The Allure of Asia
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, March 18, 2007
The neighborhood restaurant known as Best Hunan obviously wasn't, and is no more. Taking its place in Dupont Circle is a small dining room that covers a much larger flavor profile: Banana Leaves bills itself as an "Asian Restaurant & Sushi Bar."
Go for the former, and sidestep the latter. Raw fish with vinegared rice is not the kitchen's strong suit; the rice is too cold, the fish cut too thickly. The rest of the menu is all over the map, and I'm not being dismissive when I type that. Taking note of the nearby Thai, Chinese and other Asian outposts, the owners of Banana Leaves decided to compete by incorporating multiple repertoires under one roof. Here's the answer to the question of where to go when one of you has a hankering for drunken noodles, someone else wants summer rolls and yet another has to have tom yum soup.
A diner could spend weeks eating his way through this long menu, but let me point out some highlights. Arriving three to a plate, the hot, lacy and crisp crab-and-scallion pancakes are a fun group activity, jazzier for the sweet and spicy sauce that accompanies them. Hot-and-sour soup is all that and more, streaked with shredded tofu and rounded out with slivers of duck, bamboo shoots and soft mushrooms. The lunch bargains extend to a heaping plate of grilled (dark) chicken with a pretty skewer of vegetables and a scoop of rice for $7.95, and chances are very good you will go home with dinner (i.e., leftovers) if you order the Malaysian mee goreng. It's an abundant stir-fry of egg noodles, crisp vegetables and a choice of meat (make mine pork) that weaves smoke with sweet, and soft with crunch, in each bite. If there's one dish that I'd go a few blocks out of my way to try again, it's the curry laksa, another Malaysian tradition -- rice noodles, coconut milk, chicken and a pleasant pinprick of heat in the big bowl's seasoning.
Half of a Peking duck is $13.50, and while it's not a standard-bearing dish -- the pancakes are served cold, and the flesh is moist, if not succulent -- it's plenty of meat and sufficiently satisfying once you add shredded scallions and plum sauce to the equation. But gado gado is a boring, restrained rendition of that Indonesian staple, just a bunch of lettuce with tofu, green beans and shrimp chips that don't add up to much flavor. And while admirably meaty, there's not much evidence of the advertised "honey barbecue sauce" on the spareribs appetizer.
Banana Leaves is a busy little restaurant, but it's watched over by a band of servers who go beyond "What would you like?" They dole out food with frequent smiles and pampering touches.
Faux lions guard the entrance of the slender, two-story restaurant off Connecticut Avenue. Inside, walls of red, trim of black, a spray of bamboo poles and cool tunes set the stage for a gathering of friends, a first date or a business lunch that won't upset the bean counters back at the office. This being Washington, a plasma screen hangs over the six-seat sushi bar (though soap operas, rather than hard news, tend to be on at lunch). In a nod to comfort, silky brown pillows are found on the bench seats against the wall. These are all thoughtful details that help separate Banana Leaves from its more single-minded brethren nearby.