New or improved restaurants dominate my list of choice places to eat this month. Fans of the late Palena will cheer the return of Frank Ruta at the lovely Annabelle in Washington. The family behind the area’s best Afghan brand has planted a stake in McLean with Aracosia. And if you’ve never been to Hyattsville for a beer, burger or board game at the seasoned Franklins, let me show you what you’re missing (a lot).


The owner says some people actually smile when they’re informed there might be a wait for a table on a busy night at his all-American brewpub. “Good,” Mike Franklin says customers tell him. “Now I can go to the general store,” his old-timey shop adjoining the two-story restaurant that plays up Franklin’s former life as a toy salesman. Need a scrabble set? Some bulk candy? A stuffed monkey? An apple corer? You’ll find them — and tons more — on the shelves and in the bins of what might be the best babysitter in Prince George’s County.

“One of the reasons we’re doing well — we keep up with the times,” Franklin says. He’s got that right. The public thirst for craft beers results in 17 housemade brews at any one time; in December, a new chef, Kevin Coleman, came aboard to upgrade the menu. His crowd-pleasers encompass crab fritters that are crisp and fluffy where they should be, a finger-lickin’-good fried chicken sandwich, and crusty meatloaf shored up with mashed potatoes, broccoli rabe and (how’s this for self-promotion?) gravy flavored with stout.

“How’s the catfish treating you?” a server asks me as she breezes by with an armload of food for another table. I can only nod, since my mouth is busy enjoying the chef’s lightly blackened catfish on steamed rice, shredded greens and black-eyed peas: pure Southern comfort. Not every dish sings. I’d like the long-running vegetarian chili if it had more oomph and was hotter to the touch. But Franklins, awash in cheery colors, always feels like someplace special. Every six to eight weeks, the menu changes a bit, as does the local art, displayed for sale by the Hyattsville Community Arts Alliance. Outside hangs a neon sign and a directive: “Shop/Eat/Enjoy.” Franklins makes all three easy.

5123 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville. 301-927-2740. Entrees, $15 to $29.


Take one of the city’s most admired chefs and an iconic Dupont Circle location, and you arrive at Annabelle, the alluring new restaurant starring former White House chef Frank Ruta in a kitchen previously known for its organic fare (the late Restaurant Nora). Owner Ashok Bajaj spent millions renovating the space, now featuring a retro bar and several dining rooms, alive with color. Fans of the late Palena, Ruta’s much-missed retreat in Cleveland Park, want to know: did the chef bring back his famous roast chicken? He has, but (hallelujah!) it no longer takes 35 minutes to wait for the pleasure, which is succulent from time spent with celery, citrus peel and warm spices and served with wilted spinach and onion-laced potatoes.

Ruta’s beet salad is an edible landscape, and his gnocchi, sharpened with blue cheese and crisp with pear and toasted hazelnuts, is best of show in Washington. Pastry chef Aja Cage makes sure the last course is as memorable as the first. Her desserts include such dreams as a goat cheese cheesecake on a pool of spiced honey and a Pavlova made refreshing with roasted pineapple and passion fruit sorbet. Throw in a VIP or three (John Bolton, Maureen Dowd and U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner have all been in), and you have another Washington hotspot.

2132 Florida Ave. NW. 202-916-5675. Entrees, $26 to $36.


When McLean asks, Omar Masroor listens. After Virginia fans of his popular Bistro Aracosia in Washington implored him to do something similar across the Potomac, the Kabul native responded with a dining room set off with dramatic renderings of Afghan horsemen and royalty and sound absorbers in the form of thick drapes and faux leather table covers. His is a family affair, where a cousin entertains with a sitar on weekends and his wife serves the kind of food she makes for her own kin.

Sofia Masroor’s long menu will be familiar to patrons of Bistro Aracosia and Afghan Bistro in Springfield, which her husband also owns. Housemade, beef-filled dumplings come striped with yogurt and freckled with dried mint: mantu for the memory books. A diner can practically point anywhere on the menu and ID a winner, although chicken cooked with kale, collard and spinach and veal in a stew of tomatoes, eggplant and velvety peppers are my current fascinations. Generously apportioned meals are best ended with firni, a light custard finished with crushed pistachios and cardamom. The food here is filling. So is the hospitality.

1381 Beverly Rd., McLean. 703-269-3820. Entrees, $14.50 to $42 (for lamb platter).


Name a restaurant box, and it seems to get checked at the Capitol Hill dining destination that chef Kevin Tien calls his “forever ago” daydream turned bricks-and-mortar reality.

Navigating the dining room are carts arranged with feasts that are hard to say no to — craggy fried chicken served with Texas toast, grilled pork steak marinated in lemongrass, ginger and brown sugar — and a host of dishes that get their kicks from fermentation. Sour marinated eggplant ribbons, and mackerel tossed with creamy gigantic beans definitely deserve space on the table. So do the house-baked focaccia and crudo, possibly raw kampachi accessorized with feathery tangerine lace on a sauce the color of a sunset and pulsing with chile heat. Indeed, Tien’s food is without borders. Champon noodles slicked with miso butter, dressed with slivered celery and excited with cracked black pepper is a pasta you’ll find yourself thinking about long after you slurped the last strand.

