The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide.
The best amenity at the Marriott Marquis downtown is the Moroccan/Portuguese/Spanish menu dreamed up by Mike Isabella, the top chef best known for his Greek fixtures around the DMV. His latest and greatest brings together memorable food, scenery and drink, specifically lamb ribs with spiced yogurt in the comfort of a keyhole-shaped turquoise booth with a mezcal-powered “Iberian Dram” close at hand. The rice-based bombas, similar to paella, get lots of bandwidth from fankids; the medley I head for most frequently includes pig parts, toasty rice and lime crema. But bombas shouldn’t steal time from other notables on the list, including lobster and vermicelli in a moat of sea urchin foam and chicken made Moorish with preserved lemon and fried almonds. The most elegant dessert involves thin rounds of brik pastry sandwiched with caramelized honey pastry cream and pistachio butter, plus a crown of citrus sorbet: a delicate tower built on the flavors of baklava.
Arroz: 901 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-869-3300. arrozbymic.com.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $12-$26, entrees for sharing $30-$60.
Sound check: 89 decibels / Extremely loud.
The following was originally published June 21, 2017.
Chefs with more than one restaurant are generally reluctant to declare a favorite. But it’s pretty clear that Mike Isabella, whose portfolio leans Greek and Italian, has a super-soft spot for the latest of his 10 dining rooms. Not only is Arroz his most upscale creation to date, the “Top Chef” alumnus says, “I love the space, I love the food, I like the energy.”
Chef, you took the words right out of my mouth. In a market where Moroccan cuisine is rare and Portuguese food dearer still, Arroz offers tastes of both, along with a sprinkling of Spain. (“Arroz” is Spanish for rice.) Give or take a dish, the result reinforces Washington’s status as a dining powerhouse and the role Isabella has played in making that true.
A convention hotel restaurant might not strike a food enthusiast as something to check off the list. But kudos to the Marriott Marquis for luring Isabella and offering an amenity as prized as this one. Without resorting to cliches, the space relies on carpet that suggests tile, displays of Moroccan urns and plates and splashes of turquoise to help diners forget they’re in Washington. Some of the best booths in town are Arroz’s two-seaters, semi-enclosed within keyhole frames. Even the coffered ceiling shows flair.
There are two entrances, one on the street that introduces arrivals to the sleek bar, the second, inside the Marriott, that calls to mind the alleys Isabella and his team encountered on their research trips abroad. The restaurant’s charm offensive extends to the staff, starting with a sunny hostess and a bartender who might grace your drink with the ice equivalent of a miniature disco ball. Do as your server says and spring for the Daisy, a sherry cocktail made with fig brandy, or, as a waiter calls it, “Moroccan moonshine.” Really, though, all the cocktails have something to recommend them. Consider yourself warned: White sangria, flavored with pears, cardamom and rosemary, goes down all too easily on a hot summer day.
Proof that you can go home again is chef Michael Rafidi, 32, a Maryland native of Middle Eastern heritage who until recently cooked at the wine-themed RN74 in San Francisco. Lucky us. Rafidi cooks with such assurance and exuberance, I’d make a standing date with Arroz every week if a hundred other restaurants weren’t vying for my attention.
This kitchen presents familiar dishes in fresh ways. Meat heads may have had their fill of bone marrow by now, but Arroz encourages them to circle back, if only to try the oxtail jam. Foie gras parfaits are easy to find on upscale menus, too, but if I had to pick just one right now, it would be the elegant chilled bar of foie gras, garnished with sesame praline
and escorted by a doughnut that’s more savory than sweet. At Arroz, boats of gem lettuce become vehicles for marinated avocado, marcona almonds and a dressing that tastes like Caesar, but fiery. Lamb ribs, glossy with honey, are also biting with chermoula, North Africa’s answer to Italy’s salsa verde.
No Spanish tradition gets a headier makeover than patatas bravas. If you know the dish merely as fried potatoes served with aioli, you’re in for a surprise. Rethinking the humble combination, Rafidi aligns six or so same-sized, many-layered, crisp-golden cubes of potatoes, each square dolloped with garlicky mayonnaise tweaked with pimenton. Basically, they’re one-bite pommes Anna — and simply glorious.
Among the menu’s novelties is fried cauliflower and pig tail, the florets and the chopped pork tossed with olive-oiled bread crumbs and grilled ramps — maybe not your idea of a match made in heaven, but hold off judgment until you try it. The warm salad is served in a bowl whose sides have been brushed with labneh, or strained yogurt, a prompt to swipe a forkful of food before raising it to your lips. They may burn, by the way. The dish is spiked with mitmita, the spice blend that gives Ethiopian cuisine its distinctive fire.
Changes to some of the plates since Arroz opened in March have only made them more appealing. Some of us remember the “burnt” eggplant appetizer and how it looked like, um, tar on its plate in the early days. Rafidi has addressed the issue by arranging a garden of beautiful vegetables — curly fiddlehead ferns, shaved asparagus, bright peas — over the smoky smear of eggplant and black garlic. Honestly, though, I’d order the appetizer for its hot Moroccan flatbread alone.
The talkers on the menu are the bombas, rice-based entrees designed for sharing and similar to Spanish paella. They come in a handful of flavors, all pleasing, although suckling pig finds me least willing to share contents of the shallow pan with my posse. The meat, pressed slabs of cured pork belly, is scattered on a layer of what tastes like fried rice, only toastier and with more surprises than Cracker Jack. The tongue picks up something wonderful with every bite, be it cilantro
crema here or pickled Fresno chile there.
If I’m not enjoying a bomba for dinner, I’m splitting a shareable “large” plate. The chicken has Morocco stamped all over it. Mellow chickpeas, preserved lemon, buttery couscous, fried almonds: What’s not to love in the mix? Shellfish “soupy” rice undersells itself. The assembly of seafood, embracing octopus and soft-shell crab, tastes as if it were rushed straight from boat to a pan of tangy tomato sauce. Threatening to distract you from the headliner are sidekicks of juicy red Spanish shrimp heads, fried to a crunch, and springy pillows of dark seaweed bread paved with creamy shrimp salad. Close your eyes, and you swear you’re eating focaccia.
Diners are likely to eat and drink more than they expect. That’s what happens at a good party — and when servers keep sharing their ideals, like a dreamy sundae based on Moroccan mint tea ice cream, seasonal fruit and crisp shredded phyllo dough. Before you leave, the kitchen sends out delicious cookies the size of buttons.
Multiple happy meals at Arroz put me in an Isabella state of mind. The chef’s favorite restaurant is mine, too.