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2021 Spring Dining Guide
Tom Sietsema shines a light on 22 restaurants that opened despite the pandemic
Profits? They’re such a pre-pandemic topic of conversation among restaurants.
Press? Publicity remains welcome, but the No. 1 response I get when I talk to the chefs and owners of restaurants that opened in the past year or so concerns people: diners who sustained the industry by ordering takeout, buying gift cards and tipping generously, but also workers who helped keep the lights on.
“People are why we do this,” says Tony Foreman, the veteran Baltimore restaurateur. “This time has hyper-focused it for me. We teach and lead people, cook for people, clean up for people.” The co-owner of the grand Charleston and the new Cindy Lou’s Fish House says he does not intend to get to the other side of the pandemic as the same person. “I want to be sure we prioritize people, the public health, human voices.”
Tim Ma, co-owner of the youthful Lucky Danger, says, “Covid made us all slow down and look at life.” Was the restaurant rat race worth it? His latest restaurant, one of 22 featured in my spring dining guide, is also his most personal, an homage to the long-ago Chinese takeout opened by his uncle in New York. “I’ve come full circle,” says the chef. “There’s legacy to be left there.”
[These Six Pandemic Pivots Should Become Permanent]
When I penned a love letter to the trade last spring, forecasts were grim and no one was certain what recovery might look like. Through resilience and creativity — tools that chefs relied on as never before — the men and women who feed and serve us rose to the industry’s greatest challenge in such a remarkable way, I felt compelled to share their successes in a fall dining guide.
LEFT: The Tripleta sandwich at La Famosa restaurant. RIGHT: The bento box meal at Cranes. (Photos by Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)
Hurdles remain, including the ongoing problems of food supply chains. And then there’s lack of staff. Every restaurateur I’ve pulse-checked recently bemoans the shortage of the many hosts, cooks, servers, sommeliers, managers and dishwashers who left the field when they lost their jobs and haven’t returned.
Glass half-full: A lot of businesses made it through the dark of winter. As is their inclination, hospitality types comforted diners with welcome distractions. Here’s hoping heaters, blankets, fire pits and igloos keep us warm during cold times in the years ahead.
“We survived,” says Darren Norris of Shibuya Eatery in Adams Morgan, which opened in July. “We’ll make it to the other side.”
Spring, the season of renewal, is a time of reflection. These days, I’m marveling at the good work I see on the dining landscape, especially among restaurants, many run by people of color or women, that opened their doors despite a global crisis. Join me as I raise a Fauci-Pouchy (what’s more reassuring a drink than one with the good doctor’s mug on it?) to 22 examples of determination and deliciousness.
Ada’s on the River
Get a view of the Potomac and a taste of Randall Matthews’ polished cooking
Entrees $19 to $32
The surf is as good as the turf is as good as the view at the 10th and largest dining venue from Alexandria Restaurant Partners. Piloting the kitchen is Randall J. Matthews, former chef de cuisine at the beloved St. Anselm near Union Market in the District. The Maryland native delivers everything you expect of a proper steakhouse, along with dishes that are, as he playfully puts it, “against the grain.”
Dinner can commence with a wedge salad — or a foie gras doughnut. Entrees include 75-day aged New York strip, but also ricotta gnocchi infused with the smoke of a live fire. Matthews figures 90 percent of his work touches some part of the grill before it leaves his open kitchen — salads included.
[A Potomac view meets polished cooking at Ada’s on the River in Alexandria]
The beef is all prime and dry-aged. Go for the signature cut: a flavorful tri-tip, which the chef rubs with powders and spices before cooking sous-vide and finishing on the grill. Like all the steaks, this one benefits from a brush with beef fat. Matthews, a pescatarian, lavishes just as much attention on seafood and vegetables. Cue the tall crab cake, framed in creamed leeks and pickled shallots. Bring on the spinach, uncut greens mixed with not too much Mornay sauce and Parmesan, meaning the spinach retains its texture and taste.
Ada’s chocolate souffle takes 20 minutes to prepare. Use the time to admire the company’s recent expansion nearby: Barca, a Mediterranean-themed wine bar positioned on its own pier on the Potomac.
3 Pioneer Mill Way, Alexandria, Va.
Dinner daily, lunch weekdays, brunch weekends
Entrees $19 to $32
Delivery via website, Uber Eats or Grubhub. Pickup via website, Grubhub, Uber Eats or phone. Accessibility: Wheelchair-friendly ramps at the entrance and ADA-compliant restrooms.
Chef Michael Rafidi gets to the heart of the Levantine cuisine he knows so well
Shared plates $15-$25
The name of the debut restaurant from the talented Michael Rafidi is Arabic for “my heart,” which pretty much captures the spirit of the Levantine-inspired draw in Navy Yard. Every dish seems to come with a sweet backstory. Consider the sfeeha, slender meat pies. “I grew up eating those,” says the chef, who offers a cigar-shaped version made with crumbled lamb. “My grandmother always had some in the fridge, for snacks.”
Lucky kid. And fortunate diners, to be guided through a meal by a server who seems like a trusted friend. As we’re mulling which kibbeh nayyeh to order, carrot or tuna, our attendant says we should try half portions of both. Sold — and pleased to be the recipients of a single plate spread with minced vegetable and fish combined with bulgur and hits of harissa and pomegranate. Gilding this lily is a dollop of toum, the wonderful whip of garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. The spreads are scooped up with a nearby bouquet of lettuce spears.
