{sstar}{sstar}{sstar} (3 stars) Bangkok 54

2919 Columbia Pike (near South Walter Reed Drive), Arlington. 703-521-4070. www.bangkok54restaurant.com. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Parking lot. Prices: appetizers $3.50 to $7.95; lunch entrees $5.95 to $12.95; dinner entrees $6.95 to $12.95. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $30 per person.

{sstar}{sstar} (2 stars) Regent Thai Cuisine

1910 18th St. NW (near Florida Avenue). 202-232-1781. www.regentthai.com. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday noon to 3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Smoking on outdoor patio only. Limited wheelchair access. Metro: Dupont Circle. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.25 to $6.95, entrees $6.95 to $19.95; dinner appetizers $4.25 to $7.95, entrees $10.95 to $19.95. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $35 per person.

Nothing gets by my waitress at Bangkok 54. She crinkles her nose when I order shrimp with sator beans, frankly informing me that I might not like the entree because "the beans smell." She lets me know that the pork belly with basil and chili sauce is, as its name suggests, more fat than flesh, but also "very good" (and she's right). On a subsequent visit, when I ask for a beer just after noon on a Sunday, she looks me up and down, cocks an eyebrow and responds in the sly manner of Mae West. "Starting a bit early, eh?"

Luk Deesri, the server in each of those scenarios, makes a convincing argument for cloning. She's quick, she's flirtatious, she's informative, and she takes her work -- but not herself -- seriously. She also turns out to be only one of many reasons for making the acquaintance of this uncommonly appealing Thai restaurant, a neighbor since March to a food market of the same name next door.

Enter Bangkok 54 from the parking lot, and you get a preview of the menu as you walk by the neat open kitchen stocked with colorful fixings for the recipes. Enter from the street, and you get an art show. "Flowers" seemingly carved from stone blossom from big red or gray panels, and banquettes are made cozy with bright pillows. Sprays of red chopsticks fill in for flowers on the tables, and shadow boxes display silver pitchers and other beautiful objects.

Above all, Bangkok 54 is a welcome reprieve from the Thai routine and a signal that local Thai kitchens are, like their clientele, more adventurous than ever. Pork belly is the darling of modern American chefs these days, but here -- twice-baked and both crisp and melting -- it's chopped up in a delectable stir-fry with fresh basil. An appetizer promising "crispy fish" (yum pla duk fu) brings together an airy and crunchy cloud of finely shredded catfish, served atop a salad of grated green mango, red onions, peanuts and fresh cilantro. It's an easy addiction. As for those pungent sator beans, they are indeed an acquired taste; they add a slightly bitter note to an entree of pearly shrimp and green peppercorns.

"We didn't want to be like any other Thai restaurant," explains Nack Voratienkul, who co-owns Bangkok 54 with her two brothers and her husband. To that end, her mother, Endoo Tonkphontong, was put in charge of the kitchen, where she makes curry from scratch and prepares many of the same dishes her children grew up on in Bangkok.

Such fortunate kids! "Spicy roasted duck" gets spiked with a bracing lime dressing, while in an appetizer called goong fu, shrimp is ground to the texture of mousse, fried to a delicate crackle, and offered in wedges with a sweet chili sauce. "Is it hot enough for you?" Deesri asks me and my heat-seeking friends. Yes, indeed. "Crispy squid with basil," one of the house recommendations, induces sweat on our brows, thanks to a sauce that screams garlic and chilies. Equally appealing is the whole steamed rockfish, prettily garnished with minced chilies, garlic and mint.

The menu is long and varied, with few misses: Pad Thai, the classic noodle dish, proves too heavy and sweet, and beef massaman is the less for potatoes that taste warmed-over. The elegant setting and the deft service more than compensate, however. By the end of a meal, you, too, might become pals with your server. "Call me Lucky," mine says, draping her arm on the shoulder of one of my table mates, as I mentally calculate when we can return for more pampering.

THE LOUD SIZZLE preceding the arrival of my beef entree, neua krata, seems out of place in the context of the serene Regent Thai Cuisine, where the only other sounds on a slow weeknight have been gentle background music and the tinkle-tinkle of a nearby fountain. The dish sputters like beef fajitas but smells sweetly of Asian spices. A jumble of thin slices of marinated beef, snow peas and other vegetables strewn with sesame seeds, it is one of several signature dishes that set this Thai newcomer apart from the crowd. It's tasty, if a bit more expensive than what you tend to find at your typical issuer of papaya salad and drunken noodles.

The Regent takes the place of 88 -- and too many other restaurants that have tried to make a go of it on a tricky part of 18th Street NW that seems to belong neither to Adams Morgan nor to Dupont Circle. Launched in July by Chuchart Kampirapang, it gets a boost from Saowaluk Wiyagul in the kitchen and an eye for detail in the dining room. This is apparent early on, with an appetizer of tom yum goong. The shrimp and mushroom soup comes framed in a handsome square-sided bowl, and its assertive flavors -- cilantro, lemon grass, red chilies -- slap my tongue around in a bid for attention. Similarly fetching are spring rolls filled with carrots, cabbage and taro root, cut on the bias and presented as fragile spears with pineapple dipping sauce.

There are two high-ceilinged rooms, and both give you a sense of being far away from Washington. A small forest of handsome wood carvings and moss green walls wrap visitors in style and comfort, and the blocky teak chairs and tables underscore the Thai theme. The restaurant bears a resemblance to the nearby Rice in Logan Circle, from the soothing color palette right down to the "Green Corner" emphasizing vegetarian dishes on its bill of fare.

Of the signature dishes, the standout is grilled whole trout. The fish is moist, meaty and -- thanks to slices of lemon and lime as well as lemon grass tucked inside -- also fragrant and flavorful. Presented on banana leaf, it's enhanced by a sharp dipping sauce fueled by garlic, lime juice and chilies.

Pork-and-seafood dumplings are too compact, and duck is limp and cloying with its honey sauce and dry watercress. Now and then, the kitchen also oversweetens things. But the winners outnumber the lesser choices. Ordering basil fried rice, for instance, brings a glistening mound of fragrant grains stir-fried with the namesake herb, strips of red pepper, a blazing chili sauce and a choice of meat or seafood. Drunken noodles here are thick, slippery and pleasantly smoky ribbons, punched up with a similar sauce and best ordered with tender scored squid. And everything brims with style: Instead of on a plastic check tray, your bill is delivered in a sleek wooden box.

Ask Tom

On an evening she was scheduled to make a presentation to a group of parents, schoolteacher Leslie Harlin visited the Cheesecake Factory at White Flint Mall for a quick dinner. "Soon after being seated," the McLean reader wrote to me in an e-mail, "the waiter dropped a tray of iced teas on me." The restaurant's reaction was swift -- and generous. "The manager, Carlos Herboso, volunteered that the only thing to do was to run into the mall after eating and buy an outfit on the restaurant's dime," wrote Harlin, who lived too far away to return home and change clothes. "They could have only paid for the dry cleaning and left it at that," she said. Instead, Harlin walked away with nearly $300 worth of new clothes and shoes. "She looked great!" Herboso reported when I called him to verify the happy ending.

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.