Five years after it served its last crispy whole flounder in Washington, TenPenh is staging a comeback in Tysons Corner.
Chef Jeff Tunks, a partner in Passion Food Hospitality, says the time feels right. Not only is Asian cooking his favorite food to eat on his days off, much of his original customer base — now older and with families — has decamped to the suburbs, and they’ve told him they’ve missed the restaurant. It doesn’t hurt that Tunks kept some of the art from the place, named (with a wink) for its location on the corner of 10th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Possibly you remember the destination. Among the most popular additions to the dining scene in 2000, TenPenh was an antidote to all that was corporate and predictable that year. Following a trip to Asia, the chef and his partners came back with silk fabrics from Bangkok, custom-made chairs from Ho Chi Minh City and celadon rice bowls from Hong Kong. Clouds of steam drifted from bamboo baskets containing dumplings stuffed with sweet shrimp and crunchy water chestnuts. Coconut chicken soup came with a hammered-bronze spoon, and a coconut shell to stand in for a bowl. Waiters in jackets of rust and gold doled out welcoming hand towels followed by a gratis snack. If some of the dishes came with an American sensibility, the overall experience, especially in the first half of TenPenh’s run, felt swank.
And now? Considerable thought has been lavished on the look of TenPenh Tysons, part of the pristine but sterile Silverline Center. With the exception of the front bar, which presents like an upscale airport lounge, the rest of the expanse is easy on the eyes. Guests are ushered through portals to the main dining room, where semicircular booths are made dreamy with recessed lighting, a phoenix stretches across the ceiling and the view embraces both skyline and open kitchen. Among the faces you might recognize is that of executive chef Miles Vaden, who worked for Tunks at the late DC Coast downtown.
As for the food, a mere three dishes have carried over from the original, including crispy flounder. Diners’ tastes have changed, explains Tunks. Instead of traditional courses, the new restaurant serves dim sum snacks, bao buns, ramen, rice bowls and party-size entrees: dishes designed with sharing in mind. And the number of areas represented on the menu has expanded to include Cambodia, Japan, Korea and Tennessee.
You read that right. Among the steamed buns is a pouch stuffed with fried “Nashville Hot Chicken,” every bit as fiery as I’ve endured in some of Music City’s culinary legends. The cayenne kick is tempered, just a bit, with bread-and-butter pickles. Another cross-cultural pleasure: the juicy lamb pot stickers, arranged on a yogurt sauce whose accents flirt with both China (hot mustard) and the Mediterranean (pomegranate seeds).
Tunks bought 30 stone bowls to stage riffs on Korean bibimbap, and he wishes he had picked up more. His crispy rice bowls are the biggest attraction at TenPenh, where they come to the table sputtering and topped with a poached egg waiting to be cut and mixed into the steamed grains, julienned carrots, sesame oil-flavored spinach and whatever protein you’ve requested (go for smoked brisket). A little squeeze bottle of gochujang, Korean chili paste, contributes to the Seoul-ful eating.
In crafting the menu, Tunks says he took liberties with classic dishes, tweaking them to arrive at “our favorite version.” Here and there, I wish he had sided more with tradition. TenPenh looks to Italy and Korea with its arancini (rice fritters) veined with elements of bibimbap. The snack, dropped off in a fry basket, works only if you dunk the bites into their gochujang. Otherwise, they’re a walk on the mild side.
The most labor-intensive dish is the Peking duck. Among the “specialties of the table,” the $60 signature starts with thick-skinned Buddhist-style ducks from Pennsylvania, pumped full of air so they swell like a blimp, transported to an aromatic water bath, seasoned with ginger and dried overnight using fans. Eventually, they’re hung and roasted in a vertical oven. Sorry to be the bearer of sad news, but all that time and energy tastes for naught, at least the evening I sampled the presentation: Slices of dry, vaguely seasoned duck with less-than-crisp skin and a syrup-sweet hoisin sauce for slathering on the pancakes. A wiser strategy for a crowd is a platter of cumin-scented lamb chops positioned on smoky caramelized onions, dates and Fresno chilies.
A counter and a menu category are devoted to sushi and rolls. If you’re a fan of either, save your appetite for a restaurant that focuses on them. The fish is cut so big, it tends to hide the rice pads, which are compact rather than loose and too cool for my taste. Rolls, on the other hand, are exercises in excess. It’s hard to taste the fish or seafood when it’s competing with avocado, “crunchies” (think Shredded Wheat) and glops of sauce — make that shrimp, tuna and salmon in a kitchen sink of a dish called Bellagio.
There’s light in this tunnel. Chicken gets a nice lift from its lemon grass skewer, flanked with a chili-lit cucumber salad and Malaysian peanut dip, razor-sharp with fresh ginger. And the shrimp toast — shrimp mousse spread on white bread, coaxed into spears and fried so they crackle — is a perfect companion to cocktails. Salads offer welcome punctuation. A toss of sturdy kale and juicy Asian pear, moistened with a ginger-sesame dressing, is a nice bridge between something fried and something hearty, like the crusty, tea-smoked pork ribs dusted with crushed peanuts. Of the dishes from the original score, I’m happiest to be reunited with shrimp and red Thai curry, in which bites of fresh pineapple foil the sly heat of the velvety curry.
Two desserts illustrate my mixed reaction to the new TenPenh. One is a jiggly panna cotta that tastes as though it were flavored with lemon grass cologne rather than just the tropical enhancer. The other is a Key lime meringue tart strewn with toasted coconut. Eating the second confection is like spooning into clouds.
Less formal than its predecessor and aiming for a younger clientele, TenPenh 2.0 reaches out to diners with free valet parking on weekdays, wines proffered in three portion sizes and service with a big, fat smile. Does the menu need to be so vast? Fewer but finer-tuned dishes would be a nice resolution for 2017.
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7900 Westpark Dr., McLean, Va.
Open: Lunch weekdays, dinner Mondays through Saturdays.
Prices: Appetizers $7 to $13; entrees and platters to share $13 to $65.
Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.