Old places that taste fresh. New places that serve style in spades. In my ongoing mission to share some of my favorite dining moments, in the form of a monthly dispatch begun in January, I’m pleased to offer eight places that have delighted me of late in the Washington area.
As promised, this month I’m also including a clunker. Consider it a warning. Critics eat bad food so you don’t have to.
Customers asked, and Jeff Black gave them what they wanted. The Potomac dining destination from the veteran restaurateur (BlackSalt, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace) once again serves the kind of food Addie’s was known for, back when it was a bungalow-style outpost in Rockville. Gone are the elaborate hot-and-cold seafood towers and platters of whole fish and ribs for two, recently replaced by dishes including crisp scallops on orzo risotto and beef short ribs with grilled broccolini and a loaded baked potato. Not that current fashions are avoided; one of the best side dishes is cauliflower showered with slivered almonds and zapped with harissa vinaigrette. Desserts, alas, are sweet and flat-tasting. Indulge, then, in another of the warm-from-the-oven biscuits, brushed with lard, that open a meal. The expansive kitchen windows on two sides let diners watch the ballet of cooks in motion. If noise is among your peeves, request a seat in the relatively peaceful wine room off the entrance.
12435 Park Potomac Ave., Potomac. 301-340-0081. Entrees, $16 to $31.
Just like the original fast-casual attraction on Capitol Hill, it’s a little Chinese, a little Korean, and a lot delicious. Co-owners Scott Drewno and Danny Lee have another hit on their hands with their spinoff in Dupont Circle, which benefits from all the learning that took place on Barracks Row. This time around, there’s more space for the cooks to slice and dice before service, and the tables are free-standing rather than bolted to the floor, resulting in easier seating for groups in particular.
The drill will be familiar to fans, who can count on finding the pork and kimchi pot stickers and cumin lamb stir-fry, but also some fresh ideas: cold noodles slicked with chile oil and crunchy with roasted peanuts, and a riff on shrimp toast that pairs wedges of crisp buttered ciabatta with springy diced shrimp in XO sauce. Dunk, dunk away. A perch at the four-seat, reservations-only chef’s counter puts you face to face with the cooks and pretty much gives you a taste of the whole menu. “I’ll be your sherpa tonight,” says one of the masters of the wok. Then he entertains customers with a tiered tray of salads and other nibbles before moving on to offer chopped brisket and furikake butter on steamed rice and a finale of coconut custard treated to candied almonds and lime zest. The cherry on top of all the fun: Unlike its sibling, the offshoot does lunch.
2029 P St. NW. 202-331-3040. Main dishes, $15 to $18.
Times are tough. Competition is fierce. Diners want ever more from their restaurants, and Convivial has responded by introducing weekday lunch hours. They’re considerate ones to boot: 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Dropping in on a weekday, I’m pleasantly surprised to see chef-owner Cedric Maupillier at the door, wearing the checked shirt of a server rather than a white chef’s jacket and handling phone calls and seating guests. “I only have one manager,” he says. He leads me to a window table in the light-filled dining room, where my eyes are drawn to some of his fresh creations. One is a baguette spread with Plugrá butter and split cornichons, followed by a generous application of pale pink, delicately sweet Madrange ham from France. Sharing the plate is a pile of sensational housemade potato chips whose seductive tang and earthiness come by way of vinegar mixed with dried powdered mushrooms.
Maupillier sweats the small stuff. Consider his consommé, which he insists on making himself, using oxtails, cabbage, cloves and veal feet, everything simmered together and eventually poured over a bowl chockablock with morsels of beef, triangles of carrot and celery root and a stripe of minced cornichons. Happy spooning.
801 O St. NW. 202-525-2870. Lunch sandwiches and entrees, $14 to $21.
It took him almost two decades, but Raynold Mendizabal is finally serving the food of his homeland. “I wanted to be a chef first, a Cuban chef second,” says the vision behind Urban Butcher in Silver Spring and now, a jumping dining room where a guitar player strums near the bar, cocktails show up in big coconut shells and glass garage doors roll up in good weather. Diners have friends in seafood and pork (and the servers who present them). Salt cod fritters are little marvels, crisp and greaseless; roast pork is cooked to collapse and delicious with bitter orange and crisp panes of skin. The chef’s go-to main course is mine, too: oxtails marinated in rum, hot peppers and soy sauce and finished with oregano and orange. El Sapo’s filling food doesn’t leave much space for dessert, but trust me: The sugar-dusted churros served with lemon-lightened whipped cream are worth your while. One of the few downsides is the din. Elsewhere is better for a heart-to-heart or a catch-up with grandparents. Then again, this is a restaurant that makes you want to shout for joy, clap your hands or beat the conga drum at the entrance. Color me guilty.
