Simply Unusual
[from March 2006 issue]

U Street's Simply Home is, well, simply odd -- a case of a restaurant with mistaken identity. Or, rather, one with multiple personalities. Is it store? Restaurant? Both? And its approach in the evening to cooking and presenting food -- a fusion of many cuisines to please everyone with a hint of Thai thrown in -- may work for an unwary patron base or succeed when the chef has world-class skills, but otherwise, the formula is a set-up for a culinary mystery.

On the other hand, if you are drawn to the new and trendy, you might hit the place at lunchtime or order carryout from their abbreviated all-Thai menu, different, oddly enough, from the regular "global" fare served at night. I've tried it both ways, and the difference in the takeout's on-target cooking is rather riveting. Such discrepancies confuse rather than clarify what's going on.

But first things first: Despite its sophisticated setting of white on white, modular stools in the "lounge," and dimmed lighting, Simply Home just looks like a new restaurant with enough attitude to attract the twenty- and thirty-somethings out on the town. Okay, it's sleek and modern, but the setting conveys nothing about the restaurant's identity. You'll get more sense of its identity by shopping next door at the affiliated home and personal decorating store, which is just through an open archway; it's also called Simply Home. Shop first, eat later, or vice-versa. Pillows, jewelry, and modern Asian geegaws a-plenty, but what about the food?

Two of us sat over dinner recently, and pondered the menu makeup. Since the menu states up front that it's all about "world cuisine with Thai flavor" you are fairly warned. But why miso soup, which is, even at the best of times, a gentle comfort food best served with sushi or when you want something warm and bracing for a bad head cold? Textured with shitake mushrooms, this was as mild as it's meant to be, and lacked the urgency of a Thai chili punch.

Looking for oddities? Try the wonton with cream cheese appetizer, a wacky experiment in dough-wrapped first bites that, when drizzled with its sauce, tasted somewhat like a cheese Danish. And that's odd, too, as the drizzle of olive and sun-dried tomato should be somewhat salty, not sneaky sweet.

Hoping for better luck, we waited -- and waited -- for the entrées: the simply home roasted chicken and the Burmese-style kao soi noodles. The former, it seems, had been roasted so long that the body had just disintegrated into a pile of meat shreds with bone. And the Burmese dish, a favorite at least one area Thai restaurant -- and the Thai version of a Burmese chicken curry in coconut milk -- is here so heavily seasoned that the subtleties of cardamom, nutmeg, mace, cloves, and caraway deftly combined are lost under a shower of cinnamon, or some very strong spice.

Never mind all that. The Thai takeout/lunch menu is where this restaurant's gems hide. The shrimp lemongrass soup sings with citrus overtones, and has the requisite galangal and lime leaves to add levels of taste. And the Drunken Noodles with pork is as hot as it should be -- the kitchen even adds slit green chilies for that extra kick -- and loads of meat, Thai basil, and bits of sliced sweet red pepper and onion.

Simply Home is a restaurant that deserves to be loved. Obviously, the owners have put considerable energy and thought into the setup, but for some of us in the great dining public, it's hard to buy into a multi-personality eatery, especially if one's heart is set on all Thai, all the time. Think I'll just stop by for lunch.

Simply Home, 1410 U St, NW; tel., 232-8424. Lunch, 11:30am-2:30pm, Mon.-Sun.; dinner, 5-11pm. Entrée prices: $16-$22.

Copyright (c) 2006 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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