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East Meets Best Western

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables

It's a civilized bargain, the lunch special at Palais du Chocolat. For $6.25 to $6.50 at the 19th Street location ($6.95 at 3309 Connecticut Ave.), you get a choice of sandwiches (I would have liked the grilled chicken even more if it hadn't been left around until its peppers and onions got soggy) or a wedge of quiche. Here's the bargain: Lunch comes with a beverage and your pick among the cases of glistening, extremely French pastries. If you can resist the layered tortes and napoleons, try the fragrant cookie-crusted apricot tart. Take it to a small round table, choose one of the newspapers from the wall rack, and hum "La Vie en Rose" to yourself. Don't forget to get your card stamped so you can get your 13th lunch free.
– P.C.R.
Crouching beside the I-395 south on-ramp like Washington's back porch, the Best Western Downtown Capitol Hill is a hotel without a neighborhood: not quite in Chinatown, its back turned to the National Portrait Gallery and the General Accounting Office, several inhospitable blocks away from the halls of Congress. In fact, if you approach it from Massachusetts Avenue in the wrong lane, you're in danger of accidentally winding up in Virginia.

Inside, it's even more anomalous. Climb the marble-ish stairs to the small hotel lobby and you'll find yourself in an authentic American melting pot. The restaurant, in the rear, looks like any of a million freshly renovated hotel coffee shops – but find me another that serves ohno kaukswe and mohingar. This one's called the Nuwadee (accent on the Nu), and it's Washington's second Burmese restaurant, the product of a marital split at Burma three blocks away. The wife kept the old restaurant, while the husband decamped to the Best Western.

The Nuwadee has a perky, free-spirited dining room, with an American colonial look to the plasterwork and a high-gloss laminate on the tables. The brass rail, leatherette booths, potted palms and cobalt blue glassware add a fern bar touch, though blue spotlights in the corners make you wonder whether a karaoke singer or go-go dancer might appear. The first hint of what's actually in store comes when you notice that the shopping-mall art on the walls depicts scenes of Burma.

The restaurant reached its height of incongruity on a Thursday night early this month. An American flag and a purple satin banner dominated the rear wall. The Lions Club was in attendance. At another table, four Scandinavian tourists, lobster red from a sunny day on the Mall, were patiently receiving one dish at a time as it issued from the kitchen. Wisps of cigar smoke also drifted from the kitchen. Henry Tin Pe, the proprietor and a former Burmese diplomat, was apparently taking a break.

I'd been here before, and pretty much knew what was coming, in terms of the food. But I was unprepared for the hush as the pride of Lions stood to recite a prayer, pledge allegiance and give a toast. The club's ritual over, everyone sat down to plates of Asian noodles.

Next, it was time for our drama to begin. The lone waiter smiled a lot and spoke little. That was because, despite his ability to write down our orders in English, he seemed to understand practically nothing we said. He was all nouns and no verbs. He was falling behind as more tables filled, so the chef, in her large, floppy toque, came out to lend a hand in the dining room. She refilled water glasses, offered a few translations, and ducked back into the kitchen to cook and then deliver more orders. Tin Pe just stood behind the bar ignoring the commotion, his eyes fixed on some world beyond the dining room.

First came the dance of the wineglasses. The waiter delivered me the white. I'd ordered red, so I handed it to my friend. Unfazed, the waiter gave her the red, too, leaving me with none.

Next, a stroke of luck brought us our ginger salad immediately, and it was large enough to keep hunger at bay for all three of us. It was also the single delicious dish of the evening, a mounded plateful of lemony shredded cabbage, pickled ginger and thin noodles, crunchy with fried garlic, beans and pecan halves. Tea leaf salad – another from the list of 25 – was pretty much the same, except for peanuts instead of pecans and damp, bitter tea leaves rather than ginger. I recalled it being better at Burma, as had been the tofu salad.

Linguistic meltdown loomed. Our order of Burmese noodle salad had somehow been translated between dining room and kitchen into a hot entree of thick noodles with a mild curry sauce and diced chicken. And since the kitchen was out of spicy beef, the chef had also rerouted us to chicken curry with coconut and basil – identical to our noodle dish except for larger chunks of chicken and no noodles.

Similarly, squash fritters – an immense plateful of batter-fried wedges – were followed by fried squid with the same batter, though we had ordered a very different sauteed squid with country ham. We loved the sauces with the two fried dishes – syrupy green sweet-hot cilantro with the squid, a red version with the squash – but one plate of fritters was more than enough grease for the table.

We called the waiter over and asked for a menu – gesturing as if we were playing 20 Questions. We pointed out the entry for squid with ham. He summoned the chef . She disappeared to find her glasses and examined the menu, then returned to her kitchen. Nothing happened.

A bowl of pork – stringy meat with lush mango in a salty almost-curry sauce – didn't divert us. I was determined to sample the kitchen's breadth. At lunch another day I'd appreciated the thick, creamy noodle soups – ohno kaukswe with chicken, coconut milk, onion and lime; and mohingar with ground fish, lemon grass, cilantro and lime – and an oily but wonderful stir-fried spinach with browned onions and garlic. But, given the length of the menu, I'd had to pass up salmon with tamarind, shrimp curry and all the noodle dishes, not to mention the Nuwadee Burger, which the kitchen had sold out. I couldn't miss that intriguing squid entree, too.

Instead, the bill came. At lunch, sweet lemony iced tea is poured freely, but at dinner we'd not even been offered coffee or dessert. I stood my ground and reiterated my wish to try the squid with ham. A few gestures and the word "package" got the point across that I'd accept it as carryout and I'd pay for both squids.

As soon as I got home, I poured off the layer of red oil and sampled the stir-fry of chewy squid and plentiful, flavorful country ham with diced shrimp, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and whole green chilies. I went to sleep feeling the spoils weren't quite worth the battle.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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