You might still be digesting the spring dining guide, in which I revealed 10 of my favorite new restaurants, the best of the bunch being Mama Chang in Fairfax. But while you were reading the collection of 30 reviews, and possibly making reservations, I was back on the usual merry-go-round, chasing more freshly minted hot spots and taking the pulse of some long-running shows. Here are the arrivals I’m enjoying most, and the oldies I’m lapping up, for the merry month of May:
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.
Nostalgia drew me back to Kaz Okochi’s champagne-colored retreat near George Washington University. Two decades is a milestone in the restaurant business, and I wanted to see how the Japanese eatery compared to its current competitors. While the chef-owner is more a presence in the dining room than behind the sushi counter these days, his menu of small plates remains impressive. The best combinations tend to be hot: clam tempura dipped in green tea salt, cabbage pancake drizzled with a sweet barbecue sauce, and silken egg custard ennobled with foie gras and sweet shrimp make for especially happy days.
Here for sushi? Okochi buys everything but his tuna whole before breaking down the fish in-house. Omakase (“chef’s choice”) is the path of least resistance and offers a taste of what’s best in the market. With luck, your little feast might include amberjack sparked with yuzu and ginger, lobster bound with wasabi mayonnaise, and striped bass with a dot of intense tomato, the last combination underscoring the chef’s interest in Europe. That’s your cue to order dessert. Make it tiramisu — tinted a shade of spring with green tea, and a lovely marriage between East and West.
Francis Layrle is used to cooking for discerning palates. During his tenure at the French Embassy, the Gascon native fed seven ambassadors. “I had a great time at the embassy. I was doing what I wanted to do: looking for the best products,” says the chef, who arrived in Washington in 1973 and took over the kitchen near Washington National Cathedral five years ago. “Now, same thing: I’m looking for the best products.” When he can get it, there’s Dover sole on the menu, procured, he says, from “two little boats” that fish the waters in northern Denmark. Amish farmers from Pennsylvania bring him young carrots, watercress, delicate goat cheese and parsley root, which Layrle likes to use in soup. “I love vegetables,” he says, and a recent salad confirms: Sliced golden beets, tangy leeks and sumac-dusted yogurt make for an interesting concert.
Diners, many of them neighbors, head to the cozy bistro anticipating boudin blanc with soft roasted apples, juicy lamb T-bone steak, floating island for dessert. Then those customers linger, despite the cramped tables and the clamor. “There’s magic in the place around 6:30,” says Layrle, “a buzz that’s hard to explain.” A band of mirrors at eye level lets you catch the show even if you’re seated facing the wall. The staff seems to know most everyone by name, people are hopping up to air-kiss one another, and isn’t it nice to be served warm bread and see Champagne, the real deal, offered by the glass? Magic indeed.
A menu with mass appeal helps pull in the crowds: Seafood is a diner’s best bet, but it keeps company with burgers, chicken fettuccine and roasted cauliflower presented as a main course — and pretty much around the clock. As Dave Moran, area director of operations, says, the Victorian-inspired saloon and restaurant is “for everyone and every time.” (Christmas is the only day the long-running magnet across from the Treasury is closed.)
Old Ebbitt sets the bar for oysters, which budgeteers can enjoy during twice-a-day happy hours and which come with an Oyster Eater’s Bill of Rights. The kitchen also does well by fried calamari, tossed with pickled cherry peppers, and crusty crab cakes, served with freshly creamy coleslaw and fries that are cut by hand — impressive for a place that attracts more than 1 million visitors a year through its (ever) revolving door. Not every dish is a winner — shepherd’s pie tastes like meatloaf soup — but this is a business that puts the customer first, be it with handsome salt and pepper shakers ready and waiting on linen-draped tables or a bartender who offers a handshake, asks your name and remembers it when you leave. No wonder it sold $33 million in food and drink last year. Old Ebbitt is as much a monument as anything on the Mall.
Before he came to cook at Pesce in Dupont Circle five years ago, Andrew LaPorta was best known for his deep-fried pork shank at Biergarten Haus on H Street NE. “I was a meat guy,” a charcuterie lover who took some time to adapt to the water, he says. “I was scared to death. What was I going to do with fish?” Plenty of wonderful things, as diners would discover. Fried soft-shell crabs with a salad as sharp as anything I’ve encountered in Southeast Asia. Walleye in a crust of walnuts. Skate displayed on ruffled housemade potato chips.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s no finer fish house in Washington than Pesce, where the menu is written on a roving chalkboard and the utensils bear the shapes of creatures from the deep blue sea. Old-timers will be pleased to find that LaPorta, who bought the restaurant from Regine Palladin two years ago, has retained a number of classics; the sardines of yore, treated to butter and garlic on the grill, are as sublime as ever, as is the grilled calamari, which benefits from a marinade of thyme, rosemary and olive oil (and whose ink goes into the sauce).
LaPorta wants customers to know Pesce is the opposite of snooty. “We want people to come in, hang out and not feel rushed.” Also: “no foams, no airs.” For real. The cooking is more about ingredients than the chef’s ego, and if you’re looking for meat, you’re out of luck. LaPorta is all about fish these days. Lucky us.
If there’s one dish that sums up this Hong Kong-style shoe box in Columbia Heights, it’s the simply billed “hand cut noodle.” White on one side and black (with squid ink) on the other, the nicely chewy noodles get tossed with charred squid, Chinese celery and prickly ash, a cousin to numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Before the dish leaves the kitchen, chef-owner Henji Cheung adds a splash of barrel-aged soy sauce. What’s the word for “amazing” in Chinese? It could also be applied to the charbroiled lamb ribs seasoned with five-spice powder and head-on, flash-fried, sweet and sour branzino splayed on pickled Chinese cabbage.
Cheung’s partner in hospitality is his wife and co-owner, Sarah Thompson. She’s the reason you’re drinking so well; the Asian-inspired drinks are divine, and if you’re into out-of-the-box wines, Queen’s English is it. The catch? Fewer than 40 seats and no reservations. But once you’re inside, the food and design (love the gold-and-red wall treatment) conspire to win you over.
3410 11th St. NW. No phone number. queensenglishdc.com. Dishes, $12 to $26.
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.
It’s a jungle in there. Three floors tall, Seven Reasons is crawling with greenery, to which chef-owner Enrique Limardo only plans to add more. “Nature is going to take over the place,” vows the city’s best ambassador for the foodways of Latin America. Golden, one-bite, cheese-filled arepas are a tip of the hat to Limardo’s native Venezuela. Same for the skate-stuffed plantain ravioli, a blast from his past as the recipient of his grandmother’s Sunday cooking.
Vegetarians are made more than welcome with such dishes as cauliflower tartare and jelly tomato salad, the latter of which I’m sure to return to in the heat of summer. But sumac-spiced duck on a drift of sour cream, served with salsa verde, and a soupy riff on paella, starring rugged chorizo and sweet lobster, reveal a chef that excels with fowl and meat, too. Isn’t the space cool? Aren’t the servers lovely? Doesn’t everyone look happy to be here? When I think of it, there are dozens of reasons to pick this restaurant for your next dining adventure.