We meet again
Tom Sietsema takes at fresh look at 13 restaurants he has previously reviewed. How do they fare the second time around?
Admittedly, it’s a first-world problem:
Even with 52 weeks in the year, and more sections of this newspaper devoting more time to table matters, it’s a challenge for a food critic to keep up with the Washington area’s shifting restaurant landscape. The reality is, given their numbers and public interest, new places tend to get the most ink and online attention.
Enter the 2013 Spring Dining Guide. As in the past three years, the focus of this seasonal rite is not necessarily on what’s the best or among my favorites, but on bringing readers up to speed on previously reviewed restaurants.
Lots can happen following the last look at a business: Chefs can change, menus might be rewritten, dining rooms sometimes expand or contract. Some concepts grow tired; others blossom.
And don’t I know it! This professional eater is fresh off two months of revisiting some familiar faces around the District, Maryland and Virginia. What follows is a baker’s dozen of updated dispatches, a spread to keep you busy (or home) till my fall dining guide in October.
Tell me what you think. Chat with me about these picks at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 22.
The Ratings Code
- Restaurants that are useful to know about if you are nearby; they may have only a few dishes or a single quality, such as a view or atmosphere, to distinguish them.
- Restaurants with generally appealing cooking, service and settings; they tend to be worth driving across town for.
- Rewarding destinations, no matter where you're coming from; they typically blend high-quality cooking with the environs and service to match.
- An unsurpassed dining experience; these restaurants do what they do extraordinarily well.
- Under 60 decibels.
- Conversation is easy:
- 60-70 decibels.
- Must speak with raised voice:
- 71-80 decibels.
- Extremely loud:
- Over 80 decibels.
One of the hardest details for a restaurant to nail is consistency, which is why when I’m asked where to go for Italian, Al Tiramisu in Dupont Circle is usually on the tip of my tongue. Chances are good owner Luigi Diotaiuti is going to greet you in his starched white chef’s jacket. The probability of hearing a list of specials as long as the standing menu — but without any mention of prices — from a dashing guide is strong, too.
The most moving part of the meal is likely the display of fresh fish and seafood, when the server introduces the soft-shell crab and the ingredient wiggles “hello.” But you’re here to eat. Pasta stuffed with spinach and ricotta and brushed with sage-flecked butter sauce makes me glad to be here, and tender lamb chops seasoned with herbs and garlic are a good reason to make a reservation, too.
Al Tiramisu is noisy and cramped, and my last taste included merely okay gnocchi and veal Milanese. But the drinks were strong, the server teased my mom, and the grilled turbot with roasted potato and pared asparagus was simple perfection. I’ll take it.
There is nothing meager about this trattoria in downtown Falls Church. Its three rooms can hold 220 sippers and suppers at a time. The pastoral Renaissance fresco in the main dining room, renovated by new owners with rippled red tiles to absorb any din, is CinemaScopic in scale. Just about every dish is built for two, or a tribe, so when an appetizer of polenta topped with Bolognese sauce lands on the table, you look around to see if the barge doesn’t belong to the family next to you. “Timber!” a friend whispers when a brick-size slab of tiramisu falls on its side.
The dark side to mammoth portions, apart from the reality that two-thirds of Americans are too fat, is they draw attention to their flaws in a way smaller servings do not. An Alp of overcooked spinach fettuccine festooned with a blizzard of shaved cheese, shrimp, spicy sausage and red bell pepper strips is a mountain of pasta that has spent too much time in hot water. Orange zest in the mix is a bright touch, I’ll allow.
The server’s excitement over the catch of the day should be a prompt to bite; roasted Arctic char is a simple pleasure bedded on orzo embellished with zucchini, cabbage and bell peppers. Argia’s crackery pizza poses no threat to local favorite Pizzeria Orso, but a topping of spinach, sliced mushrooms and tomato pesto makes a decent companion to a bottle of vino. Visit on a Monday, and a bottle is half-price — a reduction to toast.
Yannick Cam was a top chef decades before “Top Chef” became every other budding toque’s aspirational model (alas). At the height of his fame, at Le Pavillon downtown in the ’80s, his only serious rival in the French department was Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate.