Albi’s charcoal-fed fire makes for memorable lamb belly, crusty from the grill, dressed with juicy figs and presented with curlicues of labneh tinted yellow with the spices used for sujuk, the spicy fermented sausage. Festooned with shaved asparagus and dill, black bass sits atop a zesty, sunset-colored stew of potatoes and chickpeas. The accompanying Palestinian couscous, sweetened with crab, turns the entree into a feast.
I relish the hot, blimp-like pita that starts every meal; the thoughtful wine list, showcasing tastes of the eastern Mediterranean; the little sweets, including a bite of basbousa, a citrusy semolina cake; and the sight of Rafidi cooking in a big open kitchen surrounded by a 50-foot mural of characters holding hands. Just do it. All of it.
1346 Fourth St. SE.
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday
Shared plates $15-$25, large format $54-$60, prix fixe $95 (plus $55 beverage pairing).
Pickup via Tock. Accessibility: Entrance and restrooms are ADA-compliant.
Chef Brendan L’Etoile does bistro classics right in Arlington
Entrees $16 to $37
Most of Ian Hilton’s many ventures are in the District. Why did the entrepreneur pick Arlington for Cafe Colline? Peer pressure from friends and family in the Lee Heights neighborhood, for starters. “It’s kind of selfish, frankly,” says Hilton. The 50-seat French bistro is “right near my house.”
Easy access to the cooking of chef Brendan L’Etoile, whose work you might know from Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown, is something to aspire to. Presented in a crisp puff pastry shell, Burgundian snails taste of earth, garlic and butter. Poke the cap of molten cheese on the impressive French onion soup, and you’ll discover long-cooked onions in a chicken broth kissed with sherry. Sea bass strewn with slivered almonds splays across a raft of skinny green beans, every bite more delicious for the shock of lemon and capers in the entree’s sauce. L’Etoile was curious how his food would be received when the storefront opened last summer. As it turns out, he says, “Arlington is into everything.”
The dining room, set off with a skylight and cute booths for two, is spare but attractive. A long leather banquette sits opposite a long bar behind which … hey, is that Hilton making drinks? The owner sometimes pops in to host, says L’Etoile, and his kids help bag to-go orders. Duck confit arranged with feathery mushrooms and fingerling potatoes travels well, BTW, and its sauce, made with Banyuls vinegar, duck stock and caramelized honey, is good to the last sop.
Colline brings to three the owner’s Gallic venues, which include Parc de Ville in the Mosaic District. Is French his favorite cuisine?
“I think Brendan is my favorite flavor,” says the justifiably proud owner.
4536 Lee Hwy., Arlington, Va.
Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday
Dinner entrees $16 to $37
Pickup via website or phone; no delivery. Accessibility: Two doors lead to the host stand; restroom is wheelchair-friendly.
Cindy Lou’s Fish House
Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman’s latest flows with the tides of Southern seafood
Entrees $29 to $42
The funny thing about walking into the Canopy by Hilton hotel in Baltimore is that it feels more like someone’s home than lodging for hundreds of guests. Which is precisely what restaurateur Tony Foreman asked the property’s designers to accomplish. A glance around the living room, er, seafood restaurant he dreamed up with chef Cindy Wolf takes in a fireplace, bookshelves, a patio overlooking the water and people who look like they’re happy to be there.
The menu incorporates notions from Wolf, who in another life opened Georgia Brown’s in Washington, and Foreman’s late great-grandmother, a North Carolina native and the third of 17 children. (Yes, she learned to cook early. Foreman says little rounds of toasted pullman bread topped with littleneck clams draped in Mornay sauce, an appetizer here, were a “canasta snack” down South.)
[Cindy Lou’s Fish House flows with the tides of Southern cooking]
First bites encourage seconds. Ease in with morsels of tempura-like crab fluff on a nest of cabbage or a surprise of a “chowder,” the surprise being how light the dish is. Crammed with seafood, corn and potatoes, the liquid in the bowl is tomato broth thickened with potato flour. Even better are the main courses. Go for the crisp fried chicken surrounded by a tall, pepper-flecked biscuit and “Nanny’s” quick pickles, or seafood perlau, the Lowcountry pilaf that’s as much tender shrimp, mussels and clams as broth-swollen rice.
Drink in the view and splurge on the cheesecake. It’s made with smoked sweet potatoes, then topped with soft meringue and sugar-frosted pecans. Delicious applies to the engaging, spot-on service, too. The restaurant, helmed by executive chef Ryan Shaffner, has clearly hired well. “You can teach job actions,” says Foreman. “You can’t teach people how to care.”
1215 Wills St., Baltimore (in Canopy by Hilton)
Breakfast, lunch and dinner weekdays; brunch and dinner weekends
Small plates $12 to $17, sandwiches $17 to $26, large plates $29 to $42
Pickup via phone. Accessibility: Indoor seating, patio and restrooms are wheelchair-accessible.
A Barcelona native introduces chorizo to bento and Spain to Japan
Omakase $32 or $88
His 12,000-square-foot Spanish-Japanese restaurant had been open for just a month or so before Pepe Moncayo had to rethink how he would serve his fetching food as takeout — something the Barcelona native says he continued to recalculate throughout the pandemic.
At one point, he switched to offering Spanish comfort food. Later, he figured out how to deliver an elaborate omakase experience, and this from a part of the city accustomed to catering to tourists and office workers, now in short supply.
“I never gave up,” he says. “I finally have the restaurant I wanted a year ago.”
Moncayo brings sterling credentials to Cranes, having worked for such Spanish talents as Santi Santamaría, the first Catalan chef to be awarded three stars from the Michelin Guide, and twin brothers Sergio and Javier Torres, masters of the Spanish culinary avant-garde.
