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Frank Ruta’s roast chicken, Rasika’s palak chaat and more takeout wins from D.C.’s top chefs

Roast chicken and biscuits from Annabelle. (Laura Chase de Formigny/for The Washington Post)

Strip an esteemed restaurant of its ambiance and service, and you’re still left with starry cooking. The food might be staged in a box or a bag, but your eyes, nose and tongue will be quick to note the polish, time and attention therein. That was my impression in a week of exploring takeout from some of Washington’s leading culinary lights.

Three of the featured restaurants are helmed by chefs whose dedication to their craft resulted in regional James Beard awards. Another establishment, newly opened this spring, played to a full house before the coronavirus came along. The cooking from each is a reminder of what we’ve lost since March and what we hope to experience again — albeit on their turf rather than ours.

Anyone who knows anything about Frank Ruta’s résumé can probably guess what dish has been his bestseller at Annabelle. Suffice it to say that as many as 45 roast chickens a night have flown out of his restaurant kitchen in Dupont Circle. The entree, he says, “travels well and is good for leftovers.” Sure, but it’s also one of the best of the flock around town. Spurred on by citrus peels and warm spices and prepared on a wood grill, the chicken is masterful. Ruta might want to attach a warning to whoever is responsible for the carving: Pierce the taut skin and watch the juices fly. Flaky biscuits in the carton make the signature even more of a draw.

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In Ruta’s hands, even a workhorse like salmon, which he briefly brines in lemon and aromatics, tastes fresh. Flanking the grill-striped Atlantic catch is the most sumptuous potato salad around. Leave it to the former White House chef to nestle diced potatoes, yellow with turmeric, in a dark green wrap of ramp leaves. His pasta is basically a billboard for the season, with artichokes and snap peas poking out from pale yellow noodles, slightly undercooked so they arrive al dente. “We play to our strengths, and we do what we can,” says Ruta, whose vendors leave their goods at a back door to minimize contact.

The same talent behind the biscuits, Aja Cage, is responsible for dessert. If her moist and fragrant pineapple cake is in the mix, seize a slice. Otherwise, my default is goat cheese cheesecake tweaked with harrisa-lit honey. 2132 Florida Ave. NW. 202-916-5675. Open 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Delivery via Caviar. Dinner salads and entrees $14 to $30.

Strange times call for soothing food. For Vikram Sunderam, that translates to kichidi, the chickpea-and-rice dish that made its debut on his menus when the pandemic upended our lives. “It’s very comforting — easy, and light on the stomach,” says the executive chef of Rasika and Rasika West End. The soft textures and healthful ingredients explain why kichidi is sometimes the first solid food experienced by Indian babies, although “I can eat it anytime,” says Sunderam, whose restaurant version of the staple embraces warm spices, flax seeds and bright diced carrots, slightly undercooked for added texture.

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The sibling restaurants’ different menus have been tweaked to account for smaller staffs and wide appeal. Missing from the mix, for instance, is the signature high-cost black cod. That still leaves plenty to choose from; everything is a reminder of why the two venues rank among the most beloved Indian establishments in the country. In the West End, where I ordered takeout recently, salmon slathered with yogurt and seasoned with lime leaves, turmeric and chile flakes emerges from the tandoor ready for its close-up — with your mouth — while tender morsels of lamb cloaked in a gravy of chile paste, Sichuan peppercorn and cloves leaves a nice fire in its wake. Cooked in small batches, spinach puree is a vision in emerald, pulsing with cumin and fresh ginger. Meanwhile, the popular palak chaat, widely copied by the competition and offered at both branches, retains all its charms in transit, thanks to cooks that pack its components — cumin yogurt, tamarind sauce— separately.

Even if you don’t order dessert, the restaurants add to your order a lovely little cup of saffron rice veined with crushed pistachios and marked with a message: “Thank you, and stay safe!”

Back at you, friends. 633 D St. NW, 202-637-1222; 1190 New Hampshire Ave. NW, 202-466-2500. Penn Quarter open daily 4 to 8:30 p.m. West End open daily 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Delivery via Caviar. Dinner entrees $14 to $26 in Penn Quarter, $14 to $21 at West End.

There’s no getting bored with takeout from Kinship. Every week means a fresh, multicourse, multi-choice menu and the possibility of flowers, fresh-baked bread (maybe crackling sesame flax loaf) and other bespoke touches. While customers might be tasked with a bit of cooking at home, mostly in the form of rewarming a dish, the result is a dinner worthy of a special occasion. The charms of a recent meal included a sea-breezy fish soup coaxed from wine, saffron, tomato and the roasted bones of Dover sole; a marvelous thick-cut pork chop paved with caramelized brown sugar, butter and red vinegar; and a satiny chocolate hazelnut crunch cake that looked as if a stylist boxed it up. Chef-owner Eric Ziebold is used to working with a dozen colleagues. These days, no more than three people populate the kitchen. Even so, their efforts speak to the mission detailed on the online menu: “In the Spirit of Kinship.”

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When restaurants were ordered shut in March, Ziebold’s first response was to do “the community thing” and offer lasagna dinners, including garlic bread and a salad, for $20. About 240 meals went out the first weekend, says Ziebold, and, save for a depleted staff, “we could have done 300 more.” Going forward, while also offering a la carte fare, Sundays will highlight family meals with “broad appeal” (think enchiladas), while Fridays will showcase more elaborate “date night” fare (consider chilled Maine lobster and double-cut rib-eye). Kinship is determined to replace anyone’s gloom with the joy of its cooking.

The surprise hit thus far perplexes the chef. “Potato chowder!” says Ziebold, who sold more than 50 orders one day not long ago. Like everything that leaves his kitchen, the chowder is a reminder that pros fuss more than amateurs. Ziebold is discerning enough to save and toast potato peels before steeping them in milk and cream. 1015 Seventh St. NW. 202-737-7700. Open for pickup 5 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Appetizers $8 to $20; entrees $20 to $40.

Albi had been open just three weeks when restaurants were required to close for sit-down service. A hit from Day 1, the Levantine newcomer was stocked with food, so chef-owner Michael Rafidi responded by offering most of his menu for a la carte takeout. “I thought we could put it in a bag and send it away,” says Rafidi. “It was a disaster.” For dinner, he and his abbreviated staff quickly switched to a single, three-course menu with multiple options for $40.

A few adjustments were in order. You won’t find kebabs, because the chef worries they might dry out on the journey from restaurant to residence. But there are very good spreads — creamy hummus decked out with spring peas, deeply smoky charred eggplant puree — and superlative rockfish, cooked in Albi’s wood-fired oven, orange with smoked pepper tahini, and surrounded by pleasantly firm onion-laced dragon beans. (Chefs are just like us, relying on dried beans!) Lamb shoulder is spread with what the chef calls the “house barbecue sauce”: a paste of pomegranate, date and tomato that elevates whatever it touches. The accompanying vadouvan drop biscuits raise the bread bar in town, and if you get only one condiment, make it toum, a whip of garlic the color of snow best followed by breath mints, lots of them.

You can get a taste of Albi for less. Lunch and dinner, the restaurant serves chicken, smoked vegetables and spicy pork belly shawarma for $16. You can also splurge. Rafidi offers a changing “secret” menu at night, with optional wine pairings — just a handful of portions of, say, fried chicken or leg of lamb, plus sides and desserts. First come, first pampered. 1346 Fourth St. SE. 202-921-9592. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Shawarma $16, three-course dinner $40, off-menu spread $95 to $120.

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