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Dining Out in Rockville
Comments () | Published February 1, 2003

Best of Rockville

There's Lots of Good Eating On and Around Rockville Pike--and Also Plenty of Parking.

The people of Rockville have been patient. For years the restaurant scene in their fair city has been compared unfavorably to that of their suaver, been-there-done-that next-door neighbor, Bethesda. But things have changed: Rockville has arrived.

Besides having nine restaurants on The Washingtonian's 100 Very Best Restaurants list, Rockville also has 11 on the magazine's Cheap Eats list. Twenty-two more worth-a-trip places are reviewed here.

The turning point was the opening five years ago of Addie's--still Rockville's most ambitious and charming restaurant. Then came Mykonos, a downtown-DC favorite that relocated to Congressional Lane, just off Rockville Pike. More recently, the Pike has seen the arrival of Greenfield Churrascaria--an outpost of the Brazilian meat palace in Queens, New York--and of Lebanese Taverna Café, a casual offshoot of the popular Lebanese Tavernas in DC and Virginia.

King Farm Village Center in the King Farm-Redlands area has seen the opening of several new places this year. Nick's Chophouse, an upscale steakhouse with a vista out of an Andrew Wyeth painting, shows promise though things haven't quite gelled yet. Fontina Grille, a trendy pizza-pasta place that suffered fire damage over the summer, reopened in late fall. And Kuzine, an unassuming cafe with an eclectic menu has brought Russo-Turkish cooking to the 'burbs.

Also last fall, the Clyde's Restaurant Group debuted Tower Oaks Lodge, a multimillion-dollar Adirondack-themed eatery on a 20-acre preserve off Wooton Road.

And Fallsgrove Village Center on Shady Grove Road has become the scene of a restaurant renaissance, with several new restaurants including Tribes, a sister eatery to Faryab Afghan in Bethesda, and outposts of Mamma Lucia and Chipotle.

Rockville has long had top-notch Chinese places, and these continue to multiply. Of late, the city has seen Latin, Japanese, Persian, and casual Italian dining rooms setting up camp alongside Cuban, Indian, and Vietnamese spots. Many are tucked away in the commercial parks and shopping plazas off Rockville Pike.

If I were making a wish list, I'd ask for a few fabulous, high-style chef-owned places, a name steakhouse like Ruth's Chris or Morton's, a glamorous and authentic regional Italian restaurant, and a chic French bistro.

Even so, there's still lots of good eating to be done on and around Rockville Pike. And--unlike in downtown Bethesda--there is plenty of parking.

CHOP STIX

Inexpensive

So many menus, so little time. there's the standard roster, heavy on clichés like General Tso's chicken, a dim sum list, a sushi menu, and something dubbed "Home Style Chinese Meals," where most of the gems are. But go through them all because there are diamonds to be found everywhere. Like pan-fried buns, crispy eggplant in spicy garlic sauce, and shrimp with scrambled eggs, a soothing lunchtime panacea for a late night. Pork chop noodle soup is another homey high--noodle soups are a specialty and all are worth trying. Other dim sum musts include tiny fish enlivened with hot pepper, toasted sesame rolls, and crispy leek pancake, esoteric cousin to the more common scallion crepe. The no-frills dining room--you order at the counter and dishes come to the table one by one--suits the simple fare. And the scene on a Saturday afternoon is pure joy as Chinese families gather around massive tureens of soup for the midday meal.

Chop Stix, 4-A N. Washington St.; 301-762-8810. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

