With some notable exceptions, the last several weeks have seen me fishing for seafood, grazing rather than gorging, spending time with tropical flavors — anything to counter the extreme heat of summer. I also made time to check out one of the best dinner parties around and revisit a golden oldie.
Want to eat like a critic? Read on.
Bindaas Bowls and Rolls
The owner of Annabelle, La Bise and some of the best Indian restaurants on the East Coast acknowledges that his latest production is something of an aberration. “Fine dining is what I enjoy,” says Ashok Bajaj, who entered the fast-casual realm this spring when he opened the 30-seat Bindaas Bowls and Rolls in Penn Quarter. The storefront space became available early in the pandemic, when everyone was doing takeout, and Bajaj saw it as an opportunity to explore a different style of hospitality.
His notion of fast-casual mirrors that of Italian empire builder Fabio Trabocchi, another discerning Washington tastemaker. Arrivals at Bindaas Bowls and Rolls sense they’re in for something special when they see tile floors, turquoise banquettes and brown leather chairs in the dining area and handsome Le Creuset cookware at the counter where meals are ordered. Then there’s the star behind the Indian flavors on the menu: chef Vikram Sunderam of Rasika renown, who just happened to be in the kitchen of Bindaas Bowls and Rolls on a recent visit.
For the first time, he’s letting customers mix and match ingredients to create their own bowls. I’m content to choose from among the “classic” compositions, including the stellar salmon moilee. The block of fish blazes with roasted Kashmiri chiles. Propped on lemony rice noodles that are flecked with curry leaves and finished with a ginger-sharpened coconut sauce, the heady salmon makes you believe you’re eating in one of Sunderam’s sophisticated dining rooms. So much finesse for just under $14! There’s also lamb vindaloo, served as meatballs zapped with ginger, garlic and garam masala and arranged on fluffy brown rice. The secret to the lamb’s texture? “Nutmeg,” says the chef, who uses the spice as a tenderizer.
The kathi rolls, sprung from house-baked whole-wheat roti, featured fillings including paneer and peppers. Nods to what office workers gravitate to in India, Sunderam’s pleasing wraps are served in a slender paper sleeve alongside a sparkling tomato salad and vivid mint-cilantro chutney. Worker bees abroad are on to something delicious.
Wouldn’t you love some beer or wine with this food? The grab-and-go serves both, plus cocktails and the expected mango lassi.
Bajaj hopes Bindaas Bowls and Rolls, a spinoff of his street-food-themed Bindaas eateries, is a gateway for people who have yet to grace the doors of his more upscale Indian restaurants. “We’d love them to become our Rasika guests.”
A message from the owner at the entrance doubles as invitation and wish fulfilled. The sign reads: “Life is too short for boring food.”
415 Seventh St. NW. 202-290-2278. bindaasbowls.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Bowls and rolls, $11 to $13.75.
Dylan’s Oyster Cellar
Introduced eight years ago as a pop-up starring oysters and booze, period, the eventual bricks-and-mortar business offers a lot more to eat. With just oysters, “people were getting sauced too quick,” says co-owner Dylan Salmon, whose corner seafood joint became an overnight magnet in Charm City when it launched in 2016.
“No grit, no pearl,” reads a poster on the wall of the low-ceilinged watering hole in Hampden, 70 seats big if you include the patio and bar, the one end of which gathers bistro seats and a chance to watch the shuckers do their thing. An icy platter of briny Wellfleets from Massachusetts revels in attention. “Oysters are like water balloons,” says Salmon. “Pop them and they lose their body.” The oysters here are free of drill marks (shell bits, too).
The hot seats are the stools at the crowded bar, staffed by people who treat you like regulars even if it’s your first visit. Of course you want some oysters — there are typically eight kinds from which to choose — and, this being Baltimore, traditional coddies, sometimes called the poor man’s crab cakes: deep-fried balls of mashed cod and potatoes eaten on saltines with a slick of mustard. Every pauper should be so fortunate.
Salmon was a line cook at Woodberry Kitchen, a detail that translates to simple things done well and little flights of fancy. Dylan’s french fries with the (terrific) fried catfish are boiled in vinegar, poached and flash-fried just before they’re piled on the plate. Taste buds appreciate the three-step process. A bountiful kale salad fits in Fuji apple, peanuts and miso; tilefish shows up on saffron-yellow rice freckled with fava beans. As for side dishes, green beans simmered in tomato sauce taste as if a Greek grandma were behind their soft and tangy appeal. You’d be a fool to forgo dessert when the kitchen is offering chocolate cherry upside down cake with a tuft of genuine whipped cream. Salmon, who co-owns the place with his wife, Irene, a former florist who plays that role for the dining room, doesn’t cook here unless he has to. (The oyster bar is currently between head chefs.)
