How Del Campo made Esquire’s list of America’s best new restaurants

You might have heard that on Monday Esquire selected Del Campo, chef Victor Albisu's South American house of smoke, among the best new restaurants in the country. The magazine's longtime critic, John Mariani, heaped on the praise for Albisu and his wood-smoked take on South American cooking:

Smoke — that's what hits you first. The aroma of sweet smoke coming off everything from skirt steak and sweetbreads to charred beets, mortadella and cheese sizzling on a grill the size of an airstrip. That smoke underpins most of Peruvian chef Victor Albisu's phenomenal cooking at Del Campo, a grand South American restaurant in D. C.'s Chinatown.

Tom Sietsema, who awarded Del Campo 2 1/2 stars in his June review, likes the choice. In fact, the Post critic will include Del Campo in his Fall Dining Guide, due out this week. "Given the restaurants Mr. Mariani had to choose from during his mid-summer swing through the city, Del Campo makes perfect sense," Sietsema notes. "Albisu was offering something different, and exciting, with his South American grill."

Victor Albisu earned a spot on Esquire's list of best new restaurants in America. (Scott Suchman / For The Washington Post)

Victor Albisu earned a spot on Esquire's list of best new restaurants in America. (Scott Suchman / For The Washington Post)

And yet, to gauge by some of the basic indicators of buzz, other new restaurants appear to be generating as much attention in Washington. Take, for example, Le Diplomate on 14th Street NW, which has won over not only the critics (Sietsema gave it 3 stars; the Washingtonian bestowed 2 1/2 stars on it) but also the public (four stars on Yelp, based on 322 reviews). Or look at Red Hen in Bloomingdale, which also scored well with critics (2 1/2 stars from Sietsema; 3 stars from Washingtonian) and the public (four stars on Yelp, based on 72 reviews).

To round out the Del Campo comparisons: Albisu's place scored 3 stars from the Washingtonian and currently rates 3 1/2 stars on Yelp (based on 74 reviews). All in all, the critics and the public essentially agree on the general quality of these three contenders for the crown of best new restaurant in Washington. (There are other title contenders, of course, such as Range, Kapnos, Daikaya and Table, the latter of which scored a best new restaurant nod from both City Paper and Bon Appetit.)

So how did Del Campo come out on top in Mariani's estimation? It's a matter of timing, a limited dining window and, duh, personal choice. Mariani visited Washington in June, which was before Mike Isabella's Kapnos opened in early July. But he had only a few days to gobble down a lot of calories, which he was more than game to do. Mariani e-mailed me and said he went to Range, the Grill Room at the Capella hotel, NoPa Kitchen + Bar, Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, Daikaya and the now-shuttered Azur.

"Most were very, very good, but Del Campo just stood out as unique, not just in D.C. but in the USA right now," Mariani wrote. "Great concept, grand design, absolutely wonderful chef, Victor Albisu, who was so gracious last night at the party in NYC when he said that, 'Not in my wildest mathematical calculations could I imagine back in Peru that I would ever be standing among these chefs here in New York at Le Cirque.'"

Mariani said he checked with Sietsema before dining in the District, but decided to dismiss the Post critic's suggestion to visit Le Diplomate. Mariani said he "looked  at the menu to find it was pretty much an exact replica of Stephen Starr’s place in Philly."

As for Red Hen? "I'm not sure I heard about Red Hen."

So now it's your turn: What's your pick for the best new restaurant in Washington?

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