“People come for the taste,” the chef at this long-running French bistro in upper Georgetown likes to say. Massala Jean-Baptiste goes on to explain that consistency is what his customers seem to appreciate most. It’s been too long between visits for this fan, but I taste his point. Bistrot Lepic’s glistening salmon tartare still excites with capers, lemon, shallots and fresh dill, and the veal cheeks, sauced with a reduction of veal stock and red wine, are soft as ever, shored up with shell-shaped pasta draped with a Parmesan cream sauce lightened with basil. The restaurant still offers a bread basket, a rare sight during the pandemic. A bit of baguette makes a nice mop for the kitchen’s sauces.
A native of Gabon in central Africa, Jean-Baptiste has worked for an impressive array of chefs, most recently Bruno Fortin, his predecessor here, and earlier, the esteemed Gerard Pangaud and Bernard Grenier of Gerard’s Place in the District and La Miche in Bethesda, respectively. Jean-Baptiste has been at Lepic since 2002 — plenty of time to master the nuances of the extensive menu, including chicken marinated overnight in a housemade curry paste, carpeted with tomatoes and displayed alongside fragrant basmati rice tossed with almonds and currants.
I miss the yellow glow of the main dining room, but outside beneath a tent, or at a cafe table hugging the facade, will have to do for now. As I was wrapping up my last meal, which concluded with a soft cloud of meringue above a pool of custard sauce — ask for floating island — Jean-Baptiste appeared at the door. The chef smiled at the sight of happy diners and I thanked him as best I could right now, with two gloved thumbs up.
1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-333-0111. bistrolepic.com. Entrees, $27 to $42.
I’ll be frank. After eating here twice in 2019 with mixed results, I didn’t expect to return. But a fresh face in the kitchen, Andrés-Julian Zuluaga, piqued my interest this winter, and off I went to the multicultural restaurant in Vienna again — and again.
Talk about a turnaround! Braised brisket framed with caramelized green plantains and black beans dotted with cubes of white cheese is a feast made finer with grill-striped arepas, corn cakes destined to be split and stuffed with the slow-cooked beef. Scallops staged with confit carrots find some of us taking their picture and swooning over seafood bright with lemon and wilder after a dip in the pineapple hot sauce dotting the plate. Tres leches cake sports a two-toned top, thanks to a pink dusting of hibiscus sugar across half the luscious dessert.
Zuluaga, the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Colombian father, slips some of his heritage into his cooking, and surely it helps that he went to the school of Fabio Trabocchi, Washington’s acclaimed Italian maestro, before joining Blend 111. Co-owner Michael Biddick, the author of “43 Wine Regions,” makes sure patrons drink as well as they eat and an outdoor patio beckons with individual heaters, well-spaced tables and a row of evergreens. Forget to BYOB (bring your own blanket)? The restaurant comes to the rescue with handsome wraps for a mere $12.
111 Church St. NW, Vienna. 571-363-3613. blend111.com. Entrees, $29 to $48.
Songtham Pinyolaksana really wishes you wouldn’t order pad thai at the restaurant he co-owns with his wife and chef, Panida. To help diners taste “the best of the restaurant,” he says he encourages them to select a meal from among the dishes labeled “authentic Thai” at Elephant Jumps in Falls Church. At the top of his list: banana blossom salad. It sounds like a pleasant melody but eats like a bugle blast, what with fried shallots, chile jam, lime juice, fresh mint and roasted coconut engaging with the steamed banana blossoms, chicken and shrimp in your mouth. My one regret is not asking for two orders.
The same could be said for a lot of the chef’s food. Shredded tuna turns into a wispy tan cloud when it’s deep-fried. The addition of sweet-spicy shredded mango at the table turns the frizzy appetizer, garnished with cashews, into something soft and extraordinary. Sliced flank steak sponges the heat of the curry paste in which it’s stir-fried, along with eggplant and such tropical enhancers as lemongrass and lime leaves. I challenge you to find a finer jungle beef curry.