CLYDE'S TOWER OAKS LODGE

Moderate to Expensive

With custom wood paneling, Adirondack antiques, and artisan-crafted twig furniture, lamps, and fireplaces, Tower Oaks is easily the most glamorous restaurant in Rockville--and in the entire Clyde's Restaurant Group chainlet, barring 1789. Starting with a grandiose wooded setting, a boulder-strewn stream, and its Architectural Digest-ready dining rooms, this latest Clyde's venture wows at every turn with all the accoutrements of the sporting life. It is destination dining, a perfect spot to take out-of-towners, the in-laws, the kids, and your book club. But make a reservation. Even with one, you can expect a wait--this glitch hasn't been smoothed out yet, though things have vastly improved since the opening. Hint to spontaneous types: Both bars serve the full menu and are fair game if you can find a seat. Food has its ups and downs as it does at all the Clyde's restaurants, though chef Michelle Giroux, who came from 1789, has some moments of glory with balsamic grilled salmon sidling next to sweet potato hash and grilled corn, a filet mignon and New York strip with horseradish mashed potatoes, and a luscious smoked pork chop. Burgers are always a sure bet, as is brunch--try the crème brûlée French toast--when wintry light pours into the dining room and stands of trees make you feel far from civilization. And consider this: The place has been teeming since the day it opened, in the midst of all the sniper panic. While other Rockville restaurants griped about business, Tower Oaks was pulling them in in record numbers.

Clyde's Tower Oaks Lodge, 2 Preserve Pkwy.; 301-294-0200. Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

EL MARIACHI

Inexpensive to Moderate

A longtime Rockville favorite, el mariachi draws people in without bells and whistles. Tucked away in a shopping plaza, it has little curb appeal, but inside are two homey dining rooms brightened with Latin American art.

You'll find top-notch guacamole, one of the best renditions of chiles rellenos around, and a menu that sails beyond fajitas and quesadillas to racy South American preparations like sliced tongue in sherry-wine sauce. A pair of pork dishes makes it worth straying beyond tried and true. In one, the meat gets a Mayan-spice rub and is charcoal-broiled; the other marries piquant criolla sauce with bitter Seville oranges. Enchiladas have a nice zing and arrive in Christmas colors: red-chili and green-tomatillo sauces. There's very little goopy cheese--the downfall of so many Latin places. That's worth celebrating with a couple of good margaritas.

El Mariachi, 765-C Rockville Pike; 301-738-7177. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

EL PATIO

Inexpensive

This charming cafe/bakery/grocery with mosaic tables and wrought-iron chairs specializes in Argentine sandwiches, each made on its own bread baked on the premises. Tops are Argentinean sausage on a French baguette; patinesa, a fried, breaded hamburger on a soft bun; and prosciutto and cheese on tebete, a soft, sublike roll. Also look for delicate, crustless triple-deckers made with seasoned mayonnaise and various fillings such as egg-and-olive and cheese-and-tomato.

Rounding out the menu are Argentine pizzas with thin crusts and housemade sauce, quichelike tarts of spinach and Parmesan, Spanish-style omelets of potato and egg, and empanadas. El Patio's empanadas are made from ultraflaky dough and baked crisp. My favorites are one with ham, cheese, and hard-boiled egg and another with sweet-spicy beef, onions, and olives.

Because this is a bakery, sweets are a must. Dulce de leche, the creamy caramel-milk filling, figures in most of them. Take special note of the dulce-filled meringue, a double whammy of sugar.

El Patio, 12303 Twinbrook Pkwy.; 301-231-9225. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

FONTINA GRILLE

Moderate to Expensive

This style-conscious trattoria is back in business after a fire shuttered its doors last summer. Diners have been packing the saffron-walled restaurant since it reopened in November. Families, couples, empty-nesters from King Farm and beyond descend for the Cal-Ital inspired menu of mostly pastas and pizzas with a handful of classics like chicken marsala and some creative plates thrown in. Start with wild mushrooms tossed with crispy capers, figs, and goat cheese or savory eggplant rolls with shaved mozzarella fried crisp. Then move onto a big bowl of pasta--really enough for two to share--like fettuccine with butternut squash and braised leeks or rigatoni with chicken, mushrooms, and marsala. Standards like that marsala and veal Parmesan are nicely done, as are simpler innovations like Angus beef filet with fig demi-glace. Risottos are more like rice casseroles, and pizzas are fine, but not on par with the best in the area. Wash it all down with one of the fairly priced wines like the Vietti Dolcetto D'Alba Lazzarito.

