It may be on Rockville Pike, but Jeff and Barbara Black’s first restaurant (they have three others) has a small-town vibe with its snug dining rooms and vintage kitchen kitsch. At lunch, cornmeal-crusted oysters are tucked into a po’ boy with chipotle rémoulade. At dinner, zippy sweet-potato chowder or bright beet salad with mustardy vinaigrette makes for a fine beginning. Then it’s on to a juicy wood-roasted half chicken with sage jus or a meaty pork chop with pumpkin grits. Both balance traditional and new, as does the blue-ribbon sweet: apple dumpling with maple parfait.
11120 Rockville Pike; 301-881-0081. Entrées $18 to $25. Read a full review.
The crispy Brussels sprouts at Againn could give that vegetable a whole new image. Crunchy and salty, they taste like potato chips—but without the guilt. There’s a lot to love on the menu at this gastropub: pork confit with onion marmalade; a dazzler of a shepherd’s pie with a cloak of scallion mashed potatoes; tender house-made corned beef with horseradish cream on a bun. Smithwick’s and Guinness are on tap, as is the pleasantly dry Irish cider Magners. And though it still feels a bit like former tenant Houston’s, the food is good enough that it doesn’t matter.
12256 Rockville Pike; 301-230-9260. Entrées $12 to $36. Read a full review.
Black Market Bistro
This restaurant in a Victorian-style former post office in nearby Garrett Park is the sort of place where one develops obsessive favorites. There’s the croque monsieur and kids’ chocolate-chip pancakes at brunch, a cheesesteak on a house-made baguette at midday, and a slew of picks for dinner—New Orleans–style barbecue shrimp with corn-and-scallion grits, hanger steak with chimichurri sauce, and rainbow trout with a jumble of fingerlings and almonds. Happily, the apple crisp with caramel sauce can be had any time of day.
4600 Waverly Ave., Garrett Park; 301-933-3000. Entrées $11 to $26. Read a full review.
The cocktail set bellies up to the bar while foursomes and families gather at wood tables and booths in this candlelit dining room. Though “mezze” technically means “appetizer,” chef Dimitri Moshovitis’s plates are generous and his menu long. You can’t go wrong with ouzo-spiked Opa Opa Shrimp, fluffy whipped taramasalata(salmon roe), Disco Fries with veal ragu, and spicy lamb sliders with yogurt and jalapeños. Don’t skip dessert: The Greek “French toast” with cinnamon and fruit is divine.
9713 Traville Gateway Dr.; 301-309-9090. Mezze $5.95 to $16.95. Read the full review.
A no-reservations policy means there’s likely to be a wait, but the charming sommelier Piero Ricchiardi can make 30 minutes seem more like 10. Chef/owner Enzo Livia mixes old-school crowd pleasers and regional Italian dishes with great success. You’ll find eggplant Parmesan with a robust tomato sauce, but you’ll also encounter perfectly fried arancini, the Sicilian rice fritters, al dente house-made noodles barely kissed with veal sauce, and strip loin with a luxuriant wild-mushroom-and-Barolo sauce.
15209 Frederick Rd.; 301-309-0610. Entrées $14.95 to $23. Read a full review.
A well-made Pisco sour is just one of the pleasures of this crimson-walled Peruvian eatery. Chef/owner Lilian Clary’s plates are piled high, and the simplest offerings are usually the best. That means dishes such as aji de gallina (chicken and potatoes with pepper sauce), lomo saltado (a pile-up of beef, rice, and fries), and tender veal stew over silky canary beans. Don’t neglect sides: A crisp fried bean-and-rice patty may be the sleeper of the menu. Desserts such as tres leches cake don’t disappoint, either.
141 Gibbs St.; 301-251-1550. Entrées $13 to $29.
Food at this casual place tastes as if it were prepared by Grandma. Ceviche mixto, shrimp and fish “cooked” with lemon juice and Peruvian hot peppers, is a real standout. Anticuchos, or grilled cow hearts, are crisp-edged but tender within. Other plates to go for: fried trout with yuca and rice, shrimp soup topped with poached egg, and a well-made Cuban sandwich. Well worth trying is the dense, bright-orange lucama ice cream that brings to mind maple syrup.
