Dining Capsules

Restaurants previously reviewed by Eve Zibart:

OKRA'S LOUISIANA BISTRO (9110 Center St., Manassas; 703-330-2729) -- Easy on the eyes (exposed brick, confetti-splattered ceiling, Bourbon Street poster art) and reasonably Big Easy on the palate, this family-friendly roadhouse deserves credit for generous servings and for grease hot and fresh enough to produce dangerously good alligator bites and fried okra easily worth the bistro's signature. It also keeps a close eye on the meats, and a calculating hand on the Tabasco. But the blackening is tourist-food heavy and a little acrid (the ancho-flavored salmon excepted) and the vegetarian dirty rice forgettable. Entrees $9.95-$19.95. Not wheelchair accessible.

NEW ORLEANS BISTRO (4907 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-8833. Metro: Bethesda) -- This more elegant, Garden District-look room, with cafe au lait walls and vintage b/w photos of jazz musicians, promises a little more in the way of balance and sophistication than it yet delivers -- carelessly cloying cream sauces, okra-less gumbos, one-note seasonings, salty or spicy -- but it's still new, and there are signs of promise. The fried green tomatoes are fine, as is the remoulade; shrimp etouffee had a properly dark base and a generous crowning of shrimp; and the fried oysters were cradled in an almost tempura-light batter. Now if they can just master baking biscuits . . . Entrees $12.25-$23.95.

CENTRO ITALIAN GRILL (4838 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda; 301-951-1988. Metro: Bethesda) -- Just when you think your palate has frostbite, Centro slides you a plate of gnocchi so fine-grained you think it had been passed through silk instead of stainless steel, and slicks it with unctuous veal cheek ragu. For that, and for the painstakingly reduced mushroom stuffings, much would be forgiven (over-seared scallops, aggressively sweet-sour pomegranate sauce on the quail). And for the sake of the huge wild boar crostini, the Italian ploughman's lunch, I'd gladly add a few rounds on the treadmill. Centro finally cooks as smart as it looks. Entrees $16-$30.

TEXACAN BEEF AND PORK CO. (21750 Red Rum Dr., Ashburn; 703-858-5565 or 877-877-8766) -- While it may not be as chunky, as fun or (fortunately) as fatty as hand-pulled pork belly, the barbecues from this clean-as-a-whistle high-tech kitchen are pretty darn good, distinctly sauced, though only moderately hot, and unusually convenient. Pop the vacuum pack in the microwave for a couple of minutes and it's ready to go. The chicken is a little sweet (it makes quick Brunswick stew); and the neat meat size of all flavors is particularly handy for kids. Go in for carryout lunch and get three ribs, a sandwich and a soft drink for only $6. And through the end of this month, all retail sales are donated to tsunami relief. Note, it closes by 6:30. Sandwiches $2.50, barbecue $8-$9, ribs $10-$17.

BARE BONES (20260 Goldenrod Lane in the Hampton Inn, Germantown; 301-916-3700) -- This relocated Gaithersburg family favorite is the opposite of Texacan -- mostly sit-down, wood rather than stainless steel, a full bar, afternoon/evening hours and TVs in full force -- but however old-fashioned, the BBQ is a biiiiig draw. Ribs are famously the house specialty, especially the pork baby backs; and while the Texas prime-rib chops are rather fatty, they are obviously bovine and the meat falls off the bone. Take 'em out, cut 'em off and stew for ragu. Appetizers $4.75-$15.95; entrees $11.95-$25.50.

CILANTRO (3241 M St. NW; 202-334-6247) -- This is the sort of relaxed, hospitable, all-day-hours place whose overall satisfaction rating is better than the sum of its parts. The tapas are always interesting and often pleasing, the wine list adequate (although some sherry might be nice) and the mojitos first-rate. Good bets include the paella (for two); eggplant Catalana, a sort of batterless parmigiana; soujouk, a lightly spicy beef sausage; the more substantial tequila duck; and the mixed mezze platter, with nice hummus, baba ghanouj and lemony dolmades. Tapas $5.50-$11.50.

