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Dining Out in Upper Northwest
The Upper Northwest corner of DC is home to many good neighborhood restaurants and a few stars. By Thomas Head
Comments () | Published November 1, 2004

Upper Northwest DC--the area north of the National Cathedral and west along MacArthur Boulevard--is a largely residential area, and the restaurants there appeal largely to their neighborhoods. For special occasions, Upper Northwest residents tend to go downtown. Restaurants that thrive in the area are casual, only moderately expensive, and pleasant places to relax and dine.

There is no shortage of restaurants eager to serve these neighborhoods. The Washingtonian's 100 Very Best Restaurants list includes four in the area-- Heritage India, Indique, Palena, and Petits Plats.

The 100 Best Bargain Restaurants list has nine Upper Northwest addresses--Cactus Cantina, Café Olé, Krupin's, Negril, Neisha Thai Cuisine, Sala Thai, Spices, Tono Sushi, and 2 Amys.

This survey doesn't cover these dependable establishments--we reviewed the 100 Best in January and the 100 Best Bargains in June.

While most of these restaurants are not busy at lunchtime, most are very busy in the evenings, so it's wise to call and make a reservation for dinner.

Three Very Good Restaurants

Buck's Fishing & Camping (moderate). It's not easy for a restaurant to redefine itself, but chef Carole Wagner Greenwood did just that last year when she changed the name of her eponymous restaurant to Buck's Fishing & Camping and enlisted the amiable James Alefantis to run the front of the house. Together they redecorated the place to suggest a fishing camp and reworked the menu in the direction of American comfort food.

Greenwood's cooking is uncomplicated, coaxing wonderful flavors out of seasonal ingredients. A late-summer dinner started with appetizers that included slices of fresh mozzarella layered with slices of roasted peaches and basil, a delicious local variation on an Italian standard. Deviled eggs were paired with crisp bread-and-butter pickles and stuffed olives.

Main courses included a whole branzino, or sea bass, perfectly grilled over a wood fire and paired with greens and a salad of fresh tomatoes dressed with lemon juice. Soft-shell crabs were accompanied by a lemony tartar sauce. Greenwood's "world-famous" mussels, pan-roasted with rosemary and garlic, deserve their fame. Desserts included a homey peach pie and an intensely chocolate devil's-food cake with chocolate sorbet.

Buck's does not take reservations, so get there early or late or be prepared to wait.

Buck's Fishing & Camping, 5031 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-364-0777. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.

Makoto (moderate). Reservations are needed at this 27-seat Japanese restaurant. After removing your shoes, you are guided to one of the four tables or the 11 seats at the sushi bar. It's possible to order sushi by the piece, but the best way to experience Makoto is to order the eight-to-ten-course set menu, which varies daily according to available ingredients.

A recent meal started with a selection of small appetizers--edamame with crabmeat and mayonnaise, uni with crunchy vegetables, and a single asparagus spear with salmon and a lemon slice. The courses continued with asparagus with miso sauce; sashimi of tuna and flounder; beautifully fried softshell crabs with a spicy salt for dipping; chicken with ginger sauce; scallops, mushrooms, shrimp, and beef with vinegar soy sauce; nigiri sushi of tuna, grouper, and Spanish mackerel; a lovely piece of grilled orange roughy with miso paste; noodles with vegetables; and finally a house-made grape sherbet.

The progression of beautifully conceived and presented courses was a bargain at $45. Be aware, though, that a couple of servings of the restaurant's superb cold sake, served in cedar boxes, can add significantly to the cost of the meal.

Makoto Restaurant, 4822 MacArthur Blvd., NW; 202-298-6866. Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.

Yanyu (expensive). Yanyu is the flagship restaurant of the talented Jessie Yan, who also owns the nearby Spices and Oodles Noodles, and Nooshi downtown. The cooking in this sophisticated pan-Asian restaurant is distinguished not only by her use of luxury ingredients but also by her skill in adapting traditional dishes to modern tastes.

