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Accounting For His Taste

By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, October 4, 2000

   


    Fairmont Bar & Dining Everything in its place at Bethesda's Fairmont Bar & Dining. (Timothy Bell)
For almost half my life, in Milwaukee, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, I've been paid to write about food – where it comes from, how to prepare it, what it tastes like when it hits the table. Most of those jobs afforded me an expense account and the chance to eat my way through the full range of American possibilities, from the hot dog stands of Chicago to the four-star extravaganzas of New York.

But from last October through June of this year, I was not a paid mouth; I was a Food section reporter, and a civilian. That's the term restaurant critics use to describe people who don't draw their salary from chewing and telling. During that time, I ate on no one's budget but my own; because restaurants are my hobby, however, I continued to eat out almost daily, and invited friends and family to join me.

I spent almost $19,000.

Please don't reprimand me. While some people put their faith in cars or clothes or political donations, I choose to spend my money on food and drink and service. (Ever since I was in college, slinging pizzas in Georgetown, I have saved up to treat myself to the restaurants that my predecessor at the Magazine raved about.) And it's not as if I was swigging champagne and popping caviar every night; I packed in plenty of tacos and burgers, too. Think that's a waste of time and resources? Everyone has priorities: If cooking is evanescent, Julia Child reminds us, so too is going to the ballet. Both are here and then gone.

Besides, it was great fun, those recent eight months of dining around. No deadlines! No need to waste calories on a bad restaurant! Some 7,000 possibilities from which to choose! I checked out the new spots, revisited old favorites, sat down for pupusas on paper plates in the suburbs and dressed up for magic served on Villeroy & Boch china downtown. I drove to Richmond, just for lunch, and Baltimore, just for brunch. Best of all, because I wasn't reviewing any of these places, I didn't have to jot down a single note.

But I did, mentally at least. My time off from professional table-hopping couldn't turn off the tape recorder in my head or mute my critical faculties. I reacted to my meals the way I imagine you might have: I was shocked to pay $422 for two at one of those famous country destinations, only to have two servers argue in front of me over who was supposed to take my wine order. I was disappointed to shell out $121.56 a head at a fancy Italian restaurant that lost my reservation, squeezed a big party into a tiny table and practically threw our food at us – all the while fawning over some hotshots seated nearby. Over and over, I found service that was more slap than dash. As the economy continues on a high, good help is hard to find, groom and keep – and it shows. Some chefs seemed to be cooking on autopilot but charging me a premium for the experience.

I was not always getting my hard-earned money's worth.

Still, there's no other city I'd rather live in. The Washington area plays host to a dazzling menu of some 50 cuisines, prepared by some of the country's brightest talents. Good service does occur here and there. I'm thrilled to get paid to investigate the scene for a hungry audience, and I got to do just that, with great intensity over the past three months, when I revisited 100 restaurants to see how they were performing.

"What's your favorite restaurant?" people often ask, as if I could throw out the name of a place that always satisfied me. What the curious should ask instead is, "Where would you go on your own dime?"

Here's what I tell them:

Al Tiramisu
2014 P St. NW (near 20th Street). 202-467-4466.
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. AE, DC, MC, V. Valet parking at dinner. Entree prices: $12.90 to $16.90.

My remedy for a bad day is a meal at Al Tiramisu. There are better Italian restaurants and more beautiful Italian restaurants, but none of them makes me feel as happy to be there as this place does, whether I'm sitting alone on a bar stool, watching a soccer match with the waiters and winding linguine with baby clams around my fork, or settled in at a table with friends, eating whatever a server has urged us to try. Often, that means sparkling-fresh fish, simply grilled and expertly filleted at the table. Sweet, head-on prawns, enhanced with herbs and olive oil, are always a treat, as is tender grilled squid, threaded on skewers, dusted with bread crumbs and brightened with lemon. The kitchen also turns out a fine veal chop, some lovely pastas and a dessert that you won't need to dial a lifeline friend to identify. (Hint: The restaurant isn't named after a guy named Al.) The man in the chef's coat, working the joint like he's running for election? That's Luigi Diotaiuti, whose warm smile and playful spirit filter down to his staff. Narrow, low-ceilinged and often crowded, the dining room probably isn't the best place to start a clandestine relationship. Unless, of course, you're lucky enough to find yourself at table No. 15, an alcove booth that offers some privacy, and a view of the room to boot.

A&J Restaurant
1319-C Rockville Pike (near Edmonston Drive), Rockville. 301-251-7878.
Open: for lunch and dinner daily. Cash only.
Dim sum prices: 75 cents to $5.15.

There's nothing glamorous about A&J, which is small and bright and tucked into a nondescript shopping strip. But what the place lacks in comfort, it makes up for in its dim sum menu. Instead of rolling carts laden with little dishes of Chinese snacks, diners are greeted with slips of paper listing the day's choices. "Circle number! Circle number!" a waitress instructs any obviously non-Chinese guests, thrusting menus into their hands. Habitues order scallion pancakes, boiled peanuts, fried pork dumplings, steamed spareribs or a big bowl of mustard greens soup – a steaming pleasure of slightly crisp greens, bits of pork and supple thick noodles. If you've never been, follow the flashing chopsticks at the neighboring tables and order likewise. The clientele is mostly Asian, a reassuring sign. Don't worry if your wallet is running on empty; it's hard to spend more than $10 a head here, even if you're a big eater.

Bistrot Lepic
1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW (near S Street). 202-333-0111.
Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $9.95 to $14.95, dinner $13.95 to $19.50.

