Capitol Cuisine

475
Phing Tham owner/Chef Andrew LaPorta and bartender/server Sarah White take a break in their busy restaurant. Photo: Celeste McCall

Looks like this restaurant—Phing Tham–is here to stay. Owner/chef Andrew LaPorta’s Southeast Asian restaurant is the rebranding of his short-lived Pesce Too, which opened last winter atop Bullfrog Bagels only to close a few months later. It reopened this fall as Phing Tham in the same space. We met chef LaPorta as he was hauling a crate of mangos upstairs to his 36-seat restaurant. The lush, tropical fruits will be sliced into spears to accompany a seafood fish, perhaps octopus?

Born in Malaysia (a diplo-brat), La Porta, 46, has traveled throughout Southeast Asia. His Laotian wife Dalavy makes the restaurant curries, which rotate weekly. That night’s selection was “red beef,” a montage of broth (started the night before), meat, mushrooms and lemongrass. The dish is accompanied by a wicker basket of sticky rice, employed to scoop up the soupy curry.

Phing Tham’s whole grilled fish, decorated with a thatch of lettuce, cucumbers and sprouts. Photo: Celeste McCall

Fork-tender octopus is marinated and grilled with a honey-chile glaze; calamari is perfumed with lemon grass and galangal. LaPorta also makes his own Chinese-style sausage to pair with clams. Jumbo Madagascar shrimp are cooked with chili, garlic and fish sauce. Salads—cucumber, mango, green papaya, long bean—are escorted by an array of tongue-searing sauces. Star of the culinary show is the whole (head-on) grilled fish (rockfish tonight), presented with a thatch of lettuce, cucumbers and sprouts. The deliciously moist creature was enveloped with crispy skin, but beware of bones.

Palate-cooling cocktails are created by mixologist Sarah White, who also fills in as a server. Customer favorite? Southwest X Southwest, a blend of kaffir lime, coconut and whiskey.  The brief beer and wine list includes a lovely white Grande Marnes Sancere (France). The restaurant moniker is explained on a chalkboard sign: “Phing” is the traditional Asian grilling method, while “Tham” represents the tonal sound of salads mixed with mortar and pestle.

Why the switch from pricy seafood to casual Asian? “I wanted to bring Pesce to the Hill,” LaPorta explained. “But I miscalculated the neighborhood. Fresh seafood–i.e. sea urchin and prawns—are expensive. Our price point did not match the Hill, which already has several fine dining destinations.”

An alum of Georgetown’s 1789 and Filomena and now-defunct Palena (upper Connecticut Ave. NW), LaPorta purchased Pesce three years ago from Régine Palladin, widow of Jean Louis-Palladin. (The French chef—who operated his eponymous restaurant in the Watergate in the 1980s)–is credited with introducing innovative French cuisine to Washington.)

Thanks to his friendship with Bullfrog Bagels owner Jeremiah Cohen, La Porta—who still operates Dupont Circle’s Pesce–transforms Bullfrog’s cozy upstairs space into Phing Tham five nights a week. Phing Tham serves dinner Wednesday-Sunday; the bar opens at 4 p.m. For more information call 240-855-8178.

Pursuit is Back

After closing for a few months, Pursuit Wine Bar & Kitchen has returned to the Atlas District in a bigger, brighter location. Operated by Kathleen David and Thomas Boisvert, the reinvented restaurant/wine bar offers more choices than the original. Long-time customer favorites like BLT pasta and “Little Salty Sweet” panini will return, along with Romesco radiatori-and-meatballs. Expect other Italian and French-themed small plates as well. Oh yes, wines. The list is global, we’re told.

Tamerind glazed shortribs are featured at the recently opened Amity and Commerce at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Photo: Courtesy of Mandarin Oriental

Pursuit went dark last summer to move a few blocks west to 1025 H St. NE, a corner property with loads of natural light. (All-day cafe and cocktail bar Ella Grace has since slid into 1421 H, the space where Pursuit opened five years ago.) Pursuit is open daily for lunch and dinner. Call 202-758-2189 or visit www.thepursuitwinebar.com.

New at the Mandarin

A Franco-American bistro has opened in the posh Mandarin Oriental hotel, replacing Eric Ziebold’s departed CityZen. Amity & Commerce arrived last month. Chef Justin Houghtaling, who has wielded his whisk at Brasserie Beck and Marcel’s, is creating tamarind-glazed Angus short ribs and grits with crispy taro. Mid-Atlantic ingredients appear in his crab dip imperial and roasted Shenandoah rainbow trout. Heading vegetarian options is crespelle (crepe lasagna layered with zucchini and sheep’s milk ricotta), and a side of truffle fries.

While CityZen was a fine-dining destination with pricy tasting menus, Amity & Commerce is a downhome affair with communal tables and a 20-foot wood-topped bar. “We want to be an easy place for people to come in and enjoy themselves,” Houghtaling told Eater DC.

Amity & Commerce is named after Thomas Jefferson’s 1778 treaty, which linked the United States and France. The restaurant continues that Gallic tradition with a “Plat Du Jour” section. Tomato-braised lamb pappardelle runs on Tuesdays, while Sundays bring a tummy warming white stew of braised veal en croute. On Fridays, diners find pan-seared Diver scallops served with passionfruit, peanut relish and a crispy curried rice salad. The Mandarin Oriental is located at 1330 Maryland Ave. SW; call 202-554-8588 or visit mandarinoriental.com.

Taste of Colombia

Internationally renowned chef Juan Manuel “Juanma” Barrientos is offering a not-so-sneak-peak at his upcoming outpost of internationally known El Cielo. The restaurant is slated to officially open in January in the Galeria, the culinary immersion studio in La Cosecha, the Union Market District’s contemporary Latin marketplace.

El Cielo (“the sky”), joins Barrientos’ global empire of restaurants in Miami, Medellín and  Bogotá . Through December 21, El Cielo is presenting a special, eight-course tasting menu: The parade of vibrant dishes includes the elaborate “Tree of Life,” a bonsai tree-shaped yucca bread creation; “El Cielo Pantone’s Dessert,” made with gooseberry sorbet, mango, white chocolate curd and pumpkin sponge cake; “Fish Full of Coconut,” (turbot, coconut rice, tamarind vinegar gel and seawater gel). Plus, two “surprise” dishes.

Booze is extra. Neighboring La Cosecha partner and cocktail bar Serenata offers cocktails and pairings of wines from Latin countries. The preview repast is served  Thursday and Friday with 6:30 and 9 p.m. seatings; Saturday at 4, 6:30 and 9 p.m. and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for Sunday brunch. For more information and reservations, visit www.exploretock.com/elcielodc, For parties of six or more email dc@elcielogroup.com. Follow @elcielowashington
for updates.

Holiday Fare

As always, Café Berlin, 322 Massachusetts Ave. NE, will serve Christmas dinner December 24 and 25, with roast goose, venison and other festive fare. For reservations (a must) call 202-543-7656 or visit www.cafeberlin-dc.com….La Plaza, 629 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, will serve dinner both days. Call 202-546-9512 or visit www.laplazadc.com.