Anyone who’s been to Bangkok knows that often the most interesting and delicious place to eat is in the streets. Exquisite flavors and aromas emanate from vendor’s carts and stalls hawking everything from dumplings to whole fish. Now an innovative team has brought that inspiration indoors at Bangkok Joe’s in Georgetown.
Since last September, the husband wife team of restaurateur Mel Oursinsiri and chef Aulie Bunyarataphan have served up an assortment of Thai and Pan Asian accents amid a million-dollar interior created by the designers of the Bellagio in Las Vegas and Barney’s New York. The modern setting was inspired by Thai culture and tradition: the dining room’s hanging lights are stylized elephant trunks and a long row of chorfas, curved symbols seen atop temples, adorn a divider separating the dining and bar areas.
Bangkok Joe’s has given Washington its first “dumpling bar” featuring over a dozen varieties. Chef Aulie returned to her native Bangkok to study at the city’s most famous dumpling house. Her ever-evolving creations are available daily or during the popular dumpling brunch on weekends.
With the dumpling bar fare in addition to other starters, there’s a good assortment of appetizers to get things underway. My favorite is the smoked duck wontons. Two giant, crispy mounds are filled with moist shredded duck and presented with a graffiti of ginger mustard and a dollop of portabello mushroom-tomato salad. Shrimp and crab “goyza” are triangular dumplings with delicately seasoned filling and crispy wrappers, a bit oily but enjoyable nonetheless. Better are the mushroom and ginger dumplings, crunchy with water chestnuts and a delightful shiitake-sesame cream sauce exuding a subtle woodsy flavor.
If I have a general complaint about the cuisine at Bankok Joe’s, it’s that most dishes, particularly the starters, could use a bit more spiciness. Winter squash potstickers are certifiably bland and the panang chicken bun — with its spongy exterior and succulent filling — could stand a bit more heat.
Beyond dumplings and appetizers, Bangkok Joe’s offers an assortment of noodle and rice bowls, fried rice dishes, and entrÃ©e-sized salads as well as more Western-style main courses. Drunken chicken — stir-fried sen yai noodles with chicken, sweet basil, chili and garlic sauce — is a spicy hot exception to the moderately-spicy house rule. Its wide, fresh rice noodles hold together nicely in this rich flavorful dish.
General Tso’s chicken is loaded with tender chicken breast in a freshly-ground chili sauce over stir-fried lo mein egg noodles studded with crispy snap peas, onions, carrots and scallions. It, too, has a bit of a spicy kick. You’re not likely to find a more delicious and attractive version of this Asian workhorse.
Rice bowls start with a healthy mound of steamed jasmine grains topped with your choice of chicken, beef, pork, seafood or vegetarian offerings. Happily for vegetarians, the meatless versions are inspired. Try the wild mushrooms and tofu with ginger sauce or eggplant with spicy bean and basil sauce for a satisfying vegetarian feast.
Coriander-crusted duck breast with honey-cinnamon sauce loses some of its appeal by being cooked to well doneness and sliced very thinly. With the slices splayed across the plate, there’s no way this savory meat can stay warm while you enjoy the course. The accompanying grilled Asian pear and wilted spinach nicely complement the duck in both texture and flavor.
A gorgeous fillet mignon, rubbed in a mixture of five spices and grilled to perfection, is a carnivore’s dream. Stacked atop fried potatoes, and partnered with baby carrots and soy spinach, this Angus beef is as tender and appealing as I’ve tasted anywhere.
Ginger and black bean sauce provides just the right note to enhance baked halibut that comes sprinkled with fried herbs. The fish is moist and flaky and extremely fresh.
Several desserts are worth attention. FlambÃ© Thai banana, its Grand MarniÃ©r sauce revved up with minced ginger, is absolutely heavenly — even before the coconut ice cream is added. Flourless chocolate cake with bittersweet chocolate ganache measures high on the guilt-o-meter. Ditto for ginger bread pudding with toasted almonds and dark rum whipped cream.
Bangkok Joe’s offers an attractive alternative to Georgetown’s touristy eateries on M Street or Wisconsin Avenue. With its understated signage, it’s rather easy to miss, but look for it. You’ll be happy to have found this casually elegant gem.
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