Fontina Grille, King Farm Village Center, 801 Pleasant Dr.; 301-947-5365. Open daily for lunch and dinner. No wheelchair access.

GREEN FIELD CHURRASCARIA

Moderate

Even when the weber is stashed in the garage for the winter, the barbecue pit at Green Field Churrascaria keeps going. Large hunks of meat on skewers are a macho southern-Brazilian thing, and gauchos have been cooking this way for 300 years. The guys circulating from table to table in this lively wood-paneled dining room aren't wearing chaps, but they do wield saberlike skewers of sausage, chicken, rabbit, lamb, and various cuts of beef.

I like the skirt steak and rib eye best. Meats lean toward well-done, so if you're a fan of extra-rare, make it known. Fatty morsels like pork and beef ribs, pork loin, and duck take especially well to pit-searing, and wannabe Zorros will go for crisp-edged chicken hearts.

Beyond skewers, a generous buffet of Brazilian and American dishes awaits. Most you can pass on, but consider the pork-and-black-bean stew, fried potatoes, and a plate of greens. It's all-you-can-eat for $24.95 at dinner and half that at lunch (tax, tip, drinks, and dessert extra). Splurge on a Brazilian cocktail like the caipirinha or a robust Chilean red wine, a bargain really even with Montgomery County's 35-percent wine markup. And for dessert, try the lush mango cream confection.

Green Field Churrascaria, 1801 Rockville Pike; 301-881-3397. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

HINODE

Inexpensive to Moderate

Hinode in bethesda has always been known for its light, crisp tempura, and Rockville keeps the frying tradition going. But there's a world beyond tempura and teriyaki.

Hinode's sushi chefs make delicious spicy-fish rolls, including yellowtail, tuna, and the Dynamite with tuna, flounder, and salmon as well as a spicy-tuna-tempura roll. But this bright dining room--think pale wood furniture and reedy Japanese flutes--also offers offbeat specials like transcendent red-snapper carpaccio in sizzling sesame oil, miso-bean-paste-marinated orange roughy, California rolls with real crab, and a raft of tuna possibilities: marinated and torched, thin-sliced and half cooked, and chopped with caviar and a dipping sauce. For dessert, head back to the fryer with fried banana and a mound of vanilla ice cream.

A second, larger Rockville location with a similar menu has opened up in the former Ichiro. They've kept the old hibachi tables, as well.

Hinode, 134 Congressional La., 301-816-2190; 11575 Old Georgetown Rd., 301-881-7822. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

HOUSE OF FORTUNE/TALAY THAI

Inexpensive to Moderate

When grandma wants chinese and the kids want Thai, this split-personality dining room--with its dreamy ceiling mural and vases of purple orchids--is just the place. Chinese offerings run from familiar to esoteric. The menu includes unusual Szechuan dishes like baby shrimp with pungent scallion "pesto," steamed pork dumplings with roasted-chili dipping sauce, the not-often-seen razor clams, and marvelous wok-roasted salt-and-pepper shrimp--best when eaten shell and all.

Picks from the Thai menu include charcoal beef in spicy lime dressing; roast-duck curry, fragrant with basil and coconut milk; and a duo of dishes seldom on local menus: prik king tour--a medley of pork, long beans, chilies, and ginger--and a terrific chicken stir-fry with mango seeds.

House of Fortune/Talay Thai, 11401 Woodglen Dr.; 301-230-2266. Open daily for lunch and dinner. No wheelchair access.

HOUSTON'S

Moderate

Casual enough for a postmovie date or a family night out, Houston's candlelit dining room also works for a special occasion. This national chain built its reputation on burgers; crisp, skinny French fries; and killer artichoke dip. But Houston's has a new come-hither item: a wood-grilled artichoke slick with olive oil and crusted with crystals of kosher salt.

Other high points on the straightforward American menu include spicy peel-and-eat shrimp, guacamole better than many Mexican places make, a double-cut pork chop, half a crisp-skinned roast chicken, seared "sushi-grade" tuna, and simple grilled trout or salmon. Fresh vegetables are well seasoned and not overly crunchy as at so many other places.

