Living in a world capital has its advantages. One of them is the ease with which a restaurant enthusiast can pretty much pick a spot on a globe and find a local source for its flavors. This month alone, I got my fill of Thai, Greek and French cooking, thanks to some area standard bearers. Other creative kitchens reminded me how adept some American chefs are at borrowing from the global pantry of ideas.
Let everybody else serve fried green tomatoes. Rose’s Luxury uses a Japanese mandoline to make ribbons of green tomatoes — some raw, some pickled — then shapes them into an alluring “panzanella” with the support of croutons, anchovies and torn basil. Oysters on the half shell are as easy to find as robes at the Supreme Court. But when’s the last time you knocked back a brand called Happy (from Sapidus Farms in Virginia) and had them topped with a bracing granita fueled with Fresno peppers? Chef-owner Aaron Silverman and his crew continue to come up with delicious new tricks at his first and most famous restaurant on Capitol Hill. Monkey bread is upgraded with cheese and pepper: “cacio e pepe,” after the classic Italian pasta.
Speaking of which, the actual noodles in this two-story fun house are wonderful. Here’s hoping you get to twirl strozzapreti strewn with a winning trio of ’nduja, honey and pecorino. Over the summer, Silverman quietly launched a catering company, Roses at Home, that mines the menus of all three of his restaurants, including the wine bar Little Pearl and the high-end Pineapple and Pearls. Already I’m plotting to have litchis, pork sausage, habanero and peanuts — a long-running hit at Rose’s — in the comfort of my own nest.
717 Eighth St. SE. 202-580-8889. rosesluxury.com. Small plates, $13 to $16; family-style platters, $33 to $36.
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.
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 housemade 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.
Read the full review here.
It’s possible to be in two places at once. Doubt me? Then you haven’t eaten at the lively, family-run Rockville storefront whose menu offers the cooking of both Cuba and Peru. You’ll crave chicken before you’ve even been shown to your seat, having been teased by the flock on display near the glass-fronted entrance. Rubbed with cumin and garlic and tanned on a charcoal grill, the bird is a little mash note to Lima, even more so in the company of yucca that has been fried so the outside is crisp and the center is fluffy. Havana, meanwhile, is nicely represented by winy, tomato-sweetened shredded beef, a classic ropa vieja served in an edible basket fashioned from green plantain slices. The black beans could use more oomph, and tilapia isn’t my first choice for tiradito, a cross between sashimi and ceviche amped up here with pureed celery, shrimp and hot sauce and subdued with sweet potato cooked in orange juice.
But the scores outnumber the slips. Picture frothy pisco sours; croquettes made luscious with chicken, cilantro and rice; and spirited rice pudding, swirled with port-swollen raisins. The young servers couldn’t be more vigilant. Nod when they drop by, armed with squirt bottles, if you want more (wild) green or (mild) yellow chile sauce — flavor boosters that will turn you into a Peruvian fan if you weren’t already.
765 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 301-424-8066 . lalimenarestaurant.com . Dinner entrees, $14.95 to $20.95.
Read the full review here.
As many as 2,000 diners pass through this 300-seat behemoth on weekends. The numbers (and noise!) are impressive, but no more remarkable than the quality of the French cooking. If you’re on the hunt for textbook-perfect escargots, shellfish towers or beef bourguignon, step inside, where some of the best seats await in the light-filled rear garden room, facing the sidewalk. The fluffy rolled omelet is in a class by itself, so consistently well-executed that chefs in the Philadelphia-based Starr Restaurants group cycle through to learn the technique.
Minor things yield major dividends. Kids are entertained with menus they can color on, and the house-baked breads, including Paris-worthy baguettes, are basically a course in themselves. “Are you enjoying the flavors?” a server asks. Plates scraped clean of lamb couscous and apple tarte tatin must make executive chef Greg Lloyd as joyeux as his audience.
1601 14th St. NW. 202-332-3333. lediplomatedc.com . Dinner entrees, $18 to $38.
Greece remains on my bucket list. Meantime, I trek to Tysons for the sunshine and seafood I expect I’ll encounter when I actually make it to the cradle of Western civilization. If there’s a lighter taramasalata out there, I have yet to taste it. The restaurant’s choice whip of fish roe, lemon juice and olive oil, scooped up with warm pita, could pass for a cloud. Nostos is where I also come for whole fish, typically sweet-fleshed branzino, filleted by a server with the precision of a surgeon and presented with horta — pleasantly bitter boiled greens — and roast potatoes kissed with lemon and oregano.
You’ll be greeted at the door by someone who acts as if they’ve been expecting your company and led to a linen-dressed table where the walls are dressed with black-and-white photographs of fishermen or famous faces (Anthony Quinn mid-dance) from earlier times. Strategically placed olive branches and a palette of white and gray whisper “Greece,” as do lamb ribs propped up on their plate with smoky eggplant salad, and a wedge of tender orange cake. General manager Angela Pagonis says her family has a vision for the business: “We want to bring Greece here.” Sure enough, these meals edge diners closer to the islands.
8100 Boone Blvd., Vienna. 703-760-0690. nostosrestaurant.com . Dinner entrees, $24 to $40.
Until it changed hands two years ago, Thai Square fit its name all too well. While the cooking was a sure thing, the setting was spartan. New owner Kris Panngern ordered up a redesign, showcasing tea pots and small toys, along with brushstrokes of color that infuse the interior with the vibrancy of a Thai market. The fried fish cakes are springy as ever, and the lemongrass broth, punctuated with shrimp and straw mushrooms, retains its tang; Panngern changed the look, but not the chef.
With almost 100 dishes to ponder, a cheat sheet helps. Remember the numbers 7, 17 and 68 on the menu. From the kitchen flow slices of minced pork and shrimp, edged in bean curd skin; nam sod, a porky salad ignited with ginger, red onion, Thai chile and lime; and glossy, honey-roasted duck with fried basil, one of the most popular dishes on the list. Just reading the description tells you why. Not every dish soars (the whole rockfish was dry last visit), but plenty more tends to fly off the plate in the new! improved! Thai Square.
3217 Columbia Pike, Arlington. 703-685-7040. thaisquarerestaurant.com. Dinner entrees, $10.95 to $17.50.
Yes, it’s unconventional. Your garden-variety diner doesn’t sheath fish sticks in tempura or present banana splits as three-bite ice cream cones. But that’s to be expected when an acolyte of the late Michel Richard, David Deshaies, is in the kitchen and shares his famous mentor’s sense of whimsy and good taste. Check out his supper menu: Deshaies hides his superb crab cake in a tumbleweed of spiky fried phyllo and gives shrimp and grits a Caribbean lilt with the help of plantains and pineapple in the bowl. In the chef-owner’s hands, chicken parm is a thing of beauty — I love its bundle of housemade spaghetti, tossed in butter, parmesan and chicken stock — and nachos are coaxed from dehydrated kale. Bet you can’t eat just one of the chips, stippled with avocado-lime sauce and an enhancer of cashews, lemon and bell pepper.
Brunch is now served throughout the week: blueberry pancakes with candied ginger if you’re feeling like breakfast, or a glorious Middle Eastern salad of quinoa, chopped kale and hummus if you want something brighter. The fun doesn’t stop with the food, served in a dining room dressed with framed graffiti on the walls, plants positioned above the exhibition kitchen and servers who seem to want nothing more than to make you glad you chose this place over the more conventional competition.
1207 Ninth St. NW. 202-847-0122. unconventionaldiner.com. Dinner entrees, $16 to $89 (for family-style short ribs).
Read the full review here.