This review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide as No. 4 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
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For his latest restaurant, in the Marriott Marquis in Washington, Mike Isabella takes us on a tour of Morocco, Spain and Portugal. Diners reach their tables via an azure foyer and a long, carpeted hall; the lucky ones are shown to keyhole-shaped booths that overlook the party but still give recipients a bit of privacy. Arroz is Spanish for “rice.” Head, then, for one of several bombas, nods to paella that layer both crisp and fluffy rice with different toppings; brined aged duck is heady in combination with dollops of yogurt and charred cucumber. To start, there are dynamite sweetbreads dappled with orange marmalade tweaked with lime and fish sauce. To finish, there’s a towering rum baba in a moat of vanilla custard sauce. Servers can be scary in their enthusiasm, but you have to appreciate a place that gives you a tag to claim leftovers at the front door rather than making you sit with them.
901 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-869-3300. arrozbymic.com.
Open: Dinner daily.
Prices: Plates $12 to $26.
Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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The following review was originally published April 7, 2017.
Arroz finds a flavorful niche in Mike Isabella’s growing D.C. dining empire
Practice makes perfect, or something approaching it. Just look at the efforts of Mike Isabella, who’s done an increasingly impressive job over the years of feeding us Greek food, starting with Kapnos in Washington, followed by other accents, including Japanese and Korean at Yona in Arlington.
His ninth restaurant (not including concessions), Arroz in the Marriott Marquis, looks to Spain, Morocco and Portugal for inspiration. Spain, Isabella says, was the first country he visited in Europe 15 years ago. As for Morocco, “I love the flavors and spices.” With no similar themes nearby to compete with his idea, Isabella figures Arroz (Spanish for “rice”) is a good fit for the neighborhood.
Definitely, the restaurant is easy to look at. The approach — an azure foyer followed by a long, carpet-paved hall — is especially dramatic. Lucky twosomes are shown to one of the cozy, keyhole-shaped booths opposite the front windows. Semiprivate, the seating nevertheless lets you feel part of the party. The elm tables? Credit Isabella’s father-in-law, Charlie Nemeth, for the sleek touch.
Isabella recruited Michael Rafidi from the well-regarded RN74 in San Francisco to head up the kitchen at Arroz. A Rockville native, Rafidi, 32, returned to the East Coast in January with the ultimate goal of opening his own restaurant, most likely an homage to his Lebanese background.
For now, he’s doing food that’s likely to keep tables in demand. Dinner starts with a snack from the kitchen, one night baby carrots the size of a pinkie finger with a potent garlic crumble for dipping. From there, diners might move on to sweetbreads, fried so they crackle and dappled with orange marmalade tweaked with lime juice and fish sauce. (Try it, you’ll like it.) Smoked as if in a bonfire, “burnt” eggplant gets pureed with tahini, black garlic, honey and sherry vinegar to make a tar-colored but delectable spread for warm, sesame-seeded Moroccan flatbread. Among early strong sellers are a host of spring vegetables — some raw, some charred — arranged in a salad dressed with a vinaigrette coaxed from calamansi, a fruit with a sour citrus note.
In a nod to paella, there’s bomba rice served with a choice of vegetables, crab, suckling pig or duck. I can vouch for the last and can’t wait to try the others. Designed for sharing, the signature dish shows up with crusty rice on the bottom, fluffy rice in the center and more crisp textures on top, alongside duck meat made succulent from brining and aging, charred cucumber and dollops of yogurt. Texture is part of the bomba’s appeal; rice enriched with sofrito, house-made harissa and fennel kimchi compels you to keep digging, too.
The bar keeps pace, by the way, with novelties such as the vodka-fueled, apricot-flavored Kasbah, its cap of crushed ice drizzled with an oil spiked with ras el hanout, the Moroccan spice blend. And desserts include a tower of rum baba in a moat of vanilla custard sauce, fragrant with orange blossom.
Can a server be too enthusiastic? He can, as my waiter at Arroz repeatedly demonstrated. Passion for one’s job is typically an admirable trait, but when every taste is previewed for you (“The kitchen is finishing your amazing sweetbreads!”) and every motion comes with an explanation (“This will make cutting the cake easier,” he said, leaving a dessert knife on the table), dinner becomes a comedy routine. Nowhere else have I experienced more crumb sweeping than at Arroz. “Thank you so much,” a companion told Mr. Excitable after the third sweep of the night. “Thank YOU so much!” he felt compelled to reply.
For the most part, however, Arroz brims with intriguing flavors and good ideas, the most thoughtful of which is a tag for any food you want to take home. Instead of returning leftovers in a bag to your table, the restaurant stows them at the coat check: No more walking through the dining room with tonight’s midnight snack or tomorrow’s lunch in tow.
901 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-869-3300. arrozbymic.com. Plates, $12 to $26.