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A Face in the Crowd

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 1999

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
Sushi fans' blessings are multiplying. Sushi-Ko in Glover Park recovered nicely from losing its chef, Kazuhiro "Kaz" Okochi, replacing him with an earlier chef, Tetsuro Takanashi. While Okochi moved on to supervise Raku, the Asian noodles-and-grill chain, his Japanese-modern raw fish creations were missed. Now they can be expected to reemerge. Okochi is planning to open a new restaurant, called Kaz, at 1915 I St. NW, on the site of the former Eye Street Cafe.
– P.C.R.
The scene could be in a movie, circa 1958, in grainy black and white. The waitress: Lee Remick, perhaps. A drizzly winter evening in an anywhere town. A restaurant reached by a half-flight of stairs, probably next to the bus station. Or down the street from a nondescript downtown hotel. Most of the tables are empty, so the lonely music fills every corner. At one table, a man in a suit, reading a book, slowly eats his dinner and sips his beer. At another, a suit jacket is folded between a single diner and his briefcase. The man at a third table has taken off both his tie and jacket. He's drinking a glass of wine. A bon vivant, you can tell when he puts on his beret and windbreaker.

The visible staff consists of two men and a woman. The older man is a manager, standing motionless near the bar, the younger a busboy, also immobile for long periods. Only the waitress bustles from table to table. But this is 1999, so the scene needs to be updated. The man with the glass of wine is on his cell phone, talking about mergers and acquisitions and detailing his flights for tomorrow. Business travelers no longer take buses, so there's no station nearby. The man in the suit isn't reading a Mickey Spillane; it's "Men Are From Mars." And what these guys away from home have ordered isn't chicken-fried steak or even burgers. They're eating Thai food: green curry, stir-fried chicken with basil and hot chili oil. For dessert, it's mango with sticky coconut rice.

Thai Kitchen, barely a block from three large West End hotels, serves the familiar foods that make American business travelers feel right at home. Nowadays that's likely to mean larb gai, satays or panang chicken. The happy-hour complimentary hors d'oeuvres are Thai-style chicken wings. The beer on the table is likely to be Singha. In fact, probably more Americans today have tasted pad thai than have eaten chicken-fried steak. At lunch, Thai Kitchen draws a far bigger crowd. It has all the amenities that make for midday popularity. Its prices are reasonable: Most entrees are around $7 at lunchtime, $8 to $10 at dinner. That's rock bottom, considering that the tables are well spaced for quiet conversation. Service is quick, the cooking is reliable if not memorable, and portions are large enough that only the extravagant order more than one course.

Thai Kitchen is also, especially for the price, an attractive place. On a sunny day, the glass front draws in plenty of light for the plants that stretch along the walls. The large dining room is carpeted, the banquettes are thickly upholstered, and at night when the candles are lit, the laminated hammered-copper tables gleam. If only those traveling men weren't dining alone, the place could look downright romantic, in a sedate Trader Vic's sort of way.

Surely they'll go home with good reports of their dining adventure in Washington. Thai Kitchen's soups are tart and fragrant with coriander, both the clear broth of kaffir lime and lemon grass, and the creamy white coconut soup packed with strips of gently cooked chicken breast. Not many tourists venture into green papaya salad with peanuts and dried shrimp, so they won't know that it's a little soggy and limp. And only Thai food aficionados will notice the blandness of the satays or absence of lettuce leaves for wrapping the larb; everyone else will just appreciate the clean, lime-sharpened and chili-spiked leanness of this ground chicken appetizer with bits of red onion. They'll be pleased with the delicacy of the vegetarian spring rolls even if they wish the frying oil tasted fresher.

Then again, it seems that most diners just go right to the entrees. The most expensive tend to be the specials written on the chalkboard at the entrance. Crispy duck with shrimp is enormous, a platter of thick, dense and tender slabs of boneless duck that's been totally cleared of its fat and veiled in a wisp of greaseless batter. It's buried under julienned bamboo shoots, tiny green peas, diced eggplant, yellow squash and zucchini with strips of red pepper, and drenched with a pale, creamy green curry sauce, moderately hot. That's only the half of it. A row of large (if undercooked) shrimp are lined alongside the duck, and snow peas, baby corn and carrot strips are fanned out to decorate the platter. It's a lot of glamorous ingredients for the money.

But most people generally order noodles or something equally homey. The wide rice noodles might not have the smoky edge or the appealing slight chewiness you'd find from more finicky kitchens, and the rice noodle soup tastes more of seasoning than of proper meat broth. Nor is there the meticulous slicing or the even cooking that would render each vegetable slightly crisp and each slice of meat juicy. But the basil here is fragrant, the meat and seafood are generously portioned, and hot pepper is used to advantage. The best display of Thai Kitchen's talents is a vegetable dish called Gaeng Mus-a-men Jay, with big soft cubes of fried tofu, potatoes, carrots, onions and bits of peanuts in a fragrant coconut-based yellow curry sauce. If chili heat is what thrills you, you can be sure that when you order your food hot it will be head-clearing and eyelash-curling hot. Otherwise, this is food to fill and satisfy, more than excite.

After you've studied the list of stir-fried entrees, curries, noodles and vegetarian dishes, you'll realize that Thai Kitchen isn't much different from countless neighborhood Thai restaurants across the country. "This isn't food that you can find much to say about," I fretted to my companion. "It's just standard Thai food."

"That explains why I liked it so much," he said, carrying home our leftovers.

Thai Kitchen – 2311 M ST. NW. 202/452-6090. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 3 to 11 p.m., Friday 3 to 11:30 p.m., Saturday noon to 11:30 p.m., Sunday noon to 10:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.50 to $6.95, entrees $6.50 to $10.95; dinner appetizers $3.95 to $7.95, entrees $7.95 to $12.95. Full dinner with beer or wine, tax and tip $20 to $35 per person.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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