Years ago, when I first went to Antoine's in New Orleans, I concluded it was a great restaurant with terrible food. The next day, after dining on thick, gluey trout marguery at Galatoire's, I began to think the city's restaurants were overrated. No, I was just underinformed. When I returned in subsequent years, better educated about the city's food scene, I limited my order at Antoine's to oysters rockefeller, pompano en papillote and pommes souffle'es. It was a great meal. And at Galatoire's I tasted one of the most memorable dishes ever -- trout meuniere rather than marguery.
Knowing where to dine is not always enough. You have to know the kitchen's strengths (and weaknesses). To order grilled fish at i Ricchi is, in my opinion, to miss the best of a restaurant that celebrates hearty Tuscan cooking. And to pass up the aushak at an Afghan restaurant such as Bamiyan or the dossas at an Indian vegetarian restaurant such as Siddhartha is like driving through Niagara and missing the falls.
When someone hates a restaurant you love or loves a restaurant you'd never choose again, it may be less a difference in taste than a matter of who's ordered what. Some restaurants show their best efforts in the appetizers; at others, you might as well head right for the main dishes. And with dessert being such a dietary luxury in this age of health-conscious eating, there is not much point in ordering one unless you know it is going to be good.
Some restaurants make it clear what their specialties are. Thus you probably would, all on your own, focus on the feijoada at Dona Flor or the mole at Enriqueta's. But without an in- sider tip, it probably wouldn't occur to you to order grilled salmon at an Indian restaurant, and at the Bombay Club you'd be missing something special. Likewise, after being bored over the years by doughy, bland won tons usually served in soup, you probably wouldn't zero in on House Special Wonton among the long listings at the House of Chinese Chicken. You might never learn how scintillating won tons can be. And while many restaurants serve tarte tatin, unless you see a huge golden puff being served at the next table at La Brasserie and ask what it is, you wouldn't know that a tarte tatin could look so stunning. At many restaurants, simple labels hide lush surprises -- steamed shrimp in lotus leaf at Mr. Yung's, "an Antipasto" at Mrs. Simpson's. It's like hunting for wild morels: Having an experienced guide makes the difference between finding a feast and going home empty-handed.
This dining guide is designed to help you choose not just where to eat but what to eat. And in some cases, what not to eat.
This is not a list of the 50 best dishes in Washington. That would be presumptuous. And if a restaurant or dish you admire was left out of this guide, it is no reflection on your taste (or mine) -- it is a tribute to the volume of great food in this city. I aimed to include a sampling of types, locations, price ranges and courses. There are dishes to eat with chopsticks, forks, spoons, straws, toothpicks or your hands. Some spicy, some mild, some rich and some lean. There could never be enough to satisfy everybody, but certainly enough to tempt.
Adirondacks, in the restored presidential waiting room at Union Station, revives the myth of railroad glamour. The dining room is of monumental scale, the decorations are of royal quality, yet the service is casual -- and expert. The food is "California style," which at this point means simple preparations of the best ingredients.
To me, the archetypal Adirondacks dish is the fettuccine with salmon. Its menu description takes three lines, its combination sounds excessive, and the arrangement on the plate looks spare, but it works brilliantly. The fettuccine is al dente and tastes handmade, the grill-striped chunks of salmon are lusciously moist and crusty, the diced raw tomatoes have garden-ripe flavor. The shreds of fresh basil exude powerful aroma, the double-blanched garlic is subtle, the parmesan cheese adds an unexpected and delicious tang, and the drizzle of olive oil is so fragrant that it acts as much like a seasoning as a moistener.
If what you want is a salad, Adirondacks is the place to find one made of pedigreed lettuces and olive oils that boast of their lineage. Fish and meat are simply grilled and dressed with bright fresh accents. The complexity is in the combinations, not in the preparations. A mushroom salad, for instance, has two kinds of wild mushrooms with double-blanched garlic, herbs, pine nuts, pancetta and walnut oil -- on baby greens, of course.
Fish and lamb are highlights here, but the lamb salad is surprisingly ordinary while the lamb chops are one of Adirondacks's greatest successes. Desserts include such extravagances as whole tiny French melons with house-made sorbet and such accomplishments as tarts with buttery crisp crusts, custards of gentility and full-flavored fruit. Adirondacks charges first-class prices, and it offers a first-class ride.
Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE. 682-1840. Open: for lunch daily noon to 2 p.m., for dinner daily 6 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $8 to $12, entrees $12 to $18; dinner appetizers $8 to $12, entrees $17 to $26. ATLACATL I
Now there are two Atlacatls, but it would be hard to wean me away from the original on Washington Boulevard, which looks like a cinder-block box that became a restaurant yesterday but might turn into a gas station tomorrow if you don't send your friends quickly. The food is priced so low you feel apologetic, and the quality of cooking is high. If you're lucky, the waiter will bring a free basket of crisp, light, fried yucca instead of just tortilla chips with the salsa; if not, order the yucca as an appetizer, topped with big crunchy chunks of fried pork and eyelash-curling marinated cabbage salad. The pupusas -- thick tortillas sandwiched with bits of fried pork and cheese -- and creamy sweet corn tamales are also good starts. But the greatest surprise and the most unusual bargain is the ensalada refresco. It's a fruit drink with the fresh taste of watermelon, cantaloupe and pineapple plus frozen cashew-fruit juice, afloat with a two-inch layer of finely diced melons, pineapple and apples -- it's both a drink and a dessert in one. And at $1, you probably couldn't duplicate it as cheaply at home.
Among main dishes, chicken in a nutty, creamy butter sauce has an elegant flavor; butterflied shrimp in the shell with cream sauce are beautifully cooked, and there are equally satisfying hearty dishes such as chorizo in tomato sauce. The refried beans are smooth and spicy, the rice is studded with colorful and flavorful bits of vegetables. It is all food with character.
2716 Washington Blvd., Arlington. 524-9032. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight. All major credit cards. No reservations. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $1.25 to $4.95, entrees $5.25 to $9.95. (Other location: Atlacatl II, 2602 Columbia Pike, Arlington. 920-3680.) BACCHUS
While I usually sample more dishes per visit at Bacchus than I do at any other restaurant, I rarely get to the main courses. Instead, I favor a mezze -- a tableful of appetizers to eat with warm pita. And while many of Bacchus's 27 appetizers are standouts, it is the conglomeration that I would include among the area's best dishes rather than any one by itself. Salatet bethenjan, an eggplant salad made with unctuous, glossy chunks of fried eggplant, crisp fried pita chunks, onions, tomatoes, parsley and pomegranate sauce, is a fragrant, tangy wonder. But rather than eat a whole bowlful, I'd prefer to alternate tastes with kibbeh, the most intricate of meatballs, a nugget of ground meat with onions and pine nuts enclosed in a thin shell of ground meat mixed with cracked wheat, then deep-fried. The phyllo-wrapped cheese or meat kalage is crisp and delicate. The various purees -- chickpea hummus, eggplant baba ghannouj, herbed and nutted yogurt -- are a pleasant interlude. And the house-made sausages, ma'anek and soujok, are explosive with spices.
When I go on to main dishes, my favorite is fatte bel lahm, lamb aswim in garlicky yogurt on a bed of crisp fried pita, sometimes garnished with pomegranate seeds. Shish taouk, chicken kebabs with a lemony tomato sauce, is succulent, but the lamb kebab was second rate and the lamb-topped spiced rice -- ouzi -- was bland on my last visit. Bacchus, with two locations, is so popular that service ranges from helpful to matter-of-fact, depending on the chaos level. It is at least efficient, though, and pleasantly low-key. With a bottle from the small list of bargain-priced wines, you can enjoy the scene and dine at leisure, ending with a tiny cup of thick black Turkish coffee.
1827 Jefferson Place NW. 785-0734. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Reser- vations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.25 to $4, entrees $6.75 to $9.75; dinner appetizers $4 to $7.50, entrees $12.50 to $14.75. (Other location: 7945 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda. 657-1722.) BAMIYAN
Georgetown's was first, Alexandria's is prettier, but both Bamiyan branches serve virtually the same dishes. So do several other Afghan restaurants, and I must admit I haven't had aushak in any of them that was less than delicious. But I return to Bamiyan mostly for old times' sake. And always for aushak.