A few edible reminders of those glory days can be sampled at Bistro Provence in Bethesda, where a bite of roasted lobster is tucked into a tiny clutch of pastry and where the plump boudin gets its richness from foie gras and pigeon. This is a bistro, of course, so you can count on also finding an omelet (at lunch) and hanger steak in the mix. Yet in Cam’s hands, a dish as straightforward-sounding as asparagus soup can create a hush at the table as companions spoon into the pale green puree of vegetable, chicken stock, cream and (just a whisper of) truffle oil encircling an island of Parmesan flan. Escargots are rethought, too, with dabs of silky, smoky eggplant spaced between the succulent snails.
In good weather, every Francophile wants to eat her duck confit or dessert crepes alfresco; the bistro’s patio out back is a beaut, crazy with flowers. Got a group? Book the second-floor dining room, introduced two years ago, with space for 40 or so.
Service can be spotty — and it would be nice to hear the prices with the epic recitation of specials — but little flourishes prove welcome. Linens are so rare in restaurants anymore, I’d consider booking at Bistro Provence just for the novelty.
The chef-owner of Corduroy never shouts to be heard. Rather, Tom Power merely buys good ingredients, prepares them to best advantage, and arranges them in such a way that first your eyes and then your tongue are entertained. So your scallop appetizer might be from Maine, offered in its fancy shell along with its roe and seasoned with just a sprinkle of sea salt and olive oil: brilliant restraint.
I almost always order soup here, and I’m almost always delighted by what I find in the bowl, most recently chilled burdock soup broadened with dashi, kelp and bonito flakes for a smoky, mushroom-like effect. The lovely green-and-white shiso salad glossed with grapeseed oil and rice wine vinegar is a trick Power gleaned after seeing his wife’s family’s shiso farm in Japan.
You can pretty much go anywhere on the list and find yourself in good company; Corduroy’s pastas are equal to his Italian counterparts’, and if you want a change from beef, lean antelope with haricots verts and a wash of juniper and red wine should be your destination. An on-the-spot request for a meatless main course is followed by (grrr) a plate with a bunch of side dishes on it, but the seven (count ‘em!) elements also include some Indian-inspired choices.
The mood of the staff is cool some nights, and there’s a tendency to up-sell on occasion. “Champagne would go well with your appetizers,” a server coos — an entreaty we ignore. Other kitchens do better cheese plates; few competitors bake an apple tart as well as Corduroy, where a wisp of pastry, plump fruit and velvety ice cream can lead to another order.
The sleek, two-story townhouse across from the city’s convention center is, like the cooking here, subtle but not without splashes of color. If there are two of you and you want some privacy, ask for Table 24, a trim booth facing the open kitchen. Coming up next, next door: Baby Wale, another fabric-inspired place to eat, this one more casual and serving pizza and “fun things,” Power promises.
The bouncy music and the lush, you-are-there paintings of Cuba put diners in vacation mode the moment they step inside this mom-and-pop in Silver Spring. But where’s the snappy service I used to get? Dirty dishes tend to pile up now, and getting the check involves standing up to hunt down my server. More important, where’s the good food of the restaurant’s early days?
The saucer-size tostones with a hearty “dip” of shredded beef — classic ropa vieja, or “old rags” — remains a proper introduction, as does the black bean soup shot through with cumin and garlic. Chicken-stuffed empanadas reinforce making a meal of appetizers, too.
Venture deeper into the long list of eats, and you strike trouble. The outlaw Cuban sandwich would be run out of Miami, and the way the roast pork with soft onions is seasoned, a customer might think salt is a Havana signature. The menu describes its hash of beef, olives, potatoes and peppers in such a way a carnivore can’t help but order the dish — which looks and tastes like nothing more special than hamburger gravy with a scoop of oiled rice to the side.
The mellow and soothing plantains that come with the entrees, I’ll keep. “The best mojitos in town,” brags a chalkboard sign in the entry. The claim is debatable, and the fruity sangria is better, but one thing is for sure: You’ll want a drink to help forget some of this food.
