The sedate dining room, a stroll away from the White House, answers all sorts of questions I get from readers, foremost the catchall “where’s a place with good food, moderate prices and a chance to hear a person across from the table?”
Oval Room to the rescue. Chef Bryan Moscatello serves some of the most diverting food around. “I like to be playful,” he says. “I want people to smile” when they detect something familiar. Does the filling of his ruffled tortelloni taste like French soup? Exactly his intent, and how cool to see the pasta arranged in an arc with concentric rings of a sauce fueled by Madeira and sherry. Skate gets dusted with potato starch, sauteed till the fish turns gold, and positioned on a tangy pool of buttermilk, bolstered with clam juice and streaked with green nasturtium oil. Scarlet rounds of venison show up with charred endive, glossy chanterelles and roasted curried squash that’s whipped to cloudlike lightness.
Dessert keeps pace. The star is a silky passion fruit custard, its surface a little art show of miniature meringues, honey “caviar” and colorful violas. Green peppercorns make their presence known in the sassy pudding. Were you expecting nursery food?
The Oval Room’s prime location means you might be within earshot of a potentially headline-making conversation. Kellyanne Conway, Nancy Pelosi and diplomats from near and far have all broken bread here recently.
800 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-463-8700. ovalroom.com. Dinner entrees, $24 to $39.
ALMA COCINA LATINA
I’ll be honest. I was concerned for this South American dining room in Baltimore when Enrique Limardo decamped for the bright lights of Washington, where the visionary chef now dazzles patrons at Seven Reasons. Could the food at Alma Cocina Latina be as luscious without one of the Mid-Atlantic’s top talents at the helm?
A sip of a classic daiquiri and a bite of a crisp-soft arepa, brimming with mango-sweetened shredded pork, had me mentally applauding the work of his replacement. The arrival of the smoky grilled baby octopus — creamy with roasted pepper aioli and served on a plate painted with spokes of squid ink — erased any doubts I was in good hands. “It was a seamless transition,” says Irena Stein, owner of the convivial restaurant in southeast Baltimore. The new executive chef, Venezuela native Karem Barragan, worked for several years under Limardo, whom Stein retained as culinary director. “No new dish goes out without Enrique’s approval,” she says.
Whew. And wow. “Alma-style” seafood paella brings together shrimp, scallops and zesty chorizo but also citrus oil and a tomato-vinegar dressing. Sumac-seasoned duck, artfully fanned over toasted couscous, gets a liquid frame of pale green kale oil and kicky blueberry sauce.
The precise and beautiful food draws you in. The design encourages you to unwind. Hoping to “bring in the garden,” Stein hung her lush outdoor photographs on the walls and planted tropical details throughout. Everywhere you look, there’s something green: palm trees, asparagus ferns, philodendron. As the owner puts it, “Nature is in your face.” Much like the memorable plates.
2400 Boston St., Baltimore. 667-212-4273. almacocinalatina.com. Entrees, $21 to $45 (for prime rib-eye).
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 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.
It took seemingly forever for the sibling of Jack Rose Dining Saloon to set sail, but the aptly named Imperial was worth the wait. Check out the airy, window-wrapped dining room and bar with chartreuse stools and walls that shimmer with silvery glass tiles. Drink from a collection of antique spirits (Cuban rum, cognac from the 1960s) collected by owner Bill Thomas. Graze on a menu that looks back as well as forward, with a personal beef Wellington crafted from four ounces of blushing tenderloin and a fine, flaky crust and such meatless pleasures as a butter-poached cauliflower salad offered with a rich swipe of curry yogurt.
Chef Russell Jones is a former vegetarian who knows how to coax great performances from field and garden. But really, he does exciting things with a range of ingredients. Steamed oysters, zapped with tomatillo mignonette and served with fried saltines, are a swell change of pace from fried or grilled bivalves.
Some of the chef’s good ideas start at home, he says. “I try a lot of things out on my wife.” She’s the taste tester who first approved of her husband’s bucatini sporting a sassy green carpet of herbs, garlic, bread crumbs and anchovies. Yes, there’s an egg atop the pasta. Yes, you’ll love how the yolk turns into a dressing. Going, going, gone.
2001 18th St. NW. 202-299-0334. imperialdc.com. Plates, $11 to $28.
