Bangkok-based Thai restaurant Mango Tree might never have come to D.C. if it weren't for an encounter in Dubai. The restaurant's founder Pitaya Phanphensophon was there for a cooking demo where he met fellow restaurateur Richard Sandoval of El Centro D.F., Masa 14, and Toro Toro (among other restaurants). The two, who both have restaurants in Dubai and around the world, started chatting, and Sandoval thought what Phanphensophon had done with Thai food was similar to what he'd done with Latin food.
"There was a great synergy there," says Mango Tree managing director Trevor MacKenzie. "Pitaya is 100 percent exactly like Richard."
So when Phanphensophon started thinking about expanding Mango Tree to the United States, he reached out to Sandoval to partner with him and help him understand the D.C. market. Their joint venture will open in CityCenterDC on Thursday, next to DBGB Kitchen & Bar.
One bit of wisdom the Mango Tree team picked up: Washingtonians like to drink. And so the D.C. restaurant is the first where Mango Tree decided to add a full bar. In fact, the first floor is exclusively bar seating, where guests will get a limited food menu with appetizers or "Thai tapas." Head upstairs and there's a surprisingly large 140-seat dining room with a smaller bar in the back. The cocktails use a lot of Thai ingredients like dragon fruit, lychees, lemongrass, and mangosteens. Beers include Singha, Chang, and Tiger plus some domestic stuff. Eight red and eight white wines, meant to pair well with Thai food, come predominantly from smaller boutique wineries.
The food menu takes inspiration from regions across Thailand, and dishes can be adapted to various spice levels. Chef Paul Kennedy worked with Mango Tree in Dubai and spent some time learning the cuisine in Thailand. This will be the first Mango Tree location with a seasonally changing menu, which might mean quail in the winter and soft-shell crabs in late spring.
Among the restaurant's signature dishes is a baked whole Maine lobster dressed in yellow curry powder, onion, and egg. If you're wondering why Maine lobster is a signature dish at a restaurant founded in Thailand, MacKenzie explains the dish is traditionally made with crab. "But what happened two years ago in Bangkok, the Maine lobster revolution started, and everybody's putting them on the menus," he says. "Everybody's eating them, from hotels to regular restaurants."
MacKenzie also highlights roasted duck with red curry, pineapple, and apricot as well as a whole fish with a chili lime sauce served on tofu and bok choy. One of the more unusual offerings is a catfish dish in which the meat is shredded and fried, giving it the texture of crunchy cotton candy. It's accompanied by a green mango salad and cashew nuts.
The restaurant will be open just for dinner to start and will open for lunch in the coming weeks. Take a look at the full food and drink menus below.
Red curry with roasted duck breast, pineapple, and apricot:
Shrimp paste fried rice with marinated sweet pork:
Crispy catfish with green mango salad and cashew nuts: