Mixed Blessings

Cafe Asia

by David Garver
Published on October 30, 2003, 12:00am | Comments

Even if you're a fan of Arlington's Café 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, Café 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 décor 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 Café 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.

Café Asia
1720 I Street NW
Appetizers $4-$10
Entrées $7-$14
Desserts $4.50-$6
Mon.-Thur., 11:30am-11pm
Fri. & Sat., 11:30am-Midnight
Sunday, Noon-11pm

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 Café Asia can offer a pleasant repast, although don't be surprised if you have a mishap or two along the way.