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Welcome to Sura, dressed to suggest a Bangkok Chinatown night market, according to its chef, Billy Thammasathiti. He co-owns the fledgling restaurant with his mother, Penny, and brother, Andy, the talent behind the drinks here. The name of the family business has a double meaning: “sun” in Sanskrit and “spirits”, as in alcohol, in Thai, says Billy, 29. His aunt, Satang Ruangsangwatana, is a consultant on the project and the reason for my decision. first visit. Ruangsangwatana was a co-chef at Fat Nomads, a Thai supper club she hosted at her home in Wheaton, Maryland, until last fall. Billy hosted there before launching Sura in May.
Don’t come for fishcakes or tom yum soup. Sura is not a Thai traditionalist. Billy Thammasathiti comes to the restaurant at Azumi, a Japanese establishment in Baltimore, and likes to call his business an izakaya, or Japanese pub. Born in Springfield, Va., he spent summers learning to cook from his grandmother in Bangkok, and he says his family is “Thai-Chinese by blood.”
An order of beef skewers shows how the chef appropriates some Thai basics. A riff on crying tiger beef, the stringy meat is marinated in fish sauce, palm sugar and salt and sprinkled with what Billy calls “the spice of rice” – roasted sticky rice, lemongrass, lime leaves – before hitting the grill. The textures and aromas are fascinating.
Other dishes allow Thammasathiti to remind you of where he has cooked before. The chef presents raw black tiger prawns, topped with crackling tobiko, in a pool of green sauce with chili peppers and cilantro and sassy with lime juice and garlic. The soft shrimp glide over the tongue like smooth noodles; the fire in the sauce stays with you even as you move on to other dishes.
As in an izakaya, the dishes are not designated as appetizers or starters, and the food comes out as it is ready.
Thammasathiti must have had his brother’s profession in mind when he came up with “chips & dip”. Airy garlic-scented rice crackers and a small dish of ground pork and roasted peanuts puffed up with coconut milk are the perfect accompaniment to one of Andy’s drinks. Other obvious bar snacks are fried quail eggs in bowtie-shaped wontons, drizzled with sweet and sour chili-garlic sauce and served with a sprinkling of pickled cabbage and carrot. Munch, munch, gone, just like bean curd skin rolls. They’re sliced to reveal springy centers of ground pork, shrimp and water chestnuts, and enhanced by a dunk in what looks like honey but turns out to be salted plum caramel.
The drinks turn out to be as fiery as the cooking. Signature libations put Asian accents on classics. Hence the passion fruit liqueur in the refreshing daiquiri, and the baijiu, a potent Chinese spirit, in a pleasantly medicinal Manhattan made with mezcal and fernet. The latter calls himself Yaowarat and pays homage to Bangkok’s Chinatown, where Andy’s father is from. Yet another crowd pleaser is marrying a cosmopolitan with a caipirinha. Ask for the raspberry colored Cosmorinha.
The chef likes to play with fire, as evidenced by the pork belly simmered in fish sauce before being fried. The enticing dish, accented with colorful peppers and piled on steamed rice, finishes with a chilli sauce that transitions from hot to hot and back again, feeling (a little) tame by the abundance of Thai basil in the pêle. -mixes. Then there’s the Chinatown-inspired, wok-smoked Cashew Chicken, which also scorches the onions and ginkgo nuts in the mix. The predominant memory of the dish is the peppery trail left in the mouth. Thank you, Chinese dried chili peppers. The crispy ground duck puts a sweat on the forehead with hits of the same, plus lime juice, shallots and a jungle of fresh herbs that make you feel more alive than before you entered the dish.
A page of meatless dishes expands Sura’s audience. Precise blocks of fried tofu draw the eye to the golden pile, sprinkled with crispy bits of fried ginger and garlic and herbs including cilantro. Scoop a cube, soft like a marshmallow inside, from the heap, dip it in the accompanying green sauce, and… immediately opt for sticky rice to soak up the electric heat. (If shock is familiar, you’ve probably tasted the shrimp crudo, which sports the same green coat.)
Allow me to winnow your dinner choices by sparing you pad thai, which suffers from the common problem with the popular noodle dish in this country: a heavy hand with (palm) sugar.
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Genius assistants are adept at making suggestions. If you show even a casual interest in anything in your cocktail glass, one of them is likely to bring in the spirit that gives the drink its boost. My only wish is for the food to come out at a more leisurely pace, not within nanoseconds of ordering. Tables aren’t big enough to accommodate all of Sura’s goodness, forcing guests to clear space for incoming traffic.
The setting isn’t for everyone either. Steep stairs are a challenge for some diners, lighting forces you to use your votive as a flashlight to read the menu, and hard surfaces mean you repeat yourself in the din. Still, the family has done a good job of making the basement look bigger than it is with well-placed mirrors and islands of high tables to divide the space. The most comfortable time to visit is about an hour after the restaurant opens. (For the record, the adventurous nonagenarian I took on one of my three excursions had a blast in Sura—literally, when my mom sweated over the aforementioned cashew chicken set on fire with dried chilies.)
Good news came when I phoned Billy Thammasathiti after my last visit. For one thing, his aunt plans to relaunch her supper club in Sura. Fat Nomads could still appear this month.
On the other hand, “it was a surprise that we got this place,” the chef said of the space that once housed the popular Sala Thai – the restaurant his grandmother cooked in when she came. from Thailand to the United States in the 1990s. “You could say it was faith.”
Or fate. No matter. Sura does something different with Thai, and it’s something special.
2016 P St. NW. 202-450-6282. suradc.com. Open: indoor dining and take-out (with a separate menu) 4-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Monday and Wednesday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Price: Dishes to share $8 to $18. Sound control: 80 decibels / Extremely loud. Accessibility: The steep stairs and the comfortable dining room make the restaurant inaccessible to wheelchair users. Pandemic protocols: staff are vaccinated; masks are optional.