Bangkok Joe’s

This Washington Harbour spot has looks going for it, but the cooking is often uneven.

October 2004

The no-man's land on the part of K Street under the Whitehurst Freeway has new life because of the opening of the Loews Georgetown movie theater complex. It has been a boon for the restaurants in Washington Harbour and a magnet for new ones, including the sleekly modern Bangkok Joe's. Owned by Aulie Bunyarataphan and Mel Oursinsiri, who also own T.H.A.I. in Shirlington, Bangkok Joe's has a menu that chef Aulie Bunyarataphan has described as "a Thai chef's interpretation of America's melting-pot cuisine." Taking its inspiration from the street food of Thailand, the focus of the menu is dumplings, wontons and rolls, and noodle dishes.

To convert this long, narrow bank into a restaurant, the owners turned to Jordan Mozer and Associates, one of the designers of the Bellagio and the Venetian in Las Vegas and the Barneys department store in New York. The result is striking and comfortable–with bright reds, silver, and gold, and motifs from Thai culture and folklore, including elephant tusks and swirls of Buddha's hair. A focal point of the dining room is a stainless-steel dumpling bar with steamers and a grill on one side and a row of stools on the other.

Thai restaurants were among the earliest of Asian restaurants to move away from the bare-bones decor that characterized Asian restaurants until well into the 1980s. The new breed of Thai restaurants, bright and light, reflects what Americans find appealing about the cuisine. Bangkok Joe's is a good example of both the successes and failures of Thai restaurants in the 21st century.

For all the visual interest of its surroundings, a good deal of the food at Bangkok Joe's is drab. And I don't mean just lacking in heat. Thai cooking at its best has a depth and complexity of flavor that's missing in Bangkok Joe's borrowings and innovations.

Among the dumplings, the Foie Gras 'n' Shrimp, as interesting as it may sound, is heavy and accompanied by a too-sweet fruit compote. Pork-and-crab shu mai are ordinary and underspiced. Winter-squash pot stickers are bland and starchy. The mushroom-and-ginger dumplings are the best of the lot with the piquancy of fresh ginger and the crunch of water chestnuts.

From the wontons-and-rolls section of the menu, the picks are the smoked-duck wontons, a large serving with crisply fried shells and a nicely spiced filling. The crisp salmon-and-rice roll is a good study in textures and flavors, but a better Vietnamese summer roll can be found in almost any Vietnamese restaurant in the city.

Salads, good for lunch or a light dinner before or after a movie, are one of the most interesting parts of the menu. The Yum Seafood Salad is the best, a mixture of fresh shellfish with vegetables in a spicy chili-lime dressing. Grilled Beef Salad is also a hit. The Thai chicken salad has a too-sweet dressing.

You're on firmer ground with the noodle dishes. Drunken Chicken is nicely done, probably the spiciest dish on the menu. There's a very good version of pad Thai, available with chicken, shrimp, or fried tofu. The curry noodle dishes are disappointing–the meats are bland and do not seem to get flavor from the sauces. A Siamese pork rice bowl with a ginger sesame sauce and pickled vegetables was dry. Penang grilled chicken was overcooked.

Service has sometimes been casual–on one evening, the servers seemed much more interested in one another than in their customers–but always obliging.

In spite of its failings, Bangkok Joe's is a welcome addition to the dining possibilities on the Georgetown waterfront. Don't choose it for a significant meal, but think of it as a possibility for a pre- or post-movie dinner or snack.