Dining CapsulesRestaurants recently reviewed by Eve Zibart.
FONTINA GRILLE (801 Pleasant Dr. in the King Farm Village Center, Rockville; 301-947-5400. Metro: Shady Grove) -- After a shaky start, this more modern, suburban offshoot of Germantown's Cafe Mileto is turning out imaginative and often bright vegetarian pastas, good pizza, fairly reliable seafood and solid but not over-heavy chicken and veal dishes. Among appetizers, the seared scallops and butternut sauce and the occasional special of sausage-stuffed calamari are fine; the roast eggplant orzo is rich enough to be a small entree. Cordon bleu-like veal Valdostano with Madeira sauce is nicely balanced; sea bass is well-roasted with a good fennel confit. And the ravioli, though somewhat bland, is ethereally light. Entrees $10-$22.
AFGHAN RESTAURANT (2700 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Alexandria; 703-548-0022) -- Man may not live by nan alone, but the platter-size grilled bread at this bustling Middle Eastern kitchen clearly has addicted men, women and kids of all nationalities (the multilingual din here is hilarious, even when there isn't a wedding reception in the party room). The menu is uniformly satisfying, but high points include the flaky potato-stuffed boulawnee, scallion-stuffed ravioli-like aushak with lentils and yogurt, the bouranee baunnjaun (sauteed eggplant with yogurt), kadu (sweet stewed pumpkin), quabili (seasoned rice with lamb, raisin and carrots) and the grilled marinated lamb rib chops, still pink and juicy. Entrees $6.95-$13.95.
HOUSE OF FORTUNE (11401 Woodglen Dr., Rockville; 301-230-2266. Metro: White Flint) -- There's a long menu for the squeamish and even steak-ish at this low-key restaurant -- two, actually, as this is also the house of Talay Thai -- but the hard-to-find Szechuan specialties are the real draw. Start easy with the baby shrimp in scallion pesto, diced roast rabbit and the pine nut-laden chopped chicken to be wrapped in lettuce "tacos." Move to the quail-like duck's tongues, braised beef with napa cabbage or the crispy whole fish with a thickened, dark-sweet pork reduction. Then hit the heavy stuff: tripe or tendon or tongue in chili dressing; and the meltingly tender steamed fresh bacon made deadly by garlic paste (on the side, fortunately). Entrees $5.95-$18.95.
PLANET X (35 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth, Del.; 302-226-1928) -- This once vegan-centric cafe still looks like Sheena's boudoir, with its X-treme purple paint and leopard print throws, but menu-wise, it's definitely changed its spots. Flavors range from Moroccan (lamb) to Provencal (scallops), from Middle Eastern (chicken) to tandoori (tofu), but among the most intriguing dishes are warm smoked salmon quesadillas; heart-y artichoke dip; panko-dipped eggplant with Boursin and puttanesca sauce; crispy duck confit with blackened kale; red Thai curry with seafood (or seitan) and lemon rind-studded rice; and artichoke enchiladas. Parents rejoice: Kids love the pita pizza. Entrees $19-$29. Not wheelchair accessible.
ATHENIAN CAFE (10553 Theodore Green Blvd. at Route 5/301, White Plains, Md.; 301-932-1618) -- This family-run and family-friendly strip-mall restaurant is an old-fashioned treat, thanks as much to its hospitable staff as to its reliable fare. Forget Polly-O: Stretchy, flaming saganaki will mesmerize the kids. The flounder fillet, folded around a huge mound of crabmeat in a lightly cheesy cream sauce, is worth the drive. Other high points: mixed seafood pasta with carefully sauteed scallops, shrimp and calamari; the seafood combo, all of the above plus the stuffed fish; generously cut roast pork loin; double-cut lamb chops; and tangy spanakopita. Entrees $9.95-$21.95.
STRIPER BITES (107 Savannah Rd., Lewes, Del.; 302-645-4657) -- Pan-roasted halibut topped with mango, melted brie and a Thai red curry sauce is but one of the kitchen's witty and happy twists. Among others: portobellos stuffed with mango salsa and jack cheese with roasted pepper-almond "pesto"; rockfish with Parmesan crusting and pesto drizzle; meaty grilled salmon with earthy black olive salsa; margarita shrimp with chipotle-lime aioli; and grilled yellowfin tuna with scallion relish. And the crab cakes give "lump" a good name. Entrees $15-$19.
PALLADIO (17655 Winery Rd. at Barboursville Winery, Barboursville, Va.; 540-832-3824) -- The food is a little overshadowed by the fine wines, but the quality of ingredients high and the presentations thoughtful without being fussy; with a bit of fine-tuning, this could easily be the best vineyard restaurant in the area. The fixed-price menu changes regularly, but look for the likes of shredded duck confit with fresh bitter frisee; risotto with asparagus; and respectfully cooked, if reticently dressed, salmon, roast duck and carpaccio. Four-course dinner $54, with paired wines $75.
FRANKLIN'S RESTAURANT & BREWERY (5123 Baltimore Ave./Route 1, Hyattsville; 301-927-2740) -- The menu is ambitious in its length and a little erratic in execution, but the atmosphere is a hoot (check out the general store) and the mussels Fra Diavolo would put many a downtown trattoria to shame. The barbecue (pulled, rib or chicken, dry or wet) is good, the burgers and "griller" sandwiches hearty. Best bar bite: sweet and spicy chicken wings with pickled bok choy ribs; juicy beef satay; the rosti-like potato-ham-and-cheese pizza alla Roberto. Just expect to be rushed and crushed, thanks to a tight reservations policy and long, appreciative lines. Entrees $5.50-$16.95.
