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Ten Penh’s bar is a long marble-topped beauty holding dark metal ashtrays that are nearly as stunning as some of the people using them. Some nights, getting a bar stool is as difficult as obtaining a seat at an actual table. On one such evening, an older man in a tailored suit swipes a few Szechuan beans from the bowl of a woman dining next to me, as though they were communal snacks. “I wish you’d stop doing that,” she pleads.
Yet Ten Penh’s bar isn’t all that barlike. First, there are the bamboo place mats and the imported chopsticks. Then the bartender says, “These are a couple of things we do,” handing me a cool wet towel and a clear, shot-glass-sized mug of Thai gazpacho, a chili-edged take on the standard made rich with coconut milk. Calamari salad arrives soon thereafter, its spicy, citric intensity tempered by toasted cashews and crisp endive, followed by a sticky, tamarind-glazed minirack of baby back ribs and some more of those wrinkly, dark-coated beans. It’s a dining-room-worthy ceremony held in the eye of Hurricane Martini, and the bartenders are noticeably unstunned. One casually reveals to me that his uniform was sewn from the same Thai silk that’s found lining the restaurant’s banquettes and walls.
Ten Penh is that kind of place, a restaurant so intent on knitting the Asian themes of its kitchen into the fabric of the whole enterprise that the peculiar spelling of its name (a reference to the street address) is actually meant, a waiter informs me, to serve a higher cause. Say the name a few times fast, straining to pronounce the “h” in Penh, and you might just sound as if you’d been born in Ho Chi Minh Citywhich, by the way, is where the chairs were custom-built.
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Ten Penh is the brainchild of chef Jeff Tunks and his business partners, Gus Di Millo and David Wizenberg, the team behind D.C. Coast, one of the better new restaurants to have opened here in the past five years. A glossy food-mag article posted in Ten Penh chronicles the lengths to which the principals went to create something with a genuine feel. Those lengths involved an extensive shopping/eating vacation in Asia, and the result is a restaurant that looks like a high-end street bazaar. A curved glass wall separates two dining rooms awash in earth tones. In one room, a woman on a mural looks down on a diner’s beef tenderloin and wasabi mashed potatoes. In the other, two male statues suspend a gong between them; overhead, coils resembling oversized Slinkies dangle from the ceiling.
Some sort of art direction informs almost everything that the waiters bringscoops of mango, spiced apple, and coconut sorbet arrive on a three-armed candelabrum, coffee cream in a bowl with a structural deformity that works like a spoutand there are times when the food struggles to meet the standards of the setting. One meal begins with adorable steamed shrimp dumplings, a tail protruding from the top of each perfectly formed pouch, but most of what follows aims high and shoots wide. An indelicate roll of tuna sashimi and asparagus makes a puzzling tempura dish. Its batter crust is soggy, and even if it weren’t, the tuna’s portioned so (sashimi steak, anyone?) that you’d hardly even notice. Some delicious duck-leg confit rides on a bed of Asian risotto with slices of duck breast that are tough enough to spoil the party. Steamed striped bass lies over a bunch of stufffennel, shiitakes, somen noodleswithout really relating to any of it; it’s less a dish than a plate of ingredients.
Maybe the kitchen is having an off night. Maybe we’ve “ordered wrong.” Either way, the upshot is that that first meal turns out to be an aberration. With Ten Penh, Tunks underscores what he’s already proved at D.C. Coast: Unlike too many chefs enamored of fusion experiments, he’s no dilettante. Most of his weird stuff works, and you’ve got to grin at his sense of style. Creamy, sweet coconut-chicken soup, bobbing with sliced portobellos, arrives in a coconut shell. Cute, sureand irresistible. Hamachi-and-ahi tartar delivers whispery currents of sharp grated daikon, sweet ginger, and fresh wasabi, but that’s only the half of it. The dish is presented as a diamond might be to a queen, on a scallop shell chilled by a larger tray of ice adorned with thin strips of red onion.
Seafood is clearly Tunks’ thing, and he doesn’t leave you bummed that you have to pay up (entrees hover in the upper teens and lower 20s) to see what he’ll do with it. The lunch menu includes a Hong Kong-style fried whole catfish set in an active pose, as if it were trying to thrash its way off the plate. Its flesh is flaky and meaty, and the fish is well complemented by a spicy, tamarind/rice-wine-vinegar dipping sauce; the crisp cucumber and carrots piled into a mound alongside are cut into strands long enough to twirl around your fork like linguine. The Chinese-style smoked lobster reprises a dish served at D.C. Coast, and it’s still dangerously close to being too salty; the forceful character of the lobster meat saves it, along with some curiously intriguing crisp fried spinach, which seems to melt the moment it enters your mouth. Panko- and macadamia-nut-crusted halibut manages a relatively miraculous subtlety; the razzle-dazzle belies the simple reality of what you get, which is well-cooked fish, sweet mango-lime sauce, and a bright-green julienne of snow peas.
Pastry chef David Guas handles the pressure of following a tough act with steely confidence. Whether it’s Thai lime leaf crème brûlée, five-spice chocolate cake, or the lemongrass parfait plopped floating in a puddle of cold lychee soup, he makes traditional Asian ingredients seem sensible to a sweet tooth. Ten Penh’s ambitious proprietors must be thanking their lucky stars: It’s a lot easier to swing for the fences when you can count on your closer.
Ten Penh, 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 393-4500.
One reader urges us to “hurry” to L’Arenella Grill, the new rooftop restaurant above Coppi’s Vignorelli, “before the weather gets bad.” A good instinct, but there’s really no need to rush. Heaters keep us warm on a recent visit, when our waiter informs us that a glass-top roof is in the works, allowing the restaurant to stay open year-round. Which seems smart: L’Arenella’s hearty grilled dishes, which run from a gyrolike pizza-dough roll stuffed with merguez, cucumber, tomatoes, and ricotta cream to grape-leaf-wrapped halibut steak, are built for cold weather.
L’Arenella Grill, 3421 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 244-6437. Brett Anderson
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