By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, October 26, 2003
Given the emphasis on looks among the current crop of restaurants around Washington, I sometimes think I should cede this space to the architecture critic. From the makeover of the Roof Terrace at the Kennedy Center, to eye-catching new places like Harry's Tap Room in Arlington and the Latin-inspired Ceiba downtown, Washington-area dining rooms are shedding their dowdy image faster than you can say "Philippe Starck."
One notable newcomer in the style bunch is Cafe Asia, a D.C. spinoff of the Arlington restaurant of the same name and an unlikely neighbor to the sober offices that surround it. A discreet green sign outside gives way to a vision in white and silver, a vast two-story dining area with an atrium that allows people upstairs and down to observe each other. The walls are padded in felt-covered concave tiles that attempt to absorb the noise of a busy lunch or dinner, but end up only adding texture to the cool industrial scene. It feels like a food court for the (mostly) young and restless. In keeping with another fad of the moment, the restroom is unisex: a series of individual closet-like stalls that share a common sink area.
Like its sibling across the river, Washington's Cafe Asia takes diners on a tour of the Far East with a menu that treks through Thailand with pad thai and lemon grass soup, Vietnam with spring rolls and lemon grass beef, and Japan with -- why not? everyone else is doing it -- a selection of decent sushi and rolls. No one country triumphs here, but a little hunting turns up satisfying possibilities from each.
The spring rolls are a bit greasy, for instance, but an entree of tender pieces of chicken splashed with lime juice, then skewered together with vegetables, is a pleasant souvenir of Vietnam. Hot and sour soup is not really either, but Chinese "ravioli" -- zestily seasoned pork dumplings -- make a diverting snack. Of the Thai offerings, two of the top draws are ground chicken salad (larb gai), sparkling with fresh herbs and chilies, and shrimp swimming in a teasing red curry. Noodle dishes are well represented; the Singapore noodles -- vermicelli redolent of curry and combined with shrimp, bits of roasted pork and carrot threads -- are particularly flavorsome.
Knowing that chef Elis Triany is from Indonesia should lead you to try the dishes from her homeland. Triany's stewlike beef rendang is only gently fiery but still pleasing. Even better is nasi uduk, a long platter lined with a small feast of fragrant rice, peanut-sauced chicken satay, airy crackers, pickled vegetables, blazing chili sauce and an addictive mix of tiny, chewy dried fish and crunchy peanuts. But the Indonesian dish that really ignites the palate is a fish fillet smeared with a rough paste of lemon grass, turmeric, basil and more, and swaddled in banana leaves. The stabs of heat and spice, pronounced but not overwhelming, are the kind of details that keep you going back for more.