Diners sit Gap to Gucci at this bustling French shoe box, and eavesdrop without meaning to on the ladies-who-lunch at the next table. Simply dressed with yellow walls and worn wood floors, Bistrot Lepic holds a mere 48 seats – not nearly enough for the Georgetown set that sees this storefront bistro as its community center. At high noon, your waitress might be as welcoming as the rainstorm you've just battled to get here – un peu too authentic perhaps. At least she's willing to share some recommendations, starting with a bowl of creamy potato and leek soup, sprinkled with chives and filled with fine, plump mussels. Tuesday's onion tart tastes like a holdover from the weekend, but the main courses smooth over that disappointment. Salmon stays moist beneath its golden coat of shredded potato; a sauce of green grapes adds subtle sweetness. Tender braised veal cheeks are teamed with fresh pasta shells and swabbed with a delicate cream sauce to delicious effect. Bring on the Chateauneuf-du-Pape! There are pig's feet with onion sauce for the daring, simple grilled trout and free-range chicken for more traditional appetites. Chocolate mousse is too dense and too sweet. Better to bid adieu with floating island, a drift of whipped, poached egg whites on a pool of vanilla custard sauce. Two other appetizing reasons to visit: Saturday lunch hours and a private dining room upstairs, Rue Lepic, where, with advance notice, chef-owner Bruno Fortin personally cooks eight-course dinners for groups of eight to 10.

Black Olive
814 S. Bond St. (near Shakespeare Street), Baltimore. 410-276-7141.
Open: for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $15 to $32.

For the best Greek restaurant in town, you have to drive to Baltimore. The family-owned Black Olive prepares not only a fine, smoke-tinged rack of lamb and a world-class spinach pie, punctuated with melting feta and wrapped in homemade phyllo, but also fish and seafood that taste moments removed from the sea. Forget the ubiquitous Chilean sea bass and the common salmon. Here you get to choose from among whole red snapper, wild turbot, genuine Dover sole, sea bream, sardines from Portugal, maybe whole anchovies from Greece. Forget the menu, too. Part of the joy of dining in this taverna, cheerful in blue-and-white linens, is the chance to window-shop for dinner and take cues from your hosts. "Are you ready for your tour?" a server might ask before he escorts you to the open kitchen, fronted with a display case of ingredients that sparkle from their bed of ice. The cooks know that these pristine treasures need only a little time on the grill and perhaps a sauce of lemon juice, capers and olive oil to enhance their appeal. A thoughtful wine list keeps pace with the catch of the day, as do the appetizers – don't miss the bread pudding, savory with onions, artichokes and mushrooms. Of course there's baklava. If you think all fruit plates are created equal, you haven't seen the Black Olive's glorious arrangement of mango, figs, blueberries and cherries, ready for a close-up in Martha Stewart Living.

Black's Bar & Kitchen
7750 Woodmont Ave. (near Old Georgetown Road), Bethesda. 301-652-6278.
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $8.95 to $12.95, dinner $16 to $26.

Can't get a table at Addie's in Rockville? Consider Jeff Black's seafood spinoff in Bethesda, which packs all the fun and flavor of his original restaurant into a much bigger party space: a handsome bar, cozy with couches and an oyster counter, alongside a large and convivial dining room. The chef trawls the Gulf Coast for ideas, reeling in an impressive catch. Start off with the rousing "New Orleans chopped salad," with its juicy fried crayfish tails and kicky Creole dressing, or shrimp sporting a nubby coat of plantain, delicious with its mango-melon salsa. From there, you might steer in the direction of tuna, jazzy with grilled pineapple and cilantro-lime vinaigrette. There's also turf amid the surf: grilled Angus rib-eye, filet mignon. And the crisp-edged duck breast is a beauty, with haricots verts, creamy grits and a mustardy moistener. In all, these are big plates of attractive food, brought to the table by a friendly cast of servers. Desserts, however, are blandly sweet. Whoever thought to divide the lounge from the dining room with a long window deserves a round of applause; it minimizes the transfer of bar noise while maximizing the people-watching.

Bread Line
1751 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (near 18th Street). 202-822-8900.
Open: for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday. AE, MC, V. Prices: breakfast items $1.65 to $1.95, lunch entrees $3.25 to $8.95.

Think the Palm and the Oval Room have a lock on famous faces? Maybe you haven't been to the Bread Line, the cafe-bakery that sits just down the street from the World Bank and is a short stroll from that big white house on Pennsylvania Avenue. Hiya, Cokie. Good afternoon, Congressman Frank. The drill is democratic: Patrons line up to order salads from one station, and soup, sandwiches and specials from another. Baker Mark Furstenberg, who introduced the capital to first-class bread when he launched the Marvelous Market a decade ago, rolls out a fresh and often fabulous spread: flaky little empanadas, superlative potato knishes, oyster po' boy sandwiches to rival the legends in New Orleans. Who knew that a BLT could halt conversation, thanks to its thick whole-wheat bread and summery, bright red tomatoes? Baby boomers in particular will be amused by such snack food makeovers as chocolate-mascarpone cookies, which resemble Oreos gone to finishing school. Unfortunately, the loftlike setting frequently runs loud and disorganized; renewing my driver's license at the DMV was less stressful than ordering lunch at the Bread Line during prime time. Better to pay for your morning croissant or afternoon soup and head back to your cubicle. But where else are you going to eat so memorably, for so little, and probably run into the people you'll be tuning in to tonight or reading about tomorrow?

Cashion's Eat Place
1819 Columbia Rd. NW (near 18th Street). 202-797-1819.
Open: for dinner Tuesday through Sunday; for brunch Sunday. Closed Monday. MC, V. Valet parking at dinner. Entree prices: about $16.95 to $20.95.

