Food critic

Dining in Washington has become big sport. Last year, more than $4 billion was spent on food and drink in what has emerged as one of the best restaurant cities in the country.

This year’s Top 10 list, part of food critic Tom Sietsema’s 20th annual fall dining guide — his biggest yet — showcases Washington’s international flavor and how much fun fine-dining has become.

The list has been made available here for subscribers before the full fall dining guide publishes on October 10.

Sietsema and Post food video host Mary Beth Albright will host a livestream video chat at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 11, to answer subscribers’ questions about the life of a food critic. Submit your questions here.


Mandu, pan-fried pork and kimchi dumplings, at Anju. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

ANJU (not yet rated)

Think all fermented cabbage tastes the same? Try the kimchi aged 100 days at this youthful Korean gastropub and let’s talk. The powerful nose and distinctive tang alone set it apart from everything younger.

Anju rose from the literal ashes of Mandu in Dupont Circle, also created by chef Danny Lee, and the successor couldn’t be more family-oriented. His mom, Yesoon Lee, is the keeper of tradition in the kitchen, and his wife, Natalie, designed the inviting, two-story space. The banchan — pickled cucumbers stuffed with carrot and chives, crunchy sauteed bellflower root and more — are terrific, as are the steamed, seared, super-juicy dumplings stuffed with ground pork and buttered kimchi. Should you eat or drink the egg custard? The bowlful, carpeted with minced garlic, is so silken and slippery, it’s hard to tell.

Heading up the kitchen is executive chef Angel Barreto, formerly of the delicious Chiko, and a talent to watch. His twists on tradition share space on the small script with Mama Lee “classics.” Braised chicken and potatoes in a spicy, honey-sweetened red gravy are as soothing as a call from home.

IF YOU GO: 1805 18th St. NW. 202-845-8935. anjurestaurant.com. Dinner daily. Dinner mains $18-$32. Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.


Sunday diners at Mama Chang in Fairfax. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

MAMA CHANG (3 stars)

Writing valentines to restaurants always worries me. Will the establishment feel free to coast after a rave review, or will readers experience the same thrills I did? I needn’t have fretted about entrepreneurs Lisa and Peter Chang’s latest, and possibly greatest, enterprise, which opened March 8. (Fittingly, on International Women’s Day.) Seven months on, the tribute to the cooking of Lisa, a professional chef, and Peter’s mother, a former farmer in central China, is as mouthwatering as it’s ever been.

The list of dishes that propelled Mama Chang to the No. 1 spot in my spring dining guide, including sweet potato noodles tossed with pork and mustard greens, grew longer with the recent addition of some fresh ideas: springy morsels of chicken blasted with black pepper sauce, warm-spiced pork belly paired with tea-stained eggs, and custardy scrambled eggs dressed up with tomato and pearly shrimp. Even spinach stir-fried with garlic impresses me with its sheen and faint crunch.

Cooking isn’t the only thing driving me to this tidy, 200-seat retreat in Fairfax. The service is attentive, the wine list shows thought, and as big as the dining room is, acres of light wood and open-sided booths make for a comfortable roost while you feast.

IF YOU GO: 3251 Old Lee Hwy., Fairfax. 703-268-5556. mamachang.com. Dinner daily, lunch daily, dim sum weekends. Small plates $10-$14, family-style plates $17-$40. Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.


Tomato agedashi, crispy silken tofu, mandarin tomato and pine nut marmalade, yuzu kosho sorbet and smoked tomato broth at Métier. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

MÉTIER (4 stars)

The pinnacle of fine dining in Washington tends to involve moving from one room to another during the night, tasting menus that blend old ideas with the new, tableside service, a sense of humor and the luxury of quiet. Métier offers all those frills and more in an underground space that opens with drinks and hors d’oeuvres in an intimate salon and continues in a dining room graced with old paintings, well-spaced tables, a candlelit chandelier and a view of the talent behind a big window into the kitchen.

