In January, I introduced you to nine restaurants that excited me most at the moment, a tally I plan to update every month while keeping a few favorites around. Think of the ever-evolving list as an answer to “What’s good these days?” with the occasional rant thrown in. Knowing where not to go, after all, helps save a diner time, money, sometimes heartache.
Clearly, this month’s weather has affected my appetite. Of late, I’ve been drawn to haunches of meat, steamy soups, platters of roast chicken and restaurants whose warm embrace is followed up by food that slaps a smile on my face as it sticks to my ribs. Deals have been on my mind, too, as the reality of smaller tax refunds sinks in for many of us.
There’s no single secret to a business lasting 30 years. But Christianne Ricchi, the executive chef and owner of I Ricchi downtown, credits her Tuscan restaurant’s milestone to the simple reality that “We pay attention.” While the restaurant has grown to include more space for private dining, including a wine room accessed via the kitchen, I Ricchi looks pretty much the way it did when it opened. Vines crawl around the butter-colored walls, and the oven, imported from Italy, remains a focal point. More important, the food still tastes delicious.
Plenty of places serve fried calamari, but few make such an impression with so few ingredients. The appetizer here relies on fresh seafood dredged in flour, crisped in clean oil and seasoned with nothing more than salt (although the tangy tomato sauce alongside makes a great dip). Come to think of it, a lot of dishes serve as role models: robust minestrone, soup enough for two; tagliarini adorned with a garden of vegetables and sweet little clams; veal chop pounded to plate-size, breaded and fried; and the divine, not-too-sweet tiramisu.
The food tastes personal because it is; “from bread to gelato,” almost everything is made from scratch, says Ricchi, a daily presence. Meanwhile, her loyal staff feel free to be themselves. “Beep! Beep!” one says, signaling the arrival of an entree. The only question I have after eating here recently is: Why did I wait so long to revisit Tuscany?
1220 19th St. NW, 202-835-0459, iricchidc.com. Dinner pastas and entrees, $18 to $40.
Fabio Trabocchi’s waterfront restaurant in Georgetown is best known for sumptuous Italian seafood. But he and executive chef Anton Bolling figured they would add “a little spark to brunch” with a Sunday roast a while back, says Bolling. Served beginning at 1 p.m. on Sunday and holidays, the $65 platter stars 14 to 16 ounces of prime rib that’s been marinated in Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and herbs and sports a double crust of Dijon mustard — and, this being an Italian joint, Calabrian chiles, dried oregano and fennel. The thick, roseate beef is brought to the table in a big pan, where, if you want, the slab acquires a drizzle of rosemary jus and fresh horseradish, grated by a server wearing a white glove, as if the root were a prized truffle. There’s more to the story: a warm-from-the-oven popover, roasted baby potatoes and a barely dressed salad to punctuate the richness (go, arugula!). The only other thing the splurge, which is plenty for two, needs is a proper wine pairing and, honestly, time for a nap afterward. A bottle of Archery pinot noir and 60 minutes on the couch back home do the trick.
3050 K St. NW, 202-525-1402, fiolamaredc.com. Brunch entrees, $16 to $95 (for whole fish).
One of the things customers say they like about Jon Krinn’s Vienna dining destination: “It’s a D.C. restaurant that’s not in D.C.,” says the chef-owner. He’s a people-pleaser if nothing else. Listening to his guests has netted them cooking classes, tasting menus, extra space for private dining, even a bourbon program. Recent dinners have produced some fond memories. Feathery chestnut linguine, skirt steak fanned over velvety red peppers, and steamed mussels and chorizo in a froth of coconut milk and red curry attest to a talented chef. And isn’t it nice that his father bakes all the bread for the place, just like when the son headlined the kitchen at 2941 restaurant?
The caveat: Clarity’s menu changes, every single day. So don’t expect to see a favorite dish on your next visit. If some compositions taste as if they could use more time to rehearse, most compel you to clean your plate. Desserts by Liese Armstrong enjoy mass appeal. I’d recommend her beautiful baked apple, basically a tart Tatin sans crust, except it will have been replaced by the time you read this. Did I mention Clarity is also a tease?
442 Maple Ave. East, Vienna, 703-539-8400, clarityvienna.com. Dinner entrees, $24 to $34.
Read the full Clarity review here.
Times are tough. Competition is fierce. Diners want ever more from their restaurants, and Convivial has responded by introducing weekday lunch hours. They’re considerate ones to boot: 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Dropping in on a recent weekday, I’m pleasantly surprised to see chef-owner Cedric Maupillier at the door, wearing the checked shirt of a server rather than a white chef’s jacket and handling phone calls and seating guests. “I only have one manager,” he says.
