- The Washington Times - Monday, December 10, 2001

At Ten Penh restaurant, pan-Asian food has taken a turn for the delicious, with a hipness factor that is off the scales for a place in the heart of pinstriped Washington.
Boring is out, creative is in. Let yourself be surprised. Jump before you look.
You might land in a calamari salad dressed with a spicy yet complex and flavorful sauce with a lime juice base. It was good enough to pour over the side order of jasmine rice that came with the entree. But resist the temptation to rush this Washington power lunch.
Take in the scenery.
"We had to avoid going traditional and competing with Chinese or Thai restaurants," explains Gus DiMillo, a Ten Penh co-owner. "The only way was to do our own variation."
Ten Penh quietly taps on your shoulder with a reminder: Asia inspires. At least it did when Mr. DiMillo and co-owners David Wizenberg and Jeff Tunks (also the chef) visited a half dozen Asian cities two years ago.
As a result, red colors and natural woods keep the feel of Ten Penh elegant and warm, without evoking images of marriage proposals in cozy corner tables. It's warm and cool at the same time.
Servers sport multicolored blouses with banded collars and knotted ties instead of buttons. You think of Mao Tse-tung, but with more style than the Communist giant ever contemplated. The hammered bronze flatware is from Thailand. The fired pottery came from Hong Kong. The furniture was made in Vietnam.
Business is eminently doable at Ten Penh, a simple, vaguely Vietnamese-sounding name that reveals its prime location. It is at 10th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, almost precisely midway between the Capitol and the White House. It's also six blocks from K Street. If the food were not so fragrant, the odor of lobbying would be in the air.
Unlike the decadent steakhouses nearby, Ten Penh's menu also facilitates the work that must come after a midday meal.
"You don't leave lunch ready for a nap," Mr. DiMillo said. "The items are supposed to be light and easy to prepare."
But light, thankfully, does not mean one-dimensional. A precisely cooked, medium-rare tuna steak on a bed of julienned cucumber and tomato chunks, topped by diced papaya, hit the spot. A dose of sesame oil, with its powerful aroma, added to the dish rather than overwhelming it. The seafood-heavy menu also offers a great salmon with wasabi mashed potatoes and asparagus.
On the short but sweet dessert menu, Asian sensibility assumes control of a few Western classics. The creme brulee of France? Sure, but flavor it with coffee, coconut and lime. And answer Italy's gelato with sorbet made from tropical fruits.
If you dare, the wine list is long, with a good by-the-glass selection. Or choose an unfamiliar brand from the Asian beers. There's more to life than Budweiser.
The most refreshing thing about Ten Penh is that it takes your taste buds on a new and exciting Asian journey, without offending Western sensibilities. Maybe that's because Mr. DiMillo and his partners took a pass on some of the more unusual native dishes during their trip. The roasted field mice from Vietnam, for example, made no inroads on the Ten Penh menu.
Be thankful. And don't miss Ten Penh.

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