Even for those of us who opt for takeout rather than a seat inside, where polished metals, stone colors and angular fixtures alter the look from section to section, high expectations are met. Roseate slices of beef, crisp pickle and shaved onion pack a bao bun that also sparkles with flying fish roe. Dominos of smoke-kissed hamachi show up alongside precise dabs of avocado sprinkled with tiny pearls of buckwheat. Seafood tempura somehow manages to retain its crunch en route to home, and a bento box arrives with such treasures as rice cooked in kelp broth and plied with racy diced chorizo.
Thanks for hanging in there, amigo/tomodachi!
724 Ninth St. NW
Lunch and dinner daily, brunch weekends
Bento omakase $32, six-course omakase $88 (plus $45 beverage pairing, tapas $3 to $16, a la carte $9 to $36)
Delivery via Grubhub, DoorDash or Uber Eats. Pickup via Tock, Uber Eats, DoorDash, Grubhub or phone. Accessibility: Wide front doors and dining pathways lead to ADA-compliant restrooms. The bar is wheelchair accessible.
Glover Park Grill
Chef Hamilton Johnson offers few surprises but plenty of delights
Entrees $15 to $47
Don’t expect any surprises on the menu of this hotel restaurant in Glover Park. There aren’t any. The list reads like a roll call of popular American dishes, from roast chicken to grilled steak. “Familiar” is not another word for Ambien, however. Chef Hamilton Johnson says he aspires to elevate the staples by making them “ours.”
That he does, and well. Steak tartare will remind me of 2020 long after the pandemic has passed, given its Fauci-esque ubiquity. Still, I continue to delight in the many versions I’ve sampled, including the one here, in which creamy lemon-kissed aioli and crisp fried panko carpet the ruddy chopped beef. Johnson’s crab cake channels the late, great Vidalia (one of his previous positions) with its jumbo lump Maryland seafood, minimally bound with saltines, mayonnaise and lemon juice and dressed with a garland of black-eyed peas, gigante beans and smoked bacon — my kind of border patrol. Braised short ribs come with grilled carrots whose earthiness is heightened with a drizzle of coffee oil. Notice a pattern? While the food is familiar, it comes with a little something or other to make it stand out.
[Glover Park Grill woos its neighborhood with all-American cooking]
Pastry chef Alex Levin follows Johnson’s lead. Chocolate chip cookies are as everywhere as masks these days. Yet Levin’s saucer-big version tastes superior — crisp on the outside, chewy toward the center and finished with airy sea salt. I’m equally enamored with his nutty ice cream sundae and cheesecake streaked with homemade jam.
Enjoy the comforts on the restaurant’s spacious covered deck, dressed with a turquoise bar and linens on the table — a dining room as attractive as it is safe.
2505 Wisconsin Ave. NW
Coffee and pastries daily 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner daily
Entrees $15 to $47
Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub or Uber Eats. Pickup via DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, website or phone. Accessibility: Outside deck is fronted with stairs; an ADA-compliant restroom is off the hotel lobby.
Global cooking makes Jerome Grant’s Navy Yard spot oh so cool
Entrees $18 to $36
Jerome Grant wants you to think of Jackie not just as a cool place befitting a former first lady, but also as an escape. “We want to take you away from all the madness” of the past year, says the chef.
Incorporating his experience as the son of a Black father and a Filipino mother who went on to marry a member of the Air Force, his global menu embraces a fleet of small plates (they live on) meant for sharing (how 2019). Nothing is boring. Green peas and avocados make for a lovely, spring-green dip, and duck breast is cured like pastrami and fanned atop bread spread with housemade cherry jelly and peanut butter spiked with five-spice — an “adult” PB&J, cracks Grant. Plenty of chefs are feeding us fried rice, but only Grant makes his own porky, ground ham-and-celery, salt-fortified “Spam” to decorate the bowl, which gets further gussied up with crawfish and crab fat.
[Like the first lady after which it’s named, Jackie is oh so cool]
Large plates include fried chicken fired up with a seasoning blend of sugar, smoked paprika and dried ghost peppers — a combination so explosive, it’s whipped up in a back hallway, says Grant, who continues to offer the brunch and date-night takeout boxes he conceived earlier in the pandemic.
Jackie, which overlooks its sibling, the popular Dacha Beer Garden in Navy Yard, is a brand that puts women first, says Grant. “I wouldn’t be where I am without my mom and my wife.”
79 Potomac Ave. SE
Dinner Wednesday through Sunday, brunch weekends
Entrees $18 to $36
Delivery via DoorDash. Pickup via Tock, DoorDash or website. No phone orders. Accessibility: Restrooms are ADA-compliant.
Joancarlo Parkhurst’s sunny spot is fast, it’s fine, and it tastes like Puerto Rico
Entrees $14 to $29
Details do their best to put you smack in San Juan. The outdoor seating includes gliders and chairs in pastel hues, rum flows on the drinks list, and the mofongo — mashed fried green plantains — envelops diners in a haze of garlic.
The all-day restaurant, from Puerto Rico native Joancarlo Parkhurst, refers to itself as “fast-fine” (instead of “fast-casual”), which means you order at a counter and wait for finesse to follow. Pretty fluted pastelillos crack open to reveal juicy, cayenne-fired beef picadillo; the pork chop squirts juices at the touch of a knife; and passion fruit mousse provides just the right tart finish to any feast. Parkhurst is both owner and cook, relying on his grandmother’s recipes for inspiration (don’t skip the chicken fricassee) and an old family canning business in Puerto Rico for the name of his sunny spot in Navy Yard.