Her Lobster Garden Roll is an example--the cool sweetness of the lobster is in contrast to the herbal bite of the sprouts and the heat of the chili dipping sauce. You can find fried calamari almost anywhere, but Yan's Firefly Calamari stand out not only for their tenderness and good frying but their very good spicy seasoning. Lily Bulb Dumplings are a model of lightness and contrasting textures.

Yanyu is worth a trip for Yan's Big Duck--a delicious version of Peking duck, cut at the table and rolled in pancakes with cucumber, scallions, and plum sauce. Two tasting menus offer the chance to try several of her signature dishes, including the duck, for $30 or $40 a person.

Yanyu, 3435 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-686-6968. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, Wednesday through Saturday for lunch. [Note to Readers: Yanyu has closed.] 

Other Good Places to Eat

Ardeo (expensive). New chef Blake Schumpert has begun to put his stamp on the cooking at Ardeo and has come up with a Modern American menu that is well suited to the space and the neighborhood. Starters have included seared sea scallops, perfectly cooked and served with pea risotto, fresh chanterelles, and a truffle vinaigrette. Steamed mussels are delicious in their garlic herb broth. Fried calamari were a bit tough, but the accompanying lemon aïoli was a nice alternative to the usual tomato dipping sauce.

The kitchen will serve half orders of pasta as a first course--the linguine with peas, cream, and soppresatta was very good. Main courses have been a bit less dependable--a too-sweet maple-brined pork chop with peaches; overcooked cod with a delicious brandade of salt cod; a good roast duck breast with confit; and a tough grilled New York strip. The best dessert was a fresh cherry financier with whipped crème fraîche.

Service at a restaurant with these ambitions and prices should rise above the "Now, who had the cod?" level.

Ardeo, 3311 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-244-6750. Open for dinner daily.

Arucola Osteria Italiana (moderate). Opened in 1994 as part of Roberto Donna's restaurant empire, this appealing neighborhood Italian restaurant was bought by its manager, Mahe Bogdonovich, in 2000. Chef Marcial Umana has been at the helm since February. Although Arucola got off to a somewhat rocky start, it has matured into a dependable neighborhood favorite, with good food and professional service.

The menu changes daily. The antipasto selection on a recent evening included fresh anchovies marinated in olive oil, very good grilled sardines in a sweet-sour agro dolce, and nicely cooked grilled octopus on aruguola. Pizzas--cooked in a wood-burning oven--are very good, the crust thin, brown, and crisp and the tomato-Buffalo mozzarella-basil topping applied with a spare hand.

The selection of pastas, all nicely cooked and sauced, consisted of papardelle with veal ragu, ravioli filled with artichokes and roasted tomatoes and sautéed in butter and sage, and a complex fettuccine in yellow tomato sauce, topped with salted ricotta. A sampling of all three is $17.95.

Veal scallopine is one of those workhorses of the Italian-restaurant kitchen that is often carelessly cooked. Here it is tender, served in a delicate white-wine sauce atop a bed of soft polenta. A grilled veal chop, cooked medium rare as ordered, came with lovely rosemary roasted potatoes. Desserts from the cart could use some work, but the zabaglione that accompanies them is terrific.

Arucola Osteria Italiana, 5534 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-244-1555. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner.

Bambu (inexpensive). On almost any evening, the crowd in this MacArthur Boulevard restaurant reflects the neighborhood--families with young children, older couples, and a sprinkling of singles attracted by the casual atmosphere and low prices. Housed in a converted gas station, Bambu is almost unique among the restaurants in this neighborhood in having some parking in front.

The menu is pan-Asian, primarily Chinese and Thai, with a sushi bar for good measure. The Thai dishes are generally more successful than the Chinese. The duck roll was very good, but Chinese fried-meat dumplings suffered from a thick, doughy crust. Ma po tofu, though indicated as spicy, was rather bland. Shrimp in the shell with spicy salt were fresh and good, but their seasoning seemed blander than in most Chinese restaurants. The Thai beef with fresh basil and the Thai curried chicken with coconut milk were both very good.

