Restaurants have become lifelines during the pandemic, gifts made especially clear as we say goodbye to 2021. Despite the odds (a labor shortage, supply chain issues) the Washington dining scene continues to expand and make life more worth living. Here’s a toast to some favorite newcomers — among them a wine bar in Maryland and a casual offshoot of a starry restaurant in Virginia — along with a shout-out to tried-and-true performers.
Enebla Restaurant & Market
Sambusas. Doro wot. Kitfo. The owner of Enebla Restaurant & Market in Silver Spring acknowledges Ethiopian restaurants tend to offer similar menus. The differences are made clear by “the timing and the seasoning” of the dishes, says Askale Bekele, 47, who doubles as the kindly host and chef at her 15-seat storefront. At the counter, stacks of spongy injera imported from Ethiopia and made with teff — the mineral-rich, gluten-free whole grain — also underscore the restaurateur’s commitment to quality ingredients.
Bottom line: Bekele wants her food to “remind you of home,” as in her native Ethiopia.
One visit to her dining room, simply dressed with curtains in the windows and a painting of a villager, encourages another, and another. My latest fascination is quanta firfir: lean beef that’s chopped, hit with spices including berbere and dried, a process that makes for memorable beef jerky when tossed with caramelized onions and garlic and served as a mound with pieces of torn injera and sliced jalapeños. Fans of steak tartare should request an upgrade on the tongue-tingling, cardamom-fragrant kitfo, the “special” version of which is accompanied by two kinds of housemade cottage cheese — one freckled with collards, another red (and racy) with mitmita — and collard greens that are steamed, ground, and flavored with butter and house-crushed spices.
My litmus test for Ethiopian restaurants is the vegetable sampler. Enebla passes with flying colors: ruby beets, glossy cabbage yellow with turmeric, lentils in three shades of earth but in flavors that range from subtly sweet to spicy. The dish the chef thinks distinguishes her kitchen from the pack is a vegetable dulet, typically made with tripe but featuring mushrooms and tofu at Enbela, which translates to “let us eat together” in Amharic, says the owner.
“My mother is the best teacher,” says Bekele, one of 13 children who learned to cook from Elfinsh Wadajo, now 97 and living in Addis Ababa. Wadajo, who also taught her 27 grandchildren (“boys and girls”) how to replicate her food, doesn’t cook much these days, but she still directs the show, says her daughter. “She knows just by smell” what a dish needs. A taste of the cooking at Enebla suggests Bekele was a diligent student.
7849 Eastern Ave., Silver Spring, Md. 301-326-4023. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, delivery and takeout. Entrees, $12 to $19.
Era Wine Bar
The owners of the freshly minted Era Wine Bar in Mt. Rainier don’t sound like your typical restaurateurs. Michelle Grant comes from the technology sector and her husband, Ka-ton Grant, is an engineer/physicist. “I always wanted to do something outside my training,” says Michelle. “To explore my passion,” adds the D.C. native and grape nut.
Visitors will find 45 wines by the glass and a global roster of dishes (tandoori wings, lamb sliders) in what was once a sewing machine factory. Grant says she was aiming for “old-world characteristics and new-world charm” in the 60-seat dining room, which is outfitted with comfortable leather chairs, broad marble tables, Mexican tiles and clay wine pots from the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Grant, whose parents are from Zambia, has trained two cooks to follow family recipes or directions for dishes she fell in love with on her travels. Hence, a menu that highlights the spice route of yore, and snacks including spicy, beef-filled samosas that Grant originally made in-house but now buys from Swahili Village in Beltsville. “They taste most like my family’s,” she says of the hot pockets accompanied by tamarind and green chile sauces. Cheese and charcuterie plates come in a trio of flavors: American, Italian and French. Spain is well-represented by a zippy stew of chickpeas, crushed tomatoes and slivered garlic infused with smoked paprika; Morocco gets name-checked by a tender chicken tagine, laced with saffron and bedded on fluffy couscous. Grant likes to pair the last dish with a crisp white wine from Croatia, Malvazija. (The list focuses on small producers from beyond the usual regions.)