When people complain that Washington isn't a great restaurant town, I include in my rebuttal Cashion's Eat Place. If a friend asks where he should go to impress a date, I steer him to this inviting, sepia-toned dining room, where Ella Fitzgerald might serenade the twosome over a bottle of something luscious from southwestern France. Chef Ann Cashion's gem of a neighborhood restaurant is a canteen for people who love good food, good drink and good company. If it feels pricey for its location in Adams-Morgan, well, you're paying for what's best in the market and some highly personal cooking. Cashion's inspiration comes from France, Italy and the garden. Begin with a little tart of goat cheese and leeks nestled alongside some dewy greens, or maybe an antipasto that celebrates a wedge of potato omelet, some anchovies and thin folds of air-dried salted beef and mortadella. Move on to crisp, oven-roasted chicken with browned pearl onions and terrific mashed potatoes, grilled wild rockfish or an excellent sliced lamb steak, flanked with ratatouille and heady with garlic cream sauce. It all sounds simple, relaxed, but Cashion's food shows sophisticated good taste, right down to the elegant chocolate mousse and adorable cookie plate. The best seats are those in the rear, with a view of the open kitchen.

Equinox
818 Connecticut Ave. NW (near I Street). 202-331-8118.
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $14 to $20, dinner $20 to $28.

I always look forward to a meal at Equinox. Its chef-owner, Todd Gray, serves seasonal American food that is very much to my taste, reflecting an imagination grounded in classical training. At lunch, I might find shrimp and celery salad, a chic-looking mound of pristine shrimp, cool diced celery, fresh tarragon and juicy tangerine bits. Dinner can feature grilled rib rack of pork, poised on some robustly flavored Swiss chard and a near-liquid puree of potatoes. A fine dish, it's subtly sweetened with fresh Bing cherries and caramelized shallots – and it's evidence that some pork on the market still has savor. In Gray's pastas, I can taste the years he spent cooking at Galileo; his local ingredients and stylish arrangements remind me that he was taught well by a few of Southern California's culinary masters, too. Aside from a charming wine room in the back and two cozy rear booths, though, the interior remains one of downtown Washington's least glamorous for the price; the glass-enclosed front room, with its sloping floor and skylights, feels too much like an unfinished solarium. And the tables for two are small fits for large frames. Yet the food is so pure, the service so professional – the complimentary farewell of homemade cookies so thoughtful – I chide myself for wishing Equinox would dress a little better.

Fairmont Bar & Dining
4936 Fairmont Ave. (near Old Georgetown Road), Bethesda. 301-654-7989.
Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Valet parking. Entree prices: lunch about $6 to $18, dinner about $6 to $20.

Most restaurants that try to be all things to all people end up, predictably, pleasing no one. This place is an exception, and Bob McKay and Jim Davis are the reasons. The veteran restaurateurs recognize that sometimes we want to splurge (lobster and saffron ravioli), other times we prefer something quick and easy (what's not to like about a grilled cheese sandwich?). So they put both options on their modern American menu, along with such crowd-pleasers as crackery, thin grilled pizzas, steak frites and big, fat crab cakes, teasing with chilies and cooled with jicama-carrot slaw. These guys really listen to what their customers want, which explains the grazing-size desserts priced at $3, a wine list offering "good," "better" and "best" choices, an infant's menu in addition to a children's menu, and an early lunch program – three courses for $9.95 for orders placed by noon, thank you. It's not just the menu that aims to please: The booths are big and roomy, and if you pull up to the bar, you'll notice wide slots built into the counter, deep enough to stow a purse or a laptop while you sip and sup. Oh, the noise tends to bounce off all the restaurant's hard surfaces, and the service can be awkward if friendly, but those are minor quibbles in a place that extends such a hearty welcome to its neighbors.

Gabriel
Radisson Barcelo Hotel, 2121 P St. NW (near 21st Street). 202-956-6690.
Open: for breakfast and dinner daily; for lunch Monday through Friday; for brunch Sunday. All major credit cards. Valet parking. Entree prices: lunch $9 to $16.50, dinner $16.50 to $26.75.

Whenever I'm looking for an inexpensive getaway, I head for Gabriel. It's an underground hotel restaurant that manages not to feel like one, with a chef, Greggory Hill, who ferries diners to someplace sunny with almost every dish. Fortunately, you don't need a passport to experience his addictive, two-bite empanadas, filled with the likes of plantains with black beans, or shredded chicken with chilies, attractively presented in a little crock with guacamole, summerlike chopped tomatoes and a vinegar-punched slaw. Fried calamari separates itself from the pack with a trio of vibrant dipping sauces – salsa, lemony aioli and ancho aioli – while shrimp come to the table bubbling in garlicky juices that you'll want to sop up with bread. It would be easy to fill up on tapas, but that might mean missing Hill's gently baked rockfish, reclining on a pillow of herbaceous rice and waving sheer fronds of fried root vegetable. Or a lunch special that honors Monday with shredded roast pork, inky black beans and oiled white rice, along with some tortillas in which to roll up those luscious fillings. In my quest for a burger of distinction, I was happy to discover a contender here, rethought with ground bison, Indian fry bread and a kicky house-made ketchup. These are fresh and fetching plates, delicious examples of nuevo Latino cooking. Upbeat music, lovely service and such details as pillows in the booths and an impressive list of sherries help keep the good times rolling.

Heritage India
2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW (near Calvert Street). 202-333-3120.
Open: for lunch Sunday through Friday; for dinner daily. AE, D, MC, V. Valet parking at dinner. Entree prices: lunch $6 to $16.50, dinner $7 to $16.50.

