Asian Abundance

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From Thai to Japanese to Chinese, Asia Nine Spans Culinary Map

As you pass through the glowing cherry red entrance to Asia Nine Bar and Lounge, you are transported from the mundane E Street location on the edge of Penn Quarter to a cool space that on one night was pulsing with an eclectic soundtrack and on another was pervaded by refined calm.

Husband-and-wife co-owners Boonrod Yotmanee and Nuthinepan Tantivejakul teamed with Rich Markus Architects to create an elegant and beautiful space. Divided into three distinct sections — a main dining room, a bar area separated by shoji screens, and a raised platform with a full sushi bar — each offers a different dining experience though the same menu is available throughout.

Large slate floor tiles anchor the mostly bare walls of red, gray and butternut, while architectural pillars are brought to life with a ragging technique that blends the three colors for a subtle glow. A dramatic red and gold figure on the wall dominates the sushi area, while the bar is backed by a dramatic steel waterfall and trellis-like structure of dark wood that echoes the walnut tables in the dining room.

No novices to the restaurant business, Tantivejakul and Yotmanee (also Asia Nine’s executive chef) ran the successful Rice n’ Spice Thai restaurant in Virginia’s Fairfax County for five years before deciding to take on this new project. In making the transition to Asia Nine, they moved from running a more moderately priced suburban neighborhood restaurant to the highly competitive downtown dining scene.

To meet the challenge, they are offering options for almost any time of day, any palate and any budget. This includes a full sushi and oyster bar, happy-hour half-price drinks and a substantial bar menu, Sunday brunch with traditional fare as well as the regular Asian menu, and daily bento box lunch specials — all in addition to an already extensive regular menu.

With both owners originally from Thailand, it’s not surprising that the main menu focuses heavily on Thai cuisine, offering the country’s hallmark combinations of chili, basil, garlic, ginger and lemongrass. But in a nod to an “Asian-Asian” fusion concept, the menu also offers favorites from Japanese, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine traditions, giving diners an interesting culinary geography lesson. Diners can make a meal of the many small plates and salads or go for full multi-course meals, sampling from across the globe as they go.

Most of the dishes are well prepared and some are as elegant as the setting. The tom kah soup is all lemongrass-bite and coconut-smooth, while the wonton soup broth is more robust, with a strong savor of roasted garlic.

Green, yellow and red curries, each with a choice of meats or fish, are as distinct as they are colorful. The red curry — smooth and rich with coconut milk, peanut, kaffir lime and an occasional chuck of pineapple — is particularly delicious, especially with shrimp or fish. The array of salads is a welcome surprise on the menu, from mixed greens with panko-crusted tuna to chicken Ceasar with fresh pear and an Asian-inspired Cesar dressing. Not all choices are equally good, however. The spring rolls are ordinary and slightly greasy (the garden rolls are a better choice), as are the pot stickers and crab wonton.

Where chef Yotmanee diverges, deliciously, from the more traditional Thai dishes is on Asia Nine’s signature entrées. Some of these specialties are creative versions of Thai dishes, such as the three-flavor fish. Two large filets of tilapia breaded and fried crisp are served with a slightly sweet-sour-spicy sauce peppered with colorful bits of chopped vegetable and garnished with a mass of perfectly crisp tempura watercress that’s as tasty as it is surprising.

Others entrée choices are a surprise for an Asian-themed menu, but demonstrate that Yotmanee is comfortable with cuisines from many continents away. The Asian Nine lamb chops — spice-rubbed for tenderness and served with buttery mashed potatoes and lightly steamed asparagus in a mint oil-based sauce — would be at home on any menu. Deliciously thin and crunchy hand-cut potato chips are perhaps a bit redundant, but make a nice textural addition. And a well-grilled, thick, boneless pork chop gives a nod to Asia with a soy-based marinade and ginger stir-fried vegetables, but the total effect is nouvelle rather than ethnic.

Although the main menu draws its greatest influence from Asian cuisine, the dessert menu offers a fusion of East and West. For instance, a rich cheesecake is transformed with fresh ginger and sesame that are mixed directly into the batter and baked on a ginger snap crust. Served with a mint emulsion and fresh lime, it is a happy blending of two distinct flavor families. Bread pudding, meanwhile, is made with jackfruit and palm seed, giving it a distinctly tropical twist.

And the green tea-based crème brûlée is positively karmic.

Of all the dessert choices, however, one shines above the rest: The Thai tiramisu closely resembles the traditional Italian version, but its flavor is intensified with Thai coffee soaked into the ladyfingers and a strong almond mousse that serves as a perfect counterpoint to the coffee. Much more distinctly flavored than many versions, this may well be the best tiramisu in the city and is worth a trip by itself for fans of the confection.

For those wishing to escape Washington’s sticky summer weather, Asia Nine’s long green tile bar is cool and inviting with its backdrop of verdant bamboo forest and running water. The drink menu is as extensive as the food — and perhaps even more creative. On tap are mixed drinks such as the Son of a Peach — homemade peach mixer blended with Stolichnaya peach vodka and orange and cranberry juice — and One Night in Bangkok — coconut rum, Blue Curacao liqueur, peach schnapps, pineapple and lime juices — as well as specialty martinis made with ginger, lychee or cherry sake.

Named for its location around the corner from 9th Street, Asia Nine’ s name is a propitious one. The number nine is believed by the Chinese to be lucky because it sounds like the word for “everlasting.” Diners in Penn Quarter discovering Asia Nine may hope the name also proves to be prophetic.

Asia Nine 915 E. St., NW (202) 629-4355 www.asianine.com

Lunch: Mon. - Fri. from 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.; Sat. - Sun. from 12 - 4 p.m. Dinner: Sun. - Wed. from 4 p.m. - midnight; Thu. - Sat. from 4 p.m. - 1 a.m. Appetizers: .95 - Entrées: - Desserts: - .50

About the Author

Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999