BOMBAY (11229 New Hampshire Ave. in the White Oak Shopping Center, Silver Spring; 301-593-7222) -- Even in a time when shopping strip restaurants can be quite good, this meticulous Indian kitchen stands out: for its complex and carefully thought out seasonings, its layered sauces and its deft timing. The chicken tikka masala, with its hint of sweetness and roasty-tomato sauce, puts most butter chicken to shame. Goat curry is nutty, spicy, gamy, rich and aromatic all at once. Almond-milky lamb korma is more Persian, lightly spicy and sweet; Bombay biryani, with its variety of meats and shrimp, gets its real power from the quality of its rice; and the bhindi masala, sauteed okra, is as good as it gets. Entrees $7.95-$14.95.

CASSATT'S (4536 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-527-3330) -- This "Kiwi cafe," referring to the New Zealand casual mindset, not the fruit, takes on family-style dining in a new and, considering the tight space, remarkably successful way -- fast food their way, to paraphrase Jacques Pepin. With an easy, affordable and just-variable-enough menu of sandwiches (particularly the turkey BLT) and good but not pretentious mains (really good scallops and flavorful lamb), New World wines and espresso drinks, plus the lure of eggs Benedict on weekends and a built-in babysitter on Thursdays, it's no wonder it's a neighborhood staple. Panini $7.34, entrees $9.87-$15.60.

AMICI MIEI (1093 Seven Locks Rd. in the Potomac Wood Plaza, Rockville; 301-545-0966) -- Deft, meticulous and rigorously polished, the food at "My Friends' Place" almost convinces you to take the name seriously, especially when the joint is jumping with three-generational families and the expansive staff. Don't miss the simply grilled seafood, the fabulous vitello tonato, the veal-stuffed ravioli or, when available, the venison stew -- and don't let the heft of the osso bucco distract you from the delicacy of the polenta. And if you're in the mood for pizza, make sure to spring for the buffalo mozzarella. Entrees $11.95-$21.95.

JERK PIT (8145-C Baltimore Ave./Route 1, College Park; 301-441-4786) -- Pack your appetite and leave the dry-cleanables at home, because this friendly Jamaican grill gives "finger-lickin' good" a whole new meaning. The wings are particularly fine, moist and with a layered, nutty-dark rub with insinuating rather than wham-bam heat; the Pop-Tart size patties -- stuffed with your choice of ground beef, chicken, shrimp or greens -- are flaky and have their own sly spicing; and the pork, though traditionally left a little fatty, has the most allspice punch. Watch for bones in the jerk and curry chicken, and for Friday night oxtail stew. Entrees $5.95-$12.

NOOSHI (1120 19th St. NW; 202-298-3138. Metro: Dupont Circle or Farragut North) -- This stylish and savvy pan-Asian establishment -- its nickname is a contraction of Oodles Noodles, its original moniker, and "sushi" -- has always served up bowls o' plenty at moderate prices, especially when it comes to variously flavored noodles, though sometimes with wan or, more likely, Americanized or "pan"-homogenized seasonings. (There are also occasionally nights when there seems an odd shortage of vegetables, for those who prefer the "greener" mixes.) That concept carries over to the sushi bar, which has nightly all-you-can-eat menus for $25 or $30; it's not always expert but of good quality. Presentation is, as always, chic and also smart, such as the stainless steel basket tray beneath the fried calamari; and the service is savvy. Find a few favorites and go with them. Entrees $7.25-$12.50.

SINGAPORE BISTRO (1134 19th St. NW; 202-659-2660. Metro: Dupont Circle or Farragut North) -- The sushi chefs at this low-key Asian cafe have trained at some of the more serious Japanese restaurants in town, and it shows (particularly in the rice), although fans of its happy hour prices may not even notice. The noodle and soup dishes vary in quality, but if you can establish a serious spice preference so that the kitchen doesn't feel required to rewrite recipe history, you can find some real bargains: mee goring, the Indonesian veggie-noodle toss; seasoned and barely panko-breaded calamari (also on the happy hour menu); grilled lime chicken; and the sushi. Entrees $7.95-$11.95. Not wheelchair accessible.

HARD TIMES CAFE (1404 King St., Alexandria; 703-837-0050. Metro: King Street. Thirteen other area locations) -- This 25-year-old family-friendly local chain still serves up bargain bowls of chili -- Texas-style coarse ground, the family recipe; slightly sweet, cinnamony Cincinnati style; mushroomy veggie; and somewhat spicier, competition-style Terlingua Red -- and all the fixin's, from neutral spaghetti and cheese to potent jalapenos and chili vinegar, but nowadays it also serves up good grilled chicken, salmon and even some of those smaller, old-fashioned steaks you don't need to refinance for (not at all locations). Chili from $5.79, entrees $8.99-$10.99 (prices may vary slightly).

PASHA CAFE (3911 N. Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-528-1111) -- This low-key, cheery and increasingly sure-footed neighborhood restaurant follows the spirit, if not the letter, of the nearby original cafe (now Portabellos, which shares ownership with Pasha). Easy-tempered, and with food just as easy to get along with, Pasha offers Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fare that ranges from the familiar dips and purees (notably a pungent-sweet blend of roasted peppers, walnuts and pomegranate called maramar, the all-in-one hummous shawarma with lamb and chopped tomatoes and the summer cooler zucchini pureed called kosa bel zabadi) to parsley-peppery tabbouleh, lightly spiced shrimp with dry-sauteed okra, fine artichoke ravioli in sun-dried tomato sauce and citrus-marinated salmon. Don't look for spice here, indulge in texture. Entrees $7.50-$19.95.

DIVINO (7345-B Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 240-497-0300. Metro: Bethesda) -- Be cool, at least in the beginning: The kitchen of this Argentine steakhouse and tapas lounge takes a little while to get warmed up, and there are plenty of cold tapas to choose from early in the cocktail hour (and often a little complementary tasting); but once the grill gets agoing, the going gets hot. Don't miss the custard-soft grilled sweetbreads, the skirt steak, mushroom mousse with white asparagus sauce, stuffed eggplant, marinated semi-boneless quail, lamb or venison and, surprisingly, fish of the day. Paellas come mostly for two, but there are some tapa-size versions, or try the lobster cazuela. Tapas $5-$8; entrees $14-$32.

SOBE SEAFOOD CO. (3100 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 703-528-0033. Metro: Clarendon) -- This South Beach-style (hence the name) may a little more style-conscious than substantive, and the staff can get a little wired; but the kitchen getting its rhythm down, and already pays unusual attention to presentation details. But pace yourself; most dishes are generous, especially the appetizers. Try the jerk shrimp, spinach-artichoke dip, crab-crusted salmon, no-too-marinated tuna or fried calamari. The caesar salad dressing may not be egg-sactly authentic, but it's pretty good. Entrees $10-$20.

MISS SAIGON (11 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-838-9070. Metro: Rockville) -- This youngest member of the popular Washington restaurant family wouldn't win the local talent competition, but it could make a good case for the beauty title, and Miss Congeniality as well. The kitchen's main failing is a curious blandness that spoils the effect of its crunchy and grease-free batters, gentle stir-fries and not-tangy-enough salads; and it has an excess sweet tooth as well that makes the "caramel" dishes near-desserts. On the other hand, the vegetarian dishes (especially the mock duck), the grilled meats and chicken (fragrant roast quail), anise-scented beef noodle soup, clay pots and huge "lobster shrimp" can be real treats. Entrees $7.95-$17.95.

ESPUMA (28 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach, Del.; 302-227-4199) -- Jay Caputo's modern Mediterranean style is still evolving, and occasionally his curiosity makes him just clever, but he understands restraint: His food is never boring, often intentionally comic or smart, and frequently elating. Don't miss the foie gras dish of the moment; crisped duck confit cut by cherries and manchego cheese; caramelized diver scallops with a black truffle-mushroom raviolo, or the coriander-crusted -- really dusted -- rockfish with baby artichokes, a smattering of prosciutto and fabulously sillken Robuchon potato gnocchi. Entrees $21-$35.

