Louder, busier dining rooms make it feel as if it’s 2019 — the good old days — again. But the new normal finds lots of changes on the restaurant scene. Days of operation tend to be shorter (a lot of places start their week on Wednesday) and for those that take them, reservations are practically essential.
Here’s what I’m digging right now:
Omar Koité realized he might have a restaurant in his future when he used to cook lunch for the staff of his mother’s late African food store in Takoma Park. People routinely approached him about buying whatever he happened to be grilling outside. “It’s just for us,” he had to tell wannabe customers. With the help of his sister, Adja, he tested the waters by introducing Senegalese food to audiences at local festivals and other events, where the meals were routinely met with thumbs ups. In September, the siblings opened their eponymous restaurant, where Omar watches over the grill and Adja focuses on the stews and side dishes.
Their joint effort is a primer on the food of their native Senegal. Yassa is tender baked chicken spiked with Dijon mustard, black pepper and ginger, and smothered with onions cooked to near-liquid softness. Dibi finds chunks of lamb or goat that benefit from an overnight sit with garlic and chile powder and Omar’s knack for making sure each morsel leaves the charcoal fire crisp on all sides, but never burnt. A peanut butter sauce lends its charm to maafe, a hearty stew of chicken or meat, plus potatoes and carrots that sponge the flavors of the sauce. Entrees come with a choice of strapping sides. The likelihood of leftover jollof rice or vermicelli, jazzed up with green olives and banana peppers, is strong. But you’ll be glad to revisit them come midnight snack or next-day lunch. (Their mother’s food store, which relocated to College Park in 2015, includes a carryout, also called Koité Grill, featuring a pared-down menu, mostly grilled dishes.)
Customers are welcome to eat inside the small storefront, or on the even tinier patio, although the food is served in the same containers used for takeout. The owners plan to introduce wooden plates and full service by the end of July. But even now, the mango-colored walls and a counter fronted with a beach scene from their hometown of Mbour, best known for fishing and tourists, make for a cheerful spot for food prepared with care and attention. The jolt in the pineapple juice is from fresh ginger, and the wicked K7 hot sauce nods to the support the owners get from their five other siblings.
8626 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, Md. 240-847-7016. Open for delivery, takeout, indoor and outdoor dining. Delivery via DoorDash. Entrees, $15 to $32 (for combination grill).
Bansari Indian Cuisine
The name of the year-old restaurant translates from Urdu to English as “flute,” an apt word for the harmonious notes strung together in the kitchen of chef and co-owner Deepak Sarin. His is one of those menus where no two dishes taste alike and every plate makes you glad to be eating it. One minute, my fork is making short work of boiled, fried noodles tossed with a lively vegetable slaw that ricochets from sweet to sassy (ask for Chinese bhel). The next, my tines are hoisting cubes of pleasantly chewy cottage cheese flavored with a cashew nut sauce that’s gold with turmeric, sweet with fenugreek and rich with cream (methi chaman). South India is well-represented by Karwari prawns cloaked with coconut milk flavored with tamarind and curry leaves.
The chef’s bestseller originates from Rajasthan, India’s largest state: baby goat fueled with what tastes like an Indian spice cabinet and finished with Kashmiri red chiles. Chase back the fire with a Kingfisher beer; since Bansari was first reviewed, alcohol has been added to the script. Any meal is better with flaky whole-wheat paratha, the ideal mop for the saucier food.
Takeout was my introduction to the 50-seat Indian outpost over the winter. Eating Sarin’s food off hammered steel plates beneath bird cage chandeliers near walls that alternate from orange to maroon is definitely preferable to out of cartons. Co-owner Yash Bhatt agrees. “We see a lot of people dining in” now, he says. “We love to see our customers.” Back at you, sir.
2750 Gallows Road, Vienna, Va. 571-489-8501. eatatbansari.com Open for delivery, takeout, indoor and outdoor dining. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub, UberEats. Entrees, $11 to $21.