He leads me to a window table in the light-filled dining room, where my eyes are drawn to some of his fresh creations. One is a baguette spread with Plugra butter and split cornichons, followed by a generous application of pale pink, delicately sweet Madrange ham from France. Sharing the plate is a pile of sensational housemade potato chips whose seductive tang and earthiness come by way of vinegar mixed with dried powdered mushrooms. Maupillier sweats the small stuff. Consider his consommé, which he insists on making himself, using oxtails, cabbage, cloves and veal feet, everything simmered together and eventually poured over a bowl chockablock with morsels of beef, triangles of carrot and celery root and a stripe of minced cornichons. Happy spooning.
801 O St. NW, 202-525-2870, convivialdc.com. Lunch sandwiches and entrees, $14 to $21.
Was it obvious that a bunch of food critics from all over the country were eating at the same table last month? I hope we didn’t give ourselves away, what with all the plate swapping and picture taking. Then again, plenty of other customers were doing the same thing at the bustling Elle, where executive chef Brad Deboy continues to make some of the most delicious food in town. Warm biscuits served with house-smoked lamb bacon and pimento cheese? Be still our hearts. Scallops enhanced with fried black wild rice and an XO sauce coaxed from scallops, garlic and more? Let’s order another round. When the byline from Boston tipped a bowl of porky pozole verde into her mouth and caught her comrades laughing, she interrupted her slurping only to say, “I’m not apologizing.” My only regret was that it wasn’t me finishing the last of the broth, electric with lime, jalapeño and cilantro.
Deboy is fascinated by fermentation, most obviously in the kimchi toast that unites his passion with Elle’s distinguished breads. One bite of the chile-stoked, grill-charred, lemon-zested cabbage piled atop a thick slice of rye bread slathered with labneh and you can’t help but think of avocado toast as distant competition. Coming up next, says Deboy: vegetable charcuterie. Hurry, chef, hurry!
3221 Mount Pleasant St. NW, 202-652-0040, eatatelle.com. Dinner plates, $12 to $32.
Read the full Elle review here.
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.
Two of the principals — husband and wife Sebastian Zutant and Lauren Winter — went to Paris to look for ideas and wound up bringing an alluring sense of the French capital back to Brookland. Check out the intimate bar with its zinc counter, inspired by Parisian shop fronts. Gaze upon the chandeliers, pink with ostrich feathers. Better yet, book a table and hew to Gallic tradition on chef Jonathan De Paz’s concise script. French onion soup is a crowd-pleaser with a twist: Beneath its cheesy seal is a robust broth even vegetarians can get around. The steak frites are very good, but a lot of places do the dish justice. The single best entree, roast chicken, is built for sharing. Flavorful from a sweet-fiery brine and a basting with date juice, the carved beauty is delivered with peerless french fries and a salad to balance the splurge. Take advantage of Zutant’s wine expertise, close dinner with chocolate pot de crème, and you, too, might become a fan.
3000 12th St. NE, 202-248-4558, primrosedc.com. Entrees, $19 to $26.
Read the full Primrose review here.
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).
The most controversial sushi counter in Washington is also one of its most fascinating. An import from New York, where a chef from the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” holds court, the spinoff is in the superb hands of head chef Masaaki Uchino. There are tables in the ordinary dining room, but the best place to catch his show is at one of the 10 stools facing the chef and his workspace.
Guests are not offered a menu, just hot towels and drinks. Every course is thus a surprise. Some nights might launch with three bites of nigiri that show off salmon — sockeye whispering of smoke is a favorite — followed by aged scallop sushi that hides some fire in its seasoning: yuzu pepper! Cured pickled gizzard shad, we learn, is among the most ancient sushi preparations, dating to the 18th century; tiger prawns are teased out of their red shells to reveal gently warm, sweet and succulent flesh. While one dish is being consumed, another is getting ready for your consideration, a visual patrons in the dining room are denied. Watching the cooks set up a flight of lean-to-fatty tuna, then marveling at their range of flavors, is akin to attending a master class at sea.
Two hours, the time it takes to eat 20 or so courses, goes by quickly — as can your money if you like to drink or add an a-la-carte dish to your meal. The restaurant’s connection to POTUS keeps some sushi mavens away: Sushi Nakazawa sits on the back side of the Trump International Hotel.
1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-289-3515. sushinakazawadc.com. Chef’s choice starts at $120 at the table, $150 at the counter.
Read the full Sushi Nakazawa review here.