- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Good things do come in small packages. Rice, on the booming 14th Street corridor, just above Q Street NW, is small, sleek and elegant in its simplicity.

A discreet brass plaque on the gray brick wall at No. 1608 announces the restaurant. (You might think it a Boston investment bank). A single window gives a glimpse of the narrow room with a small bar at the end of a warm brick wall, the old bricks in differing shades of red. A long wall at right is the palest of greens. The bare wooden tables are adorned with small pots of flowers. It’s cool and contemporary — a nice contrast to the heat of much of the excellent cooking.

The menu is divided into three categories: Rice specialties, authentic Thai, and healthy green, each subdivided into soups, appetizers and entrees. Mixing and matching is easy.

The kitchen is in the talented hands of chef Phannarai Promprasert, formerly of Busara above Georgetown, who is not afraid of turning up the heat. Many of Rice’s dishes measure up to genuine Bangkok spiciness — well, almost — and there’s joy in the fire.

The appetizers are extraordinary. The spring rolls, from the “healthy” menu, are far from usual: They’re shaped like Turkish cigars, only longer and thinner, stuffed with a smooth taro root and carrot puree and fried to a crisp turn. Chicken satay is akin to that served in most Thai restaurants, but these small skewers are tender and explode with flavor. They are accompanied by two sauces, sweet and sour and a spicier one instead of the traditional peanut version.

A small boat of crabmeat, misnamed “dip,” sails fresh and highly spiced onto the table, with the heat beautifully balanced by cool leaves of baby romaine in which to wrap the crab. A shrimp-and-grapefruit salad is equally fine: Three large grilled shrimp are served warm atop a mixture of red onions, green onions, chili peppers and spices. Slices of pink grapefruit, threads of crispy coconut and the juice of the fruit combine with the shrimp in an exotic starter dish that combines into a surprising, happy marriage.

Seasonal fruit salad is listed as an appetizer, but it’s a refreshing accompaniment to the hotter dishes. The salad — at present a combination of ripe pineapple, grapes and apples — is served in a mild garlic-and-chili dressing that enhances the flavor of the fruit while mitigating its sweetness.

Chiang Mai pork sausage is mild and sophisticated. Served at room temperature, it is subtle and pleasant, rich in herbs with none of the fire of the traditional Thai dishes.

Grilled New York steak doesn’t sound very Thai, but the dish, leading the main courses, is sensational. Medium rare and thinly sliced, the steak has been marinated in a spicy sauce and grilled to a tender and juicy turn, bursting with extraordinary flavor.

The Pacific Rim obviously reflects both its Eastern and Western shores, and spaghetti with Thai anchovies and crisp bacon is neither very Asian nor very European. The anchovies are not the usual whole Italian anchovies and add only a suggestion of fish to the dish. The small pieces of bacon, the herbs and a little oil make this into a deliciously delicate dish.

Panang chicken is served in a spicy curry, wonderfully hot, prepared without peanuts. Sauteed ginger with mixed vegetables comes in a lighter, somewhat milder curry. The sauteed ginger is excellent.

Pad Thai is not to be overlooked. It’s served in a pancake almost as thin as a lasagna or a thin won-ton skin. Served without the traditional lemon, it is mild and satisfying and can be ordered with vegetables, chicken or shrimp. We chose the shrimp version, which turned out to be a generous portion of large shrimp, not overcooked as shrimp often are.

Drunken noodles come with chicken, pork or tofu and are prepared medium-hot. The dish is prepared with chili and basil leaves, arrayed on wide rice noodles. We ordered the pork, and it was tender and well-cooked.

There are four kinds of rice: white and dark, each flavored with the faintest suggestion of coconut; a yellow rice colored with turmeric; and a lovely green rice made with pandan leaves. Each is served sticky style in a small oval heap, beautiful on a rectangular plate.

Beauty is very much a part of every dish, many of which are decorated with a carrot flower, a spray of parsley, a few shreds of red cabbage or pretty pale romaine leaves.

Desserts are limited: The coconut pie, drizzled with black raspberry sauce, is nondescript. Coconut and green-tea ice creams are only adequate. An unlikely red bean ice cream, however, is delicious. The flavor is sweet, not cloying, and the beans in the ice cream add a delicious crunch. It’s excellent and well worth trying, as is the sticky rice and mango.

The wine list is modest — three whites and three reds, each priced at $29, and there are several foreign and domestic beers. Waiters are charming, but be aware that if you linger over dinner, as well you might, the kitchen closes promptly at 10:30 (or maybe even at 10:15) and you won’t get a warning. If you haven’t ordered dessert, you’ll be out of luck.

Rice is a feast — comfortable, pretty and delicious.

RESTAURANT: Rice, 1608 14th St. NW; 202/234-2400

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; dinner 5 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; Friday through Sunday hours, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

PRICES: Appetizers $4 to $8; entrees $9 to $16

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards except American Express

PARKING: Street parking usually is available

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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