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Restaurants are hard to resurrect. When even the good ones die, people move on. Diners make fresh discoveries that make them forget what they have lost. When a restaurant tries to come back, it can be ugly. The menu may be the same, but the magic is gone. It’s like old lovers appearing out of nowhere. In a way you’re glad to see them, but, like, come on: It’s over.
Ivy’s Place may be an exception. You could argue that the Asian cafe never really died, since the Cleveland Park location never closed. But Calasia, the restaurant that took over the Bethesda space Ivy’s vacated, was shticky and banal. It didn’t so much fill a void as create a bigger one. Four months ago, when Ivy’s returned to its Bethesda spot after a three-year absence, it reminded us how hard it is to find refined-but-affordable cuisine in one of the country’s most heavily populated restaurant districts. As a waitress tells us one night, Ivy’s owner didn’t need to be dragged out of retirement: “He felt like he didn’t have a choice.”
Located on the corner of Cordell and Norfolk Avenues, across the street from Tel Aviv Cafe (a decent restaurant but sometimes a meat market) on one side and Rock Bottom Brewery (a bad restaurant and always a meat market) on the other, Ivy’s is noticeable for its relative lack of pomp. Through tall windows on two sides, the whole place is visible from the street, the off-white dining room lit entirely, it seems, by the glare of street lights and the candles burning on each of the dozen tables.
Ivy’s Place is called a cafe because that’s what it is; the food is delightful, but even if you weren’t hungry it’d be tempting to duck into the spare dining room for a cup of Thai tea. Loiter long enough and you’ll want some finger food. We find the beef satay a touch chewy, but the pork, chicken, and shrimp varieties are perfectly charred. Order any other appetizer and you’re going to hear some noise. The stuffed chicken wings are crisp, more so than the stuffed squid, but each hides a juicy bounty, crabmeat and spiced chicken, respectively. There are also chicken- or vegetable-stuffed egg rolls, battered-and-fried tofu, and crabmeat wontons, all of them golden brown and inexpensively priced.
Ivy’s crosses the homespun dignity of a family restaurant with the modern sheen of a trendy bistro, but it’s classier than the former, and its food is more authentic and affordable than what you’d expect from the latter. Ivy’s isn’t a fusion restaurant. The entrees, few of which run more than seven bucks, are listed separately under Thai and Indonesian headings, and while they look exquisite, none is dumbed down to suit suburban tastes. When the waiter asks, “Mild, medium, or hot?” think before you answer: There’s a big difference between “mild,” which is just that, and “medium,” which is pretty ballsy, and making the choice to go “hot” requires a commitment to discomfort.
Except for the powerful curry, the Indonesian items are mellower. Order the vegetarian versions of nasi goreng or tumis sayur and you’ll receive a gorgeous plate of vegetables cooked and seasoned to enhance their natural flavors. Grilled meats are heavily marinated but never overseasoned, and the soto soups (available with shrimp, squid, or a seafood combination) are melodious marriages of glass noodles, fleshy fish, and clear, slow-burning broth.
Ivy’s Thai dishes are feisty and bold even when ordered mild. The spiciness is always cannily tempered, whether with the sweetness of basil or peppers (pad prik and pad kana) or the tartness of lemongrass (tom ka and tom yum); the leftover gravies are good enough to take home. Ivy’s pad Thai isn’t the same old thing; it’s more meat and vegetables than noodles. And the med mamung is one of the better Asian dishes we’ve had in months, a simple, slightly sweet mixture of tofu, chicken, beef, pork, or seafood and cashews.
The one-man wait staff plays a low-key role in the calming atmosphere that ultimately makes Ivy’s worth knowing about. He’s charming without saying much, and when he’s not busy trying to make your night perfect, he can usually be found seated in front of the fish tank, staring into the glass. “It’s relaxing,” he says. He also recommends the green-tea ice cream. While eating some, I notice a man who’s about to resume being a regular walk in and make eye contact with the waiter. Each of them, one shortly after the other, says, “Welcome back.”
Ivy’s Place, 7929 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda. (301) 656-9225.
Responding to a review of Aatish, one reader points out that there are significantly more options for sit-down Pakistani if you’re willing to drive. Chadni in Langley Park, for instance. To prove how smitten she is with the place, she raves about nearly every item on the menu as well as the fact that you can pay with a check. Not that you’d need to have much cash on you. Samosas, curries, and tandoori come spicy and cheap at this strip-mall restaurant, and during lunch on weekdays you can eat all you want for $5.99.
Chadni, Langley Park Shopping Center, 8046 New Hampshire Ave., Langley Park (301) 431-1040.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.