Given the ink and accolades lavished on Bad Saint in Washington, it's a surprise the Filipino charmer doesn't have more competition. The cuisine, after all, borrows from Chinese, Malay, Spanish and other colorful repertoires. A satisfying step in a corrective direction is Bistro 1521, which opened in Arlington in July on the site of a former Applebee's.
Unlike the more experimental Bad Saint, Bistro 1521 hews to tradition, offering Filipino classics such as lumpia, the cigar-shaped fried spring rolls, and sisig, a fiery hash of pig ear, belly meat and onions. Both dishes rock and roll and come with a flourish: ground chicken instead of the more common pork in the filling of the lumpia and velvety, liver-enriched aioli atop the sisig.
Solita Wakefield, one of five co-owners, mostly family members, says one of her priorities is to make sure the food is “nice to the eye.” To look at the lumpiang hubad, a vegetarian starter, is to appreciate how enticing chopped long beans, carrots and cabbage look nestled in cool cradles of endive. (Wakefield says hubad translates into English as “naked.” Lumpiang hubad are spring rolls sans wrappers, more or less.)
One taste of the oxtail cooked in peanut sauce, a stew called kare-kare, does not lead to a second, at least at my table. The meat is mostly bones and the gravy tastes flat, as though unsalted peanut butter had been melted and poured over the oxtail, which is rounded out with eggplant and somewhat improved with a dollop of anchovy sauce. Another detail that needs work is the service — well-meaning but rushed on a recent Friday night. Note to servers: It's your job to make room for incoming food on the table, not diners'.
Chicken adobo, on the other hand, is everything fans want from what’s often referred to as the national dish of the Philippines. As presented here, chicken made tender in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and bay leaf is something a lot of diners can get around.
The most expensive dish on the list, Ihaw-Ihaw Special, costs $65. The price is explained by a treasure of ingredients — grilled shrimp, jumbo squid, pork, chicken, salted eggs and on — and the fact that the feast feeds four.
Named for the year Ferdinand Magellan became the first European to reach the Philippines, Bistro 1521 — a ringer for a sports bar with its flat-screen TVs alone — resurrects some of the flavor of the now-shuttered Bistro 7107 in Crystal City. Wakefield says the 60-seat original couldn't accommodate the many requests it got for large parties. The new place can seat 300, including space on the patio.
Bistro 1521 also has in its favor a bar and serious drinks, thanks to a partnership with Jo-Jo Valenzuela. The former beverage director at Brine in Fairfax entices cocktail aficionados with creations including Tame the Tikbalang. The liquid refresher comes powered with tequila, punched up with tamarind syrup and capped with jackfruit foam.
Do not show up without a reservation. Word is out that Arlington has a new flavor of restaurant, and some nights it looks like everyone in town wants in on the action. Another way to spell catnip? Try s-i-s-i-g.
900 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington. 703-741-0918. bistro1521.com. Entrees, $14 to $65.
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