This is humble food with haute touches. Hearts of palm are a welcome sight in the house salad, its dressing punchy with lemon and mustard. The good taste extends to the dining room, where leather pads dress up the black benches.
In a town stacked with great sandwiches, La Famosa weighs in with the mighty, mouthwatering Tripleta: marinated rib-eye, pork butt, deli ham and Swiss cheese captured in a long roll called pan de agua, imported from Miami. Parkhurst calls the handful, littered with potato sticks, “Puerto Rico’s answer to cheesesteak.” Philly, meet your match.
1300 Fourth St. SE (entrance on Tingey Street)
Breakfast and dinner daily
Sandwiches $11 to $15, main dishes $14 to $29
Delivery via DoorDash or Uber Eats. Pickup via DoorDash, Uber Eats or website. No phone orders. Accessibility: Entrances are easy to navigate, restrooms are ADA-compliant and a sunken portion of the bar can accommodate wheelchair users.
With their menu of Chinese mash-ups, these two chefs are having fun
Entrees $6 to $18
Tim Ma asked three things of the branding firm he tasked to shape his American Chinese pop-up: a sense of timelessness, fun and a mascot. The chef ended up with a retro red-and-white menu and a character named Lucky Danger, personified by 10 or so little chefs in animal costumes — Dragon Boy, Shark Boy, Lion Boy, etc. — some of whom customers get to know from a sheet of stickers in their bags of takeout.
[At Lucky Danger, two talented chefs just want to have fun with their American Chinese food]
Inspiration for the food comes from Ma’s uncle, who ran a restaurant in New York and served “food that immigrants from China brought over and essentially updated for the American palate,” says the chef, who co-founded Lucky Danger with Andrew Chiou. Their menu is a mash-up of standard-issue Chinese takeout fare along with a sprinkling of dishes the chefs remember their Taiwanese parents ordering off menus written in Chinese when they were kids. Read: hot-and-sour soup, kung pao chicken and broccoli beef, but also pig ear salad, mapo tofu and flounder with pickled cabbage.
One of many highlights is fried rice made with spice-rubbed duck breast, a reminder that both the chefs are steeped in technique. The unusual brightness of orange beef is due to oranges being peeled just as they’re needed; the sirloin is also scored twice, in part to catch its sauce. Thirsty? Lucky Danger has you covered, with a line of canned cocktails.
It takes patience to taste the place, which operates out of Prather’s on the Alley. Orders, tied to pickup times, can be made only online, beginning at 10 a.m. Scrambling to secure a spot is like playing whack-a-mole. Remember what Ma said about having fun?
455 I St. NW.
Dinner Wednesday through Sunday
Appetizers $4 to $10, main dishes $6 to $9 (small) and $10 to $18 (large). Family-style meals $45 (serving two to three).
Pickup and delivery via Tock. Accessibility: Wheelchair users may be challenged by a series of two doors leading to the vestibule. No restroom availability.
In chef Matt Conroy’s hands, French comforts take surprising turns
Entrees $18 to $35
“There are no bad choices,” a server once told me at this young French eatery, the family-owned successor to Bonaparte in Georgetown.
He had a point. My cheat sheet at Lutèce turns out to be a long list of things you shouldn’t miss. Chopped flank steak spiked with green peppercorns, capers and a housemade fermented hot sauce adds up to a rousing steak tartare, and napa cabbage singed over Japanese charcoal, spritzed with lime, dressed with tahini and showered with sesame seeds shows a kitchen as creative with vegetables as with meat. Gnocchi addresses the season with ramps and morels, and one reason you want the roast chicken is for its kombu brine and brush with herb butter.
[Georgetown gains a little gem in Lutece]
Late of the Michelin-rated Oxomoco in Brooklyn, chef Matt Conroy says he’s all about cooking food that brings us comfort these days. Not that he doesn’t have a novelty up his sleeve. One of the most memorable dishes here is shredded potato fried in duck fat, drizzled with creme fraiche and finished with fresh dill and river caviar. Picture golden Lincoln Logs.
The snug greenhouses outside the restaurant, which uses the old name for Paris, are still accepting diners. Long live streateries!
1522 Wisconsin Ave. NW
Dinner Wednesday through Sunday, brunch Friday through Sunday
Dinner mains $18 to $35
No delivery. Pickup via email or phone. Accessibility: Neither the narrow dining room, fronted by a step, nor the snug greenhouses are wheelchair-accessible.
James Wozniuk brings the sweet heat of Malaysian cooking to Columbia Heights
Entrees $13 to $23
There’s not a dish I would wait to repeat at this uncommon example of Malaysian cooking in Columbia Heights. Pineapple curry tastes like a race between sweet and heat that ends in a delicious tie. Chunks of braised pork in a dark gold gravy, ignited with fresh ginger and silky with French butter, make one of the best vindaloos anywhere. The difference between Makan’s shredded green mango salad and the fiery competition is the use of calamansi, the Asian citrus with the sweet skin and sour center. What looks like shrimp and fava beans dappled with a racy red sambal turns out to be seafood paired with bright green, slightly nutty petai, native to Southeast Asia.
Chef-owner James Wozniuk trimmed his menu during the pandemic, but he left lots to appreciate, including a bowl of wheat noodles carpeted with crumbled pork and chiles, fleshy wood ear mushrooms, chewy dried anchovies and a soft egg, destined to be poked with a chopstick to bind the elements in liquid gold. Be sure to splurge on his coconut rice flavored with pandan leaf, its fragrance reminiscent of vanilla, and something from the bar, perhaps Barbara Southeast, a dance among gin, sherry, tamarind and salted honey.
