- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2001

Spices is a bargain by any measure, but that isn't the main reason for a visit, even if one of the owners was overheard boasting recently that the restaurant always is featured high on Washingtonian magazine's list of "Cheap Eats."
This is a place that takes its name and its mission seriously. The recently redecorated pan-Asian restaurant offers what may be the hottest curry this side of Asia as well as one of the longest and most attractive sushi bars in the area. Your memory and your taste buds will cherish both.
The dish is a sizzler called, appropriately enough, "suicide curry," made with three or four different chili peppers, onions and spices to go with chicken, beef or pork simmered in coconut milk. An experienced Asian traveler pronounces this one of the best hot curries she has eaten.
Likewise, watch out for ginger chicken, dubbed "very spicy" (as opposed to killer spicy). It consists of sliced chicken flavored handsomely with bits of carrot, ginger, onions, basil leaves and green onions.
The menu warns and explains all, but I prefer to measure such matters by the number of times one must use a handkerchief or the amount of cold beer or water drunk before the dish is consumed.
The restaurant's interior is, in the current vernacular, plenty smooth and cool: high, indirect lighting; yellow-green and celadon walls with plain off-white wood pods on the rear wall; a plum-colored banquette opposite the bar; simple black wooden chairs; a plain gray floor. Not a painting or a photograph in sight.
Serving dishes come in a variety of shapes and colors; dinner plates are small and round, the tea cups small bowls.
The only decoration on the laminated square table tops with their Oriental fabric patterns is a bottle of soy sauce. Then the waiter sets down a pair of simple but beautifully fashioned hand-carved wooden chopsticks that owner-chef Jessie Yan ordered from Thailand by the thousands. Alas, many pairs not-so-mysteriously disappear from the restaurant, tucked away in customers' pockets. Perhaps people think such items are throwaways and don't know the chopsticks are for sale at $3 a pair.
No forks are present unless requested. We had to ask twice for a serving spoon a ladle is better to scoop up the sublime curry laksa and an excellent vegetables hot pot (marked "mild to spicy"), which is a mix of tofu, bean-thread noodles, cabbage, scallions and carrots in a bean-paste broth.
Two offbeat entrees are the Peking chicken chicken rather than duck with the pancakes, scallions, cucumbers and plum sauce and tamarind chicken (shrimp are an option), the sauce of which is redolent of that orange-red fruit's subtle taste. The dish is colored additionally with a few tomato chunks and cubes of canned pineapple among the ubiquitous onions.
Mee goreng, described as Malaysian-Indian-style stir-fried egg noodles with bean sprouts, cabbage and fried tofu, is another high spot (not a hot spot) on a menu organized into categories for quick comprehension.
A separate sushi menu is provided along with a crayon to order one's choices. Those offerings are too numerous to mention here, but it's obvious the six chefs working the sushi bar take great pride in the variety and presentation, as they should.
Likewise, the staff seems unusually pleasant and accommodating. Even on a busy Friday night, our party managed to consume a three-course meal without undue delay. (Talk is handicapped by the cacophony of voices in the background. Try lunch if you want leisurely, civilized conversation.)
No dessert menu exists. The choices are three kinds of ice cream (ginger, green tea and coconut) or a fried banana.
We found the spring onion cake, an appetizer, to be too much batter and not enough spring onion, although the small, flat pancakes go down easily enough. Curry puff is delicious, but the enticing spicy chicken filling is covered by a shade too much greasy puff.
The Vietnamese spring roll is up to standard, or better. Even more of a winner is the ginger salad, consisting of shredded raw cabbage, carrots and ginger in a light sauce sprinkled with tiny bits of roasted peanuts.
Yanyu restaurant, on the same block, is the graduate school in Miss Yan's restaurant stable. (The name Yanyu combines her last, or family, name with the Chinese word for fish, deemed a highly propitious symbol for one's fortune. It certainly has been so for her.) Along with two partners, she also operates, and often cooks in, Oodles Noodles as well as Spices. Oodles Noodles, to complete the analogy, is elementary grade level and Spices the middle school.
The last is an easygoing, welcoming space, similar to many of the large restaurants in Miss Yan's native Hong Kong, where she learned the trade by cooking in a large Chinese restaurant. Spices opened in 1994 and Yanyu in 1999. Her partners are William Tu and Vanessa Lim. A single-page profile of her is headlined "Portrait of an Original." Certainly, she is one of the most enterprising women in the local food business.
The so-called Asian-fusion trend is bound to last, she believes, because prices are reasonable and the variety so appealing. Ingredients are fresh, and, at least at Spices, single portions are generous and are often enough for two.
The fried rice and noodles category includes Chinese, Thai, Japanese and Indonesian dishes. (You will have to go elsewhere, however, for pho, the Vietnamese beef-noodle-vegetable soup.)
Washington's dining-out population is accustomed to doing much of its business and social life in restaurants. When the economy is in a downturn, restaurants that survive are the ones that keep prices down and the atmosphere upbeat.
Certainly, Miss Yan has crafted a menu to appeal to all tastes there is even a New York strip steak with black pepper and lemon grass among the "Asian Specialties" and she takes care to list ingredients for those unfamiliar with what is mostly standard Asian fare.
Vegetarians won't feel slighted, either. The vegetables hot pot has enough chili pepper to warrant use of a handkerchief and half a Tsing Tao or Kirin Light beer.
Spices also does catering and has a convenient carryout service. The minimum carryout order is $15, plus a $1 delivery charge within a two-mile radius for phone orders from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. daily.


RESTAURANT: Spices, 3333-A Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/686-3833; reservations strongly advised on Friday and Saturday nights
HOURS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner, 5 to 11 p.m. Monday to Friday; open from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; dinner only on Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m.
COST: Appetizers, $3 to $5; soups and salads, $2 to $6; Asian specialties, $8 to $12; teriyaki grill, $9 to $12 (all cost $1 or $2 more at dinner); fried rice and noodles, $8 to $10; vegetarian choices, $7 to $8; sushi entrees, $9 to $19; desserts and tea, $3; wine, $3.50 to $8.50 by the glass or $14 to $36 by the bottle; beer, $3.75 to $7; sake and plum wine, $3.50 a glass or $20 a bottle
CREDIT CARDS: All credit cards; no personal checks accepted
PARKING: Street parking; the closest Metro stop is Cleveland Park
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

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