No. 21: Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar ★★★
2917 M St., NW | 202-333-2912
Cuisine: Lobster with oxtail broth? Spiced beer jelly? Expect the unexpected at this cozy Georgetown bistro/wine bar, where executive chef Barry Koslow turns out inspired terrines, pastas, and fish with lots of little surprises.
Mood: A crowd of urbane families and polished thirtysomethings settles into this narrow dining room—California cool with blond wood, flagstone, and blue-sky murals.
Best for: Casual romantic dinners, hanging out at the sophisticated bar, winetasting and cheese-nibbling.
Best dishes: Oysters roasted with garlicky gremolata, chopped chard, and bacon; duck pâté dotted with pistachios; open-faced ravioli with chanterelle mushrooms and sheep’s-milk ricotta; braised suckling pig with shavings of grana padano cheese and soft gnocchi; quail with pheasant-sausage stuffing; black bass with hazelnut-coriander crust and blood-orange sauce; apple-stuffed beignets with cinnamon ice cream.
Insider tips: Not in the mood for a big dinner? You can graze wonderfully here on artisanal cheeses—cloth-aged Vermont cheddar, pungent Hudson Valley Camembert—and house-made terrines and pâtés. By-the-glass selections on the mostly West Coast wine list come in usually generous half pours.
No. 22: Farrah Olivia ★★★
600 Franklin St., Alexandria | 703-778-2233
Cuisine: Ivory Coast–born Morou Ouattara’s freewheeling style draws on influences from Africa, Asia, and France and revels in foams, jellies, and powders. Its juxtapositions are meant to baffle, surprise, and provoke conversation. Often they do—all in the same delicious dish.
Mood: On a side street in Old Town, the serene dining room—even the ’80s-leaning soundtrack, with forays into heavy metal and Prince, is kept low—gives no hint of the madcap explorations going on in the kitchen. Only a wall stencil that evokes the African bush and dangling coconut shells suggest the chef’s source of inspiration.
Best for: Culinary adventurers for whom a “deconstruction” is a delight.
Best dishes: Eggplant gazpacho, refreshing and intense; “shocked escolar,” thin slices of flash-blanched fish to be swabbed in Merlot powder, speared with pickled quince, and topped off with wasabi tapioca pearls; a perfectly undercooked halibut with a sweet-onion purée; panko-crusted cured quail sauced with a kind of savory crème brûlée and drizzled with chorizo oil.
Insider tips: Soups are a point of pride for Morou, who is disinclined to rely on cream for richness; instead he cooks his vegetables until they break down, the natural purée fortifying the flavor of his broths. Having grown up in a culture where meat was a luxury, he’s capable of assembling a vegetarian menu of imagination and depth.
No. 23 Passage to India ★★★
4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda | 301-656-3373
Cuisine: Elegant Indian that goes beyond the usual—chef/owner Sudhir Seth’s menu spans the subcontinent with regional entrées that remind us that Indian cuisine is as varied and complex as any.
Mood: The formal servers and the dining room decorated with portraits of rajahs and viceroys and carvings of Hindu gods conjure the Raj as portrayed in the film A Passage to India.
Best for: Adventurous groups willing to explore—and share—exotic flavors.
Best dishes: Sev-mumura chaat, a bizarrely delicious salad of puffed rice and vermicelli with cilantro, dates, and tamarind; lentil “pebbles” flavored with ginger and dates; lamb curry with apricots and straw potatoes; succulent tandoori chicken; kulcha, bread stuffed with lightly spiced onions; and a pickle platter to cut the heat and weight of the curries.
Insider tips: You can travel the subcontinent two ways here—by jumping around the menu choosing something from each region or with a more methodical exploration—say, of the Parsi specialties of western India. Don’t see your favorite dish? Just ask.