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 South George Mason Dr., Falls Church. 703-347-9911. nazretexpresseatery.com. Entrees, $10 to $22.
The third time’s definitely the charm at this corner restaurant, previously the roost for The Bird and Frenchy’s Natural and now a farm-to-table statement from chef Colin McClimans and Danilo Simic, the general manager. Named for the owners’ young daughters, the two-story Nina May aspires to shop from a 150-mile radius and invites diners to leave decisions up to the chef. For $39 a person, “We send out food until you tell us not to,” says McClimans, who typically includes a whole chicken, sunny with lemon, in the parade of family-style dishes.
“We offer elevated versions of what the chef grew up on,” a server says, introducing the menu. The combination I’m most attached to marries littleneck clams, housemade chorizo and rings of squash, finished with crisp rye bread crumbs. Other comforts include a riff on pasta carbonara and fennel-massaged pork ringed in chermoula and served on uber-buttery whipped potatoes. For his part, Simic ensures drinks as compelling as the eats. “From Oaxaca With Love” is a spicy valentine stirred up with jalapeño-spiked mezcal, amaro and nutty orgeat.
New to the drill: weekend brunch and a self-service daytime cafe on the ground floor. Bring on the breakfast sandwiches!
1337 11th St. NW. 202-518-3609. ninamaydc.com. Chef’s choice, $39 per person. A la carte dishes, $10 to $32.
When you serve a single dish, it should be perfect. The likely line of soup lovers trailing from the service counter at this long-tenured Vietnamese storefront signals that the signature dish at Pho 75 is worth however long a diner has to wait for a table.
Not long, it turns out, even on busy weekends. Pho is fast food made with considerable care: long-simmered, consomme-clear, fragrant-with-star-anise beef noodle soup. Given that the bowl brims with a choice of meat — make mine shaved eye of round, springy meatballs and slippery tendon — and add-ins including fresh herbs and bean sprouts, the regular size pho is plenty for this fan.
Some tips for novices: Eat the soup with chopsticks in one hand, a spoon in the other. Be sure to taste the broth before adding any condiments. (I stick to a squeeze of lime and some torn Thai basil.) Slurping is expected, and when the noodles are gone, lift the bowl to your mouth and knock back the remaining broth: restoration for less than a Hamilton.
Arlington is home to the original no-frills vendor, which has grown over the years to include branches in Falls Church, Herndon, Rockville, Langley Park and even Philly. More pho for more people! Sounds. . . perfect.
1721 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-525-7355. pho75.restaurantwebexpert.com. Regular bowl $7.95, large bowl $8.95.
Washington’s lone Swiss restaurant is good for a lot of things, not the least of which is a backroom with a peaked ceiling that basically places diners in a rustic chalet. A nip in the air sends me to Stable for fondue, sales of which double in autumn and winter, says Silvan Kraemer, co-owner of the cozy roost with chef and fellow Swiss native David Fritsche.
There may be no finer melted cheese in the city than the bubbling pot of Vacherin and both young and aged Schlossberger, similar to Gruyere. Wine and garlic add tang and heft to the blend, which is served with house-baked white bread and the options of pickles, potatoes, apples and Brussels sprouts.
Kraemer advises dipping bread in a glass of kirschwasser before sticking the bite in the cheese. “It gives you that extra burst of flavor, and also helps with digestion.” Rather than mop the pot clean with bread, consider letting a crust form on the bottom. Known asla religieuse in French-speaking Switzerland, it’s considered a delicacy. Just lift out the crisp lace, break it apart and share the goodness, if you’re so inclined. Kraemer prefers cracking a few eggs in the pot, and scrambling them with the last bit of cheese.
I’m not stuck on just fondue, for which Stable goes through upward of 120 pounds of cheese per week. (An additional 45 pounds makes its way to the reservation-only raclette experience, for a minimum of four people.) Plenty else makes me glad to sit on a banquette cushioned with Swiss Army blankets and surrounded by details small and large that evoke a kinder, gentler place. (Reclaimed barn doors make for handsome restrooms.) I’m also a fool for the dense red landjager sausages; blushing venison shored up with red cabbage and squiggly dumplings; charming Swiss wines; and vodka-preserved summer cherries for dessert. Splashed with Grand Marnier and set aflame at the table, they end the night with a lovely light show.
1324 H St. NE. 202-733-4604. stabledc.com. Dinner entrees $20 to $35.