Frederik De Pue prefers to take the road less traveled at his 65-seat bungalow-style restaurant in West Annapolis. When diners suggest he offer crab cakes, the chef responds with crab twists: Maryland blue crab and a suggestion of cilantro wrapped in thin pastry and fried to shatter in your mouth. “I like to be different than others,” says De Pue. His idea of a burger is duck confit flavored as if it were duck a l’orange and served with a curtain of blue cheese and fabulous house-made fries. Tile fish, spinach flan and thinly sliced leek “spaghetti” are a trio made more fascinating by the addition of a broken tomato dressing added at the table. “Eat them together,” for full effect, a server coaches.
The menu defies easy labeling; all I know is, I want one of everything when I read the list, which might include such luscious combinations as shredded braised pork presented on thin corn blini. (The crunch in the heap comes from pig tails.) The drinks are top-shelf, the service runs warm and knowledgeable, and a Nordic vibe prevails in the rear dining room, set off with skylights, animal-hide rugs, a fireplace and shelves of canned goods. Psst: The chef is known to gift his peach jam and pickled vegetables to patrons celebrating a special occasion at Flamant.
17 Annapolis St., Annapolis. 410-267-0274. flamantmd.com. Entrees, $21 to $34.
Want to feel wanted? Take your appetite here, where a chorus of hellos never fails to greet customers at the host stand and the bartender is apt to introduce himself (and ask for your name in return). Part of the locally grown Great American Restaurants group, Artie’s acts more neighborly than that sounds or its nearly 300 seats suggest. The knowing and chipper service is accompanied by generous takes on American favorites: crab cakes shaped from little more than jumbo lump; 24 ounces of blushing, bone-in prime rib (Thursday through Saturday) served with a loaded baked potato; a many-layered apple pie.
The dining rooms — one beneath beams and decorated with model boats, another outfitted with windows, a sloping roof and roomy red booths — call to families and date nighters alike. Managing partner Garland Dillard has a motto: “Today not tomorrow,” meaning “everything is important” in terms of the restaurant experience. So there are baby-changing tables in all the restrooms, and everyone on staff is cross-trained. Even if you apply to be a server, you’ll be required to spend time in the kitchen and at the front door, to see how cooks and hosts do their job. All-American Artie’s is all right by me.
3260 Old Lee Highway, Fairfax. 703-273-7600.
greatamericanrestaurants.com. Entrees, $14 to $42 (for prime rib).
BANH MI DC SANDWICH
The world has gifted us fabulous sandwiches — New Orleans’s muffuletta and Spain’s bocadillo come to mind — but if push ever came to shove-in-my-mouth, banh mi would find me opening widest. The classic Vietnamese sandwich is the reason for the inevitable line inside this suburban market. Good thing the team at the counter takes requests quickly and the assemblers of the signature draw work fast, because patience is a challenge when you’re hungry and the air is fragrant with the smell of fresh-baked bread.
Two dozen possibilities force difficult decisions, but I’ve yet to encounter a filling I wouldn’t care to repeat. Last visit found me ferrying home bahh mi stuffed with dill-flecked fish cakes; moist shredded pork; springy sugar cane shrimp; and ruddy, slightly sweet barbecue pork, everything encased in a warm, shattering baguette with pickled julienned vegetables, pungent cilantro and shocking jalapeño. Wash back your bundle with a tropical smoothie (I go for the jackfruit), and use any wait to check out some of the other Vietnamese goods on display. One taste of the crisp beef jerky, and you’ll never go back to Slim Jim.
3103 Graham Rd., Suite C, Falls Church. 703-205-9300. No website. Banh mi, $4.65 to $5.50.
Cane marks the return of Peter Prime, who introduced us to his Caribbean-influenced fare at Spark at Engine Company 12 in Bloomingdale and counts among his mentors the late French maestro Michel Richard. Based on the memories of Prime’s youth, Cane is a good thing in a small wrap, just 33 seats in a narrow dining room that doesn’t take reservations.
Jerk wings were part of the attraction at Spark and remain so here, where ripples on the right wall near the tiny bar are recycled sugar cane. Prime marinates the chicken in allspice and habanero before smoking the wings over pimento wood and grilling them to order. Pepperpot is a feast of Guyanese origin that Prime and his family enjoyed at Christmas and that meat eaters in Washington are sure to embrace. Brisket, beef tendon and oxtail are pressure-cooked to softness with cinnamon, thyme and orange peel. To eat the loose stew is to understand its holiday role and to make quick work of it. The menu has its lighter moments, too. There may be no more alluring whole fried fish in town than Cane’s snapper escovitch, strewn with a kaleidoscope of sliced pickled chiles, herbs and flowers.
The tight quarters are one reason for the tiffin boxes, stackable metal containers used to transport two multipart, shareable entrees. “Herbivore” rounds up three changing vegetable curries. “Omnivore” consists of chickpea and potato curries, plus beef and chicken stews, tender and terrific.
403 H St. NE. 202-675-2011. cane-dc.com. Entrees, $19 to $32 (tiffin for two).
THE HITCHING POST
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 food. 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.
From the family that brought good coffee and pastries to Georgetown with Baked & Wired and better bread to Mount Vernon Triangle with A Baked Joint comes a welcoming restaurant that bridges the gap between fast-casual and fancy. The drill at La Betty: “food you might have at home or from a good cook at a dinner party,” says Tessa Velazquez, the operations manager whose mother, Teresa, is the talent behind the dreamy deviled eggs, model chicken schnitzel and Washington’s best cheesecake. (Paved with sweetened sour cream, the wedge is flanked with a house-baked graham cracker to scoop up the berry garnish du jour.)
Teresa’s husband, Tony, and son, Zak, get credit for the look of the place, inspired by family trips to Berlin. African mahogany covers the ceiling, which is sloped here and there; indirect lighting casts a glow over the interior, outfitted with a handsome communal table. The restaurant is based on the chef’s German-Irish grandmother, says Tessa, but could be anyone: “We all have a Betty in our lives, someone who makes a kick-ass dinner.” In Washington, her mom is just that talent.
420 K St. NW. 202-408-8000, la-betty.com. Dinner entrees, $15 to $36 (for sharable ribs).
Read the First Bite preview here.
When Ryan Moore tells you he’s into fermentation, he’s not kidding. The kombucha-obsessed chef counts about 65 hot sauces alone in his walk-in cooler at Sababa, which features the vegetable-rich cuisine of Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, a repertoire of dishes that has been gathering steam at destination restaurants around the country.
Never been? The hummus is divine, especially when topped with juicy braised lamb. And chicken thighs striped as if by a Magic Marker on the grill make for a memorable kebab, presented on sunny yellow rice framed with tomatoes and peppers. But the main reason I keep coming back is for the best bastilla in recent memory. A fat round of crisp phyllo bursts with potatoes, onions, nuts and mushrooms, everything better for having been spiced with cumin and cinnamon. Truly, this is one of the most joyful dishes around, and it happens to be vegetarian.
The interior plays the part of a faraway restaurant, dressed with sails of cloth overhead, strategically placed palm fronds and lights that suggest it’s after 8. (The room is nicely dim.) Moore’s sense of humor slips into a new dish of cured lamb heart arranged over sauerkraut made from shredded broccoli stems and a brassy mustard. Does it taste like the deli of your dreams? The play on pastrami aims to be.
3311 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-244-6750. sababauptown.com. Kebabs and large plates, $14 to $26.
Chef Duarte Rebolo concedes that 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 most recent 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.