When I judge a restaurant, many factors are taken into account. There’s the décor, the service, the concept, the noise level, and obviously the food. I weigh all of these elements, as I ponder what to write after two recent visits to Doi Moi (read Doy Moy).
Doi Moi is another new restaurant on the burgeoning 14th Street corridor in Northwest DC. And it’s another (when-is-it-going-to-stop) restaurant featuring small plates. Doi Moi is brought to us from Chef Haidar Karoum, and the successful team behind Estadio and Proof. I end up dining here twice in four days, which is a first in my very long history of restaurant-going.
Visit number one is a little hectic, and therefore I have a difficult time formulating a verdict. I am here with eight friends, who are all simultaneously trying to convey what they want from the menu featuring Asian street food. If I close my eyes I can still hear the dissonance, with the cries of “not too spicy” ringing loudest. The spice lover in me is deflated, as I am hoping to fully experience the flavors at Doi Moi.
I shouldn’t have to remind myself that small plates dining is not meant for nine people. I settle in with the menu and a pen, trying to work through the frenzy. Some dishes will be ordered in duplicate, and others only appeal to a few of my dining companions. Meanwhile, our server is quietly witnessing the scene. He is nonplussed, but he is also offering little guidance. We ask him a few questions, but he doles out his responses sparingly.
Once our food begins to arrive, the primary concern is making sure that everyone gets enough to eat, and that the spice doesn’t overwhelm anyone.
Relief washes over me as the crowd is satisfied with our first bites of Kanom Pak Gadd- crispy cakes of radish, wild mushrooms, peanuts, and a mushroom soy dipping sauce.
Goong yang are beautifully grilled head on prawns, which we dip into a tangy sauce. The presentation is appealing, but we don’t quite get that some of what’s on the plate is for show and not for consumption. Hello, server? Some interaction would be helpful.
Kai Dao- fried duck egg atop jasmine rice, with garlic, red chilies, and fish sauce is a little too spicy for some of my spice-sensitive friends. I find it a satisfying accompaniment to other more complex dishes.
Gui chai is a great dish for the non-meat eaters, featuring pan fried garlic chive and mushroom dumplings, with a wonderful sweet soy-black vinegar dipping sauce.
Each dish has been accompanied with its own dipping sauce, and no two sauces have been the same. Each one is a satisfying mix of popular Southeast Asian ingredients including Thai chilies, cilantro, peppercorns, peanuts, citrus, ginger and garlic. The sauces served on the side enables the diner to determine just how much extra flavor to impart.
We move to the curries section of the menu with Gaeng Par Hed- house made tofu with wild mushroom curry. This is identified on the menu as “phet Mak” which means very spicy. I don’t find it overly hot, but after trying it again on my second visit, I find it a little too soupy. This makes rice, which is available for a $2 extra, a necessity for a dish like this one.
The next section of the menu is labeled “share.” I am not clear what distinguishes these items from the other parts of the menu that are also shareable. But these are dishes not to be missed. We order two of each, which is a very good thing.
Sablefish with dill and tumeric rests on vermicelli noodles, scallions, dill, peanuts, crispy garlic, nouc cham, chilies, and fragrant herbs. This is the dish that satisfies the non-meat eaters, the non-spicy eaters, and the full-flavor seekers like me. It’s a winner all around.
Crispy whole fried fish with ginger dipping sauce is superb. It’s critical to pull the fish apart and get every last bit of meat off the bones. I enjoy picking at the bones while others are deeply immersed in conversation. Yay, a few extra bites for me!
The noodles/rice section of the Doi Moi menu has something for everyone. Stir fried lemongrass beef on vermicelli noodles is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, and this version is prepared with finesse, bringing together classic notes of heat and sweet.
I am grateful there are a few crab-eaters in this group. Khao Phat Puu- blue crab fried rice is brimming with pieces of lumb crab. To complete the meal, I insist we try the peanut butter soft serve, which has come highly recommended. I don’t have to twist arms. The creamy intense ice cream makes for a great refreshing finish. It’s on the menu to help tone down the spicy flavors, and it works like a charm.
As we step out into the cool autumn air, we peer back into the appealing expanse of white walls, tables, and chairs. (Blogger What Micky Eats compares the setting to an Apple Store). One of my friends notices Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan seated at a table right in the window. If we had been feeling a little out of place as 50-somethings among a millennial crowd, we now feel as if we’ve dined in great company.
The food has been flavorful, and I leave with a favorable opinion of Doi Moi. But dining with so many people makes it difficult for me to focus, and I’m not certain I am going to write about the meal. Four days later a reservation snafu for a dinner out with my husband, son, and his fiancée leads me back to Doi Moi. I’m ready for more evidence to lead me to a favorable conclusion.
This time my three dining companions are all pescetarians, and one is gluten free. When this reality sets in, I do the only thing I can do. I insist on ordering one dish all to myself. It is going to be spicy and it’s going to feature meat. I select laab ped- ground duck and duck liver salad. This divine dish with shallots, toasted rice powder, ground chilies, saw leaf herb, kaffir lime, and cilantro brings the heat I was seeking the first time around. It brings tears to my eyes, and that’s the way I like it.
Doi Moi has a plentiful selection of vegetarian and fish dishes, as well as a special menu highlighting gluten free and vegan options. We enjoy many of the same dishes from my first visit, along with a few more including well-seasoned stir fried rice noodles with onion and broccoli, and a bold som tam- green papaya with snake beans, peanuts, and dried shrimp.
We exit the restaurant with high praise for our meal. I’m telling my family about seeing Elena Kagan a few days earlier. And there, in almost the same spot as her colleague had been seated, is Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. If this isn’t evidence that Doi Moi is attracting a power crowd, I don’t know what is.
I find the decor at Doi Moi inviting, the noise level bearable (although it’s better when dining on the early side), and the service competent although restrained. But it’s really the flavors here that reign supreme. At least that’s my verdict.
Doi Moi, 1800 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC
Washington Post, First Bit review