Bambu, 5101 MacArthur Blvd., NW; 202-364-3088.

Bardeo (moderate). Savvy restaurateur Ashok Bajaj knew that patrons of the Uptown Theater, across from his restaurant Ardeo, would need quicker and more flexible service than that provided by a traditional three-course format. So next door to Ardeo he opened Bardeo, specializing in small plates priced from $6 to $13. It was an immediate success.

Patrons can order one or two small plates--grilled calamari salad, a charcuterie platter, a small grilled filet of beef--accompany it with a glass of wine, and be off to a movie or other event. In the years since it opened, Bardeo has evolved from an idea for quick eating into a destination of its own, a good match not only for the movie crowd but for a neighborhood interested in eating lightly and well.

Bardeo, 3309 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-244-6550. Open daily for dinner.

Cafe Deluxe (moderate). From the Cleveland Park original, Cafe Deluxe has sprouted branches in Tysons Corner and Bethesda. The original has lost none of its appeal. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Senator Joseph Biden was lunching on the sidewalk out front, and the inside was full of families and other neighborhood denizens drawn by the generously portioned sandwiches, moderately priced drinks, and dependable Modern American comfort food.

Starters range from a very good chicken-and-red-pepper quesadilla served with a black-bean-and-corn relish to seared rare ahi tuna with a frisée salad and deliciously salty sesame crisps. If you can resist the sandwiches and their piles of crisp fries, there's a moist herb-roasted chicken with great mashed potatoes and asparagus, or a nostalgic but somewhat bland meatloaf with the same great mashed potatoes and undercooked green beans. A kids' menu presents options including a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich with fries or a three-vegetable plate. What kind of choice is that?

Cafe Deluxe, 3228 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-686-2233.

Caravela (moderate). The food of Portugal is not well known in this country. Carlos and Maria Mendes, owners of Caravela in Tenleytown, want to change that. Their attractive restaurant is a good place to explore Portuguese cuisine. Caldo Verde, green soup made with kale and Portuguese chorizo, is a nice way to start. Other good appetizers include salt-cod fritters, which go very well with drinks, and a terrific dish of clams sautéed in garlic with cilantro and white wine.

Portugal's Atlantic coastline is known for its fish and shellfish dishes. At Caravela, the most spectacular is Arroz de Marisco--an assortment of fresh clams, mussels, shrimp, sea scallops, and lobster, cooked in a crock with fresh herbs and rice. Salt cod is an important part of Portuguese cooking. In Caravela's Bacalhau Assado, the soaked cod is grilled and paired with peppers, onions, and potatoes. Seafood and meat are a classic Portuguese combination, and the pork served with clams and potatoes is a delicious example of it. A mousse of passion fruit--maracuja--is the most interesting dessert.

Caravela, 4615 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-537-3200. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.

Chadwicks (inexpensive). Every neighborhood should have a friendly pub for a beer and burger. The subterranean dining rooms at Chadwicks provide a haven for neighborhood residents in winter, the patio in spring and summer. The burger here is a half pound of charbroiled beef, thick, juicy, and cooked as ordered. The cheeseburger is $7.50 on the menu, but without cheese it's only $6.95--if you order Chadwicks Super Deal, you get a a soda, coffee, or tea thrown in. The French fries are fine. There are also soups, salads, and other kinds of sandwiches, but the burger is the reason to go to Chadwicks.

Chadwicks, 5247 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-362-8040.

Chef Geoff's (moderate). "It's Tuesday night," I thought. "No need to make a reservation." How wrong could I be? Every table and every seat at the bar at chef Geoff Tracy's New Mexico Avenue eatery was occupied.

Chef Geoff's popularity is evidence of the dearth of restaurants in this largely residential neighborhood, but more than that, it's a testimony to how well he has gauged his customers. They can order a full meal or just a sandwich or salad. The atmosphere is right for a casual meal after a hard day at the office. Service is prompt and friendly.

