Like Taylor Swift, Matthew McConaughey and Bruce Jenner, Tsunami Sushi and Lounge appears to be transitioning. The Japanese establishment, perched atop Thai Tanic on the equally evolving 14th Street corridor, started painting its nails a different shade in September and introducing itself by a second name: Baan Thai.
More important, the place decided not to speak with an American accent, the kind adopted by its sister restaurant on the ground floor (and by many other first-wave Thai eateries in the States). Rather, Baan Thai would take its cues from Little Serow, Soi 38 and other forward-thinking operations that have placed their bets on the transitioning American palate, which increasingly thirsts for the authentic. This restaurant within a restaurant would not compromise the flavors from Thailand’s four major culinary regions.
As such, Baan Thai makes for a strange and intoxicating experience: One of the District’s best Thai restaurants now lies buried inside a business that spends half its time thinking about Japan. A sushi bar greets you at the top of the stairs, and chopsticks are the default utensils. You will, in all likelihood, need to ask for the traditional silverware of the Thai table — a fork and spoon — if you plan to eat like a native. You also will sort of cringe at the thought of feasting on such exquisite Thai dishes in a place that also peddles maki rolls with such names as Lava, Godzilla and “Rock ‘n’ roll.”
Chef Jeeraporn Poksupthong, better known as P’Boom among her colleagues, used to lead the kitchen at Thai Tanic, which shares some partners with Tsunami/Baan Thai but operates as a separate business. When the staff would gather daily for family meal, P’Boom would frequently ditch the sweetened concoctions designed for the restaurant’s drive-by diners and prepare genuine Thai food instead. The team came to embrace the cuisine’s electric, clear-channel flavors, as understated as a carnival barker’s pitch.
“It was comfort food for us,” says Tom Healy, a managing partner with Tsunami and Baan Thai.
When the owners of Thai Tanic expressed no interest in venturing outside their Americanized safety zone, Healy and company jumped into the void. Tsunami enticed P’Boom to create a menu of Thai specialties, which freely explore the many flavors of the bonsai-tree-shaped kingdom formerly known as Siam. Her menu initially tiptoed on the scene, quiet as a mouse, but soon strutted like a peacock. It now represents 50 percent or more of sales, Healy notes.
My first dinner at Baan Thai may have been the best. It was an introduction that only heightened my anticipation for future meals; in a way, it also created a kind of bemused resentment at any reservation that stood between me and my next visit. The dinner started with an appetizer of ground chicken coated in a thick, gelatinous skin of tapioca; when wrapped with fresh romaine and cilantro and booby-trapped with a tiny length of bird’s eye chili, the gooey ball ignited on contact, shooting sharp, sweet flavors across the tongue. A Northern Thai yellow curry with chicken followed: It was a work of art, a complex curry with a towering garnish of fried egg noodles seemingly erupting from the bowl, as gorgeous and haunting as a Giacometti sculpture.
Once I settled up and left Baan Thai that night, I wondered how the place could ever measure up to my first meal. The truth is, I would order a couple of dishes during later visits that hovered well below that lofty standard: The Thai vermicelli with ground chicken and tempura watercress in a chili-peanut sauce was advertised as spicy, but it had all the bite of a gummy bear (and the table condiments could do little to increase the voltage). Speaking of sweet, a dessert of sliced sauteed bananas in coconut milk was the gastronomic equivalent of a Philip Glass composition: a sugary expression, repeated over and over again.
These aberrations aside, Baan Thai proved remarkably consistent, aiming high and repeatedly hitting the mark. The tom yum soup wandered far from the standard American-Thai preparation. With its double-barrel blast of pig — both roast pork and pork rinds — the soup delivered so many pleasures that I barely noticed the heat until I put down my spoon and started wiping away the tears. The central-Thai curry paste at the base of the stir-fried “pork picnic” (a reference to the meat cut, not some porcine fantasy) came with a four-chili-pepper warning, but I found the dish more fragrant than hot, its secret cache of finger root providing a floral cloud that floated deliciously over the heat.
A couple dishes approached perfection, a word that rarely crosses my keyboard. The unassuming plate of green mango salad was one: Its pale strands arrived flavor-bombed with spice, sweetness and the sly, nutty milkiness of toasted coconut flakes. The stir-fried garlic rice with Thai-style fried chicken had a similarly laconic personality on the plate, but when slathered with ginger sauce, the tempura-coated breast meat was practically operatic.
The Thai-style fried chicken can be found on P’Boom’s menu of winter specials, where you’ll also stumble upon the tom yum noodle soup and other treats. What this means is that when you pull up a chair here, you may flip through three different menus before deciding on dinner. Personally, I’d argue the owners should take their transitioning to its logical conclusion: Dump the sushi altogether. You can find overly conceptualized hand rolls anywhere. Authentic Thai remains a rare and beautiful thing.
1326 14th St. NW. 202-588-5889. www.tsunamisushidc.com.
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dinner Sunday-Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11:30 p.m.
Nearest Metro station: McPherson Square, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $12-$16.