Cross the Cheesecake Factory with Taco Bell — then throw in spring break — and what you get is this sprawling zoo of a destination in Dupont Circle that feeds an average of 1,400 customers a day. A diner could get jet lag just reading the menu possibilities, which hop from Peruvian seviche to Cuban pork and from Spanish paella to Mexican enchiladas and which get ferried from kitchen to crowd by troops of industrious servers.
Experience tells me to stick with guacamole and beans, no matter their shade, in what resembles National Airport with its soaring windows, arched ceilings and abundant light. The prime seats are on the sidewalk patio and the fourth-floor deck, which is where my posse and I were deposited on a recent bustling Sunday afternoon. Light but oily tortilla chips served with a salsa that tastes mostly of pepper demand something to wash them back, which explains the sea of margaritas surrounding us. (It pays to upgrade to the Gold Cadillac.)
Inattention is a prime seasoning. Fish seviche tastes mostly of lime and comes with a garnish of … someone else’s hair in the toss, which wasn’t as off-putting as discovering a wad of chewing gum on the pepper shaker. The dry chicken tamales need every drop of the green sauce nearby. Pollo asado has juiciness in its favor, but not so the Brussels sprouts, so undercooked they defy the fork. A bowl of vivid orange seafood soup bobs with tired mussels, rubbery squid and shrimp that smack of iodine. And the chewy Cuban steak makes me thankful for strong molars. Combination platters, meanwhile, are a strapping yawn.
Ultimately, the single best dish at Lauriol Plaza is the something-for-everyone clientele. No matter your taste in people, you’re likely to see it in the swarm.
Michael Jackson is belting out one of his hits in the background. Slate and steel are the house colors. You can’t look up without spotting a wurst. The vibe summons Berlin, but I’m actually in Clarendon at Lyon Hall grazing on the generous charcuterie board set out by chef Liam LaCivita.
One could launch with mussels or a salad, but plenty of cooks can give you those things. LaCivita offers dearer options — wild boar rillettes, pork en croute — everything cranked out from scratch and most very appealing. Smoked trout pâté made springy with lemon zest and delivered with a feast of pickled vegetables and other “garnishes” encourages sharing, although you may not want to.
In an earlier life, I lived in Germany. Eating Lyon Hall’s hot-smoked, veal-and-pork links spiced with caraway and coriander is like paging through my photo album, only more delicious. Warm red cabbage and Lyonnaise potatoes on the plate add to the comfort.
It’s not all about meat on the menu. Among the fresh additions to the lineup are a duck cassoulet that swaps in fava beans and spring peas for the usual white beans, and a bread-less twist on a banh mi. In the chef’s elegant homage to the Vietnamese sub sandwich, seared tuna swims to the table on a pool of coconut-lime leaf butter sauce and dressed with vinaigrette-kissed carrots and pea shoots. Shavings of foie gras seal the deal with an indulgent kiss.
Cocktails are surprisingly ordinary, but you can hear yourself clink now, thanks to soundproofing slipped into the ceiling. Lyon Hall competes with sibling Liberty Tavern for a neighbor’s attention on Mondays. That’s when the American restaurant celebrates fried chicken and the sausage maker promotes fresh oysters for a buck a pop. I cast my vote for … a shuttle bus between the two dining rooms.
Dinner at Makoto, more than two decades old, is a tutorial in Japanese culture. After exchanging your shoes for slippers in the small foyer, women in colorful samui show you to one of only 25 seats in a room the width of a train car. Diners make only a few choices on the $70 eight- to 10-course menu, which is otherwise determined by the cooks, partially visible behind the red curtains at the wooden counter, my preferred landing spot.
A nest of thin somen noodles decorated with pickled cherry blossoms, green beans and mountain vegetables makes a cool and refreshing introduction. A showier platter brings together smoky eggplant with some bite from leek blossom, a large scallop sparkling with orange fish roe, mussels that hint of anchovy in a mince of vegetables and a slender slice of salmon garnished with chive stem. Feel free to take a photograph, but one of the house rules is no cellphone calls. (The site also bans shorts and excessive cologne or perfume.)