Aushak is a kind of rustic ravioli, house-made noodles filled with scallions -- or leeks, in the original Afghan version -- and topped with yogurt, mint and a tomato sauce with ground meat that isn't too different from spaghetti sauce except that the ground meat predominates over the tomato. That's it, pretty simple. But the sharpness of the scallions, the starchy blandness of the noodles, the cool tang of the yogurt, the richness of the meat sauce and the fresh hint of mint are a brilliant mix. The same toppings -- yogurt, mint and tomato-meat sauce -- appear also on saute'ed eggplant slices and sweetened pumpkin chunks; all are good, but none quite matches the noodles.
Bamiyan has still more to boast of, with such main dishes as spiced rice with butter-soft chunks of lamb and a sweet garnish of glazed carrot shreds and raisins, and kebabs of lamb, chicken or beef. In general, the food is pleasant, though sometimes a little heavy on the sweetening. And always it is distinctive.
3320 M St. NW. 338-1896. Open: daily 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $2.75 to $3.25, entrees $7.25 to $13.95. (Other location: 300 King St., Alexandria. 548-9006.) BISTRO BISTRO
Where is always a fresh surprise at this spacious modern bistro, so I am constantly torn between my old favorites and new things. Nowadays what's new includes an expanded menu that features shrimp with a tropical salsa among the appetizers, and a well-priced lobster among the entrees.
Still, I stick to the oyster stew. In summer, when I last tried it, the oysters were not at their best. But the broth is creamy with a light ocean tang and a peppery undertone, and the skeins of swiss chard and bits of bermuda onion cut the richness with a fresh greenery taste.
While the oyster stew is a perennial great dish, Bistro Bistro serves some of the most interesting and grease-free deep-fried appetizers I know. The quesadillas are original, stuffed with cilantro-spiked chicken and rolled into cigar shapes, then crisply fried and served with mounds of guacamole and sour cream. Another fried first course, cheese-stuffed ravioli, is equally fine. The filling includes smoked mozzarella, cheddar and a bit of prosciutto and sun-dried tomato; it is one of the few ravioli fillings that stands up to its dough and sauce, which is a mild pesto sour cream. And the serving is generous -- these appetizers could make a light meal.
The entrees are good, but they don't live up to the first courses (which admittedly is hard to do). Pastas and pizzas are lively combinations, fish are conscientiously prepared, chicken breast is saute'ed to fork tenderness, and liver is cooked lightly -- though the quality wasn't top-notch on my last visit. Main-dish sauces and gar- nishes are pedestrian, however. And Bistro Bistro's greatest contribution to the vegetarian repertoire, the savory sweet potato tart, is nowadays too smooth, too bland and too sweet. It's still good -- it's just slipped from greatness. Nothing among the desserts has quite lived up to expectations either. So start strong with appetizers and proceed cautiously, perhaps aiming for the dishes high in zest to follow the brilliant beginnings.
4021 S. 28th St., Arlington. 379-0300. Open: daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.25 to $5.95, entrees $5.75 to $10.95; dinner appetizers $4.25 to $5.95, entrees $5.75 to $15.95. THE BOMBAY CLUB
Downtown now has two elegant Indian restaurants, both good enough that it is hard to choose between them. The Bombay Club edges out Bombay Palace for ambience. Bombay Palace, on the other hand, has distinctly superior tandoor chicken. Both pull their punches with the chili peppers, so if you want your food hot, you'd better say so.
The Bombay Club's menu ranges further, with such dishes as lamb with dried apricots in an earthy curry sauce topped with straw potatoes, and a perennial daily special of grilled marinated salmon with ginger is one of the most succulent salmon dishes in town. When this dish was on the printed menu, the manager says, nobody ordered it. But as a daily special, it has become immensely popular. As well it should. The salmon fillet is marinated for several hours in lemon juice, garlic juice and ginger, then coated with yogurt for the last hour. Finally it is grilled in the tandoor oven so that it picks up a charcoal flavor while the yogurt seals in the juices.