Pinyolaksana explains the name of the restaurant, decorated with animal art: The elephant is a symbol of Thailand, he says, and the couple’s hope is for their food to bring joy. Elephants can’t jump — but taste buds can, and do.
8110 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church. 703-942-6600. elephantjumps.com. Dinner entrees $13 to $18.
One of the things I’ve been doing throughout the pandemic is, where possible, comparing the experience of takeout vs. eating an order just outside a given restaurant. As far as Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan is concerned, delivery and dinner at the source, on the patio, are nearly indistinguishable. The olive-sparked dorade with broccoli rabe I unpack at home is a copy of the fish dish I get on my plate outside Mintwood Place. Same for the strapping choucroute festooned with housemade duck sausage.
Chef Harper McClure says he tests his food for durability by putting it in boxes and sampling it after 30 minutes or so. Lessons learned? Poaching the dorade in olive oil saves the entree from drying up, and cubes rather than crumbles of French blue cheese maintain the beauty of a salad of endive, candied nuts and compressed apple tossed in a sherry vinaigrette. Oyster pan roast is an elegant chowder — imagine floats of brioche in the bowl, softly crunchy with minced celery and potatoes — and a reminder that McClure cooked at the late, great Vidalia downtown earlier in his career.
For his part, Gene Alexeyev — the restaurant’s general manager — does an ace job of making patio customers feel as if it’s old times and everyone is back in the dining room getting pampered. One night, the genial host actually had on a tie beneath his jacket. Alexeyev says the dash of formality is “a visual marker” for guests. “Now we’re ready for them.” Listen carefully to his wine and dessert recommendations. The rewards might be a warm-spiced cabernet franc from the Loire Valley and loose coffee pastry cream puddled in a chocolate tart brushed with espresso syrup.
When I inquire about the well-being of the neighborhood gem, McClure tells me, “Mintwood Place is going to survive. We’re going to come back strong in spring.” Tastes to me as if he’s already there.
1813 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-234-6732. mintwoodplace.com. Entrees, $18 to $31.
Chef Pichet Ong says the theme at the 11th restaurant from the renowned Peter Chang family is “Chinese 101.”
Really, chef? The only thing basic about the shrimp-and-pork wonton soup seems to be the name of the dish. Otherwise, the combination of ground prawns seasoned with garlic and ground pork marinated in Shaoxing wine — the filling for the fluttery dumplings — is extravagant, and richer for the broth in which they bob. Chicken feet, pork bones, scallions and ginger inform the hot bath, good to the last slurp.
A customer can pretty much point anywhere on the menu — numbing mapo tofu, stir-fried greens with garlic, spiced lamb ribs — and hit the jackpot. Best in class applies to prawns swabbed in an aioli made with Grand Marnier, orange zest and white pepper, crowned with a candied walnut, splayed on sliced jicama and tucked into a bed of lettuce. It’s a regal version of the typically mayonnaise-masked seafood dish.
Co-owner Lydia Chang says the greeting “ni hao” (“hello” in Chinese) is usually followed by a question: Have you eaten yet? Should you find yourself hungry and in Baltimore, the Changs’ latest dining draw is where you want to be, lapping up some basics that are anything but.
2322 Boston St., Baltimore. 443-835-2036. nihaobaltimore.com. Small and large plates, $8 to $68 (for whole Peking duck).
Now is a golden age for sandwiches and Taqueria Xochi serves one of Mexico’s best, the cemita. Novices, here’s what you’re missing: a crisp chicken cutlet, web of tangy white cheese, slather of mayo, juicy tomatoes, smoky onions and refried beans packed inside sesame-seeded bread. (Cemita refers to both the distinctive roll and the sandwich, which originated in Puebla.)
The owners, Teresa Padilla and Geraldine Mendoza, met when both women worked at China Chilcano — a Chinese, Japanese and Peruvian restaurant — and they bring to their slip of a carryout the exacting standards of any José Andrés establishment. Padilla’s tortilla chips are made to order and offered with a surprisingly light guacamole, best ordered “spicy” with jalapeño. Birria — beef or lamb braised with a seasoning mix as complex as any mole — gets an escort of broth, conjured from meat and bones, that makes me feel more vigorous just by its aroma.