This third-floor restaurant in Glover Park serves possibly the best Indian cooking in the area, outside of a home kitchen. Tandoori chicken is slathered in yogurt, seasoned with saffron and grilled to succulence in a clay oven. Lamb vindaloo resonates with peppery heat and vinegary tang, while black lentils cooked in cream raises those legumes to glorious new heights. The breads – some whispering of mint, others stuffed with sauteed onions or minced lamb – come to the table warm and wonderful. And vegetarians are welcomed with such pleasures as okra blended with tomatoes, onion and mango powder and a luscious mush of sesame-sauced baby eggplant. Heritage India also offers a modestly attractive space, decorated with prints dating from the days of the Raj and seductive with the aromas of curry and smoke. Unfortunately, the service complaints I've collected over its short life outnumber the curries listed on the menu. I, too, can vouch for sullen greetings at the door, pitches to order more food than I want, and long lags between courses-followed, surprisingly, by a flurry of activity as waiters swoop in and ceremoniously apportion food for each diner at the table. But when my heart is set on eye-catching, palate-pleasing Indian cooking, I go prepared to put up with some indifference on the part of the staff.

    Huong Que The four sisters of Huong Que. (Molly Roberts)
Huong Que Restaurant
Also known as Four Sisters Restaurant. 6769 Wilson Blvd. (near Roosevelt Boulevard), Falls Church. 703-538-6717.
Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $7.95 to $24.95.

Service in the Washington area is so underwhelming these days that I'm surprised when I encounter attention that is intelligent, efficient and gracious. No wonder I'm smitten with this restaurant, one of dozens of businesses in the Eden Center, Northern Virginia's Vietnamese shopping center. Bright and attractive, this wide, open dining room is decorated with fresh orchids and friendly from the start. You might need some help ordering – the menu runs to an amazing 200 choices – but the servers take pride in introducing you to the dishes they like best. Here comes a plate of big, fat shrimp, spiked with garlic and ginger, followed by a lacquered roast quail. "It makes me hungry!" cries a waitress as she sets the bird down on our table; good on its own, the quail is better with a spritz of lime and a pinch of seasoned salt. Next come spring rolls, plump with shrimp and mint, and a salad of squid and peanuts that's laced with chilies but nothing a sip of young coconut juice can't tame. Condiments, including fish sauce, appear. "The ketchup and mustard of Vietnam," our waitress points out. Huong Que is not undiscovered: The owners of the Inn at Little Washington frequently sup here on their night off.

Inn at Little Washington
Middle and Main streets, Washington, Va. 540-675-3800.
Open: for dinner Wednesday through Monday. Also open Tuesday in May and October. MC, V. Fixed-price four-course dinner $98 to $138.

Something you might not know about this fabled dining destination: From the moment you enter to the time you depart, the Inn keeps tabs on you via a "mood rating" that registers your state of happiness over the course of a meal. Based on a 1-to-10 scale, the system is monitored by servers and kitchen staff, all of whom try to make sure, as a manager says, that "no one leaves with less than than a 10." As clever as the food can be at the Inn at Little Washington, it's the accumulation of thought and detail that keeps me coming back year after year. I'm impressed with the way the waiters pour water in unison. I love the silver tray of exquisite little hors d'oeuvres and demitasse of soup that follow the presentation of menus. And I'm tickled by the Inn's new cheese cart, in the form of a lifelike cow named Farrah, which is wheeled to the table bearing upwards of 50 cheeses (it even moos on request). After dinner, there's no place I'd rather kick back with a cognac than the Inn's posh "living room," a sumptuous lounge with English oak floors, a 17th-century Flemish tapestry, inlaid panels of gilded leather on the ceiling and hand-painted silk lamps from Venice. A visit isn't complete without a peek into chef Patrick O'Connell's four-star kitchen, its borders inscribed with the restaurant's five-stage summary of dining: "Anticipation, Trepidation, Inspection, Fulfillment and Evaluation." This may be a formal restaurant, but you know you're in the country when you see local rabbit braised in apple cider, or Virginia Riesling flavoring the lush sauerkraut beneath house-made boudin blanc. And diners can't help but smile at a twist on pineapple upside-down cake that involves rum- fueled flames at the table and a "coconut shell" fashioned from chocolate and ice cream. Definitely not Mom's recipe. Chef O'Connell and maitre d' Reinhardt Lynch are wizards who hope to dazzle you every minute, and for the most part, they succeed. Admittedly, hairline cracks sometimes appear, in the form of veal sweetbreads that are merely good, a waiter who disappears just when you want another glass of wine. People expect uninterrupted magic when the number on the bottom of their check mirrors their monthly grocery bill. But all's well again with a farewell of sweets, nestled in a miniature picnic basket for the ride home. The Inn may not always score a perfect 10, but leaving on a 91/2 is okay by me.

Jaleo
480 Seventh St. NW (near E Street). 202-628-7949.
Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday; for dinner daily; for brunch Sunday. All major credit cards. Valet parking at dinner. Entree prices: lunch $7.95 to $12.95, dinner $12.95 to $15.50.

A disclosure: Jaleo and I share a neighborhood. Before I got paid to eat, my best friend and I had a standing Sunday night date at this big party of a Spanish restaurant. So the staff recognizes me, and over several years of exploration, I've tried almost everything on the menu – the 50 or so tapas, rounded out with a few main dishes. Still, my allegiance to this restaurant has less to do with location and familiarity than with those appetizer-size dishes, which evoke the spirit of Madrid and Barcelona in every bite. Jose Andres, Jaleo's founding chef and resident muse, and Wayne Combs, the current chef de cuisine, serve innovative, soul-satisfying food that bridges every taste and budget. Picture tiny lamb chops napped with rosemary sauce, green beans rethought with aioli and fresh mint, juicy chorizo set on mashed potatoes, and perhaps organic baby tomatoes in a spectrum of colors, plucked from a manager's garden and invigorated with garlic vinaigrette. Grilled bread slathered with a paste of fresh tomatoes is a canvas for silvery anchovies; "Try them and your life will change forever," the menu promises, and the kitchen delivers. This is food with personality, the better for a friendly list of wines and a staff of efficient guides. Psst: Early next year, Jaleo plans to open a second location, in Bethesda.

Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn
458 Forest Beach Rd. (off Route 179), Annapolis. 410-757-1467.
Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $2.75 to $19.95; crabs $30 to $65 per dozen.

There really is a Jimmy and he lives near his scrappy namesake, which pulls in legions of crab eaters who don't mind tap-tap-tapping their way through a meal of hard-shells with wooden mallets. On a beautiful weekend afternoon, their Volkswagens and BMWs form a line that can stretch 20 cars long. Fans will tell you that you want to show up early for the best seats (outside, overlooking lazy Mill Creek) and the biggest crabs (offered in five sizes, from small to super jumbo, and dumped before you on paper-covered tables). Here's what else you should know: The potato salad and cole slaw take their cues from a Southern church social. The shell-on steamed shrimp are good, the big crab cakes are even better. And the service runs young, sweet and helpful. Cantler's big, dark dining room smells distinctly of sea and beer; the porch, heated in cool weather, brings you closer to the action on the water. After an hour or so of feasting, you may find yourself littered with bits of shell. Thank goodness for the tub-size wash basin out back.

Johnny's Half Shell
2002 P St. NW (near 20th Street). 202-296-2021.
Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $5.95 to $19.95, dinner $11.95 to $21.95.

When restaurateur John Fulchino and chef Ann Cashion opened Johnny's just over a year ago, they hoped to honor ingredients found in their own back yard – the Chesapeake – while evoking a sense of San Francisco's classic seafood houses. So they seated diners in Naugahyde-upholstered booths and around a marble-topped bar, dressed their servers in smart white coats and composed a menu that relied on impeccable ingredients simply prepared. Oysters raw and oysters fried. Roasted littleneck clams moistened with buttery, garlic-steeped juices. Crab imperial shows up creamy, rich and sprinkled with crisp, golden bread crumbs for contrast. And there's no finer seafood stew around than Johnny's quiet marvel of shrimp, mussels and fish, united in a broth that sings of fennel, orange and basil. Grape nuts have a short, intelligent and affordable wine list to choose from, and sweet tooths can look forward to homey fruit crisps and ice cream that tastes freshly churned. Don't expect pools of space between tables or an oasis of calm: When the place is at full tilt, the low ceilings and wood floors make for one of the noisiest restaurants around. But the people-watching is prime, the eavesdropping fun. (Did you hear what that Gore aide just said?)

Kaz Sushi Bistro
1915 I St. NW (near 20th Street). 202-530-5500.
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $9.50 to $15.50, dinner $11.25 to $22.

We showed up on a recent Friday afternoon with no reservations and found a dining room packed with people who looked as if they were in no rush to go back to work. Would we mind sitting at the sushi bar? a hostess wanted to know. Frankly, we were thrilled she didn't have a table to offer. As regulars know, the best seats in the house are the six stools directly in front of Kazuhiro Okochi – the masterful "Kaz" – and a gleaming display of raw fish and seafood. Show a little interest and Okochi might produce some delicious discovery from his shopping sprees. "Try this," he says, welcoming guests with a bite of pollock roe or bluefin tuna; dark as raw beef, the rare tuna is meatier and bolder than the usual bigeye or yellowfin varieties. Later, a little bowl of warm rice appears, topped with cool orange beads of salmon caviar, garnished with snips of nori (dried seaweed). "The fish was swimming in Washington state yesterday," he says of the caviar's source. Sitting at the sushi bar gives us the chance not only to watch this congenial showman wield a knife and coax great performances from his pristine ingredients, but also to glean knowledge from an artist. You'll find all the usual Japanese suspects here – tempura, teriyaki, seaweed salad – but my advice is to concentrate on the list of specials: salmon sushi brightened with a dot of mango puree, maybe, or raw scallop, its gentle sweetness balanced with a pinch of pureed lemon and cilantro. Tiramisu in a Japanese restaurant? Here it is light and creamy and flavored with green tea instead of coffee. Another sweet surprise.

Kinkead's
2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (near 20th Street). 202-296-7700.
Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday; for dinner daily; for brunch Sunday. All major credit cards. Valet parking at dinner. Entree prices: lunch $13 to $21, dinner about $21 to $29.

He's been riding high on the scene for years. Does Robert Kinkead really need all those framed accolades hanging in the foyer of the seafood restaurant that bears his name? By now, most food lovers know that they can always catch a fabulous piece of fish and a great glass of wine at Kinkead's. The lobster roll brings back memories of a summer in Maine, the tuna tartare sparkles, and trust me on this: Those crisp-fried Ipswich clams, teamed with fried lemon slices and homemade tartar sauce, are worth running another mile on the treadmill for. A lot of the cooking is busy, but it usually makes sense, roaming the world for inspiration. Baby red snapper might be deep-fried, sprinkled with peanuts, garnished with refreshing cucumber salad and positioned over a coconut-curry broth. Sublime. Cubes of tuna swim in a soup zippy with tomatillo and crunchy with tortilla strips. From closer to home, there's roasted cod crowned with crab imperial, an entree that shares its plate with moist spoon bread, tendrils of spinach, pureed sweet potatoes and (are we almost there?) a rousing mustard sauce. Rich stuff. Alas, a meal here is a lot less impressive when you're parked away from the action, in one of Kinkead's generic side rooms, and your waiter acts as if he's now serving customer No. 1,345,988. Better to land in a booth with a view of the open kitchen and the sounds of live piano and bass floating up from the honey-colored bar below. Desserts are showy – and too sweet.

Laboratorio del Galileo
1110 21st St. NW (near L Street). 202-331-0880.
Open: for several dinners weekly, depending on chef's schedule. All major credit cards. Valet parking at dinner. Fixed-price 10- to 12-course dinner $95 to $110.