One of the best ambassadors for the food of southern India in the Washington area is this retreat, opened nine months into the pandemic by chef John Rajoo, a native of Tamil Nadu, the southern state in India whose capital is Chennai. While I’ve only experienced his cooking as takeout, the food inside the bags and boxes is arranged just so, as if waiting for a photo shoot.
Want to light up your dining room table? Order some avial, batons of steamed banana, carrots and the Indian vegetable called drumsticks in a golden cloak of shredded coconut, curry leaves and yogurt. Or the dense and delicious morsels of lamb rolled in a grass-colored paste of raw green papaya, ginger, mint and red chiles. Rajoo’s lighter-than-usual biryani is another standout, with rice that’s faint red, from chile powder, and deeply flavorful, thanks to a ginger-garlic paste. It would be easy to fill up on pancakes alone; the scroll-like dosas, wrapped in both wax paper and foil and tucked into pizza boxes, are excellent.
The restaurant takes heat requests seriously. Rajoo adjusts the level with a combination of roasted black peppercorns and dried red chiles. Going in, even hot heads might want to ask for “medium” spice.
A shortage of staff means a delay in seating guests in the dining room, which Rajoo hopes to reopen in mid-July. My only issue with Chennai Hoppers is a menu so long and varied, that even after several takeout orders, I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of the kitchen’s handiwork. On the upside, that just gives me more excuses to return.
136 Paramount Park Dr., Gaithersburg, Md. 240-813-0061. chennaihoppers.com. Open for delivery and takeout. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates and Uber Eats. Entrees, $12 to $19.
Located where The Washington Post once stood downtown on 15th Street NW, Dauphine’s nails so many delicious details, it’s as if you’re enjoying them in the city that more or less put them on the map. New Orleans is summoned in the long-grain rice from Prairie Ronde that shores up the fish amandine and in the crackle from the Leidenheimer bread that’s shipped in for the terrific beef-packed po’ boy. Executive chef Kristen Essig comes to Washington from the Big Easy, where she co-owned one of its most beloved restaurants, Coquette. And if the drinks taste true, credit goes to Dauphine’s spirits maven and co-creator Neal Bodenheimer, whose Cure bar in New Orleans helped fuel the country’s craft cocktail revolution.
Dauphine’s design adds to the you-are-there feel. Wrought iron stretches over the part of the main dining room where charcuterie boards and seafood platters are whipped up, and a jungle of plants around the perimeters lend lushness. An outdoor fountain splashes in a back garden. Named for one of the French Quarter’s best-known streets, the restaurant manages the neat trick of evoking one of the best food cities in the country without going the Disney route.
One of multiple stars among the large plates is paneed rabbit: a half rabbit that’s brined, pressed and breaded on its way to becoming schnitzel framed with beets, greens and a mustard-and-sherry sauce. (Yep, the centerpiece could pass for chicken.) Another score: head-on shrimp in a dark pool of earthy birch beer, rosemary, cracked black pepper and what Essig calls “woozy,” or housemade Worcestershire sauce. End dinner with a show: baked Alaska, flamboyant as Mardi Gras when its meringue dome is ignited at the table.
1100 15th St. NW. 202-758-3785. dauphinesdc.com. Open for outdoor and indoor dining. Entrees, $23 to $85 (duck jambalaya for two).
Mattie & Eddie’s
The fries and corned beef at the new Mattie & Eddie’s in Arlington tell you much of what you need to know about the new Irish pub. On their way to becoming stellar fish and chips, the potatoes are aged at least a week, then are subject to a labor-intensive process of cutting, washing, soaking, draining and cooking twice. As for the corned beef, guests don’t see the tender braised brisket until after 17 days of prep work: a long soak in pickling spices followed by a long sit with a spice rub.
The man behind the menu is veteran Washington chef and Dublin native Cathal Armstrong, who’s a stickler for making what he can (two kinds of bread) or buying the best. The vegetables swimming in the meatless Irish stew hail from the pedigreed Path Valley Farms in Pennsylvania, and Kerrygold butter sweetens whatever it’s added to — which turns out to be a lot of dishes in the sprawling dining room in Westport (formerly Pentagon Row).