Yes, he thinks his name is apt, given his job, funnier still when people learn his first name is Welsh for “son of the sea.” The man with fish on his mind jokes, “I don’t think my parents made the connection.”
3601 Chestnut Ave., Baltimore. 443-759-6595. dylansoyster.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Sandwiches and entrees, $15 to $31.
J. Hollinger’s Waterman’s Chophouse
The most novel attraction isn’t on the menu, but in the dining room: four alcove booths that allow occupants to control both the lighting and the volume in their cocoons, plus sheer curtains for added privacy. And this in a venue whose entrees average $35.
The name in the title refers to Jerry Hollinger, whose other Maryland restaurants are the Daily Dish in Silver Spring and the Dish and Dram in Kensington. His third venture is his most ambitious yet and continues something of a theme at this location, previously home to two steakhouses, the Classics and Ray’s the Classics. Hollinger, a Mennonite whose parents operated a grocery store in Lancaster, Pa., and who went on to become a chef and caterer, concedes that the restaurant’s mile-long name is a mouthful. Beyond honoring his family’s name, “Waterman’s Chophouse” makes subtle nods to seafood and steak, words Hollinger considers outdated.
“Light bites” — steamed mussels, vegetable tempura, housemade spaghetti — are designed for people who want something bigger than an appetizer but smaller than a typical main course. The star of the lot marries surf and turf: Crisp shrimp toast and caramelized pork belly share their stage with flavor pumps including kimchi and sweet-mustardy tomato jam, as entertaining as anything that might be playing across the street at the AFI Silver Theatre.
The kitchen, visible from the bar, finds John Manolatos in command. You might have tasted his talent at the much-missed Cashion’s Eat Place in Washington. Here in Silver Spring, he excels at crab cakes served with double-fried french fries, lean but flavorful coulotte glistening with clarified butter, and composed dishes — thoughtful unions of protein, starch and vegetable — meaning you don’t need a side dish to round out an entree.
The best surf and turf in Washington? Look to this class act in Silver Spring.
8606 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, Md. 301-328-0035. jhollingers.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Entrees, $19 to $75.
Soft jazz is playing when an icy gimlet arrives. “All right now!” says a bow-tied, vest-wrapped server.
He’s referring to my drink, but he could just as well be talking about the brass-railed, red-bricked restaurant whose walls frame the smiles of scores of politicians, past and present, and whose borders are inscribed with words of wisdom. “Washington is the only city where sound travels faster than light,” declares one string of pearls. I look up from my booth to see that Bill Clinton and Trent Lott, or at least their likenesses, will be joining us for dinner.
A few friends laughed when I suggested the long-lived Monocle for dinner. Surprise, surprise, then, for them to stroll into a dining room inhabited by youthful Pete Buttigieg types and to find (some) dishes good enough to polish off. I’m talking lacy onion rings, thick pork chops paired with cheesy mashed potatoes, garlic-fragrant clam pasta and cheesecake lightened with pineapple compote.
The crab cake is too bready, and the rib-eye needs its chile butter for flavor. The Monocle reminds me that food isn’t everything. The dapper gent at the door treats us like we’re beloved senators as he ushers us to our choice of tables, “anywhere you’re comfortable,” he offers. Servers swoop in with smiles, bread, water, recommendations. This is the uncommon quiet restaurant that doesn’t feel like a mausoleum — thus the perfect place to take people who want a taste of Washington, but nothing too challenging, please.
“Institutions are more powerful than men,” reads another border in this bastion of civility. Above all, the Monocle is above politics.
107 D St. NE. 202-546-4488. themonocle.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Dinner entrees, $19 to $56.
It opened as Bangkok Golden in 2010 and became known as a Thai restaurant with a secret Laotian menu. So many people gravitated to the latter, owner Seng Luangrath combined the cuisines on one list and rebranded the place Padaek, a nod to the fermented fish sauce used in Laotian cooking, several years later.
A taste of shredded papaya salad lets you experience the differences between Thai and Laotian kitchens. While they look much the same, the Thai salad is sweeter, the Laotian version more savory, thanks to salt and the funk of shrimp and crab paste in the seasoning. A request for “medium” heat in either delivers a serious punch.