Since opening, Wozniuk has introduced Malaysian pantry staples — fermented mustard greens, sweet chile sauce — to the roster. More recently, he added another sous-chef to the open kitchen. The owner says, “I want to take Makan to the next level.” This diner can’t wait to see how he tops himself.
3400 11th St. NW
Dinner and happy hour daily, brunch weekends
Entrees $13 to $23
Delivery via DoorDash, Uber Eats or Grubhub. Pickup via DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, website or phone. Accessibility: Entrance and restrooms are ADA-compliant.
The pizza from Tail Up Goat alums has serious character -- and a thrilling tang
Pizzas $13 to $21
No bones are left behind on the standout, tangy-with-sourdough pizzas made by Demetri Mechelis in the basement carryout he co-owns with wife, Tara Smith. Acidity is part of the thrill of the pies, which also benefit from a combination of Greek semolina and whole-grain flours and a little time in a hot oven. The result is a crust with chew and char — serious character — in every bite. My current fixation is scattered with spicy ’nduja, bitter broccoli rabe and smoky cheese.
Mechelis makes between 50 and 80 pies each night. Set your alarm so you can reserve the pickup time of your choice once reservations go online at noon.
[Martha Dear doubles down on the seduction of sourdough to make pizzas like no other]
Pizza might be the lure, but you want to round out a round with a Greek side dish or two. Gigante beans braised low and slow with organic crushed tomatoes and tomato paste are rustic and wonderful, and the crackling spanakopita relies on the recipe of the chef’s mom. Wines are priced at retail; most are under $30 a bottle. The source of some of the best pizza in town also offers one of the finest slices of chocolate (olive oil) cake, its decadence tempered with a sprinkle of sea salt.
Martha Mechelis turns out to be the Martha of the restaurant’s name. “She’s the sweetest,” says Smith of her mother-in-law. The couple met at the beloved Tail Up Goat, where she managed and he cooked. Their underground operation in Mount Pleasant is a member of High Road Restaurants, which promotes gender and racial equity as well as fair pay. Want to sip something from a Black winemaker? Martha Dear stocks what you’re looking for.
The couple have plans to offer seats and expand the menu down the line. “Our dream is coming,” says Smith. For some of us, the dream is already here.
3110 Mount Pleasant St. NW (basement)
Dinner Wednesday through Sunday (ordering opens at noon)
Pizzas $13 to $21
Pickup only, same-day orders via website. Accessibility: The basement storefront cannot be accessed by a wheelchair.
Chef Kevin Tien’s artful -- and playful -- dishes lure fans to the Wharf
Entrees $32 to $42
“I’m a big fast-food eater,” says Kevin Tien. Convenient, mass-produced cooking was “the one thing my Vietnamese family ate to feel American.” The chef’s fond memory becomes mine as I tackle his catfish slider, one of several new dishes at Tien’s hotel restaurant at the Wharf. A slab of fried fish juts out of a milk bun, yellow with curry spices and spread with a lightly smoked, dill-blasted tartar sauce. “I like overhang,” says the chef of the extension beyond the bread, which he instructs diners to nibble first. McDonald’s, eat your heart out.
[At Moon Rabbit, chef Kevin Tien lures fans to the Wharf]
The next dish is a stark contrast, and a reminder of the chef’s days at the late Emilie’s on the Hill: rosy slices of raw hamachi artfully arranged in a bowl with oranges and a slick of fish sauce and dill oil. The fish is dressed with slices of Bordeaux radishes that could pass for purple flowers. Tien makes sure his food looks as good as it tastes. Trout shares its plate with cherry tomatoes that are quickly deep-fried, so their skins wrinkle like cellophane candy wrappers, and a verdant vinaigrette whipped up from green onion tops, spinach and chile oil. The impressive, twice-fried mahogany chicken (claw included) is plunged into maple syrup spiced with garlic, ginger and Sichuan pepper. Sugar and fire duke it out in your mouth. Even if you don’t order dessert, sweet somethings — shimmering coconut-pandan jellies, bites of blondie with a palm sugar base — precede the check.
Tien is adding a selection of snacks to his script at Moon Rabbit, which takes its name from Vietnamese folklore. Coming up, he says: a wagyu tartlette fashioned from beef, egg roll wrapper and chile-garlic “crunch.” I’m there already.
801 Wharf St. SW
Dinner Wednesday through Sunday
Entrees $32 to $42
Pickup via Tock or phone; no delivery. Accessibility: Wide hotel and restaurant doors have buttons for opening; restrooms are ADA-compliant.
The Chang family opens another prize, this time in Baltimore
Small and large plates $8 to $68
The daughter of the renowned chef Peter Chang thinks the key to her family’s business success — NiHao is their 11th restaurant — boils down to constant action. “We never stop,” says Lydia Chang, who handles the business development for the collection.
Like other restaurants, NiHao (“hello” in Chinese) added family meals and cooking kits to its repertoire during the pandemic. Every visit seems to find something new to admire on the menu. Right now, I’m digging baked buns filled with curry-colored crab and ground shrimp; smoked pork ribs on a slaw splashed with Chinese vinegar, hoisin and soy sauce; and rangoon that ooze tangy cheese and minced mushrooms when you sink your teeth into the snacks.
[Say hello to NiHao, yet another prize Chinese restaurant from the Chang family]
A veteran of the esteemed Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana and the late Oval Room, chef de cuisine Antoni Szachowicz helped open the restaurant in July with Pichet Ong. Their flourishes are impressive: A paste of cilantro, butter and flour caps that luscious bun, while the pork ribs are crunchy with a coat of crushed roasted peanuts. A customer can point pretty much anywhere on the menu and hit the jackpot. Deep-fried bamboo catfish hit with cumin, Sichuan pepper powder and cilantro has been on the menu since Day 1. A taste reveals why Szachowicz can’t take them off the menu.