The menu is up-to-date without being demanding. Shrimp stuffed with crab, accompanied by a roasted-corn salsa, makes a good appetizer, as do the mildly spicy chipotle chicken empandas. On a recent visit, cumin-crusted salmon with black beans was very good; pan-roasted duck, a bit undercooked, was less so. But on the whole, a visit to Chef Geoff's is likely to encourage customers to return. Another appealing feature is a list of well-chosen wines, all priced at $25 a bottle.

Chef Geoff's, 3201 New Mexico Ave., NW; 202-237-7800. Open daily for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch.

Colorado Kitchen (moderate). Chef Gillian Clark's restaurant in the dining-poor Brightwood Park neighborhood near 16th and Kennedy streets is almost a one-woman show. From her open kitchen, Clark turns out wonderful food that's influenced by the South but not limited by it.

Her menu, divided into appetizers, small plates, and main courses, makes it easy to order according to your appetite. Great appetizers on the fall menu include a "napoleon" of ham and cheese layered with flaky pastry, a rich and smooth chicken-liver pâté, and a salad with fried nubbins of mild goat cheese.

Main courses included a terrific "schnitzel" of monkfish pounded to medium thickness, seared crisp, and served with cabbage. Duck breast was cooked to a perfect medium, accompanied by a purée of parsnips, and garnished with pears. Only a beautiful but bland Mexican shrimp dish was disappointing. Most main courses are around $16.

It's worth saving room for the homey desserts--a wonderful pineapple upsidedown cake and spicy gingerbread with pear purée. A very good hamburger is available Friday at lunch and Thursday and Sunday nights. Clark's Sunday brunch has many fans, mostly for her feather-light biscuits and house-made doughnuts.

And good news for fans of Colorado Kitchen: By the time this review appears, the restaurant is expected to have a license to serve wine and beer.

Colorado Kitchen, 5515 Colorado Ave., NW; 202-545-8280. Open Friday for lunch, Wednesday through Sunday for dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch.

DeCarlo's Restaurant (moderate). Hidden behind the Spring Valley Shopping Center on Yuma Street, DeCarlo's is a neighborhood secret. It's the kind of Italian restaurant you don't find much any more--professionally run with white tablecloths, seasoned waiters, and a menu devoted to the greatest hits of Italian cooking. You can start with grilled sausage and peppers, mussels with garlic and tomato sauce, or pasta-and-bean soup.

Pasta courses include penne with sausage, linguine with clams, and trenette carbonara, each superbly done. For a main course, tuck into a beautifully cooked veal marsala, tender braised osso buco, or flavorful grilled squid with butter and white-wine sauce. WAMU talk-show host Diane Rehm, who lives in the neighborhood, says it's one of her favorite restaurants. It may become one of yours, too.

DeCarlo's Restaurant, 4822 Yuma St., NW; 202-363-4220. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.

Delhi Dhaba (inexpensive). From its beginnings as a modest Indian buffet in Arlington, Delhi Dhaba has opened successful satellites in Bethesda and on upper Connecticut Avenue. Although the new branches still do a large takeout business, they also are pleasant places to dine.

Delhi Dhaba's specialties include its rich Butter Chicken; tandoori chicken, moist and flavorful, cooked in the intense heat of the brick oven; delicious tandoori lamb chops; a fiery lamb vindaloo; and a dozen vegetarian dishes.

Delhi Dhaba, 4455 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-1008.

49 Twelve Thai Cuisine (inexpensive). Regulars get a hearty greeting at this neighborhood Thai restaurant; regulars who haven't been in for a while are given the opportunity to explain their absence. Both the greetings and the low prices keep customers coming back. It's a bargain at lunch: The specials--each consisting of an appetizer, main course, and rice--are about $6. The cooking is not subtle, but the food is hearty and fresh.

The crust on the stuffed chicken wings often found in Thai restaurants was hard and tough, but main-course chicken with basil was hot with chilies and nicely cooked--you can't complain too much for $6. Thai salads, including larb--the spicy ground chicken--and the seafood salad, may be ordered mild or spicy. The menu has a good selection of red and green curries and several good vegetarian options.

