on February 23, 2009
Some of the best food in Chinatown isn't Chinese, but it's at least Asian -- in this case, Thai. Kanlaya Thai Cuisine is located directly underneath another of our favorite Chinatown restaurants, Burma, but we'd scarcely given it a second glance until I read a recent "Best Budget" article in Washingtonian magazine and saw a review for Kanlaya. I made a mental note and decided to check it out. My first meal there, on my own, made a favorable impression. Kanlaya doesn't look that promising from the outside, wedged as it is between several other small eateries, but step inside and things begin to look up. The small dining room has a casual elegance, with a small bar area and tight clusters of rosewood-colored tables. If I have one complaint about the place, it's that the tables are a bit too close together, and the hostess will probably seat you right next to another party, even when the place isn't particularly full (a pet peeve that's easily remedied, granted, by asking for another table). Fairly cheesy pop music is a background soundtrack, but it's not really loud enough to be a serious irritant. My first foray was at lunch, and I didn't have a lot of time, so I was happy that the green curry chicken that I'd ordered came so quickly. This is a very standard Thai dish, and it was spot on, with fresh Thai eggplant (real Thai eggplant, which are tiny and round), bamboo shots, thin slices of tender chicken breast, and fresh basil. In a departure from some Thai restaurants, the Thai chilies in the curry were quite substantial hunks rather than little slivers, which made them easier to set aside. While I''m a Thai chili fan, I'm not much on consuming them nearly whole. In general, though, I love the zing of Thai food, and this particular dish had a lovely balance, with the citrusy punch of lime, basil, galangal, and lemon grass contrasting with the creaminess of coconut milk. A second meal at Kanlaya was much more leisurely, after my husband and I had spent the afternoon at the nearby National Portrait Gallery. I began with a mango daquiri, which tasted a bit like an alcoholic mango lassi, though not quite as sweet. Salads and soups are often good bets at Thai places, and this proved the case here. My husband nearly always orders Tom Yum soup, and was true to form. One slightly unorthodox feature of his soup was that fresh button mushrooms rather than the usual straw mushrooms were used, but he still gave it a thumbs up. His salad was heaped with shredded green papaya and topped by several skewers of grilled shrimp. My house salad, also piled high with wisps of shredded carrot and cabbage, came with an intriguing (but very thick) side dish of peanut dressing, warm and more akin to a gravy than anything else, but it was delicious all the same. The warm dressing turned out to be an interesting foil to the crunchy chilled salad. I'd decided to order something completely different than my "usual" Thai favorites, and settled on something called "Pottery Shrimp," a casserole served in a rustic clay pot, something akin to a Chinese hot pot. The pot was filled with very tender shrimp atop a bed of cellophane noodles, Napa cabbage, and shitake mushrooms. I found the dish tasted more Chinese than Thai until I wised up and dressed the concoction with the piquant side sauce that was served with it. My husband's "Southern Seafood" was a nice mix of shrimp, scallops, and squid with mushrooms, onions, basil, and chili sauce. Our waitress was once again very quick to top up water, bring refills of tea for my husband, and clear finished dishes. Altogether, the two meals I've had at Kanlaya to date have put this place near the top of my favorite Thai restaurants in the DC Metro area. As it's not far from some of the places we often go in DC, I'm sure we'll be eating there again sometime in the future.
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