What do a farm-to-table dining destination in Virginia, a pizza-and-wine draw in Maryland and a tiny, family-run Japanese spot in Washington have in common? They’re all places I’ve eaten recently — and all highly recommend right now. At a time when life still feels uncertain, these and other restaurants provide welcome escapes.
Field & Main
Neal Wavra has always been an exceptional host. The pandemic compelled the Virginia restaurateur to add “chef” to his portfolio. “I draw on the French definition: boss,” says the co-owner of one of the region’s most sublime dining destinations, about an hour west of D.C. in Fauquier County. At the same time, he encourages collaboration with his three sous chefs, whom he directs to “go into the world to find inspiration.”
Visit now, and you might discover wax and green beans blistered in the restaurant’s hearth and tossed with pickled ginger and citrus- and chile-roasted peanuts, a flavor profile that suggests China. Some of the most gorgeous scallops around come with a snap pea salad tossed with sorrel sauce and liquid ribbons of tonnato — Italy’s treasured tuna sauce — broadened to include pureed fava beans. Then there’s duck leg confit, resting on crisp polenta and dappled with a pesto stained with blueberries and arugula, a combination inspired by what a local purveyor happened to drop off one day.
Notice a trend? Wavra says every dish starts with what his farmers and growers send the restaurant. As he puts it, “they give us the frame.” Farm-fresh ingredients and creative ways to show them off add up to meals you hope to repeat. The $10 bread board — housemade, grill-striped bread staged with a thick brushstroke of butter strewn with chopped scallions, benne seeds and pickled snap peas — is worth the price of admission. The chunk of bread might be served upright, Stonehedge-style; diners are encouraged to drag pieces of it through the creamy, crunchy goodness on the board. Fun.
The pandemic kept diners outside the handsome restaurant for a spell. What began as tents morphed into seven free-standing wooden structures that take design cues from both barns and Japanese teahouses. Good thing they’re sticking around for the long haul. Seating almost as many customers as inside Field & Main, the little cabanas are some of the most handsome responses to any need for space and safety.
8369 West Main St., Marshall, Va. 540-364-8166. fieldandmainrestaurant.com. Open for takeout, indoor and outdoor dining. Entrees, $19 to $45.
Dinner at Caruso’s Grocery has me falling, hard, for a red sauce joint that checks all the expected boxes yet steers clear of anything resembling Buca di Beppo, or for that matter, an Italian-American stage set like Carbone in New York, where the veal parm is priced like a Broadway show. The creators of Caruso’s Grocery — Michael Babin, founder of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, and chef Matt Adler, a veteran of the upscale Osteria Morini — aimed for something that was with neither cheesy nor cheffy with their intimate eatery near the NRG’s sprawling Roost food hall.
You could call it the Goldilocks of its genre. Everything is just right. The newcomer is dressed in marinara-colored banquettes, dozens of black-and-white photos and a bar when you walk in, a detail Babin and Adler filed away when they were researching the idea in Philadelphia and New York. The food and drink follow suit. From the bar flow enhanced versions of yesteryear’s cocktails, like The Godfather Manhattan, treated to an amaretto rinse and gently priced at $10. Adler stands in front of the visible kitchen, inspecting plates as they go out: some of the best, and most photogenic, fried calamari, pesto-sauced pasta and veal cutlets in memory.
Caruso’s Grocery is the principals’ most personal statement yet; the place is named for a store Babin’s Sicilian great-uncles and paternal grandmother operated in Baton Rogue. And in his younger days, Adler worked at just the sort of restaurant he helped bring to life with Babin in Washington’s Hill East — his father’s Italian restaurant, Scoozie, in Upstate New York. The limoncello spritzed on the (wonderful) shrimp scampi before it leaves the kitchen? That’s something his dad did.
1401 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-661-0148. carusosgrocery.com Open for takeout and indoor dining. Entrees, $19.50 to $38.25.
The mistake is to think of the youthful 45-seat restaurant as yet another Korean outpost in an area brimming with similar menus. Justin Ahn was born in Korea but relocated to Southern California when he was a year old. He grew up watching his mother cook the food of their homeland and was raised to pick and choose the best of Korean and American cultures. The self-taught chef says his “flavors are going to be Korean” even if his techniques are otherwise. “You’re not going to get the usuals here.”
Sure enough, his steamed egg custard, fragrant with sesame oil, gets finished with bird’s eye chiles, fish sauce and lime juice — a very Thai touch. A riff on bibimbap, the colorful Korean rice dish, swaps out rice for elastic wheat noodles (jjolmyeon) imported from the restaurant’s namesake city in Korea, arranged with a rainbow of cucumbers, carrots and onions plus tender sea snails instead of the traditional beef. Diners are instructed to mix the ingredients with a nearby sauce based on gochujang so that each bite delivers the taste equivalent of a little bugle blast. It takes skill and good timing to achieve jjolmyeon with the desired chewiness. Ahn delivers.
