Even if you’re a fan of Arlington’s CafÃ© Asia, you may not have heard the news. A second trendy location for the restaurant has opened in downtown D.C. at Farragut West on I Street, sporting a stark white interior with an industrial-look ceiling and glass-enclosed kitchen in the back.
Arrayed on two floors, CafÃ© Asia’s lounge occupies the downstairs with the dining room encircles it from above on the second story mezzanine, looking down into the often crowded and noisy nightspot. The openness and stark dÃ©cor give this place a spaciousness far beyond its actual dimensions. Dressed in contrasting black, the young and attractive staff stand out in both appearance and competence of service.
Unfortunately, the modern design statement is flawed somewhat by the yellow and green fluorescent lighting that makes food look unappetizing and human skin frightening. Supposedly the lighting colors can be easily changed and the best time to do that would be immediately.
The menu is pan-Asian, drawing on the best the region has to offer, including Japanese sushi, Thai noodles, Chinese favorites, and Vietnamese spring rolls. Of all the items, however, only the tempura proved exceptional, with the lightest of coatings and seemingly little residual oil. Both crispy vegetables and tender shrimp are things of beauty, perhaps the finest tempura I’ve had in years.
Among the appetizers, the fried vegetarian dumplings are mushy inside and mostly devoid of flavor. Far better are the spicy Chinese “ravioli,” pork dumplings in a spicy, hot soy sauce — while they ignite your tongue, their rich flavor soars above the heat.
Indonesian grilled chicken satay is flavorless, aside from the unaccomplished peanut sauce in which it is heavily slathered. Choose instead the grilled scallops, skewered and cooked to a moist perfection.
With the main courses you will wend your way through the same peaks and valleys of quality. Ikan Pepes, a grilled fish with Indonesian spicy turmeric sauce, fresh basil and lemon grass, is wrapped in banana leaves. When ordering, the waiter assured that the fish (that night a rainbow trout) would be filleted. Not only was it not filleted, the head remained attached and the delicate flesh was completely overpowered by the incendiary spices.
Panggang, another Indonesian dish, features grilled meat or seafood topped with sweet soy sauce, peanuts and galanga, a rhizome with a hot, ginger-peppery flavor also known as Laos or Thai ginger (although it isn’t a member of the ginger family). Galanga combined nicely with the flank steak, grilled and thinly sliced for a tender and succulent dish.
Tongkatsu, Japanese pork cutlet served with plum sauce, was a disappointment. Although not overly coated with panko, the coarse Japanese bread crumbs currently so popular in the U.S., the cutlet was dry and flavorless. Worse was the “plum” sauce, so bitter and unappealing (it tasted more like Worcestershire) that the cutlet was more palatable without it. However, exceptionally tasty slaws of cabbage and carrots with tahini dressing were good enough to redeem this menu choice and ought to be available as side orders.
Drunken Noodles, a Thai dish of flat rich noodles stir fried with chicken and fresh basil in a brown sauce, is very good — just the thing for a cool autumn evening. Skip the Pad Thai though, as it’s as bland a version as you are likely to find anywhere.
Sushi and sashimi are where CafÃ© Asia shines brightly. Using the freshest of seafood and other ingredients, and prepared and presented with skill, chef Yu Sheon here shows his stuff. Accompanied by a masterful miso soup, there are plenty of choices here to enjoy as appetizers or a full meal.
It’s something of a curse for those who adore desserts to dine in Asian restaurants since sweets are culturally far less important than other courses and rarely rise above the sticky-rice-with-mango variety. Here, Sheon squanders a promising possibility of fried bananas with toasted coconut, honey and peanuts topped with vanilla ice cream. The heavy dough covering the bananas is so thick and awful that it sinks the entire effort.
A wonderfully fudgey brownie, served warmed and topped with ice cream, is leagues ahead of any of the other desserts. Ask for the cinnamon ice cream if it’s available and count on an uplifting conclusion to your dining experience.
Obviously, it takes a fair amount of navigating this menu to arrive at an enjoyable conclusion to your dining experience. With the right choices CafÃ© Asia can offer a pleasant repast, although don’t be surprised if you have a mishap or two along the way.
Oftentimes it’s resilience more than consistency that distinguishes someone as a true diva. Riding the waves of changing music impulses has long dogged Aretha Franklin’s checkered recording career, ever since gritty ’70s soul gave way to glittery disco, and later rugged hip-hop. As influential as her regal, melismatic hollers are to overwrought disco starlets, she never sounded convincing when she sang underneath the mirror-ball. She rebounded briefly in the early ’80s after hooking up with Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller, but came off silly looking when she sported the spiky new wave hairdo, singing with the likes of the Eurhythmics and George Michael. The ’90s found her mostly MIA as her solo career was upstaged by her highly-publicized financial and legal tribulations. She did, however, manage to release one noteworthy disc, A Rose is Still a Rose, an uneven flirtation with hip-hop.
Franklin continues to dabble in hip-hop-endowed R&B with So Damn Happy, her first CD in five years. The results are as erratic as her previous endeavor, but some of the new disc’s successes come not necessarily from what she does with the street-minded tracks, but from what she doesn’t do. There’s something to be said about aging gracefully, and at 61, Franklin avoids many of the embarrassing gimmicks artists fall for when trying to stay in step with youth-obsessed genres. She wisely doesn’t try to re-invent herself as a circuit party diva a la Cher by enlisting the schlock production of Thunderpuss or Paul Oakenfold, nor does she seek ghetto-fabulousness by crowding herself with guest rappers and inferior songbirds. So Damn Happy allows Franklin to simply reign as the “Queen of Soul ” with minimal distraction, and for a good portion it works magnificently.
Troy Taylor, in particular, is sympathetic to Franklin’s soaring voice, providing her with luxuriant songs that aptly reconcile old-school R&B sensibilities with hip-hop’s rhythmic vitality. The bittersweet lead single, “The Only Thing Missin’ ” with its melancholy acoustic guitar, mid-tempo shuffle, and soulful background vocals recalls the kind of Chicago-soul magic Curtis Mayfield brought her, when he commissioned her to sing his songs from the 1976 movie, Sparkle. The clicking hip-hop beats are never obtrusive yet utterly effective. And Franklin sounds comfortably recharged, punctuating the rather perfunctory lyrics with spirited shouts.
On “Holdin’ On ” and “No Matter What, ” Taylor calls upon the songwriting and vocal arranging talents of Mary J. Blige, who provides Franklin with inspirational themes of self- empowerment that brings out the best of her gospel and blues roots as she imbues Blige’s confrontational verses with poignant conviction. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis create a similar shimmering marriage between the old and new with the remorseful “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool, ” a bluesy ode to a nefarious love affair in which Franklin sasses off to her gossipy naysayers with the pointed lines, “Skip the drama, use common sense/You don’t have love if you don’t have patience. ”
So Damn Happy loses steam midway, though, when the mood shifts to mawkish ballads, a couple of which are sadly produced by Franklin. The self-produced tunes — “So Damn Happy ” and “You Are My Joy ” — are burdened by glossy overproduction and hackneyed songwriting. Norman West brings Franklin back into the church with the gospel-drenched “Good News, ” but his syrupy production nearly extinguishes her fiery testimonials. Even her feverish call for R-E-S-P-E-C-T on “Ain’t No Way ” comes across workmanlike because of its unimaginative arrangement and slick production from Gordon Chambers and Barry Eastmond. Still, Franklin’s voice remains a force to reckoned with, even when she’s tolling through material less befitting her diva status.