Assets extend to drinks that are as considered as the food and counter seating that lets you watch the cooks at play from mere feet away. The chef says he aspired to create a restaurant that felt like a fun dinner party. Mission accomplished, I say.

1101 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-544-4368. Shareable entrees, $27 to $45.


Attention, fine diners: Fabio Trabocchi is closing his flagship Italian restaurant in July so he can give it a facelift. That gives you four months to enjoy one of the richest dinners around, either in the small Ezio Room off the bar, where the list is a la carte, or in the main dining room, where you choose from four- to seven-course tasting menus. Less is more, as far as I’m concerned; Trabocchi is such a generous chef, even if you’ve ordered a couple dishes, you can expect a bevy of extras to find their way to your table, starting with three irresistible house-baked breads and concluding with enough sweet somethings to stock the window of a gourmet candy shop.

Some of you might wish to throw caution to wind and boy, have I got a game plan for you! It’s the Grand Tasting Menu, and it embraces some of the most decadent dishes in town. Strap on the (silk) feed bag for thin-sliced foie gras staged with poached, pickled or caramelized apples and a pinwheel of fried bread; branzino on buttery shredded leeks, to which a server adds oysters in a froth of zabaglione and prosecco; veal Rossini, aflutter with black truffles and . . . by now you get the point: Decadence is part of the chef’s DNA.

601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-525-1402. Main dining room tasting menus, $135 (four courses) to $220 (seven courses).


There are few drawbacks to being paid to eat in a city as delicious as Washington. One of them (and poor me) is not getting to be a regular anywhere — not when hundreds of restaurants are demanding my attention, anyway. The regret comes to mind every time I eat at Hanumanh, the delightful Laotian watering hole created by Seng Luangrath and Boby Pradachith, whose good works around the area include the popular Thip Khao. At their latest attraction, the mother-son team have created a dynamite little menu that stars steamed Cornish hen lapped with a dark red sauce, abuzz with prickly ash and ablaze with fried chiles, and a red curry distinguished from the pack with pickled lime and a crown of fried banana blossoms.

Come to think of it, just about every dish demands a return engagement. I’m as jazzed to see the charcoal-grilled beef tongue land in front of me as the fruit salad, pulsing with lime and tamarind (and refreshing punctuation to the funk and fire of so much of the chefs’ cooking). From the bar flow terrific drinks that evoke the flavors of Laos (thank you, Al Thompson), and from the walls stare playful monkey gods. Hanumanh is the whole package.

1604 Seventh St. NW. No phone. Small plates, $12 to $22

Kuya Ja's Lechon Belly

Two words compel me to order a dish these days. If I see “crab butter,” I jump on whatever it enriches. Consider the fried rice at one of my favorite Philippine destinations. Whipped up using the obvious grains, loads of garlic, coins of pink chorizo and crab fat combined with cumin, my new favorite dish at Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly is an elaborate riff on the chorizo fried rice the owner’s father made for him as a kid, says Javier Fernandez. “He was a big influence.”

So was the young chef’s mom, whose recipe for fresh lumpia Fernandez features on weekends in his small storefront in Rockville. By “fresh,” I mean it’s not fried, per usual. Instead, the filling (ground shrimp, chicken, jicama, carrots and more) is served in a soft white crepe made tender with cake flour. The headliner, roast pork, remains every bit as garlicky and noisy as I remember it — you can hear the mahogany skin crackle — and the pastry case has been expanded to include a super-moist cake tinted pale green with pandan, a tropical plant with a flavor similar to vanilla. Looking ahead, Fernandez says he’s scouting locations in Montgomery County for his next project: a source for rotisserie chicken. Given the chef’s track record, all I can say is, “Hurry, Javier, hurry!”

5268-H Nicholson Lane, Rockville. 240-669-4383. Sandwiches, bowls and combination meals, $6.99 to $12.59.


Should you require an introduction to the cooking of Yemen, a fine place to start is this ambitious restaurant in Northern Virginia, brought to life five years ago because owner Ahmed Alsheikh says he missed the food of his homeland.

Lucky us. Haneeth — halal lamb spiced with cumin and cardamom and cooked low and slow in a clay oven — is a singular sensation, splayed on fragrant basmati rice and garnished with caramelized onions. Too rich? One of the best soups around is a dusky bowl of lamb broth, fortified with everything that makes the haneeth such a draw — cinnamon, turmeric and cilantro included.

The best time to visit is Friday lunch, from 1 to 5 p.m. That’s when Alsheikh and company serve a buffet of a dozen or so dishes, beautifully presented as if for company. The dishes and prices change, depending on what meats are featured; a recent visit found me returning for seconds of melting, tomato-sauced eggplant; succulent chicken stained gold with turmeric; a tangy, mint-green buttermilk soup served with thin pancakes reminiscent of injera; and lovely little pastries that had me rethinking my allegiance to Middle Eastern bakeries.

On the walls: decorative daggers and paintings from an artist in Dubai. At the tables: diners speaking multiple languages. On my calendar: more dates with this fabulous food.

6981 Hechinger Dr., Springfield. 703-376-3388. Friday lunch buffet $16 to $20 per person.