Crispy rice, roasted peanuts, scallions and pink folds of fermented pork make up my favorite dish here, the aromatic naem khao, eaten with the help of cool lettuce leaves. An even more interactive dish is golden fried catfish presented with a platter of a goodies — matchsticks of fresh ginger, lemongrass, tiny green eggplants, fine rice noodles — for packing in folds of sturdy collard leaves, atypical in Laos but preferred for their sturdiness and pleasant bitterness, Luangrath says of the dark greens. The combination of hot fish, tropical accents and cool packaging goes down like a three-ring circus in your mouth, and it’s all the better for the pineapple sauce you can add to your wraps.
Padaek’s chef, Nyi Nyi Myint, is from Myanmar, and is the skill behind such dishes as the elegant, creamy-with-coconut panang curry, served with an island of crushed nuts and red chile oil in its bowl.
The tidy storefront looks the same as it always has, with sunny yellow walls, swatches of fabric displayed on glass-topped tables and friendly servers animating the room. The fancy bottle of wine on your neighbor’s table isn’t from the restaurant’s stock, but the result of Padaek’s gentle corkage fee: $15 to bring your own grape juice.
6395 Seven Corners Center, Falls Church, Va. 703-533-9480. padaekdc.com. Open for indoor dining, takeout and delivery. Entrees, $14 to $19.
Pineapple & Pearls
Aaron Silverman introduced a new motto for the reimagined crown jewel in his Washington empire: “Pleasure is as worthy a pursuit as perfection,” the forward-thinking chef wants patrons of Pineapple & Pearls to know.
Much of what transpires over dinner in the dining room, dressed with clouds of colorful balloons and myriad silver-tipped wooden rods suspended from the ceiling, speaks to his new vision for fine dining.
Once you’re seated, someone whips up an absinthe cocktail tableside. An early nibble from the open kitchen requires diners to eat beggars’ purses, rich with crème fraîche, lemon zest and caviar, from the tops of slender glass plinths — hands-free. At one point, no less than the owner himself shows up with an Hermes platter arranged with delicate gougeres seasoned like “everything” bagels.
The traditional courses are more serious, and seriously delicious. Some, like a savory custard scattered with a forest of mushrooms, look to Japan. Others, including squab glazed with Guinness and cocoa, channel a grand French restaurant. And the pastas are divine. Hope to encounter the Mont Blanc, a riff on the classical European dessert rethought with housemade agnolotti swollen with a stuffing of chestnuts and oats and brightened with sage pesto.
Before you go, you might be brought a dessert taco inspired by Los Angeles, have your picture snapped near a soft-serve ice cream machine (whose swirls are paired with warm amaretto), sip fabulous wines and laugh at the contents of a goody bag, which include a “midnight snack” of a designer cheeseburger.
Pricey? Yes. But Pineapple & Pearls is a splurge I’d be willing to pay for myself, the ultimate test for a restaurant.
715 Eighth St. SE. 202-595-7375. pineappleandpearls.com. Open for indoor dining. Price: $325 per person, excluding tax, 22 percent service charge and drinks.
This Mediterranean restaurant with a Lebanese lilt brims with surprises. For starters, it’s unexpectedly posh given its placement in a shopping center. And nowhere else but here in Vienna has a server invited me to “order a few dishes at a time if you want. No rush.”
Then there’s the cooking: 10 different herbs and tomatoes dressing up the colorful fattoush and skin-on roasted branzino presented with saffron-colored potatoes and tahini sauce on a plate that looks as if it were custom-tailored for the fish. “I like the best,” says chef-owner Samer Zeitoun, whose sweat went into creating a dining room furnished with beautiful blue chairs and mirrors shaped like portholes and whose “picky taste” means cooking most dishes to order.
Wherever on the list you see eggplant or lamb, think of it as a green light. Among the spreads, roasted eggplant stands out for being so much more than the mashed vegetable, served with Marcona almonds for crunch, dates for unexpected sweetness and feta cheese for tang. Ground lamb finds its way, along with rice and parsley, into a small boat of zucchini that sails to the table on a tomato sauce enlightened with lemon juice and strained before serving, leading to a thin but bright elixir. First among equals, though, is the glistening kibbe nayyeh, minced raw lamb and cracked wheat colored by red peppers, seasoned with mint and basil, and staged as a round with hot pita bread and white rosettes of whipped garlic.
The chef, who can observe his domain from a window in the kitchen, gets help from family. A daughter serves as mistress of ceremonies in the dining room, and his wife lavishes attention on the salads and sweets, including a divine cheesecake whose crust fuses dates and ground pistachios.
Zenola is a small shop with a big heart. The biggest surprise of all: a good restaurant where you can hear yourself think.
132 Branch Rd. SE, Vienna, Va. 571-407-5203. zenolavienna.com. Open for inside dining and takeout. Main courses, $28 to $65 (mixed grill for two).