Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Ah, the romance of the 1940s. Those were the days of glam- orous movie stars, of movies where the bad guys never got away with anything, where elegantly attired gentlemen and ladies tripped about the dance floors of supper clubs emulating Fred and Ginger. Hoagy Carmichael was always at the piano, sprinkling “Stardust.”

When you walk into the Stardust Restaurant and Lounge in Old Town Alexandria, nostalgia for the decade of the greatest generation embraces you like a breeze — not for its elegance but the everyday quality of the decade. Toasters, typewriters, electric fans and mixers adorn the backs of the booths in the lounge (aka the bar); mannequins in street clothes hang about the entrance and a smartly attired gent (equally artificial) mans the 16 mm movie projector (decoration only) in the adjacent dining room. Movie reels decorate the far wall of the dining room, where fake windows open to painted stars and the deep blue ceiling is covered with faux clouds and more simulated stars. The drink of the day is a martini.

Happily, the food, with the sad exception of the bread, does not reflect the years before America learned about fusion, nouvelle cuisine and cooking with herbs and spices. The kitchen at Stardust is run by chef Pat Phatiphong, who has worked in both Asian and European kitchens. His dishes are not exactly fusion. Rather, the menu is a mix of Thai, French and American dishes, some of them straightforward and others influenced by Asian concepts.

Appetizers, soups and salads are identical at lunch and dinner. The lunch menu includes sandwiches and the selection of entrees is more extensive in the evening. Portions are generous and the food is fresh, tasty and very well prepared.

An excellent starter, easily shared by two or even three diners, is the tempura fried baby shrimp drizzled with a wasabi mayonnaise. The shrimp come to the table piping hot, crispy and still tender. If you don’t want to eat so much deep-fried tempura coating, the shrimp can easily be removed from their tempura shells. The wasabi sauce adds a nice tangy bite to the dish.

Vegetable spring rolls, also deep-fried, are served with a sweet plum dipping sauce. The three slim, crunchy rolls are a classic Thai appetizer and Mr. Phatiphong does well by them. Equally delicious are five very large oysters, lightly baked under a thin crust of spices, garlic butter and a dusting of Parmesan cheese.

The buttery sauce would be a delicious adornment to good crusty bread. Unfortunately, the bread at both lunch and dinner tastes like rolls out of a plastic bag, soft without freshness and with little flavor. Good bread is readily available in the area, and the food at Stardust deserves better than synthetic bread. Little crocks of sweet butter, on the other hand, are welcome.

Crab guacamole with salsa, as the name implies, is a serving of guacamole studded with fresh crab on a bed of slightly spicy salsa, served in a martini glass. The dish has too many small chunks: avocado, tomato, crab and would be better served by having the crab and guacamole on a smooth tomato base, rather than the chunky salsa to vary the textures of the dish. Nevertheless, the flavors blend nicely.

Salads range from a Polynesian toss of Asian pear and apple with greens, red onion and toasted pecans, a spicy Thai seafood salad or spinach with smoked mussels and applewood bacon. The dressing on the spinach salad is called “Siberian,” perhaps in explanation of its snow-white color. The taste is similar to a creamy ranch without spice.

Lunchtime sandwiches include traditional cheeseburgers with french fries, grilled ham and cheese and a Reuben. More imaginatively, there’s an “el cubano” of roast pork, ham and Swiss cheese, a steak and cheese with green peppers and onions and a chicken curry sloppy Joe.

Main courses are divided between meat and fish with some vegetarian pasta dishes. Among the latter is a terrific pan-fried dish of linguine with portobello mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, walnuts and cheese. It’s a beautifully balanced dish, with the ingredients remaining distinct yet combined into a lovely light sauce.

A special one day of traditional pad Thai was good with an interesting smoky undercurrent. Stardust’s version lacks the crunch of bean sprouts and the traditional squeeze of lemon, and there seemed to be too many noodles compared to the amount of shrimp, egg and other ingredients.

Fish dishes include a spicy seafood stir-fry with mussels, shrimp, scallops and clams, fried catfish filet, a crispy whole fish and grilled salmon. Crab cakes are excellent, prepared with little filling and good fresh crab. These would be even better with a little of the wasabi sauces Mr. Phatiphong serves with other dishes.

Shrimp and pineapple curry is, in a word, wonderful. The curry is rich and pretty pink in a white dish, with a large helping of shrimp. The bits of pineapple in the sauce add a lovely touch of sweetness and marry happily to the spiced shrimp. The shrimp are served in a soup-like sauce, and the kitchen could please by removing the tails before serving.

Tuna steak was the special another day, served on a bed of linguine with mixed vegetables. It would have been a splendid dish, as the tuna was nicely spiced and grilled, but it was a bit overcooked.

One of the chef’s best dishes is a brochette of grilled pork in a peanut sauce. This suggests pork satay, but it isn’t. The two skewers of chunks of pork are cooked just right, retaining all their juices. The outside is slightly charred and the inside is faintly pink. The peanut sauce is rich and dark, thicker than the usual satay sauce. The dish is served with jasmine rice and half a dozen asparagus spears. It’s an excellent, satisfying dish, even on a hot summer night.

The menu includes crispy duck, chicken scaloppini , and steak, as well as pasta dishes with a mix of vegetables and nuts. At lunch, there’s a chicken quesadilla on the menu, fish and chips, and macaroni and cheese.

Desserts should be considered. A crepe filled with bananas, a few strawberries and a smooth custard with a topping of caramel sauce is filling, but delicious. The mocha bread pudding with mascarpone custard and fresh berries is also good.

From 4 to 10:30 p.m., a small plates menu is available in the lounge. The menu has some interesting items such as noodle fritters with shrimp, spinach ravioli with ricotta, sauteed escargots and vegetable napoleons. The small plates are priced from $4 to $7.

Stardust has an extensive, eclectic wine list, but not all of the wines on the list are available all of the time. The wines are well-priced and selections are from all over the world, including Virginia. Service is pleasant but often slow.

Stardust is that little neighborhood restaurant (even though it isn’t really little) for which discerning diners are always on the scout. With its lime green and pale lavender walls, its funky decor, large, welcoming bar and friendly atmosphere, it’s a winner. And if it’s a special occasion, the management will write an appropriate message in colored chalk on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. Now that’s a welcome.

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