What I also find most noteworthy about the Bombay Club is the variety of its appetizers. There are nine on the menu, and nowhere else have I encountered Dahi Papri -- tiny crisp flat breads topped with diced potatoes, onions and chickpeas in a sweet, tangy date and tamarind sauce swirled with the restaurant's wonderful pale green mint sauce. And Paneer Shaslik, a particularly smooth and tangy house-made Indian cheese, is skewered with vegetables, then grilled in the tandoor oven. Seafood is featured -- spiced crab and broiled marinated scallops. The standout, though, is the mussels. Served cold on the half shell, they are blanketed with minuscule bits of tomato and a tart, pungent dressing of ginger and herbs. They are a most refreshing and piquant beginning, exactly as an appetizer should be.
815 Connecticut Ave. NW. 659-3727. Open: for lunch Sunday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $3.95 to $5.95, entrees $3.50 to $18.50 (Sunday lunch buffet, $14.95). BOMBAY PALACE
We think of Indian and French food as being in different realms, but Indian butter chicken links them. Imagine chicken covered with a hollandaise made with garlic, tomato and a blend of spices, and you've got it. And while most Indian restaurants serve butter chicken, none I know cooks it better than Bombay Palace. The strips of tender boneless chicken breast have been imbued with a faint charcoal flavor from the tandoori grill. The sauce is as thick as farmhouse cream and tomato-pink, both smooth and acid in its flavor. The menu boasts of nine spices plus onion, ginger, garlic and fenugreek; as in the best of Indian cooking, no one stands out, but they work as a medley.
Other dishes at Bombay Palace come close to the butter chicken. The tandoori chicken, marinated in yogurt and cooked on the bone in a clay tandoor oven, is so succulent that it is particularly hard to pass up. Anyway, an Indian meal should encompass an array of dishes, perhaps the rough-textured and fresh-flavored lamb and spinach saag gosht, the vegetable and nut combination called navrattan curry, and the puffed puri or spicy onion-stuffed kulcha breads. A few dishes are indifferent; the biryani is an unexciting rice mixture, and the ground meat dishes taste one-dimensional. But these days the Bombay Palace kitchen is worthy of its polished service and its beautiful vibrant blue dining room studded with art treasures in lighted niches. Few restaurants offer so much style for so little money.
1835 K St. NW. 331-0111. Open: for lunch daily noon to 2:30, for dinner daily 5:30 to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $3.25 to $4.50, entrees $5.50 to $15.95. CAFE ATLANTICO
You might be tempted to stop at the beginning at Cafe Atlantico. A lime-spiked caipirinha made with Brazilian cane-sugar liquor, slatherings of spicy black-bean dip that is automatically brought to the table with house-made biscuits called bakes, and an appetizer or two provide tastes you just want to continue tasting.
One of the best dishes is an appetizer, homely sounding codfish fritters. These rough-surfaced, little fried puffs have the briny tang of salt cod and the bite of pepper. They are aromatic with garlic, onion and herbs, and are crisp and light rather than starchy. What's more, they are served with a slightly viscous, tart and fruity dip that tastes of tamarind and finishes with chili fire.
An order of coarse, spicy house-made sausage on a bed of vinegared greens makes a harmonious combination with tostones, the lightest of fried green plantains. And lightly pickled fish -- escabeche -- or shrimp-potato croquettes could make appetizers add up to dinner for two.
It's not that the main dishes aren't tantalizing. It's just that the appetizers have such deliciously teasing and bold flavors that you just want to eat more of the same.
Not only is the food a kick, all of Cafe Atlantico is fun -- the mirrored and skylit matte black dining room is fun, the personable service is fun, and the food provides your taste buds with the most fun they might have had since blackened redfish.