At least in its early months, Incheon was quiet enough that Ahn himself introduced his menu, tailoring diners’ experience after some conversation. Magic sometimes returns to the table. Ahn combines Arborio rice and pecorino cheese as deftly as any Italian chef, but makes his risotto singular with the help of dashi instead of chicken stock and diced boiled abalone as the featured attraction. Ahn thinks of the dish as an enhanced juk, or Korean porridge. More allure comes by way of ivory dominoes of soft-crisp pork belly, fanned onto a plate shared with julienne radish kimchi, a pungent ssamjang (paste) made with walnuts, and spears of lightly pickled napa cabbage for wrapping the meat and condiments.
There are no inferior dishes, only dishes of which you might want more or less.
7118 Columbia Pike, Annandale. 703-688-3347. incheon-restaurant.business.site. Open for indoor dining. Entrees, $21 to $34; tasting menu $60 per person.
Before I tell you how much I revere this Japanese dad and daughter act, let me share a request from co-owner Cizuka Seki: Help wanted. Looking for a server and a line cook five days a week.
Were she able to fill those positions, Seki says, she and her father, Hiroshi, the 32-seat tavern’s 74-year-old chef, could expand service to Sunday and offer longer hours. For now, their staff of eight is doing its best to accommodate patrons, who are reminded they can’t camp out for the evening. Reservations, required for now, are for 90 minutes. And an unpredictable supply chain means ingredients you might expect to find aren’t always available. As never before, says Seki, “I have to say no” now and then.
If the operation sounds strict, it still holds great appeal. The prized seats are those at the counter, where patrons no longer sit knee to knee but still get to observe the chef up close. In true izakaya fashion, the menu, illustrated with Seki’s doodles, leans to snack-size plates meant to be washed back with drinks. (You can count on the restaurateur, a fan of wines from Burgundy and the Loire Valley, to steer you to something special.) A sniff of the air — clean, hot oil — is a siren call to anything fried: crisp silvery smelt, maybe, or soft-shell crabs, sweet of meat, served with ponzu sauce for dipping and as delectable as any I’ve had this year.
The chef is a discerning shopper. His lightly pickled wild sardines, served sashimi style, are from Hokkaido, Japan, revered for the freshness of its seafood. The lush uni, meanwhile, is plucked from Santa Barbara, Calif. Hiroshi presents the treasure with a dab of wasabi and a tiny quail egg. Any meal is better if it includes roseate slices of beef tongue hot off the grill — hotter with a dab of Japanese mustard — and some cool punctuation in the form of “kimchi” cucumbers punched up with garlic and chile flakes.
Tick, tick, tick. Time’s up. Time for some else to enjoy one of the best meals of their week.
1117 V St. NW. No phone. sekidc.com. Open for takeout, delivery via Skip the Line and indoor dining. Plates, $3.75 to $45.
Ashok Bajaj figured something French would make a suitable successor to the Oval Room, his mover- and shaker-populated restaurant of 27 years near the White House. Given that he already maintains American, Indian, Italian and Middle Eastern restaurants in his portfolio, a Gallic entry “complements the group,” he says. The prolific restaurateur also wanted something livelier than before. “People want an uplift” after being stuck at home for so long. “I wanted a fun name,” too, says the man who famously visits all his restaurants every day. He chose La Bise, “the kiss,” partly for the way the French words roll off the tongue.
Chef Tyler Stout, a veteran of Fiola and 1789, has created a menu that’s playful and delicious. Bite into his gougeres and you’ll find Comte cheese espuma, or foam, inside the delicate orbs. The chef’s first courses might sound familiar, but each resonates with something special. There’s an ocean of crudo out there now. Stout’s thinly sliced raw fish is paved with sheer slices of stone fruit, set in refreshing tomato water and sprinkled with nutty puffed sorghum. A tentacle of fried octopus gets the “Veronique” treatment with sliced green grapes tossed in Espelette pepper and olive oil and tufts of what look like sea foam whipped up from grape juice, Champagne, butter and more. A meatier approach is Stout’s charcuterie board, highlights of which include head cheese made from luscious pig parts and dark and rich caramelized onions shot through with a reduction of balsamic vinegar.
The interior, splashy in blue and dressed in one room with 1,000 small mirrors, is just the “uplift” its owner sought. More booths mean more privacy, a boon to the VIPs who are already streaming in, or really, anyone aiming for personal conversation.