Era is reaching out to its neighbors in ways large and small. Wines can be explored in three-, six- and nine-ounce tastes or glasses. A “king’s table” in the restaurant’s cellar can accommodate parties of up to 16. And Grant, who has an 18-month-old daughter named Leila, was thinking of new moms when she placed a chair in the restroom.
3300 Rhode Island Ave., Mt. Rainier, Md. 301-235-3788. erawinebar.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Small plates and bowls, $9 to $24.
Immigrant Food Plus
By day, Immigrant Food is my kind of fast-casual, offering sandwiches, salads and bowls that mix cuisines from around the globe and slip important messages into the experience.
The latest branch of the local mini-chain goes by the name Immigrant Food Plus, partly as a nod to its host, the Planet Word museum, but also because of what it becomes at night: a softly lit, full-service restaurant with top-shelf drinks and entrees that pair novelty with sophistication.
Chicken Milanesa might have Italians scratching their heads but also scraping their plates. The golden crust relies on ground cassava versus breadcrumbs for its crunch; a topping of fontina cheese and tomato sauce slips berbere, the warm Ethiopian spice blend, into the meld. Thai steak is true to its words — sliced beef cooked the color you ask, dappled with crushed nuts and a bacon-laced chimichurri — and served with a semicircle of fragrant rice topped with microgreens.
Your server is likely to pitch the “dim sum experience” for $20 a person. Take the plunge or miss the biggest thrill on the menu: “world bites” — plantain-filled “Latin” wontons, tiny tuna tacos bound with shiso leaves, steamed bun crammed with shredded pork — presented in a three-tiered bamboo steamer.
925 13th St. NW. 202-888-0760. immigrantfood.com. Open for indoor dining, delivery and takeout. Lunch items, $11 to $15; shareable dinner plates $21 to $38.
Washington is awash in casual Italian restaurants and expense-account Italian venues, which makes L’Ardente particularly welcome. The newcomer, part of the $1 billion Capitol Crossing development, combines the best of both worlds, on and off the plate.
The top chef’s mantra: “Keep it simple but elegant,” says David Deshaies. Wooden farm beams and Murano glass chandeliers share the sky-high ceiling, and pastas as elementary as bucatini alla carbonara are offered alongside a 40-layer lasagna that’s already garnered more ink than some restaurants ever get. One of the first things an arrival sees when they enter the main dining room is a wood-fired grill in the rear, whose dancing flames help explain the Italian name of the restaurant: “burning,” as in passionate.
“We’ve been in our pajamas at home for two years,” says Deshaies, who also counts Central Michel Richard and Unconventional Diner in his realm. Now it’s time to “go out and feel great.”
Eat great, too. Tempura cauliflower with a bright herb dip and arancini on a slick of Calabrian chile oil are first-rate snacks, but the aperitif with the best sense of humor is “duck hunt”: a duck-filled raviolo suspended in a froth of duck jus, cream and foie gras and presented in a little cup with … toy duck legs. The playfulness continues with a risotto that comes with quote marks around it, since minced calamari stands in for the expected rice. Lobster stock mixed with seafood lends the dish its maritime flavor and creamy texture. Pomegranate seeds and shaved Brussels sprouts make the delicious verdure pizza look like Christmas.
Every aspect of your visit supports the owners’ good intentions. The restrooms are dressed with coat hooks and full-length mirrors, the tiramisu hides inside a globe of chocolate that’s ignited at the table, and the check is presented in a little gold crown with Italian candies.
200 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-448-0450. lardente.com. Open for indoor dining, takeout and delivery. Pastas and entrees to share, $19 to $125 (for 32-ounce, dry-aged steak).
Johnny’s Half Shell, the beloved seafood restaurant created by chef Ann Cashion and John Fulchino, is no more, a victim of the pandemic. In its place in Adams Morgan is a Mexican outpost, from the same owners. Anyone mourning the loss of the best gumbo in Washington should know the Mexican seafood soup at Los Compañeros scratches a gumbo itch with pearly shrimp, sweet crab and cod bobbing in a bowl of shrimp stock seasoned with dried herbs, sliced serrano and cayenne.