A highlight reel from September would start with a brilliant chilled carrot consommé so clear you can read through it. (For proof, its glass bowl is set on a “place mat” cut from the pages of The Washington Post.) A few dishes pair first-rate if familiar ingredients with exceptional flourishes: garden-fresh basil broth with sauteed branzino and a bracing Dijon mustard sorbet with rosy grilled Virginia lamb loin. Other combinations find chef-owner Eric Ziebold making a sauce before your eyes or reminding you he’s as adept at Japanese cooking as he is at French. Garnished with a pale green sorbet ignited with yuzu chile paste, cubes of lightly fried, melt-in-the-mouth tofu set in hot smoked tomato water will go down as one of the most extraordinary things I ate all year.

The chef’s equal in the pastry department is Anne Specker. Gianduja chocolate torchon with corn milk ice cream and a side of the best churros in memory has me seeing stars — four, to be precise.

IF YOU GO: 1015 Seventh St. NW. 202-737-7500. metierdc.com. Dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Seven-course tasting menu at $200 per person. Sound check: 65 decibels / Conversation is easy.


Roast duck at Pineapple and Pearls. (Tom McCorkle for the Washington Post)

PINEAPPLE AND PEARLS (4 stars)

“We’re going to have a lot of fun tonight,” predicts a server at the city’s most upbeat fine-dining lair. Moments later, one of his colleagues is at our table giving us a master class in martinis (unlike Bond, he stirs the drink, preserving its mouthfeel), and a couple of perfect bites appear: a Barbie-size wedge of beef tallow pie and fresh-from-Staten Island escargot sharing a pastry puff with liquefied herbs.

The hours fly by in the heady company of “breakfast for dinner” — French toast made savory with blue cheese, foie gras and a downy hedge of black truffle — and grilled lamb and spicy merguez atop a tiny grill, with pots of housemade harissa and chimichurri, a lofty “summer cookout.” Fear not. The dishes are apportioned to leave you receptive to more. Blackened monkfish étouffée delivers a glorious taste of New Orleans; 150-layer lasagna yields a fanciful Italian-American construction project finished with a seafood-rich fra diavolo.

Desserts — sticky toffee cake with black chestnut ice cream, chocolate bonbons with toasted hazelnuts — are multiple little sensations. From the comfortable mid-century modern chairs to prepaying the bill ahead of your visit, no detail is too small for owner Aaron Silverman and crew. Many high-end restaurants send guests home with a gift from the kitchen. This one forwards a donation to World Food Program USA to feed hungry kids instead. Everybody wins, and the waiter’s sunny forecast turns out to be spot on.

IF YOU GO: 715 Eighth St. SE. 202-595-7375. pineappleandpearls.com. Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Dining room and chef’s counter $325 per person including beverages, bar dining $150 not including beverages. Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.


Manjar blanco, caramel corn, ash and meringue at Poca Madre. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

POCA MADRE (3 stars)

If you want to chart how far this Mexican hideaway has traveled since it opened, ask for the charred cabbage. Singed leaves might not sound like a game-changer, but they sure taste like one when they’re arranged with spoonfuls of shredded oxtail “jam” on a pale green, heat-packing mole that fairly pulses with cilantro, mint and ground seeds. My point: Vegetables are getting starring roles, and meat is being used more like a garnish. Indeed, one of the most enticing ceviches here revolves around mango compressed with chiles and lime and finished with candied Fresno pepper and dark splotches of charred habanero oil, an accent chef-owner Victor Albisu likes so much he says, “I put it on everything,” even eggs at breakfast.

The chef has a playful side. “Everything” infladita stuffs smoked whitefish in delicate fried tortilla cups, and panko-crisped halibut gets slipped between a steamed bun slathered with chipotle cream. It’s a Filet-0-Fish, sí, but superior in every way to the one at McDonald’s. If there’s one dish Albisu says he can’t take off the list, it’s fried chicken set on a much-improved black mole enriched with foie gras. All the dish needs is a sparkling salad to counter the decadence, and that it gets, along with excellent blue corn tortillas.

Has it been a while since your last visit to the moody dining room? Never tried the restaurant, whose service keeps pace with the kitchen? You’re missing out. Poca Madre is at the top of its game.

IF YOU GO: 777 I St. NW. 202-838-5300. pocamadredc.com. Dinner daily. Small plates $12-$32, large sharing plates $46-$110. Sound check: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy.