1819 Columbia Rd. NW. 575-2233. Open: Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., Sunday 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. No reservations. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $4.25 to $5.95, entrees $9.25 to $15.95. DAR ES SALAM
If you want to really enjoy your food, try lounging at a low table surrounded by cushions and pillows, and eating with your hands. You can do it at Dar Es Salam, under a ceiling of breathtakingly intricate plasterwork or a canopy of silk. If you are there at the right time, a belly dancer will complete the scene. The food -- fixed-price dinners -- lives up to the mood, with first courses of pigeon pie with almonds and egg in phyllo topped with confectioners' sugar (though it's not as good as it was in Dar Es Salam's early days), a pungent and fiery lentil soup or half a dozen little spicy salads to scoop up with pita bread. Main dishes offer a wider choice, but my most consistent favorite is chicken with preserved lemon and olives. The olives are firm green ones with their pits intact, not too salty but very flavorful. The chicken -- legs and thighs -- is tinged yellow from turmeric, permeated with the flavor of cumin and those haunting preserved lemons and cooked until it nearly falls off the bone. The sauce is thick enough to cling and pungent enough to spoon over the couscous and vegetables that accompany the main dishes.
There are other great lusty main dishes here, some sweet ones such as lamb with dates or with honey and almonds, and excellent shrimp marinated in the shells and skewered for a smoky grilling. There is roast lamb that is strong and chewy and long-cooked, well flavored from its deep browning, to be pulled off the bone and dipped in salt and cumin. And there are delicate phyllo-wrapped pastries for dessert, to be accompanied by intense tea brewed from fresh mint. Dar Es Salam is bold and brassy in its decor and in its flavors. Georgetown has no restaurant more exotic than this.
3056 M St. NW. 342-1925. Open: Sunday through Tuesday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: fixed-price three-course dinner, $20.95.
It is rare that the specialty of a restaurant is one of its least expensive main dishes, but at Dona Flor, our oldest and best Brazilian restaurant, the feijoada is only $10.95, and it is enough to feed you for the day. It comes in three parts. The main one is a bowl of black beans chock-full of ham, sausage and bony chunks of pork, all adding up to an intense, rich, flavorful stew. Then there is a platter of rice, and finally a platter of farofa -- manioc grains -- with dark green, crisp shredded collard greens and juicy slices of oranges. Mix them on your plate, and the blend of colors, textures and flavors shows why this is the Brazilian national dish.
Plenty more is worthwhile at Dona Flor, from the seafood or chicken dishes cooked in coconut milk with peppers and onions, to the mild, pale green avocado sauces for other seafood dishes. Some are as subtle as French dishes topped with hollandaise; Shrimp "Old Bahia" with pineapple rice, for example, blends palm oil, onions and capers in just such a buttery-tasting sauce. There are heartier grilled meats -- beef, pork, chicken. And everything, thank goodness, comes with a platter of glossy white rice and a bowl of smoky, tangy black beans.
The service is smooth and pleasant; the dining room is bright with flowered plastic-laminated tables and huge vivid oil paintings. And the bartender makes a mean caipirinha, the clear Brazilian sugar-cane liquor mixed with lime and sugar in strong, tangy proportions.
4615 41st St. NW. 537-0404. Open: Monday through Thursday for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner 4 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday noon to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday noon to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.95 to $3.25, entrees $5.25 to $11.95; dinner appetizers $3.95 to $4.50, entrees $8.95 to $15.95.
l Bodegon is one of Washington's oldest ethnic restaurants, and for good reason. It offers a lot of entertainment -- guitarist, flamenco dancers, wine-guzzling ceremony -- and decent food. And if you know your way around, it does even better than that.
My favorite dish at El Bodegon is one I order among the tapas, though it is also available on the regular lunch and dinner menus. It's not a dish to serve as a meal, but as an appetizer or, even better, one among many appetizers in a tapas array.
It's stuffed squid, so clearly it has a limited following. But for the adventurous it is a rare combination and an unforgettable blend of flavors. Whole squid are stuffed with a fluffy mix of ground squid and ham, seasoned with finely minced garlic and onions, moistened with a little red wine and bound with bread crumbs and eggs. The plumply filled squid are fastened at the end with toothpicks and stewed in a haunting sauce of squid ink and red wine, thickened lightly with flour.
Just think of it as seafood.
And if you still can't get yourself to try it, meander through the rest of the tapas list -- potatoes in a thick garlic mayonnaise, bay scallops with mushrooms in a piquant buttery sauce, sliced ham aged overhead in that very tapas bar, ham and chicken croquettes, mussels bathed in onions, garlic and parsley, or shrimp buried in garlic and butter. Or make a meal of standard Spanish paella or fish in green sauce. The food is at least decent, the service is very Spanish and generally charming, the rooms are cozy, and there is all that entertainment. But I won't promise you star-quality dining if you don't order the squid.
