- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A visit to Washington’s TenPenh is a culinary dream come true. It’s as if the dishes there are the pure and perfected representations of what’s served elsewhere.

Case in point: the Thai coconut soup with chicken. Sure, you’ve had tom ka gai in the past and enjoyed it — but it’s safe to say that you’ll never look at that average tom ka gai in quite the same way again once you’ve experienced it perfected.

It’s like a guitarist going from a cheap acoustic guitar to a Martin or a homemaker switching from a basic dishwasher to a Bosch. You would only downgrade reluctantly.

The amazing thing is that TenPenh is not outrageously priced. The soup is $7. It arrives in a coconut shell with plenty of white meat remaining on the inside (which we carved and ate). The soup is thick and creamy — not that brothy stuff so often served — and the flavor is heavenly. It has a hint of lemon grass, ginger, lime and chicken, but the creamy coconut never is overwhelmed. Slices of delicious portobello mushroom also are included in this masterpiece.

That’s a common thread. You simply can’t get enough because each dish is an exhilarating discovery — ah, that’s what it’s supposed to taste like, or has the potential to taste like.

The TenPenh salad, a combination of Asian mixed greens, sesame yuzu vinaigrette, enoki mushrooms and five-spice pecans, doesn’t exactly jump off the menu page as an exciting appetizer, but it is. The greens are fresh, the mushrooms smooth, the five-spice seasoning adventurous and the sesame vinaigrette surprisingly creamy. This makes an excellent fusion of flavors and textures.

Fusion is what the menu is all about. Chef Cliff Wharton finds his inspiration in the cooking traditions of Vietnam, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, his mother’s home country, which is represented by the delightful Philippine lumpia-style pork-and-shrimp spring rolls served with a trio of dipping sauces — the soy-infused, the sweet-spicy, and the creamy. The four spring rolls are fried but are not greasy and are packed with deliciousness. For those with moderate appetites, this could double as an entree.

While soaring culinarily, TenPenh left much to be desired on the service front. Our server was snippy and sulky, while we remained accommodating and pleasant. Even when he forgot our wine order and then took almost a half-hour to bring it, we smiled and said nothing.

The dining room was packed when we arrived around 8:45 p.m. on a Tuesday night, but it cleared out quickly, and our surly waiter had no apparent reason to remain snarky. He was, though. He explained dishes and cooking methods when asked but didn’t volunteer any information unless probed — a blemish on an otherwise perfect dining experience.

The pleasant dining room also should be mentioned. It is Asian-inspired and includes several Buddha sculptures. There is also a full and hopping bar at one side of the restaurant.

But back to our corner, where delicious smoked lobster and beef tenderloin were soon to arrive and where two glasses of wine finally appeared. Against the excellent-appetizers backdrop, we dared go for the smoked lobster although presentation and preparation can be concerns when ordering this seafood delicacy. It turned out to be an excellent choice.

The Chinese-style smoked lobster was served on a bed of stir-fried vegetables and crispy fried spinach. The lobster was cut into bite-size pieces, and the shell was easy to remove. Inside was scrumptious, perfectly prepared lobster meat with a slightly smokey flavor. The spinach and stir-fry with their crispy and slightly undercooked consistency were a nice complement to the smooth lobster meat.

The beef tenderloin, served with a kimchi noodle cake with a kick, was prepared perfectly to order — medium rare. A sauce seasoned with the five spices and chili also added some adventure to the beef tenderloin.

As if we didn’t have enough flavors swirling around, we ordered a side of wasabi mashed potato, which was good but a little too infused with the horseradishlike Japanese root.

Not that we had any room for sweets, but we had to sample something from the exotic dessert menu. The Kalamansi lime pudding cake with coconut thai basil sorbet and fresh grapefruit sounded too good to pass up. Cool, fresh and slightly tart, it lived up to its name.

Equally enticing-sounding was the wine and drinks menu, which includes the delicious gin rikshaw (minted gin martini with ginger and lime), the TenPenh Bellini (sparking wine finished with passion fruit, mango and lychee puree) and the Asian mojito (fresh mint, Asian pear sake, ginger and lime).

TenPenh deserves to be packed on a Tuesday or any night. Despite the sulky waiter, we would have to say this is a gem of a restaurant that after six years in business hasn’t become complacent but continues to push the envelope, stretching our imagination and daring us to be culinarily adventurous. The payoff is instant.

RESTAURANT: TenPenh, 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/393-4500

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: First courses $7 to $13 (lunch), $7 to $16 (dinner); main courses $13 to $18 (lunch), $13 to $38 (dinner); desserts $8

CREDIT CARDS: Major cards accepted

PARKING: Limited metered street parking; $6 validated parking or pay-parking garages.

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Federal Triangle on the Orange and Blue lines or Archives-Navy Memorial on the Yellow and Green lines

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