1331 (1331 Pennsylvania Ave. NW in the J.W. Marriott Hotel; 202-393-6969. Metro: Federal Triangle) -- It may look (and occasionally sound) like an airport executive lounge, but if airline food were this good, we wouldn't be complaining about layovers: greaseless and delicious Philippine spring rolls; diced shrimp, scallop and chicken finger wraps; charred cilantro satay with asparagus stir-fry; crab cake with lobster tempura; sea bass stuffed with lump crabmeat. And its late hours -- till 1 a.m. daily -- make it prime for post-theater dining. Entrees $14-$28.
RESTAURANT SEVEN (8521 Leesburg Pike, Tysons Corner; 703-847-0707) -- This carnival-bright restaurant with its three-ring action (tapas, cafe and dining room) is not only smart but quick-witted: "steak and potatoes" of tartare and potato "stix"; cheese-stuffed morel "poppers"; foie gras on French toast with pear marmalade. Among other high points: lamb sausage with harissa; snapper in roasted tomato broth; a fine merguez-stuffed veal loin with house-preserved lemons and veal glace. The presentations are showy, but pay close attention to the sauces; like the rowdies hanging on to the acrobats' ropes, they're the real lifelines. Cafe entrees $10.95-$14.95; dining room entrees $25-$29.
MATISSE (4934 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-244-5222. Metro: Tenleytown) -- Prodigal chef Jacques Ford is giving this always good-looking restaurant cafe fare to match: elegantly simple but striking, more Chanel than south of France. His perfectly cooked quail and "stuffed" soft-shell crabs are fresh takes on overfamiliar dishes; his seared scallop, pea and fava appetizer was just glazed by caramelized onions; and the seared rockfish with parsnips was a change-up on a local fave, playing up its meatiness. Sunday brunch is a strong point, too. Entrees $18-$26.
CAFE BETHESDA (5027 Wilson Lane, Bethesda; 301-657-3383. Metro: Bethesda) -- Like Georgetown's 1789, this neighborhood-establishment fave caters to its older, conservative clientele with classic regional fare -- lamb, venison, salmon, duck -- but takes a fresh enough approach to seasonings and sauces to surprise new-generation Bethesdans in search of intimacy. Try the Provencal-tinged crab cakes with fennel and orange remoulade; eggplant rolled around goat cheese and spunked up with roasted peppers; balsamic-glazed scallops with lentils; and creamless, seamless seafood pasta. Entrees $23-$29. Not wheelchair accessible.
LA MICHE (7905 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-0707. Metro: Bethesda) -- Newly arrived chef-owner Jason Tepper has already taken a load off this once cream sauce- and pork-heavy French country inn without losing much of its old-fashioned appeal (or any of its rustic appurtenances). Among the best items are a light vichyssoise; fun-viscous frog legs; braised tripe in a tomato-wine sauce; a lovely light lobster pasta; and a sort of semi-Kobe onglet with more flavor than its model. Don't worry: Grand Marnier souffle is still on the menu. Entrees $17.95-$26.95. Not wheelchair accessible.
COPPI'S (1414 U St. NW; 202-319-7773. Metro: U Street-Cardozo) -- It may be running against the abondonza tide, but Coppi's assured, unfussy seasonal fare is welcome palate relief from all those oversize and overdressed "Italian specialties" (and it's extra-user friendly for wheat- and additive-intolerant diners). Baby artichoke pesto, gnocchi in green tomato sauce, cracker-crisp cornmeal-fried sheep and goat's cheese, bistecca with porcini and pine nuts, corvina with fennel and fennel seed, green chard linguine with mushrooms and lemon-fresh parsley, and fresh ravioli stuffed and sauced with wine-braised beef -- all prepared in the wood-burning pizza oven. Did we mention the pizza? Entrees $13.95-$17.95.
PACIFIC -- 46240 Potomac Run Plaza, Sterling; 703-404-5500. With its free-thinking culinary relish, its smart and ingratiating service and its over-the-top "exotic" decor, Pacific is one of the few truly fresh pan-Asian restaurants in the area, and with a menu long enough to keep you sailing for a while. You could dine well on appetizers -- grilled Japanese eggplant topped with crab and peanuts, sticky rice shumai, pork satay and scallion pancakes -- but you'd miss the green curry seafood pot; Sichuan asparagus with honey walnuts; roast pork in golden nugget sauce; and the wok-fried filet mignon with ground rice and red- and green-peppercorn crust. Entrees $8.95-$22.75.
GOOD FORTUNE CAFE -- 235 Kentlands Blvd. (Kentlands Square Shopping Center), Gaithersburg; 301-216-2828. Although fairly predictable in general, the food here is generous and moderately priced -- even more so when it comes to the daily specials. Look for whole crispy fish, carefully tended squid dishes, roast pork, sizzling platter salmon -- and if you want spicy, make it extra clear. The noodles are pretty good; the sushi is fair; the fish tank is for looks. Entrees $6.75-$13.95.
THAI TANIC -- 1326 14th St. NW; 202-588-1186. In a town filled with theatrical Thai decors, Thai Tanic's is no less cinematic -- retro-kitsch sparkly red vinyl chairs, swirly metallic tables, shards of ship's metal and underwater murals -- but it's a perfect spot for pre-little theater dining and a fine stage for unexpectly good food. Check the lemon grassy steamed mussels, particularly good yum nua (spicy beef salad) and yum ped yang (roast duck salad with ginger and lime/chili sauce); seafood ka pow stir-fries; the almost Texas-style sliced beef nua ka-ting; and green or red curries. As to that Bangkok Sunset cocktail -- three and it's curtains for you. Entrees $8.95-$12-95.