Kaliwa: 751 Wharf St. SW. 202-516-4739. kaliwadc.com.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Shared plates $9 to $32.
Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published April 20, 2018.
With three cuisines on the menu, Kaliwa takes diners on a journey
Chef Cathal Armstrong is giving equal billing to three different cuisines at Kaliwa, the pulsing new mixed-Asian restaurant introduced to the Wharf this month.
The first third of the menu is devoted to the food of the Philippines, where his wife and business partner, Meshelle, is from. The second part focuses on the Korean flavors he grew to appreciate as a student of taekwondo (he’s a second-degree black belt), while the last eight dishes are inspired by the Thai cooking the Armstrongs gravitate to for meals away from home.
The bustling multilevel dining room is a major departure from Restaurant Eve, the formal American establishment the chef and his wife have guided for 14 years in Old Town Alexandria (and plan to close after June 2). Hence the curious name: Kaliwa means “left” in Tagalog, explains the chef, who is left-handed.
Early contenders for a customer’s time and attention include grilled pork belly served with banana ketchup, a dish that might already be familiar to patrons of Restaurant Eve, where Armstrong for the past several years has offered a Philippine spread as an option. Chicken sparked with lemon grass, juniper, lime juice and even Sprite, also from the first third of Kaliwa’s menu, is another deeply satisfying combination. (The soda helps with caramelization.) To eat from the Thai list is to marvel at the dance of sweet crab, fiery red curry and fried garlic in a bowl of kaeng daeng — one of the best dishes on the entire menu — and to applaud the balance of flavors in a stir-fry of crisp green beans jump-started with fish sauce and chopped chiles.
Paolo Dungca, who has cooked at Bad Saint, the Philippine standard-bearer in the District, serves as chef de cuisine in the 185-seat restaurant, which is set off with fanciful coco-shell chandeliers from the Philippines, red couches, see-through wooden dividers that look like interlocking noodles and a host stand created from the root of a teak tree. It’s a lot to take in. The most arresting detail is an outsize photograph of a woman, her body adorned with hand-tapped tattoos, on a handsome, hand-woven mat.
Hiccups, some more serious than others, accompanied both my meals at Kaliwa, where my first taste of lumpia was of raw ground pork in the center of an unusually pale fried roll. The lapse was explained by a fryer at too low a temperature, a problem rectified at a follow-up visit. Go now and the lumpia are thin, with fully cooked fillings. A similar fate befell a fried chicken sandwich, totally void of crunch or heat, from the roster of Korean dishes. (Armstrong, on display nightly in the open kitchen, is bringing on a Korean chef from Chicago next month.)
Kaliwa is still adjusting to the crush of patrons that accompanies concerts at the nearby Anthem, as on the night I found myself in a long line of hopeful diners who finally got to the reservation minder only to be met with a stern “It’s an hour-and-a-half wait,” delivered without so much as a hint of “sorry” in his demeanor. Maybe the Armstrongs should deploy their charming son, Eamonn, 16, a once-a-week food runner who manages to turn hangry customers into fans with just a few kind words. In fact, between Eamonn and a frozen mai tai, turbocharged with what tastes like a cup of aged rum, front-door wrinkles were completely smoothed over. (Veteran bar maven Todd Thrasher is behind the whimsical cocktail list.)
Stick around for dessert, and make it pandan cake. Finished with coconut cream icing, it’s green with pandan, the fragrant leaves of a perennial grass that imparts a flavor suggestive of vanilla.
From start to finish, Kaliwa is a trip.