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Reservations Recommended

The Spice of Life = Spices

I’m never one to turn down a friend’s invitation to lunch — especially at Spices in Cleveland Park, and more especially when the friend is a co-owner of the restaurant. For years, Spices has chalked up high marks in my book for its parade of pan-Asian dishes, which span most of Asia, minus the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, and the Indian Subcontinent.

Opened in 1994, the restaurant has undergone an overhaul, both with its space and its menu, which have both grown to accommodate hungry Washingtonians. It even features some of the dishes from its long-ago sister restaurant up the street, Yanÿu, famed for its adherence to quality up-scale Chinese cooking. Chef Jessie Yan has made sure that her famous Big Duck, the succulent roasted crispy duck that starred at Yanÿu, has made its way down the block to Spices.

A quality take on the famous Peking duck featured at so many area Chinese restaurants, Yan’s Big Duck comes with a glazed mahogany-colored crunchy skin. And when sliced into bite-sized mouthfuls and wrapped up in one of the typical pancake accompaniments, the duck signals a real Chinese treat. Yan and partner even brought along the shredded ginger salad, and if you want something truly arresting, the garlic shrimp (here called “prawns”), one of the dishes that garnered as many raves as the duck.

It’s not all about nostalgic eats, of course, for Spices’ menu offers a full range of sushi and sashimi options, and if you love watching sushi chefs at work, ask to be seated at the bar area where they are busily slicing away. Not only can you order your favorite sushi roll, but also you can turn your sushi rolls into an entrée of, say, chirashi sushi, sliced fish displayed on sushi rice.

Other big hits are its various curries, and remarkably enough, their Suicide Curry — it’s as corrosively hot as it sounds — has its many fans. Based on coconut milk and filled with a meat of your choice, the curry also contains extra dollops of chilies and other heat- and sweat-inducing ingredients. Even for someone used to eating Thai hot food, I find that this particular curry is punishingly hot. Milder curries include a green and a red curry, both based on coconut milk.

Browsing further through Asia, don’t overlook the Dragon Dumpling, a Sichuan dish; the Korean BBQ ribs, which have the grilled sweetness of a typical beef kalbi dish and are served with kimchi; or the caramel pork or chicken, either a favorite in Vietnam. Of course, no Asian menu would be complete without a series of noodle dishes and Spices keeps to this with such choices as pad Thai and a delicious Malaysian curry laksa.

But Yan loves to play around with her menus, and she has created several noteworthy takes on some classics. Up first, and worth at least two orders, are the tofu fries, resembling for all the world a batch of French fries, but sparked with minced garlic, shredded basil, and Japanese seven-spice seasoning. Her rainbow salad, built around shredded green papaya, shredded mango, and shredded red cabbage.

The dessert menu is short, actually limited to only two choices: mango and sticky rice, and honey-fried bananas. But after you’ve ordered one of just about everything else on the menu, dessert becomes meaningless.

Spices Asian Restaurant and Sushi Bar <BULLET> 3333-A Conn. Ave., NW; (202) 686-3833. Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-3pm, Sat. noon through dinner to 11pm.; Dinner: Mon.-Fri. 5pm-11pm, Sun., 5:30-10:30pm. Lunch entrée prices: $9-$19.

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.