PLOY -- 2218 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 337-2324. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday 5 to 11 p.m.; Saturday noon to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.25 to $6.95, entrees $5.75 to $6.95; dinner appetizers $4.95 to $6.95, entrees $6.95 to $14.95. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $25 per person.
A GOOD RESTAURANT CAN BENE-
fit from competition, and Ploy proves it. This new Thai restaurant -- a branch of Sala Thai and Bua -- was yawning with empty tables one Saturday evening when in came some friends of mine. They had tried to get into the Austin Grill down the street, but it was too crowded, so they spotted Ploy and gave it a try. By the time we were finished, the place had nearly filled, and in came another group of friends. They too were among the overflow from the Austin Grill.
While Ploy is poised for overflow, it is likely to bring these new customers back for more.
The dining room is simply decorated: a few sedate works of art against beige walls, black sling chairs and pebbly gray laminated tables. It looks fresh and fashionable, but not splashy. The most immediate attraction, though, is the service. Everyone is attentive, from the maitre d' to the busboys. Waiters are friendly and enthusiastic. They help you plan your meal and watch over your needs. They create the restaurant's personality.
Ploy -- which means gemstones in Thai -- is a place to celebrate summer with a fresh peach daiquiri. It's served in a glass just short of bathtub-size, and while it is not very alcoholic, it is a great fragrant slush. There are also fresh strawberry, banana, orange and pineapple ones, but peach is the winner.
That, of course, brings to mind things to nibble. The appetizer choice is wide, but keep in mind that the main dishes tend to be better. Shrimp satays are a fine choice, marinated and tinged yellow with turmeric, each shrimp threaded on a bamboo skewer and quickly grilled. Chicken satays, on the other hand, are dry, though both the shrimp and chicken are worthwhile as vehicles for the sweet-hot peanut dipping sauce. Fried appetizers are this kitchen's weak point: tod munn, the curried fish cakes, are greasy and only faintly curried; egg rolls have pasty fillings and chewy wrappers; and stuffed chicken wings taste fishy and arid. The waiters recommend baby clams with black beans, and while these are awfully big babies and a little chewy, you can hardly go wrong by putting black-bean sauce on clams. Still, among the appetizers it is the meat and seafood salads -- which hit the back of the tongue with a jolt of lemon and the sinuses with an explosion of pepper -- that show off this kitchen. Larb, the beef or chicken version, is powerfully good, and yum talay, made with pure-white marinated scallops, squid and shrimp, is a tender, juicy display of pain and pleasure. The tuna version, though benefiting from ginger and peanuts, suffers from tough bits of fish.
One soup is a standout, but then I am always a sucker for tom kha gai -- creamy hot-and-sour chicken and coconut milk soup. As for the vegetable soup, it is all looks and little flavor.
The main dishes number about two dozen. On the fiery end, panang chicken, beef or shrimp is drenched in a haunting red-gold curry sauce that starts out tasting creamy from coconut and peanuts and grows to a fiery finish. Glass noodles, at the mild end, are a gentle mix of shrimp, pork, dried mushrooms and scrambled egg with translucent noodles that have soaked up the wonderful pan juices. Spicy beef with onion, garlic and parsley sauce sounds mainstream, but the elements combine to make an intensely tangy and spicy light puree that permeates the tender slices of meat.
These unthickened sauces are dense with flavor, none more than the hot chilies and garlic served with eggplant. Skin-on wedges of eggplant are cooked barely through, and so greaseless they might have been steamed rather than stir-fried. They absorb every nuance of the tangy brown sauce. Hot chili and garlic on the soft-shell crabs, though, has tasted of burned spices, so I would order these small, perfectly cooked crabs in one of the two other sauces offered: chili in oil or celery, onion and curry. This kitchen stocks pristine seafood and cooks it carefully, from the flounder steamed until just the moment of opaqueness to a sizzling mixed seafood dish that is perfectly tender and juicy. Yet often the sauces have been misguided -- an indistinct yet incendiary spicy plum sauce with the flounder, a soupy and boring spicy bean sauce with the oversalted and overwhelming ground pork topping for otherwise outstanding fried Hawaiian prawns, and that bitter burned spicing on the crabs. The greatest disappointment, though, is pad thai, the typical Thai noodles with shrimp, bean sprouts and bits of vegetables and bean curd. At Ploy the dish is achingly sweet.
I haven't given up on the stuffed duckling, a kind of ballotine or pa~te'-stuffed duck roll, though mine was lukewarm and tasted as if it had been stored too long and reheated. It is minced duck and pork with mushrooms, shrimp and bits of vegetables wrapped in duck meat and its skin. Once cooked, it is sliced and accompanied by fresh pineapple and oyster sauce. The faint cinnamon and anise seasoning, the bold meat flavors, the contrast of meat and pineapple show promise.
Don't skip out without dessert. The coconut sherbet brings you full circle to summer again. It is coarse and icy like an Italian granite, creamy from the coconut milk, mildly sweet and studded with slivers of jackfruit. Even better, it is drizzled with aromatic blackberry syrup and sprinkled with crunchy sunflower seeds. Almost as good as the sherbet is a custard made of taro with the same blackberry syrup and seeds. Then there is the inevitable Thai iced coffee, dark, sweet and almost too beautiful to drink.
With Ploy we have one more Thai restaurant with fresh and bright food, an attractive modern setting and indulgent service. It is another example of why Washington is getting the reputation as a great town for Thai food.