“We’re looking at classical Chinese food through a different lens,” says Chang. Straight sugar might be replaced in a dish by a root vegetable. Note the bites of sweet potato in an order of kung pao chicken, hot and numbing with Sichuan peppercorns and colorful with glossy bell peppers and Chinese celery. Chinese broccoli bests the competition thanks to the addition of diced tea-smoked tofu and toppings of pickled jicama and long pepper.
Here’s hoping that the Changs never stop feeding us so well.
2322 Boston St., Baltimore
Lunch and dinner daily, dim-sum brunch Saturday and Sunday
Small and large plates $8 to $68 (for whole Peking duck)
Delivery via Uber Eats. Pickup via phone or website. Accessibility: Steps at entrance; ADA-compliant restroom.
Nostalgic cooking with Southern accents draws diners to Mount Rainier
Entrees $14 to $27
It took three years for the restaurant to open in Prince George’s County. Blame the delay on a gut job, permits, and the stops and starts caused by the pandemic. Whatever. Pennyroyal Station is serving some mighty fine cooking in a roost that’s so inviting, you ought to fetch your food in person just to see it.
[Like a good neighbor, Pennyroyal Station is there for you]
The menu, from former Bar Pilar chef Jesse Miller, might read familiar, but everything tastes better than the same-old. His current pasta — cannelloni filled with peas, artichokes and wild mushrooms and finished with stinging nettle cream sauce — trumpets spring as sure as crocuses. “Sammies” enjoy a category of their own; the star showcases buttermilk fried chicken, snappy sliced pickles and “ramp ranch” dressing — a little detail that distinguishes the sandwich from the flock out there — inside a soft toasted bun. Vintage china underscores Miller’s nostalgic, Southern-accented cooking, which includes family meals. Think brisket with biscuits and collards. (Oh my!)
You can’t miss the building, dressed on the outside with a flowery mural and inside with a handsome retro bar -- fetching backdrops to lovely cooking.
3310 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainier, Md
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, lunch Tuesday through Friday
Sandwiches $13 to $16, mains $14 to $27, family meals $38 to $40
Delivery via DoorDash, Uber Eats or Grubhub. Pickup via Uber Eats, DoorDash, Grubhub or website. No phone orders. Accessibility: Ramp leads to bar entrance and an ADA-compliant restroom.
Ilhama Safarova bakes top-notch Azerbaijani sweets, with stories to match
Pastries and cake slices $2.50 to $7
The young bakery has friends in high places. No less than Elin Suleymanov, the Azerbaijani ambassador to the United States, says he makes multiple trips to Sharbat in Adams Morgan every week. Among the dishes he gravitates to are pakhlava, as in baklava. The shape of the confection, its light pastry layers and comparatively gentle sweetness, distinguish it from the foreign competition back home, a country that shares borders with Armenia, Georgia, Iran and Russia. The ambassador jokingly says, “We have three epic battles” in the region: “who makes the best tea, dolma and baklava.”
The shorgoghal reminds the diplomat even more of home, he says of the bun-shape pastry, whose flaky exterior gives way to a center seasoned with anise, black pepper and cumin. Both Suleymanov and Ilhama Safarova, Sharbat’s owner, are from Azerbaijan’s capital and largest city, Baku, where shorgoghal is a featured attraction at Nowruz, the five-day holiday celebrating both the new year and the arrival of spring. Shorgoghal, glossy from a wash of egg yolk and freckled with poppy seeds, calls to all the senses. Bite down and the treat shatters audibly, like footsteps in hard snow.
[This new Azerbaijani bakery offers stories as good as its pastries]
Safarova bakes a dozen or so cakes, most in fruit flavors, and I could make a case for every slice — raspberry, apricot, caramel mousse — I’ve tried. What each type shares are a moist crumb, fresh whipped cream and a restrained hand with sugar. The baker’s Russian-inspired honey cake, however, is in a class of its own. Both the dough (made from honey, eggs, butter and flour) and the filling (coaxed from milk, egg and sugar) are whipped up on the stove and later alternated in a brown beauty rising as high as 30 thin layers. The combined flavor is similar to graham crackers and creamy white filling — pleasantly mysterious.
2473 18th St. NW
Open Tuesday through Sunday
Pastries $2.50 to $7, cake by the slice $6 to $7, whole 8-inch cakes $55. Preorder 18 dumplings: uncooked $16, cooked $18.
Delivery via Grubhub, Uber Eats or Postmates. Pickup via phone, Uber Eats, Postmates or Grubhub. Accessibility: Steps and stairs discourage wheelchair use.
Inspired by Tokyo, a couple brings Japanese street food to Adams Morgan
Entrees $11 to $24
Restaurants in Japan tend to specialize in one dish or category. Shibuya isn’t offering A to Z, but more like A to E. “We’re in America!” says owner Darren Norris. “People want choices.” His restaurant in Adams Morgan takes its name from one of the most iconic parts of Tokyo, the business area encompassing two of the world’s busiest train stations, where Japanese fast food — noodles, skewers, donburi — are everywhere.
