Kitchen Confidential: Tom Sietsema's 2010 Fall Dining Guide (The Washington Post Magazine)
To be considered an insider in a city that values power and access above all, the truly plugged-in Washingtonian should have President Obama's personal e-mail address, seats at the 50-yard line at FedEx Field and a spot for Junior at Sidwell Friends. (Bonus points if you've been to Camp David, huddled with Dan Snyder in his box or secured a space for Junior's sibling, too.)
Not so long ago, being savvy about food and restaurants didn't require much beyond knowing a couple of maitre d's and how to approve a bottle of wine. But that was before Tony Bourdain, "Top Chef" and legions of gourmet-food-truck entrepreneurs whetted the appetites of the masses. To be a well-rounded Washington insider now, you should have your GPS set for the best pizza (it's no longer 2 Amys), be able to tick off the area's half-price-wine nights and know where to get Korean barbecue at 3 a.m. Bonus points if you can identify Bonji Beard without the help of Google. (Spoiler alert: answer on Page 33.)
Enter my 11th Annual Fall Dining Guide. This one isn't focused on best bets in tough times, which restaurant suits which mood, or my answers to readers' questions. Been there, done that. This time around, I'm spilling secrets and sharing inside tips on dozens of places you need to know about. And those tips are flagged by another sought-after Washington accessory: boldface type.
To make the cut this year, a restaurant didn't just have to be performing well; it had to be a place folks are talking about. That means you won't be reading about all of the area's better-known addresses or popular standbys for sushi, steak or pizza. Chances are, you already know about them. Chef changes excluded a handful of contenders from consideration, as did a noticeable dip in quality at some of the region's most popular (but no longer most praiseworthy) restaurants.
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all dining guide, but I hope this cache of reviews helps you feel more in the know about the restaurant scene. And more tips are coming: Between you and me, there's a Spring Dining Guide rolling out May 15.
Patrons leave Washington for London when they stroll through the door of the area's most dashing gastro pub, with its faux fox heads, dark leather seats and personalized Scotch lockers. Againn (pronounced ah-GWEN) doesn't just look the part of a pub across the pond: It tastes like the real deal, too. Black pudding (that's blood sausage, mate), topped with a sunny egg and set on a mash of onions, proves lusty eating. A shepherd's pie of lightly browned mashed potatoes paved over ground lamb leg braised with beer and bolstered with rosemary, anchovy paste and sofrito gives that typical dish of leftovers a fresh spin. New to chef Wes Morton's fall menu is terrific boudin blanc arranged on silken pureed potatoes that bring aligot, that rich French whip of spuds and cheese, to mind. The fish sandwich is a crumbly mess of cod mousse and salmon belly. Better are fish and chips. Even finer is whole roast branzino, its snowy flesh flattered with lemon and herbs. Beer is the obvious quaff of choice, except on Mondays and Tuesdays, when Againn offers all of its bottles for half-price.//1099 New York Ave. NW; 202-639-9830; www.againndc.com. Open: lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday. All major credit cards except Diners Club. Entree prices: lunch $10 to $21, dinner $19 to $26. Sound check: 80 decibels.
**1/2 ASHBY INN
Few restaurants bridge old and new better than the Ashby Inn in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The property dates to 1829, but dinner delivers a taste of today, starting with a snack of airy crackers, perhaps spiced as if they were Buffalo wings, and concluding with black chunks of chocolate sponge cake supported by toasted cumin-flavored marshmallows. Tarver King is an imaginative chef with an artistic streak, partial to arranging his food -- heirloom tomato chunks and a snow globe of burrata fenced in with tuiles of bread; miso-braised pork shoulder and steamed jasmine rice tingling with lime -- in delicious rows on its plates. But he never forsakes flavor for gimmicks and always treats accompaniments as if they were centerpieces: Lemony spaeztle is as much a treat as the crisp rockfish it supports. All of the intimate dining rooms are welcoming, although warm weather typically finds me outside on the flagstone terrace, and the underground tap room with fireplace calls to me in winter. (In a triumph for line-weary females, the inn's restrooms are marked "Women" and "Men and Women.") The upstairs provides reasons to linger, provided you plan ahead: six romantic guest rooms.//692 Federal St., Paris, Va.; 540-592-3900; www.ashbyinn.com. Open: lunch Wednesday through Saturday, dinner Wednesday through Sunday, Sunday brunch. All major credit cards except Discover. Entree prices: lunch $12 to $16, dinner $29 to $36, brunch $39. Sound check: 67 decibels.
HH BGR: THE BURGER JOINT
Ray's Hell-Burger in Arlington has its charms, but if President Obama ever decides to alter his burger run, he ought to consider another home-grown mini-chain, this one from entrepreneur Mark Bucher. "No shortcuts, no pre-cooking, no heat lamps," the menu pledges. The food delivers on that promise; even a basic burger starts with prime, aged, hormone-free, corn-fed beef from the Midwest and rests on a toasted sesame-seeded brioche bun. Juicier still: The patty is cooked the way you ask, and you don't have to settle for beef. Also available are ahi tuna, turkey, lobster, cumin-and-mint-laced lamb (love the crusty Greek burger), even black beans, brown rice and molasses (the vegetarian version). The fries, made with Yukon Gold potatoes, are double-fried and tasty, and the shakes are so thick, they're easier to eat with a spoon than a straw. Good news for denizens of Clarendon: A fifth Joint is expected to open at 3024 Wilson Blvd. by year's end. The Dupont Circle branch, with blond-wood booths, purple walls and Christmas-light chandeliers, is closest to the White House. Got that, Mr. President?//1514 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-299-1071; www.bgrtheburgerjoint.com. Open: lunch daily, dinner daily. All major credit cards. Other locations: 4827 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-358-6137. 106 North Washington St., Alexandria; 703-299-9791. 3129 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-812-4705. Entree prices: $8 to $14. Sound check: 72 decibels.
*** BIRCH & BARLEY