There are a lot of unusual aspects to a job that pays me to dine out and share my thoughts about restaurants. One of them is a refrigerator I keep Kondo-neat by eating away from home 10 meals or so a week — and that’s during what I refer to as my “slow” season, when I’m not booking double dinners, between spring and fall dining guides.
My star-rated critiques, unrated previews and occasional features looking at notable restaurants outside Washington document many of my moves. What my audience might not realize is that between all those deadlines, my fork, chopsticks and hands aren’t exactly idle. I’m also scouting places for possible future reviews; returning to established brands to see if they’re still holding up; and checking out tips from readers (bless you all).
Long story short: Plenty of things that pass my lips go unremarked on, at least formally. And even places I’ve recently praised deserve continued rounds of applause.
Beginning today, I’m pulling back the curtain to share this rolling tally of my up-to-the-minute favorites, the places I’m most excited about right now — along with a warning, from time to time, about something I think you should avoid. Think of it as a monthly palate cleanser — and don’t be shy about telling me about finds, deals or happy-making meals of your own.
The best food, after all, is shared food.
Simply walking into the new Chaia in Mount Vernon Triangle makes you feel virtuous. Sunlight streams through the big windows, and what’s not white (subway tile) or blond (wood) is good for the earth (the utensils and packaging are all compostable). Then there’s the plant-focused menu: $4 tacos, made before your eyes in a glass-fronted kitchen and filled with delicious vegetables, including roasted butternut squash and goat cheese dappled with chipotle yogurt and crisp-soft cabbage, striped with charred tomato salsa and finished with queso fresco. A spinoff of the original Chaia in Georgetown — and within strolling distance of the popular Taco Bamba — No. 2 has the advantage of more space and a bigger menu. If I’m being mindful, I’ll wash back my tacos with an elderberry kombucha or spiced apple shrub; if I’m not, bring on the sangria or margarita! (Coming soon.) You read that right. The food might be fast, but it’s also fresh — and worthy of a toast.
615 I St. NW, 202-290-1019, chaiatacos.com. Tacos, $4 each.
When he interviewed for his new post, Jonathan Till remembers the assurance he got from Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s founder, Michael Babin. “The world is pretty much my oyster,” says the chef. A native of Hawaii, Till, 35, previously served as corporate chef for Barteca Restaurant Group, which gave us Barcelona. “I slept in my own bed maybe twice.” His gig since October allows him to go home every night — after impressing diners with some creative American cooking, that is. Till’s debut winter menu features the kind of food I’d want to make at home if I weren’t restaurant-hopping every night. Set off with a fan of apple, the chopped cabbage salad finds pecans and blue cheese in its layers, everything tied together with a currant vinaigrette. Till’s zesty gumbo is nearly the equal of Ann Cashion’s at the esteemed Johnny’s Half Shell, but I love even more crisp, skin-on sea bass in a frame of tender clams, crisp broccolini and crumbled pork sausage the chef makes himself. You’ll want to hang in the dining room, dressed with cozy booths and Erector Set designs, for dessert. Make it a fusion of apple crisp and tres leches cake. What sounds like a head-scratcher makes sense in the mouth.
2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-549-5051, eveningstarcafe.net. Entrees, $14 to $27.
My mom is such a fan of Et Voila!, in the Palisades, that she requested the Belgian restaurant for her 90th birthday, where she would have ordered waffles (“the best!”) had only they been served at night. Me? I go for the superlative steamed mussels, presented in a double-decker pot, the top of which is used for empty shells. My current pick involves a base of creamy red curry, resonating with lemon grass and ginger. But the stars of the show are the plump Dutch-style mussels themselves, which chef-owner Claudio Pirollo buys from a Belgian family in Maine. Eaten in tandem with Et Voila!’s crisp golden fries, the best around, the mussels make a joyful meal for just under $25. No one-trick pony, the restaurant checks off a number of boxes. Its hamburger is a tower of juicy Oregon beef and glossy toasted bun; its desserts run to such lovelies as floating island; and if you’re looking for privacy, this charmer, renovated two years ago, offers spaces in three sizes, my favorite of which is the tall, 10-seat chef’s table in the rear.
5120 MacArthur Blvd., 202-237-2300, etvoiladc.com. Entrees, $18.95 to $33.95.
“During times of unrest — political, economic — food has a way of soothing us,” says chef-owner Michael Schlow. No dish on the menu of his neighborhood Italian dining room addresses the issue better than his first-rate chicken Parmesan. Forget the oversauced, heavily cheesy stereotype. Schlow’s version is built for 2019. The breading — panko ground together with bread crumbs, rosemary and thyme — is a mere veneer, while the sauce picks up its brightness from San Marzano tomatoes, garlic and basil. And the cheese (mostly Parmesan, a bit of mozzarella) comes across as a suggestion rather than a shout. Hearty? Yes. Heavy? The $22 entree is just right on a winter night, better in the company of a vegetable rather than the usual pasta. The night I dropped in, the chicken shared its plate with lightly crisp broccoli tarted up with garlic and lemon. Finer still: The goodness can also be enjoyed across town, at Schlow’s other Italian outpost, Casolare in Glover Park (2505 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-625-5400, casolaredc.com. Entrees, $16 to $41).
