First Bite: Authentic accents at Doi Moi


Chef Haidar Karoum says his new Dupont Circle enterprise was planned “for five years on paper, 12 years in my mind.” (Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post)
September 10, 2013

Spotting a pal at a table crowded with food at Doi Moi in Logan Circle, I rush over to gather some intel about the new Thai-Vietnamese restaurant by chef Haidar Karoum and owner Mark Kuller.

Little Serow without the line,” my friend launches into a mini-review, referring to Johnny Monis’s no-reservations Thai hot spot in Dupont Circle.

Back at my seat, I’m catching his drift. The blast of heat from Doi Moi’s chili-packed ground duck salad certainly smacks of the fire I’ve encountered at Little Serow. Similarly, the younger restaurant’s Issan-style pork sausage comes with the pleasantly sour notes and cool herb and cabbage garnishes I’ve lapped up at the competition.

Karoum sounds pleased to be put in such good company. But the chef emphasizes that his idea embraces two Southeast Asian accents, not one, and that Doi Moi (pronounced “doy mu-uy” by the chef and “doy moy” by some of the staff) was inspired by cuisines that have been his favorites since the Northern Virginia native was a kid frequenting Eden Center, also known as Little Saigon, and Duangrat’s, both in Falls Church.

“This is a restaurant that’s been in the plans for five years on paper, 12 years in my mind,” says Karoum. Doi Moi was preceded by a near-month-long research trip to Vietnam and Thailand last year with Kuller, with whom the chef previously collaborated on the wine-themed Proof in Penn Quarter and the Spanish restaurant Estadio on 14th Street NW.

Brittany Frick, a former pastry chef at Estadio, is chef de cuisine at the new restaurant.

The menu is divided into categories including skewers, salads, soups, curries, noodles and plates to share. Pencil-long spring rolls filled with pork and shrimp are more pretty than tasty, but I dig the aromatic curry featuring hen of the woods mushrooms, Chinese long beans and house-made tofu. Fried rice sweetened with lump crab and ignited with garlic and white pepper is another habit in the making for this diner.

The name Doi Moi, or “new change” in Vietnamese, has a double meaning here. One relates to the economic reforms introduced in Vietnam in the 1980s that allowed for private enterprise. The second addresses the sweeping changes that have occurred in the arrival’s increasingly trendy neighborhood.

The vivid food is set against a soothing, mostly white backdrop of porcelain tiles, taupe furniture and marble mosaic flooring, punctuated here and there by souvenirs that Kuller acquired abroad, mainly from street stalls in Vietnam. Downstairs, a cocoon of a bar called 2 Birds 1 Stone shows off the liquid prowess of cocktail maestro Adam Bernbach. Lined with cozy nooks, the watering hole can be accessed from both within Doi Moi and a separate entrance on S Street NW.

Soft-serve ice cream for dessert? The idea to include the very American treat came from Kuller, who encountered soft-serve ice cream in miniature cones at a restaurant in Miami and asked Karoum whether he minded putting the confection on Doi Moi’s menu.

Not a problem. Because Karoum is aiming for authentic heat in the savory courses, he figures the ice cream, offered in tropical flavors, makes a good fire extinguisher.

1800 14th St. NW. 202-733-5131. Entrees, $12 to $17.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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