Thaiphoon

Thai
$$$$ ($15-$24)
'

Editorial Review

Why Thaiphoon? The image is one of chaos, the last thing a fledgling restaurant needs. It's just "something easy to remember," explains owner Woody Tongrugs, who ran the two Jandaras, in Woodley Park and on upper Wisconsin Avenue, before opening Thaiphoon in Dupont Circle.

Once you've made its acquaintance, Thaiphoon doesn't let you forget it. The interior catches the eye with a window-wrapped dining room up front and cozy booths in the rear painted the colors of asparagus, burnt orange and lemon. Stylish amber lights illuminate a menu whose moderate prices encourage frequent visits. Thaiphoon is one of those rare restaurants where, no matter what seat you land in, you've got a view of something interesting (my companion might be savoring the sidewalk scene today, but I've spotted a late-lunching Betty Friedan).

The noodle dishes run oily and the desserts leave me cold. It took some exploration, but eventually I tasted why there's often a wait for one of Thaiphoon's 80 or so seats. For the most part, this is food that wakes up your mouth, brought to you by servers who manage to slip some graciousness your way every time they stop by your table.

No one in the neighborhood serves a brassier soup than the demure-looking chicken and mushrooms floating in a broth of coconut milk. A bowlful of beige, the soup nevertheless roars with the peppery heat of galangal and a bracing jolt of lime. Fried won ton skins in crisp triangles hide pinches of curry-tinged chicken, onions and potatoes; the sweet-sharp cucumber dipping sauce makes a nice complement. Peanut-sprinkled, citrus-splashed papaya salad is good, but even better is shredded, honey-roasted duck tossed with ginger, chili paste, greens and more. And among the entrees, you'll do just fine with seafood, be it steamed rockfish perfumed by lemon grass or a special of shrimp with pineapple and a tingling tomato sauce. The best of the vegetables: bright, crisp string beans, delicately batter-fried and enlivened by garlic sauce. It's the stuff of late-night, home-alone junk-food fantasies.

-- Tom Sietsema