The chef acknowledges a variety of appetites with her taco fillings, which run from springy cubes of beef tongue to mushrooms fired up with guajillo sauce. For the full street-food effect, wash back a meal with one of the taqueria’s refreshing aguas frescos, maybe sweet-tangy tamarind. Padilla served as pastry chef at her former job. That’s your cue to sink your spoon into her “chocoflan,” moist chocolate cake topped with slinky custard — ebony and ivory in perfect harmony.
924 U St. NW. 202-292-2859. taqueriaxochi.com. Tacos, $8 to $15 (three per order) Entrees,
$12 to $25.
Thacher and Rye
Bryan Voltaggio doesn’t blame the closing of his high-end Volt restaurant in Frederick on the pandemic alone. After a dozen years in business, the former “Top Chef” contestant says “it was time for a rebrand and a refresh.”
Planning for Volt’s successor, he aimed to get into the minds of diners, ditching a tasting menu for an a la carte list — epic meals being out of fashion now — and creating dishes that were more familiar than fussy. His thinking produced Thacher & Rye, which combines the name of his son with Maryland’s history of making spirits. The dining room has moved to the property’s courtyard, a tented and heated environment where egg timers help servers track the length of disinfecting procedures between seatings.
There are no finer fish sticks around than the drumstick-size fried puffer fish, seasoned with barbecue spices and dappled with a sambal fired up with fish peppers. Love the crunch. Love the fencing match between sweet and tang. Every pasta I’ve tried has something to recommend it; cold weather has me reaching for the surprising elegant and many-layered lasagna tiered with smoked brisket Bolognese and ricotta fondue. My companions’ eyes widen at the sight of plates of fries and bread going to neighboring tables. Hint noted. The golden, thrice-fried french fries are meant to evoke the boardwalk, and the spent-grain bread comes with a spread of smoked trout as well as whipped butter. Life is short; ask for both. Cheesecake takes the prize for novelty; curry powder lends a pleasant savory note to the almond streusel.
228 N. Market St, Frederick, Md. 240-332-3186. thacherandrye.com. Entrees, $19 (for a hamburger) to $46.
Croissants dipped in orange blossom syrup. Tahini caramel brownies with the richness of fudge. A kouign-amann infused with intoxicating smoked cinnamon. A taste of any marks pastry chef Gregory Baumgartner as a brand to follow and helps explain the lines that form outside this daytime offshoot of the dinner-only, Levantine-inspired Albi in Navy Yard.
Things get spicier after 10 a.m., when the menu at Yellow, formerly Albi’s private dining space, grows to include more savory dishes, including a shakshuka that will shake you awake with the tang of tomatoes, the torch of green harissa, the crunch of onions and an overlay of poached eggs whose yolks bleed richness. Try the weekend draw with the addition of nuggets of smoked short rib and use the accompanying pillowy pita, made with potatoes, as a sop for whatever a fork can’t retrieve from the foil container.
The pita sandwiches are crammed with goodness, too. Chicken thighs slathered with whipped garlic and labneh leave the coals smoky and succulent; chopped pickled cucumbers and green tomatoes help swell the filling. A lighter meal comes by way of a little raft of bread spread with crumbled lamb, red with minced tomatoes and red bell peppers, which a kindly staff member gifted me when she thought my order took too long one day. The garnish for this meat pie, sfeeha, is perfect: a lemon wedge pressed with za’atar.
Linked by a flavor profile, the cafe and the restaurant were designed to “bounce off each other,” says chef-owner Michael Rafidi. “Albi is more buttoned-up.” Yellow, in contrast, is breezy and bright. The name comes from yalla, the Arabic phrase for “let’s go,” says Rafidi, whose cohorts initially thought he was referencing the sunny color. “Yellow” stuck. Indeed, the friendly shade is everywhere in the small cafe and bakery, outside of which sit little green houses for grazing.
1346 Fourth St. SE. 202-921-9592. yellowthecafe.com. Sweets $3.50 to $7, pita sandwiches and shakshuka $7 to $22.