Fresh soft-shell crabs are rolled in rice cracker crumbs and fried to a golden crackle. “You can eat it with your fingers,” a hostess coaches, motioning to the trio of seasoned salts on the plate that only excite the pleasure of the nubby seafood pieces. There’s a choice of grilled fish; black cod with miso sauce is fabulous. Served near the end of the feast, sushi is as you wish it were everywhere: perfect pillows of rice matched with perfect cuts of fish, maybe local rockfish. The intimacy of the setting means the servers are never more than a few feet away from whatever you need. The hyper-attention is either welcome or annoying.
Jazz plays softly in the background. Head chef Gene Itoh, son of the longtime owner, thinks the music adds “a little bit different flavor” to the experience and encourages his kitchen colleagues to be more creative. Rock on, man.
The pit stop on the ground floor of the National Museum of the American Indian has me at the chickpeas. They’re found at Mitsitam Cafe, where visitors can sample the cooking of Indians from South America, and they’re one of my favorite meatless dishes on the Mall. A scoop of those sauteed chickpeas, biting with aji pepper, could fuel me for an afternoon of sightseeing, although I’m glad to have crowded my tray with the soft and soothing red potato cake and the chicken-swollen tamal drizzled with peanut sauce.
Quality varies from food station to food station. Pork and corn tacos, a shout out to Mesoamerica, aren’t worth standing in line for, but I finished every shred of a side of the sassy red cabbage “salsa.” The next person to visit me will be my excuse to trek to the Northern Woodlands, where red bean and alligator soup and maple-brined turkey await. No doubt a concession to fussy museum-goers, the buffalo burgers are thin, dry and sad to see in this otherwise educational mix. Did Indians, any of them, really bake brownies? A more genuine finish than that head-scratcher is Mitsitam’s not-too-sweet pine nut tart representing the Great Plains. Seasonal agua frescas are welcome alternatives to commercial sodas.
Shots of tribes making tortillas and planting crops dress up the walls of the prairie-size dining room, but the image that calls to me most is very real water splashing over rocks outside the picture window.
Logan Cox left some sizable shoes behind when he headed West this year, but his successor, Marjorie Meek-Bradley, is filling them admirably in the kitchen of this neighborly wine-themed restaurant in Cleveland Park.
The newcomer’s ruddy hedge of lamb tartare, shocked with pickled mustard seed and capers, comes with cool dabs of Greek yogurt and a creamy drift of cashew butter. The nutty detail is one Meek-Bradley picked up as a junior cook at the esteemed Per Se in New York.
But her way with fish is even finer. Spaghetti scattered with kicky toasted bread crumbs and tuna poached in olive oil is bliss in every bite. And the chef, who came from Graffiato in March, knows that when halibut and fava beans are in season, they don’t need much more than a wash of spring onion butter to make them sing. Cavatelli cranked out using carrots is a bright idea that co-stars sweet lobster meat. Butterscotch pudding with crushed toffee and rum cake with orange curd encourage you to stretch out the night for a course that could use a turbocharge in this town.
As before, drinking is as much fun as eating; the cocktails and wine list are Big City Serious in this arty retreat. And as always, the service feels as if your best friend is attending to your needs. Food flash for fromage fans: The grilled cheese bar has expanded its early and late hours at the counter to every night of the week.
The reason I first fell for Siroc is the one that continues to draw me back: The intimate restaurant overlooking McPherson Square fills whatever niche a diner wants it to occupy. Here’s the place you can meet with the boss, catch up with a pal or kindle a flame without punching “Other Amount” at the ATM.
The Mediterranean menu, from chef-partner Martin Lackovic, finds something for everyone, although seafood calls to me most, maybe smoked salmon over coins of fingerling potatoes with tarragon aioli at lunch or chorizo-stuffed rings of squid at dinner. Can’t decide between two pastas? “We can offer half portions of each for the same price,” one of Siroc’s amiable servers lets me know. (I would have regretted missing out on squid ink linguine with plump mussels and sun-dried tomatoes.)
