Keep in mind that the owner of this delightful Indian outpost used to cook at the nearby Curry Leaf in Laurel and order the haleem. Lentils, cracked wheat, chicken and warm spices add up to a fabulous golden porridge. Note that Saravan Krishnan also put in time at Udupi Palace in Takoma Park and ask for a dosa. Fashioned from rice and lentils, the crisp golden scrolls stuffed with a choice of fresh fillings are some of the best in the Washington area. Spiced potatoes, cabbage and carrot compose one of nearly a dozen rousing fillings.
Come to think of it, there’s not much I can’t recommend at this young Indian restaurant, inviting in orange accents and set off with ornate screens. Anywhere else, the sizzling lamb kebabs might be a signature; here, they go unfinished only because the rest of the food on the table is so compelling. I’m thinking of velvety, sweet-hot Goan shrimp curry, and purple eggplant in a cloak of gravy that resonates with tamarind, peanuts and coconut. The flaky paratha, meanwhile, has become my choice mop. You will eat as if it’s Thanksgiving — too much, too fast — and love every minute.
Lunch showcases a fresh-looking buffet of a dozen or so enticements. Weekdays ($12.95) find chicken tikka masala and goat curry in the mix; weekends ($14.95) feature chicken biryani and bone-in fish curry. Anytime, lots to like.
13524 Baltimore Ave., Laurel. 301-477-4828. amberspicemd.com. Entrees, $12 to $24.
No one who’s been here shows up without a reservation. The family-run Afghan Bistro is small and cramped but also warmhearted and enormously pleasing. Thus, Monday night looks like Saturday night everywhere else. The list of specials is as long as some restaurant’s standing menus. One attraction: tender chunks of veal and spiced greens atop a mound of fragrant brown rice and inside a frame of shredded carrots sweetened with plump raisins. Another: pumpkin-stuffed dumplings in a bowl of chickpeas, lentils and minced beef, ringed with yogurt and fragrant with fresh dill.
Which is not to slight the regular menu. It, too, is a long parade of Afghan comforts, from crisp turnovers stuffed with dark greens and cilantro, cooled by a dip in avocado chutney, to marinated lamb chops, smoky from the grill and easy to whittle to the bone. A young dining companion opted for the sleeper on the menu: one of the area’s best hamburgers. Thanks to a brioche bun and sumac, garlic, lemon pepper and paprika in the seasoning, the sandwich is far from kid’s stuff.
8081 Alban Rd., Springfield. 703-337-4722. afghanbistro.com. Dinner entrees, $14.50 to $35 (lamb platter).
Its sister restaurant gets so much attention — hey, it’s hard to compete with live fire — I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Compass Rose has a Jan Brady complex. (Maydan, Maydan, Maydan!) Yet every meal at Compass Rose reminds me what a sure bet it continues to be, five years after opening off 14th Street NW.
Inspired by street and market food, the menu lets you graze around the globe. One course, I’m in Egypt, eating barramundi under a tangy, teasing cloak of tomato sauce. Another course, Vietnam comes into view thanks to a banh mi stuffed with grilled pork, pickled vegetables and bright herbs, a sandwich to rival anything in Northern Virginia’s Eden Center. A plate of curried lamb trumpets scotch bonnets and allspice. Hello, Jamaica! Can’t decide what to eat? Book the $60-per-person “Tour of the World,” which is served family-style and includes the restaurant’s popular and cheesy khachapuri.
The visionary behind the journey is the well-traveled Rose Previte, who has a Midas touch when it comes to creating cool and comfortable spaces. Compass Rose is dressed with strings of lights, turquoise chairs, throw pillows, rugs on the walls — a mix-and-match backdrop to suit the worldly menu.
1346 T St. NW. 202-506-4765. compassrosedc.com. Dishes $8 to $17.
The Girl & the Vine
It’s a cafe! It’s a watering hole! It’s a food shop that stocks wine, chocolate chip cookies and Sriracha!
Every neighborhood should be so lucky to claim a spot like Girl & the Vine in Takoma Park, the all-purpose creation of married couple Jocelyne DeHaas and David Fritzler plus Rob Theriot, hospitality veterans who met when they worked for Tryst Trading Co.
Head to the upstairs bar and cafe for a sandwich and a glass of wine, maybe a juicy chicken schnitzel BLT served on an onion bun and best knocked back with a rosé from South Africa. Then again, the autumnal union of sweet potato, beet and apple between slices of nutty-tasting bread is quietly satisfying, too. But I could also make a meal of just the crisp nachos showered with shaved roast pork, sharp red onions and chopped cilantro. A curtain of zippy melted cheese provides the perfect bond.