8455 Fenton St. (entrance on Wayne Street), Silver Spring. 301-326-1063. Main courses, $22 to $56 (platters for two).
There’s no single secret to a business lasting 30 years. But Christianne Ricchi, the executive chef and owner of I Ricchi downtown, credits her Tuscan restaurant’s milestone to the simple reality that “We pay attention.” While the restaurant has grown to include more space for private dining, including a wine room accessed via the kitchen, I Ricchi looks pretty much the way it did when it opened. Vines crawl around the butter-colored walls, and the oven, imported from Italy, remains a focal point. More important, the food still tastes delicious. Plenty of places serve fried calamari, but few make such an impression with so few ingredients. The appetizer here relies on fresh seafood dredged in flour, crisped in clean oil and seasoned with nothing more than salt (although the tangy tomato sauce alongside makes a great dip).
Come to think of it, a lot of dishes serve as role models: robust minestrone, soup enough for two; tagliarini adorned with a garden of vegetables and sweet little clams; veal chop pounded to plate-size, breaded and fried; and the divine, not-too-sweet tiramisu. The food tastes personal because it is; “from bread to gelato,” almost everything is made from scratch, says Ricchi, a daily presence. Meanwhile, her loyal staff feel free to be themselves. “Beep! Beep!” one says, signaling the arrival of an entree.
1220 19th St. NW. 202-835-0459. Dinner pastas and entrees, $18 to $40.
Give a leading interior designer $5 million to turn around a hotel dining room and bar, and what you get, in the case of Swedish-born Martin Brudnizki at the Dupont Circle Hotel, is a space where coral couches and floor-to-ceiling windows help raise the bar for eating and drinking in the neighborhood. (You may know the designer’s work. Brudnizki has given the world the Beekman in New York and Anabel’s in London.) His equal in the kitchen is Trinidad native Marlon Rambaran, whose stint at Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia, among other impressive stops on his way to Washington, informs his work.
The food is familiar but interesting, served by attendants who know their stuff; early hits include fluke crudo brightened with winter citrus, saffron risotto set off with a sheet of gold leaf and a lamb tagine with preserved lemons and dried apricots that would taste at home in Morocco. Kudos to the chef for making his chicken soup, a lunch draw, with short noodles. Look, Ma, no stains from slurping! The enthusiasm of the staff rubs off on customers. “What would you like to drink?” asks a dapper man behind the handsome bar. “We have lovely cocktails, lovely wine, lovely bubbles.” Yes times three.
1500 New Hampshire Ave. NW. 202-483-6000. Dinner entrees, $28 to $96 (rib-eye for two with sides).
The model for the Red Hen wasn’t one restaurant, but rather the amalgam of places that Mike Friedman says he had the good fortune to eat in as a younger chef: Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, Lucques in Los Angeles, River Cafe in London — “all owned by women,” he points out. The only question I had after my most recent meal in Bloomingdale was why it had been so long between visits. Red Hen is the ideal neighborhood community center, after all, dressed with a welcoming bar, lit with honey in mind and warmed by a wood-stoked oven that does wonderful things to chicken, among other dishes. Toast with Sicilian anchovies, radishes and sweet butter is a blissful Act 1. Follow it with some pasta, maybe mafalde with melted leeks, wild mushrooms and a carpet of herby bread crumbs. Reservations are hard to come by. The good news: Friedman says he keeps up to 40 percent of his tables for walk-ins and reminds us that the 18-seat bar is first come, first served.
1822 First St. NW. 202-525-3021 . Pastas and main courses, $18 to $29.
Chef Yuan Tang works nights, and his wife and business partner, Carey, keeps day hours. Throw in the couple’s passion for animals, and Rooster & Owl makes perfect sense as a name for their debut restaurant on 14th Street NW. The space isn’t much to look at, but the lack of scenery hardly matters when the food starts showing up. Kohlrabi and celery root are julienned to look like fine pasta, then tossed in a vinaigrette that’s bright with lemon and breezy with mint. Baby carrots take on the flavor of good barbecue, aided and abetted by a scoop of velvety cornbread ice cream, a combination you might question until it hits your tongue. Meat takes a back seat here, deployed more as a garnish than a featured player, an exception being fried baby quail glazed with miso, honey and yuzu juice and splayed on creamy grits fired up with red pepper relish. Bliss. Tang, who worked at the late Rogue 24 before striking out on his own, is filling seats with a four-course script that allows customers to create their own tasting menu. DIY turns out to be short for divine.
2436 14th St. NW. 202-813-3976. Four courses, $65.
Food lovers could hardly wait to book a table at this newcomer, and who could blame them? Not only is chef Alam Méndez Florián from Oaxaca, revered for its cuisine, but he is the talent behind the admired Pasillo de Humo in Mexico City. But repeat visits left me scratching my head. If you sampled only the mushroom soup, invigorated with smoked chile paste, and a meaty taco, maybe carnitas, you might question my ultimate disappointment. But the few scores share the menu with a slew of washouts. Arid Cornish hen is splayed on an inky sauce with none of the complexity one expects of a proper mole, and pork belly, as defiant of my fork as the polished concrete floor, appears to have been seared by a bulldozer on the heat. The kitchen can’t even do basics right; the gratis chips might be oily or salty or both, and the accompanying salsa tastes as if liquid smoke were part of its DNA. Too bad you can’t eat the scenery. A sea of white leather chairs and a display of Mexican wrestling masks make for an arresting backdrop. Check, please.
116 King St., Alexandria. 571-970-5148. Entrees, $17 to $28.