Exclusive: An Interview With Mark Kuller About His New Southeast Asian Spot on 14th Street

Long-awaited details on the new project from Kuller and chef Haidar Karoum—including a name.

By: Todd Kliman

From Mark Kuller: “Sweet little Thai woman who makes spectacular duck (with noodles or rice) near the Bangkok waterfront.” Photographs courtesy of Kuller.

A little more than a year ago, Mark Kuller rather mysteriously announced his new venture—which I rather mysteriously made public in a series of weekend tweets. His third restaurant, Kuller said, would be a Southeast Asian place, and would join the bustling restaurant row of 14th Street, Northwest. Again partnering with chef Haidar Karoum, he would showcase street foods from Vietnam and Thailand in a casually stylish setting that would clearly establish the place as a sibling of Proof and Estadio, his two existing restaurants.

The name?

Too early for that, said Kuller, who, prior to opening Proof in 2007, had been a prominent Washington attorney, and long ago mastered the delicate art of withholding sensitive information until the time is propitious.

Well, yesterday Kuller decided the time was propitious.

The work-in-progress, scheduled for early summer, will be called Doi Moi.

Kuller, whose former law colleagues marveled at how fanatically prepared he was for cases, was ready for the inevitable first question—or rather, questions.

Is that dwa mwa?

Dwa moy?

Doy mwa?

“Doy Muuy,” Kuller says, acknowledging that the name is likely to be mangled, perhaps even by his eventual staff.

His hope, he says, is that it will lodge in the mind.

Coconuts in the Ben Thanh market.

He also hopes that by connecting a changing country that helped to inspire the restaurant with the changing culture of 14th Street, he will have bridged two very different worlds.

Kuller says he explored hundreds of possibilities before settling on Doi Moi, which commonly refers to a series of “open door” policies introduced in Vietnam in the mid-’80s. He thought the name—literally, “new change”—spoke to “many elements of this project: “the progressing renewal and reconstruction of 14th Street, the renovation of [a] beautiful building, the open door nature of great hospitality, and the new change that captures my personal and continuing transition from corporate tax attorney to restaurateur.”

Doi Moi is inspired, in part, by a dizzying eating tour of Southeast Asia that Kuller and Karoum embarked on this past August, stuffing themselves at street stands, stalls, storefronts, and restaurants—in all, logging more than 100 meals in 22 days. The two had taken a similar trip to Spain, in early 2010, prior to opening Estadio.

The variety of flavors, the brilliance of the colors, the interplay of textures, and especially the elevated heat levels all left their imprint on the two men. Kuller says he hopes the cooking will convey the excitement of their ground-level experiences.

Griz Dwight of Grizform Design, who did the interiors for Proof and Estadio, is designing the space, which will span two buildings, one of them the old Whitman-Walker clinic.

The basement level will feature a “curated cocktail bar” called 2 Birds 1 Stone, and will be acclaimed mixologist Adam Bernbach’s new home. Justin Guthrie, the current GM at Estadio, will also move full-time to Doi Moi.

Can you share a few dishes that’ll be on the menu—not general types of dishes we can expect to find, but actual, specific dishes?

Honestly, I cannot guarantee that any specific dish will be on our opening menu but specific dishes we’ve discussed include:

Vietnam: bun cha, nem ran, banh xeo, bánh cuon, bún bò hue, cha ca thang long.*

Thailand: miang kham, kaeng pa, sai ua, khao soi, pla thot.**

Since Haidar Karoum cannot be in two places at once, who will be chef de cuisine?

We are conducting a local and nationwide search for a new chef de cuisine, but Chef Karoum will continue to oversee all culinary operations for our company. As you know, Chef Karoum headed the kitchen at Asia Nora for seven years—Southeast Asian cuisine is something in which he is extremely well versed, and I expect him to have a dominant role in composing our opening menu.

How will the new place be similar to Proof and Estadio? How will it be different?