CABANAS (K Street in Washington Harbour; 202-944-4242. Metro: Foggy Bottom) -- Under the gentling hand of longtime area chef Hector Guerra, this restive Nuevo Latino establishment is trying to settle into its paces, though still with uncertain results. Its strongest points are more along the drinking and nibbling lines than pure dining, and the lounge is a real draw; but among good bets are the guacamole, crab fritters, coconut shrimp, various quesadillas, tortilla-crusted salmon and simply grilled seafoods. Entrees $9-$24.

DC BOAT HOUSE (5441 MacArthur Blvd. NW; 202-362-2628) -- It's not the food that makes this Palisades cafe such a popular neighborhood hangout, but the family atmosphere, complete with the "living room" sofa seating behind the dining room (and, no doubt, the neighborly sized drinks). Let the butcher-paper table covers and the hands-on underage spaghetti-eaters be your guide: Leave the fancier entrees for another night, and head for the home-style cheeseburgers, subs, barbecue ribs and such appetizers as fried calamari and spinach-artichoke dip. And when spanikopita is on the menu, even as a first course, make it the centerpiece of your meal; it's as light as souffle. Entrees $13.50-$22.95.

NAGE (19730 Coastal Hwy./Route 1, Rehoboth Beach, Del.; 302-226-2037) -- Think modern eclectic fare is getting cutesy? Sure it has; but try Kevin Reading's lemon-salt-seared scallops with "mustard seed toffee" or the pan-roasted grouper in "warm lobster gazpacho" and see what just one degree of irreverence can produce. The seafood nage is a little clumsy, but it's probably worth the occasional splash of lobster-tomato-fennel broth; and the tender, meaty frog's legs could start a revolution even here in chicken country. And the clams casino flatbread and white truffle french fries are a serious threat to resolutions. The salt levels can be a little high (must be that ocean breeze); ask for a light touch. Entrees $16-$28.

TAJITU (9 E. Patrick St., Frederick; 301-631-6800) -- This pretty, novice-friendly and unusually good Ethiopian restaurant gives "home cooking" a good name. Decorated in part to resemble an open-air patio, and with unobtrusively pleasant music, Tajitu feels like a friend's house, and the airy house-made injera and complex ground spices suggest a host's special attention. Among the best dishes are yabeg wot alicha, gingery sauteed lamb; rich, dark doro wot, with its traditional drumstick and boiled egg in reduced onions; kinche, a sort of tabbouleh salad; and the lentil and yellow pea stews. The layered, chili-hot but not bitter berbere sauce is an essential condiment. Leave time for coffee -- green beans skillet-roasted and ground to order, and steeped like incense. Entrees $8.50-$19.50.

CHLOE (2473 18th St. NW upstairs; 202-265-6592. Metro: Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams-Morgan) -- Chloe's food is good enough, and so moderately priced, that you'll probably go back, especially while the roof terrace is open. But the earlier the better; the noise level jumps quickly, and the trend radar goes up as soon as the sun goes down. (Of course, there's nothing wrong with licking your fingers in the VIP lounge, if you can make it look good.) Try the first-rate steak salad, the indulgent lump crab cocktail, duck bruschetta, barbecue ribs, teriyaki salmon or homey roasted chicken. Entrees $10-$19. Not wheelchair accessible.

LE VIEUX LOGIS (7925 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda; 301-652-6816. Metro: Bethesda) -- In a trend-driven town, consistency and resilience are rare virtues. For 25 years, this cheerily cluttered mini-inn has been serving up classics and old-fashioned continentalism with as much affection for tradition as for its customers. Regulars know to go for the delicate scallops -- and you'll never find escargots more garlicky than these. Entrees $24-$33. Wheelchair access limited.

