No Rasika, the contemporary Indian restaurant that I consider to be the best in the country?
And where’s the love for Johnny Monis, the chef whose modern Greek and Thai-flavored restaurants — Komi and Little Serow, respectively — serve as standard-bearers for those cuisines?
The Michelin Guide’s shutout of three of Washington’s most esteemed dining destinations, all of them among my Top 10 favorites in the Fall Dining Guide, is as much a surprise as the French tastemaker’s decision not to bestow its highest award.
Shockingly, no local restaurant received three stars, which the guide defines as “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” For the sake of comparison, neither description fits the underwhelming meals I’ve left at Alinea in Chicago or Masa in New York, both rated three-star by Michelin. More on them later.
Only three D.C. establishments got two stars, described as “excellent cuisine, worth a detour.” They are Minibar by José Andrés, Pineapple and Pearls and the Inn at Little Washington. The selection of the Inn — the romantic, over-the-top creation of chef Patrick O’Connell set in bucolic Washington, Va. — was a surprise bonbon. When Michelin announced plans to survey Washington earlier this year, the publisher said inspectors wouldn’t critique outside the District.
Minibar was a natural for the honor — but it deserves even more. The avant-garde restaurant, basically a 30-course magic show, is very much in the vein of Arzak, a Michelin three-star in San Sebastian, Spain, where I had the great good fortune to eat two years ago and where one of multiple astonishments was an ocean-fresh lobster displayed on a tablet computer, its screen animated with blue waves. Was it “worth a special journey?” Absolutely. But I feel the same way about Minibar, an evening-long spectacle that includes luscious sight gags and moves guests from salon to dining room to bar for a truly transporting feast.
Minibar is also a vastly superior experience to its closest competitor in this country, the aforementioned Alinea. Having eaten there this summer, I can vouch that watching servers remove ceiling tiles for the dessert course is more awkward than astonishing.
Clearly Michelin saw what I did in Pineapple and Pearls, the Capitol Hill restaurant helmed by Aaron Silverman that’s changing the fine-dining format. With obsessive devotion to detail and yet zero pretension, the restaurant guides diners through a dinner punctuated with marvels (roasted potato ice cream with caviar is a match made in heaven) and narrated in parts by the chefs themselves.
Judges seemed partial to Italian and modern American experiences in awarding single stars to Fiola and Masseria, along with Blue Duck Tavern, the Dabney, Kinship, Plume, Rose’s Luxury and Tail Up Goat.
Michelin tapped into one of the city’s much-discussed dining trends by including Rose’s Luxury, another Silverman success story on the Hill. The whimsical venue is known for its signature dish of ground pork, sweet litchis and habaneros, but perhaps is most famous for a no-reservations policy that typically finds long lines out front, meaning everybody but the first family waits.
Michelin inspectors: (Sometimes) they’re just like us!
The sole Asian representative on the one-star list, Sushi Taro, deserved that recognition, foremost for the omakase (“chef’s choice”) staged by Nobu Yamazaki at a six-seat counter in the back of the Japanese restaurant — far more enchanting than the chilly, overpriced Masa I endured in New York last year. Aside from Sushi Taro, with its sea urchin and shrimp served in an abalone shell with fish jelly, the list of one stars doesn’t reflect the reality that Washington is a world capital, with abundant foreign cuisines feeding it.
The omission of Rasika is especially lamentable. “Many would consider it one of the best Indian restaurants in the country,” Michael Ellis, international director for the Michelin Guides, told The Washington Post. Yet, he added, “We found that we couldn’t confirm the star this year.”
Why not? The Indian model, helmed by James Beard award-winning chef Vikram Sunderam, is one of only six restaurants I currently call “superlative” (with four stars, my highest rating). Rasika delivers delicious drama: Lamb shank rising from a fragrant red moat of saffron and rose petals projects a bone, wrapped in spiced lamb, that glints with gold leaf. Open for both lunch and dinner, the gem-colored dining room is also approachable. Indeed, one of the most popular dishes in town is Rasika’s palak chaat, baby spinach fried in spiced chickpea batter and tossed with sweet yogurt and date chutney.
Michelin has been criticized for overlooking “ethnic” cooking in the past. Only in 2001, for instance, did the guide deem Indian restaurants worthy of star recognition. That year, the accolade went to Tamarind and Zaika in London. Carved from a former bank near Kensington Palace, the latter restaurant won me over with its minty, tandoor-cooked duck rolls and lamb biryani sheathed in fine pastry. Better than Rasika? I’d say they were at least equals.
Unlike in the other U.S. cities where Michelin also rates restaurants, including San Francisco, no solidly French restaurant in Washington made the French guide’s cut; had the inspectors dined there last year, Marcel’s might have been a contender, but the cooking I encountered there this fall had slipped.
The inspectors gave Komi a particularly harsh assessment. “We found that there was not a lot of harmony between the different courses,” Ellis said. “We did not find the level of consistency throughout the menu.” Ah, but one of the reasons I flagged the restaurant in my Top 10, and gave it four stars, was Komi’s sublime steadiness over the years. The seaweed brioche capped with shimmering trout roe caviar always makes my heart skip a beat, and the crispy goat with escorts of tangy yogurt, pickled peppers and puffy pita never fails to make me swoon. I figured the restaurant’s understated dining room held it back from the inspectors’ love; Michelin’s one-star selections in Washington are all lookers, varying from attractive (the airy Blue Duck Tavern) to alluring (Fiola, as chic as Milan).
The one restaurant on the list guaranteed to raise food lovers’ eyebrows: Plume in the Jefferson Hotel. While the dining room, attired in silk wallpaper and crystal chandeliers, is one of the most opulent around, and wine director Jenn Knowles ensures fine drinking, the setting has always struck me as more memorable than anything coming from the kitchen.
The star awarded to the hotel restaurant would have been better attached to a number of other places. Convivial, for instance, where Cedric Maupillier reminds us that he was mentored by the legendary, much-missed Michel Richard, a fellow Frenchman with the eye of an artist.
Another wonder among the one-star selections is the relatively new Tail Up Goat in Adams Morgan. That’s not a knock on the winsome neighborhood eatery, where bread gets its own course and lamb ribs are eaten with one’s hands. I’ve had terrific meals there. It’s just that hip is not a flavor I thought the Michelin tasters could pick out.