Lighter fare such as main-course salads made with good greens and housemade dressings--try the buttermilk-garlic--get raves. One caveat: Avoid items with sweet or fruity embellishments. A rib eye dolled up with pineapple juice and soy sauce would have been better off going it alone.

Houston's, 12256 Rockville Pike; 301-468-3535. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

JOE'S NOODLE HOUSE

Inexpensive

Even amid rockville's wealth of chinese eateries, Joe's Noodle House stands out. You'd expect to find it on a back alley in Chinatown, but Joe's no-frills demeanor hides a diamond in the rough. Why else would Chinese and Vietnamese expats cram the dining room for heaping platters of northern-Chinese fare via Szechuan and Beijing?

This isn't one of those spots with a separate menu for Westerners. It's all there, on the regular roster and on the list of seasonal dishes. Duck feet with red-hot sauce. Minced pork with long beans. The menu tells it like it is about heat, too. One chili for "hot and spicy," two for "extra spicy," and a star for numbing. But not every dish is a five-alarmer. Cod with pine nuts gets its flavor from scallions and ginger and the barest hint of a crust. Steamed dumplings the size of a change purse are stuffed with savory pork. Specials run from onchoy, an intense green from the bok-choy family, to garlic sprouts with fatty bacon to sautéed bitter melon.

On the regular menu, fried smelt with peanuts, pork kidneys with minced garlic, and elegant duck's tongues with basil deserve attention. There are noodles too--lo mein, skinny rice noodles, and pan-fried noodles. The versions with shrimp, beef, or chicken--or a combo of all three--are especially satisfying.

Joe's Noodle House, 1488-C Rockville Pike; 301-881-5518. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

KUZINE

Inexpensive

Up to now, turkish restaurants like Nizam's (Vienna), Temel (Fairfax), and Ka-zan (McLean) have clustered in Northern Virginia. Kuzine, an engaging storefront cafe which opened this fall, is Rockville's (and possibly southern Maryland's) only Turkish eatery. What makes things even more interesting is that chef Aylan Hisirci, who owns the place with her sister, Selva Gunenc, cooked in Russia for more than a decade, so Kuzine offers Eastern European and Russian dishes as well.

A combo platter of rice-filled bell pepper; artichoke hearts with carrots, peas, and dill; and olive-oil-shiny eggplant done up with tomatoes, garlic, and onion makes a fine start. Or you may want to try the borscht, here a hearty stew of cabbage, potatoes, beets, and meat. Russian greatest hits like Kievski Kotlet, a.k.a. chicken Kiev, wrapped-and-fried bundles oozing cheese and butter, and a lightened-up Stroganoff with just a smidgen of sour cream, are smashing. So are Turkish mainstays like the not-often-seen karniyarik, eggplant filled with ground beef and tomato sauce, and mezze classics like zucchini fritters, crispy mussels, and sigara borek, cigar-shaped phyllo filled with feta and fried. And the place does rotisserie chicken too. Once the beer and wine license comes (the owner guessed sometime in February), the picture will be even rosier. But then you'll have to fight the hordes to get in.

Kuzine, 302 King Farm Blvd., Suite 110; 301-963-3400. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

MAMMA LUCIA

Inexpensive to Moderate

Every neighborhood needs a Mamma Lucia: an old-style pizza-pasta joint that serves up first-rate standards like baked ziti, veal Parmigiana--and pizza. Mamma Lucia does all that and makes a pie that has New Yorkers taking note. Get there before 5 PM and you can have a slice--the regular or Sicilian is best--a meatball sub, or a stromboli, cousin to the calzone but a meat-lover's bonanza with sausage, ham, meatballs, and pepperoni.

Families start filling this small blue-and-white storefront in the early evening for abundant plates of mushroom ravioli with Bolognese sauce (the special one night); penne with eggplant, marinara, and ricotta salata; linguine with white clam sauce; and housemade manicotti. Dishes like scampi over linguine and chicken Francese with its egg-cheese crust have nostalgia appeal, and the wine list, featuring inexpensive Italians, is friendly. For dessert? Chocolate-chip cannoli, of course.