49 Twelve Thai Cuisine, 4912 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-966-4696.

Kotobuki (moderate). Located upstairs in the building next to the one that houses the better-known Makoto, the tiny Kotobuki offers first-rate sushi and a small menu of non-sushi dishes. The eel is terrific--broiled with a layer of pickled ginger underneath. The sushi is fresh, beautifully cut, and well priced.

But the real bargain is what the short menu calls "sets"--kamameshi is its Japanese name. These one-dish meals are rice casseroles of eel, chicken, or vegetables. Preceded by miso soup and accompanied by a tray of pickles and vegetables, the dishes are a bargain at $15.

Kotobuki, 4822 MacArthur Blvd., NW; 202-625-9080. Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.

Lavandou (moderate). There are few more pleasant dining experiences in the city than a fall evening at this pretty Provençal bistro with the windows open to the bustle along Connecticut Avenue. This is a very well-run restaurant serving satisfying, well-prepared traditional bistro food.

Dependable starters include escargots with garlic and basil butter baked in eggplant, a coarse-ground country pâté, and a rich and smooth duck-liver terrine. The pâté and terrine come on the charcuterie platter, listed under "salads," along with smoked duck breast, garlic sausage, dry-cured ham, and a salad of green beans and walnuts. It's enough for two to share.

Good main courses include a lamb stew with artichokes and tomatoes and a pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon. The only disappointment has been calves' liver, well cooked but not well trimmed. The dessert special on a recent visit was a wonderful dish of fresh figs stewed in red wine and spices and served over vanilla ice cream.

Lavandou, 3321 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-966-3003. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.

Matisse (expensive). It's almost a rule that the quality of service in a restaurant varies in direct proportion to the number of customers. The busier the servers, the more efficient they tend to be. The slower the evening, the more the attention of servers is likely to wander.

That was the case on a recent Sunday evening at Matisse. With only three tables filled, there were long waits for water, for drinks, for menus, for dessert orders, for the bill. The food was this restaurant's usual mixture of hits and misses.

The best of the appetizers was nicely seared sea scallops with fava beans and sweet peas. Pizza was undercooked. Roast quail was filled with a bland polenta stuffing and cooked to tastelessness. The main courses were similarly uneven. Tempura soft-shell crabs were served with a crabcake too heavy on the binder. Roast chicken, the white meat overcooked, was not redeemed by flaccid French fries. The best of the three main courses sampled was a grilled halibut filet. It's a pity that this attractive space has such inconsistent food.

Matisse, 4934 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-244-5222. Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner, Sunday for brunch.

Murasaki (moderate). This attractive Japanese restaurant with an inviting outdoor patio is popular both with the neighborhood and with people from the nearby Japanese embassy. Check the board of specials on your way in to see what unusual items the sushi chef is offering that day--recently it was toro, the fatty tuna not always available, and sweet shrimp. There's also a list of special appetizers, perhaps beautifully fried shrimp rolls.

Tempura is a particular treat--good quality ingredients lightly battered and crisply fried. Murasaki is a good value at lunch, when a bento box with a generous serving of shrimp and vegetable tempura and several pieces of sushi is only $7.95.

Murasaki, 4620 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-966-0023. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.

Sorriso (moderate). A lively bar, pizzeria, and ristorante near the Uptown Theater, Sorriso offers good pre- or post-movie dining. The pizzas are impressive with well-made, well-cooked crusts.

Other good choices are bruschetta topped with tomato, garlic, and basil or carpaccio of tuna to start; well-cooked pastas, including rigatoni with a splendid Bolognese sauce; and meat courses like a tender osso buco in red-wine sauce, served with polenta. The wine list has a number of good bottles in the $20 range, service is friendly and prompt, and the place is completely smoke-free.

Sorriso, 3518 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-4800. Open daily for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday for lunch.

