Baan Isaan is Lexington's first Thai restaurant with a niche. Its small and focused menu specializes in food from the Isaan region on Thailand's border with Laos, where the flavors are simple, light and clean, and the spices can be searing. When asked your heat preference on a scale of 1 to 5, be aware that a 1 might suffice.
The enormous space, once a red-, black- and white-tiled Italian restaurant, is now a soft pale blue, with accents of Buddha busts, strings of tiny lights and a lucky bamboo plant here and there. It is a soothing décor, compatible with friendly, laid-back service that sometimes verges on absent-minded.
So relax and enter the culinary world of northeastern Thailand.
Start with the refreshing green papaya salad, an item long overlooked in Central Kentucky. Skinny strings of the crunchy fresh fruit, similar to jicama but less grainy, are bathed in a garlic and citrus dressing, scattered with chopped peanuts, bits of green beans and sugary cherry tomatoes.
Another delicious appetizer is the glass noodle salad with tender shrimp, seasoned with a squirt of lime and some chopped cilantro. It is "mildly spicy." Translation: expect tiny pops of minced jalapeño.
Ground chicken laab also is a must. This iconic Thai dish has its fair share of hot peppers, but they are balanced with mint, cilantro, lime juice and an abundance of thinly sliced red onions.
Baan Isaan serves sticky rice, too, and you should order it. It is not only a splendid antidote when the spice gets a bit too intense; it's a fine stand-in for the bread we Western types usually eat with salad.
I am less in love generally with Baan Isaan's meat dishes, whether appetizers or entrees. They include the seared rump steak or the pork with garlic and black pepper. The meats' textures were too variable: sometimes chewy, sometimes underdone, sometimes just right.
When beef appears stir-fried with noodles in the pad see hew, however, the kitchen recovers. Tender meat and bean sprouts, bits of scrambled egg and earthy broccoli make this one of Baan Isaan's stars.
Of course, it has stiff competition from sweet potato curry in a silky coconut sauce with Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves. Regardless of whether you are a vegetarian, mild and neutral tofu is the ideal addition. But if you are a vegetarian, there is a nice dish with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery and bean sprouts in a slightly sweet sauce with just a hint of garlic. The accompanying steamed rice is perfect every time.
If these items seem tame, they can be doctored to spiciness with two brilliant condiments: Banana peppers in vinegar will add a fresh and bright note, and the light fish sauce infused with Thai chilies and sliced garlic is close to miraculous.
Heat leads logically to the issue of thirst. As of this writing, the restaurant was awaiting its beer license. Until that arrives, a generous pour of semi-dry Riesling wine from Mosel is a great partner for the food.
Desserts are special, if a bit pricey for what you get, and they certainly bring a sense of the tropics: bananas in warm coconut milk are the ultimate comfort food with which to end an authentic meal.
One final thing to know: This restaurant has a "no tip" policy. Service is included. When the check arrives, that is all you pay. Period.
The recent branching out of generic ethnic dining in Lexington to include more specific regional cuisines is a positive trend — of which Baan Isaan is a very good example.