The most extraordinary meal of 2000? I can still taste in my mind a Monday-night dinner a few weeks ago in the Laboratorio del Galileo, the premier dining room at Galileo. This glass-enclosed restaurant within a restaurant, with just 30 seats, is chef Roberto Donna's intimate playground, a chance for one of Italy's finest exports to demonstrate the range of his talent before a small audience of diners who have booked weeks in advance for the show. There may be up to a dozen courses, paired with wines by the glass if you opt for them, and no menu is ever duplicated. I won't soon forget a tiny quail egg centered on toasted bread and glistening with caviar – the world's most exquisite open-face egg sandwich. Or homemade pork sausage, veined with rich liver and positioned on a brush stroke of onion fondue. Risotto came sprinkled with bits of black truffle, and shredded cabbage was elevated by fresh lobster. "Baby goat!" announced Donna, carving the beast, moments from the oven, before enhancing each portion with a single, perfect artichoke and a sauce of olives. Hours drifted by, culminating in three lovely dessert courses, including a roasted pear, oozing a warm rivulet of chocolate as I sliced into it. Diners are encouraged to leave their seats and watch Donna and his team up close, and they do, bringing their wine glasses and their questions with them. Every nicety has been considered. Ladies are greeted with long-stemmed roses, prosecco is poured to ease guests into the evening, and dinner might end with a beautiful goblet of grappa-steeped cherries. If in Galileo's main dining room the servers sometimes treat anonymous diners brusquely or leave you to struggle through the epic Italian wine list on your own, the Laboratorio's suited staffers are definitely ready for prime time. At close to $200 a person, it's an extravagance. But have you checked the air fare to Italy lately?

Layalina Restaurant
5216 Wilson Blvd. (near North Florida Street), Arlington. 703-525-1170.
Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $9.95 to $14.95.

She pickles the turnips that garnish her dishes herself, and returns from vacations in Damascus with spices for her restaurant. "I put a lot of love in my cooking," Rima Kodsi tells her guests at Layalina, which she runs with her husband, Souhiel. She also infuses the dining room with a warm graciousness, stopping here to mother a favored customer, or there to initiate a newcomer to her specialties. Her menu includes plenty of familiar Middle Eastern flavors – garlicky chickpea dip, grape leaves, tabbouleh – while dipping into Syrian recipes that go back generations in her family. One of several stops on any tour here should be Kodsi's phyllo-wrapped lamb, baked with basmati rice, peas, raisins and a sweet spice rack of seasonings. Another destination features artichoke bottoms, stuffed with seasoned beef and draped in a tomato sauce with wine and tamarind; a dusting of roasted pine nuts completes the picture. Oh, the spinach-stuffed borek may be a little doughy, and the hard wooden chairs dictate a hasty exit after Layalina's rosewater-perfumed rice pudding (if you can, aim for one of the cushioned banquettes). But the joys of this family-owned restaurant, named for the owners' youngest daughter, outweigh such quibbles. If it's good enough for the Saudi ambassador, an occasional patron, it's good enough for us.

Marcel's
2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (at 24th Street). 202-296-1166.
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Valet parking. Entree prices: lunch $14 to $19, dinner about $22 to $39.

The waiters are formally suited and the patrons look as if they have some embassy dinners and exotic vacations under their designer belts. Yet this golden-glowing Foggy Bottom expanse is far from stuffy, thanks to warm stone walls, wrought-iron accents and a raised, open kitchen behind which cooks Robert Wiedmaier, a longtime fixture on the Washington dining scene. For his latest act, named for his young son, Wiedmaier is feeding us French fare with a Flemish touch. Picture sweet-fleshed, crisp-fried skate, enlivened with pepper and a lemony butter sauce and rimmed with velvety chanterelles. Or dominoes of rosy entrecote (steak), surrounded by spinach, a brassy Stilton cheese flan and rounds of skin-on red potatoes, and presented on a handsome rectangular plate. Wiedmaier's golden duck consomme, floating bites of sweetbreads, is an elegant introduction, though I can never resist ordering the boudin blanc (imagine mousse crossed with sausage). With its lusty ragout of cannellini beans, carrots, celery and smoky pancetta, it makes a perfect cool-weather dish. Need a little cheering up? For dessert, a couple of spoonfuls of Marcel's saffron-infused rice pudding, bedded on apricot chunks, should do the trick.

    Michel Richard Citronelle The filet mignon with onion fries at Michel Richard Citronelle. (Chad Dowling)
Michel Richard Citronelle
3000 M St. NW (at 30th Street). 202-625-2150.
Open: for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Valet parking. Prices: fixed-price breakfast $24, lunch entrees $16 to $25, fixed-price three-course dinner $65.

I hardly ever look at a menu here anymore. If Michel Richard is around, which is often, I just ask him to cook what he wants. A lot of food lovers do, actually. Nothing entertains the playful French chef more than the opportunity to show off his extraordinary talent and share his latest fashions with a rapt audience. First comes what looks like a crisp, golden french fry on steroids, but whose inside reveals (surprise!) sweet onion puree; a glistening line of black caviar adds a luxurious saline balance. Next might come a fragile, egg-shaped crab "beignet" set on a creamy base of avocado, encircled by a soft green band of chayote. A Faberge among crab cakes. Loup de mer in a sauce made from squid and its ink, the squid sliced in rings as thin as linguine, is a fish dish to remember. Richard trained as a pastry chef in Paris and cooked for years in Los Angeles before relocating to the East Coast three years ago. Eating this light and beautiful food, you get the sense that he would have been a sculptor or a painter had fate kept him from the stove. No wonder so many of his signature dishes, including his elegant twist on a Kit Kat bar, are copied by his competitors. There's more to savor here: Citronelle has a first-class sommelier, Mark Slater, who can produce bargain beauties, if you ask, from an inventory of some 500 wines. And its dining room is one of the city's most original. A luxuriously cool underground setting, it embraces a handsome, glass-enclosed wine cellar, a gleaming open kitchen and a hypnotic "mood wall" that changes hue every minute. There can be earthbound moments-clipped service if you're a mere unknown, a lesser salmon if the star is away. Even so, in a city crowded with monuments, Richard stands out as one of its most treasured.

