For many of us, the looming holidays mean house guests: visitors hungry for ideas about where to go and what to see while they’re in Washington. While I can’t score you passes to, say, Christmas services at National Cathedral, I’m happy to help out with some of the meal planning. Herewith, suggestions for restaurants that might feed the needs of any temporary residents under your roof:
The flavor of the moment is smoke, and no chef has more fun with fumes than Victor Albisu at Del Campo (777 I St. NW; 202-289-7377; delcampodc.com) , evocative of the barbecues of South America and laced with Chilean and Peruvian customs. My go-to dishes include flaky braided empanadas, herby beef short ribs, garlicky roast chicken and a knock-out seafood stew. Carved wooden shutters, antique mirrors and whitewashed floors let diners fantasize they’re in an estancia, or country home, for however long it takes them to finish their feasts.
Frank Ruta cooked at the White House before he opened Palena (3529 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-537-9250; palenarestaurant.com) in Cleveland Park, a fact you can throw out to impress your out-of-town dining companions. But really, the food — think California by way of France and Italy — in the casual cafe speaks for itself. The salads and pastas rank among the best in the city; bread costs extra, but it’s a model basket.
HOLD THE MEAT
“The two best Indian restaurants in the city are Rasika and Rasika West End,” I overhear a man at the table next to me tell his companions at Bombay Club (815 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-659-3727; bombayclubdc.com) . “But this place is easier to get in. Besides, I love this restaurant.” That makes two of us. I appreciate Bombay Club’s plush decor, its courtly service, the space between tables and a menu that makes vegetables taste as special as meat. New to the lineup: khumbi paneer and lauki mussallam. The former is a savory napoleon of sliced, pan-seared cheese layered with shiitake mushrooms, chilies and black cumin, and is served with a sauce of yogurt, onion and cashews. The latter is a ring of braised squash surrounding a fluffy patty of cottage cheese, prunes, apricots and ginger, everything draped with a rich tomato cream. Only the dishwasher can get the plates cleaner than this diner.
Named for a line in a slasher movie, 2 Birds 1 Stone (1800 14th St. NW; 2birds1stonedc.com) toasts classic cocktails in a subterranean lounge below the popular Doi Moi restaurant. The bar’s six or so headliners reflect what the staff, headed by Adam Bernbach, enjoy drinking; recent libations have included the gin-driven Pegu Club and the tequila-based Paloma, plus a punch du jour (maybe spiced rum stirred up with black tea and mango syrup). The hand-illustrated menu, which changes weekly, reflects another of Bernbach’s interests. Turns out the guy can draw as well as he pours.
GOOD FOR GROUPS
Urbana (2121 P St. NW; 202-956-6650; urbanadc.com) gives us lots of reasons to like it. At happy hour, you can catch a $7 Manhattan, and it’s an ace drink. While the dining room in the Hotel Palomar unfolds underground, your focus is going to be on the smiling service and chef Ethan McKee’s thoughtful American cooking. Seafood fans have a bright, light, yet substantial salad of shrimp, calamari and shaved fennel to look forward to, while carnivores should thrill to two nice lamb chops set off with cool cucumber salad and cumin yogurt. And vegetarians may find themselves fending off rivals for a surprisingly light and colorful “cassoulet” made colorful with corn, carrots, parsley, green beans and more.
There’s a pattern to everything Tom Power opens. The chef-owner behind the upscale Corduroy recently rolled out Baby Wale (1124 Ninth St. NW; 202-450-3311; babywaledc.com), a cavernous and casual watering hole across from the convention center with an epic serpentine bar and an enormous light fixture that originated as a live tree. The newcomer’s menu celebrates the graze craze; think Filipino spring rolls, charred tomato soup, hot dogs and a roast chicken that’s worth its 45-minute wait. Love the go-go music.
Squash blossoms with a molten core of feta cheese. Phyllo hiding shredded lamb. Fritters gussied up with snails. It’s impossible to get bored by the menu at Zaytinya (701 Ninth St. NW; 202-638-0800; zaytinya.com) , where the menu of dozens of small plates pay homage to Greece, Lebanon and Turkey. Fueling the party: an airy, multilevel, blue-and-white dining room and servers who seem to be having as much fun as you are.
BRUNCH WITH TWISTS
Two of the best reasons to rise and shine on the weekend can be found on the brunch menu at Ardeo + Bardeo (3311 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-244-6750; ardeobardeo.com) in Cleveland Park. One lure finds poached eggs on a fiery hash of chorizo and potatoes: huevos rancheros with an attitude, and balanced with cool avocado mousse on the side. A second attraction is a hedge of farro, black-eyed peas and smoked feta trimmed with shaved country ham. Both entrees are the handiwork of new chef Matt Kuhn and can be savored as late as 3 p.m. For $27, customers get two courses and champagne that flows until you say stop.
HIT THE ROAD
The abundant charms of Annapolis do not extend to many drive-worthy restaurants. Vin 909 Winecafe (909 Bay Ridge Ave., Annapolis; 410-990-1846; vin909.com) proves an exception. Set in a pre-1920 Sears, Roebuck & Co. house, the grape-nutty operation is tended to by two young men who previously worked together at the jazzy Bix in San Francisco. While there’s not much on the menu you haven’t seen before, much of the food makes you happy to find yourself here. Count among the pleasures lobster bisque shot through with cayenne and serrano, cassoulet rethought with tender shrimp and slices of country ham mixed in with the white beans, and pizzas baked in a gas-fired brick oven. Go for the spinach-strewn “Popeye” brightened with streaks of orange oil.
My favorite place to refuel in Virginia’s capital, Dutch & Company (400 N. 27th St., Richmond; 804-643-8824; dutchandcompany.com ), would look right at home in Amsterdam. The walls display charming sketches of villages and boats. An old church pew is cushioned with orange bolsters, and pots of herbs dress the front window sill. Like good chefs everywhere, Caleb Shriver and Phillip Perrow change their menu frequently. Diners should anticipate delicious little surprises in even basic-sounding dishes. Translation: Rockfish brandade fritters are black with squid ink, steak might be centered on creamy peanut puree, and vanilla-honey pudding arrives with lacy brittle and edible flowers in a ceramic “hive.”
Next week: Shoo-Fly Diner
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