With the holidays in mind, I’ve compiled some dining suggestions, based on frequent questions from readers, for pampering yourself or others in your life. Think of them as good deeds times two. Restaurants, after all, need our attention as never before.
Opening the box containing the main event in an order from Oyster Oyster makes me giddy, as if it were a gift from chef Rob Rubba. Behold his burnt-orange squash wreathed in spiky greens! I lift the lid of the roasted vegetable to find more to like: a steaming and soothing stuffing of sorghum, sticky rice, oat berries and mushrooms.
Oyster Oyster comes with an appealing mission statement. Rubba, formerly with Hazel, says he wants to make “vegetables the star” of his script and do everything he can to support sustainability in his kitchen. Squash juice, for instance, is used by bar maven Adam Bernbach to make a riff on an old fashioned, one of a handful of cocktails Oyster Oyster sells in little glass bottles that Rubba hopes customers repurpose.
Winter presents challenges for a plant-centric restaurant. One can only eat so many root vegetables, says Rubba, whose “at home” dinners for two typically feature four dishes and can be made vegan. Some rely on ingredients he preserved from previous seasons — green fennel seeds might be transformed into briny fennel “capers” — and some deploy techniques typically associated with meat. Eggplant emerges as a schnitzel completed with a brown butter sauce, fruity with fermented husk cherries. Celery root might be sliced into fine layers, rolled into a cylinder, roasted and basted like a steak with thyme, garlic and butter.
Looking for a (small) party space? Oyster Oyster’s semi-open alcove “garage” can accommodate six people for meatless pizzas, raw oysters, pitchers of wine or beer and “unlimited” pinball.
1440 Eighth St. NW. No phone. oysteroysterdc.com. Dinner for two, $60.
One of the drawbacks of outdoor dining is the speed at which your meal can cool down. To our relief: fondue at Stable, Washington’s sole and special Swiss restaurant. A little burner keeps the pot of melted cheese hot and steamy until the last morsel of bread has been coated. Better still if you’ve preceded the Swiss classic with one of the restaurant’s hot cocktails, including hot spiced red wine or apple cider spiked with bourbon. My preferred fondue is fueled with pear schnapps and eaten with crisp slices of green apple — salad and main course in one.
I indulged in the meal in front of the restaurant, where Stable set out 24 seats protected from the traffic by a picket fence. Passing streetcars let you pretend you’re dispatching dinner in Zurich. Any nip in the air is kept further at bay by overhead heaters and wool blankets, the latter found at Stable’s inside market, where Swiss wines, house-baked breads and spirits are also on display. Cool find: cocktails packaged in slender plastic sleeves.
I’m trying to avoid dining indoors, although Stable’s interior is a tempting prospect. Owners Silvan Kraemer and David Fritsche built in the rear five handsome little chalets, each one seating between two and six diners and dressed to evoke the Alps. Chef Fritsche’s menu, embracing raclette, ropy landjager sausage and cream-sauced veal with shredded potatoes, is the rib-sticking antidote to winter. Homebodies have the option of renting fondue and raclette equipment for a refundable $75 deposit.
Kraemer offers three pieces of advice for outdoor eaters. “Make sure your feet are warm,” he says. “Drink hot cocktails.” And to avoid cold gusts, he says, “tuck your undershirt into your pants.” Duly noted, sir.
1324 H St. NE. 202-733-4604. stabledc.com. Dinner entrees, $20 to $30.
Many upscale restaurants stopped offering lunch during the pandemic. A notable holdout is Modena, the contemporary Italian restaurant downtown, open Tuesday through Friday afternoons. “We wanted to stay in people’s minds,” says chef John Melfi, whose cooking is hard to forget. At the same time, “we wanted to pull out all the stops.”
One of his more dramatic dishes is tortellini stuffed with braised pheasant and sheep milk ricotta, a pretty bowl of pasta accompanied by a Japanese coffee siphon filled with consommé. A little burner heats the broth, forcing it through a handful of aromatics, including dried porcini and rosemary. The consommé, flavored with parmesan, is then poured around the tortellini. “Do you mind if I drink the rest of the bowl?” a companion asked as he finished the pasta. I could only shake my head in envy. Modena’s lunch selections, surprisingly long, include puffy golden veal milanese draped over cheesy polenta and sauteed greens, with a charred lemon wedge for additional spark. Melfi previously worked at Fiola and Fiola Mare, fine-dining experience that shows in his polished cooking and presentation.
The chef knew he would be competing with Chipotle and nearby sandwich shops for daytime appetites. Wisely, he added a burger and pizzas to the lunch list. The former, made with dry aged beef and a house-baked bun, nods to Italy with prosciutto and arugula; the crust for the pizza gets its flavor from hard white winter wheat from Southern Maryland that the chef grinds himself and ferments twice. Go for the diavola, scattered with spicy salami.
The handsome dining room is open, but most customers are asking for outdoor seats. A big, clear plastic tent on the sidewalk allows lunchers a “window” view and streams of sunlight.
Desserts are as posh as everything else. Let me suggest the seasonal fruit tart fashioned with seckle pears poached in citrus, white wine and a whisper of lavender as well as crisp Asian pears. The confection, which includes lemon curd atop hazelnut praline, has special occasion written all over it. Note the white chocolate coin, announcing “Modena,” on the plate, a designer label you can count on.
1100 New York Ave. NW. 202-216-9550. modenadc.com. Lunch entrees $21 to $29; pizza $14 to $16.
The youthful La Famosa does its best to put you smack in San Juan. The outdoor seating includes gliders and chairs in pastel hues, rum flows on the drinks list, and the mofongo — mashed fried green plantains — envelops diners in a haze of garlic.
The all-day restaurant, from Puerto Rican native Joancarlo Parkhurst, refers to itself as “fast-fine” (instead of “fast-casual”) which means you order at a counter and wait for finesse to follow. Pretty fluted pastelillos crack open to reveal juicy, cayenne-fired beef picadillo, the pork chop squirts juices at the touch of a knife, and passionfruit mousse provides just the right tart finish to any feast. Parkhurst is both owner and cook, relying on his grandmother’s recipes for inspiration (don’t skip the chicken fricassee) and an old family canning business in Puerto Rico for the name of his sunny spot in Navy Yard.
This is humble food with haute touches. Hearts of palm are a welcome sight in the house salad, its dressing punchy with lemon and mustard. The good taste extends to the dining room, where leather pads dress up the black benches.
In a town stacked with great sandwiches, La Famosa weighs in with the mighty, mouthwatering Tripleta: marinated rib-eye, pork butt, deli ham and Swiss cheese captured in a long roll called pan de agua, imported from Miami. Parkhurst calls the handful, littered with potato sticks, “Puerto Rico’s answer to cheesesteak.” Philly, meet your match.
1300 Fourth St. SE (entrance on Tingey Street). 202-921-9882. eatlafamosa.com. Entrees $14 to $29.
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