There’s more where that deliciousness comes from: Tacos stuffed with sweet roasted squash and peppery arugula, lit with lemon dressing and garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. Grilled chicken thighs that raise the bar, thanks to a dry rub and brushstrokes of vinegar and oil. Johnny’s served a model crab cake. Los Compañeros does, too, although it’s sweet crab bound with housemade mayonnaise omits Old Bay seasoning and rises from a Veracruz sauce spiked with pickled jalapeño juice.
An outsize painting of Frida Kahlo, two new zinc counters bridging inside and out, and signage from the owners’ restaurants past and present, including Taqueria Nacional, add up to a festive setting for tequila, carne asada and first-rate churros. “You get a side of neon with your rice and beans,” cracks Fulchino, still the host with the most.
1819 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-238-1819. loscompaneros.net. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, delivery and takeout. Small plates and dishes to share, $4 to $26.
Patty O’s Cafe & Bakery
The key to the perfect Greek salad? Practice, practice, practice. Devin Bozkaya, the chef of the fledgling Patty O’s Cafe & Bakery in Rappahannock County, says it took more than 100 tries to achieve a version that delighted his discerning boss, Patrick O’Connell, ahead of its debut at the casual spinoff of O’Connell’s acclaimed Inn at Little Washington.
Some of the dishes at Patty O’s are revivals of food served earlier in the life of the Inn, but were tucked away as tastes grew more sophisticated: pepper-edged rare tuna paired with a cool scoop of cucumber sorbet, roast chicken with carrots glossed with Grand Marnier, butter pecan ice cream served with warm caramel sauce. Other selections underscore the cafe theme, including the half-pound burger made from local beef, and the Greek salad, an upgrade made with the help of Turkish goat’s milk feta cheese, a sherry-based dressing and oil-cured kalamata olives.
The cafe takes its menu, but not itself, seriously. A country theme prevails within the newcomer, which hangs a mural of barn dancers in the bar and features water pitchers in the shape of cowboy boots. And who can resist a crackling fire this time of year? Outside, near a patio designed to take in the charm of the hamlet, sits a custom-built chuck wagon that has thus far served as a mobile oyster bar and (country) ham sandwich dispenser for passersby.
The adjoining bakery is the source of wonderful breads and desserts. Be sure to take home a loaf of seed-flecked multigrain bread and a slice (or more!) of the best carrot cake you’re likely to find anywhere.
389 Main St., Washington, Va. 540-675-3801. pattyoscafe.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Entrees $19 to $38.
We’ve learned to be grateful during the pandemic, to look for silver linings. The owners of Queen’s English, husband and wife Henji Cheung and Sarah Thompson, are thankful to have expanded their 38-seat, jade-green storefront in Columbia Heights. “Without the streetery, we wouldn’t have survived,” Cheung says of the additional 45 or so (covered and heated) seats the couple added outside.
Sitting inside the snug dining room, suggestive of a teahouse but with a bar looking into the kitchen, gives diners the sense they’re in Cheung’s native Hong Kong. His cooking reinforces the feeling. Braised duck drumettes, coated in crushed cashews and served with a scroll of pickled daikon, are marvelous and messy, hence the moist towel that trails the appetizer. The richest siu mai in town are the chef’s wrinkly dumplings stuffed with chicken and foie gras, gently crisp with water chestnuts and punctuated with sour cherries. Eating meat is not a requirement. Indeed, Thompson’s favorite dish has become one of mine, crisp baby watercress and fermented soy beans ignited with chile oil and showered with confit shallots.
You will sip as well as you sup. Servers bring cocktails to life with their vivid descriptions (“It’s like walking in fall”) and Thompson has crafted a wine list that plays up lighter reds and underrepresented grapes and winemakers. Curious about natural wines? Drop by for “Natty Wine Hour,” from 5 to 6 p.m., when deals are offered on such bottles.
3410 11th St. NW. 202-751-3958. queensenglish.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining and takeout. Dishes for sharing, $14 to $27.