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Asia Nora, 22nd & M Streets NW - Closed.

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[posted on eGullet 2003-2004]

Haidar Karoum is one of the most underrated chefs in Washington – it isn’t so much that he’s underrated, he’s not rated – and he should be. Highly.

During a multi-course meal at Asia Nora this week (the chef’s tasting menu is $58, and is the best way to order here), I was impressed by some plates, dazzled by others. Haidar’s Crispy Honshimenji Mushroom & Green Bean Tempura qualifies as legitimate food porn. I sat there, bite-by-bite, getting drawn in more-and-more with each passing moment, and wondering to myself why anyone else around here can’t pull off a tempura this good. It’s shake-your-head-in-disbelief good, and yet it's just a simple tempura of green beans and mushrooms. And the Pan Seared Day Boat Scallops with Sake-Yuzu Emulsion were as good as any scallops I’ve had in a long time. You know, I get so sick of ordering “day boat” or “diver” scallops, and seeing these little shriveled water-chestnut things showing up on the plate. These are amazing scallops. And the sauce! And the damned duck! Seared Duck Breast with Mirin Glazed Turnips & Crispy Autumn Roll was perfectly executed strips of breast meat, and like all the other dishes, it contained about a billion ingredients yet came off as almost simplistic because it was so clean and balanced (it is rare for a chef to use so many ingredients and pull off the illusion of lightness and simplicity).

And in case you hadn’t heard, there’s a Starr in town. Arthur has been tending bar at Asia Nora for three years now, and he is at once polished, knowledgeable and utterly without pretense despite the hilariously unfortunate robe he must wear. He knows the wines, he knows the menu and he knows how to mix a drink. When you go, try the Henri Gouges Bourgogne, a rare, declassified Pinot Blanc from Gouge’s Les Perrières vineyard in Nuits-Saint-Georges, for $42. Steven Damato, a co-owner with Nora Pouillon, knows and respects wine, and prefers to serve them from bottle - he offers only one single white (a Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine), and one single red (a Vaqueyras), by the glass, but they are both serious wines and well-worth ordering.

Remember, at Asia Nora most things are organic: I saw Arthur pour a simple glass of tomato juice for a young diner at one of the tables, and it was the expensive, organic version - not something you'd find at almost any other restaurant.

There are some drawbacks to Asia Nora: it is expensive, and the five-seat bar serves mainly as a holding tank for diners waiting for their tables, but if you go on a night when Arthur is working, and turn yourself over to the talented hands of Haidar Karoum, you’ll experience a great meal with first-rate service at one of the most overlooked restaurants in all of Washington.



And don't miss the warm chocolate five-spice cake for dessert.

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Anyone been here more recently, have anything more to say? Don's post makes it sound delicious, but of course things could have changed in the last few years. Worth heading to next week?

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Anyone been here more recently, have anything more to say? Don's post makes it sound delicious, but of course things could have changed in the last few years. Worth heading to next week?

I went around 6 months ago, and it was really good. While I can't remember exactly what dishes I had, I know there was a whitefish and a tuna ordered, and both were expertly cooked. I seem to remember the whitefish being quite juicy with a great flavor I hadn't remember tasting in fish... and the accompanying sides were also fabulous. On the pricey side, I'd go as an occasion or with a parent (if budget-conscious). Sorry this is a bit vague, but I do definitely think that if you are a fish eater, it is worth trying.

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I had dinner at Asia Nora on May 5, and I enjoyed every bite.

I was part of a group of three. I ordered the "Napoleon" of tofu, veggies, and mushrooms, with stir-fried vegetables in a sweet-chili garlic sauce. One of my party ordered a chicken dish with sweet potatoes in a curry sauce that looked great, but which I did not have an opportunity to sample. The final diner ordered a beef dish that, like the chicken dish, does not show up on the current online menu.

