Chef Paul Kennedy, British born and French trained, is one of them. Eating his papaya salad, funky with dried shrimp and pulsing with heat, puts me in mind of Bangkok. If there’s a more elegant yet swashbuckling green curry with chicken and eggplant to be found, it has managed to miss my spoon.
Mango Tree is part of a Bangkok-based company, the Mango Tree Group, with 70-plus places to eat around the world, including 11 Mango Trees in eight countries. The Washington outpost — set in glitzy CityCenterDC and the first in the United States — impresses me with its ability to feel personal despite its size and ambition. Hosts put their hands together and bow to greet you , just as those who live in the Land of a Thousand Smiles do. A dried red chili is affixed to each linen napkin with twine. “It’s like giving a hug,” says Kennedy, 36.
To reach the second-floor dining room, you pass through a street-level bar with all the personality of a domestic airport lounge. If you want to start the evening off with a cocktail, head to the handsome bar upstairs and ask for a Spicy Siam. Mango juice spiked with rum and ignited with a tiny red chili is one of those drinks that, like the Gridiron Dinner, singes but never burns. (You may want another round, but the wine list, unusual for a Thai restaurant, is also worth sipping into.)
Heat is a subject your waiter brings up from the start. “We’re still figuring out the D.C. market,” a server says, as if everyone in the region shares the same pain threshold. “We can adjust the level of spice to your taste.” In reality, says Kennedy, “We haven’t had many issues with heat. We work hard at balancing” flavors. The best Thai cooking is a dance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavors that Mango Tree generally achieves.
Spring rolls make a great appetizer to pass around. (Or not. They’re small and so satisfying, only nimble fingers prevail.) Whether you order the rolls stuffed with duck, shrimp or vegetables, their wrappers prove crisp and greaseless. Same for the springy shrimp cakes, crunchy with Japanese bread crumbs and threaded on a lemon grass skewer. They’re offered with a stinging plum sauce but taste just fine without it. Thailand also resonates in the sun-dried pork, squiggles of which get a lift from their marinade of oyster and fish sauces and toasted coriander seeds.
Surprise! The green curry with the aforementioned chicken is whipped up at a central production site in Thailand. Does it matter? The curry is vivid and wonderful. (Other sauces and dips are created in the restaurant.) Each dish shows up as if company were expected. Steamed red snapper, bright with lime, is a still life on a soft cushion of tofu and pale green bok choy. The fried catch of the day is curved, as if cooked in motion, and dressed with sweet chili sauce.
Thirty-six bucks for pad Thai? One of the most expensive dishes on the menu features whole baked lobster as the star protein, along with rice noodles, bean sprouts, cilantro and more. Mango Tree’s version of the Thai staple, enough for two or three to share, comes with a lacy topping of cooked egg that’s mixed with the other ingredients as if it were a Caesar salad being served. In a corner of the bowl are crushed red chilies for extra heat. Go easy; a few flakes add a lot of firepower. Fourteen dollars for fried rice also sounds excessive, but the fluffy toss is worth the splurge. The kitchen is generous with the jumbo lump crab that sweetens the show, which is colorful with edamame and can be ramped up with fish sauce and bird’s eye chilies.
Mango Tree seduces vegetarians, and even flesh-eaters, with a handful of imaginative dishes that take into consideration the brand’s worldwide audience, which extends to London and Dubai. The appetizers include a salad of velvety chopped mushrooms, crisp celery, scallions and peanuts electrified by a zesty lime dressing. (Kennedy uses assertive Thai celery in his toss.)
Polished food and quality ingredients contribute toward the $26 average for main courses; ginger never substitutes for galangal, and curry leaves never fill in for kaffir lime leaves. Yelpers and others who complain about prices being too high for Thai should also do an inventory of the window-wrapped dining room. Mango Tree has unseated Soi 38 as the most fetching Thai restaurant in the area, with well-trained servers who would be at home at some of the city’s top draws and a distinctive interior of snug red booths, golden lights and acres of oak floor.
The most refreshing ending is coconut ice cream, one of the few reasons Mango Tree keeps a freezer in its kitchen, says its proud chef. The most disappointing finish is that traditional Thai pairing of mango and sticky rice. Not only is the fruit dull and the rice dry, a drizzle of sweetened coconut cream does the dessert no favors.
Indeed, Mango Tree can dish out a few disappointments. Massaman curry looks impressive, dominated by a lamb shank towering over fingerling potatoes and a golden moat of coconut milk and warm spices, but it grows tiresome after a few bites. As fond as I am of that lobster pad Thai, the last time I ordered it the dish tilted sweet with palm sugar. (As in parenting, consistency is everything in a restaurant. And hard to achieve.)
Home to Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House and DBGB from New York chef Daniel Boulud, CityCenterDC scores yet another success with the addition of Mango Tree. Next stop for the Thai restaurant? Kennedy says Copenhagen. Lucky Danes.
Location: 929 H St. NW. 202-408-8100. www.mangotreedc.com.
Open: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday ; dinner 5 to 11 p.m. daily.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $9 to $14, main courses $19 to $36.
Sound check: 73 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
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