Not satisfied with showcasing the cuisines from America's three coastal regions at DC Coast, Executive Chef Jeff Tunks and co-owners Gus DiMillo and David Weizenberg have reached out to East Asia and the Pacific Basin for their newest venture.
A little more than two years after launching what has become one of Washington's most impressive newcomers - DC Coast is rated the city's top restaurant in Gourmet magazine's October issue - Chef Tunks and his partners opened the imaginatively named TenPenh on Aug. 1.
Hours: Open for lunch, Mon.-Fri. 11:30a.m.-2:30p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thur., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-sat. 5:30-11 p.m.; Closed Sunday
Located at the corner of 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, at one end of one of the city's most spectacular office building lobbies, TenPenh has a dazzling interior. The three partners traveled throughout Southeast Asia last November with Interior Designer Walter Gagliano, scouring antique shops in Bangkok, Singapore, Saigon and Hong Kong in search of Asian artifacts.
They brought back such treasures as the 17th century black and gold Buddha statue from Vietnam that serves as the restaurant's centerpiece, as well as custom-made teak chairs and tables, and silks from Jim Thompson's famous Thai silk factory. The glass partitions that separate the main dining room from several semi-private rooms are etched in patterns inspired by tiles from a Buddhist temple in Thailand.
The warm tones of the iridescent silks and colorful woven materials used for the chairs and walls of the dining area - mustard yellow, burnt orange, emerald green, pecan brown and ruby red - would make Gore Fashion Consultant Naomi Wolf feel right at home. And the hostess who wears a long silk tunic will appeal to all alpha males. The tableware includes rough bronze bowls and plates engraved with the restaurant's logo, which resembles an emperor's seal.
Chef Tunks, the Paul Prudhomme look-alike whose Asian-inspired cooking has made DC Coast such a hit, trained under renowned Japanese-born Chef Takashi Shirmaizu after leaving the Culinary Institute of America 15 years ago. "His influences became the basis for my cooking," he says.
Tunks works out of an open kitchen beyond the bar area, just as he does at DC Coast, splitting his time between the two restaurants. Cliff Wharton, who trained under Tunks, is the full-time executive chef.
DiMillo, who first teamed up with Tunks at the River Club in Georgetown 12 years ago, oversees TenPenh six days a week, which is reflected in the well-organized wait staff and excellent service.
"We scouted around for different sites," says DiMillo. "We were looking around Pennsylvania Avenue, and then we came across this one and I just knew right away it was the one. It's a terrific location."
That it is, halfway between Capitol Hill and the White House, and convenient to a large number of government offices and corporate drones, including those who toil at the Carlyle Group, the home-grown major investment firm whose offices are in the same building.
"We get a lot of people from Capitol Hill," adds DiMillo.
As soon as you're seated, a waitperson brings you a moist hot towel, just like those in the first-class airplane seats, and a bowl of Asian peas to shuck and eat while perusing the extensive menu. Then the food comes, and it's nothing short of sensational.
Two of the best appetizers are the Filipino-style pork and shrimp rolls and the steamed shrimp and scallion dumplings. The former come with three dipping sauces, served in black Japanese pottery - aioli chili, sweet Thai and black Asian vinegar, and the latter with the black vinegar dipping sauce. All are delicious. So is the TenPenh salad, a lovely combination of greens, enoki mushrooms and spiced pecans in a creamy sesame vinaigrette, that I ordered.
Luncheon entrees run the gamut from Asian lacquered Cornish game hen with stir-fried soba noodles and sweet and sour sauce to rare grilled Ahi Tuna on cucumber and tomato noodles with papaya black sesame vinaigrette. My guests tried both at lunch one day and pronounced them excellent, as was the grilled salmon with wasabi mashed potatoes, Szechwan green beans and hoison butter chosen by another guest.
But the macadamia nut-crusted halibut with mango lime sauce and stir-fried snow peas I had on my first visit was so good that I tried it on a repeat visit. In both cases, it was arguably the best piece of fish I've ever had set before me, its fresh snowy white meat and nutty crust accented by the piquant mango lime sauce.
Many of the same dishes appear on the dinner menu, with prices $2 to $4 higher, except for appetizers like the one-ounce serving of Petrossian ossetra caviar at $45, and the $12.95 seared Hudson Valley foie gras, or the $23.95 grilled beef tenderloin with portobello mushroom, wasabi mashed potatoes and Chinese oyster mushroom sauce.
The aforementioned macadamia nut-crusted halibut is $2 higher at dinner, while the spectacular looking Chinese-style smoked lobster with stir-fried vegetables and crispy spinach - Chef Tunks' signature dish at DC Coast - and crispy whole fish of the day are market-priced, which means if you have to ask what they cost, you probably can't afford it.
But overall, prices are reasonable, considering the quality of food and service at this Hong Kong-style bistro, the first of its kind on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Whatever you do, don't miss the desserts prepared by Pastry Chef David Guas.
The trio of silky smooth creme brulees - Kona coffee, mango and Thai lime leaf - are served in separate black Japanese pottery ramekins and are delicious, as is the assortment of sorbets - coconut, mango ginger and cinnamon apple. The check comes with a plate of tasty babinkos, a Filipino macaroon.
TenPenh also has a truly impressive wine list with an extensive selection of wines from all regions. I was particularly pleased to see distant relative Volker Eisele's 1996 Napa Valley cabernet, which sells for $75. That's the cheap one; the hard-to-find Araujo Estates Eisele Cabernet sells for twice as much, although both are pretty much out of my price range.
There's a sense of lightness and fun at TenPenh, not to mention the great food and service. Maybe that's why reservations are already a must at this great new addition to the D.C. dining scene.