Where in the world is Mike Isabella? These days, you'd be harder pressed to think of where he isn't.
As part of his growing empire, the chef and restaurateur has planted his culinary flag in Italy (Graffiato, G by Mike Isabella), Japan (Yona), Mexico (Pepita), France (Requin) and Greece (Kapnos, Kapnos Taverna and Kapnos Kouzina). The pending Isabella Eatery complex in Tysons Galleria will feature spinoffs of all these concepts, plus others concentrated on cocktails, ice cream and grilled meats.
But first it's a trip to southern Spain and Morocco, with a dash of Portugal for good measure, at Arroz. The next entry into the Isabella family of restaurants, also slated to be part of Isabella Eatery, opens Monday in the Marriott Marquis Washington, a stone's throw from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
Isabella's expanding portfolio puts him on a level playing field with some of the area's biggest restaurateurs and follows a similar trajectory to his former Zaytinya boss, José Andrés. Andrés's restaurant group includes a wide variety of cuisines, including that of Mexico (Oyamel), Spain (Jaleo), Greece and the Mediterranean (Zaytinya), China and Peru (China Chilcano) and the United States (America Eats Tavern).
The Arroz team, which includes executive chef Michael Rafidi and beverage director Taha Ismail, has spent plenty of time traveling throughout Spain and Morocco. What you'll find on the menu (not tapas, for the record) isn't exactly what you'd get in those places, but rather a contemporary interpretation:
There's a rice dish, but don't call it a paella. Arroz (Spanish for “rice”) dedicates a section of its menu to bomba rice, inspired by a dish from the Spanish region of Valencia. “People might compare it to paella when they come in here,” Isabella acknowledged. But even though bomba rice is often used in paella, paella it is not. All of the bomba plates (choose from vegetable, crab, duck or suckling pig and plan on sharing) start with a flavorful base, or sofrito, and parcooked rice, which results in a crisp texture. The bomba rice is baked in a stainless steel pan that it's eventually served in, so it's crunchy on top and bottom.
A section of the menu is devoted to eggs. “Eggs are really popular down there,” Isabella said of southern Spain. Plus, he said, “I like to eat eggs any time of day.” The Spanish tortilla is different from what diners may be used to at, say, Jaleo; instead of folding potatoes into the eggs, the dish at Arroz has a layer of crispy potatoes, kind of like hash browns. The two other egg dishes are an omelet with morcilla (blood sausage) and manchego cheese, and baked eggs with a house-made merguez sausage.
Snack carts will make the rounds in the dining room. You won't be able to flag down a cart like at a dim sum restaurant. Instead, there will be a few carts rolling out to dining room tables after you place your order. The idea is that the small bites will serve as a kind of first course, Isabella said. The goal is to highlight “fun flavor profiles,” with the offerings frequently changing. Expect plenty of skewers, with such combinations as manchego with chorizo, kumquat and pickled mustard seeds, or boquerones (anchovies) with tomato and seaweed bread.
You'll want to save room for dessert. Two dishes particularly caught our eye. The leche frita (“fried milk”) doughnuts start with a classic custard, firmly set overnight with corn flour. Then, doughnut-shaped rings are punched out, coated in shredded phyllo and fried before being served with a sour orange jam. Isabella said it wouldn't be right to have a Moroccan-inspired restaurant without a tagine, so a sweet take on the dish will consist of a chocolate custard baked in the traditional conical pot. The dessert is garnished with crumbled chocolate cake, macerated cherries and brandied cherry ice cream.
You can drink like you would at home in Morocco. Ismail, a native of Casablanca in Morocco, channeled his heritage in developing the beverage menu. Drinks his mom served him as a kid helped inspire the mocktails, which include the “qoocumber,” with cucumber, chili, cilantro, lime and pineapple, and several lemonades, such as the Mediterranean, with orange blossom and rosemary. Of course, no Moroccan menu would be complete without a mint tea, which can serve two to four people and will come in a clear pot. Alcoholic beverages feature Spanish favorite gin and tonics, sherry and three sangrias on tap.
Arroz, opening Monday for dinner daily, with lunch and weekend brunch to follow. 901 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-869-3300.