DUANGRAT'S -- 5878 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church. 820-5775. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested for parties of six or more. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.95 to $7.95, entrees $5.95 to $18.95; dinner appetizers $2.95 to $7.95, entrees $7.75 to $18.95. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip $20 to $25 per person. xcept for the chili peppers, you'd never imagine that Duangrat's could have taken the place of El Bandito. The dining room has been transformed from down-home Tex-Mex to a sumptuously pretty Thai restaurant. Glass-fronted niches are lined in red silk to display such treasures as jeweled, golden headdresses and masks. Crystal chandeliers and sprays of orchids -- painted and real -- decorate the room, as do waitresses in Thai gowns woven with gold thread. It is a world apart from Leesburg Pike's shopping-strip bustle.
Washington has plenty of Thai restaurants; some of them are beautiful, and even more serve enticing food. Duangrat's is a standout nevertheless, with graceful service and fascinating dishes to warrant the luxury of the dining room.
Its menu repeats the normal run of Thai dishes: tart and fiery meat and seafood salads such as the ground-beef larb and shrimp pla goong; the crisp noodle dish called mee grob; hot fried appetizers such as tod mon and stuffed chicken wings; grilled appetizers such as satay; typical soups of shrimp with lemon grass and chicken with coconut milk; and main dishes combining meat or seafood with basil, ginger, fried garlic or chilies. It goes further, however, with combinations of chopped meats or seafoods wrapped in bean-curd skin or rice paper and then deep-fried, chicken wrapped in exotic leaves and fried, or fish grilled in banana leaves. It serves soft-shell crabs and abalone, special dishes from the south of Thailand, and both red and green curries. Duangrat's serves deep-fried quail and ox tongue stew. And among the daily specials you might find trout stuffed with minced shrimp or chicken, or perhaps a well- herbed and slowly cooked duck. This is a restaurant where advice may be needed, and the staff is ready with suggestions -- good ones, in my experience.
The best introduction to the kitchen of Duangrat's is those appetizers made familiar by every other Thai restaurant. Duangrat's does them better. And prettier. Crystal Spring Rolls are among the best I have ever tasted. Compare them with ordinary spring rolls: The filling tastes more of meat, the vegetables have more flavor and crunch, the seasoning plays sweet against hot, and the crust is a thin crackle with no remaining greasiness. Furthermore, these spring rolls -- like many dishes at Duangrat's -- are garnished with refreshing slices of home-pickled papaya and carrot. That other glory of Thai appetizers, stuffed chicken wings, is here more highly seasoned than most, its crumb coating lighter and crisper than usual, and again greasiness is absent. Satays are as juicy and crusty as you could hope, intricately seasoned themselves, even more so when dipped in the nutty, mildly spiced peanut sauce that accompanies them. The lemony appetizer salads such as larb are hot and sour, crunchy with tiny spice seeds and studded with incendiary little red chilies, which the waiter warns are there for looks and too hot for most people to eat.
Now, about the more original appetizers: They haven't matched the standard ones in my experience. Shrimp Nori is a beauty, the pink shrimp paste and black seaweed sheets wrapped and sliced into pinwheels. It is a pleasant, mild dish but not as teasing on the tongue as the others. Gold Sachet Duangrat didn't taste half as interesting as it sounded. Won ton wrappers were substituted for wrappers of bean-curd skin, and the meat filling was not as dazzling a combination of seasonings as the other dishes.
Given the bold seasonings of the appetizers, soups are mild. In most Thai restaurants they are liquid fire; here, the chicken galanka soup is delicate, merely suggesting heat, afloat with gently cooked slices of chicken and straw mushrooms in its mellow coconut broth. Shrimp with lemon grass is more tomatoey than most and only moderately hot. The most memorable soup is oxtail, thick and meaty, a wintery combination of homey flavors with just an edge of heat and tang.
And here is a rare Thai restaurant where the main dishes are as exciting as the appetizers. The curry pastes are exceptional, whether red curry smothering a honey-roasted duck that is remarkable for its soft texture and crisp skin, or a paste of curry spices and coconut milk permeating panang beef or chicken. If you ever thought curry was a single spice, this would disabuse you, as its various spices played on your tongue, lightly fired by chilies and softened by coconut milk.
The menu ranges through a variety of cooking styles, intensities and textures. Fried quail is crisp and juicy little birds, aromatic with a topping of fried garlic (the frying turns the garlic sweet and mild) and black pepper. It is not at all incendiary. The seafood combination called Hot Dish Talay Thai looks innocent, just various seafood, mushrooms, baby corn and crunchy translucent seaweed in a colorful light red sauce -- but its looks deceive. At first taste it is flowery with coconut and spices, then the heat of the peppers kicks you hard.
Only two main dishes have disappointed me, and even they had redeeming qualities. That seafood Talay Thai had a compelling aroma and sweet flavor, but the texture of the seafood was unappealing, the scallops pasty and the squid slick. Chicken De'butante, which has charmed many diners with its green-leaf package enclosing chunks of dark chicken meat, was salty with excess soy sauce and missed the interplay of flavors I found in the other dishes. It tasted like nothing more than steamed teriyaki chicken.
Overall, though, there is a master of the art of spicing in this kitchen. The aromas and flavors are as sweet as tropical flowers, the peppers provide as much flavor as heat, and shreds of herbs and ground spices play tag on the palate.
The waiters at Duangrat's help balance your choices, bring colorful gelatin desserts to try to tempt you and suggest dishes you should try next time you come. They act proud of their food.
They should be. ::