All photos Laura Hayes

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There’s a distinct smell when you first walk into Kaliwa and it’s not that “new restaurant” smell of fresh paint and ambition. Rather, it’s the intoxicating perfume of a trio of jasmine plants by the host stand. “We definitely wanted it to look, smell, sound, and feel like you’re in Asia,” says Cathal Armstrong. That’s also why eagle-eyed diners will be able to spot Thai spirit houses in secret corners of the restaurant set to open at The Wharf next week. 

“One of the great traits of good restaurants is the ability to make you feel like you’re someplace else,” Armstrong continues. “Somebody said to me that it looks like a luxury hotel in the Philippines—we didn’t plan that, but that’s pretty close to what it ended up being.”

The Irish chef and restaurateur decided to open an Asian restaurant after a 2013 trip to the region. He even tested the waters with experimental menus at Restaurant Eve, his flagship fine dining establishment in Old Town, Alexandria. They were a hit, and solid a jumping off point for the Kaliwa menu, which is split into Filipino, Korean, and Thai cuisines. 

Look forward to Filipino street barbecue with pork belly and house-made banana ketchup ($14) as well as classics like sisig ($16), lumpiang Shanghai ($12), and kinilaw with raw hamachi brightened by calamansi lime ($18). Kaliwa’s chef de cuisine Paolo Dungca is Filipino and eager to share his culture with crowds.

“It pretty much means everything to me,” Dungca says. “It’s a representation of my culture and heritage. For two years, I’ve worked side-by-side with the Armstrongs to fulfill this dream.” 

While Korean and Thai dishes make the menu, Armstrong says he’s emphasizing Filipino culture at the restaurant. The first thing diners will notice when they walk through the door is a table as long as the one in the “situation room” at the White House. It’s for nightly kamayan feasts. The style of splaying out food on a banana leaf for people to eat communally without utensils is trending. One seating will be offered on weeknights, two on weekends. Tickets will be sold on Tock and the cost is $65 per person before tax, tip, and drinks.

Armstrong put his favorite Korean and Thai dishes on the menu. From Korea, there’s yukhoe ($14) featuring raw beef with chili, pine nuts, and crispy tendon; a savory pancake filled with seafood and green onions known as haemul-pajeon ($14); and jjampong with seafood, shellfish, and egg noodles ($19). Bibimbap enthusiasts will find a vegetarian version of the rice bowl with toppings. 

The Thai selections are anchored by four flavors of curry. Yellow curry is gussied up with Maine lobster ($22), while pork belly is the protein in the nutty Panaeng curry ($18). Also try the whole fried fish with chili and lemongrass ($24) and hoi pad tao-jiew with clams and black beans ($13). 

Armstrong says he hasn’t watered down any of the food for American palates. He’s bringing full funk and fire. “I want it to be very authentic, the way you’d find it in Asia,” he says. “We know there’s already a huge demand for this kind of food. Thai food will be Thai spicy.” The full Kaliwa menu will have close to 50 items to choose from, but they’ll wade in with a smaller menu for the first month of operations.

Todd Thrasher will make drinks to tame the spiciness and tang. Armstrong’s long-time business partner and cocktail guru is opening a distillery down the street. His selections at Kaliwa will include frozen Mai Tais and cocktails that lean heavy on fruits found in Southeast Asia like mango, coconut, and banana. In addition to a long wine list, Kaliwa will also pour Filipino, Korean, Thai, Lao, Japanese, and Chinese beers. 

Kaliwa seats about 180 inside and another 60 outside, though even indoor seats will feel al fresco because all of the restaurant’s doors and windows fling open. The best seats in the house are the bar stools that peer into the open kitchen with four wok stations and a wood-fire grill from Grillworks.  

Meshelle Armstrong, Cathal’s wife, assisted with the design along with Troy Englert from Patrick’s Designs and Buonarroti Designs. Rich jewel tones confetti the space—a red velvet banquette draws your eye, as do turquoise walls hand-painted with cherry blossoms. 

The design team affixed a panel of flat screen televisions on the wall above the wok station for a Times Square effect. During regular business, they’ll be tuned to Thai, Korean, and Filipino channels. Sunday night they’ll be used for karaoke kicking off at around 9 p.m.

Half of the dining room will be open to reservations, the other half will be available to walk-in diners. For those who can’t snag a seat, there will be a kiosk across from the entrance to the restaurant serving Asian street snacks and beers. 

Kaliwa will be open daily from 11 a.m. to close. On evenings when there are concerts at The Wharf, Armstrong says they’ll keep the kitchen cranking late into the night.

“I want it to be fun,” Armstrong says. “It’ll be loud and fun for sure.” He says he’s bringing casual but elevated food to the new neighborhood that won’t break the bank. “There’s expensive dining and there’s casual pub dining, we fit in that middle ground.” 

Kaliwa, 751 Wharf Street SW; (202) 516-4739; kaliwadc.com