Mamma Lucia, 12274-M Rockville Pike; 301-770-4894. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

LEBANESE TAVERNA CAFE

Inexpensive

This more-casual version of DC and Virginia's popular Lebanese Taverna has the feel of a homegrown fast-food place. But instead of burgers and fries, menu boards run to the exotic. Think shakshouky, eggplant with pomegranate molasses, and fatteh blahmeh, an archaeological construction of lamb, chickpeas, toasted pita, and yogurt sauce. Blond-wood furniture is snazzier than the counter drill would suggest, and the food has a homey feel. It takes longer than a boxed burger, but what's a few minutes when pickings are this good?

The cafe's menu riffs off Lebanese Taverna's more-ambitious roster--lots of mezze, plus sandwiches, kebabs, and even a Lebanese take on rotisserie chicken jazzed up with garlic sauce. A few hot dishes--such as braised lamb shank and thin-sliced spiced lamb with lemon-garlic-parsley butter--have made the transition to the fast-food concept.

Combination platters may be the way to graze with abandon. There are several, from a vegetarian to the Supreme Feast for Two, which reads like a greatest-hits compilation. Best of the lot are hummus topped with ground meat, pine nuts, and almonds; baked eggplant and chickpeas; and the fatteh dishes. Rice pudding for dessert is a perfect bowl of grown-up nursery food.

Lebanese Taverna Café, Congressional Plaza, 1605 Rockville Pike; 301-468-9086. Wheelchair accessible.

MYKONOS GRILL

Moderate

Order the ethereal whipped taramasalata (fish roe) with pita for a crowd, and it'll be history faster than you can say Zorba. Same goes for melitzanosalata, a smoky eggplant dish that has brought tears to the eyes of a hard-nosed editor pal. Clinch things with kalamarakia rafinas, pan-fried golden squid, and you have a perfect meal.

Of course, a glass of Ouzo No. 12, made on the Greek island of Lesvos, would liven the party at this whitewashed restaurant strewn with urns of Cyclades blue. There are other treasures on the menu, from flamed kasseri cheese to white beans in lemon and olive oil. Main-course wonders include Moussaka Smyrna, with zucchini, eggplant, beef, and béchamel; roast lamb; fried codfish; shrimp with feta; and various kebabs ranging from lamb chops and pork tenderloin to swordfish and chicken with egg-lemon sauce. For dessert, the rich galaktobouriko--a sort of baklava gone wild with custard and cinnamon--is the route to happiness.

Mykonos Grill, 121 Congressional La.; 301-770-5999. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

NIWANO HANA

Inexpensive to Moderate

As frenetic as this place is on a Saturday night, dove-gray walls and cool-blue lighting make for a restful backdrop. The crowds don't seem to faze the staff either. Niwano Hana has been dishing up sushi and other Japanese standards--from tempura and teriyaki to katsu and noodles--to a rapt audience at this location for 18 years. Among the gems: pan-fried scallops with butter; seafood tempura, which brings together shrimp, scallops, squid, and fin fish; and tempura on rice with sweet pungent soy sauce.

Things get more adventurous on the specials board. Look for crunchy pop-in-the-mouth smelt tempura and spicy wasabi shu mai. There are roll specials, too: Alligator with shrimp tempura; Dynamite with spicy tuna, salmon, and yellowtail; and Green-Green roll with green-bean tempura and nori flakes. Mackerel, whitefish, orange clam, and sea urchin are among the more interesting sushi picks on the regular roster.

Niwano Hana, 887 Rockville Pike; 301-294-0553. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner. No wheelchair access.

OPTIONS

Inexpensive to Moderate

Korean restaurants can be hard to navigate. The cuisine is less familiar than Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. Servers often don't speak much English. Which is why Options is such a welcome addition to the area's Korean dining scene. Here's an authentic menu with items in both Korean and English. What's more, the young owners have given the place style with modern light fixtures defining the intimate dining spaces and TV monitors flashing Korea's answer to 'N Sync.

