Dining CapsulesRestaurants recently reviewed by Eve Zibart.
TROPICS (13016 Middlebrook Rd. in the Germantown Commons Shopping Center; 301-972-9300) -- Even if you weren't raised on Southern or soul food, there's something intrinsically "homestyle" about this West African/Caribbean/geechee kitchen, which offers patrons a way to explore gumbo cuisine from the more familiar (fried chicken, rum-barbecued ribs, cheese biscuits) to the ethnic standards (jerk chicken, goat curry) and on to the cassava leaf-, okra- and palm nut butter-flavored stews. These often combine meats and seafoods, but don't overlook the variety of starches here: jasmine rice and jollof (sort of the Western biryani); fermented maize called kenke; and a range of cassava products from yucca fries to gari fufu. Entrees $8.95-$14.95.
EL CHALAN (1924 I St. NW; 202-293-2765. Metro: Farragut West or Foggy Bottom) -- For more than 20 years, the pretty little basement restaurant has been making fresh-flavored and easy-to-admire Peruvian fare such as a light and likable arroz con mariscos (seafood-flavored rice); tangy ceviche; flavorful and just slightly "pickled" goat stew; and grill-scented lomo saltado, like unwrapped beef fajitas with french fries mixed right in. Tripe fans, look in at lunch for the cau cau with peas and potatoes. Entrees $11.95-$20.95. Not wheelchair accessible.
SIENA'S (11417 Woodglen Dr., Rockville; 301-770-7474. Metro: White Flint) -- The list of negatives on this menu -- no meat, no coffee, no-rennet cheeses, no expensive decor -- might be considered a positive blessing, especially if you are octo-lacto vegan, Jainist, Buddhist, observe kosher or halal diets, or just like pizza. Or are on a tight budget. Siena's doughs are unusually good, with flavor and crunch instead of garlic salt and grease. The entrees are anything but haute, but they are certainly filling: Big carryout-style tin dishes of lasagna, manicotti, cacciatore (not traditional, but hearty) and so on smothered in homemade marinara and not too heavy into cheese. If you overlook the fettucini Alfredo, you could almost consider the entire menu virtuous. Note pre-dusk closing on Friday and no daylight hours on Saturday to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Pizzas $8.95-$20,95; entrees $5.45-$8.95.
EL NOPALITA GRILL (2259 Bel Pre Rd. in the Plaza del Mercado, Silver Spring; 301-598-1736) -- Mexican restaurants are finally thinking not only outside the bun, but outside the burrito as well; and this presentation-conscious establishment is actually better at the non-stereotypical dishes, particularly the seafood: crab and shrimp-stuffed poblanos, mixed simmered seafood platters, nopalita-topped sea bass, nightly specials of rockfish and lobster quesadillas, etc. Husk-steamed tamales, including a duck version, are very good. The chicken is carefully tended, though its mole is too sweet for a perfect match, and the salsa is pedestrian. Expect a leisurely dinner, too; service is also well outside the fast-food box. Entrees $10.95-$16.95.
GERTRUDE'S (North Charles and 31st streets in the Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore; 410-889-3399) -- The eponymous Miss Gertie, grandmother to Chesapeake Bay chef-author John Shields, would surely recognize the various crab imperials and barbecues here, not to mention the very fine single-fry oysters, pile-it-on seafood salads and other surf standards. But she'd be pleasantly surprised by the long list of fusion-ish turf and imaginative vegetarian dishes, notably the "I Can't Believe It's Not Crab" cakes (grated zucchini patties), the five-spice chicken and its moo shu offshoot, the Southeast Asian veggie curry and the nine Column-A entrees and 17 Column-B sauces. And the pleasantly smart but spare decor and view of the museum's sculpture garden makes this a pleasant destination even after gallery hours. Entrees $10.95-26.95.
MAXIM (1725 F St. NW; 202-962-0280. Metro: Farragut West) -- This retro-Russian/East European restaurant and late-night Euro hot spot can be erratic, especially earlier in the week; but a sampling of the 100-plus vodkas, some Silberian pelmeni (cresent-shaped dumplings), garlicky Georgian eggplant rolls and spiced pork tenderloin, and you'll be up circle-kicking with the crowd. The sturgeon and salmon are quite good, though the lean, gamy hare can be dry and dispirited and the Stroganov bland. But who wouldn't enjoy a splurge of bear and beluga amid that old-fashioned elegance? Entrees $21-$32.