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Out With the Olde

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables

Adams-Morgan chalks up one more tiny restaurant operating on a shoestring. Pasta In, at 1817 Columbia Rd., has one of the most endearing dining rooms, extensive menus and hospitable demeanors you'll find at any price. The walls are creamy yellow, the color of real Key lime pie. The decorations and the music have a tropical lilt. And while the four-page menu is mostly pastas, they range from Malaysian to Cajun. Pasta In's proprietor, Shy Nair, is a young chef with considerable ambition and wit. Granted, her cooking is far too dependent on cream and random in its use of herbs. The Cajun pasta and the Malaysian one taste surprisingly alike: enormous portions of nicely timed noodles tossed with large chunks of chicken and vegetables, weighted down with so much cream that it's most of what you taste. So, look to the lighter dishes and consider the mushroom soup. It's packed with well-browned slices of fungus and onion, and while it has twice as many herbs as it needs, it is pleasant. Prices are low enough to make this cute little restaurant a pretty good value. – P.C.R.
Alexandria once was a place where restaurants' names started with "Olde" and their dining rooms featured columns, swagged curtains and chair rails. Now the new restaurants' names are allusions to the stars, and the decorations seem to come from children's books.

You'd never know Stardust began life as Kristos' Charcoal House. Its dining rooms look like a frozen confection. The front room is a green the color of mint ice cream thickly spooned onto the walls. Blackberry ice cream might have been the inspiration for the rear room. In both you dine under a painted sky, its stars seemingly reflected in the carpet.

Stardust is a large restaurant, but it manages to seem friendly, and each room has its own mood. The bar, a luscious apricot mousse of a room with booths and lots of standing-around space, is probably going to be best known for its half-price happy-hour appetizers.

Even at full price, they're enough of a value to make them very appealing. Oysters on the half shell sparkle with salty flavor, all the more so under their colorful topping of diced mango, onion and red bell pepper.

Prefer your bivalves cooked? Tiny clams are steamed with white wine and enough garlic to keep you spooning up the broth and dipping the bread – which is soft and chewy and vaguely reminiscent of a New Orleans baguette. A creamy seafood stew is sumptuous with mussels, scallops and handsome shrimp. Garlic-stuffed mussels are a variation on the usual snails – baked with garlic butter – but they're better because mussels have more flavor. Shrimp-and-scallop satay uses tiny, sweet bay scallops and large shrimp to advantage, neither overcooking them nor overdressing them. Their peanut sauce is spicy, sweet, nutty.

Not all the appetizers, though, exceed expectations as these do. The chef has a glamorous way with vegetable garnishes, drizzles of sauces and sprinklings of herbs and spices. But as in many restaurants, the more complicated the dish, the more chances it has to fail. Oyster tart with leeks and country ham leaves the shellfish gently cooked, soft and receptive to the fragrant cream, but its puff pastry shell quickly turns soggy. The tomatoey conch chowder suffers from herbal excess and chewy seafood. Crab spring rolls could use more crab, though those long, crisp cigarette-shaped wrappers look dramatic.

All of the appetizers are seafood except a mushroom consomme and a fine duck pate that's coarse, gamey and studded with pistachios. It's a classic, even better for its faintly sweet and acidic Sauternes aspic.

Stardust's chef, Pat Phatiphong, is Thai, but in addition to having cooked for Shirlington's T.H.A.I., he's been at such bastions of European style as the Ritz-Carlton at Pentagon City and D.C.'s long-gone Harvey's and Rive Gauche. He brings an Asian flavor to some dishes, but the menu ranges from New Orleans's crawfish etouffee to Italy's wild mushroom fettuccine. He even makes a potent, complex and authentic lamb curry. Yet the sea is clearly his favorite hunting ground.

Entrees include a few meats: duck breast in honey ginger sauce, filet with green peppercorns, grilled chicken in an overwhelming tomato sauce, and that hearty curry. There are also a couple of meatless pasta dishes (the mushroom fettuccine is the dreariest of the entrees). But the major temptations are seafood: whole fish either grilled with rosemary, capers and lemon or – as a frequent special – fried to a crisp in a light tempura batter. I'd ask for the Thai chili sauce on the side, so I could taste the fish when it's not drowned in heat and sweetness.

Salmon crab rolls are a dreamy pink and white in a wrapper of black seaweed and golden-fried rice paper, hard to cut but pretty and greaseless. Again, though, complexity brings with it some flaws: The crab meat is compacted shreds. Even worse, crab timbales are rounds of starchy custard, with a curry sauce that tastes mostly of salt. Instead, try your crabs as soft-shells when they're available. They're stuffed with that same disappointing shredded crab, but the whole crabs themselves are crisp-battered and juicy. If you're looking for a safe choice, the pan-fried trout with lemon dill sauce is a pleasure. If you're more adventurous, hope to find veal cheeks among the specials. They're tender and luscious, with noodles to soak up their concentrated meaty flavor.

Despite some missteps, Phatiphong shows a meticulousness, even in the side dishes. The asparagus is painstakingly peeled and perfectly cooked. The corn with red bell peppers is sweetly fresh. Mashed white potatoes topped with sweet potatoes are a recurrent theme, as is baby bok choy.

Litchi and ginger ice creams are the sole Asian touches on the dessert list. Among the European choices, extravagance succeeds far better than simplicity. Don't pause at the tarts with their tough or soggy crusts. Head right for the sumptuous bittersweet chocolate macadamia torte or the strawberry chocolate-cream shortcake with its thin layer of hard chocolate and fluff of chocolate mousse. And if you abstemiously opt for a dish of berries, at least dress them with the lovely sabayon.

Stardust is a restaurant with considerable polish. The service is thoughtful and observant, though the kitchen can bog down on a busy evening. The mood is hospitable, down to the modest prices on the wine list.

While appetizers and desserts are stars here, even the lesser dishes are exuberant. When Stardust's kitchen makes mistakes, they seem to stem from trying too hard rather than not trying enough.

Stardust Restaurant & Lounge – 608 Montgomery St., Alexandria. 703/548-9864. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: appetizers $4.25 to $7.95; lunch entrees $5.95 to $10.95; dinner entrees $12.95 to $18.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $30 to $45 per person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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