Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lunch at TenPenh

I went to TenPenh in DC on Tuesday to have lunch with a friend for my birthday.

At around 12:35 on a Tuesday, we walked into the restaurant (our reservation was for 12:30) and were promptly seated. There was outdoor seating, which was mostly taken, and a large amount of indoor seating. The restaurant was not full, but definitely had good amount of people already getting their midday meal.

My friend and I were given a table inside (my preference, though no one asked) with booth seating on one side. Then we were given a chance to look at the menu and wine list. There was cold, well seasoned and perfectly cooked (nice and firm) edamame for us to munch on while deciding what to order.

My friend had mentioned in making the reservation that it was my birthday, and so at the top of both of our menus, it read, “Happy Birthday [my name]!” which was a very nice touch. The waitress also wished me a happy birthday when she came by.
After giving us some time to think, our waitress recited some specials to us (which included a delicious sounding cold strawberry soup), and also told us about some drinks of the day, which included a passionfruit ice tea and ginger limeade. My friend ordered the latter (it was a bit sour, and only had a faint hint of ginger; neither of us thought it was fantastic, but it was freshing and different). We were both pretty sure what we wanted, so despite the very tasty sounding specials (including a bento box, which they said features a different country every day, with that day's being Vietnam), we stuck with our choices of Fresh Jumbo Lump Crabcakes for her and Crispy Softshell Crab Banh Mi "BLT" for me.
Don’t be put off by how ordinary they sound; they were delicious. Both of our portions were large; neither of us finished them and they were boxed for us.

My softshell crab BLT was arrange beautifully. The top piece of bread (ciabatta?) was toasted golden and offset to reveal the layers of the sandwich. The bottom layer was medium firm smoked tofu (about the texture of an omelette), then thinly sliced cucumber, an entire fried softshell crab (quite large), and three or four nicely crisp slices of bacon (good bacon, not the kind that is more fat than meat).
Thinking about it now, I do not think there was any lettuce or tomato, but that may be because the dish was supposed to be a take on the Vietnamese banh mi. As it was, the sandwich was very large, and fitting it in my mouth was rather difficult. It was easier to eat it with a knife and fork. There was a sauce on the softshell crab that was very tasty: black garlic remoulade. It complimented the crab and the bacon beautifully. The sandwich was well seasoned--not too salty or too bland--and the textures melted together very well. I really enjoyed it. This is what I expect of a sandwich that costs $14. Also on my plate were lotus crisps. I call them crisps and not chips, because there were impossibly thinly sliced and so incredibly crispy. They were also very well seasoned—just the right amount of salt—with a little bit of a chili pepper kick, which was a pleasant surprise. There was also a little saucer/bowl of extra spread for the sandwich.

My friend’s crabcakes contained many large pieces of crabmeat and were colorful with small pieces of scallion and peppers and such. The crabcake itself was cooked perfectly and the seasoned well. My friend also got a huge portion of cold peanut noodle salad with tempura beans in a jalapeno curry aioli. I did not try her noodles, but she said they were absolutely amazing, and they definitely looked it.

We agonized over dessert while our entrees were boxed and brought back out to us, along with the menus, nicely rolled up and tied with ribbon. There were so many choices, that we both decided to ask the waitress for her suggestion. My friend was debating between 1) Lime and Green Tea Layer Cake with White Chocolate Lime Ice Cream and 2) Saigon Cinnamon Doughnuts with Chocolate Pudding. The waitress said that both were good. The former was described as more tart, but very light and refreshing. The latter is their best selling dessert, and the doughnuts, we were told, are very light and the chocolate pudding is cool and perfect for dipping the doughnuts in. My friend ended up picking the doughnuts.

I was debating between 1) the Dark Chocolate and Caramel Torte with Sweet Soy Ice Cream and Caramel Pecan Sauce and 2) a White Peach and Lemon Verbena Crème Brulee with White Peaches Cooked in White Wine. The waitress said that both were her favorites, but suggested that since we already had chocolate flavors, that I get the crème brulee. I agreed with her suggestion.

When our desserts were brought out, my dish had a candle on it, which was a nice touch. After blowing it out, I [daintily] dug in, and so did my friend. My crème brulee had a beautiful burnt sugar crust on top, which cracked with a satisfying sound under my fork. I then used my spoon to spoon up the burnt sugar pieces and sweet custard below. Purists/traditionalists will have problems with the fact that this was called a crème brulee. The custard below the sugar was not at all the “appropriate” texture—it was more of a custard—but it tasted wonderful, and to me that is all that matters. The creamy spoonful melted in my mouth into a symphony of sweet white peaches, the mild scent of lemon, some subdued vanilla, and the gentle earthiness of verbena. The silkiness of that custard mixed with the crunch of the burnt sugar worked together perfectly, and when the soft wine cooked peaches—which were bursting with flavor—were added, it was enough to make me close my eyes in bliss. There were also a few little flowery cookies on the side, which when broken (they were not crispy, but like the texture of a very thick cake, or an oatmeal cookie), also tasted wonderful when combined with the “crème brulee” and a cooked slice of peach.

Her three doughnuts (regular sized, not little midgets in case you were wondering about the portion size) were impossibly light and airy. They melted on the tongue, and did not weigh you down at all. They were still warm, but not at all greasy, and generously coated in cinnamon sugar. Dipped in the chocolate pudding (which I believe was milk, because it was light in color), the doughnuts were heavenly. The chocolate pudding itself was silky, creamy, smooth, and not too sweet. The flavors were perfect.

All in the all, the meal was a delight. The bill was also brought out with two small white chocolate tamarind "blondies" which were soft, chewy, sweet triangles. They did not taste strongly of tamarind--indeed if I had not been told there was tamarind, I would not have known--but they melted pleasantly in my mouth and left a mild slightly nutty, slightly fruity aroma.

As a birthday gift, my dessert came with no charge, and so the total bill of two entrees, one dessert, and a drink with tax came to about $46 (before tip). For a lovely meal in DC which not only filled me up but also provided a little snack for later (the food I took home), I think that is rather reasonable. Granted, I would not pay for this type of meal every day, but for a special occasion, it is certainly nice.

TenPenh is a business attire type of restaurant. I would not walk in with jeans, but khaki or slacks with a nice shirt and nice shoes would probably work. There was seating outside available, as well as a bar with a large TV. The noise level of the restaurant was, for me and Ashley, just right. We felt completely comfortable talking and laughing normally, but that doesn’t mean that everything around us was loud. I never felt assaulted by anyone else’s conversation, despite the fact that seated as we were, we were both about two feet away from other people (booth seating). The wait staff was attentive and friendly, and our food was always served promptly so that what ought to have been hot was hot and what ought to have been cold was cold.
1001 Pennsylvania Ave NW # 4
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 393-4500

Overall rating for the price: 8.5 out of 10
**, 2 stars out of 4

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