A quick Google search tells me that there are something like 170 restaurants serving Thai food in the D.C. area. Virtually all of them serve slight variations of tried and true Americanized favorites - pad Thai, Drunken Nooodles, panang curry...you know the drill - with varying degrees of competence. So when a Thai restaurant makes the effort to distiguish itself from the mob, it's something we very much appreciate. This is exactly why Rice, yet another 14th Street contributor to the District's dining scene, is a favorite for us. While many traditional Thai dishes are available in the menu's "Authentic Thai" section, the restaurant also offers up unique offerings with its "Rice Specialty," "Healthy Green," and "Seasonal" sections (you can pick and choose as you like from all sections), and it's these contemporary dishes that make Rice stand out above the crowd.
You can tell that Rice is not your typical Thai eatery the moment you walk in. Instead of the kitchy Asian decor that adorns most of these restaurants, Rice takes a minimalist approach - exposed brick, clean lines, simple furniture - with elegant results. The unhurried, yet efficient and friendly service adds to the almost lounge-y feel of the place.
We started with one of the seasonal appetizers, the feta wonton with sun-dried tomatoes and olives (below). The tart and tangy ingredients don't exactly scream southeast Asia, but the little bites take Mediterranean flavors and wrangle them into a traditional eastern package to good effect. The combination is a bit salty and would almost be too much if any bigger, but in appetizer format, it scored.
I had been feeling under the weather that day, and so was craving some soup, although, to be honest, I always crave soup. The seafood soup with Thai-spice (below) really hit the spot, chock-full of perfectly cooked seafood bits, and steeped in the tasty pungent broth with just the tiniest bit of heat.
From the "Healthy Green," or vegetarian, section of the menu, we got the pumpkin empanada (below). Again, pumpkin is not something I ever see in Asian restaurants. Neither are empanadas. The creative appetizer was slightly more successful in concept than in practice, as it was a bit overly sweet, but the warm, flaky shell guaranteed we'd polish off the small plate.
For my entree, I went with the spicy duck, with Thai herbs and adorned with crispy wild ginger (below). The preparation reminded me a little of Chinese sweet and sour chicken, crispy on the outside, juicy, yet chewy on the inside. I could have stood for a little bit more "spicy" rather than the sweetness that pervaded the sauce, but it was still delicious.
Both entrees came with a side of sticky rice, which reminded me of a dish in Filipino cuisine called suman, which is made from glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk and steamed in banana leaves. I'm not sure how Rice makes its version, but I do know that it's incredibly addictive, with a very subtle sweetness that leaves you wanting more. Depending on your entree, the rice can vary. Previous visits have turned up rices infused with different flavors (and presented in different colors).
Illustrating how we're sometimes too much on the same page, Mark got the crispy chicken with pineapple sauce (below). Like my duck, Mark's chicken sported a similar crispy exterior and sweet sauce, and we both enjoyed it; however, the pineapple chunks did get a little overwhelmingly cloying and acidic by the end.
While the higher prices may be a sticking point for some and the execution of the food does not necessarily leave other D.C. Thai establishments in the dust, Rice's polished decor and willingness to step outside the box with its cuisine makes it stick in our minds as a real treat, and one to which we keep turning.