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Vanessa Lim: East meets West

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Entertainment,Food and Drink,Alexandra Greeley

Rarely do you find a chef/restaurant owner who so successfully transforms herself from a student from Malaysia to chef to restaurant entrepreneur as has Vanessa Lim. And for longtime Washingtonians, they will remember fondly the fuss and enthusiasm over the opening on 19th Street NW of Oodles Noodles, preceded a few months earlier by the opening of Spices, a pan-Asian cafe on upper Connecticut Avenue. That is quite a journey for a young lady who came to the United States to get a master's degree in business and ended up as a restaurant entrepreneur.

This shift in her life's focus came about when Lim took a waitress job to help pay her student bills. "I ended up working part-time as a server in Cafe Asia [formerly on 19 Street NW]," she says. "I saw how hard they worked. ... After the Washington Post review, they got very busy." The chef and the co-owner, Jessie Yan, became a good friend and, ultimately, Lim's business partner in her future ventures.

Their first enterprise began when the two opened the then-small Spices, a 1,000-square-foot eatery that they assembled themselves. "We started with nothing," she says. "We did our own painting, wrapped our own chairs and renovated everything except the kitchen." That was in 1994, and to get an idea of popular pan-Asian dishes to feature, the pair traveled throughout Asia to compile a menu that today features such dishes as grilled chicken satay, Chinese and Thai fried rice, Malaysian curry laksa and sushi.

Spices was a big success from day one, says Lim. But the first night, their electricity died on them. They had to close for a day to figure out what went wrong. When they reopened, and with the problems solved, Spices became such a huge success that it led to their next venture.

If you go
Tash Persian Restaurant
» Where: 524 Eighth St. SE
» Info: 202-733-1133; tashrestaurant.com
» Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

Just one year later, Lim and Yan went into the 19th Street NW business area to open the instantly successful Oodles Noodles, which Phyllis Richman, a former restaurant reviewer for the Washington Post, praised one month after the restaurant opened. After that, business boomed, and within several years, Lim and Yan renamed the restaurant Nooshi and continued to serve the same noodle and sushi dishes. Today the restaurant also offers grilled dishes and other Asian treats. (A second Nooshi has just opened on Capitol Hill.)

Oodles Noodles was such a big hit that Lim and Yan opened a second location in Bethesda, but the venue was too small for the concept. But they did open for a few brief years a very upscale Chinese restaurant called Yanyu, an elegant eatery with Yan in the kitchen accompanied by a hand-picked Chinese chef and a special oven for roasting duck.

Although Yanyu only lasted about seven years, Lim and Yan traveled again throughout Asia, eating and sampling dishes from many different countries. Upon returning to D.C., they worked at polishing each recipe to appeal to an American audience. Now Lim, with the help of Yan and Lim's husband, Nariman Modanlou, has launched a totally new concept: Tash, a cozy, colorful eatery that features contemporary Middle Eastern food. And upstairs above Tash? The second Nooshi.

Q&A

What is your comfort food?

Noodle soup, no doubts. I was craving it right after I got off the plane in the U.S. Rice soup, especially when you are sick. Whenever I go home to Malaysia, my mom makes me noodle or rice soup.

What is your favorite ingredient?

That's tough because we use a lot. In Persia [Iran], it is anise. And in my home, it is onion and garlic.

What's in your fridge?

I don't eat much at home, but eggs, chilies, vegetables, tofu, kimchee and sour pickles.

What is your luckiest moment?

When I have my kids. I feel very blessed that God gave them to me.

Where is your favorite place in the world?

Hong Kong. I go back many times more than my own country. Then Paris.

Recipe:

Assam Laksa

Otherwise known as Vietnamese coriander, rau ram is available in Asian markets. Assam is a Southeast Asian ingredient also known as tamarind paste. It is also sold at Asian markets. You can serve this refreshing soup with rice noodles, and shredded cucumbers, thinly sliced onions and small cubes of pineapple.

Serves 4

1 pound white fish

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

1 stalk lemon grass, thinly sliced

2 cups rau ram leaves

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

2 cups assam

Boil the white fish in 4 quarts of water for 45 minutes. Grind the fish, and put it back into the stock to simmer. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat, and stir-fry the shallots and lemon grass for about 10 minutes. Add this mixture to the fish stock. Stir in the rau ram leaves, reduce the heat to low and cook for 30 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, and serve hot.

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