The restaurant, which follows Siné in its space, pays tribute to Armstrong’s paternal grandparents and incorporates many of his youthful memories. The appetizer with the best backstory is braised sardines mashed with tomatoes and onions and brassy with cayenne and lemon juice, a riff on a snack Armstrong, one of six children, says his father made when it was just the two of them at home watching rugby. Aw. The main course with the most parts is the all-day breakfast, an eye-opener of eggs, several kinds of sausage and ham, fried potatoes and sweet baked beans that’s also a belt-buster. Bodacious.
Sunday afternoons are sweetened with live music, led by fiddler extraordinaire Brendan Mulvihill.
1301 S. Joyce St., Arlington, Va. 571-312-2665. mattieandeddies.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, delivery and takeout. Delivery via DoorDash. Sandwiches and main courses, $16 to $32.
The Tasting Room
While this popular American restaurant changed hands shortly before the pandemic, new owner Jarrett Walsh and executive chef Nathan Johnson have only enhanced the window-wrapped dining destination in Frederick, Md.
Patrons can still find filet mignon and lobster chowder — longtime draws on the menu — but Walsh has asked the servers to ditch their ties and Johnson, the former chef de cuisine of the late Volt, is helping to fill seats with seared scallops, dappled with a froth of buttermilk and staged with a green garden of asparagus, peas and fava beans. The entree is the very picture of spring, garnished with what looks like orange lace but is in fact a see-through slice of frozen-then-dehydrated carrot cake batter. Fetching and delicious, the composition is exactly what Walsh, a former general manager of the restaurant, says he wants going forward.
A perch at the convivial bar lets you watch the skilled mixers and shakers and glean the latest mating rituals. Date alert: One bartender tells us single customers are now less interested in empty ring fingers than someone’s vaccination status.
The beauty of American cooking? “It’s from everywhere,” says Walsh. Indeed, Johnson’s list draws inspiration from around the world. Housemade ravioli tends to be stuffed with something that reminds you what time of year it is and the scallop ceviche lit with lime and chiles brings Lima close. I’m most drawn to fish here, although the plump pork chop, brined in baking spices, is mighty impressive. One of the best reasons to reserve at brunch is the chance at pupusas, an idea of sous chef Alberto Lopez, a native of El Salvador.
101 N. Market St. Frederick, Md. 240-379-7772 trrestaurant.com Open for takeout, indoor and outdoor dining. No delivery. Entrees, $25 to $50 (for filet mignon).
The pandemic denied the lobbyist lair of a chance to celebrate its 20th anniversary in April. The silver lining for owner Paolo Sacco was the opportunity to start anew, in May, with a fresh look for the dining room and a new face in the kitchen, Phil Marzelli, a veteran of several Fabio Trabocchi restaurants.
Splashier than ever, the lounge catches eyes with floral wallpaper, dusty rose stools and green leather tiles on the front of the bar. Lighter than before, the dining room lost its carpet in favor of what looks like stained oak and added a 30-seat space for private events. Sacco signals the change from formal to fun with his attire. The dapper host no longer wears a tie.
Regulars let the owner know they wanted to see a few Tosca signatures — the veal chop with its elegant long bone, agnolotti del plin — on their return. Both dishes are enhanced versions. The chef takes the time to air-dry the chop before curing it with salt and introducing it to a citrus marinade; his tender agnolotti enclose a short rib filling that’s smoother than before with butter and intensely flavored with cheese and the braising liquid from the meat. Speaking of pasta, all of them can be ordered in half portions, although half of the risotto brightened with lemon zest and dressed with wild squid is never enough for some of us.
“Presentation is important to me,” says the chef. Indeed, his appetizers are among the most arresting around. His burrata, imported from Puglia, shimmers with an emerald pesto, fragrant with African blue basil. Dover sole is presented with precise hash marks from the grill and the Sicilian sundae — scoops of ricotta gelato in a glass globe garnished with shards of cannoli “chips” — is a dolce to remember.
1112 F St. NW. 202-367-1990. toscadc.com. Open for takeout, delivery and indoor dining. Delivery via DoorDash. Entrees, $26 to $60.