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Given the food’s traditionally sharp flavors and vivid presentation, it’s understandable that Thai cuisine is so often served in restaurants notable for their angular interiors and radiant color schemes. Is it possible for a new Thai restaurant to be drab? I’m starting to think notat least not without lime and lemongrass losing their piercing potency.
Take Thaiphoon. If it were, say, a new Mexican restaurant, I’d be writing about how its interior design was helping usher in a new era of local taco-chic. Instead, I can only say that Thaiphoon is just as dazzling as you’d expect a Thai place to bemaybe even a touch conservative.
Thaiphoon tycoon Woody Tongrugs used to own Jandara, the mini-chain in which the dining rooms feel like wizards’ lairs. So he knows the drill. The chairs are slim and high-backed, tucked into tables that look as if they were made of scrap metal salvaged from a robot factory. Booths along the back wall nestle into private alcoves of bright green, peach, and yellow. The slight visual respite offered by sitting in the front room, which is all wood-paneled, like an old New England seafood joint, ends when the drinks arrive. Even the club sodas here come in bulbous stemmed cocktail glasses, each with a lime and matching green straw.
“It’s a lot like every other Thai restaurant with shiny lacquered tables,” is the assessment of a friend we run into at the end of a meal one evening. And in the sense that nothing at Thaiphoon really carries the shock of the new, she’s right. Yet it’s hard not to believe that familiarity may be one of Thaiphoon’s most bankable assets. The wayward critic isn’t the only familiar face we see during dinner; there are also the friends in a foursome to our left, three of whom order pad thai. The bar is routinely clogged with people waiting for tables to free up, even on Monday nights.
Thaiphoon’s menu is pitched slightly toward mainstream tastes. Larb gai, for instance, is listed as “chicken ginger salad,” although the translation hardly has the effect of dumbing down the actual dish. The appetizer’s probably my favorite Thai treat, and it’s been ages since I’ve had it rendered so perfectly, the minced chicken seemingly steamed to order and sharpened with lime vinaigrette and fresh strips of ginger and onion. The honey-roasted-duck salad is less successful; it takes a lot for me to bitch about abrasiveness, but you could probably strip paint with the dish’s mix of chili paste, ginger, and lime.
The saving grace of Thaiphoon’s misfires is that they’re partially redeemed by presentation with simple garnishes that actually beg to be eaten. It’s hard to find restaurants at the under-$10-an-entree level that use salad-ready produce to dress up their plates. The muddy tan of my shrimp sausage suggests a long stay under a heating lamp, but anyone who’s suffered through countless beds of wilty brown lettuce would appreciate the faultless tuft of greens standing upright at the center of the plate, a long, unbroken thread of shaved carrot wrapped around the leaves like a vine. Fish cakes, on the other hand, are through-and-through divinegolden brown and oil-glistened, with a bright side of sweet cucumber-peanut relish.
At their worst, Thaiphoon’s entrees are merely passablemuddled dishes that stop just shy of being bummers. Sautéed mussels glean a ton of flavor from basil, onion, garlic, and hot chili, but the mollusks themselves are chewy. Boneless half duck, pocked with mushrooms and bedded on a mound of steamed spinach, suffers from honey overload.
But often, the dishes hit so many right notes that you’ll leave wanting to return with a plan to order the exact same thing. Crispy whole flounder, draped in a blanket of subtle black-bean sauce, is worth another visit, as is the green curry, which, with either beef, chicken, or shrimp, is lusciously milky and just spicy enough. A well-turned curry special one night involves marinated shrimp grilled and set under a layer of ground chicken. And Thaiphoon’s mango and sticky rice, the classic Thai dessert, is dead-on, the juicy sliced fruit blending seamlessly into the dining room’s color scheme, the rice scented with coconut milk in a way that makes the whole thing taste vaguely of vanilla.
The best entree on the menu arrives almost too pretty to touch: crisply fried rounds of eggplant overlapping on a long narrow plate, moistened with a light garlic sauce and finished with bright slices of chili pepper, basil leaves, sauteed nubs of green and red bell peppers, and tons of minced garlic. The flavors are all mighty, but each ingredient seems to assert itself and then quickly pull back. Fascinated, the guy at the table next to me just has to ask: “What is that?”
Thaiphoon, 2011 S St. NW, (202) 667-3505.
As far as local Asian-themed restaurants go, there isn’t one more tastefully appointed than Yanÿu, and as long as you don’t mind dealing with some steakhouse-esque price principles (rice costs extra), its riffs on the Far East’s culinary canon are pretty untouchable. The reader who gripes, “It’s just Chinese food!” either doesn’t understand or hasn’t experienced the utter decadence that is Yanÿu’s cracker-crisp-skinned Peking duck. And a bit over two years since its stoves were fired up, the kitchen’s minimalist takes on seafood (creamy, honey-roasted sea bass set over scallions, say, or impossibly thin whitefish sashimi served simply with tweaked soy sauce) can still take your breath away.
Yanÿu, 3433 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 686-6968. Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.