The food is spicier than what you'd find at more mainstream Korean eateries like Arlington's Woo Lae Oak. Kimchee, the national chili-stoked cabbage condiment, figures in one fried-rice dish and a couple of other casseroles. Most palates will enjoy barbecue pork and chicken, spicy anglerfish soup, and stir-fried squid in spicy sauce. If you really can't take heat, regular barbecue dishes such as beef ribs are the ticket--the restaurant is expanding, and soon there will be cooking tables for searing your own.

You'll find several variations on the familiar rice casserole bibim bap, here made with vegetables, seafood, or chop suey. And consider the scallion-shot seafood pancake, cut in wedges, to dip in spicy sauce. A couple of items not often found on local Korean menus include the rave-worthy deep-fried seasoned beef and deep-fried whole chicken, reminiscent of that Southern favorite: fried turkey.

Options, 4870 Boiling Brook Pkwy.; 301-230-0600. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

P.F. CHANG'S CHINA BISTRO

Inexpensive to Moderate

Yes, it's a chain, but my Chinese dentist--who grew up in San Francisco eating hundred-year eggs for breakfast--is a fan, so who am I to cast stones? This stylish, high-energy dining room in White Flint Mall does quite a few things well.

Chang's crunchy spiced chicken and water chestnuts, which you wrap in oversize lettuce leaves, has become a classic. Spare ribs seared with barbecue sauce or braised and mated with five-spice salt are finger lickers. Salt-and-pepper-fried calamari is another winner in the starter lineup. Orange-peel anything--beef, chicken, shrimp--shot with chili peppers delivers sweet heat.

To avoid sugar overload, order some savory plates like Kung Pao shrimp or scallops, crunchy with peanuts, scallions, and chilies; spicy eggplant; or calamari in a red-chili-pepper brew. The weakest dishes are noodles and dumplings, though pan-fried egg noodles with meats and vegetables go down easy. Cocktails are creative, and some clock enough calories--and ice cream--to qualify as dessert.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro, White Flint Mall; 301-230-6933. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

PHO 95

Inexpensive

Like the competition, Pho 75, this bare-bones eatery deals in the homespun Vietnamese beef noodle soup known as pho (pronounced "pha"). You get a choice of meats, from well-done brisket to tripe, and a plate of bean sprouts, basil, hot peppers, and lemon to personalize your bowl--$4.75 for the small, $5.55 for the large. But Pho 95 goes beyond this familiar territory to other seafood and poultry soups and stews with egg noodles such as the savory roasted-quail version and an off-the-menu special of shrimp, chicken, and fish laced with okra, scallions, and fresh pineapple.

Beyond that are plates you'd find in most Vietnamese restaurants: caramel fish in clay pot, with such an engaging sweet-spicy sauce that it's a shame the fish isn't fresher, and the more successful lemongrass shrimp and summer rolls with rich peanut sauce.

Pho 95, 785 Rockville Pike; 301-294-9391. Open Friday through Wednesday for lunch and dinner. No wheelchair access.

RINCONCITO BOLIVIANO [This place is closed]

Inexpensive

This unassuming cafe, with its plastic tablecloths, mini grocery, and bargain-basement prices, seems to be a well-kept secret populated mainly by Bolivians and other Latin American expats. It takes a bit of work to get a read on which dishes on the menu are available--English is definitely the second language here--but your stomach will thank you. Start by nibbling on a chicken-filled turnover known as a saltena or with papas rellenas, mashed potatoes with eggs, meat, and spices.

Like most Latin American restaurants, the cafe has several variations on platters served with rice, fried eggs, and French fries--they range from thin, chewy steak and pork chops to chicken and a stringy, intense beef-jerky-like meat. But the real draws here are soul-warming soups, casseroles, and stews. Sopa de mani is a nutmeg-brown brew of puréed peanuts, potatoes, and chickpeas, brothier than Virginia-style peanut soup and delicious. Fricassee, a casserole of pork, also wows, as does a fiery stew of beef tongue with rice and potatoes, perked up with red chili peppers. Chanka de pollo is a green-onion-laden casserole of chicken; timpu a homey lamb stew with potatoes. During the week, look for special soups made with ground wheat and corn or with quinoa. Top it off with the Bolivian lager, Pacena.