765 Rockville Pike, Suites A and B; 301-424-8066. Entrées $6.95 to $17.95. Read a full review.
Those familiar with the two Matchbox locations in DC will appreciate the bigger digs—and the more liberal reservation policy—at this new branch in Rockville. As for the cooking, it’s the same comfort-with-a-twist fare. That means crisp-crusted wood-oven pizzas; chubby sliders with Romano-dusted onions; and well-conceived salads such as one with avocado, roasted corn, and lump crab. Entrées aren’t as polished, and the kitchen has been erring on the side of well done when it comes to meaty plates. But warm cinnamon doughnuts accompanied by a mini-cup of espresso with Kahlúa cream go a long way in making up for it.
1699 Rockville Pike; 301-816-0369. Entrées $14 to $28. Read a review of the Capitol Hill location.
Sol de España
Former Taberna del Alabardero chef Dani Arana and his wife, Daniela Jaramillo, have added a jolt of style to this Old World address. Burnt-orange walls set the stage for modern Spanish cuisine that nods to the classics. Airy shrimp-studded croquetas and garlicky white-bean stew with Catalonian sausage start things off nicely, while seafood paella with a rich, briny broth and whole red snapper baked in salt crust are good bets for entrées. Chocolate-mousse cake, a much-seen cliché, trumps the norm with its lush layers of ganache. Look for flamenco nights and winetastings about once a month.
838-C Rockville Pike; 240-314-0202. Tapas $7 to $9, entrées $20 to $26.
A canopy of silk makes you feel as if you’re dining in an open-air bazaar, and chef/owner Sudhir Seth plays up the street theme with a raft of Indian “snacks” such as mini-dosas, chili cheese toasts, and tandoori chicken wings. Coconutty shrimp curry and chicken tikka masala deliver pl
enty of heat. For something tamer, try Seth’s take on roast chicken and gingery pineapple cooked in the tandoor. Exotic cocktails such as lychee mojitos and tamarind margaritas cool things down.
100-B Gibbs St.; 301-610-0303. Small bites $4.50 to $8.75, entrées $10.95 to $16.50. Read a full review.
Crazy sushi rolls. Asian fusion. In lesser hands, this might not end well, but this stylish New York import makes it work. A dish called Rising Sun brings together rice crackers, scallop, egg cake, and seared yellowtail. Spicy Mistletoe is a lineup of avocado, cornflakes, and tuna. Both deliver mouthfuls of texture and taste. Other good bets include airy shrimp and vegetable tempura and buttery Chilean sea bass marinated in miso with sweet potatoes two ways. Fusion desserts often fall flat, but green-tea-infused tiramisu puts a new spin on an old favorite.
36-G Maryland Ave.; 301-340-8010. Rolls $5 to $17, entrées $13 to $27. Read a full review.
Tower Oaks Lodge
The trail of cars snaking from the entrance gives the impression of a party you don’t want to miss. Inside, the look is Adirondack fishing camp and the mood festive. The food is on the ambitious side, though that doesn’t mean success all around. Maine cod with a blanket of crisp crumbs and a Mason jar layered with pulled pork, mac and cheese, slaw, and crunchy onions are nicely done, but the pork shank is bland. The raw bar offers a changing roster of oyster specials (we like the plump Pemaquids). And there are the old standbys: jumbo lump crabcakes and a respectable burger.
2 Preserve Pkwy.; 301-294-0200. Entrées $9.25 to $24.95. Read a full review.
Made with the famed floral-scented butter from Charentes, croissants at Saint Michel Bakery (5540 Wilkins Ct.; 301-770-5090) could easily become an addiction. Good baguette sandwiches include the jambon beurre with Brie and the salade niçoise with tuna, slices of hard-cooked egg, sweet red peppers, and anchovies. At Stella’s Bakery (11510-D Rockville Pike; 301-231-9026), feta-cheese-filled triangles and spinach-and-cheese half moons make a delicious on-the-go snack or light meal. For beautifully crimped empanadas and robust soups, seek out Lola Café & Bakery (12 N. Washington St., Suite 14-G; 301-610-5652). Linger over a cappuccino and pumpkin gelato with alfajores or churros for dunking. When nothing will do but a beach burger cooked on a hissing griddle, Urban Burger (5566 Norbeck Rd.; 301-460-0050) is the placelola . If you’re feeling frisky, go for the chili version. Hit the fast-food style takeout Kickin’ Chicken (842-C Rockville Pike; 301-545-0003) for charcoal-grilled Peruvian rotisserie chicken with a spicy rub, black beans and rice, and crisp yuca “fries” that are better than most.
This article first appeared in the February 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.