy than I remembered, but boasted a better ratio of tart lime leaves and lemongrass to sweet shrimp and earthy straw mushrooms.
Pouring on the heat has never been a problem at Busara, and our entrees again bore this out. The pad talay ($15), or sea of love, is my favorite dish here. I've had it several times, once even ordering it to go so that I could drop it all over myself during the rush-hour drive home. And every time, eating it has been an intense game of seeing how many bites I could take before my eyes started to water; every time, my desire to shovel the entire portion into my mouth won out over the searing pain of too much chile heat -- because beneath the fire were huge chunks of squid combined with shrimp, shiitakes and shallots, some of which I could actually taste.
I found other Busara dishes less potent and more flavorful than they'd been six months ago. The pad Thai ($9) used to contain too much tamarind and not enough peanuts; Arthur's since altered the dish to bring it into sync with the balanced Thai way. And where the gai yang ($10) was once all about chile heat, the roasted chicken now featured more tropical fruit flavors -- most notably mango -- in its juicy flesh.
"Arthur definitely knew that some things weren't working, and that he needed to do some fine-tuning," says Stahr. "It was just a matter of finding out what he needed to change."
The only thing constant at Denver restaurants is change. In 2nd Helping, Kyle Wagner will occasionally return to the scene of previous reviews to find out what's now cooking in their kitchens.