RESTAURANT KOLUMBIA (1801 K St. NW; 202-331-5551. Metro: Farragut North or Farragut West) -- Jamie Stachowski's cooking isn't fusion, it's fascination: He's interested in so many styles and schools he can't help making a little this and a little that. Sometimes it's fabulous: a torchon of foie gras just brushed with sea salt and aspic; a tart of fresh anchovies and oven-dried tomatoes; braised veal cheeks so tender they seem held together by memory alone; grilled squid with kalamata olives, mint, fried lemons and arugula. And even when the recipes are a little strange (lobster-she crab bisque slick with okra), they're always entertaining. Entrees $24-$35.

BISTRO 123 (Tysons Corner Center lower level, Route 123, Tysons Corner; 703-288-1369) -- It looks a little like a shopping mall cafe, with its bright, shiny wood and repro-art decor, but someone's in the kitchen for the diner. And if bistro classics make you sing, head for the leg of lamb steak, the beets and goat cheese salad, pan-seared snapper and frog's legs, if only for the ethereal onion ravioli. Entrees $12.95-$29.95.

VERMILION (1120 King St., Alexandria; 703-684-9669. Metro: King Street) -- Ever smarter, ever sharper, this good-looking and accessible modern-American hangout has enough tricks up its sleeve to keep us interested: fabulous scallop ceviche, robust bison hanger steak, rich tuna tartare balanced by rooty beets, crunchy risotto cakes and meticulously balanced seasonings. Entrees $17-$25.

CUBA DE AYER (15446 Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville; 301-476-9622) -- This mom-and-pop shoebox wears its heart on its sign -- the name means "yesterday's Cuba," i.e., the good old days -- and turns out fine comfort food. Ropa vieja, the simmered-to-shredding beef, is the finest around; the green olive- and raisin-tangy ground beef picadillo, with green olives and raisins, has a very subtle, fruit-spice tang-like chutney; the roast pork has a similar edge from its citrus and caramelized onions -- but always the meat is the star, not the sauce. And arroz con pollo shows you why baked chicken is mom's best medicine in any cuisine. Entrees $11-$14.

BISTRO ASIATIQUE (4936 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-718-3400) -- This lavishly decorated restaurant specializes in fusion of the all-in style, which sometimes leads to a busyness or fussiness in the presentation. Chef Dennis Friedman has passed through the kitchens of Kinkead's and Citronelle, and he's clearly paid attention, but he is only beginning to appreciate something the best Asian chefs have known for centuries: when to stop. Tempura tuna roll is one of the best things on the menu, and the "Kobe beef poke pines" appetizer's ground beef balls are supplied with fried wonton spines and surrounded by nicely ripe avocado. The Thai beef salad, tangy with lemon and ginger and a hoisin vinaigrette, is a perfectly executed meal. One of the best dishes is also one of the simplest: the tender and moist pan-seared Chilean sea bass. Entrees $19-$32.

MITSITAM NATURAL FOODS CAFE (Fourth Street and Independence Avenue in the National Museum of the American Indian; 202-633-1000. Metro: Federal Center Southwest, L'enfant Plaza or Archives/Navy Memorial/Penn Quarter) -- This would be an unusually likable cafeteria even if the primarily indigenous ingredients weren't seredipitously healthful. Try the buffalo or cedar-plank salmon (both are on the $18.95 sampler for two), venison, wild rice or fennel salads, skillet roasted root vegetables, green chili chicken-stuffed tamal, buffalo chili, ash-roasted corn on the cob, chipotle chicken wrap, baked beans or just settle for a buffalo burger and chili-dusted fries. A la carte $2.95-$11.95.

AQUARELLE (2650 Virginia Ave. NW in the Watergate Hotel; 202-298-4455. Metro: Foggy Bottom/GWU) -- It's a tough job working in Jean-Louis's old room, but somebody has to do it, currently chef Christophe Poteaux, who is struggling with an aging menu. His "spicier" dishes are the least successful, and the seasonings too cautious; but there are fine moments (pan-crisped gnocchi, duck prosciutto, pomegranate jam), and his nightly specials, such as a twinned dish of tender lobster with parsnip puree and Brussels sprout leaves, can be stunning. Entrees $23-$35; prix fixe $32-$59.