By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, July 11, 2004
Even after 14 years, Crystal Thai seems eager to please. The servers, dressed in traditional silk costumes, welcome strangers as if they were regulars. And unlike so much of the competition, this Thai restaurant eschews bright colors and splashy neon for a style that is more sedate. The dark mahogany bar would look at home in a steakhouse, chandeliers illuminate the crowd below, and white linens grace the tabletops. It was reassuring to see, more than once, tables full of people who probably grew up on Thai cooking.
Including specials, the number of menu possibilities reaches the triple digits, so allow me to cut to some highlights. Scallion-veined fish cakes (No. 2) are nice and light, though spirals of ground shrimp and crisp seaweed (No. 8) are more interesting, like seafood sausage served with a gently teasing sauce that's red with bell peppers. No. 28 (pok tak) is a superior soup, its golden broth sharpened with lemon grass, dressed with fresh herbs and brimming with tender squid and scallops. Of the main dishes, I'm partial to pork chops marinated in green curry (No. 78), singed by the grill and enhanced at the table with a vinegary cucumber-and-onion sauce, as well as a truly spicy and crispy "spicy crispy catfish" (No. 55). Pieces of the fish are mixed with Thai basil, fresh ginger and red chilies; eating the dish feels like a hundred tiny firecrackers going off on your tongue.
While the kitchen is a reliable flame-thrower, it also displays an unfortunate sweet tooth. Basically, any recipe that is supposed to have a touch of sugar in its seasoning tends to have a shower of it here, be it the brown dipping sauce, apparently auditioning to be a dessert topping, served with the "Crystal rolls" stuffed with chicken, egg, carrot and mint, or the pad Thai, the familiar mix of rice noodles and vegetables that practically gets candy-coated here.
The CliffsNotes version of the place would read something like this: Ease into a booth if you can, enjoy the solicitous staff, gravitate to what's hot -- or the chef's specials -- and ask the kitchen to go easy on the sweet stuff.