Last year, Tom Sietsema shook up his annual Spring Dining Guide by including only restaurants that had opened in the previous 12 months. And when he began considering themes for the 2019 edition, keeping the focus on new restaurants was “a no-brainer,” he says. “If print space weren’t an issue, I could have easily doubled the number of reviews. That bubble everyone has been talking about for so long? It’s only gotten bigger.”
Careful readers of the Top 10 will notice it’s light on restaurants specializing in small plates, which Sietsema swears isn’t intentional (he points out that “several places feature tasting menus, of which I’m not necessarily a fan”), and also that he ranks some restaurants with two-and-a-half stars above counterparts with three. “When I’m reviewing say, a sushi restaurant or a steakhouse, I’m rating it compared to their competition in the market,” Sietsema explains. Picking and ordering the Top 10 is much more personal. “I like different places for different reasons, and I rank them partially by how much I love them. Would I spend my own money there? Take people I care about? Try to eat there despite the distance or the reservations hassle?”
Consider that a ringing endorsement, whether the restaurant in question is in Sperryville, Silver Spring or Ivy City. Here’s the rundown of Sietsema’s top 10 newcomers, with excerpts from the reviews (full reviews are linked in the restaurant names).
10: Gravitas (2.5 stars)
If there were an award for most improved restaurant of the year, I’d nominate Matt Baker’s airy and light-filled retreat in Ivy City. His food at Gravitas, set in a former tomato canning factory, has always been beautiful. Now, the plates have consistent palatability going for them, too. Consider a recent dinner that commenced with some one-bite snacks — a golden rice fritter with a crown of bachelor buttons, a warm oyster sharing its shell with minced ramps and a hint of pork — and went on to seduce us with a seasonal salad that could have doubled as a headdress for Dionysus, tuna sashimi striped with a crumble of nori and garlic, and morsels of rosy lamb on salsa verde alongside basmati rice. While I wish the format were a la carte instead of five or seven courses — not everyone wants such largesse on, say, a weeknight — the parade of dishes is a chance to explore Baker’s range. 1401 Okie St. NE. 202-763-7942. gravitasdc.com.
9: Little Havana (2.5 stars)
The cheapest way to get to Cuba is probably dinner at Little Havana, where $12 buys you a chicken stew to write home about and one of several colorful walls is painted to resemble a drive through the island’s capital. When he opened the storefront last August, chef-owner Alfredo Solis said, “We want to bring Cuban food to the next level.” From an open kitchen, he’s made good on his promise. My last dinner, beneath a turquoise ceiling and to the tune of salsa, saw nothing but home runs. Equal to the braised chicken, draped in chopped onion and tomato, is skewered grilled shrimp, glazed with guava sauce, tingling with chipotle, and festooned with grill-striped pineapple bites. 3704 14th St. NW. 202-758-2127. littlehavanadc.com.
8: Sushi Nakazawa (3 stars)
The most controversial sushi counter around is also one of the most fascinating. An import from New York, where a chef from the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” holds court, the spinoff is in the superb hands of head chef Masaaki Uchino. The best place to catch his show is at one of the 10 stools facing him. Guests are not offered a menu, so every course is a surprise. Some nights might launch with three bites of nigiri that show off salmon — sockeye whispering of smoke is a favorite — followed by aged scallop sushi that hides some fire in its seasoning: yuzu pepper! The restaurant’s connection to POTUS keeps some sushi mavens away: Sushi Nakazawa sits on the back side of the Trump International Hotel. 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-289-3515. sushinakazawa.com/washington-dc.
7: Estuary (Not yet rated)
Two years in the making, this room with a view on the third floor of the sleek Conrad hotel reunites brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, sons of Maryland who became famous for competing against each other on the sixth season of “Top Chef.” (Michael won.) Their latest joint project is a mash note to the Chesapeake Bay and reveals the siblings’ playful nature. Expect crab, stuffed into a toasted brioche roll and garnished with crab-shaped plantain chips. But also cod, teetering on “ramen” fashioned from sliced cuttlefish and presented in a butter-kissed ginger broth. The most original Key lime pie around features coconut sorbet in a thin chocolate shell resting on a soft saucer of roasted peanuts blended with coconut and, underneath it all, citrus curd. 950 New York Ave. NW. 202-844-5895. estuarydc.com.
