{sstar}{sstar} (2 stars) Straits of Malaya

1836 18th St. NW (near T Street). 202-483-1483

Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Smoking at outdoor tables only. Not wheelchair accessible. Metro: Dupont Circle. Prices: appetizers $5.95, entrees $10.95 to $21.95. Full dinner with beer or wine, tax and tip about $45 per person.

"Straits Cuisine/Family Style/Since 1989."

The menu at Straits of Malaya would have you believe that the restaurant has been frying curry puffs and mixing Singapore slings nonstop for the past 15 years. That's not quite the case, however. Straits actually closed in 1999, when chef and co-owner Lawrence Tan left to care for an ailing parent; the space was leased and went on to house three subsequent restaurants, the last of which was Wazuri, a purveyor of some memorable, African-inspired cooking. When Wazuri was shuttered, Tan reclaimed the space, restoring paintings of bamboo leaves to the walls and calling back some of his former staff members. So it is only since this spring that his fans have been able to say, "Let's go to Straits tonight."

Details, details. The bottom line is, there's a fresh place to eat in Dupont Circle, and it is not a giant sandwich-maker, an imported steakhouse, another Thai eatery or a bar posing as a restaurant. (Even better, it hasn't been taken over by CVS or Starbucks -- yet.) Straits of Malaya signals the return of a good neighbor and the chance to explore Malaysian cooking -- with its Chinese and Indian influences -- that has few rivals.

New to the game? The servers always ask if you are, and if you nod yes, you get a verbal pat on the back. "The food is served family-style and meant to be shared," your tour guide will inform you. "It comes out as it is done." Sure enough, one appetizer might precede another by several minutes, and entrees are staggered, too. "If you have any questions, you can ask any one of us," the staff also reassures guests. "We work as a team." And that they do, pretty well.

A cluster of appetizers sparks conversation and gets fingers and forks flying (no knives, though, as is the custom in Malaysia). Tan offers a taste from home with his mother's recipe for five-spice roll. Ground beef is blended with cinnamon, nutmeg and other sweet spices, bound in sheer bean curd skins and fried so that the skins are crisp and the filling remains moist. Slices of the savory snack are served with a ginger- and chili-sharpened soy sauce that jousts nicely with the beef's seasoning. A dot of ground beef, this time scented with curry, fills the triangular and ultra-crisp curry puffs, which develop more personality after a dip in the accompanying sweet-hot sauce, sprinkled with crushed peanuts. An exotic riff on chicken noodle soup is laksa, a treasure of thin rice noodles, ribbons of chicken, cooked egg and coconut milk in a brown broth that tickles the throat with hot spices. It could easily make a meal for some people. In contrast to the other appetizers, the vegetable fritters are merely decent.

Straits sets out airy, pastel-colored shrimp chips for munching as guests peruse the menu; the chips make a nice scoop for acar, an appetizer of pickled cucumbers, carrots and cabbage that amounts to Malaysia's version of chips and dip. The vivid red cocktail that brightens more than a few tables is that Singapore sling, sweet with fruit juice and potent with gin. The libation looks innocent as a Shirley Temple but packs a seriously adult punch; a few sips and you'll forget about the date who stood you up or the tiff you had with your roommate.

The main dining room has been quiet every time I've dropped by the restaurant, but that just means that the weather has been pleasant and people have gravitated to the outdoor deck, reached via a steep flight of stairs. The view includes the big restaurant and people magnet across 18th Street known as Lauriol Plaza, where customers sometimes wait hours for a table. Looking over at the huddled masses, yearning to eat, I'm always tempted to motion them over to join the party on this side of the street.

There's much to seduce them here (and at the adjacent Larry's Lounge, which Tan also owns and where his Malaysian cooking also is served). Poh pia, for instance, resembles Chinese moo shu and involves some assembly at the table. Four folded pancakes rest atop a bowl heaped with crunchy jicama, bean sprouts, dried shrimp, cilantro and chicken slivers; you spread some hoisin sauce on a pancake, add some of the chicken mix, then wrap it all up. Diners tend to eat the dish like a taco, with the pancake doubled over the filling. Tamarind adds its mysterious sweet-tart accent to a second chicken dish, stir-fried with tomatoes, onion and water chestnuts. Nice. Chicken curry, though, would be better if the poultry were less dry and the sauce were less sweet (for better or worse, this is not a kitchen that will sear your tongue). The standouts among the seafood dishes include chili-spiked pearly shrimp with soft scallops, and flounder, fried to a delicate crunch and partnered with jasmine-scented steamed rice and vegetables in a light tomato sauce. While many of the main courses feature chicken or seafood, the kitchen can replace those ingredients if you ask, with tofu often standing in for meat.

The occasional slip is more than made up for by the restaurant's personal and reliable touches. In the end, five years was too long for us to be without Straits.

Ask Tom

"My husband and I first dined at [Le] Mannequin Pis about two years ago and were totally charmed with the ambience: the small size, the good food and service, and Jacques Brel playing softly in the background," Mary Kay Bartko of Bethesda related in an e-mail. However, on their last visit to the Olney restaurant, she said, "we were not so charmed. It's still small, of course, and the mussels are still good, but the appropriate music had been replaced by thumping EuroPop, played at ear-splitting level." A server explained the problem to the couple: The Brel CD had been played so much that it skipped. As for the volume, the chef couldn't hear the music in the kitchen if it weren't loud in the dining room. "But [the waiter] conveyed our request to someone, who briefly put on the Brel CD and turned down the volume a bit. However, by the time we were finished with dinner, the original music was back, and the volume had been returned to its uncomfortable level." When I reached him by phone, chef-owner Bernard Dehaene confirmed the details of Bartko's story; whereas Brel and Flemish music were played almost exclusively in the Belgian restaurant's first years, he said, the soundtrack these days is more mixed. "It gets jazzier" later at night, he said, suggesting that diners who prefer softer tunes come early in the evening. As for the Bartkos, "I'll make it up to them," Dehaene told me. "I'll make it a night of just Jacques Brel." He even vowed to create a special menu. "I'll make the dishes Brel liked," including mussels and waterzooi, Belgium's classic creamy fish stew. The Bartkos told me they plan on taking him up on the offer.

Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include daytime telephone number.