The restaurant that marries East and West is fraught from the start. Pull the native cuisine too far from its roots and you can lose its soul. Present traditional dishes in a slick setting and you risk coming across as a high-priced version of a family-run ethnic restaurant.
Doi Moi, a bistro dressed in white, illustrates the challenge of translation. The menu amounts to a greatest hits of Thai and Vietnamese cooking, including street-food-inspired dishes, and the kitchen is respectful in its approach to traditions. It takes the time to toast and grind its spices. And the cooking never lacks heat, a common complaint about Thai restaurants that have dialed back their spicing for a Western audience.
But too many of these dishes are only hot; they lack the pungency—or depth, or funk—of the real thing at its best. And though the commitment to good-quality ingredients is admirable (that’s sea bass in the jungle curry, not low-grade tilapia), the payoff isn’t high enough, often enough. It’s telling that many of the best dishes—crab fried rice, roasted chicken, grilled prawns—are the simplest. Order widely and you’re likely to have an up-and-down meal, attended by thoughts that you might find as much deliciousness at your favorite Thai joint—for a lot less.
Owner Mark Kuller has been in this spot before. Proof, his first venture, took a while to evolve into one of DC’s top restaurants. The success of that place and of Estadio, his number two, says that all he needs is more time to bring this promising idea to full flower.
This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Washingtonian.