Among the great perks of my job is the chance to travel far and wide without ever boarding a train or plane. This month alone, for instance, I got a good taste of Italy, Mexico, Portugal and Myanmar simply by reserving some tables in a few Washington-area restaurants specializing in their cooking.
Not all my experiences were meals to write home about. As I promised at the launch of my monthly dining dispatch in January, I’m sharing the occasional disappointment in the hope of saving you time and money — and nudging chefs and restaurants to improve.
Drinks? Drinks! is more like it at the mod, mostly white lounge adjacent to the four-star, avant-garde Minibar. Sure, you can order a la carte, but serious fun is had by reserving for the two-hour cocktail flight, a series of libations that goes down like a trip around the world. The journey commences with a welcome of ever-changing punch (cherry heering on my visit) and pivots to a daiquiri elevated with an absinthe rinse and a float of whipped passionfruit.
Bar manager Ismael Barreto says it takes up to a year to train staff to become full-fledged bartenders here. Given the science behind the drinks — the fog that dissipates to reveal a bracing sorbet with the profile of a Brazilian caipirinha, the cedar burned tableside to flavor a glass of tequila and orange peel on their way to becoming a Mexican sensation — a customer can understand. And marvel. When’s the last time you had a drink segue from blue to purple? That happens when a thimble of lime juice is added to shochu tinted with butterfly pea flower for a Japanese-inspired cocktail called Divine Wind. Coolest of all, the drinks taste as great as they look.
It helps to eat something with the parade of liquids. The kitchen obliges with lush salmon tartare cradled in glossy parkerhouse buns and impossibly light miniature waffles that crack open to reveal foie gras — also peanut butter and honey. PB&J for discerning hipsters.
501 Ninth St. NW. 202-393-4451. barminibyjoseandres.com. Cocktail flight (not including food), $95.
Having wooed us with his native Balkan food at multiple Ambar restaurants, Ivan Iricanin turned his attention to the flavors of Mexico, where he recruited a consultant in chef Gerardo Vazquez Lugo, whose family runs the venerable Restaurante Nicos in Mexico City. The owner’s latest project spreads three dining experiences across 8,000 square feet: a breezy diner on the sidewalk level, a tropically inspired rooftop bar and, in the middle of the action, the inviting Buena Vida. This second-story destination, my most frequent pit stop, is an expanse of colorful tiles, handsome basket lights and open kitchen.
Lush raw tuna and juicy pineapple share their bowl with an electric citrus sauce and nutty little chia seeds for texture. Lamb is braised to a point where knives aren’t necessary to eat the soft meat, swollen with the flavor of spicy, smoky and slightly sweet chiles. Proof that soup can be “dry” and delicious: sopa seca — fried vermicelli noodles cooked with roasted chiles, garlic and chicken stock — that can be eaten with either fork or spoon. This restaurant sweats the small stuff. No need to put your purse or bag on the floor when there are little treelike stands to do the job.
2900 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-888-1259. buenavidaclarendon.com. Dinner entrees, $12 to $29.
Read the First Bite review here.
Fried chicken with a side of Luther Vandross? Count me in. Time mostly stands still at this longtime Southern draw in Petworth, which changed hands seven years ago but retains the neighborly spirit instilled by original owners Al and Adrienne Carter, who now live above the dining room and bar they turned over to chef Barry Dindyal.
His menu kept the crowd favorites, including pork chops and fried whiting, but grew to embrace his taste for Indian. Hence the fried spinach with sweet yogurt and tamarind chutney, a hat tip to one of his previous employers, Rasika in Penn Quarter. Entrees come with a choice of two sides, making them good deals. Both the coleslaw and the potato salad merit blue ribbons, while the collards play up a thoughtful chef. Because Dindyal keeps pork out of the pot, his vegetarian customers can enjoy the greens, too.
200 Upshur St. NW. 202-726-1511. thehpostrestaurant.com. Dinner entrees, $16 to $28.
Read the full review here.
Hoping to be home at night, Enzo Livia opened his business — 29 years ago — as an Italian deli. Just a year in, customers let the Sicilian native know they wanted to linger, and he turned his strip mall storefront in Rockville into a full-fledged, first-come, first-served restaurant. Here’s a toast to squeaky wheels and the chef who listened to them.
Il Pizzico is basically a checklist of what diners want from their neighborhood restaurant. The bread, served with black olive tapenade, is warm. The two dining rooms are softly lit and soundproofed, thanks to carpet on the floor, linens on the tables and tufted fabric on the walls. The cooking — sweet corvina kissed with lemon butter, bucatini tossed with pancetta and a kicky tomato sauce — reveals a devotion to good ingredients, simply handled. “It’s been a good run so far,” says Livia, whose fine work in the kitchen is complimented by a suave host out front, manager Milto Dhimas.
