Can a restaurant that showcases three Asian cuisines do them all well?
Much of what you need to know about Kaliwa, the new restaurant at the Wharf from the owners of the late Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, can be culled from the collection of eight flat-screen TVs suspended above the bar.
Two panels are always devoted to Filipino events, another always broadcasts a program from Korea. The visuals make sense, given that the menu showcases the food of both countries, along with that of Thailand.
If the picture has you scratching your head, wondering what compelled Cathal Armstrong, a native Irish chef, to offer three foreign cuisines, you should know that his wife and business partner, Meshelle, hails from the Philippines, and that his buff appearance is thanks to years of taekwondo — a hobby that naturally led to Korean meals. The third accent in the mix is explained by the Armstrongs’ away-from-home passion for Thai food.
The staff boils down all the information to a few descriptors. Filipino might be summed up as “savory,” Thai as “spicy” and Korean as “tangy.” Let’s eat!
The starter that flies out of the kitchen is lumpia, crisp pastry batons filled with ground shrimp and pork shoulder and “based on my grandmother’s recipe,” says a young server. Sure enough, it’s Eve Armstrong, the owners’ college-age daughter, selling us on a family treasure, the secret to which is pork chopped by hand, says her father. Followers of Restaurant Eve might recognize another appetizer, skewers of grilled pork belly brushed with banana ketchup, a Philippine street food snack that also made it onto the menu of the high-end American restaurant in Old Town.
The Filipino category is aided not just by family, but by a chef de cuisine, Paolo Dungca, 27, a son of the Philippines who helped open Bad Saint, among the premier examples of Philippine fare in the country. Thus my instinct is to delve deeper into the repertoire, and when I do, I’m rewarded with something compelling, one visit chicken braised to succulent collapse in vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaf and garlic (ask for adobong manok), another time grilled chicken stained yellow with annatto and ignited with lime, lemon grass and juniper.
A lot of the District’s Thai restaurants seem to be going through the motions of late, and while Kaliwa employs no representative from the Land of Smiles, the newcomer serves several dishes that play the role of ambassadors. Whole flounder, simply dredged in rice flour and fried to a crisp, is wildly seductive thanks to its carpet of chopped lemon grass and red chiles. And blushing slices of juicy rib-eye have a fine foil in a sauce that draws on fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice for just the right jolt.
Pay attention to the specials, among the kitchen’s best efforts. Weeks after I sampled it, I’m still smiling at the thought of Thai green curry, a warm coconut bath for Chinese eggplant, sliced mushrooms and bok choy, the vegetables pleasantly smoky from their time in a wok. A shower of garlic chips and cilantro blossoms only heightened the pleasure and prompted the question: Why isn’t the dish granted permanent status?
Any feast is improved with a side of green beans stir-fried with what tastes like fire and what Dungca calls “the holy Asian trinity”: garlic, shallots and ginger. (While Armstrong aims to add more vegetarian dishes to the lineup, he says recipes for a lot of classic Asian dishes involve condiments including shrimp paste, a salty note that the chef sometimes tries to create by swapping in kombu, or edible kelp, along with salt.)
Each cuisine has eight or so chances to win you over. So far, the Korean selections rack up the most misses. Banchan, the gratis array of salads that accompany a meal in a Korean restaurant, is offered here as a $10 first course — too-salty spinach included. A meatier approach, in all respects, is a steak tartare slicked with a serrano-spiked marinade and garnished with matchsticks of Asian pear, crackling fried beef tendons and an egg yolk for mixing in. “Eat it like a taco,” a server says, pointing to the dish’s lettuce ruffles. (The light crunch comes from toasted rice powder in the tartare.) I’ve yet to have a fried chicken sandwich here that nails all the details; Kaliwa’s version has twice been flabby and flatly sweet. But the bibimbap is a respectable version of the classic rice bowl decked out with kimchi, marinated bean sprouts, tangy pickles and so on.
A word about drinks. Try one, preferably the frosty Mai Tai, an adult-only slushie fueled with aged rum, lime and almond syrup. Whatever your choice, note that the cocktails, while well-balanced, pack a serious punch.
Every bit as intoxicating is the backdrop. Diners are escorted to cherry-red couches or less comfortable chairs, where they look up or out to see imported chandeliers, noodle-shaped wooden dividers and an open kitchen that never idles. The restaurant’s proximity to the concert hall Anthem can make for some frenzied times on event nights, when it’s best to dine after the dinner crush, 8:15 or so. Just know going in: When it comes to acoustics, Kaliwa is no library.
Asian restaurants are not known for their desserts. Pastry chef Joshua Jarvis, a veteran of Restaurant Eve, seems determined to change that. His pale green, vanilla-like pandan cake has been my go-to dessert since Kaliwa opened in March. Since then, other confections have vied for my attention, most notably a fanciful little tower of cashew dacquoise sandwiched with buttercream and sweetened with guava. It goes by the name Sans Rival — and delivers on the promise.
751 Wharf St. SW.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers $14 to $18, main courses $15 to $32.
Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.