The chef lavishes as much attention on accompaniments as centerpieces, evinced by plate mates such as a verdant hash of snow peas here or pears with star anise gastrique there. Corn bread with sweetbreads? The combination works. Eggplant arranged with lamb shank and roasted red pepper sauce is a little heavy for my taste, and the poached pear could use less sweetener. Pound cake with a topping of blueberries is a success story, though. Everyone is greeted with an amuse-bouche at dinner, and you know you’re a friend of the house, presided over by brothers Keram and Mehdi Dris, if a gratis limoncello precedes your exit.
One diner’s “cozy” is another patron’s “cramped.” Swell news: Siroc is expanding its patio with 10 seats, adding a bar inside with as many stools and freeing up space between tables in its dining room. When can I go again?
The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm
Lucky is the cook who has 11 acres of “pantry” outside his kitchen. And fortunate are the recipients of the fruits of that garden when they’re assembled by Christopher Edwards. For the past 4-1/2 years, he has been the executive chef at Patowmack Farm in northern Loudoun County, a spread that features a glass-tented restaurant at the top of a steep hill. The shiny black chairs and Ping-Pong ball lights look a little tired, but the views of rolling hills and the Potomac River make up for the decor.
Then there’s the really, truly farm-fresh food: berries, herbs, carrots, asparagus and “tons of greens,” Edwards says. “If there’s something leafy on the plate,” it’s practically from arm’s reach away. Seasonal ingredients are great; knowing how to show them off is equally important.
Edwards, an alumnus of the late Maestro in Tysons Corner and the shuttered El Bulli in Spain, where he cooked for almost a year, demonstrates such on both his $65 a la carte “Origins” menu and $100 eight-course “Destination” list. Warm oysters served on their shells with garlic butter and turnip greens get a kick from jalapeños plucked from aged whiskey — another excuse to eat more house-baked “bread with rosemary from the garden,” as a server informs us. Fried pork terrine set off with tangy radishes and espelette pepper is scrapple the way it’s done in heaven. (I have faith.) The chef’s Catalan riff on bouillabaisse gathers prime scallops and clams in a saffron broth along with rice that has been dehydrated and deep-fried: puffier, prettier Rice Krispies.
The one dish I wouldn’t want to repeat is the dense smoked duck breast with its over-salted beet tartare. Among the improvements from my pre-Edwards dinners are finer desserts and stronger coffee. The former has included a miniature apple souffle ringed in a tuile; the latter comes from McLean micro-roaster Sommo.
“Drive safely!” members of the sunny staff, including owner Beverly Morton Billand, call out as we exit for the trip home. There’s no chance we’ll be hungry again tonight, but just in case, the restaurant sends us on our way with a cellophane-wrapped cookie each. How sweet!
Wit & Wisdom
What a difference a year makes. Expectations ran high in Baltimore last spring when Wit & Wisdom opened for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Four Seasons hotel. Besides the fine address, the dining room with a water view had a pedigreed muse behind it, San Francisco-based chef and restaurateur Michael Mina.
His first chef didn’t pan out, however; except for desserts, the cooking proved inconsistent. The situation turned around with the arrival of Clayton Miller, who previously made Trummer’s on Main in Clifton worth the drive. Visit Wit & Wisdom these days — and you should — and you’ll taste what I mean; Miller is a chef who makes something special out of the routine.
What might be the most impressive bone marrow in the region can be found in this airy dining room. The first course starts with a soak in salt-and-sugar water (“It’s all about brining these days,” Miller jokes) followed by a smoke, a rub of cumin and other seasonings and a blast of heat from the pizza oven. The pleasures continue with crisp sea bass perched on buttery ribbons of savoy cabbage flavored with truffles and a froth of chipotle, and chicken banded in serrano ham and staged with prunes and rectangles of corn bread (the secret to its moistness and tang: sour cream). One of the few missteps during two recent meals was the leathery tempura on an order of scallops.
Once spotty, service has been polished. Always interesting, the cocktails and wine list remain so. Here’s to a great recovery.