High on my list of preferred main courses are the butter-basted duck breast served alongside duck confit on a pool of corn sauce finished with pickled blueberries, and a tomato tart that uses an herbed biscuit as a base for the colorful fruit and buttery burrata. The entree on everyone’s lips is salmon coulibiac, basically a fish version of beef Wellington in which a band of puff pastry and mushroom duxelles form a frame around the salmon and rice tinted with parsley puree. Pretty in pink and green, it’s been known to elicit tears. “The salmon entree made me weep!” a friend, a Broadway producer, texted. He was being dramatic, but tears of joy fill fitting. People are eating downtown again!
800 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-463-8700. labisedc.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Entrees, $25 to $38.
Spanish Diner opened two years ago to such great and sustained applause in New York, rainmaker José Andrés says he felt compelled to open a second branch in Washington, specifically Bethesda, where he lives, and where his three daughters insisted he couldn’t close the Maryland branch of Jaleo unless it was followed by something similarly flavored.
The girls got their wish, and Bethesda gained something special, in May: a restaurant with the exuberance of his original Spanish tapas draw, but also a greater selection of comfort foods, including a section devoted to eggs, one of the famous chef’s many passions. (Maybe you’ve heard. When he’s not minding his ever-expanding culinary empire, Andrés is saving the world.) While Spanish Diner isn’t immune to the challenges of operating during a pandemic — its early weeks were uneven, and service still needs attention — the newcomer already feels like the right restaurant at the right time.
The heart of Spanish Diner, for me, is a category of dishes toasting “our grandma’s cuisine,” everyday food you might find in casual dining establishments or in the home of a conscientious Spanish cook. I’m a fool for golden nuggets of fried potatoes and juicy pork meatballs draped with tomato sauce, and grilled squid splayed across a pool of its black ink, its flavor bolstered with pureed onion, bell peppers and fish stock. Along for the ride: garlicky sauteed rice. There’s also a luscious beef stew featuring sliced flatiron steak, its sauce made haunting with star anise and woodsy black trumpet mushrooms.
The interior feels as alive as the man behind the menu. Waves of yellow draw eyes to the ceiling and, as at Jaleo, glass-topped foosball tables double as dining spots. One wall displays an illuminated menu of the sort you’d see in a diner, and even the wood floor demands attention with its sheen. As for dessert, the eye-opener of the bunch is the pineapple boat, swollen with a rum syrup and bright with mint and lime. Toothpicks inserted into individual chunks invite you to pluck away.
7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, Md. 301-284-3700. spanishdiner.com. Open for indoor dining, takeout and delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub and UberEats. Entrees, $12 to $20.
Vin 909 Winecafe
The long line outside the cute bungalow has us worried when we pull up before its doors open for dinner. Scores of wannabe customers stand ahead of my posse at the first come, first served pizza-and-wine draw in the Eastport part of Annapolis. No sooner is it 5 p.m. than the crowd files past a garden that might win Adrian Higgins’s stamp of approval and into the restaurant, where smiling greeters are somehow able to promptly seat the lot in a span of minutes. When we marvel at the staff’s efficiency, a host tells us, “We have lots of little corners to seat people,” including a rear enclosed patio with a two-stool chef’s counter that looks into the pizza-making operation.
Owned by Alex Manfredonia, who brings fine dining experience from San Francisco, Vin 909 has the reception down pat. Same for the generously apportioned food, fussed over by chef Justin Moore. Seemingly a bushel of arugula shows up with a hailstorm of pistachios, goat cheese crumbles and juicy blackberries. The fetching “chowda” packs in fistfuls of clams whose shells collect smoked bacon, grilled sweet corn, diced potato, crisp scallions and hot cream. Each spoonful tastes like a day at the beach. Maryland blue crab draped with lemon beurre blanc and presented on a crisp wonton nets another rich pleasure.
The decade-old restaurant has fun with its wine list, a liquid romp around the world. “Value is not a dirty word,” describes the category of $6 wines by the glass; “I got class, I just don’t want to pay for it” collects the $9 options. No bottle on the standing list is priced more than $43. “People get intimidated by wine,” says Manfredonia. “There’s plenty of delicious wine that’s reasonably priced. You just need to take the time to find them.” A reserve list lets diners “go off the path” with natural and orange wines, among other selections.
From the brick oven come thin, crisp pies including Spotted Pig decked out with wild boar meatballs, sopressata, a pleasantly sweet tomato sauce, fresh basil and multiple cheeses. (The crust is based on the one created by the owner’s father, who founded what became La Prima Food Group based in College Park.) One slice leads to another and before you know it, you feel like you’re the piggy — which doesn’t stop you from inhaling some butterscotch pudding before you waddle out.
909 Bay Ridge Ave., Annapolis. 410-990-1846. vin909.com. Open for takeout and indoor dining. Pizza and entrees, $16 to $21.