Over the past year, the bounty of dining destinations in Washington has grown not only in number, but also in diversity, depth and breadth across the city and its suburbs.
Tom Sietsema’s best new restaurants list — made available here for subscribers before the full spring dining guide publishes on May 2 — showcases this year’s bright new stars.
Sietsema did a subscriber-only live chat about these picks on Friday. Read the transcript.
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.
El Sapo’s filling food doesn’t leave much space for dessert, but trust me: The sugar-dusted churros served with lemon-lightened whipped cream are worth your while. One of the few downsides is the din. Elsewhere is better for a heart-to-heart or a catch-up with grandparents. Then again, this is a restaurant that makes you want to shout for joy, clap your hands and beat the conga drum at the entrance.
IF YOU GO: 8455 Fenton St., Silver Spring. 301-326-1063. elsaporestaurant.com. Dinner daily. Dinner $22 to $28. Sound check: 85 decibels / Extremely loud.
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.
You’ll find lamb on the menu, but honestly, the heartier entree is a fist of steamed, dehydrated, roasted celery root with a length of heart of palm poking out. The whimsy looks like a veal shank but turns out to be vegan, right down to the intense-with-tomato reduction pooled around the centerpiece. 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.
The drinks are top-flight, the kitchen shows off a red Molteni stove, and floor-to-ceiling windows give diners a bird’s-eye view of CityCenterDC.
IF YOU GO: 950 New York Ave. NW. 202-844-5895. estuarydc.com. Breakfast and dinner daily, lunch weekdays, brunch weekends. Dinner $24 to $62. Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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. And from the bar flow impressive cocktails, my current choice being a margarita that finds a pinch of sea salt in the lime juice, oils from the citrus on the surface and a glass that remains chilled through the last drop.
New to the program is brunch, where the draws run to silken quiche, sourdough pancakes with glazed blueberries, baked-to-order chocolate chip cookies. And, by the end of May, the rooftop will sport both an open-air cafe, set in a garden, and a glass-enclosed bar and lounge.
IF YOU GO: 1401 Okie St. NE. 202-763-7942. gravitasdc.com. Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, brunch weekends. Five courses $90, seven courses $115. Sound check: 66 decibels / Conversation is easy.
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. Then there’s a smoky red pepper, stuffed with a cornucopia of black beans, corn, peas and briny green olives, everything arranged on a ruddy romesco sauce.
Little Havana’s bar does the food justice (the white rum-based El Presidente, redolent of orange, is liquid sunshine) and if the weather cooperates, the front patio gives you a front-row seat to life in Columbia Heights — or is it the Caribbean? Little Havana spirits us away from the workaday.
IF YOU GO: 3704 14th St. NW. 202-758-2127. littlehavanadc.com. Dinner daily, brunch weekends. Dinner $12 to $28. Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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.
With the exception of Lisa Chang’s popular scallion bubble cake, the dishes at Mama Chang — chicken chow mein, shrimp with snow peas (and teasing heat) — will be new to the brand’s fans. Dry-fried cauliflower, for instance, is a spicy take on the popular dry-fried eggplant offered at the family’s other outposts — and even better, if you ask me. The takeaway: Women rock.
IF YOU GO: 3251 Old Lee Hwy., Fairfax. 703-268-5556. mamachangva.com. Dinner daily, lunch Friday through Sunday. Small plates $10 to $14, family-style plates $17 to $40. Sound check: 74 decibels/ Must speak with raised voice.
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. Take your pick of a space meant to evoke a royal rail car from yesteryear, a “living room” dressed with romantic arched booths for two, and the dazzling Sheesh Mahal, a private dining room for 10 whose table candles are reflected in more than 100,000 tiny mirrors on the walls. Punjabis know how to throw a feast.
IF YOU GO: 427 11th St. NW. 202-813-3004. punjabgrilldc.com. Dinner daily, lunch weekdays, brunch Sunday. Dinner $12 to $42. Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
ROOSTER & 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 cornbread 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.
Tuesday nights give diners a chance to decide what stays and what goes on the four-course script. That’s when Tang introduces four new dishes for $35, giving diners the option of eating works in progress for less than the usual price of admission. Crowd favorites from a recent audition included cucumbers accessorized with yuzu gel, feta cheese and ginger-garlic crumble, and salmon sporting a crisp coat of falafel. Think of them as public votes of confidence to the benefit of future diners. One thing is for certain: Rooster & Owl has animal magnetism.
IF YOU GO: 2436 14th St. NW. 202-813-3976. roosterowl.com. Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Dinner $65 per person. Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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. Just be sure to start and finish a meal with, respectively, buttermilk biscuits and mint ice cream with shards of chocolate. The decor is quirky and fun. Near the busy bar hang portraits of past presidents deemed disasters, each face obscured by a lightbulb poking through the picture.
IF YOU GO: 1250 Fifth St. NE. 202-864-2199. stanselmdc.com. Dinner daily, brunch weekends. Dinner $23 to $48. Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
SUSHI NAKAZAWA (3 stars)
The most controversial sushi counter around is also one of its 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! Cured pickled gizzard shad, we learn, is among the most ancient sushi preparations, dating to the 18th century; tiger prawns are teased out of their red shells to reveal gently warm, sweet and succulent flesh. While one dish is being consumed, another is getting ready for your consideration, a visual that patrons in the dining room are denied.
Two hours, the time it takes to eat 20 or so courses, goes by quickly — as can your money if you like to drink or add an a-la-carte dish to your meal. The restaurant’s connection to POTUS keeps some sushi mavens away: Sushi Nakazawa sits on the back side of the Trump International Hotel.
IF YOU GO: 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-289-3515. sushinakazawa.com/washington-dc. Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Omakase $120 per person at a table, $150 per person at the sushi counter. Sound check: 61 decibels / Conversation is easy.
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. The dreamy dinner feels of the moment (burnt onion syrup with the fish, spruce oil to enliven the pasta) and closes with hazelnut genoise and toasted buckwheat ice cream.
Pro tip: Thursdays are slightly easier to reserve than Friday or Saturday, and wannabe diners can book out as far as 203 days (29 weeks). Worth the trip? Definitely — worth any hassle, too.
IF YOU GO: 20 Main St., Sperryville, Va. 540-987-5105. threeblacksmiths.com. Dinner Thursday through Saturday. Dinner $118 per person. Sound check: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy.
Ratings are based primarily on food quality but take into account service and ambiance.
1 star - Satisfactory. Restaurants that are useful to know about if you are nearby; they may have only a few dishes or a single quality, such as a view or atmosphere, to distinguish them.
2 stars - Good. Restaurants with generally appealing cooking, service and settings; they tend to be worth driving across town for.
3 stars - Excellent. Rewarding destinations, no matter where you’re coming from; they typically blend high-quality cooking with the environs and service to match.
4 stars - Superlative. An unsurpassed dining experience; these restaurants do what they do extraordinarily well.