6: St. Anselm (3 stars)
The dream team behind one of Washington’s hottest restaurants stars Marjorie Meek-Bradley, whose local career includes Ripple (may it R.I.P.) and Zaytinya. Her new gig finds her in an exhibition kitchen in a lively Stephen Starr-Joe Carroll production, cooking food she says she likes to eat. Suffice it to say, I’ll have what she’s having: oysters sauced with smoked herb butter, a truly “monster” prawn with garlic butter, and salads that speak to the season. For a place that insists it isn’t a steakhouse, St. Anselm does a poor job of convincing us. The menu’s “bigs from the grill” are a meat eater’s fantasy; go for the juicy New York strip steak, best enjoyed in the company of garlicky creamed spinach and crisp, finger-long fries. 1250 Fifth St. NE. 202-864-2199. stanselmdc.com.
5: El Sapo Cuban Social Club (2.5 stars)
It took him almost two decades, but Raynold Mendizabal is finally serving the food of his homeland. “I wanted to be a chef first, a Cuban chef second,” says the visionary behind Urban Butcher in Silver Spring and now a jumping dining room where a guitar player strums near the bar, cocktails show up in big coconut shells and glass garage doors roll up in good weather. Diners have friends in seafood and pork (and the servers who present them). Salt cod fritters are little marvels, crisp and greaseless; roast pork is cooked to collapse and delicious with bitter orange and crisp panes of skin. The chef’s go-to main course is mine, too: oxtails marinated in rum, hot peppers and soy sauce and finished with oregano and orange. 8455 Fenton St., Silver Spring. 301-326-1063. elsaporestaurant.com.
4: Three Blacksmiths (2.5 stars)
The lone complaint I’ve ever heard about this Sperryville sensation concerns the challenge of securing a table. “I just got in — in October,” a grateful friend emailed recently. The hardest ticket around is open just three dinners a week, seats no more than 20 diners, and is cooked and served by a team of four, plus a dishwasher. (Co-owners John and Diane MacPherson are the hosts with the most.) Everyone eats the same five-course meal at the same time, although special requests are taken into consideration. Vegetarians, you’re welcome. As March gave way to April, diners sat down to some lovely hors d’oeuvres (French onion soup rethought as a crouton!) and a perfectly paced meal of trout set on a sauce of yogurt and leeks, a carrot flattered with bright coins of kumquat and a crumble of pistachio and chile, purse-like manti stuffed with goat cheese … well, you get my drift. 20 Main St., Sperryville, Va. 540-987-5105. threeblacksmiths.com.
3: Rooster and Owl (3 stars)
Chef Yuan Tang works nights, and his wife and business partner, Carey, keeps day hours. Throw in the couple’s passion for animals, and Rooster & Owl makes perfect sense as a name for their debut restaurant on 14th Street NW. The space isn’t much to look at, but the lack of scenery hardly matters when the food starts showing up. Baby carrots take on the flavor of good barbecue, aided and abetted by a scoop of velvety corn bread ice cream, a combination you might question until it hits your tongue. Meat takes a back seat here, deployed more as a garnish than a featured player, an exception being fried baby quail glazed with miso, honey and yuzu juice and splayed on creamy grits fired up with red pepper relish. 2436 14th St. NW. 202-813-3976. roosterowl.com.
2: Punjab Grill (Not yet rated)
The past few years have been encouraging ones for connoisseurs of Indian cuisine, whether they want fast (Rasa) or fancy (Karma Modern Indian). Now along comes a restaurant that wants you to think of it in the same league as the city’s starriest destinations. Early meals fuel high hopes for Punjab Grill, where chef Jaspratap Bindra is raising the bar for north Indian cooking with vivid chutney flights, chana masala rethought as silken hummus, and venison cooked with cracked wheat until it’s the texture of porridge. The last dish is presented with spoonfuls of enhancers — cilantro, ginger, lemon juice and clarified butter — that contribute to a one-of-a-kind haleem. The restaurant proves as sumptuous as it is luscious. 427 11th St. NW. 202-813-3004. punjabgrilldc.com.
1: Mama Chang (3 stars)
The latest from serial restaurateur Peter Chang seats more customers (200) than any other dining room in his realm. Good thing, given that Mama Chang welcomed 1,000 diners a day the weekend it opened in Fairfax — and shows no signs of slowing down. As the name implies, the spring arrival is a celebration of the women in Chang’s family: his mother, Ronger Wang, a former longtime farmer in central China, and Lisa, his wife and one-time superior. (In an earlier life, she outranked him in the kitchen of the Chinese luxury liner on which they both cooked.) Mama Chang is more or less an edible scrapbook for Lydia Chang, the couple’s daughter and chief of business development, who grew up eating delicate fish balls (look for them under “grandma’s original” on the menu) and her mother’s sweet potato noodles tossed with squiggles of pork and pickled mustard greens. 3251 Old Lee Hwy., Fairfax. 703-268-5556. mamachangva.com.