Starland Café (moderate). Named after co-owner Bill Danoff's 1970s Starland Vocal Band, this friendly neighborhood hangout has live music on weekends. (The schedule is at starlandcafe.com.) The casual menu has something for everybody--those who want a full meal, those who want a sandwich or a salad, or the regulars at the bar who want something to go with drinks.

Burgers are good--the serving of four mini-burgers with Starland's signature tobacco onions makes a good appetizer for two. Also appealing from the appetizer menu is the fresh mozzarella fried in a crisp Parmesan crust and served with pesto and tomato-basil sauces. The crab-and-artichoke dip is a good example of this standby, but the toast with it seemed stale.

The veal meatballs were fine, but the polenta they were served on had turned gluey. A better bet is the Black Angus strip steak, cooked as ordered and accompanied by crisp polenta fries. The warm pot-au-chocolat is a terrific dessert, and the wine list had an impressive David Bruce Zinfandel for a reasonable $34.

Starland Café, 5125 MacArthur Blvd., NW; 202-244-9396. Open daily for dinner, Monday through Friday for lunch.

Trattoria Liliana (moderate). The charm of hosts Maurizio and Liliana Dumas has given this modest Italian restaurant a loyal clientele. Much of the cooking reflects the simple cuisine of their native Liguria. You might start with tender baby octopus, grilled sardines, or a very good fritto misto. Pastas are more likely to be sauced with the region's famous pesto alla Genovese than with tomato sauce. Best is the splendid potato gnocchi, sauced with a pesto of basil, garlic, pine nuts, and cheese.

Both the veal chop and the leg of lamb are nicely cooked. Fish dishes have included sea scallops sautéed and served with Belgian endive in a cream sauce, tuna paired with a hearty sauce of garlic and capers, and shrimp served in a piquant lemon, garlic, and wine sauce. Save room for one of Liliana's desserts. Her pistachio layer cake is rich, moist, and delicious.

Trattoria Liliana, 4483 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-237-0893. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. [Note to Readers: Trattoria Liliana has closed.]

Yosaku (moderate). This dependable Japanese restaurant is beginning to look a little old compared with the newer Murasaki just a block away. It's an old-timer in the Tenleytown neighborhood, and it has a loyal clientele.

Sushi, Yosaku's strength, is a very good deal--$14 for the basic sushi assortment at dinner. There's much more than raw fish on the menu--negimaki, grilled beef wrapped around scallions; grilled fish with teriyaki sauce; very good tempura; and terrific tonkatsu, pork coated in panko crumbs and crisply fried. Service is prompt and friendly.

Yosaku, 4712 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-363-4453. Open daily for dinner, Monday through Friday for lunch.

Sentimental Favorites

Guapo's (inexpensive). This popular Tex-Mex restaurant, which has five other locations around the area, must be doing something right, because it's almost always full. It's not the margaritas, which are too sweet. It's not the guacamole, which has the slick texture of avocados mashed a while ago. It's not the chicken fajitas, charred to cinders. The beef fajitas were better, the beef enchilada fine, and the chiles rellenos a bit greasy but with good cheese-and-chile flavor. The quantities are large, the prices are low.

Guapo's, 4515 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-686-3588.

Yenching Palace (moderate). You go to Yenching Palace for a bit of time travel. The turquoise exterior has been toned down, but the neon sign remains, and the interior looks much as it must have in 1962 when the emissaries of John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev met there to agree on the terms that ended the Cuban missile crisis.

Our waiter, who seemed as much a fixture as the stone lions, was genial and forgetful. The food is old-time Chinese restaurant fare. Among the starters, neither crispy spring rolls nor the shrimp toast was very good, and barbecue spare ribs seemed to have been sitting too long. Main courses sampled included pork with scallions and black beans, a crispy whole fish--the best dish of the evening--and a timidly spiced version of mapo tofu. It's a reminder of how far we've come in recent years in our ability to get authentic regional Chinese cooking.

Yenching Palace, 3524 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-362-8200. [Note to Readers: Yenching Palace has closed.]

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