THE WEEKLY DISH
SEALS OF APPROVAL: Judging from the company it keeps, Bamian (5634 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-7880) is off to an impressive start. Since the sprawling Afghan restaurant opened in mid-January, the ambassador from Afghanistan has dropped by, as have embassy staff from Kuwait and Qatar, owner Ali Amin says.
Named for the city in north-central Afghanistan, Bamian replaces Lone Star Steakhouse . Furnished with leopard-print chairs in the foyer and chandeliers in the dining room, the newcomer is also the dressiest place in the area to sample bulanee (scallion-filled pastries) and mantu (beef dumplings). Three Afghan chefs make those and other dishes, including a luscious vegetarian platter of sauteed pumpkin, eggplant with tomatoes, and spinach seasoned with coriander and red chili pepper.
A former mortgage broker, Amin says he hasn't owned a restaurant in the United States since he arrived here in 1977, after which he operated a few fast-food chicken joints in New York. Does the restaurant's name ring a bell? The owner says his venture is no relation to the shuttered Bamyan in Herndon.
Lunch entrees $8.95-$14.95, dinner entrees $10.95-$18.95.
EMPIRE BUILDING: The recent debut of Mai Thai (1200 19th St. NW; 202-452-6870) downtown raises the bar for what constitutes a beautiful Thai dining room in Washington. From the terra cotta-colored figurines that pop out of a front wall to the glowing orange bar shelves and wooden dividers that resemble sails between booths, the restaurant looks like a million bucks -- which is just the price owner "Woody" Tongrugs says he paid to revamp the address.
Tongrugs now counts four cleverly billed restaurants in his domain; the others are Mai Thai in Alexandria and Thaiphoon in Dupont Circle and Pentagon City. Tongrugs labels his latest project "a challenge." It's below street level, he explains, and the last occupant, the seafood- themed Fin , was short-lived. Early exploration of the new outpost reveals a stinging hot and sour seafood soup, snappy green papaya salad and fragrant green curry chicken, but also tired- tasting roast duck salad, oily red curry beef and dishes that arrive within nanoseconds of being ordered. The scenery, however, is constant -- as intoxicating as the cocktail for which it's named.
Lunch entrees $7.95-$12.95, dinner entrees $18.95.