I started with the baby Asian greens salad with julienned cucumbers and carrots, ginger crisps, and sesame-tamari vinaigrette. It was memorable. The serving was outsized, with a thick mound of greens and julienned vegetables lightly coated with the sweet, yet slightly salty, dressing. Those who prefer their salads with minimal dressing should inform the server; the rest of us who secretly rejoice when the salad comes out with not a dry leaf in sight can just enjoy this indulgence. I should note that this is one of those restaurants where silverware is distributed only upon request, so the salad can take a while to tweeze into your mouth with the chopsticks.

My entree was one of the best tofu preparations I have had in recent memory. I could honestly say on May 5 that I'd had tofu for lunch, but I had no regret ordering this dish for dinner. The large square of tofu was fried, and I believe it had a very thin, tempura-like batter on it. It laid the foundation for a rich combination of layered vegetables, mushrooms, and (if I remember correctly) more tofu. The stir-fried vegetables were competently cooked and nicely presented, though it is hard to make anything grand of this standard side item.

I cannot comment on the flavor of the beef dish, as I did not try it. The diner that ordered it said that he liked it, though he skipped a few pieces he considered too pink for his taste.

My only (very, very small) complaint was the coffee service. The coffee was quite good, but, because of the emphasis on organic food, no artificial sweeteners are served. I had to settle for some sort of "sweetener" made of the root of some vegetable that I suspect is ugly, bitter, and disliked by the other vegetables.

The space is attractive; dimly lit, reminiscent of the East, with dark wood and an open space in the middle that makes the relatively small restaurant seem more spacious than one would expect from the exterior.

As a final aside, I remember that I once saw Nora Pouillon speak at the now-defunct Bar Noir, following a viewing of "Eat This, New York." I wish I had tried one of her restaurants before seeing her speak, so I could have complimented her in person for her fine cooking.

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Ate at Asia Nora last night... My friend and I shared two appetizers, the Ahi Tuna Tartare with Crispy Nori Tempura and the Thai Style Beef Carpaccio with Lime, Chilis & Fragrant Herbs. We agreed that the tartare was the clear winner (but also agreed that if stranded on a desert island, if we had tuna tartare and a bunch of books, we'd both be happy for quite a while, so tartare might always be a clear winner). What made this tartare even better was the sheets of nori tempura on which it was nestled. Others have posted on the chef's abilities with tempura, and they're right -- this treatment of the nori brought out the subtleties of nori's flavor, with the crisp lightness of perfectly-done tempura. The carpaccio, on the other hand, was forgettable. The flavor of the lime and chilis got lost someplace between the kitchen and our table.

For mains, we shared the Pan Seared Wild Sablefish with Tamarind Rice Noodles and Green Curry and the Seared Day Boat Scallops with Baby Bok Choy & Yuzu-Sake Butter. I thought both were great, if not quite excellent. The sablefish was moist, and perfectly seared to have a light, crispy, airy crust. The accompanying noodles were, to my taste, a bit salty (but my friend didn't seem to mind them one bit). The scallops had that texture that only a perfect scallop has -- plump and soft, with a slightly seared outside. They sopped up the delicious yuzu-sake sauce well, and were nicely accompanied by a turnip mash. And I don't know what it is about bok choy, but I love it, and last night was no exception, and I definitely ate more than my half.

On our waiter's recommendation, we had a bottle of the Wittman 2004 Spatlese Riesling. It was sweeter than we wanted, and I regretted not sticking with my original idea of a Gruner Veltliner.

The space attempts to evoke Asia, but to my mind is a little too cluttered to do so cleanly. I felt cramped, and I'm unsure whether it was the low ceilings, the proximity of other tables, or the sheer number of decorative touches. I thought fewer wall-hangings would have given the eye comfortable resting-places; as it is, I found my eyes darting from piece to piece, unsure of where to pause. (My dining companion pointed out that he found the restaurant open and spacious, because his seat faced into the open center area. So it may be that I just got the unlucky seat!)

All in all, a pleasant and tasty meal, although I'm not sure the experience as a whole lived up to what I wanted it to be. (Perhaps a problem of unreasonable expectations.) I'd go back, but it doesn't join my list of favorites.

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