TEMARI CAFE

Inexpensive

The chocolate parfait clinched it. I'd licked my lips--and my spoon--over the velvety Japanese-style yellow curry with pork, and I'd nibbled with glee on the crusty meatloaflike wafu hamburger steak and its sides of pickled red cabbage and daikon. But it was the parfait that really bowled me over.

Who would think to sprinkle Rice Kris-pies amid drifts of ice cream and rivers of chocolate sauce? The Japanese owners of this sliver of a cafe, which is a hangout for Japanese and western hipsters alike. Not that you could see a Rice Krispie anywhere--the Japanese sensibility is too subtle for that--but you could hear and taste little explosions with nearly every bite.

Besides fusion flights of fancy, some of them copped from trendy Tokyo cafes, Temari has more familiar dishes--spicy tuna roll, salmon teriyaki, and the most soulful ramen you'll ever eat. The look is as clever as the food, an effective mixture of Japanese art, wood floors, tin ceiling, and vintage fans. Wooden stools at the sushi bar are singles-friendly, and Japanese books and newspapers give solo diners something to do. The screaming green, orange, and blue coconut-milk "snowcones" may catch your eye, but one bite and your heart will belong to Mr. Parfait.

Temari Cafe, 1043 Rockville Pike; 301-340-7720. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheel-chair accessible.

VIGNOLA CAFE

Moderate

Toddlers will make a beeline for the toy car parked by the mortadella courtesy of the owner's grandchildren. Adults may find the Italian meats and cheeses in the salumeria case of this grocery-restaurant more compelling. By day, these are tucked into snappy hero sandwiches on crusty Italian rolls. By night, white tablecloths come out--as does a pianist on Fridays and Saturdays--and the place turns into a trattoria with regional Italian fare.

Arancino, a Roman and Neapolitan snack rarely seen on area menus, sports peas and a nugget of mozzarella inside a breaded, fried rice ball. Vignola's version is bigger than most and, with its dribble of chunky fresh tomato sauce, scrumptious. House-made tagliatelle with ground veal and a touch of cream, the classic Bolognese, is supremely satisfying. So, for that matter, are both linguine with fresh clams and penne with eggplant, a spicy arrabbiata-style tomato sauce, and crumbles of ricotta salata.

The restaurant makes its own tortellini, ravioli, and mozzarella. There are classics like veal piccata and veal marsala too. It's with the homiest dishes, though, that this kitchen conjures up the bright tossed-together flavors of Italy.

Vignola Cafe, 113-A N. Washington St.; 301-340-2350. Open daily for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

WANDEE THAI BISTRO

Inexpensive to Moderate

After a Loehmann's blowout, this butter-yellow dining room--with its cushioned chairs, pretty floral plates, and cool-blue light fixtures--is the place to unwind.

All the usual Thai dishes are done with finesse: chicken and pork satay, roast duck with chili-and-garlic sauce, whole fish, and a raft of noodle dishes from pad Thai, fragrant with fish sauce, to homey wide-noodled pad see ew. But a handful of plates take Wandee Thai to the next level. Fried rice is made new with a jolt of chilies, Thai basil, and cucumbers for crunch--both the chicken and pork versions are addictive.

Yum Watercress pairs scallops, squid, and shrimp with tempura-style fried watercress, cashews, and a spicy glaze for a culinary explosion. And roast duck--anchoring a salad rife with lime, chilies, and fresh ginger root--wows every time. For dessert, the house-made ice creams and sticky rice with mango are mighty fine.

Wandee Thai Bistro, 5065 Nicholson La.; 301-770-7210. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner. Wheelchair accessible. *

Best of the Best

Rockville Has 20 Places on The Washingtonian's Very Best and Cheap Eats Lists.

