Get out the world’s tiniest violin while I tell you about one of the few downsides of being paid to eat out for a living. Yeah, I wish there were 10 pounds less of me, and sure, it would be nice to be at home for dinner more than a few nights a year. But the scenario I look forward to most (way) down the road is the opportunity to be a regular in a few places — to slide into “my” table, banter with a waiter I know well enough to send a birthday wish, and order exactly what I want, even if it’s chicken for the nth time.
I fantasized about this recently at Hanumanh, the 30-seat Laotian watering hole from mother-and-son chefs Seng Luangrath and Boby Pradachith. I have yet to encounter a dish there I wouldn’t like to repeat. One plate even makes me wistful, for the simple reason that hundreds of restaurants compete for my attention and I can’t enjoy the dish on a steady basis.
The object of my affection doesn’t immediately scream “Inhale me!” Cornish hen steamed in a banana leaf is pretty much the shade of white you expect. Then a bite of the small plate has you sitting up in your seat. Garlic and coriander in the hen’s brine impart uncommon succulence. A morsel swiped in the dark red sauce, lightly numbing with prickly ash and roaring with fried chiles, finds you speed eating like a cartoon character. And when the hen is gone, your fingers gravitate to a little basket of steamed sticky rice to pinch off some grains, form a little ball and swab the deck until the red is gone, too. The restaurant serves 20 portions a night. You snooze — come late — and you might lose.
Hanumahn lit up in May only to go dark in August, for maintenance issues that took longer than expected to fix. Last month, the doors reopened, to the joy of those of us who missed banana blossom salad and serious tropical drinks. Luangrath is the area’s lead Laotian ambassador, having introduced diners to the wow of her native cuisine a decade ago at Bangkok Golden (now Padaek) in Falls Church, followed by Thip Khao in Columbia Heights and Sen Khao in Tysons Galleria. Her equal at the bar is Al Thompson, a veteran of the top-shelf Barmini by José Andrés in Penn Quarter.
While he explains that “Mom has the final say,” Pradachith is more or less in charge of the menu, executed in a basement kitchen, and he knows never to take off the list his mother’s pride and joy, a red curry that separates itself from the pack with pickled lime and a thatch of fried banana blossoms. The dish can be enjoyed by a range of eaters. As much as I love it with sweet crab, a helpful server suggested I try it with tofu, for $6 less and a purer sense of the curry, which is based on vegetable broth and becomes lightly creamy with coconut milk. Sold!
Hanumanh reopened with the equivalent of a trumpet blast: several new dishes that underscore the bold flavors of Laos and a penchant for not wasting a scrap.
“In Laos, they use everything,” says Pradachith. Same for his restaurant, where beef tongue is braised in sour beer, then cooked down with sugar to form a glaze. The tongue is grilled over charcoal sourced from Thailand — the chef likes how it holds heat and smells like a family gathering — and completed with crisp shallots, breezy herbs and (yes!) chile oil. Pork jowl is braised, grilled and dusted with toasted ground rice, making each slice faintly crisp. Before it hits the table, the fatty pork gets a splash of zesty fish sauce and some color from torn mint, Thai basil and Fresno chiles: my kind of holy trinity.
Fruit salad is unexpected, but the small plate makes sense when you sample sliced apples and pears tossed with a dressing that pulses with lime, lime leaves, tamarind and other chargers. Plenty savory, a touch sweet, the salad is a pause that refreshes amid the funk and fire of a lot of the cooking here. Like Hanumanh’s charred eggplant dip — a black mash of smoky vegetable, scorched chiles and more — the fruit salad is a conversation starter that happens to be vegan.
Thompson, the bar director, takes the bounty of Laos and celebrates it in a glass. Most of his compelling drinks are riffs on popular standards. The first cocktail he created for the restaurant turns out to be his favorite. The Hanumanh, featuring Laotian whiskey, mango, passion fruit and brown butter condensed milk, is a Painkiller, only classier. Fire eaters can set their lips tingling with the gin-driven Som Nahm Nah, each sip a tease of fresh ginger and Thai chile, while the pink Toucan Sam, based on shochu, is as elegant a fruity drink as has ever crossed my lips. And I love the scent of fresh nutmeg that perks up the rummy maitaicolada.
The good taste extends to the design. Luangrath and Pradachith wanted visitors to feel as if they were wandering along the main street of Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, in the evening hours. Done, with the help of rice baskets strung up on bamboo poles over the bar and whimsical paintings featuring monkey characters. What’s not a mural in the narrow alley, er, dining room, is the color of lemongrass. Even the facade of the place, painted like a Laotian temple in red and gold, stands out. Warmer weather doubles the seating, with a patio out back.
“Dessert isn’t expected in Laos,” says Pradachith, who doesn’t offer the course at Hanumanh. Fine by me. It would be hard to top the good impressions made up to this point, and what you really want probably isn’t another plate, but another round.
Hanumanh (Excellent) 1604 Seventh St. NW. No phone. hanumanh.com. Open: Dinner Wednesday through Monday. Prices: Small plates $12 to $22. Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: The majority of the seating involves stools and high tables. One of two small bathrooms complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act.