Obelisk
2029 P St. NW (near 21st Street). 202-872-1180.
Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. DC, MC, V. Fixed-price five-course dinner: about $47 to $55.

Obelisk is such a reassuring restaurant. Small, spare and softly lit, the 36-seat dining room gives the illusion of someone's home. Its staff doesn't change much; the servers, helpful and gracious, are so knowledgeable about the food you'd swear they know the recipes by heart. And season after season, the kitchen offers some of the finest Italian cooking outside that country. Chef Peter Pastan may be an American, but his spirit is across the ocean, which means he cooks to the tune of the season and knows that good ingredients don't need much embellishment on their way to the table. Obelisk's set-price menu spans five courses, with no more than three or four choices per course. Still, it's tough deciding between supple fish ravioli, glossed with butter sauce, and feathery wide noodles tossed with chanterelles and fresh thyme. A knob of anchovy paste makes for a macho beef filet, while a green sauce that tastes of an herb garden enhances a plate of sweet grilled shrimp. Fine breads welcome you, and dessert sends you home on a sweet high; the ethereal Amarone-infused custard tastes like silk crossed with wine. From the handwritten menu to the band of mirrors positioned at eye level, a design detail that allows everyone a view, Obelisk is a restaurant of quiet distinction.

Prospects on Prospect Street
3203 Prospect St. NW (near Wisconsin Avenue). 202-298-6800.
Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $7.50 to $12.

An offshoot of Georgetown's Peacock Cafe a few doors away, this pint-size pizzeria packs a lot of style in its 20 seats. A big picture window frames the show on the street – a parade of cars you can't afford and bodies you wish you owned. Inside, soft gray walls, a blond wood banquette and Sade on the CD player conspire to turn the clock back a few minutes. The menu is short, basically salads and pizza. The former show up bountiful and "beautiful," as the lady sitting nearby exclaims at the sight of her first course. Consider a heap of tender baby spinach arranged with juicy cherry tomatoes, or, better yet, truffle-oil- perfumed arugula set off with sweet slices of mango and pear, along with dabs of goat cheese and a sprinkling of pine nuts. They're easily enough for two to share. From the gas-fired brick oven come a dozen or so pies of distinction: billowy and nicely chewy crusts scattered with the likes of sweet-spicy coins of lamb sausage and Roma tomatoes, or tender little shrimp with capers on a thin canvas of melted white cheeses. What must be Washington's tiniest smoking section awaits in the rear alcove – "the VIP Room," an owner calls the black leather couch and chair.

Rupperts
1017 Seventh St. NW (near New York Avenue). 202-783-0699.
Open: for lunch Thursday; for dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. AE, DC, MC, V. Valet parking. Entree price: $25.

Rupperts slips Washington a taste of Berkeley. Its contemporary American menu reads like haiku: "scallops with radish" among the appetizers, "foie gras and beef tongue with beets" for a main course. The servers might be wearing jeans, but they know the food as well as if they had prepared it themselves; they offer passionate descriptions to flesh out chef John Cochran's minimalist script, which he prints just before dinner, allowing him to incorporate last-minute finds from the market. The focus is on freshness, seasonality, a worldly appreciation of wine and a quiet generosity: Dinner is preceded by two "gifts from the chef," perhaps a spoonful of pureed Japanese eggplant followed by a shot glass of pureed salsify. A quartet of breads shows up warm from the oven, escorted by an assortment of spreads that run from farmer's cheese to cranberry bean. After dessert come more sweets, maybe a demitasse of chocolate mint ice cream and postage-stamp-size cookies. In between, you'll find such unusual pairings as seared rectangles of Angus beef on a little bed of crisp roasted okra, and monkfish displayed on three kinds of beans – marriages that make sense in your mouth, if not always in your mind. "This food is making me dizzy!" I overhear a woman rave one night. Rupperts redefines our notion of luxury dining, with pine floors, nonstop jazz and a warm sense of family – why, look, it's Sidra Forman, the chef's wife and pastry chef, showing off their young daughter, fresh from a nap in the wine cellar!

1789 Restaurant
1226 36th St. NW. (near Prospect Street). 202-965-1789.
Open: for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Valet parking. Entree prices: about $18 to $36.

The five dining rooms, each with its own theme, look as if they've been around forever, but everything's up to date in the kitchen of this Georgetown landmark. Chef Ris Lacoste reminds us that one of the great things about modern American cooking is that it isn't afraid to assimilate techniques and flavors from faraway. So she puts Thai peanut soup and a "margarita" of scallops on her menu, along with more straightforward but no less imaginative fare. Her superlative roasted rack of lamb comes out with potatoes layered with tangy feta cheese, and halibut gets a sidekick of mushroom-laced bread pudding. Some of the waiters at 1789 have been around a long time, too, and they're wonderful. When I inquire about that seafood margarita, my genial server rhapsodizes about scallops marinated in lime, teamed with avocado and cilantro, and crowned with a bracing scoop of tequila ice – "the best part!" he says, breaking into a smile. Stay for dessert: Pastry chef Terri Horn makes it worth any lecture from your cardiologist. The warm fruit tart honors whatever season it is, and the grand ice cream sundae is showered with honey-roasted nuts. Where to sit? The dignified John Carroll Room, with a fireplace and prints of early Washington, gets my vote for most romantic, but even the clubby bar is a good host. Show up at the restaurant before 6:45 p.m. and you can take advantage of the pre-theater menu: three courses plus coffee or tea for $29.