The "homage to Linden Vineyards" at The Restaurant at Potowmack Farm in Lovettsville, Va. (Jonathan Timmes/The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm)

THE RESTAURANT AT PATOWMACK FARM (3.5 stars)

Before a summertime dinner at one of the best reasons to hit country roads, I didn’t know sunflower buds, with a flavor like artichokes, made delicious fried snacks or that the best way to bring out the flavor of beef is to cook it in its own tallow. Also: Bread dipped in charcoal-infused oil is something special.

Shame on me for skipping out on the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm last year. Tarver King is one of the Mid-Atlantic’s best chefs, and his restaurant, set on a hill in northern Loudoun County, benefits from 18 acres of pantry, in the form of a surrounding farm. Everyone eats the same progression menu, and everything tastes better when it’s enjoyed alfresco, under a tent with a bucolic view.

Picture oysters on the half shell ignited with a chile vinaigrette aged for six years in a whiskey barrel from Catoctin Creek. Imagine a tiny lemon squash leaning on a perfect bite of swordfish in a puddle of anchovy-soy sauce. Delight in an elegant pavlova for dessert, followed by “candy shoppe flavors,” including Turkish delight and lavender caramels. I never put ketchup on meat — except here, where the condiment, “squash-chup,” is made exceptional with allspice and mushrooms, following an 18th-century recipe. One or two Sundays a month, the kitchen explores another cuisine with a multicourse supper for $75: November will take diners to India (on the 3rd) and Japan (on the 17th). Thrill seekers, take note.

IF YOU GO: 42461 Lovettsville Rd., Lovettsville, Va. 540-822-9017. patowmackfarm.com. Dinner Thursday through Saturday, brunch weekends, monthly Sunday supper. Dinner $110 per person; Sunday supper $75 per person. Sound check: 69 decibels / Conversation is easy.


Quail with cheddar grits, pepper and miso honey at Rooster & Owl. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

ROOSTER & OWL (3 stars)

Few chefs cook outside of the box like Yuan Tang. When’s the last time you had meatless larb or pig ear seasoned as if it were a Buffalo chicken wing? Do you care? You should, because as strange as some combinations sound, they make wonderful sense in your mouth. That larb, a riff on a Laotian salad, features shiitakes jazzed up with lime leaves and Thai chiles and slicked with a dressing of tamarind, hazelnut oil and lime — divine. Braised in pho broth and fried to a crackle, that zesty pig ear gets mixed with kohlrabi and peanuts and striped with ranch dressing — fun!

Ravioli stuffed with roasted carrots seasoned with miso and draped with walnut pesto would taste at home in an Italian standard-bearer, save perhaps for the pickled blueberries on the plate. And instead of a cheese course, Rooster & Owl offers brie custard with shortbread that’s a ringer for a Ritz cracker. (Birthdays are acknowledged with cake pops in owl jars.)

Four courses for $65 is fair admission for fabulous food and smart service. The dining room is by comparison subdued, but the leather chairs are comfy, and a recently designated private space for 10 is sure to call to gastronauts. Were you expecting mints with the check? Tiny robot-shaped gummies flavored with raspberry and prosecco are more this animal’s style.

IF YOU GO: 2436 14th St. NW. 202-813-3976. roosterowl.com. Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Dinner $65 per person, bar a la carte: $12-$26. Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.


Butternut squash cacao tart with goat cheese and caviar vinaigrette at Seven Reasons. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

SEVEN REASONS (3 stars)

It’s a jungle in there. Three floors tall, Seven Reasons is crawling with greenery, to which chef-owner Enrique Limardo plans to add more, possibly a big tree. “Nature is going to take over the place,” vows the city’s best ambassador for the foodways of Latin America. Golden, one-bite, cheese-filled arepas are a tip of the hat to Limardo’s native Venezuela. Same for the skate-stuffed plantain ravioli, a blast from his past as the recipient of his grandmother’s Sunday cooking.

