Just a few years ago, Home Rule, a stylish and affordable housewares store, was a pioneer on the rundown stretch of 14th Street between Massachusetts Avenue and U Street. These days 14th Street, anchored by Whole Foods Market and the Studio Theatre, is the center of DC's most happening neighborhood, with new condo buildings, smart shops, clubs, and restaurants.
The area's youthful residents make it a good location for a Thai restaurant, and Somsak Pollert, owner of the spare and elegant Simply Home, an Asian-inspired home furnishings store on 18th Street, seized the opportunity. With co-owner Phannarai Promprasert, who has cooked at Busara and Tara Thai in Rockville, in the kitchen, Pollert has created Rice, a spare and elegant restaurant with beige banquettes along exposed-brick walls.
In this inviting space, Pollert and Promprasert serve a Thai menu refreshingly different from the cookie-cutter menus at most the area's Thai places. The menu is divided into three sections. One lists specialties of the house–dishes, the menu says, "that have become a trend in Thailand," and others that are available only at Rice. A second section lists "Authentic Thai" dishes, "cooked like we cook at home or back in Thailand." The third is a selection of vegetarian dishes. Each section is organized into soups, appetizers, and main courses, and diners can mix selections from the three.
Thai cooking has become popular because it is light and seasoned with chilies and fresh herbs. The food can be quite spicy, but it is not necessarily hot. The ideal is for each dish to be in balance so that no one ingredient overwhelms the other. The best Thai restaurants in the area, such as Duangrat's and Rabieng in Baileys Crossroads, maintain this balance of seasonings with admirable consistency. In its early weeks, Rice has scored some hits and some misses.
Most of the disappointments have come from the Authentic Thai section of the menu, and the flaws have been not only in lack of balance but also in faulty technique. Larb gai, the spicy minced chicken salad, is found on most Thai menus but here had a scorched taste. Chicken Satay was dry. Green Papaya Salad was nicely spiced but accompanied by overcooked shrimp.
Main courses are a better bet: very good chicken in green curry and shrimp in red curry, both accompanied by Thai eggplant and basil; and delicious spicy pork with ginger paste and green beans. Seafood basil–fresh shrimp, squid, a scallop, and a couple of mussels beautifully arranged on a triangular plate–arrived nearly cold.
The more successful dishes have come from the specialty and vegetarian sections. Spicy Chiang Mai sausages, paired with fresh herbs and some dangerously hot chilies, make a satisfying appetizer. Shredded pork, nicely spiced with fresh herbs, is served on lettuce leaves for rolling. Grilled eggplant with shrimp salad is an unusual and rewarding combination. The most surprising dish, and one of the most delicious, is spaghetti tossed with herbs, Thai anchovies, and crisp bacon–hardly traditional, with at least three cross-cultural influences going on, but it works.
Because many Thai dishes can be prepared in meatless variations, the "Healthy Green" section of the menu does not offer much that other Thai menus don't, but non-meat-eaters will enjoy finding all the vegetarian choices grouped together. The vegetarian version of pad Thai, the Thai national noodle dish, is a winner, the vegetables and noodles cupped in a thin omelet.
In another pleasant variation from the general run of Thai restaurants, each of the main courses is served with sticky rice flavored with coconut milk rather than with plain steamed rice. Sticky rice with mango is the best choice for dessert–skip the bland coconut pie.
The owners of Rice have gone to a lot of trouble, both with the menu and decor, to distinguish their restaurant from its competitors. They've judged the tastes of the neighborhood well–the place is packed, particularly on weekends. If you're looking for authentic Thai cooking, there are better Thai restaurants with lower prices. If you're looking to take some chances on the cooking to eat in a place with considerable style–and considerable awareness of it–try a meal at Rice.