Sit at the bar if you want to be waited on; otherwise, join the inevitable line in front of the nearby counter to place your order. “We didn’t want to be a full-service restaurant,” says DeHaas. “We’re not fancy.” Fine by me. A deli downstairs from the food shop sells chunky, tarragon-brightened chicken salad and fluffy curried couscous laced with slivered almonds and tart cranberries. Mmm, mmm good.
The tidy and light-filled storefront, which doubles its 60-seat capacity when the front patio is used, sports clean lines and blue walls. DeHaas says the best compliment she hears is when customers tell her “it feels like vacation in here.” Yep.
7071 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park. 301-272-1230. thegirlandthevine.com. Sandwiches and salads $8 to $12.
Nazret Ethiopia Restaurant
A trick that has served me well in unfamiliar restaurants: Look around to see what others are eating. At this Ethiopian storefront, hidden behind the Build America plaza, everyone else had goden tibs on their table, so I followed their lead. The reward is juicy short ribs festooned with soft onions, tomatoes and jalapeños. Owner Zewdu Mekonnen knows what he’s doing. In his native Addis Ababa, the hotel-experienced chef ran his own cooking school. Here, he grinds his own spices and mostly serves gluten-free, all-teff injera delivered from Ethiopia four times a week. (When the supply runs out, he relies on a neighboring bakery for injera made with a combination of whole-wheat and teff.)
While I come here mostly for meat — the kitfo, moistened with spiced butter and fragrant with black cardamom, is divine — vegetables are lavished with similar attention. Yellow peas, cooked to retain a delicate crunch, pulse with curry, ginger and garlic. Decorated with multiple flat screens broadcasting CNN and paintings by Ethiopian artists, the 50-seat dining room draws a discerning clientele, including Ethiopian business executives and pilots, says Mekonnen, 50.
Your chances of thanking the chef in person are good. He logs a minimum of 11 hours a day and likes to meet his audience. Look for the guy with the big smile, doling out fist bumps along with some of the area’s best Ethiopian food.
3821 S. George Mason Dr., Falls Church. 703-347-9911. nazretexpresseatery.com. Entrees, $10 to $22.
Now might not be the ideal time to visit Hong Kong. But there’s a way to get a taste of it without ever leaving Washington. Reserve a table at Tiger Fork, which channels an Asian night market with balloon lights floating over chunky tables and cocktails that can pick you up — or put you at ease — with an assist from Chinese medicinals. Between the dragons and lions painted on the walls and the custardy brined tofu carpeted with garlic, scallions and chiles (and numbing with Sichuan peppercorns), there’s plenty to feed Instagram.
Insiders know to ask for the “secret” menu, recurring specials that (with luck) might include steamed and seared Kowloon buns. Crisp yet soft, they combine ground beef with pickled cabbage, and they rock after a dunk in black vinegar. New to the lineup are “forbidden” salad (king oyster mushrooms, charred cabbage, burned ginger and black rice) and the simply billed fish balls: five bronzed orbs shaped from rockfish and potatoes and skewered. They could pass for Portuguese, save for their honey-laced chile sauce, which leaves a trail of fire in its wake. This is food with verve and a setting to match.
922 Blagden Alley NW. 202-733-1152. tigerforkdc.com. Entrees $11 to $42 (for barbecue combination platter).
No entree costs more than $28. Still, there are linens on the tables, gratis bread, servers in vests and ties — a dash of formality for not a lot of bank. The food leans Italian and is prepared with care. Chef-owner Noe Canales says he tells his staff, “It’s not just about cooking. You have to have passion.”
Tortino’s food exudes fervor. Lamb ravioli is as delicious for the supple hand-rolled pasta and red wine reduction, sweetened with pureed roasted vegetables, as for the meaty braised filling. Branzino treated to capers and tomatoes is simple and sublime. Lobster bisque acquires its richness not from cream but from chicken stock blended with extra-virgin olive oil and chopped shrimp. (Canales, who coaches his team to add a bit of “wow!” to their work, likes to lighten things up when he can. Expect a citrus dressing on your spinach salad.)
With Tortino, seemingly always busy but never raucous, you get the whole package. Service proves every bit as good as the menu. Really, my only complaint is the long list of daily specials. My favorite dishes don’t need the competition.
1228 11th St. NW. 202-312-5570. tortinorestaurant.com. Dinner entrees $20 to $28.