1637 R St. NW. 667-1710. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.50 to $6.95, entrees $6.95 to $13; dinner appetizers $3.50 to $7, entrees $15 to $30. ENRIQUETA'S
Much is made of the fact that mole sauce is made with chocolate, but that's about as relevant as saying chicken soup is made with salt. The bit of chocolate is a catalyst, linking and coordinating the various spices, seeds and herbs that are pounded to a paste to create this complex, nearly black and quite peppery Mexican sauce. Not everybody likes mole. But if you do, Enriqueta's is probably already one of your favorite restaurants. Its mole, served on chicken or enchiladas, is deeply flavored and authentic; I haven't found better.
There's plenty more that draws me to Enriqueta's. The Mazatlan sauce, tart and green, is an infusion of life for shrimp, served covered with melted cheese. The guacamole and refried beans are excellent versions of these standards. Its enchiladas are meaty, with distinctive sauces. And its menu is full of unusual and authentic Mexican cooking. On my last visit, though, the mussels, under their delectable, dark red chili-and-garlic butter, were too dry, and the ceviche lacked the firm freshness it usually shows. Dry chicken and chewy beef reinforced my disappointment, but I have hopes that I just hit a bad night. Most of my memories of Enriqueta's are filled with fresh crunchy chips accompanied by fresh crunchy salsa, with the bright colors of brilliantly lacquered chairs and a thicket of lacy paper decorations overhead, with efficient and cheerful waiters and vibrant cooking.
2811 M St. NW. 338-7772. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested for large parties. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.75 to $4.50, entrees $7.25 to $10.75; dinner appetizers $3.95 to $4.95, entrees $8.50 to $11.
FISH, WINGS & TINGS
It's the Jamaica of our dreams, this bright, splashy "mini kafe" with its whimsically painted tables and its giant kitchen stools. The island music, the melon, pineapple and ginger scents of the fruit punches, the curry kick of the main dishes and the soul-warming rice and peas compensate for the lack of a beach in Adams-Morgan. For less than $10 you can feel like you're on vacation.
The menu is short: a few fiery chicken dishes, several vinegary escoveitched fish, curries of oxtail and goat, shrimp creole and perhaps a chicken and a fish from the grill, all buried in bright and spicy sauces, accompanied by carrot-raisin salad and rice-and-peas.
It's hard to pick a star out of this menu, small as it is. But no dish is better than the curry ginger wings, their sauce as yellow as the summer sun (and equally hot), so good that you'll risk tinting your fingers for the day in order to pick up these morsels of chicken and do them justice. In all, though, it is a full meal that would capture all the stars: curry ginger wings, gingery pineade and a slice of rich, nutty chocolate banana cake oozing with chocolate chips and buttery crumb.
2418 18th St. NW. 234-0322. Open: Monday through Thursday noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE. No reservations. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: entrees $4 to $9.50.
You can't go too far wrong with Galileo's menu, which is a relief because it changes every day. But among these simple, fresh conglomerations of appetizers, pastas, grilled meat and fish I find it most rewarding to try the unfamiliar. Such meat as partridge or antelope, fish-stuffed pasta with saffron sauce and whole shrimp grilled with their heads and shells go far beyond the Italian sameness on most menus.
I'm not often a fan of gnocchi. Almost always they taste gummy, reminding me of uncooked dough. And routinely they are heavy little dumplings, without enough taste to carry their dense starchiness. But gnocchi in chef Roberto Donna's hands are another matter. These thimble-size potato dumplings are so light that you wouldn't be surprised to see them bounce. And they are moist without being gummy. Donna's gnocchi taste like little potato clouds rather than just boiled dough. They can make you understand the traditional reverence for gnocchi in Italy. And with such cunningly made dumplings a heavy sauce would be a shame. So Donna moistens them with just a glisten of butter, flavors them with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and tosses them perhaps with fleshy porcini mushrooms if the season is right. At the table the waiter grates parmesan cheese from a big craggy wedge that looks properly aged.
