Having missed the boat on trying the original TenPenh, located for more than a decade at the corner of D.C.’s 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, I was pretty excited for a second chance when the restaurant reopened late 2016 in Tysons Corner’s Silverline Center. In those early days of the reboot, a meal there did not disappoint, and I’ve spent a year and a half craving the hot crab Rangoon dip and Nashville hot chicken bao buns, waiting for the opportunity to return.
Unfortunately, when that opportunity did arise, the dishes I’d been hankering for were no longer worthy of the pedestal. The once addictive dip was noticeably skimpy on the crab and featured an unpleasantly lumpy texture, and that Nashville hot chicken was about as spicy as Wonder bread.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are still a few fine reasons to pull into the parking lot, ogle the Maseratis and maybe a chrome-wrapped SUV (seriously), walk through the round entryway and take a seat in the sprawling yet very pretty and modern dining room. For one thing, the service is both helpful and friendly—if a touch too intrusive at times. The chef might send out an unexpected shot glass of squash soup lightened with lemongrass and ginger. The happy hour menu in the bar area offers a generous selection of food and drinks for $5 each, and the deal runs all night on Sundays. And there are a few dishes that make up for the disappointing crab dip and fried chicken bao.
Here’s what a perfect meal looks like at the new TenPenh: Stick with pork for the starters, since the Chinese smoked spare ribs with char siu peanut glaze and the tender pork belly bao fragrant with ginger hoisin outshined other appetizers. For entrees, try two of the dishes that Chef Jeff Tunks made famous at the original TenPenh, the whole crispy fish and the Chinese-style wok-smoked lobster. Both cost a pretty penny, with the market price of the flounder coming in at $42 and the lobster costing $59 on the days visited, but both are also large and shareable. Order sides of wonderfully spiced Szechuan eggplant or curried cauliflower as your veg, and finish with a little basket of doughnut holes tossed with sugar and Chinese five spice served with Vietnamese coffee chantilly cream.
On the other hand, steer clear of the chicken ramen, which lacks any evidence of the essential Japanese flavors that take it beyond regular old chicken noodle soup. Also avoid the toasted coconut and Key lime tart with passion fruit caramel, which tragically only brought creamy and sweet to the party, sorely missing any of the luscious tropical flavors promised on the menu.
A plate of Peking duck flew somewhere in the fair-to-middling range. The skin crackled like it should, but the sliced breast veered toward dryness, and both the skin and meat failed the seasoning test. Still, you could wrap just about anything in a savory Chinese pancake stuffed with cucumber, scallion and a squeeze of sweet hoisin sauce and it’s going to taste pretty good.
In the age of cultural appropriation, food writers—and others, hopefully—are bound to wonder whether a pan-Asian restaurant can still be considered relevant or has gone the way of using the term “Oriental” to describe Asian people. (Hint: Don’t do it). Has the time of TenPenh passed? Are diners too savvy now for Americanized ramen and mild Nashville hot chicken? Would TenPenh still be TenPenh if it pared down the menu and worked to up the authenticity of a few cuisines rather than water down many?
I honestly don’t yet have the answers, but I think the relevancy questions would feel less pressing if the food were more consistently pleasurable.
7900 Westpark Drive, McLean
Open for lunch weekdays and dinner daily