Sushi-Ko
2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW (near Calvert Street). 202-333-4187.
Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday; for dinner daily. AE, MC, V. Valet parking. Entree prices: $10.50 to $18.50.

Age has only improved Washington's grande dame of sushi bars. Twenty-four years old, with spare good looks, Sushi-Ko continues to forge new paths. Burgundy with raw fish? The owners teach us that red wine and Japanese cooking are not only compatible, but wonderful together. Something as basic as miso soup is dressed up with fat smoked mussels, enoki mushrooms and diced eggplant, to delicious effect. And if you think all wasabi tastes the same, you have yet to sample (for $2.50 extra) fresh Japanese horseradish – sweet, sharp, coarse-textured and a revelation to those who have had it only in a powdered, reconstituted state. Sushi-Ko's delicate vegetable tempura reveals a knack for frying; its selection of raw fish is first-rate. Venture beyond the standards into an ever-changing list of "small plates" for more thrills: Succulent, delicately spiced quail. Baby octopus, grilled until its edges are caramelized, and served on a plate painted with clear green chive oil and splotches of mango puree. Maybe broiled green mussels, cloaked in a creamy mayonnaise spiked with cayenne and spicy sesame oil. Here's a restaurant that thinks through the details, from the welcoming hot cloths before the meal to a farewell of sake sorbet, elegantly presented in a martini glass. Mmmmmm – fire and ice in every bite. Small wonder there's a line in the foyer most nights.

Vidalia
1990 M St. NW (near 20th Street). 202-659-1990.
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Valet parking at dinner. Entree prices: lunch $13.95 to $19.50, dinner $23.50 to $29.

When friends come to town, hoping to experience some Southern charm, one of the places I like to take them is Vidalia. "It's underground?" my guests ask dubiously as they descend the restaurant's staircase. But then the dining room embraces them with its sunny yellow walls, its comfortable banquettes and a staff that knows how to coddle. Warm, moist corn bread and refreshing lemonade with a hit of rosemary help erase any remaining doubts. And Peter Smith's menu is full of interesting side tours, all delivered in Mom-worthy portions. A perennial hit, shrimp and grits, elegantly links sea with field; the impeccable, sweet shrimp and coarse-creamy ground corn are as good as any I've savored in Charleston, where that dish is practically a staple. A full-flavored roast pork loin comes with broccoli rabe, herbed spaetzle and cilantro-spiked meat juices. Some meals lean toward the homey and comforting, like a crisp chicken breast encircled by carrots, celery and (too doughy) dumplings. Others demonstrate a more refined touch, like the rabbit napoleon, outfitted with morel mushrooms and a leek confit. Proof that not all pecan pies are created equal: Vidalia's thankfully not-too-sweet slice, generous with nuts and served warm with chocolate sauce and a scoop of bourbon-laced ice cream. But then, this restaurant is all about hospitality, right down to the amenities it stocks in its restrooms (think mouthwash and hair spray), to keep you feeling your best.

Willow Grove Inn
14079 Plantation Way (off Route 15), Orange, Va. 540-672-5982.
Open: for dinner Thursday through Sunday; for brunch Sunday. Closed Monday through Wednesday. All major credit cards. Fixed-price three-course dinner $48.

"Someone will be right with you!" the Saturday night pianist cheerfully calls out from across the parlor when she notices we've been standing in the foyer a few minutes. The floors creak with age and the wallpaper looks as if it has lived a very full life. The Willow Grove Inn, named for the trees on this former plantation, is a charmingly eccentric destination, one worth knowing about if you like to eat regionally and seasonally. Chef Eliza Abbey's short, thoughtful, three-course menu ($48 a person, not including dessert) changes frequently but always includes plenty to tempt diners: petite smoked-trout cakes, sparked with lemon zest and sharpened with horseradish cream sauce; a flossy salad of mixed greens, mostly from local gardens, with a lovely peanut vinaigrette; moist, flavor-packed, smoke-roasted Cornish game hen, flanked by buttery whipped potatoes and bright green broccoli. If the rack of lamb, paved in toasted nuts, tends toward the salty, the meat itself is rosy and succulent. And that cloud of whipped cream and glossy caramel sauce on the moist pineapple upside-down cake are the real deals. (Just try not to fill up beforehand on the kitchen's homey rolls, fragrant with yeast.) This is a restaurant that revels in old-fashioned details. Bathed in candlelight, the three Federal-style dining rooms, decorated with somber portraits of long-ago gentry, transport me to another time; I can imagine a traveler supping a century or two ago from the same heirloom sterling silver and china, set on antique linens, and being served by similar gracious hosts.

Yanyu
3435 Connecticut Ave. NW (near Ordway Street). 202-686-6968.
Open: for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. AE, DC, MC, V. Valet parking. Entree prices: $14 to $36.

"It's kind of expensive for Asian," I've heard people say about Yanyu, one of the city's most alluring places to eat. To which I respond: Consider the parade of beautiful plates and bowls. Note the dramatic murals of long-ago Chinese royalty, the booths wrapped in fabric imprinted with Japanese calligraphy, the waiters' shirts that suggest spun gold. Now taste. Jessie Yan's delicate pan-fried vegetable dumplings are so light they practically float off their plate, and her calamari is fried to crisp, golden perfection, then tossed with slivers of green chilies and enlivened with a pleasing honey-lemon sauce. Big, sweet prawns sport a nubby coat of spiced salt and crisp bits of garlic. If the sea bass poised atop roasted scallions and the eggplant moistened with garlic sauce are merely good, there's much else that's habit-forming. Graciously presented, it's all far, far removed from your neighborhood Chinese hangout. A lovely ritual follows a request for tea, and unlike so many Asian outposts, this place takes wine seriously. Four tasting menus, including a $35 option for vegetarians, span a range of hits.

 

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