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There’s a buzz around town about Rice, the new Thai sensation that recently debuted on 14th Street. For the most part, the kudos are deserved, but don’t expect to be overwhelmed. The place is so consciously understated in both dÃ©cor and menu that it may actually lower your pulse.
From its stark walls of pale green to a barely audible fountain mounted on a bare brick wall, the dÃ©cor silently screams Zen. The dark teak furnishings contrast boldly against the gleaming birch floor, establishing the space as calm, tasteful and inviting. It’s so unassuming that you may miss the entrance, marked only by a small, tasteful sign, the “i” dotted with a grain of rice.
Owners Somsak Pollert, who designed the interior, and his partner Phannaria Promprasert, who directs the kitchen,Â have created something that, if not unique, is certainly innovative. Promprasert, formerly of Tara Thai in Rockville and Busara in Washington, presides over a Thai menu that offers some unusual twists.
The menu is divided into three columns — Rice specialties, authentic Thai, and healthy green — each with a selection of soups, appetizers and entrÃ©es that may be mixed and matched to create a highly individualized dining experience.
The soups are fantastic and should not be missed. Seafood soup with Thai spices is exquisite in its simplicity, studded with shrimp, scallops and mussels, and enhanced by mushrooms and basil leaves. Likewise, Tom Yum Goong — shrimp lemongrass soup — is completed with cherry tomato halves and mushrooms to keep it simple and perfect. Vegetarians receive equal attention at Rice. Spicy mushroom soup with Thai herbs delivers an abundance of assorted mushrooms in a satisfying, zippy broth.
On the downside, an appetizer of shredded pork and herbs piled on romaine lettuce is both inspired and disappointing. Its zest of lime, chopped peanuts and minutely chopped red onion offer perfect enhancements to what could be a great starter. Unfortunately, the pork is dry and shredded into a fluff.
Things rebound with Rice’s grilled and marinated beef salad, Yum Beef, enlivened with a lime dressing that stops just short of being too acidic. Chicken Satay, a dish always in danger of being dry, is grilled to a juicy perfection with its tangy peanut dipping sauce. The overworked spring roll is given new life here, rolled into a long, pencil-thin vegetarian version and served up crispy and without excess oil. My favorite entrÃ©e is Seafood Basil, in which shrimp, squid, scallops and mussels are all sautÃ©ed with fresh basil leaves in a light sauce.
Regardless of which three categories you select your entrÃ©e from, it will be accompanied by a small, oval mound of sticky rice in one of three colors. The juice of pandan leaves creates a light green version, curry a yellow one, and black rice a naturally dark rendition. Each is a welcome change from the usual mound of white starch.
Green curry, available with either chicken or beef, combines a lovely rich sauce with firm Thai eggplant and basil. The desired intensity of the curry can be fine tuned by request without compromising the underlying richness of the sauce. A variation on this entrÃ©e pairs shrimp with red curry while keeping the eggplant and basil for a more delicate interpretation.
Pad Thai, the quintessential Thai staple, is given a new look, presented cloaked under a thin, crepe-like omelet whose center has been slashed with an “X” allowing the sections to be peeled back to reveal a mound of rice noodles, tofu, crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, and your choice of chicken or shrimp. A dining companion rated it among the best he’s ever had.
If I have a complaint about Rice it’s that I’ve left after an appetizer and entrÃ©e still feeling a little hungry. Maybe this is an appropriate counterbalance for all those times we’ve left other eateries feeling stuffed and lethargic. Yet for many adults, the artistic expression on a plate is not nearly as satisfying if you leave underfed.
With entrÃ©es ranging from $12 to $16, Rice is pricier than your typical Thai restaurant, but the quality of the ingredients and the care given to their preparation warrant the higher cost. Whether the sizable crowds checking out this attractive new eatery will become regulars remains to be seen. But Rice is trying something a bit novel and, at least so far, it appears to be working.