Rice is Nice
[from December 2003 issue]

You don't have to be a Thai food junkie to get what Rice is all about. It's a food game played out in a simple setting with dimmed lights, plain (well, almost plain) walls, a little splashing waterfall, and a lively crowd shoehorned into a minimalist space. Absent are the slick, gaudy décor and oddly pulled together menus--most of which, if you've noticed, offer the very same dishes from one restaurant to the next.

And if you are a Thai food freak, you will still delight to the tongue-in-cheek menu, so irreverent that one whole menu column is devoted to assorted make-believe Thai concoctions. Purists would faint at the idea of spaghetti tossed with Thai anchovies and crispy--and rather salty--bacon. They would raise collective eyebrows at the cook's temerity at serving stir-fried rice with plump shrimp enlivened by a green curry paste. And finally, what about the mirroring of the famous Thai tom yum (lemongrass) soup with its familiar sour taste rendered Rice-style with enoki mushrooms, little tomatoes, snipped cilantro and onions--and seafood. A backwards assembling of ingredients?

If this all seems a bit too wacky, take heart. You can turn your palate to a more traditional dish--pad Thai, green curry with chicken or beef, and panang chicken, for example--but you'll fare better with the fantasy stuff. My friend and I sampled the pad Thai--yes, the cook does offer this with thin squares of omelet, one way Thais serve this national favorite in Thailand, but not one you'll find often in the West; but we decided that the noodle toss was simply too sweet. Yes, it's true, Americans love sweet Thai food, or maybe just sweet food in general, and Thai restaurants recognize our love affair with sugar. The noodles also looked suspiciously reddish, raising the question: Did the cook take a shortcut and didn't bother making the traditional fish sauce/palm sugar mixture typically used to darken and flavor the pad Thai noodles? If so, tut tut!

The third and final menu category consists of all-veg fare, but since much of Thai cooking can be vegetarian anyway, this does not offer many surprises. You might find the deep-fried tofu appealing, or maybe the spicy mixed mushroom soup is more to your taste. But if you are an omnivore, you'll find better choices among the other dishes.

While my friend and I knocked the kitchen for not living up to its "one-chili" designated heat, we did applaud the cook's presentation skills--artful and lively, with an eye to magnifying the natural beauty of ingredients. We were actually stunned by the cook's use of shrimp that were really large enough to get away with the moniker "prawns" and which were additionally so plump and juicy they seemed like props from a TV cooking show.

We also agreed that at Rice where whimsy steps in, flavor follows right behind. So we gave high marks to the seafood soup (cool, not spicy, despite the chili logo), and equally high marks to the grilled eggplant with shrimp appetizer, a unique rendering of a popular eggplant salad that's rarely found in Thai restaurants in these parts.

Our exclamations died away with the desserts, however. We were disappointed, not at the paucity of choices--after all, Thais are not really into pastries and gooey Western desserts--but that the one offering that took center stage, the young coconut pie, has faded quickly from memory. Bland? Uninteresting? Not worth the calories? Probably all of these. Too bad that the cook's inventiveness does not produce a killer-calorie showstopper. That would make the Rice experience a must-repeat, and often.

Rice / Fine Thai Cuisine, 1608 14th St., NW; tel., 234-2400. Hours: Lunch, 11:30am-2:30pm; Dinner, 5-10pm. No reservations. Entrée prices: $12-$16. www.ricerestaurant.com.

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