As at Proof and Estadio, our primary focus will be on outstanding food and service, in a dining room with great energy and beautiful surroundings. But just as Proof and Estadio are very different in terms of the clientele, the pace of the meal, the price point, the noise level, etc., so too will Doi Moi have its own special style. We expect it to resemble Estadio in its small-plates focus, open kitchen, and similar demographic. But we expect it be a bit less frenetic than Estadio—likely midway between the two. The degree of execution will likely be closer to Proof, and as at Proof, we will offer wines from across the globe.

When we first spoke about this project, you mentioned that Vietnam will be represented in the menu to a greater extent than Thailand. If you had to guess, how do you envision the two breaking down in rough percentage terms?

I am going to retract that statement—it is simply too early to say, as the opening menu is a work in progress. I am sure that there will be a healthy dose of dishes from both countries, and it would not surprise me to see a dish or two indigenous to Laos, Cambodia, or Malaysia. I would prefer to see a greater focus on Vietnamese—my favorite cuisine. Chef Karoum can speak for himself, but I would guess he has a slight preference for the cuisine of Thailand. And certainly our chef de cuisine will also have input into the day-to-day direction of the kitchen.

On the continuum that runs from Ceiba (a Western chef’s reinterpretation of a cuisine) to Little Serow (a Western chef’s homage to a cuisine), where will Doi Moi fall?

Chef Karoum and I don’t see this as a reinterpretation of the traditional dishes we love. While “homage” is a strong word, our objective is closer to that. We will strive for authenticity, but as you know, even within its home country a dish may have many variations, some of which reflect a more modern interpretation. While respecting the integrity and tradition of a dish, I certainly can see some creative tweaking based on ingredient availability, seasonality, and the like.

It would seem to me that you cannot go into a project like this without first working out your position on the question of authenticity. What is yours?

The restaurant’s goal is to serve authentic regional dishes found in storefronts, street stands, and stalls in the great cities of Vietnam and Thailand. We will respect and give great deference to authenticity—it will be our foundation—but we will not be a slave to it.

What would you want Vietnamese and Thai immigrants (and/or sons and daughters of those immigrants) who dine at Doi Moi to say of it? What, to you, would be the best thing they could say?

One of our greatest thrills is when Spaniards tells us how fantastic Estadio is, how it reminds them of eating in a restaurant in Spain or even in their mother’s kitchen. Perhaps our greatest compliment is when a Spaniard proclaimed our tortilla española was better than his grandmother’s. I would hope for something similar at Doi Moi—that they were reminded of the bánh cuon [a rolled cake] they had in Hanoi or the khao soi they had in Chiang Mai, or even better, that their grandmother made! Of course, if they said our Vietnamese dishes compared favorably to those at Huong Viet or Rice Paper, or our Northern Thai dishes to those at Bangkok Golden, that too would make us feel like we were doing something right.

You mentioned in one of our previous conversations that this restaurant could not have existed ten years ago. How so?

I don’t have a specific recollection of what I was thinking, but it was likely two things. First, Doi Moi will be small-plates based, with variety and price points roughly in line with Estadio. Ten years ago that would be a hard sell in steakhouse- and white-tablecloth-centric DC. Thanks to the pioneering influence of José Andrés at great small-plates restaurants like Zaytinya and Jaleo, the DC dining scene has been radically transformed. Second, I think in the past there has been an economic bias against regional Asian cuisine—not only in DC and but in the country as a whole. It was fine to spend $30 on a bowl of noodles and shrimp at an Italian restaurant, but an Asian restaurant should offer strip-mall pricing on a comparable dish. Yes, there were Asian “ fusion” restaurants that attempted to elude this strip-mall mentality, but without the foundation of authenticity their success was generally hard to sustain. With the recent commercial and critical success enjoyed by restaurants like the Slanted Door, Fatty Crab, Pok Pok, Little Serow, and several others, restaurants serving authentic regional Asian cuisine are starting to level the economic playing field with other mainstream ethnic cuisines. That movement has to a large extent paved the road for a restaurant like Doi Moi.

*Grilled pork noodle soup, spring rolls, shrimp and pork cake, rolled cake, beef-and-vermicelli-noodle soup, fish with turmeric and dill.

** A leaf-wrapped street snack, a type of curry, grilled pork sausage, a noodle dish, deep-fried fish marinated in turmeric.