Savoring 2005's Greatest Hits

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 2005

There were some disappointments along the way, but the year's dining record started strong and finished the same way.

"Though it's rather early in the year" -- it was Jan. 21 -- "to crown a dish one of the 10 best of 2005, I'd lay a bet right now that the gnocchi with braised veal cheek ragu and porcinis will make my list." That dish and the tagliatelle with black truffles, porcini, sage and Parmesan at Centro Italian Grill (4838 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda; 301-951-1988) are still vivid in my mind for their remarkable balance.

Area residents no longer need to breach the Beltway -- that is, come in from the 'burbs without -- to find good ethnic food (if they ever really did). The chicken tikka masala at Bombay (11229 New Hampshire Ave. in White Oak Shopping Center, Silver Spring; 301-593-7222) was extremely good, and everybody loves butter chicken. But the lamb korma , in a sauce of almonds and cashews ground to a nut cream and fragrant with allspice and cinnamon, was the real treat.

The vitello tonnato , rounds of tender, pink veal glazed with a delicate emulsion of tuna and anchovy, at Amici Miei (1093 Seven Locks Rd. in Potomac Wood Plaza, Rockville; 301-545-0966) overcame one constant diner's lifelong anchovy prejudice to such an extent that he voluntarily ordered it a second time, and the grilled baby octopus set new standards for an often mishandled dish.

Divino doesn't always live up to its name, but the custardy and just-crisped sweetbreads were an indulgence in the old sense as well: They bought pardon for other sins of the kitchen (7345-B Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 240-497-0300).

The menu at Espuma (28 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach, Del.; 302-227-4199) was a garden of earthy delights: caramelized diver scallops with a black truffle-and-mushroom-stuffed raviolo; coriander-dusted rockfish with baby artichokes, a smattering of prosciutto and fabulously silken Robuchon potato gnocchi; and the irresistible "du jour" -- foie gras.

Just up the highway, Nage (19730 Coastal Hwy./Route 1, Rehoboth Beach, Del.; 302-226-2037) turned out lemon-salt-seared scallops with "mustard seed toffee," a honeyed drizzle of tiny black mustard seeds, which also begged for repeated attention, and the tender, meaty frog's legs were fabulous.

There were plenty of dishes to admire at Tajitu (9 E. Patrick St., Frederick; 301-631-6800), but what they had in common were the distinctive and complex sauces, from which wafted "the high-nosed whiff of white pepper, the woodier ginger, stony mustard seed, grassy-fresh green jalapeos and citrusy green chilies, sour red onion," etc. The spices and the coffee beans fresh roasted and ground to order also stood out.

The marrow in the veal osso buco at Le Vieux Logis (7925 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda; 301-652-6816) was such a delicacy that it was almost worth a trip in itself, but don't miss that vanishing treat, monkfish medallions a l'Americaine .

Restaurant Kolumbia (1801 K St. NW; 202-331-5551) offered the second-best sweetbreads of the year, served over baby spinach, grapes, pine nuts and capers. But it sent out the best foie gras torchon of '05, glistening with a veil of veal glace and glittering with sea salt, and a veal cheek braised to such tenderness that it shivered away from the fork.

The frog's legs at the relocated Vienna favorite Bistro 123 (Tysons Corner Center lower level, Route 123, Tysons Corner; 703-288-1369) were good, but the ethereal onion ravioli that accompanied them were fabulous.

At Vermilion (1120 King St., Alexandria; 703-684-9669), the scallop ceviche, a beautifully plated circle of scallops just barely stiffened by a bath of coconut milk, chilies, lime and a bracing note of grapefruit, set off by sweet golden beets, made up for years' worth of salt-toughened versions elsewhere.

The tempura tuna roll appetizer at Bistro Asiatique (4936 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-718-3400) was one of the best things on the menu: a full portion of nori-wrapped tuna, lightly battered and just seared and served with yellow miso-mustard dressing.

At $18.95, the combo platter for two at Mitsitam Natural Foods Cafe (Fourth Street and Independence Avenue in the National Museum of the American Indian; 202-633-1000) was not only a bargain but a new standard in cafeteria fare: cedar-planked salmon, wild rice or fennel salads, skillet-roasted root vegetables and more.

Much of the menu at Aquarelle (2650 Virginia Ave. NW in the Watergate Hotel; 202-298-4455) is tired, but one night's special of twinned lobster constructions, one curled on a bed of parsnip puree and "peppered" with radish sprouts, the other resting on a painstaking toss of sundered and buttered Brussels sprout leaves and fine portobello dice, was absolutely superb.

A skillet-roasted trout as perfect as the one at the Irish Inn at Glen Echo (MacArthur Boulevard at Tulane Avenue, Glen Echo; 301-229-6600) should turn even non-Irish chefs green with envy, while the shortness of the pastry under the goat cheese and caramelized onion tart should make pastry chefs pale.

It's off to an inexplicably slow start, in a town where too many restaurants boast of the crab cakes but shouldn't, but Juniper (2401 M St. NW in the Fairmont Hotel; 202-457-5020) can be justifiably proud.

Just as the holiday season was holding heavy food over our heads, the subtly sensual duel of white miso and unctuous black cod, and the unabashedly rich but modestly portioned braised pork belly "confit" at Chez Mama-San (1039 33rd St. NW; 202-333-3888) arrived to rescue us from temptation (and indulge us, too).

And there were a few mini-hits: the fried okra (appropriately) at Okra's Louisiana Bistro (9110 Center St., Manassas; 703-330-2729); the maramar , a slightly sweet puree of roasted red peppers, walnuts and pomegranate juice at Pasha Cafe (3911 N. Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-528-1111); the prime marinated steak salad at Chloe (2473 18th St. NW upstairs; 202-265-6592); and fried catfish at the French Quarter Cafe (19847 Century Blvd. in Germantown Town Center; 301-515-7693).

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