Be prepared for lovely simple melodies in this food. A single fresh herb rather than a cacophony of seasonings. A light brushing of olive oil, but very good olive oil. A haunting side dish of artichoke bottoms, diced and saute'ed so that you might at first wonder what is this wonderful new vegetable before you recognize the taste in this unfamiliar guise. Risotto that is creamy, yet with each grain distinct, and cooked so that there is just a slight resistance at the center but no actual crunch. Donna's style is not to dazzle you with clever creations or intricate techniques. Each taste is clear, each ingredient is excellent, each preparation is precise. The house-made bread is rough and sturdy, the wine selection is thoroughly tasteful. And now Galileo has spacious new surroundings to dignify this fine cooking.
1110 21st St. NW. 293-7191. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $5.95 to $9.95, entrees $10.95 to $16.95; dinner appetizers $6.95 to $10.95, entrees $16.95 to $28.95.
The cobb salad at Herb's is really a club sandwich with a fork, and not quite a replication of the original cobb salad from Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant. And it's not even an authentic reproduction of what the menu promises. (It's better, since freshly roasted turkey breast is generally substituted for the chicken.) Herb's cobb salad starts with a bed of dark crisp romaine. Arranged in spokes over those greens are generous chunks of turkey, diced tomato, crisp chopped bacon, chopped hard-boiled egg and crumbled blue cheese. And creamy, pale green, buttermilk celery-seed dressing is poured over all. The original would also include avocado and watercress, and the buttermilk dressing is an innovation. But you get to toss it yourself (ask for the dressing on the side to control its amount) into a succulent amalgam.
If you order your cobb salad on a gentle fall day outdoors at a table under an umbrella, it will add up to perfection even if the tomatoes are less than home-grown, the blue cheese a little acrid and the dressing on the heavy side. Herb's has plenty more on its eclectic American menu that might turn out to be wonderful -- or dreary. But the cobb salad is an unwavering satisfaction.
Holiday Inn Governor's House, 1615 Rhode Island Ave. NW. 333-4372. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner daily 5:30 p.m. to midnight, for brunch Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $4 to $7, entrees $6.95 to $14.95. HOUSE OF CHINESE CHICKEN
The chicken theme here suits our taste for light eating, and this fresh, modern-looking Chinese restaurant plays it lightheartedly, with chickens everywhere, right down to the salt and pepper shakers. But the cooking is serious. There is lots to praise, for chicken is inventively treated as Peking chicken, lotus-wrapped chicken, chicken stuffed with minced shrimp or breaded with almonds, and chicken baked in a modern rendition of the mud-sealed beggar's chicken.
For fire-cravers, an unusual and delicious appetizer is House Special Wonton, noodles filled with minced chicken and spinach. The noodles are particularly thin and delicate, and they are fashioned into won tons more plump and flavorful than almost any you will encounter. What's more, they are moistened with a tangy soy-based sauce slick with chili oil, hot but flavorful as well. They are a world apart from the bland, doughy dumplings usually found in won ton soup.
But this is not just a chicken restaurant. The menu includes all the basic categories of Chinese entrees. One vegetarian entree that might draw even determined meat-eaters is Yellow Bird. It looks like stuffed cabbage but it is actually cabbage-thin sheets of bean curd wrapped around shredded, pressed bean curd -- which looks and tastes like julienned pork -- along with bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms, tied into packages and served with a brown sauce, with broccoli florets to garnish. It's a standard of the Chinese vegetarian repertoire, and done very well here.
12710 Twinbrook Pkwy., Rockville. 881-4500. Open: Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices* lunch appetizers $1.95 to $3.75, entrees $4.25 to $5.95; dinner appetizers $1.95 to $4.95, entrees $6.95 to $15.95. INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON
I was ready to chastise the Inn at Little Washington this time around, since its Saturday night price of $88 for the fixed- price dinner ($68 other nights) puts it in the almost-nothing-is-worth-it category.
