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Reservations Recommended

Royal Raves: Regent Thai

Frequently heard among DC foodies: “I love Thai food.” “Thai cooking is my favorite Asian cuisine.” “Pssst — I know where to fine the best Thai food.”

Considering that in the past decade the number of local Thai eateries (in the entire metro area) has rocketed up from about 75 to more than 200, it’s not hard to argue that Thai food has become the hottest — no pun intended — cooking in town. Problem is, many of the local spots have upped the sugar and dumbed down the seasonings and the chili content to satisfy their Western customers, the farang (meaning foreigner of European ancestry) who really, really don’t like it hot. But what most Westerners may not know is that flavor balancing sweet, salty, hot, and sour when done well showcases a truly spectacular array of dishes that can dazzle the king — or in this case, the Thai monarch and family.

All that aside, Thai food aficionados — and I am one, for sure — can applaud when they find a cook who gets it right at least 90 percent of the time. Happy to say, such a place is Regent Thai. Although open now for some time, and well reviewed by local media, the Adams Morgan restaurant does not often make headlines, and is not necessarily on anyone’s radar for “best bets.”

But, unless you want to traipse over to Wheaton for Ruan Thai, or out to Chantilly for Thai Basil, you’ll add Regent Thai to your “must” list and then work up a good appetite.

Its dark, cool interior looks really too classy to fit the image of a folksy Thai place frequented by Thais and the extended family, that irrefutable sign that the food is sure good. Don’t be put off by its serenity, its wood carvings artwork (for sale, apparently), and the carved miniature traditional Thai house surrounded by votive candles the waiter is busily lighting. Focus, instead, on the menu, and here are a few recommendations:

Start with the tod mun goong, or shrimp cakes, served artfully in a basket of fried shredded potatoes, which, assures the waiter, is entirely edible. Right from the first bite, you understand that for the chef, presentation is part of the game, the flair factor that all good Thai cooks respect. After all, Thais have elevated the art of vegetable carving, in part to show off their cooking. It works. That, of course, coupled with the right-on flavor and texture of the shrimp cakes rolled in panko crumbs and deep-fried make this an irresistible appetizer. (Note: Most Thai restaurant serve only the fish cakes (tod mun plaa), which traditionally are made with the pounded flesh of a freshwater fish called “featherback” from Thai and Vietnamese waters.)

You might also consider a bowl of the lemongrass soup adorned with three shrimp as a starter, but don’t overdo the first course.

Up next: This chef’s version of crispy duck with its artful presentation and knock-‘em-dead flavor. This dish has it all — a robust three-flavor sauce, very crispy boneless duck breast perched on a bed of just-tender green beans, and a bountiful garnish of crisp-fried Thai basil, plus a scoop of steamed rice.

The duck more than makes up for the not-quite-right pad Thai, at least, not right for my tastes. I found it lacked the richness from the traditional tamarind sauce, and if there were salted turnip or pounded dried shrimp, I couldn’t find them. Sure, that may sound overly fussy, but if one dish has come to symbolize Thai cooking here and elsewhere, it’s pad Thai.

But overall, the Thai experience at this in-town place more than makes up for the dark interior — what must it be like on a very gloomy winter day? Note that the menu includes a vegetarian section.

The Regent Thai Cuisine <BULLET> 1910 18th St., NW; (202) 232-1781/2; www.regenthai.com. Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Thu., 11:30am-3pm.; Dinner, 5-10pm & to 11pm, Fri.; Sat., Lunch. 12noon-3pm; Dinner. 5-11pm; Sun., Dinner, 5-10pm. Lunch entrée price range: $7.95-$19.95. Major credit cards accepted.

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. Click here to visit her website.