[Shibuya Eatery lives up to its name, bringing Tokyo street food to Adams Morgan]
Shibuya’s grill is stoked with binchotan charcoal, made from oak and prized for its clean and even heat. A little time over a high temperature — the charcoal can get as hot as 1,200 degrees, but Norris aims lower to prevent burning — transforms small blocks of sugar-cured pork and cubes of mirin-kissed beef short ribs into slightly sweet and subtly smoky wands. A small field of vegetables — leeks, white asparagus, Japanese sticky yams — also finds its way to the grill, although my pick of the crop is a halved avocado, glazed with a blend of soy sauce and Japanese chile oil, served atop a nest of julienne daikon.
Bento boxes are customized from a blizzard of options. Make mine skewered chicken thighs bedded on rice and tucked in with near-melting Japanese eggplant and a “flavor bomb.” I’m a fool for the housemade kimchi.
Norris, who made a name for himself at the dearly departed Kushi Izakaya & Sushi in Mount Vernon Square, was insistent on not serving nigiri when he opened. But the only way he says he could get noticed by the delivery couriers online is if “sushi” were flagged as an option. Go now, and you’ll find a selection of rolls, including a dramatic “Volcano” — creamy avocado on the outside, spicy tuna in the core — lashed with fiery mayonnaise.
Your seating options for now are outside or the moody, top-floor Death Punch Bar. The middle of the restaurant is dressed to go for multicourse kaiseki dinners. The owner is just missing staff to deliver them.
2321 18th St. NW
Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday
Small plates and grilled items $4.50 to $20; noodle dishes and donburi $11 to $24
Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates or Uber Eats. Pickup via DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, Postmates or phone. Accessibility: Steps lead to the entrance, which is not wheelchair-friendly; the ADA-approved restroom is on the second floor.
Spice Kraft Indian Bistro
A personal spin on Indian cooking serves up chicken tikka burgers and more
Entrees $13 to $24
The prospect of feeding an influx of Amazon workers lured friends Anthony Sankar and Premnath Durairaj from Roanoke to Northern Virginia, where the entrepreneurs replaced Bombay Curry Company in Alexandria and Delhi Club in Arlington with their distinctive brand of Indian hospitality. Hoping to fill some gaps on the scene, they’re offering curry wraps and chicken tikka burgers, among the bistro’s lunchtime selections, and desserts such as coconut pineapple bread pudding.
[Twin bistros in Northern Virginia put a personal spin on Indian cooking]
The restaurants share the same menu created by Durairaj, who says as a junior cook at the Taj Coromandel hotel in Chennai, in southern India, he tried to push the envelope and give his cooking some twists. Customers can taste what he means by ordering the grilled shrimp at either eatery. The most Indian thing about the dish is the fact it’s cooked in a tandoor. Otherwise, accents of crushed olive, crumbled feta and balsamic reduction suggest you’re in a Greek taverna. “I like sweet and spicy,” says the chef, whose chicken nuggets glazed with mango and ginger back him up.
Spice Kraft is a welcome compromise for bubble mates with different views on meat, which is to say that vegetarians and carnivores can go their own ways on the menu and have fun. Let me suggest the smoky eggplant, onion and tomato shot through with green chile for the former and the braised lamb shank, marinated in garam masala, for the latter. The bistros also allow customers to mix and match, with a roster of proteins (salmon, lamb, paneer) and sauces (spinach, korma, vindaloo). Like every other restaurant, this one offers a chicken sandwich. The sesame seed bun says “America,” but the interior of the whopper places its recipient squarely in India.
2607 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va.
703-836-6363 (Alexandria number)
1135 N. Highland St., Arlington, Va.
703-527-5666 (Arlington number)
Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday
Entrees $13 to $24
Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub or Uber Eats, or via the Arlington restaurant (within a 5-mile radius). Pickup via website, DoorDash, Uber Eats, Grubhub or phone. Accessibility: The Alexandria foyer is tight; double doors and steps in Arlington make wheelchair access difficult.
Chef Kevin Onyona brings a rare taste of African fine dining to downtown
Entrees $20 to $30
Kevin Onyona sounds like a modern-day Job. The Kenya native spent more than $2 million to renovate a basement dining room offering African fine dining. Unfortunately, the self-trained chef introduced Swahili Village in downtown Washington on March 15, 2020. When he was able to partially reopen the space for on-site customers in June, his intended audience — staff from the nearby World Bank, State Department and foreign embassies — were mostly working remotely.
[Swahili Village brings a taste of African fine dining to D.C.]
Nyama choma is a dish that could save the newcomer. Eaten throughout Kenya, it showcases bites of chargrilled beef or goat that have been marinated in a spice blend whose list of ingredients is as long as the Nile. The weave of cumin, ginger, fenugreek, coriander and more is warm and wonderful.
Service makes a good case for supporting Swahili Village, too. Onyona has his waiters watch how the food is made before they become guides, and the effort pays off at the restaurant. New to ugali? A server delights in explaining how the block of white cornmeal mash absorbs whatever it touches and can be used to scoop up other bits of food.
Every entree has something to recommend it and comes with a choice of two sides. Whole fried tilapia is snowy flesh draped in masala sauce mixed with coconut milk. Try it with the city’s best collard greens and sweet-sticky plantains, and swoon away.
1990 M St. NW
Lunch and dinner daily
Dinner mains $20 to $30, group platter $117
Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates or Uber Eats. Pickup via DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, Postmates, website or phone. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can eat on the patio or in the downstairs dining room, which is reached via an elevator in the lobby of the neighboring building.
If you can’t get enough khachapuri, this Supra spinoff is for you
Entrees $8 to $16
This casual spinoff of the more formal Supra looks as if it were created with the pandemic in mind.
