A restaurant that expands is, as a rule, an ambitious restaurant, a restaurant that believes it deserves a wider audience. Cafe Asia is just such a place, and if you’ve ever visited its downtown outpost, you understand its owners’ urge to bloat. Its slender tri-level space belies the scope of the food, which traverses Asia as if the continent were one wildly diverse county. In the short period that I worked downtown, I’d always weigh my lunchtime cravings for Cafe Asia’s tom yum soup and tempura udon against my willingness to wait in line for one of the few tables.
The striking thing about the new Cafe Asia, in Rosslyn, is that it manages to faithfully duplicate the original while simultaneously eclipsing it. The two restaurants are the same in many waysthe pan-Asian menus are identical, as are the bowed, blond-wood chairs and most of the dinnerwarebut they’re so dissimilar spatially that they hardly feel like kin. The suburban outpost is vast and horizontal where the flagship is cramped and vertical, and these simple distinctions seem to hurl the restaurants in different directions. Essentially, you go to the downtown Cafe Asia for a Technicolor version of an old-school ethnic restaurant that offers cheap and convenient food, whereas the suburban sister is the sort of place a person could visit at night to add luster to his or her public profile.
On Halloween night, the new Cafe Asia’s dining room is crammed with its usual crowd of Arlington young guns. Its sizable bar, with its overhead video projections and pulsing dance music, is a bit more of a freak scene: On the way to the bathroom, which is near the bar, I notice a bat eating sushi and Dick Nixon nursing a martini through a straw. The restaurant’s two spaces collide sonically no matter where you’re stationed, making conversation a bit of a chore, and the quality of our food seems to have been compromised by the encompassing din. A fatty piece of unsightly chicken floats atop a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup that delivers none of the lemongrass kick advertised in the menu. A deep-red chili sauce does little to conceal the quality of the ingredients in an Indonesian seafood stir-fry; some of the shrimp is nice, but eating the squid is like chewing on bungee cord. Fried potato krokets, Indonesia’s vegetable-stuffed, fried potato rolls, are appropriately fluffy. If only they were crisp.
The new cafe bustles even on nonholiday nights, and lunches are busy, too. High ceilings allow the dining room to feel airy even though it sits considerably higher than the cocktail and sushi bars, and if you take a seat looking over the kitchen, with its team of toque-topped chefs and eager servers, the place can seem alive even during those rare moments when there are empty chairs. A bright mural faces a wall of glass near the entrance, reflecting color back into the restaurant at night. Clearly, this is an alluring place.
So am I ordering wrong? Cafe Asia’s food does sometimes fall prey to its institutional goal, which is to serve a lot of food to a lot of people without charging them too much money for it. The constraints of thin-margin restauranting probably account for the steamed gyoza dumplings, which are no more or less interesting than ones I’ve had from Trader Joe’s. And topping an intensely limey Thai salad with more flavorful shrimp than it currently boasts would probably screw up the place’s economic balance.
Of course, with a lot of the restaurant’s dishes, such constraints don’t really matter. Steamed soybeans are steamed soybeans. You could say something similar of seaweed salad, provided that the snappy green threads are in good shape and sparingly dressed, which is, in fact, the case. And although I would prefer if the crab won tons were allowed to grow brown in the fryer, the accompanying sauce, a citrus-brightened Dijonaise, makes us happy enough to polish off a plate without voicing any gripes.
It’s nonetheless difficult to imagine reasonable excuses for the lackluster soups that make up a considerable portion of Cafe Asia’s menu. Traditionally, tom yum is spicy-hot and lemony, a complex brew rounded out with shrimp and vegetables that runs cool and hot on the tongue. Here, it’s nearly as dull as Campbell’s. The Malaysian curry is significantly more exciting, although its vibrant, milky red broth does nothing to conceal the facts that the egg noodles are stuck together in a clump and that the bean sprouts floating over it all are at least a day past crunchiness.
Still, Cafe Asia has style, and anyone who thinks that style can’t at least partially redeem a flawed restaurant is likely suffering from a lack of it. The sushi chefs make a fine dragon rollorange, covered with roe, and plumped with sweet eel and shrimp tempuraand the clean-tasting yellowtail nigiri could be its own centerpiece.
The kitchen staff understands how becoming Asian food can be when it’s served in shapely bowls and on cool square and rectangle plates. In their wide, shallow bowl, Singapore noodlesdusted with mustard-yellow cumin powder; rich with egg, pork, and shrimp; and finished with some bright cilantrois street food dressed for a photo shoot. A platter of Indonesian specialties, however, is by no means a masterpiece. The spicy beef is mercilessly tough, and the mixed vegetables are lost beneath a heavy cloak of peanut sauce. But the crispy anchovies tossed with peanuts deliver pungency with each tiny bite, and the chicken satay comes glistening with a nicely caramelized glaze. Factor in a gorgeous mound of coconut-scented rice and you’ve got a dish that’s batting over .500. At Cafe Asia, that’s a home run.
Cafe Asia, 1550 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, (703) 741-0870.
In the final scene of the season premiere of The West Wing, a suspected assassin was arrested outside the Dixie Pig in Alexandria, prompting a few readers to ask, “Is that place still around?” The answer is yes, although, in more ways than one, it’s not what it was. There used to be several locations of the chain, and the only remaining outpost has long since left its original owner’s hands. With its big booths and museum-worthy neon sign, the place still holds an Ike-era charm, but it seems to be running on the fumes of nostalgia. On repeated visits, I’m treated to limp french fries, and the pulled-pork sandwich is mostly sauce. Some version of the Pig made the best rib that one reader has ever had. But even with that in mind, I decide to give up on the cold rack that I’m served and raise a sticky finger for the check.
The Dixie Pig, 1225 Powhatan St., Alexandria, (703) 836-0605. Brett Anderson
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