THE REVEL is in the details.
Another year, another resolution, but, hey, somebody's got to do it. Restaurant cooking in Washington is ever more competitive and ever more innovative, even in smaller kitchens and shopping center ethnic quick-stops. In general, 2004 provided more small satisfactions than wowsers, but beneath the flourishes, first-rate technique is really important. From the past year's reviews:
The Sake Club (2635 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-332-2711) is a stone looker, and the sushi is sometimes just as stunning, thanks to bling-bling sprinklings of gold leaf and a truly handsome collection of ceramics and accessories. But while it wasn't the most elaborate offering, the very fresh uni with false-eyelash-skinny julienne of toasted nori set me afloat: It was what foie gras would taste like if it were prepared by a mermaid.
Michael O'Sullivan's Top 10 Exhibits (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
The Year in Music (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Richard Harrington's Top 10 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Geoffrey Himes's Top 10 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Mike Joyce's Top 10 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Mark Jenkins's Top 10 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Desson Thomson's Top 10 Films (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
. . . And the 10 Worst Films (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Looking Back: Bugs, Bars, Poker and More (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
True foie gras was the centerpiece of a nicely conceived Wellington-ish veal en croute with morels at Coeur de Lion (926 Massachusetts Ave. NW in the Henley Park Hotel; 202-638-5200); the foie gras terrine on its own was similarly well balanced, not too rich, not too thin. On a lighter note, the (duck) foie gras sushi at Kaz Sushi Bistro (1915 I St. NW; 202-530-5500), infused with plum wine and served with a plum wine aspic, still sets a high standard.
All Roy Yamaguchi restaurants are collaborations, with the local chef providing half the recipes, and at the Baltimore Roy's (720-B Aliceanna St.; 410-659-0099), Damon Morrison (since succeeded by Rey Eugenio) came up with some stunners: ravioli stuffed with smoked ahi tuna, grilled eel and shiitakes; and a sort of deconstructed California roll with whipped avocado and fresh crabmeat wrapped in Vietnamese rice paper.
Irish cooking gets little respect and is historically ranked at the bottom of the carbo Richter scale; but the pan-roasted salmon with a witty corned-beef-stuffed cabbage roll at the Irish Inn at Glen Echo (MacArthur Boulevard and Tulane Avenue, Glen Echo; 301-229-6600) might change all that.
In a time when good short pastry is in even shorter supply, the feuille de bric (and various puff pastry in general) at Glover Park's Saveur (2218 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-5885) is worth praising.
I'm not the big-beef kind ordinarily, but if I have a craving, I'd be likely to head back to Lewnes' (Severn Avenue at Fourth Street, Eastport; 410-263-1617), just across the bridge from Annapolis; that superhot broiler sears steaks the way ordinary char-grilling can't. (But by me, the melted butter on top is just that, over-the-top.) Nearly as good is the rib-eye at the kosher Red Heifer (4844 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-951-5115).
Appetizers are frequently the most intriguing parts of a menu, but salads don't always seem to get as much of the chef's attention. The mango-avocado-watercress salad with ginger dressing at Firestone's in Frederick (105 N. Market St.; 301-663-0330) offered a whole meal's worth of play in texture and flavor -- and has a nice aperitif effect as well. Equally welcome was the raw asparagus salad simply drizzled with olive oil, fresh coarse black pepper and shaved Parmesan at Fish On (17300 N. Village Main Dr., Lewes, Del.; 302-645-9790 or 877-871-3474). The pan-crisped wild rockfish was its natural mate -- only the kitchen couldn't stock enough. Order early and often.
Bar food extraordinaire: wild boar spare ribs with hoisin barbecue sauce at Eden (23 Baltimore Ave., Rehoboth, Del.; 302-227-3330). For pizza, it has to be Zio's (9083 Gaither Rd., Gaithersburg; 301-977-6300), where the crust is the best fresh bread I've had in a while. (In fact, better restaurant bread in Washington is on the wish list for '05.)
In a town where soft-shell crab tempura is almost a staple, the version at Bob's Noodle 66 in Rockville (305 N. Washington St.; 301-315-6668), cut into bite-size pieces and greaseless, was a shivering pleasure. On the other hand, it's hard to stop listing favorites here: squid with sour mustard; veal chops with black pepper; the oyster pancake . . .
Admittedly, I'm an eggplant addict, but the hunkar begendi at Meyhane (633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-544-4753), a plate smeared with a smooth baba ghanouj-like puree creamed with a little cheese and topped with lovely braised lamb is such home-style comfort food it made me turn my soul compass east toward Turkey.
Poor snails are so often treated like garlic-butter sponges that the meaty, mushroom-y bourguignon-style ragout of escargots at L'Oustalet in Rockville (302 King Farm Blvd.; 301-963-3400) would have been a pleasant surprise even if it hadn't been so good. Also memorable was the ravioli filled with smoked salmon and dressed with pesto cream, an appetizer delicious enough, and generous enough, for a meal.
French fries are all too common, and all too commonly disappointing; but while they're not one of the most heralded things on the menu -- and sometimes have to serve as a saving grace -- the frites at Bistro des Celestins in Arlington (6876 Lee Hwy.; 703-534-8059) were probably the best of the year.
One night's special of fresh baby scallops in the shell would by itself have been worth the trip to Rockville's Sol de España (838-C Rockville Pike; 240-314-0202).
Both the ginger-marinated and tandoori grilled jumbo prawns, blackened in the shell to pass the smoky flavor through without drying out the meat, and the gosht avadh korma, lamb in a fennel-seed-studded almond sauce at Bethesda's Passage to India (4931 Cordell Ave.; 301-656-3373) were almost swooningly decadent.
And a special note to point up how the extra bit of courteous service can make an already fine meal truly memorable: Recently at Komi (1509 17th St. NW; 202-332-9200), three women who'd gathered to exchange gifts decided to order seven or eight appetizers rather than any entrees. The chef sent the waitress to ask whether there were any time restraints, and when told there were not, the kitchen turned each of the dishes into courses, dividing up the appetizers on fully arranged plates. The one diner who had opted to pass on the foie gras course was presented with a different hors d'oeuvre on the house. That's how you make customers into regulars.