But I left feeling that if anything is worth it, this dinner is. The Inn at Little Washington is better than ever. The dining room looks much the same -- lusciously overdecorated in an English country-house style, with a magnificent garden where you can have your dessert and coffee if the weather is right. The service is exceptional -- both highly professional and comfortable, whereas it was getting a little stuffy a couple of years ago. And the chef, while keeping a few old favorites, is continually adding new dishes that torture me with indecision. Of the 14 or more appetizers this time around, they all sounded so compelling that I was wondering whether I could skip the main dish and devote myself to first courses. I'd still choose to do it, but the main dishes were almost as glorious.
If I were going to the Inn at Little Washington alone, I would undoubtedly order the appetizer of three fish cakes. Each is so savory, from the crab to the salmon to the tuna, and each is enhanced by its own sauce -- sorrel, mustard and red pepper mayonnaise. But in company I feel compelled to share tastes, and the fish-cake trio is too tiny and complex to go around; it is a dish to savor in its entirety. Thus my favorite dish -- at least for a shared dinner -- is the soft-shell crabs, just lightly saute'ed and not breaded, with a tart dash of lime cutting the butter, tomato adding a juicy fresh touch, coriander giving just the faintest grassiness, and hazelnuts providing a nutty crunch. It is simple, impeccable and a brilliant interplay.
That's not to demean the foie gras, served cold, accompanied by local peaches poached in local peach wine, or the pale and delicate boudin blanc with truffles (this time with too much pepper for subtlety, I thought), or the foie gras served hot with country ham and black-eyed peas, or the country ham with fresh figs and gentle lime cream, or a vitello tonnato of rare elegance. I could go on, and I would. Only the caviar in tiny turnip flowers escaped my raves on this visit, for it was
too precious, and I prefer caviar straight. Among main dishes, filet of beef may sound ordinary, but it is an exceptional piece of meat with elegant wild mushrooms and bacon-wrapped oysters to accompany. And if you like sweetbreads, the inn's will strike a memorable chord.
As for dessert, I always want one more chance to try the caramel sundae with house-made butter pecan ice cream, but I'd pass up even that for the trio of little nut tarts -- hazelnut, pecan and pistachio -- which are the most buttery-crisp, flaky, crunchy, delectable little tidbits imaginable, with caramel ice cream slowly melting into a sauce around them. Come to think of it, I'd begin and end dinner with tiny trios at the inn.
Middle and Main streets, Washington, Va. (703) 675-3800. Open: for dinner Monday and Wednesday through Friday 6 to 9:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Tuesday. MC, V. Reservations required. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: five-course fixed-price dinner $68 per person ($88 on Saturday). I RICCHI
Tne kind of greatness is to take the commonplace and do it superbly. And that is what i Ricchi does, most obviously with its tortelloni al burro e salvia. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of local restaurants serve tortellini -- which are just small tortelloni. But typically they are doughy, soggy noodles with an unidentifiable smidgen of filling. At i Ricchi the tortelloni are house-made noodles both sturdy and supple, filled with enough spinach and ricotta that you can taste as well as see what they are about. The stuffed noodles are cooked just until the dough retains a core of bite, and they are slicked with butter and fresh sage. If tortellini grew in the garden, they would taste like this when they were freshly picked.
So it goes with the rest of i Ricchi's menu: Bread is homey and sturdy and baked in the kitchen's wood oven. As an appetizer, it is grilled and topped with beans or tomatoes, chopped chicken livers or cold meats -- all of which are left alone to taste of themselves. Soups are thick with bread and flavored with unadulterated vegetables. Meats such as rabbit, lamb, veal or beef are grilled with little more than wood smoke to season them -- well, with a touch of olive oil and maybe a little rosemary and lemon. Fish are similarly handled (but meat is my preference here).
The setting too is simple, with earth-toned walls and heavy starched white tablecloths providing the color. I Ricchi is straightforward and down-to-earth, astonishingly so for a downtown expense-account restaurant. It is also so celebrated nowadays that common folk complain they are given short shrift. I Ricchi is suffering the plight of success; many other restaurants would be glad to suffer so.
1220 19th St. NW. 835-0459. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $5 to $8, entrees $12 to $17; dinner appetizers $5 to $9, entrees $12 to $19.