465 K St. NW, 202-629-4662, altastradarestaurant.com. Entrees, $17 to $27.
Cold weather begs for hot pots, which just happen to be the theme at Fuyu, the pop-up now playing inside the seafood-themed Whaley’s on the Anacostia River waterfront. Seemingly every table orders shabu-shabu, featuring a choice of broth (dashi or red miso) and a diner’s wish list of raw seafood, thinly sliced meat or vegetables. The meal is DIY, although your waiter will coach you on how long your selection of add-ins should cook in the roiling broth. (Shabu-shabu takes its name from the “swish-swish” movements of the chopsticks in the pot.) A trio of condiments — crisp pickles, fresh wasabi, a dipping sauce of ponzu — make good companions to the signature, which is followed by a bowl of hand-cut udon, which benefit from a dip in the steamy, concentrated broth. The equal to the shabu-shabu are chef Daniel Perron’s small plates, including a beautiful garland of bigeye tuna arranged with kumquat slices, thread-thin sea beans and fruity uzi olive oil. Fuyu dresses the part of a Japanese retreat, too: Strung from the ceiling are more than 100 paper lanterns. Through mid-March.
301 Water St. SE, 202-484-8800, whaleysdc.com. Shabu-shabu, $29 to $34 (for two to share).
Ask for the Maharajah thali, and what you get is basically an Indian tasting menu on a single silver tray: 10 dishes arranged around a mound of fragrant rice. Here we find tender cubes of chicken in a tomato-onion gravy, there we see soft bites of lamb and caramelized onion in a curry the shade of root beer. Yellow lentils fairly pulse with red chiles, and the $17 platter manages to fit in warm-from-the-oven naan, enticing condiments and even dessert, maybe saffron rice pudding. Elsewhere on the menu are crab cakes sparked with green chiles, chicken tikka ignited with Thai peppers and a smoky mash of grilled eggplant, tomatoes and garlic. Hot heads are in luck at Pappe, but they’re not the sole audience, evinced by such draws as uttapam (savory rice-based pancakes) topped with a lattice of chopped scallions and herbs. Everyone can appreciate the witty interior, decorated with swags of fabric in colors that suggest an Indian bazaar and a drawing that puts a couple maharajahs on motor bikes.
1317 14th St. NW, 202-888-8220, pappedc.com. Entrees, $11 to $32.
The dream team behind one of Washington’s hottest restaurants stars Marjorie Meek-Bradley, whose local career embraces Ripple (may it RIP) and Zaytinya. Her new gig finds her in an exhibition kitchen in a lively Stephen Starr-Joe Carroll production, cooking food she says she likes to eat. Suffice it to say, I’ll have what she’s having: oysters sauced with smoked herb butter, a truly “monster” prawn with garlic butter, and salads that speak to the season. For a place that insists it isn’t a steakhouse, St. Anselm does a poor job of convincing us. The menu’s “bigs from the grill” are a meat eater’s fantasy; go for the juicy New York strip steak, best enjoyed in the company of garlicky creamed spinach and crisp, finger-long fries. Just be sure to bookend the meal with buttermilk biscuits and mint ice cream with shards of chocolate. The decor is quirky and fun. Near the busy bar hang portraits of past presidents deemed disasters, each face obscured by a lightbulb poking through the picture.
1250 Fifth St. NE, 202-864-2199, stanselmdc.com. Entrees, $23 to $90 (for rack of lamb).
It pays to eat early here; diners who order by 7 p.m. can take advantage not just of happy-hour prices, but also of the restaurant’s three-course, $35 “early supper” menu . Given the meaty theme, you’ll want to start with charcuterie, a board of which displays slices of greatness produced in-house, all tagged on a paper under-liner and served with a cushion of grilled bread. Roseate lamb bacon and loukaniko (pleasantly funky lamb sausage, seasoned with orange peel and fennel) are among the standouts. From there, you’ll want to get the steak: slices of blushing, crisp-edged hanger steak nuzzling a heap of golden french fries in a cast-iron skillet. Doughnuts for dessert? With Nutella whipped cream? Yes, please. Chef-owner Raynold Mendizábal, a multitasker whose hits extend to the pulsing El Sapo Cuban Social Club nearby, plans to retool Urban Butcher, which sports its own meat locker, this season. Look for some design surprises and more seafood.
8226 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-585-5800, urbanbutcher.com. Entrees, $16 to $95 (mixed grill for two).
Got a dining need? Chef Jeff Buben’s place can probably help you out. It’s a block from the White House, so perfect for tourists. It sports a 38-foot bar, the ideal spot for the solo customer or after-work drinks. Then there’s the something-for-everyone menu, laced with Southern accents. No problem if you’ve got a vegetarian, a carnivore and a thrill seeker in tow. The kitchen can oblige them, respectively, with a cauliflower “steak,” a strapping fried chicken dinner and a lamb shank with blistered grapes and almond-apricot gremolata. My inclination at lunch, where I could be tempted to be a regular, is a salad. Grains & Greens ($12.75) sounds mindful and tastes wonderful. The dish is composed of farro, quinoa, wild rice, creamy avocado, edamame, broccolini — so healthy! — and bound with a white balsamic vinaigrette for some sass. “I usually eat it with a side of salmon,” says my buff bartender. Onto my plate goes some fish, and into my head goes the thought that I’m doing my body some good. Also: John Kerschensteiner makes a consistent and first-rate chef de cuisine.
1426 H St. NW, 202-347-5353, woodwardtable.com. Entrees, $15.50 to $29.50.