“No reservations? You must be popular,” a guest tells the smile at the door. “Almost 30 years!” Dhimas replies. Here’s to decades more, and to the hope that the aioli-striped salmon croquettes and lemon cake with limoncello gelato — pure sunshine — live on as truly special specials.
15209 Frederick Rd., Rockville. 301-309-0610. ilpizzico.com. Dinner entrees, $17 to $28.
Nostalgia lured me back to this venerable subject of my maiden review as food critic for The Post 20 years ago, when steakhouses ruled. Plus, I wanted to see how the K Street stalwart compared to its beefy competition. And my conclusion is . . . what happened to the Prime Rib?
The Art Deco-style restaurant has good bones going for it, as it always has. Some of the finery — leopard-print carpet, linens on the tables, drapes on the walls — help absorb noise, so you can actually catch conversation, but still enjoy the live entertainment in the center of the room (bass and piano at night). Much of the rest of the experience tastes off, from the arid and fishy-smelling crab imperial to the signature cut that lacks any sense of beefiness and is done no favors by a little heap of dry horseradish. Better are the cherrystone clams, nutmeg-laced creamed spinach and “skinny” off-the-menu fries — at least when they’re served warm. (We had to send back the first batch.) Service, or lack of it, doesn’t help. My party shows up to find no one at the host stand for several long minutes; later, our bottle of red appears as we’re almost finished with our entrees. The key lime pie sports a nice tang, but I’d trade it for a better main course.
Check, please? That’s not just a request for the bill, but a plea for the restaurant to get its act together.
2020 K St. NW. 202-466-8811. theprimerib.com. Dinner entrees, $31 to $65.
There are pasta houses, and there’s Sfoglina, Fabio Trabocchi’s glam response to our affection for Italian noodles. Both branches come with singular charms. The Van Ness original, watched over by chef Erin Clarke, counts a cozy pasta-making room that can go private at night; the downtown spinoff, helmed by chef Chris Watson, is dressed with a long stretch of bar where I could see myself becoming a regular if only there were time to be a regular anywhere.
The menus are similar, and similarly delicious. Calling to me most right now are agnolotti stuffed with herbed goat cheese and brightened with flowers, and shells that catch their topping of pancetta, escarole and sunny egg so that every bite delivers carbonara bliss. You’ll want to start with a drink and “nibble:” anchovies on buttered toast for something light, fluffy meatballs in a moat of polenta for something heartier. In the “not pasta” corner waits a crisp-edged veal cutlet, fragrant with sage.
No room for dessert? Take something home at least. Chocolate cake ennobled with hazelnuts and chocolate ganache is a bar raiser — and a welcome sight during a midnight refrigerator raid.
4445 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-450-1312; and 1099 New York Ave. NW. 202-525-1402. sfoglinadc.com. Dinner entrees, $19 to $28.
Chef Duarte Rebolo concedes a restaurant in the basement of a bank building isn’t the most alluring spot for a meal. “It’s a challenge these days,” he says. A restaurateur has to have a good product and good service, “or forget it.”
There’s no forgetting my recent dinner at this rare source for Portuguese food, where a faux fire in the bar, a mural of the restaurant’s namesake town and solicitous waiters make everyone feel like honored guests. You’re here for the flavors of the Old World, so spring for the Portuguese experience, three courses for $20 (lunch) or $33 (dinner). A good game plan features potato-thickened, kale-green, chorizo-strewn caldo verde; grilled Cornish hen ignited with piri piri sauce and flanked with a mound of tiny housemade potato chips; and flan sauced with caramel.
Did I mention conversation is easy, parking is free and my last server told me he has been with Tavira for 15 years? “The secret of my business,” says Rebola, is “I take care of my people” — customers clearly included.
8401 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase. 301-652-8684. tavirarestaurant.com. Dinner entrees, $20 to $27.
Washington has enjoyed tastes of Myanmar before, but never like Thamee, where chef Jocelyn Law-Yone has a story for seemingly every dish on the menu. Catfish noodle curry is a soup she recalls waking up to, and enjoying again after school, back in her native Yangon. That bit of background makes the bright yellow mohinga, garnished with banana stems, even more enticing. My personal favorite on the list: shaved pickled ginger tossed with spiced peanuts, crisp cabbage and lime juice. Then again, maybe it’s the marriage of pork belly and pickled mango, a union of what the people of Myanmar refer to as “the best meat” and “the best fruit,” says Law-Yone, a former teacher whose daughter and co-owner, Simone Jacobson, is also an excellent guide to the cuisine.
Sure, there’s milk tea to sip, but visitors can also wash back a meal with something stronger, maybe a Negroni made purple with the help of butterfly pea flower. Little details make big impressions: The food is presented on table tops bearing digital reproductions of fetching textiles from Myanmar (also known as Burma), and for the newcomer’s first brunch, Jacobson chopped and peeled 50 pounds of sugar cane for its juice — with a machete.
1320 H St. NE. 202-750-6529. thamee.com. Dinner entrees, $14 to $20.
Read the First Bite review here.