Back in April I wrote that Elephant Jumps Thai restaurant in Northern Virginia is cooking at a whole different level (and implored that you should go now).
While I thought it was really good four years ago, it was more or less just at the top tier of Thai restaurants.
And since then my meals there have helped me understand the difference between a good restaurant and a great one and what makes a restaurant really worth going back to.
They don’t just reproduce the same thing, day in and day out. They strive to do better. They research. They experiment. They innovative.
In other words, (1) they have a personality, and (2) they improve.
When I go into Elephant Jumps, my strategy is – in descending order:
- To inquire what they’re experimenting with that’s not listed on the specials board. If they’re making something for themselves, and they’re proud enough to share it (and they’ve made enough), that’s what I want to try.
- To try something on the specials board. At some restaurants ‘specials’ are just what they’ve ordered too much of and need to get rid of. But if specials are things they don’t usually offer, they may be truly worth it — what they’re experimenting with, something really good but too ingredients-intensive or effort-intensive to offer on a regular basis.
- Consider something from their ‘authentic’ Thai menu, a double sided sheet that accompanies the menu.
- Every so often to go back to one of the ‘staple’ items on the menu.
At a restaurant where they can really cook, especially an ethnic restaurant, it can be a good strategy to ask the waiter what is best at the restaurant. Not what you should order (they don’t know you, and may suggest what most people order)… but what is actually the best. What they would want their parents or grandparents to eat if they wanted them to be proud.
At Elephant Jumps you can just ask “for dishes that Gary Leff would eat” as a shorthand.
On my last two visits I’ve had things mostly off the specials board.
I’m a huge fan of nam prik ong, a Northern Thai chili, and it’s not something they usually have.
They make an amazing banana leaf salad.
They’ve been doing a pumpkin curry as well.
Here’s where I’ll lose many people, I’m a big fan of dishes wish the flavor of fish paste or shrimp paste. So a whole fish, a sauce with shrimp paste as a base, and vegetables fried couldn’t make me any happier!
Brown sticky rice and taro root in coconut milk, chilled with ice. It’s in the same family as one of my favorite desserts bua loy.
To be sure, there’s something to be said for consistency. There’s something to be said for the comfort of knowing what dishes a restaurant will produce, reliably, every time you go.
But if I had one wish it’s for more restaurants and chefs to unleash their creativity, to experiment with things and when they think they’ve hit on something that they can move beyond lunch for themselves or the kitchen staff, share it with the customers.