Cold weather or warm, I love sitting outside the Georgian outpost, on a patio bordered in green plants and gleaming benches. (The restaurant’s name comes from the Georgian word for an outdoor table.) And who can resist the siren call of warm bread and cheese, the kitchen’s specialty? The boat-shaped khachapuri comes in a variety of flavors; right now, I’m partial to khachapuri decked out with molten cheese, crab and thick brown dollops of house-made hot sauce.
[Gather around Tabla for another helping of Georgian cooking]
Khinkali are another Georgian treasure. Forgo knife and fork (thoughtfully presented in wrappers) and eat the dumplings as Georgians do — with the fingers. Simply hold them by their top knot, take a small bite from the bottom, suck up any juices and move on to the filling of meat (try lamb) or vegetables (zucchini with cheese). Veteran khinkali eaters know to set aside the hard stems. More room for more dumplings! Dishes “from the garden” offset any overdose by dough. New to the list are green beans, smoky from the grill, lush with herbs and dressed with a charred tomato sauce fueled with vinegar and garlic.
“I hated takeout my whole career,” cracks chef Lonnie Zoeller, who spent much of the pandemic serving food in cartons. Good for him for hiding any displeasure. Because this is food that travels well and encourages further exploration.
3227 Georgia Ave. NW
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, brunch and lunch weekends
Khachapuri, khinkali and grilled items $8 to $16
Delivery via DoorDash, TableSide or Skip the Line. Pickup via DoorDash, TableSide, Skip the Line or phone. Accessibility: No steps to front door; ADA-compliant restroom inside.
From a tiny storefront, chef Teresa Padilla serves the big flavors of Mexico
Entrees $8 to $25
Now is a golden age for sandwiches, and Taqueria Xochi serves one of Mexico’s best, the cemita. Novices, here’s what you’re missing: a crisp chicken cutlet, web of tangy white cheese, slather of mayo, juicy tomatoes, smoky onions and refried beans packed inside sesame-seeded bread. (Cemita refers to both the distinctive roll and the sandwich, which originated in Puebla.)
[Taqueria Xochi serves mouthwatering Mexican food from a tiny U Street storefront]
The owners, Teresa Padilla and Geraldine Mendoza, met when both women worked at China Chilcano — a Chinese, Japanese and Peruvian hybrid — and they bring to their slip of a carryout the exacting standards of any José Andrés establishment. Padilla’s tortilla chips are made to order and offered with a surprisingly light guacamole, best ordered “spicy” with jalapeño. Birria — beef or lamb braised with a seasoning mix as complex as any mole — gets an escort of broth, conjured from meat and bones, that makes me feel more vigorous just by its aroma.
The chef acknowledges a variety of appetites with her taco fillings, which run from springy cubes of beef tongue to mushrooms fired up with guajillo sauce. For the full street-food effect, wash back a meal with one of the taqueria’s refreshing aguas frescas, maybe sweet-tangy tamarind. Padilla served as pastry chef at her former job. That’s your cue to sink your spoon into her “chocoflan,” moist chocolate cake topped with slinky custard — ebony and ivory in perfect harmony.
924 U St. NW
Tacos $8 to $15 (three per order), cemitas $15, birria and tlayudas $12 to $25, family taco platter $52
Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub or Uber Eats. Pickup via DoorDash, Grubhub or website. No phone orders. Accessibility: The window to order can be used by wheelchair users. No restrooms.
Thacher & Rye
Bryan Voltaggio designs a restaurant for the pandemic -- and beyond
Entrees $19 to $58
When the pandemic emptied restaurants in March 2020, Bryan Voltaggio figured it was time to say goodbye to his fine-dining Volt, which had enjoyed a run of almost 13 years in Frederick. “We knew even in the short-term, we had to make changes,” says the “Top Chef” runner-up. No one was in the mood for hours-long tasting menus.
Volt’s replacement, Thacher & Rye, is suited for the times. Everything about the experience is less formal. In a dining room free of table linens — wood surfaces being easier to sanitize — servers clad in jeans and aprons ferry lasagna and chicken and dumplings to diners who no longer feel the need to dress for dinner. The check average at Volt was north of $100, says Voltaggio. These days, it’s between $65 and $85 at the restaurant’s successor, which combines the name of his son with Maryland’s history of making spirits.
[Thacher & Rye, Bryan Voltaggio’s new restaurant, is designed with the pandemic in mind]
The cooking continues to be worth the drive from Washington. Dinner in March commenced with a warm loaf of spent-grain rye bread, flanked with smoked trout and cultured butter, and continued with a salute to the season — fusilli decked out in morels and snappy peas — and rockfish displayed in a bowl of broth coaxed from fish stock, ginger and ham. Asian accents make delightful appearances in the beef carpaccio, bolstered with nuoc cham and peanuts, and the tender scallops, set on jasmine rice and crisped with fried garlic and chile. Homey-sounding chicken and dumplings ride to the table with whatever vegetables are in season and lovely gnudi shaped from ricotta, a fine-dining carryover.
Voltaggio has invested heavily in alfresco dining, doubling the size of his outside courtyard and installing a 13-foot fire pit. And there’s no stinting on safety. Arrivals still get their temperatures taken and are asked to spritz their hands with sanitizer at the host stand before being led to a table surrounded by pools of space. Voltaggio is thinking beyond the pandemic: “Less colds and flu!”
228 N. Market St., Frederick, Md.
Dinner Wednesday through Sunday, lunch Saturday, brunch Sunday
Dinner entrees $19 to $58; steakhouse meal kit $65 per person
Pickup and delivery via website. No phone orders. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can access the inside from a ramp in the rear of the restaurant, which has ADA-compliant restrooms, and the patio from a walkway.