Limardo studied architectural and industrial design before devoting himself to restaurants; that translates to some cool sights. Behold his fried octopus tentacle, dusted with trendy charred onion “ash” and set on interlocking yellow rings of liquid ahi amarillo. Or a tostada dressed with pink folds of swordfish belly, glimmering orange rice and caramelized black sesame seeds and all but hiding the julienned green mango beneath the party of flavors. Argentine steak marinated in garlic, lime zest and Worcestershire sauce before being breaded and fried comes with precise dots of avocado puree spiked with serrano. Other Milanese seem drab in comparison.

Vegetarians are gladly received with such dishes as cauliflower tartare and a roasted sweet potato made dramatic and delicious with crimson beet puree and an almond-chipotle vinaigrette. (Limardo is promising something other than an election to think about next year: a month-long vegan menu.) Isn’t the space cool? Aren’t the servers lovely? Doesn’t everyone look happy to be here? When I think of it, there are dozens of reasons to pick this restaurant for your next dining ad­ven­ture.

IF YOU GO: 2208 14th St. NW. 202-290-2630. sevenreasonsdc.com. Dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Small plates $13-$20, medium plates $19-$29, large plates $45-$120. Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.


Lahpet thoke, Burmese pickled tea leaf salad, with grilled prawns at Thamee. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

THAMEE (not yet rated)

Washington has enjoyed tastes of Myanmar before, but never like Thamee, where chef Jocelyn Law-Yone has a story for seemingly every dish on the menu. Catfish noodle curry is a soup she recalls waking up to, and enjoying again after school, back in her native Yangon. That bit of background makes the bright yellow mohinga, garnished with banana stems, even more enticing. My personal favorite on the list: shaved pickled ginger tossed with spiced peanuts, crisp cabbage and lime juice. Then again, maybe it’s the marriage of pork belly and pickled mango, a union of what the people of Myanmar refer to as “the best meat” and “the best fruit,” says Law-Yone, a former teacher whose daughter and co-owner, Simone Jacobson, is also a generous guide to the cuisine.

Don’t get too attached to the above. Thamee’s menu changes this month, and for the broader. The owners are adding stuffed grilled eggplant, fried chicken Mondays and large plates, including sugar cane glazed duck with naan and dipping sauces.

Sure, there’s milk tea to sip, but visitors can also wash back a meal with something bolder, maybe pork fat-washed rye whiskey with jaggery caramel and fish sauce tincture. Billed as the Edward, it resembles a funky old-fashioned. Little details make big impressions: The food is presented on tabletops bearing digital reproductions of fetching textiles from Myanmar (also known as Burma), and bills are dropped off inside miniature coconuts. Above all, Thamee wants you to explore and have fun. “Happy Caturday,” Jacobson welcomed me one recent weekend — in an outfit stamped with feline designs.

IF YOU GO: 1320 H St. NE. 202-750-6529. thamee.com. Dinner Wednesday through Monday, brunch weekends. Dinner mains $18-$25. Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.


Three Blacksmiths restaurant in Sperryville, Va. (Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)

THREE BLACKSMITHS (3 stars)

It just got easier to dine at the smallest best restaurant in the region. Co-owners Diane and John MacPherson added a chef and expanded their hours to include Wednesday night in their beguiling, 20-seat dining room in Rappahannock County. Otherwise, those fortunate to have visited before can expect a scene similar to dinners past: five courses offered at a single seating by the same people who prepared the meal.

Farmers let the restaurant know what they have on Sunday. The staff noodles ideas on Tuesday before writing a menu. The only constant from week to week: “The food has to be simple, honest, delicious and beautiful,” says John, a chef. Hence a summertime ode to tomatoes served fresh, charred, in a consommé and as a roasted pâté. And scarlet tenderloin rounded out with golden pommes Anna, charred cucumber relish and a pale yellow onion soubise.

Lovely nibbles and sublime desserts start and finish the dream, narrated in part by Diane, the gracious general manager. Coming soon: black walnut custard tart with compressed apples and smoked yogurt. And maybe goat from a local purveyor in Madison. Plenty of restaurants serve delicious food in attractive spaces. Three Blacksmiths suggests you’re enjoying dinner in the home of friends — friends with superb taste.

IF YOU GO: 20 Main St., Sperryville, Va. 540-987-5105. threeblacksmiths.com. Dinner Thursday through Saturday. $128 per person. Sound check: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy.

*****

Ratings code

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.

*****