Appearing on both 100 Best lists are three places--Seven Seas (1776 E. Jefferson St.; 301-770-5020), known for Dungeness crab and other northern-Chinese seafood dishes; Bombay Bistro (98 W. Montgomery Ave.; 301-762-8795), where gracious service and fiery cuisine keep folks satisfied; and Taste of Saigon (410 Hungerford Dr.; 301-424-7222), an attractive Vietnamese place.

Others among the 100 Very Best are Addie's (11120 Rockville Pike; 301-881-0081), a Modern American place with Southern roots; Andalucia (12300 Wilkins Ave.; 301-770-1880), where paella and other Spanish classics are king; Il Pizzico (15209 Frederick Rd.; 301-309-0610), which proves that good regional Italian fare and delicious pastas don't have to be pricey; Mykonos Grill (121 Congressional La.; 301-770-5999), with marvelous mezze and other Aegean fare; Sam Woo (1054 Rockville Pike; 301-424-0496), a Korean steakhouse with a large menu and cooking tables; and Würzburg Haus (7236 Muncaster Mill Rd.; 301-330-0402), with its hearty German/Continental fare and big German beer list.

Rockville restaurants on our Cheap Eats list are A&J (1319-C Rockville Pike; 301-251-7878), a dim-sum lover's heaven; Benjarong (885 Rockville Pike; 301-424-5533), a popular Thai spot; Caribbean Feast (823 Hungerford Dr.; 301-315-2668), a Jamaican restaurant; Chipotle (11830 Rockville Pike; 301-881-2600), an outpost of the high-quality fast-food Mexican place.

Also on the Cheap Eats list: Cuban Corner (825 Hungerford Dr.; 301-279-0310), an expat-Cuban hangout; Il Pinito (5071 Nicholson La.; 301-881-0085), a southern-Italian place; Pho 75 (771 Hungerford Dr.; 301-309-8873), ladling up the Vietnamese national soup; and That's Amore (1699 Rockville Pike; 301-881-7891) a chain serving Italian food family-style.

Chain Restaurants

Some Are Disappointing, but There's Some Surprisingly Good Eating at the Chains

To survey the restaurant scene in Rockville is to dine at a lot of chains. The best are well-run places like Chipotle and That's Amore, which are on The Washingtonian's annual Cheap Eats list, and Houston's and P. F. Chang's, which appear on our good restaurants in Rockville roster.

Not far behind are the popular local chains Tara Thai (12071 Rockville Pike; 301-231-9899) and Red Hot & Blue Memphis Pit Bar-B-Que (16811 Crabbs Branch Way; 301-948-7333). Both underscore the problems of maintaining high quality when cloning a good restaurant. Rockville's Tara Thai is one of the weakest of the six Maryland and Virginia branches. Though there are flashes of what made these design-driven eateries so popular, food and service are inconsistent. Red Hot & Blue dishes up the lip-smackin' ribs and pulled pork the chain is known for, but sides, service, and other fixings don't measure up.

I wanted to like Timpano Italian Chophouse (12021 Rockville Pike; 301-881-6939), one of the more upscale national chains to land in Rockville. The waitstaff, though a little green, was eager to please, and the dining room and martini bar are handsome in a theme-park way. My food wasn't bad, but there was nothing distinctive or very Italian about it, and prices were steakhouse-high. I'd much rather eat memorable food in a humble dining room.

National chains like the Melting Pot (128 Rollins Ave.; 301-231-8220), Cheesecake Factory (White Flint Mall; 301-770-0999), and Copeland's of New Orleans (1584 Rockville Pike; 301-230-0968) are the most disappointing. Melting Pot's classic cheese fondue is fine, but the rest of the menu and service leave much to be desired. Cheesecake Factory is known for its lengthy wait, its phone book of a menu, and its big portions, but most of the food is just okay. Copeland's tries to come off as a "let the good times roll" scene, but with rare exceptions this is ersatz Creole/Cajun. Service isn't great, food is heaped on, and at least one bartender doesn't know how to make a drink.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 02/01/2003 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles