The pace of high-profile restaurant openings slowed in 2003. Charlie Palmer Steak, with its striking decor and prime Capitol Hill location, was the most ambitious and expensive restaurant to open. The owners of DC Coast and TenPenh have opened Ceiba, a very promising pan-Latin restaurant in downtown DC.
The restaurants in three Foggy Bottom hotels--the Circle Bistro at One Washington Circle, Nectar at the George Washington University Inn, and Dish at the River Inn--have interesting new chefs and menus. For the most part, it has been a year for renewal. The four-star Vidalia closed for the month of August for a complete renovation. The four-star Kinkead's has just announced plans to do the same in January and February 2004, reopening in time for Valentine's Day.
As Washingtonians continue to eat more meals away from home, lower-priced restaurants continue to open. Many are ethnic restaurants--Green Papaya in Bethesda, Tony Lin's in Rockville, Jaipur in Fairfax, Dragon Star in the Eden Center, Indique in DC--offering remarkable quality at low to moderate prices.
Fans of Yannick Cam will notice that Le Relais in Great Falls, where Cam has been cooking for the last two years, is missing from this year's list. This is because Cam plans to open a new restaurant in DC. Tentatively called Le Paradou, the restaurant will be at 601 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, in the space formerly occupied by Bice, Villa Franco, and Maloney & Porcelli. Adamstein & Demetriou have been hired as architects for the new venture, scheduled to open in January.
In determining the 100 Best awards, each restaurant has been compared with others of the same type and level of ambition.
Restaurants are rated as good (*), very good (**), superior (***), or outstanding (****). Establishments with three or four stars are Blue Ribbon Award winners. Four-star restaurants are among the best in the country.
A dinner for two--without alcohol but including three courses, tax, and a 15-percent tip--is the basis for this cost guide: $40 or less, inexpensive; $41 to $70, moderate; $71 to $130, expensive; more than $130, very expensive.
Unless otherwise indicated, restaurants are accessible by wheelchair.
Restaurants in DC were selected by Thomas Head, in Maryland by Cynthia Hacinli, and in Virginia by David Dorsen.
** Rockville, Expensive
It's hard to become a neighborhood hangout when the neighborhood is Rockville Pike, but Addie's has. This retro-stylish place with vintage prints on the walls and an old stove in the front hall woos fans with updated comfort food. Hankering for duck-leg confit? Try it on a bed of endive with roasted baby beets, parsnips, and toasted hazelnuts. It's billed as a starter, but you can make it the star of your meal. Chili-crusted cornmeal oysters with Smithfield ham, corn, and spinach, and diver scallops over cauliflower purée are also generous-enough plates to share.
The hardwood-grilled items account for the best of the main courses: a pork chop with mashed sweet potatoes and apple-pecan slaw, Angus rib eye with Cabernet demi-glace and fried onion strings, and for low-carbers, yellowfin tuna with wilted spinach. This is not the place to order pasta, which falls short on flavor. And like its sister restaurant, Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda, the kitchen here, under the helm of executive chef Jeffrey Black and chef de cuisine Joseph Zumpano, occasionally layers on too many ingredients. Good at lunch are the Argentine steak salad and buttermilk-battered fried calamari with chipotle rémoulade. And pumpkin bread pudding is worth falling off the wagon for any time of day.Addie's, 11120 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-881-0081. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner.
* Downtown DC; Moderate
Much of the area's Mexican cooking is really either Salvadoran or Tex-Mex. So it was good for fans of authentic Mexican regional cooking when chef Alison Swope, a veteran of the kitchens at New Heights in Woodley Park and Santa Fe East in Alexandria, changed the name of her restaurant, the Mark, to Andale and began serving regional Mexican cooking.
Swope's menu, and Mexican cooking in general, is set up for grazing. A couple of antojitos or appetizers might make a good snack before a performance at the Shakespeare Theatre or a light supper afterwards. Totopos from the antojitos menu--tortillas topped with crabmeat, shrimp, and Manchego cheese--are one delicious possibility, as are the empanada stuffed with serrano chilies and chopped shrimp, and the chile relleno, battered, fried, and served on a bed of tomato sauce.
Several dishes on the regular menu are so good that one wants to order them again and again: Pescado en Tikin Xik, tuna marinated in spices and sour-orange juice and served on tortillas with onions, salsa, and avocado; Mole Poblano con Pollo, a chicken leg and breast in a complex mole sauce of chilies with spices, nuts, and a bit of Mexican chocolate; and Barbacoa de Borrego, leg of lamb marinated in chilies, covered with avocado leaves, and slow-roasted.
But reordering favorites means you wouldn't sample treats like Swope's menu celebrating the Day of the Dead: Chiles en Nogado, poblano chilies stuffed with a sweet-and-sour pork picadillo; a delightfully light-textured tamale stuffed with chicken and mole poblano; and a green mole in the style of Oaxaca, coating a pork tenderloin and accompanied by garlicky white beans and little masa dumplings.Andale, 401 Seventh St., NW; 202-783-3133. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
** Capitol Hill; Expensive
Almost every evening, both the tables and the bar at Jeffrey and Sallie Buben's stylish contemporary French bistro are packed with politicians, Hill staffers, and lobbyists. Political celebrities are easy to sight, and the conversation is animated--but the reason Bistro Bis operates to full houses is a winning combination of classic bistro cooking and friendly, efficient American-style service.
A serving of Bis's brandade of salt cod and puréed potatoes, served with toasted slices of baguette, makes a good accompaniment to predinner drinks, as do such charcuterie selections as the rich mousse of duck liver or the jambon persillé. Main-course favorites include rabbit in mustard sauce with buttered noodles and pan-roasted sweetbreads with root vegetables; recent daily specials have included deliciously tender veal cheeks and a generous lamb steak from the leg, cooked beautifully medium-rare. Desserts from pastry chef Hannah Leake are very good, particularly the crisp-crusted apple tart, but a selection of cheeses from "fromager" Mark Sutherland, all perfectly ripe and served at room temperature, is another temptation, particularly if there's some red wine left in the bottle.Bistro Bis, 15 E St., NW; 202-661-2700. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Chef Keo Koumtakoun ran the kitchen at Le Paradis in Gaithersburg, La Provence in Vienna, and Saveur in DC. Isabelle Zorro ran the dining room at Le Refuge in Alexandria. They have joined forces to make this a satisfying French-provincial restaurant providing cuisine bourgeoise in an informal setting.
The cooking tends to the hearty. Good appetizers have been the sautéed calamari with roasted bell peppers and garlic confit; a fricassee of fresh portobello mushrooms with garlic butter and garlic confit; grilled Japanese eggplant with Roquefort and diced tomato with thyme and parsley; a mixed salad topped with duck confit; and a thick mushroom soup with a dollop of olive oil in the center.
For the main event, try the lamb shank with linguine and diced vegetables; a saddle of rabbit stuffed with mushrooms; a rack of lamb with fresh thyme jus; a fine version of bouillabaisse; and salmon glazed with a Key-lime sauce. Winners among the house-made desserts are the tarte tatin and the pear poached in Cabernet. The bread is excellent. The wine list includes a number of good bottles in the $20 range.Bistrot Lafayette, 1118 King St., Alexandria; 703-548-2525. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
** Georgetown; Moderate
Its cheerful yellow walls and eastern light make the dining room at Bistrot Lepic one of the prettiest in Washington. It's perfectly suited to chef/owner Bruno Fortin's cooking, an appealing mixture of regional French classics and modern innovations that has won it a devoted following in its upper Georgetown neighborhood.
Bistrot Lepic recently turned its former private dining room upstairs into a handsome wine bar, serving a menu of about a dozen small plates called "appeteasers." Sufficient for a light meal or a snack with drinks, this appealing assortment includes an onion tart, roasted peppers stuffed with brandade of salt cod and potatoes, a terrine of foie gras, and veal cheeks in puff pastry. It's also a haven for smokers, who, by reservation, can order from the full downstairs menu.
A recent fall lunch started with appetizers of creamy, mildly spiced rabbit rillettes and a delicious dish of pig's feet, boned and molded into a terrine, then sliced, breaded, and fried. Main courses included veal cheeks cooked to perfection and a quail half-boned and stuffed with foie gras. Anyone with any affection for French food will find it hard to go wrong at Bistrot Lepic.Bistrot Lepic, 1736 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-0111. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner.
BLACK'S BAR AND KITCHEN
** Bethesda; Expensive
Even on a rainy Tuesday evening, you'll probably need a reservation. Couples and foursomes gravitate to this stylish yet cozy dining room done up with vintage black-and-white photos and old-time ceiling fans. The best plates are the simplest ones. Go for Bras D'Or oysters from Nova Scotia--the raw bar has several oyster varieties to choose from every day. Or grilled-portobello salad with beets, greens, and creamy walnut-crusted goat cheese. Or try Prince Edward Island mussels--steeped with garlic, shallots, lemon, and tomato and copious enough to share. Main courses range from lump crabcakes jazzed up with a trickle of creamy Creole mustard sauce to pristine diver scallops to a stew of more than half a dozen briny creatures in fragrant tomato-saffron broth with duck sausage and aïoli croutons adding to the frisson.
Seafood dominates--chef de cuisine David Craig made his name at Pesce, but his time at the Tabard Inn gave him opportunity to dabble in other genres. Roast chicken in red wine with apple-wood-smoked bacon and whipped potatoes is comfort on a plate. Grilled Angus rib eye with piquant red-pepper chimichurri and filet mignon with a double whammy of sauces--Cabernet demi-glace and Maytag bleu cheese--deliver meaty bliss. Desserts include a tangy citrus tart and house-made caramel-toffee ice cream with chocolate-chunk cookies. The beer and wine lists are thoughtful, and if you like hanging out at the bar, those oysters and a great burger await.Black's Bar and Kitchen, 7750 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-6278. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
BLUE POINT GRILL
The dining room, full of gleaming dark wood, is decorated with extravagant floral arrangements. The raw bar has an elaborate array of offerings. The restaurant is noisy: The close proximity of tables can lead you to believe that your table is part of a larger party. An outdoor veranda offers a less formal setting in nice weather. Inside or out, you can count on good service.
Shellfish is a specialty. It is good but not cheap. A half dozen clams are $8, a half lobster $15. You might start with the buttermilk-fried calamari with a Serrano-chili-lime dipping sauce, a plate of seared tuna and tuna tartare, or sweet garlic soup with sourdough croutons. Good seafood main courses are the Eastern Shore crabcakes with corn relish; sea scallops poached in butter and scallop with a sauté of mushrooms, baby bok choy, and salmon roe; pan-seared halibut with green lentils and asparagus in anchovy butter; and the medallions of tuna--thick triangles of tuna with tasso ham, wild mushrooms, and cream. Meat fanciers will enjoy the grilled New York strip steak with a bleu-cheese-and-Port sauce and the roasted poussin. Desserts are good, with chocolate concoctions heading the list.Blue Point Grill, 600 Franklin St., Alexandria; 703-739-0404. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
BOBBY VAN'S STEAKHOUSE
** Downtown DC; Expensive
Each of our top steakhouses, as Robert Shoffner pointed out in his comprehensive report in the October issue, has its specialty. At the Prime Rib, it's the bone-in rib eye. At the Palm, it's the New York strip. At Bobby Van's, it's the porterhouse, USDA Prime beef, dry-aged for six weeks, cooked to order, sliced in the kitchen, and reassembled on its bone. If you plan to order it, go with a dining companion or two and a healthy appetite--it's available for two, three, or four persons.
A good steak demands good sides. Chef Cris Benson's hash browns are beautifully crusted, the cottage fries crisp, and the spinach rich and creamy. If you're not in the mood for steak, the braised short ribs or the lamb shank, both long-cooked and richly flavored, are good alternatives.
One caveat: Service at Bobby Van's can be flawless, but there have complaints about negligent waiters and about mistakes from the kitchen that no one seemed particularly concerned about setting right.Bobby Van's Steakhouse, 809 15th St., NW; 202-589-0060. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
** Fairfax, Rockville; Inexpensive
Whole rockfish, given the tandoori treatment, is more than worth the trip. Massaged with tangy yogurt, ginger, and garlic, it emerges from the clay oven moist and smoky. Though the Fairfax restaurant is bigger and snazzier, the fiery cooking and gracious service at both places make them appealing to Indian and Western patrons alike. Along with familiar dishes like tandoori chicken and a fire-breathing lamb vindaloo are more obscure possibilities, such as aromatic braised lamb shank, Prince Edward Island mussels steeped in coconut milk, chicken Chettinad zippy with curry leaves and coriander, and shrimp and scallops tossed with coriander and tamarind.
Cuisine from the north dominates, but there's a nod to the south with a lineup of dosas--crisp, oversize pancakes filled with vegetables--and dishes like the starter of mini-lentil rice cakes with a slew of dipping sauces. Other fresh takes are gingery fish cutlets paired with an offbeat tomato chutney, and a cool yogurt salad studded with chickpeas and flour crisps. Even the dal is worthy of star status. Scoop it up with one of the house-made flatbreads from the tandoor. Bone-in half chicken and ground-meat seekh kebab are the most succulent of the tandoori meats, and a curry of lamb in a chili-stoked green masala is another flavor high. Cool things down for dessert with saffron-laced Kesar Kulfi, a sort of Indian ice-cream sundae drizzled with a tart orange sauce.Bombay Bistro, 3570 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax; 703-359-5810; 98 W. Montgomery Ave., Rockville; 301-762-8798. Both locations open daily for lunch and dinner.
* Bethesda; Moderate
When you want a truly great plate of pasta, head to Buon Giorno. A Bethesda fixture for 29 years, this Old World eatery with its pale-lemon dining rooms and black-jacketed waiters is a restaurant for grown-ups. No trendy light fixtures or elaborate menu descriptions--the food speaks for itself. Start with the shaved-fennel-and-roast-pepper salad. Or a toss of raw mushrooms with olive oil, lemon, and parsley. Or do as the Italians do--share a pasta, much of it house-made by Arcide and Angela Ginepro, who opened the place in the '70s and now run it with their daughter, Daniela Nicotra. Nicotra spends part of every summer traveling around Italy, which keeps flavors authentic.
Among the more memorable plates: trenette all'antica, thin ribbons of pasta with a woodsy pesto and green beans, a Ligurian specialty; tagliolini kissed with fresh lemon cream from the Amalfi coast; and pappardelle alla contadina, handkerchief-shaped noodles with wild mushrooms and tomato sauce. Filled pastas are blue-ribbon contenders, especially meat-filled ravioli with tomato and mushroom sauce and agnolotti alla panna with spinach, ricotta, and herbs. If you can tear yourself away from pastas, veal dishes, especially the scallopine with fresh lemon sauce and mushrooms, are nicely turned out. For dessert try tiramisu or tartuffo, a melt-in-the-mouth ball of chocolate-hazelnut ice cream in a cloak of cocoa powder.Buon Giorno, 8003 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-1400. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
** Downtown DC; Moderate
Although José Andrés no longer does the day-to-day cooking at this popular Nuevo Latino restaurant--that's now the job of chef Katsuya Fukushima--his spirit still hovers. His latest innovation is a six-seat minibar with its own prix fixe menu of about 30 tiny courses, prepared in the style of Andrés's friend and mentor Ferran Adria, owner and chef of the restaurant El Bulli near Barcelona. At the minibar you'll find some of the most interesting, and most unexpectedly delicious, food in Washington: a skewer of foie gras surrounded by cotton candy; a cherry tomato pierced by an ampule of mozzarella cream to be shot into your mouth at the moment you bite the tomato; pineapple ravioli; jicama rolls with tomato and Altoids.
If you don't snag a seat at the minibar, the Café Atlántico experience is still a pleasure. The bar serves the best mojitos and caipirinhas in town, guacamole is freshly prepared at the table, and the kitchen's deconstructed feijoada is a delicious take on this traditional Brazilian dish.Café Atlántico, 405 Eighth St., NW; 202-393-0812. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner, Saturday and Sunday for Latino "dim sum" brunch.
** Georgetown; Very Expensive
To fully appreciate the success of Franco Nuschese's Italian restaurant, drop in late at night when the bar and dining room are packed with an international crowd of socialites, celebrities, movers and shakers, and patrons who aspire to be any of the above. To appreciate the food, it's probably better to go at lunchtime, when the atmosphere is more relaxed and the restaurant is populated mostly by ladies taking a break from a day of shopping in Georgetown. It's to Nuschese's credit--and that of his executive chef, Domenico Cornacchia--that both crowds feel at home.
Cornacchia's menu mixes the familiar and the surprising, never losing sight of the basic simplicity of good Italian cooking--antipasti of crisply fried calamari and baby smelts or stuffed olives, Ascolana-style with caponata; pastas named for famous design houses, such as the very good Orecchiette Kiton, with artichokes, anchovies, and air-dried ricotta; simple second courses like a crisp-skinned sea bass in a herby tomato broth with couscous or roast chicken with Jerusalem artichokes and wild mushrooms. Café Milano is an all-too-rare combination of style and substance.Café Milano, 3251 Prospect St., NW; 202-333-6183. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
* Arlington; Moderate
The airy upstairs dining room draws an enthusiastic dinner crowd, while the same food is offered in a cozier setting downstairs in the bar. The dishes are straightforward, the ingredients first-rate, the cooking competent, and the portions large. Prices are moderate, with most main courses under $20. Service is friendly and efficient. Think of it as a place for a fun night out.
Good appetizers are crispy salt-and-pepper calamari on a bed of roasted tomato and garlic butter; blue-crab fritter inside a tangle of phyllo threads; stewed lobster pot sticker with a ginger-garlic-butter sauce; and shrimp-and-shiitake spring rolls. For the main course, consider sautéed jumbo lump crabcakes with a rémoulade sauce and good, thin French-fried potatoes; a powerfully smoked, sauced, and grilled Black Angus rib-eye steak with rich Parmesan mashed potatoes; or chicken paillard with sun-dried tomatoes on angel-hair pasta. Good breads come from Best Buns Bread Company next door. Good house-made desserts include banana pudding with candied vanilla wafers, caramel, and chocolate sauce, and white-chocolate cheesecake with raspberry coulis.
The wine list is reasonably priced, offering a few choices for under $20.Carlyle, 4000 S. 28th St., Arlington; 703-931-0777. Open daily for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch.
CASHION'S EAT PLACE
*** Adams Morgan; Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
When Mississippi native Ann Cashion opened her own restaurant, the name she chose paid tribute to Doe's Eat Place, a famous Greenville, Mississippi, steak-and-tamale shack. Cashion's Eat Place is not a steakhouse (though there is a very good buffalo hanger steak on the menu), does not serve tamales, and is not a shack--it's the most cosmopolitan restaurant in Adams Morgan. It's Ann Cashion's way of embracing a heritage of southern cooking that's unpretentious, borrows from all sorts of sources, uses what's in season, and thinks a plate doesn't look right without at least a couple of vegetables.
It's a very personal restaurant. The menu changes daily, making it hard to recommend a dish with any certainty that you'll find it. The star of a recent dinner was a ragoût of mushrooms served on a corncake, a combination of the exotic and homey. That's Cashion's cooking at its best. It unfolds from the simplicity of a loin of Polyface Farms pork with a garlic sauce, sweet potatoes, and green beans to the elegance of a saddle of rabbit stuffed with ham, truffles, and veal and served with house-made pappardelle. Desserts show a similar range, from a chocolate-pecan brownie with caramel ice cream to a very southern coconut layer cake with huckleberries to a selection of American cheeses in perfect condition.Cashion's Eat Place, 1819 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-797-1819. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, Sunday for brunch.
* Manassas; Expensive
Award-winning proprietor/chef Marc Fusilier passed away last June, but the cooking here is as good as ever. Chef Natael Martinez, who in recent years did most of the cooking while Fusilier tended to the diners, remains behind the range. The preparations are well suited to the traditional decor. Main courses are $20 to $36. Entertainment consists of recordings of Edith Piaf and other stars of the era when the decor and dishes were new.
Good starters on the regular menu are the scallops in a garlic-butter-and-tomato sauce, scallops with a feathery puff pastry and finely minced vegetables, and an unusual preparation of scallops of alligator in a red-wine-laced brown sauce. Appealing main courses include a half duck with blueberry sauce, medallions of venison with a wild-mushroom sauce, pheasant with cream sauce, pepper steak, filet mignon, and trout stuffed with crabmeat.
A prix fixe dinner, served Monday through Wednesday evenings for $27, offers a choice of lobster bisque or a fine romaine salad; a choice of trout amandine, tenderloin of pork, steak, or grilled salmon; a dessert soufflé; and a glass of wine.Chez Marc Restaurant Francais, 7607 Centreville Rd. (Rt. 28), Manassas; 703-369-6526. Open Thursday and Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
**** Georgetown; Very Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
Michel Richard is one of the most accomplished French chefs at work in this country. He started as a pastry chef with the famous Gaston Lenôtre in Paris. He came to the United States to open a pastry shop for Lenôtre, ran his own pastry shop in Santa Fe, then moved his base of operations to Los Angeles, where Citrus, which he opened in 1987, brought him a national reputation. Richard opened Citronelle in Georgetown's Latham Hotel in 1994 and in 1998 decided to move here and make Citronelle his flagship operation.
A meal at the elegant, open-kitchened restaurant is always an adventure--Richard is a whimsical chef, but his whimsy is always grounded in classical French technique. An Oyster Shooter, like its downscale relative the Jell-O shooter, is served in a shot glass but is a deliciously layered offering of tomato water, raw oysters, caviar, cream, and cucumber mousse. Homey-sounding dishes like mushroom lasagna emerge from his kitchen more beautiful and better-tasting than you've ever imagined. The usual escargots in garlic butter are enclosed in spinach gnocchi. Scallops are surrounded with kataifi, deep fried, and served on a bed of artichoke hearts with lemongrass sauce.
When it comes to dessert, the pastry-chef gene becomes dominant, resulting in final plates of good taste and fun--caramel soufflé; Jolie Pomme with crisp, caramelized sugar "apple" slices; or the best Kit Kat bar you're ever likely to taste.Citronelle, Latham Hotel, 3000 M St., NW; 202-625-2150. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
COLVIN RUN TAVERN
*** Vienna; Very Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
This is not Kinkead's lite, a stepchild of the popular Kinkead's in DC. It is an excellent and elegant restaurant. Bob Kinkead usually attends his namesake DC restaurant during the week and Colvin Run Tavern on weekends. Day in and day out, the restaurant is in the capable hands of Jeffrey Gaetjen, so the cooking is consistent, and the staff serving the three dining rooms is more than able.
The restaurant offers an array of dishes to go with the high-quality seafood. Good introductory courses are the pumpkin ravioli with brown butter, fried sage, pancetta, and pumpkin oil; shaved Serrano ham with roasted figs, bleu cheese, frisée salad, walnuts, and fig molasses; and seared sea scallops with parsley-caper purée and a pancetta-and-baby-arugula salad. Seafood main-course winners are the seared rare tuna with Tuscan-style beans; pan-roasted North Atlantic cod with a butter-cracker crust; and walnut-crusted salmon with a cauliflower flan and Sherry-beet sauce.
Among the meat dishes, consider the pan-roasted Muscovy duck breast with potato gnocchi or the grilled pork tenderloin with house-made braised bacon. A tasting menu offers four courses for $59 ($84 with wine); a trio of very good cheeses adds $6. Excellent desserts include a milk-chocolate torte with an espresso-cream center and a tiramisu-coffee-Anglaise sauce. The wine list, which includes many wines by the glass, is comprehensive and reasonably priced.Bob Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern, 8045 Leesburg Pike, Vienna; 703-356-9500. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
** Downtown DC; Expensive
Chef Tom Power's Corduroy is one of the hidden gems of Washington dining, located on the second floor of the Sheraton Four Points Hotel with no direct entrance and only a discreet sign on the street. Although the restaurant's obscure location means diners usually can find a table even on weekend evenings, it also has tended to obscure Power's accomplishments.
A veteran of Michel Richard's kitchens at both the now-closed Philadelphia Citronelle and Richard's home base in Washington, Power cooked at the Old Angler's Inn before opening Corduroy. His style is impressive for its simplicity and the quality of its ingredients. First-course choices on a fall menu included a buffalo-mozzarella "porcupine"; a flavorful cauliflower-Parmesan soup; and wonderful lobster salad enlivened by a spare application of basil-flavored oil. Main-course choices were equally satisfying: a buffalo strip loin from Georgetown Farm, cooked as ordered and served with dauphine potatoes; a lamb sirloin with tiny goat-cheese ravioli; and a beautifully cooked pheasant.
Desserts, as might be expected from Power's training with a master pastry chef, are superb--delicious chocolate-hazelnut bars, perfectly textured ice creams and sorbets, and a rich chocolate tart.Corduroy, 1201 K St., NW; 202-589-0699. Open daily for breakfast and dinner, Monday through Friday for lunch.
THE CROSSING AT CASEY JONES
* La Plata; Expensive
West Coast transplants will feel right at home in this wood-and-stone dining room, where wine is a leitmotif--one wall doubles as a many-tiered wine rack. The list is short, dynamic, and fairly priced and offers ample choices by the glass. Like the wine list, chef Gary Fick's menu is a breath of fresh air--no tenderloin, unless you count the carpaccio of Kobe beef, and no salmon.
Fick pushes the envelope with starters like sautéed lump crab over Navajo fry bread and grilled heart of romaine with a Parmesan tuile. Main courses include country-fried lemonade chicken with braised artichokes, and a pork-chop BLT on flatbread with plum mayo, butter-bean salad, and portobello fries. With all this risk-taking there are bound to be stumbles, and service has its ups and downs as well. Consolation comes with warm berry cobbler crackling on its caramelized crust. And the restaurant's baked Alaskas--a house-made strawberry-shortcake version and a chocolate one--are by now new-wave classics.The Crossing at Casey Jones, 417 E. Charles St., La Plata; 301-932-6226. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
** Downtown DC; Expensive
When DC Coast opened in 1998 at the corner of 14th and K streets, its location was daringly far east. As businesses and law firms have flocked to that area, the move seems prescient. Located on the ground floor of an art deco office building in a space originally designed for a bank, DC Coast has soaring ceilings, a cozy mezzanine, and an open kitchen. The after-work bar scene is one of the liveliest in town, but the real attraction at DC Coast is the New Orleans/California/Chesapeake Bay seafood cooking of executive chef Jeff Tunks and chef de cuisine Andrew Brooks.
You can start a meal at DC Coast with some of the best gumbo or fried oysters this side of New Orleans, progress to Tunks's signature Chinese-style smoked lobster, and end with pastry chef David Guas's homey rum-raisin cake--courses from three different regional traditions, all executed with confidence and skill.
Other good bets on the current menu are appetizers of Malpeque oysters topped with vodka-ginger ice and a crisply fried chile relleno filled with goat cheese and wild mushrooms, and main courses of a crisp, whole striped bass with a garlic-soy dipping sauce and braised lamb shanks with creamy white beans. Guas's buttermilk beignets with café au lait crème brûleé is a delicious take an a traditional New Orleans treat.DC Coast, 1401 K St., NW; 202-216-5988. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
*** Falls Church; Moderate; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
When Duangrat's opened in 1987, it changed the landscape of local Thai restaurants: It provided an elegant setting to what usually had been a modest dining experience. It also supplied very good food.
With a few exceptions, the appetizers are standard. You can get fine deep-fried spring rolls stuffed with pork and vegetables, larb made with chopped chicken and chilies, deep-fried stuffed chicken wings, and grilled beef. But there are also more-unusual appetizers, such as Salmon Purse, curried salmon with potatoes and onions in a crisp rice-paper shell, and Shell Sea, shredded shrimp and crabmeat with coconut and cilantro layered in crispy rice paper.
The same goes for main courses. Standard dishes include beef basil, shrimp with fried garlic, chicken with basil, whole fish prepared a variety of ways, and a number of vegetarian and noodle dishes. But what the menu describes as "Signatures" and "Originals by the Sea" include bhram, a breast of chicken sautéed with garlic, spicy peanut curry, and napa cabbage; garlic-encrusted Cape Tato rockfish; and red snapper rawii, a poached filet of red snapper in soy sauce with baby shrimp, ginger, shiitake mushrooms, and scallions.Duangrat's, 5878 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-5775. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
* Alexandria; Expensive
There is no menu--this is a "meet a chef" kind of place. Either chef Robert Ulrich or sous chef Lori Dooner approaches the table, mentions a few dishes, inquires about allergies and dislikes, consults on the number of courses, then retires to the kitchen. For wine, you are offered the choice of the restaurant's course-by-course wine selection or ordering from the list. What emerges is a good but not always exceptional six-course meal. At $74 a person, not including wine, it can be expensive for the dishes served.
There are pluses. The formal dining room is reminiscent--with its brass chandeliers, tapestry, and British paintings--of a dining room in a castle. Service is gracious--the house allowed the substitution of a better wine at no extra cost for an unavailable one. On a recent visit, several dishes that stood out were salmon with couscous, mushrooms, and baby zucchini; breast of duck with mozzarella; and rabbit with port sauce--although red-pepper risotto did nothing for a rack of lamb. It may be time to return to traditional service and let the chefs cook.Elysium, Morrison House Hotel, 116 S. Alfred St., Alexandria; 703-838-8000. Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner.
*** Downtown DC; Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
Many restaurants at a certain level of ambition claim to use the freshest local and seasonal products, but few chefs are as conscientious in searching out the local best as Todd Gray. He spent four years in the kitchen of Robert Greault at La Colline and seven years in Roberto Donna's kitchen at Galileo. When he decided to open his own restaurant, he applied classical culinary technique to area products and traditions. Local sand dabs in their short season, Chesapeake Bay oysters, veal from Randall Lineback cows in a herd near Middleburg--Gray's menu reads like a directory of the best the area has to offer.
Dinner at Equinox may be ordered à la carte or in the form of four- or six-course tasting menus for $60 or $80. A recent six-course menu offered samples from several periods of the chef's experience--duck confit on a bacon-frisée salad; a Piedmontese-style ravioli of local pumpkin with brown butter, fresh sage, and amaretti; a crisp-skinned cod filet with potatoes, mushrooms, and minced truffle; tenderloin and braised cheek of farm-raised veal with creamed spinach; a cheese course of Testun al Barola with quince marmalade; and for the finale, a homey apple cake with Burgundy-poached pears.Equinox, 818 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-331-8118. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
* Dupont Circle; Moderate
Chef Francesco Ricchi's neighborhood Italian restaurant attracts a mix of local regulars and business travelers lured by Ricchi's earthy Tuscan cooking and the restaurant's moderate prices. Ricchi, whose family owned a restaurant near Florence, opened I Ricchi in 1989; an early visit from the first President Bush put the restaurant on the map.
At Etrusco, the Tuscan ribbolita, a hearty bread soup, is always a good way to begin a meal, as is the spiedino misto, crisply fried calamari and zucchini. Depending on your appetite, you might go on to a half order of pasta--maybe Ricchi's pappardelle with a rich duck ragoût or the pasta alla chittara with a shellfish sauce. Main-course choices include a meltingly tender osso bucco, beautifully grilled pork chops, or an involtini of veal with fontina cheese and mushrooms.Etrusco, 1606 20th St., NW; 202-667-0047. Open Monday through Saturday for dinner.
EVENING STAR CAFé
* Alexandria; Moderate
This Del Ray restaurant hasn't invested in decor. You wouldn't be surprised if the restaurant showed up in a 1950s movie as a working-class diner. There are two dining areas, the rear one likely to house regulars having a brew or a glass of wine. Upstairs is a wine bar/lounge. The list has many entries priced well under $30, and the restaurant allows diners to bring in their own wines, either from the Daily Planet wine store next door of from their own cellars, for a reasonable corkage fee of $8.
Good starters are grilled quail stuffed with goat cheese and shiitake mushrooms; chicken-and-andouille-sausage gumbo; chicken-and-apple sausage on cheddar-scallion mashed potatoes with a shallot demi-glace; and steamed mussels with fresh ginger-and-lemongrass broth. Recent main-course additions worth savoring are rosemary-braised lamb shank; roast garlic-marinated duck breast with mashed sweet potatoes; sautéed salmon on a Roquefort risotto cake; sautéed beef tenderloin with cheddar-scallion mashed potatoes; and Cajun-style crabcakes studded with chili peppers. Home-style desserts like pine-nut tart and pumpkin cheesecake make for a fine finale.Evening Star Café, 2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-549-5051. Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner, Sunday for brunch.
FOUR & TWENTY BLACKBIRDS
*** Flint Hill; Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
Since 1990, diners have enjoyed some of the best cooking in the region at this former general store. There are hints of the house's former life--antiques, floral wallpaper, and Jeff MacNelly drawings. The dining takes place in two living-room-size areas, one on ground level, the other a level below. Service is leisurely and friendly. Much of the food, grown locally, is transformed by chef Heidi Morf into Modern American fare that doesn't strive for cutting-edge sophistication but maintains a high level of comfort.
Morf keeps her menu short but changes it frequently to keep up with seasonal specialties. At a mid-November dinner for two, good appetizers were lightly battered and deep-fried oysters between disks of puff-pastry with a red-pepper aïoli and toasted slices of Italian bread, and a caramelized-onion-and-smoked-cheddar tart with a savory pecan crust and baby arugula with a warm salad dressing. Main courses were a whole (but headless) grilled loup de mer with shiitake mushroom relish and crispy roasted caramelized onions and mashed potatoes, and beef tenderloin grilled with apple-smoked bacon served in a sage-black-pepper pastry with red-wine sauce and Iowa bleu-cheese mashed potatoes. The salad course was fine, and desserts were a pecan-almond toffee tart with house-made caramel ice cream, and a chocolate-spice cake with chocolate-fudge frosting and chocolate-fudge sauce. The wine list, while fairly priced, could be use some older reds.Four & Twenty Blackbirds, 650 Zachary Taylor Hwy., Flint Hill, Va.; 540-675-1111. Open Wednesday through Saturday for dinner, Sunday for brunch.
FOUR SISTERS (HUONG QUE)
** Falls Church; Inexpensive
It could be called Four Sisters, Two Brothers, and Two Parents because that's who runs this excellent restaurant in the Eden Center, a delightful place to wander, shop, and eat. The clientele is a mix of Vietnamese and others.
The menu is large, with some 210 items, not counting beverages, desserts, and the special seven-course beef dinner that starts with rare sliced beef salad and beef fondue and ends with steamed beef balls and rice soup with ground beef. There are appetizers of crispy spring rolls and roasted quail; salads of green papaya with beef jerky and shredded vegetables with shrimp and pork; a long list of main-course soups; plus noodles, rice dishes, and dozens of main courses. It's hard to go wrong, but consider grilled lemongrass beef; chicken sautéed with eggplant, baked salt, and spiced squid; caramelized fish or chicken served in a clay pot; and pork with sour cabbage. More-elaborate winners are the whole steamed Canadian black cod or rockfish, sautéed baby clams with minced pork served with crispy sesame crackers, baked or sautéed frog's legs, and crispy shrimp in the (edible) shell.Four Sisters (Huong Que), 6769 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-538-6717. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
**** Downtown DC; Very Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
Roberto Donna is a chef with lots of energy. A few years ago, he used it to start new restaurants--more restaurants than even he could look after properly. In the last couple of years, he has focused on his flagship, Galileo, further solidifying its reputation as one of the country's best Italian restaurants.
There are three possibilities for dining at Galileo. The most elaborate, and expensive ($110 per person), is a meal in Donna's Laboratorio, a restaurant with its own kitchen at the back of the dining room, open only when Donna is in town. There he serves, to a maximum of 30 diners an evening, prix fixe meals of 12 to 14 courses, composed daily from the best raw materials he can find. A meal in the Laboratorio is an extraordinary experience, which might start with a single, perfectly cooked sea scallop with spinach and beets and progress to foie gras with preserved figs, a demitasse of chestnut soup with rabbit sausage and pancetta, potato gnocchi with clams and sea urchin, rack of lamb with black-olive sauce, and on and on--each course and the entire series beautifully orchestrated.
The regular menu at Galileo also changes daily and often features dishes from the Piedmont area where Donna grew up--a garlicky bagna cauda with roasted red peppers and polenta, risotto with white truffles (which are scarce and very expensive this year), a bollito misto of slowly simmered veal cheeks, beef ribs, pork sausage, and capon.
The most extraordinary values at Galileo are on the bar menu at lunchtime. Here homey dishes representative of the cooking of this wonderful kitchen range from $4 to $12--fried eggs in piazzola sauce topped with mozzarella cheese, hearty Tuscan bread soup, chicken cacciatore, veal tripe stewed in tomato sauce, and the best tuna sandwich in town, served on Galileo's house-made ciabatta.Galileo, 1110 21st St., NW; 202-293-7191. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
**** Downtown DC; Very Expensive
Gerard Pangaud, whose cooking won him two Michelin stars at the age of 28, came to Washington as chef at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City. After a brief tenure there, he opened his own restaurant in downtown DC, a more appropriate showcase for his versions of the French classics.
Gerard's Place is perhaps the oddest looking four-star restaurant in Washington--crisp white linens, walls hung with colorful modern drawings, French country antiques at the entrance, a ceiling covered with outsize rectangular prisms of black fabric. But there's nothing odd about the food.
The signature lobster with ginger, lime, and Sauternes sauce is still on the menu, at $52.50, but there are more affordable ways to sample Pangaud's cooking. His updated bouillabaisse was the star of a recent lunch--featuring a piece of crisply sautéed cod in a hearty broth with tricolored peppers, fennel, and fingerling potatoes. Traditional? By no means. Delicious? To the last drop. The prix fixe lunch menu, $29.50 a person, is a good way to enjoy the cooking of an internationally recognized chef.Gerard's Place, 915 15th St., NW; 202-737-4445. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
*** Bethesda; Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
You have to love a restaurant that quotes the late British wine expert Harry Waugh on the menu: "The first duty of wine is to be Red . . . the second is to be a Burgundy." It's most fitting for a wine bar, which is what Grapeseed, against the odds--namely, Montgomery County's arcane liquor laws--has become. Wines by the glass in "tasting" and regular portions are served in abundance here, and wines inspire the food--wine suggestions are noted under each dish. The chic amber-lit dining room is a worthy backdrop for chef Jeffrey Heineman's sophisticated Modern American cooking.
Great beginnings are crispy tilapia with citrus vinaigrette, grilled shrimp with mole sauce and roasted butternut squash, and seared foie gras on brioche French toast. A recent special of bluefin tuna three ways starred a witty "tunafish" sandwich on toast, paired with an Oregon Pinot Noir. Among main courses, earthy oxtail-mushroom ragoût takes pan-roasted filet mignon to new heights. And if it's not already, rack of lamb with eggplant moussaka, a recent special, should be a fixture on the menu. Desserts are equally inventive. Try Mexican hot chocolate with cornmeal zeppole for dipping, or a cheese plate with lush tomme de Savoie, a mild cow's-milk cheese, or Tete de Moine, a nutty part-skim cheese set off by a flight of three wines.Grapeseed American Bistro & Wine Bar, 4865-C Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-9592. Open daily for dinner.
* Bethesda; Moderate
Vietnamese gone elegant adds to the allure of this high-ceilinged dining room with bamboo fans, a glistening wall of water, and marble icons. The menu pays tribute to both traditional and inventive, and hot chilies are a mainstay. Lotus with shrimp and green papaya clocks in as the best of the salads, though beef with lemongrass and green papaya with spicy beef jerky aren't far behind. Among the soft rice-paper rolls is a stellar combination of lemongrass pork, rice vermicelli, and greens. Charbroiled ground-meat-filled grape leaves are a close cousin to Middle Eastern dolmades, and golden-brown quail with black-pepper sauce makes a fine starter or restrained main course.
Caramelized dishes are among the most popular Vietnamese plates; Green Papaya offers several--the standard chicken and shrimp along with more unusual Chilean sea bass and lemongrass-scented duck. Look for such specials as baby clams studded with black-sesame crackers, and curried prawns with green beans and eggplant. And don't miss spicy basil shrimp fried rice, eons away from the drab heap from the local Chinese takeout. Besides traditional quenchers like sparkling fresh lemonade and a native green soybean drink, there's a respectable wine list.Green Papaya, 4922 Elm St., Bethesda; 301-654-8986. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner.
* Bethesda, Falls Church; Moderate
Haandi represents the middle ground of fine Indian restaurants. It is neither so authentic as Minerva in Virginia or Tiffin in Maryland nor so upscale as DC's Bombay Club. The managers admit to making compromises for Western tastes, but the restaurants continue to serve very pleasing Indian food in pleasant settings at fair prices.
As with many Indian places, the tandoor attracts a wide audience. The bone-in tandoori chicken is more exciting and flavorful than the more timid all-white-meat selections. The lamb chops are top of the line. Good sauced dishes are the spicy lamb vindaloo; the vegetarian aloo do paeezah made of sautéed potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers, and laced with cumin seeds; and boldly seasoned wok-cooked dishes from the north that include tomato and bell pepper. Biryani dishes consist of a large mound of saffron rice studded with chicken, beef, or vegetables along with nuts and cloves. Tandoor-baked flatbreads such as nan and roti or stuffed breads are very good.Haandi, 1222 W. Broad St., Falls Church; 703-533-3501; 4904 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-718-0121. Both locations open daily for lunch and dinner.
HERITAGE INDIA*** Glover Park, Bethesda; Moderate; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
It isn't just that these elegant Indian restaurants are more attractive than most, though they are. Or that they serve food that's very different from the general run of Indian restaurants, though they do. They're a treat because they serve familiar Indian dishes that taste better than you knew they could. Recommended appetizers include calamari sautéed with a hint of coconut and lemon, ground-lamb kebabs flavored with fresh cilantro and mint, and crisp potatoes with date chutney and a minty yogurt sauce. Tandoori dishes are very good, and the curries are superb--lamb vindaloo tangy with vinegar; Grouper Jalfrezi with onions, tomatoes, and green peppers; Yakhani Gosht, lamb simmered in yogurt and saffron. Vegetarians will be happy with the luxurious saag paneer, fresh cheese in spinach; an unusual mixture of eggplant and jalapeño peppers in a sesame sauce; and delicious, creamy lentils.
Heritage India, 2400 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-3120. Open daily for lunch and dinner. No wheelchair access.Heritage India, 4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-656-3373. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
HOLLYWOOD EAST CAFé
The 200-plus-item menu at this Cantonese restaurant can be overwhelming. Mercifully, there are some clues. Tanks full of fish. Roast meats hanging from hooks by the front door. A wall mural of Hong Kong harbor. All of which points to a meal involving at least one of these: roast chunks of pig, lacquered duck, steamed soy-sauce chicken, pan-fried fish right from the tank sprinkled with scallions and soy sauce, or whole flounder steamed with ginger.
Beyond these are authentic dishes you won't find at the corner Chinese restaurant: clams with bean sauce, shredded duck with bean sprouts to roll in lettuce leaves, baked-salt chicken, crunchy salt-and-pepper shrimp with the heads on, and a gingery casserole of oysters. There's also a lengthy roster of steaming Hong Kong-style soups to have with or without noodles. And with any luck, you'll happen upon a server with enough English to translate the Chinese script on the colorful strips of paper on the wall, some of which list treasures not on the menu.Hollywood East Café, 2312 Price Ave., Wheaton; 301-942-8282. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
** Rockville; Moderate
You won't have to ask for al dente pasta at Il Pizzico--the kitchen wouldn't have it any other way. Made by Italians serious about their native staple, these silky strands and tubes are cooked and sauced sparingly. Much of the pasta is house-made as well. Among the winners are tagliatelle with tomato, garlic, olive oil, and arugula; mushroom-and-ricotta-filled ravioli with pistachio-flecked cream sauce; bucatini, the hollow thick spaghetti, with ground sausage and a whisper of cream; and maltagliati, pasta sheets with robust veal sauce.
Split a pasta as a starter (half orders also can be had) or try one of the salads: watercress with Parmigiano or radicchio, endive, and arugula. Other good beginnings are grilled calamari with olive oil and lemon, and bresaola, the Italian air-dried beef, on arugula with Parmesan shavings. If you're eschewing pasta as a main course, steer toward winey veal scallopini with pine nuts, raisins, and rosemary, or swordfish dressed with olive oil and lemon, salmoriglio-style. Prices are low--a meal with an entrée of pasta would qualify for Cheap Eats status--hence the crowds at both lunch and dinner in these bustling dining rooms brightened with colorwashed paintings of bella Italia.Il Pizzico Ristorante, 15209 Frederick Rd., Rockville; 301-309-0610. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
** Cleveland Park; Moderate
Most of the area's Indian restaurants are afflicted with a sameness--pakoras and samosas as appetizers, some predictable curries, lamb vindaloo for those who like hot food, a few vegetarian and tandoori dishes, rasmalai or kulfi for dessert. The owners of Bombay Bistro, the fine Indian restaurants in Fairfax and Rockville, have opened Indique in DC's Cleveland Park, where they are infusing some American flexibility into the Indian-restaurant format and exploring more of the subcontinent's diverse cuisine.
The menu starts with a section called First Taste, small plates that serve as appetizers or perhaps a snack before a movie at the Uptown Theater across the street. Calamari Ullarthiyathe, a squid dish in a spicy tomato sauce, is very good; other good choices include shrimp Varuval with onions, tomatoes, and spices, spicy crabcakes with red pepper and anise, and tender tandoori quail. The section of the menu called Indique Platters offers other unusual dishes--a very spicy Chicken Cheettinad from Tamil Nadu in southern India, and Meen Porichathe, fresh fish wrapped in a banana leaf with ginger, tomato, and spices.
Indian breads are a treat here, particularly the seldom-found appam, a rice bread somewhere between a crepe and an English muffin, served with a coconut-milk stew. For dessert, try the Gulab Jamun--fried beignets in a scented syrup--or the delicious orange kulfi.Indique, 3512-14 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-244-6600. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON
**** Washington, Virginia; Very Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
This celebrated country inn deserves the description that the Michelin Guide gives to its three-star restaurants--"worth a special journey." It is that and more--and very expensive. Service is very attentive, and on a busy evening, 16 chefs and assistants toil in the kitchen to serve fewer than 100 diners.
The dining room is filled with floral patterns, soft banquettes, and more--it could be the set of an upscale bordello in a Tennessee Williams play.
Diners can order from the regular menu or select the tasting menu. The regular menu offers six courses for $118, not including beverages, tax, and gratuity. A late-November dinner consisted of a mélange of Virginia country ham, local pears, baby arugula, and Parmigiano-Reggiano; marinated pan-seared squab on garlic polenta and blackberry sauce; an elegant pot-au-feu of tenderloin of beef and breast of chicken simmered in an aromatic broth with autumn vegetables; and Seven Deadly Sins, a septet of chocolate desserts. Highlights of the seven-course tasting menu were braised duck and seared foie gras on wilted watercress in an Asian broth; the tasting menu is $158 without wine, $218 with the inn's selection of six accompanying wines. Prices are higher Friday and Saturday nights. There is also a $300 surcharge for diners who dine in the kitchen and watch chef Patrick O'Connell at work.
The wine list is extensive--ten pages are filled with hundreds of red Bordeaux. Most wines are priced at three or four figures, but there are choices starting at $30 a bottle.
Patrons can extend the experience with a night in one of the Inn's guest rooms. On Saturday nights, the least expensive room is more than $500.Inn at Little Washington, Middle & Main sts., Washington, Va.; 540-675-3800. Open Wednesday through Monday for dinner.
** Downtown DC; Very Expensive
This lovely restaurant, which opened in 1989, introduced Washingtonians to the robust pleasures of Tuscan cooking. The restaurant looks straight out of Florence--walls with Della Robia-like murals, a terra cotta floor, a wood-burning oven and grill. A meal begins with a basket of bread--slices of a Tuscan loaf made without salt, and two kinds of foccacia, one topped with salt, the other with tomato. There is a long list of daily specials but also a long list of favorites to return to.
Owner Christianne Ricchi's kitchen is dependable--perfect risotto; filet of beef cooked precisely medium-rare as ordered; a mixed grill of marinated pork loin, rabbit sausage, lamb chop, and stuffed baby quail, each properly timed. Service is attentive. It's not inexpensive, but it's considerably cheaper than a flight to Italy.i Ricchi, 1220 19th St., NW; 202-835-0459. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
* Fairfax; Moderate
This restaurant, named after the city southwest of New Delhi in Rajasthan, duplicates the color scheme that gives Jaipur, the original home of the manager and chef, its nickname--the Pink City. Among the eye-catching decorations is a small army of splendid puppets amidst rows of colorful beads adorned with birds of brilliantly colored cloth.
For appetizers the restaurant offers mostly deep-fried dishes like samosas and pakoras, including machli pakore, bite-size boneless pieces of lightly battered fish. Diners also may order half portions of tandoor dishes as starters. Have at least one of these excellent baked preparations, whether chicken, whole or in pieces; lamb, either minced or as chops; or salmon. Among the curry-style dishes, consider the spicy lamb vindaloo, the creamy chicken malabari made with coconut milk, and the lamb saagwala with spinach. The list of vegetarian specialties is long and worth a try. Biryanis, sauceless mounds of saffron rice studded with meat or vegetables, are another good bet. Breads, including the tandoor-baked nan and the kulcha stuffed with cooked minced onions, are good.
Lunch is served buffet-style seven days a week. At $7.95 weekdays and $9.95 weekends, it's one of the best bargains around.Jaipur, 9401 Lee Hwy., Fairfax; 703-766-1111. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
**Downtown DC and *Bethesda; Moderate
The downtown branch of this lively Spanish tapas restaurant, a pioneer in the redevelopment of DC's Penn Quarter neighborhood, celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2003. It enjoyed early success because of its location--next door to the Shakespeare Theatre--its quick and casual style of service, and, most of all, its good cooking.
In Spain, it's customary to order a few plates of tapas with drinks before a meal. At Jaleo, most parties order three or four plates a person and make a meal of them. It's a good group activity. Your selection might include a selection of Spanish sausages and cheeses, anchovies on tomato-rubbed bread, salt-cod fritters, pork loin with figs, and wonderful fried potatoes with tomato sauce and garlicky aïoli.
The Bethesda location is equally busy and has the added advantage of outdoor dining in good weather, but it has never achieved quite the consistent quality of the original.Jaleo, 480 Seventh St., NW, 202-628-7949; 7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-913-0003. Both locations open daily from lunch through dinner.
** Bethesda; Expensive
Jean-Michel proves civilized doesn't have to mean stodgy. This salmon-and-beige dining room is the place for updated French classics. Catering largely to couples who dress for dinner, Jean-Michel manages to combine Gallic sensibility with American ease. Owner Jean-Michel Farret keeps an eye on the well-run dining room, where you can rediscover old loves like snails in puff pastry or nibble on new-wave shiitake mushroom Provençale.
Salads of mesclun and goat cheese, and endive with walnuts and bleu cheese, are beautifully dressed and worth ordering--before or after the entrée. And there are other pleasures. Parsley sauce gives new life to salmon. Grilled Dover sole glistens under its dribble of choron. The lightest of cream sauces envelops lobster flamed with whisky, while a special of quenelles, those airy ovals of seafood mousse, might well be the best in the area.
Beyond seafood are plates like New York strip steak with wine-and-shallot sauce, Maple Leaf Farms roast duck with raspberry sauce, and meaty venison chops with an earthy chestnut purée. Desserts are sublime: a melting apple tart with house-made caramel ice cream, profiteroles drizzled with chocolate sauce, and house-made sorbets in offbeat flavors like green apple, passionfruit, and white peach.Jean-Michel, 10223 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda; 301-564-4910. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
* Seabrook; Expensive
If you live for Maryland lump crab, Jerry's Seafood is the place. Crab bisque, crab imperial, crabcakes--the gang's all here. Want an all-crab feast? Start with soup. Cream of crab gets spiked with hot pepper. Lush crab bisque tastes faintly of sherry. And classic Maryland crab, a potpourri of vegetables and seafood, is a quieter but no less delicious take. Steamed shrimp with house-made cocktail sauce to share round the table is another possibility. Then onto the main event. Will it be the classic lump crabcake or the Firecracker version? Both are standouts. Tiny capers give crab imperial a whiff of tartness. And there's the plate that made Jerry's famous: the Crab Bomb, a ten-ounce snowball of lump crab with Old Bay--smaller appetites can go for the Baby Bomb at six ounces. House-made slaw and vanilla-scented applesauce are nice foils for the seafood.
At lunch look for the savory crab salad. Don't venture into iffy territory with the likes of baked haddock, as dry as the hammerhead-shark trophy on the wall. Try to avoid peak weekend hours when--given the no-reservations policy--waits can top an hour. Patrons lined up outside the door seem to consider it part of the Jerry's experience. Incidentally, there is a Jerry. He started in the food biz 30 years ago selling oysters out of the trunk of a '68 Chevy.Jerry's Seafood, 9364 Lanham-Severn Rd., Seabrook; 301-577-0333. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, Tuesday through Saturday for dinner. Wheelchair accessible (except restroom).
JOHNNY'S HALF SHELL
** Dupont Circle; Moderate
Ann Cashion says, only half kidding, that she started Johnny's Half Shell so she would have a place to eat lunch. The Mississippi-born Cashion and her business partner, John Fulchino, a Massachusetts native, opened this New Orleans-Chesapeake seafood house 4H years ago, and it has been packing in patrons ever since. Evenings tend to be more crowded and noisy than lunchtimes. Johnny's is an especially good place for Saturday lunch and Sunday dinner, when most customers are locals and you have a better chance of being seated in one of the comfortable booths opposite the bar.
The food that comes out of this small kitchen is remarkable for its consistency and quality. Johnny's has, hands down, the best fried oysters in Washington. You can order them as an appetizer, accompanied by sweet-tart pickled vegetables, or at lunch in the form of a po' boy, also the best in town because Cashion and Fulchino have the bread flown in from New Orleans. Other good ways to begin are with the dark and spicy New Orleans-style gumbo; the gravlax, cured in-house in tequila; the barbecue shrimp with grits; or a very good Maryland crabcake. You can go on to crabmeat imperial, a Mediterranean-inspired Chesapeake seafood stew in a tasty orange-fennel-tomato broth, or a fritto misto of shrimp, calamari, and fish.
At the end of the meal, remember that Ann Cashion is a Southerner--she knows about desserts. Whether to order her signature chocolate angel-food cake with caramel sauce or the lemon chess pie is a tossup. Maybe you'll have a dining partner who will share.Johnny's Half Shell, 2002 P St., NW; 202-296-2021. Open for lunch Monday through Saturday and dinner daily.
KAZ SUSHI BISTRO
** Downtown DC; Moderate
Chef Kazuhiro Okochi came to Washington in 1988 and spent ten years as executive chef at Sushi-Ko before opening his own restaurant. Kaz has developed an East-meets-West fusion style responsible for some of his kitchen's most intriguing work. In addition to the usual nigiri sushi and rolls, Kaz has a daily-changing menu of specials: cold small dishes such as smoked monkfish liver with jalapeño jelly and thinly sliced veal tongue with spicy miso and hot dishes like beautifully fried clam tempura with green-tea salt, grilled Kobe beef with scallion-flavored miso, and spicy broiled green mussels. A good way to enjoy a variety of this talented chef's traditional and innovative dishes is by ordering the eight-course tasting menu, priced at $50 a person, at dinner.
In the winter, Kaz occasionally is able to import toro fugu, the Japanese blowfish that is a delicacy but poisonous if not cleaned properly. He is one of the few chefs in the area trained to handle it, and his six-course fugu dinn($150 per person) is unique in these parts. If interested, call in advance to see if it's available.Kaz Sushi Bistro, 1915 I St., NW; 202-530-5500. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner. No wheelchair access.
**** Foggy Bottom; Very Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
It's hard to pin a label on Bob Kinkead's style. Many of his classic dishes--fried Ipswich clams with fried lemon slices and tartar sauce; New England clam chowder--come from his New England roots. Others come from the Chesapeake Bay--his intensely creamy crabcakes; Roasted Cod With Crab Imperial. Still others are inspired by a range of international cuisines--seafood stews from Thailand and Portugal; wood-grilled squid with creamy polenta from Italy; pepita-crusted salmon and chili-rubbed mahi-mahi from Mexico.
Superb starters at recent meals have been lobster medallions with succotash and corn pudding; an intensely green and flavorful Yucatan Tuna soup with tomatillos, chilies, and tortilla strips; and the always-wonderful Ipswich clams. Good main courses included sea scallops with a fennel tarte Tatin, walnut-and-horseradish-crusted snapper with a delicate cauliflower flan, and seared halibut with crab ravioli. The range is dazzling, and the kitchen's control is rock solid.
Chef Kinkead plans to close his ten-year-old Foggy Bottom restaurant for the month of January 2004 for a renovation, updating the restaurant's appearance to bring it up to the level of its cooking.Kinkead's, 2000 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-296-7700. Open Sunday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
This restaurant defies logic. How can it be so good when it goes through four chefs and two owners in three years? The current chef, Vincent Damman, comes to La Bergerie from northeastern France via a year-and-a-half stint at Les Folies in Annapolis. The restaurant is attractive and comfortable, with exposed-brick walls and burgundy and brown fabrics. The waiters have been around much longer than the chefs, and service is generally good.
Chef Damman offers mostly tried-and-true provincial French food, including an excellent $65 tasting menu. Pleasing appetizers on a recent visit were celery root with apples and lobster, a tart of sun-dried tomatoes with goat cheese and eggplant, and escargot with garlic butter and parsley. Main courses were in the same traditional vein--ris de veau with chanterelle mushrooms and a brandy-cream sauce; a confit of duck leg with salardaises potatoes; a quail with truffles; and calf's liver with sautéed onions. La Bergerie continues to feature individual soufflés for dessert--both the Grand Marnier and the chocolate were fine, as was an almond cake. The international wine list is long and fairly priced.La Bergerie, 218 N. Lee St., Alexandria; 703-683-1007. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner.
** Georgetown; Moderate
Look around at this comfortable French "country inn" in Georgetown and you might think you've stumbled into a dinner meeting of State Department retirees. Listen a bit and you'll be sure of it. A favorite hangout of Georgetown's Old Guard, La Chaumière celebrates its 28th anniversary in 2004. Proprietor Gerard Pain and chef de cuisine Patrick Orange have created a restaurant that has little in common with the fashionable steak-frites bistro scene of the last few years. Instead, it specializes in the kind of French cooking that Julia Child taught in the 1960s and '70s, and it welcomes regulars with warmth and hospitality.
When's the last time you were offered a lobster bisque or quenelles de brochet (pike dumplings) in a sauce Nantua? It's the kind of rich, delicious, labor-intensive French cooking you find less and less frequently, even in France. The chef's special one Monday lunchtime was a wonderful choucroute garni. Wednesdays bring couscous, Thursdays cassoulet. It's soul-satisfying cooking, particularly on a cold winter day.La Chaumière, 2813 M St., NW; 202-338-1784. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
** Capitol Hill; Expensive
It's sad when waiters at a respected French restaurant have to wear stars-and-stripes ties to assure their Hill clientele where their loyalty lies. It's also sad when the management of an almost-empty restaurant is so inflexible that it won't accommodate a customer's request for substitutions on the menu. La Colline offers a three-course dinner menu for a fixed price of $27.50, quite a good deal. An attempt to order the menu's main-course cassoulet without the other two courses was met with refusal from both the waiter and the dining-room manager, even at $27.50 for the cassoulet alone. This attention to the rules rather than customer service might help explain why La Colline is nearly empty on a Friday night while around the corner Bistro Bis is full.
Cooking at La Colline is still dependably good. Among the pleasing appetizers recently were a special of a fondant of seafood, the good house-smoked salmon, and crabcakes; main-course standouts were the bouillibaisse, rack of lamb, and Dover sole. The signature house terrine of foie gras had an unpleasantly bitter taste, while the cassoulet was stingy in portion.
Compared to the quiet atmosphere at dinner, lunch at La Colline, with its clientele of lawmakers and lobbyists, bustles.La Colline, 400 N. Capitol St., NW; 202-737-0400. Open Monday through Friday for breakfast and lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
LA CôTE D'OR CAFé
** Arlington; Expensive
This restaurant sits amidst motels, garages, and entrances to I-66. Its charming exterior and French-provincial interior make patrons forget the surroundings. One negative: The tile floors and stucco walls can make for noisy dining.
The cooking stays close to classic French but adds a distinctive touch or two. Good cold-weather starters are the soups, especially a lobster bisque, a velvety garlic soup, and a traditional vegetable soup. Other appealing starters are the shrimp Provençal, a terrine of salmon, and a terrine of foie gras. Dishes change rarely.
There are several fine main courses. Dover sole meunière and swordfish steak on a bed of leeks with lobster sauce are enticing seafood dishes. Or try the thinly sliced calf's liver; the filet of beef with mushroom sauce; rabbit Dijonnaise with a mustard sauce; and the classic cassoulet with sausage, duck, and beans. Warm plates are a good thing, but some of the plates coming out of the kitchen are very hot. Desserts are traditional and good.La Côte d'Or Café, 6876 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-538-3033. Open daily for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch.
** Chevy Chase; Expensive
The look is elegant country French, and the tinkling ivories in the background make the dining rooms seem more like an ongoing dinner party than a restaurant. Chef Phillipe Maigrot turns out cuisine that is by turns classic and modern and at times has a Morrocan fillip.
Silky crab custard and a salmon-lobster terrine with a fusiony lemongrass-ginger sabayon show just what this kitchen is capable of. Salads like endive, bleu cheese, and walnuts are deftly done. If you're a calf's-liver fan, this is the place--the same goes for sweetbreads with portobello mousse. Flemish-style beer-braised chicken with sauerkraut and red-skinned potatoes is a bow to Belgium, while a plate of lamb chops with spicy merguez (lamb sausage) and a sauce of yogurt with cumin and mint evokes Tangiers.
In a world with a surfeit of Key-lime pie and flourless chocolate cake, La Ferme's desserts get kudos. Pistachio-cherry crumble with house-made vanilla-yogurt sorbet is a hall-of-famer, and Valrhona-chocolate terrine with red-wine-cinammon sorbet is not far behind. For lovers of tradition, there are outstanding house-made ice creams and sorbets and the airiest of soufflés.La Ferme, 7101 Brookville Rd., Chevy Chase; 301-986-5255. Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, Sunday for brunch.
L'AUBERGE CHEZ FRANçOIS
*** Great Falls; Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
Many restaurants are in constant search of an identity. That is not the approach taken by the Haeringer family, which has operated L'Auberge Chez Françcois or its more-modest DC predecessor for nearly half a century. The restaurant offers an Alsatian decor and menu to throngs of diners. Service matches the quality of the food and surroundings, with a host assigned to each of the four dining rooms. Because it remains one of the hottest tickets in the area, diners seeking the experience typically call 28 days in advance to reserve a table--not 27, when the restaurant may already be booked.
Newcomers experience a brief moment of sticker shock until they notice that the price opposite the main course includes appetizer, salad, and dessert. Organ meats and game are appealing in winter. In addition to calf's brain, veal tongue, and kidney in a sherry-and-mustard sauce, there are starters of onion tart and escargots. Game main courses include deer, antelope, quail, pheasant, and rabbit. Other good dishes are the rack of lamb and the salmon or red snapper in puff pastry with crab and lobster. The star of the menu is the choucroute garni, a cornucopia of sausages, smoked pork, duck, foie gras, and pheasant on a bed of sauerkraut.
Desserts, including soufflés and an Alsatian plum tart, are excellent. The wine list is extensive. Don't be surprised if a white wine is recommended with meat. That's how they do it in Alsace. If you're not the designated driver, consider ending your meal with a crystal-clear eau de vie such as framboise.L'Auberge Chez François, 332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls; 703-759-3800. Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner, Sunday for early dinner (1:30 PM).
When Bernard Baudrand sold Le Gaulois 1H years ago, the buyers sought to maintain the continuity in food and decor that made the restaurant so popular in Foggy Bottom and then in Alexandria. At first they didn't get it quite right, and the restaurant missed this award last year. Now they seem to be back on track with very good provincial-French cooking. The cozy dining rooms with brick walls and fireplaces make a winter visit expecially pleasant.
On recent visits there were fine starters of fricassee of calamari; a warm ratatouille of zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, and onions; mussels with garlic and parsley that had oomph; and perhaps best of the lot, a terrine of chicken livers with green peppercorns.
Main courses included an excellent cassoulet de Castelnaudary, named after the cassoulet capital of France, with duck confit, pork, lamb, and sausage to go with the fine beans; a pot-au-feu of boiled beef and chicken with vegetables in a aromatic broth that would have been easier to manage in a pot than a soup plate; a quenelle of pike with sauce Nantua; and a rack of lamb that lacked nothing in flavor but was undersize and accompanied by thick string beans rather than trim haricot verts. A lunchtime special of veal stew was excellent and generous. Desserts were good--chocolate-mousse cake, mango-mousse cake, a mixed-fruit tart, and a covered apple tart.Le Gaulois, 1106 King St., Alexandria; 703-739-9494. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
LES FOLIES BRASSERIE
** Annapolis; Expensive
La Coupole on the Chesapeake? The famous Parisian haunt is known for its extravagant multitiered seafood platters. Les Folies does up seafood La Coupole-style. It's hard to resist the towers whisked around the art deco dining room of this popular Annapolis brasserie. Maine Belon oysters, Little Neck clams, periwinkles, stone crab claws, and Langoustines are among the mollusks on the two-tiered "petite" version. The "large" is a tier taller and has more of everything, including such novelties as Prince Edward Island rope mussels and cold lobster served à la Français with a mayonnaisey vegetable salad. Both can be shared.
Several varieties of oysters and other shellfish, including that scrumptious lobster, can be had à la carte. But don't ignore hot plates celebrating regional cooking from Lyon to Brittany to Provence. Starters like rustic garlic sausage with lentils, refined lump-crabmeat custard, and a fish soup with rouïlle are all deftly rendered. Butterflied sirloin with butter, shallots, and fries will evoke that little bistro on the Left Bank, while calf's liver gets a modern tweak with a dash of cherry vinegar. Coq au vin is simple French cooking one sees too little of these days.
The kitchen also turns out specials like foie gras with caramelized apples, whole grilled rockfish with herbes de Provence, and a vivid bouillabaisse. Soufflés, house-made sorbets and ice creams, and a lush chocolate-truffle cake make for a rousing finish.Les Folies Brasserie, 2552 Riva Rd., Annapolis; 410-573-0970. Open Monday to Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
* Downtown DC; Moderate
The Parisian brasserie atmosphere and menu at this French steak house are not quite the rarities they once were in Washington, but Les Halles is still an appealing place to go for a before- or after-theater meal or with a group of friends looking for a casual atmosphere and moderate prices. The steak, frites, and salad for $16.50 is a good buy, and for a couple of dollars more you can have the richly flavored onglet. The French fries may no longer be the best in town, but at their best, which is usually, they're very good.
Every February, Les Halles has a Choucroute Festival, with several variations on the classic choucroute garni, and every month the restaurant celebrates a different region of France with a list of wines from the region.Les Halles, 1201 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-347-6848. Open daily from 11:30 AM to midnight.
**** McLean; Very Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
If an award were given for the best restaurant in the Washington suburbs, Maestro would win. The setting, in the Tysons Corner Ritz-Carlton, is lovely. Its chef, 29-year-old Fabio Trabocchi, a native of the Marche region of Italy who honed his skills in London, is fabulous. Its sommelier, Vincent Feraud, an alumnus of Jean-Louis, not only will advise you on the best of the grands crus but also will suggest suitable moderately priced wines. And it has a fine service staff. This does not come cheap; a four-course dinner costs $84, not including wine.
Diners can select from a list of traditional and modern Italian dishes, or Maestro Trabocchi will assemble a personalized menu of three, five, or seven courses. However you proceed, the food will satisfy the most demanding palate. Trabocchi changes the menu regularly, so you may not see your favorite dish on a return visit, but you are not likely to be disappointed.
A recent dinner began with pan-fried Cape Cod scallops wrapped in crisp focaccia with Nova Scotia chanterelle mushrooms and salsa verde. It proceeded to liquid-center ravioli with organic egg yolk and monkfish liver with a periwinkle-brown-butter glaze and a Champagne sabayon. The fish course was wild Brittany Coast sea bass dusted with fennel pollen cooked en cocotte with sautéed fennel confit in a fennel-anise sauce. The meat course was Australian pasture-fed beef tenderloin Rossini. Maestro's cheese selection is one of the best in the region. The warm peppermint-chocolate soufflé is wonderful.Maestro, 1700 Tysons Blvd., Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner, McLean; 703-917-5498. Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner.
* Alexandria; Moderate
Reaching back 50 years to the original Majestic Café, the renovators of this space recreated a delightful place. The restaurant was closed for 22 years until it reopened in 2001. Today its art deco façade, skylights, and cherry paneling draw full houses. Small black-and-white photos of the original line the walls. In charge is chef Susan McCreight-Lindeborg, formerly of the Morrison-Clark Inn. The cooking is American with an emphasis on the South. Quality has slipped in the past year, but it remains a good place to eat.
The best appetizer on several recent visits was a gratin of oysters, Virginia ham, and crackers, but golf-ball-size deep-fried chickpea fritters with a green-yogurt sauce were not far behind. Curried smoked-salmon soup was understated; a tart of sweet potato and country ham and sage with an apple salad was all right.
The story was similar with main courses. Successes included the braised rabbit leg with mashed potatoes and walnuts and the grilled balsamic-glazed salmon. At $24.50, the rib-eye steak with Yukon potato croquettes tasted fine but was undersize. Boston-style grilled pork loin with baked beans and brown bread was dull. For dessert, the spice cake was better than the soft roasted pear and the chocolate-peppermint puff. The short wine list is okay, but a bottle of red wine was brought to table too warm.Majestic Café, 911 King St., Alexandria; 703-837-9117. Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, Sunday for brunch.
** Downtown DC; Inexpensive
Malaysian food is less well known than other Asian cusines, but anyone who has eaten in Chinese, Indian, or Thai restaurants will find plenty that's familiar. This modest Malaysian restaurant offers a daunting number of choices, but there's good advice to be had from owners Penny and Leslie Phoon, who have compiled a photo directory of their most popular dishes and will be happy to consult with you on your tastes.
Satays--chicken, pork, beef, or lamb--are a good way to start a meal. After that, the possibilities are many--and delicious: rice crepes stuffed with jicama and dried shrimp, baby-oyster omelet, Singapore noodles, Malaysian Chili Shrimp, steamed fresh fish in ginger sauce, and black-pepper chicken. At prices that start at about $7.50, it's hard to go far wrong.
Malaysia Kopitiam is a good place if you're taking a crowd out to dinner. Let Penny Phoon know in advance, and she'll plan a menu for your group at a very reasonable price per person that you can determine in advance.Malaysia Kopitiam, 1827 M St., NW; 202-833-6232. Open daily for lunch and dinner. No wheelchair access.
*** Olney; Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
Mussels served 15 different ways--priced by the kilo--are the draw at this intimate storefront bistro. Classic marinière with white wine, celery, and herbs. Jamaican Isle with coconut cream and curry. Lavender with ginger, honey, white wine--and lavender. The daredevil in the kitchen is chef Bernard Dehaene, a Belgian who's worked at Le Caprice and La Colline. Dehaene's far-out combos--they can be had as starters or main courses--are singular, but purists will be happiest with the classic marinière or Provençale (garlic, tomatoes, white wine). Frites are the obvious accompaniment, and the ones at Mannequin Pis are uber-crispy, arguably the best in the area. Garlic fries, Dehaene's take on the trendy flavored fries served in New York, are fun, too.
As wild as his flights of fancy in mussel territory are, Dehaene's a purist the rest of the time. His cooking is clean and modern. Starters to return to include frisée with smoked bacon deglazed with white balsamic vinegar; ragoût of wild mushrooms on brioche; and a pair of soups--creamy potato and leek, and the stellar saffron-mussel with crème fraîche and chives.
Main-course stars include lobster waterzooi with julienne vegetables in cream-kissed broth, hanger steak with those smashing frites, boudin noir with apple compote, and a frequent special of carbonnade, the Flemish take on beef stew that gets its heft from beer. Don't skip sides like truffled puréed potatoes, Brussels sprouts with bacon, and stoemp--a mashed-potato-and-carrot dish. The restaurant's beer roster is several dozen strong--try the Abbaye D'Aulne Tripel--and there's a modest but creative wine list.Mannequin Pis, 18064 Georgia Ave., Olney; 301-570-4800. Open daily for dinner.
*** West End; Very Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
Each year chef Robert Wiedmaier's five-year-old restaurant seems more at home in the handsome space originally built for Yannick Cam's Provence. His first challenge was to deal with the restaurant's noise problem, which he did by installing handsome wall hangings and paintings. The West End location never attracted much of a lunch crowd, so Marcel's is now open for dinner only. Wiedmaier managed to attract a before-and-after theater crowd by offering limousine transportation to and from the Kennedy Center and by introducing piano entertainment and dining in the restaurant's comfortable bar.
Wiedmaier's Belgian-influenced French cooking is both refined and full of big flavors. One of the best ways to start a meal is with the boudin blanc of almost gravity-defying lightness. The chef plays with the Belgian taste for mussels by offering a gratin of mussels out of their shells, served in cream on a deliciously sweet bed of chopped tomatoes.
No Washington chef has a surer hand with game. This fall's main courses included a wonderful combination of rabbit and foie gras, the latter adding subtle richness and body to the dish. A poussin was beautifully cooked with crisp skin, moist breast meat, and the legs breaded and fried. There are many possibilities for dessert, but it's hard to pass up Marcel's signature pear wrapped in puff pastry.Marcel's, 2401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-296-1166. Open daily for dinner.
MARK'S DUCK HOUSE
* Falls Church; Inexpensive
The English name of this restaurant doesn't do it justice. The Chinese characters say it better: "Great Crowded Restaurant." It offers some of the best Hong Kong-style Cantonese cooking around.
The restaurant supplies diners with two lengthy menus, both filled with authentic preparations. One menu lists appetizers, main-course soups, and noodle and rice dishes; the other lists everything else. Two small sections appear only in Chinese and Vietnamese--one is preparations of frog's legs and the other is innards--but the servers will gladly translate them. Prices are low; except for seafood, only a handful of dishes are more than $10.
Duck is excellent, whether Peking, braised, or roasted. There are a couple of dozen casserole dishes, including one of sizzling chicken, pig, and oysters. There are another couple of dozen shrimp dishes, from salt-baked shrimp with chilies with the edible head and shell on to shrimp with bitter melon in black-bean-and-garlic sauce. Lobsters and Dungeness crabs await selection in tanks of bubbling water. For a rock-bottom price, ask for the meat or fowl "on rice"; the portion is smaller, but the prices top out at $6.50. Excellent Cantonese dim sum is served from rolling carts at lunchtime seven days a week.Mark's Duck House, 6184-A Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-532-2125. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
** West End; Very Expensive
Chef Brian McBride has presided over the kitchen at the Park Hyatt for more than 15 years, and the sureness that comes from an experienced presence shows. The lovely dining room is perhaps at its best at lunchtime in the spring or fall, when its 20-foot windows open onto a courtyard sheltered from traffic noise. Sunday brunch at Melrose is a treat not only because of the sun-filled room but also because of a style of service that avoids warming trays and lights--you select appetizers from a buffet, which includes a lavish spread of cold seafood, order main courses from the menu, and return to the buffet for dessert.
McBride's appetizer selection includes pan-seared diver scallops paired with parsnip purée, thin dumplings filled with pheasant and black truffles, shrimp ravioli on a bed of sweet corn and lemongrass, and an autumnal soup of puréed Hubbard squash with duck confit. Aside from the best crabcake in town, recent main-course choices include a breast of pheasant stuffed with pistachio mousseline, jumbo prawns over garlicky polenta, and venison accompanied by a gratin of root vegetables and goat cheese. For dessert, don't miss pastry chef Peter Brett's lemon-curd tart with a sour-cherry compote and cherry ice cream.
Melrose also provides an answer to one of the questions restaurant critics are often asked: "Where can we go for dinner and dancing?" A live jazz combo plays on Friday and Saturday evenings.Melrose, Park Hyatt Hotel, 1201 24th St., NW; 202-955-3899. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Sunday for brunch.
* Capitol Hill; Moderate
The dining room of this lively Capitol Hill bistro, with its yellow walls, packed tables, and efficient staff, is testimony to the good training of chef Stéphane Lezla and co-owner Christophe Raynal, formerly of Lavandou and Bistrot Lepic. They have put together a small menu suited to the small kitchen and the tastes of their Capitol Hill clientele. The menu changes seasonally, but a winter dinner began agreeably with a rich velouté of crab--creamy, full of flavor, and garnished with generous lumps of crabmeat--and an artichoke à la barigoule, a young artichoke and potatoes cooked with white wine, pesto, and bacon and served in a pool of its citrus-flavored cooking juices.
Hearty winter main courses include a braised leg of rabbit with olives and shiitake mushrooms, garnished with a serving of rich, creamy pasta; a lovely navarin of lamb, braised lamb with winter vegetables served in a cast-iron pot; and a hanger steak served over sautéed potatoes rather than with the usual frites.
The all-French wine list, with many good bottles in the $20 and $30 range, is a model of appropriateness, perfectly suited to this unpretentious gem of a restaurant.Montmartre, 327 Seventh St., SE; 202-544-1244. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
* Rockville; Moderate
Pining for the whitewashed windmills of the Cyclades? The whitewashed dining room at Mykonos may be the next best thing. Mainland and island cooking is done with verve at this convivial taverna.
You could make a meal of mezze--creamy tzatziki, tarama (fish-roe salad), and melitzanosalata (smoked eggplant mousse). Beyond these first-rate pita dippers are starters like crisp fried squid, shrimp with feta and fresh tomatoes, eggplant rounds stuffed with onions and pine nuts, and crusty flambéed kasseri. Classics like moussaka, spinach pie, and pastitsio are fine, but the best reason to come here is the lamb: lamb shank, lamb chops, roast leg, and kebabs. Greeks lean toward the well-done in meats, so keep that in mind when ordering (all but the roast lamb can be cooked to order).
Whole rockfish and snapper expertly boned at table and dressed Greek-style with olive oil and lemon are the hits of the seafood lineup. And a sleeper of a dish is fried fresh cod. Olive-oil-roasted potatoes accompanying most plates are a dead ringer for the ones you find in Greece. The walnut cake with ice cream will make you forget all about baklava.Mykonos, 121 Congressional La., Rockville; 301-770-5999. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner.
** Vienna; Moderate
This is the 20th time this Turkish restaurant has received a best-restaurant award. Almost every night expatriate Middle Easterners and foreign-service types fill its two intimate dining rooms. Copper plates and Turkish ceramics adorn the walls, and the strains of the oud and sitar waft through the air.
Start with a selection of mezze, first cousins to tapas. Good are the familiar hummus; the smoky eggplant dip baba ghanoush, grape leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts, and currants; the less common pilaki, a mélanage of white beans, tomato, and olive oil; sigara borek, cigar-shaped savory pastries filled with feta and fried; and tender fried eggplant with yogurt sauce.
Appealing main courses are tas kebab beyendi, tender lamb on puréed eggplant; the slowly cooked and aromatic lamb shank; the lamb shish kebab; spicy kofta on a purée of eggplant with béchamel; and the unparalleled doner kebab, layered with pita, yogurt, sautéed tomatoes, and dill. If you want to know what baklava is supposed to taste like, order it here. Rice pudding is another good choice. Turkish wines don't rival the best of the United States and France, but they are surprisingly good.Nizam's, 523 Maple Ave. W., Vienna; 703-938-8948. Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
*** Dupont Circle; Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
Peter Pastan's small Italian restaurant near Dupont Circle is one of the best dining values in the city--a five-course dinner with two, three, or four choices for each course is $55 a person. It's easy to start finding fault with the place--"Why don't they brighten it up just a little?"--but when the food comes, you understand why it's so popular.
It's hard to recommend specific dishes because the menu changes daily. Don't avoid a dish because it sounds too simple. Pastan's style is spare, but it often achieves elegance. A fall menu began with a choice of porcini with polenta or grilled squab with braised cabbage. The second course offered wonderful gnocchi with Gorgonzola or eggplant ravioli with walnut butter; the third, nicely breaded and crusted lamb chops with a fritto misto of vegetables or pan-cooked turbot with chanterelles. Then cheese. Then interesting desserts, including a pudding flavored with a sweet moscato rosa wine. And not one false step.Obelisk, 2029 P St., NW; 202-872-1180. Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner.
*** Cleveland Park; Very Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
Chef Frank Ruta and pastry chef Ann Amernick met in the kitchens of the Carter White House--a meeting for which DC diners can be thankful. The duo's business venture, Palena, serves some of the most exciting cooking of any restaurant to open in recent years.
The offerings at Palena change frequently, but a fall menu included a silken cauliflower mousse topped with golden osetra caviar and smoked salmon; tiny ravioli filled with oxtail, almonds, raisins, and spinach; a chunk of the house-cured bacon served with a spicy chestnut boudin; veal cheeks paired with crisp sweetbreads; and a Duo of Pork consisting of beautifully roasted tenderloin and a house-made cotecchino sausage. A meal at Palena ends with one of Amernick's wonderful desserts, perhaps an elegant tart of Bartlett pears, a rich chocolate-toffee torte topped with chocolate ganache, or just a plate of cookies with house-made caramels to nibble with coffee.
The menu at Palena is priced with admirable simplicity--three courses for $50, four for $57, five for $64. Diners looking for a simpler meal, perhaps before or after a movie at the nearby Uptown Theater, can sit in the front-room café and order from a casual menu that includes, for $9 an item, half a roast chicken, a cheeseburger, and house-made noodles with duck ragoût.Palena, 3529 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-9250. Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner in the main dining room, Monday through Saturday for dinner in the cafe.
** Downtown DC, Very Expensive
The recent popularity of the Atkins diet and other low-carb/high-protein regimens means it's now possible to practice self-indulgence and self-denial at the same time: Order a dry martini and a medium-rare New York strip--you do have to tell the waiter not to bring the platter of Palm fries and hash browns--and you've managed to stick to your diet and satisfy your appetite. If you're not a red-meat eater, there are still plenty of Atkins-friendly choices, particularly on the lunch menu--shrimp, chicken, or lobster salad, mayonnaise-based and delicious; an ahi-tuna salad, the tuna served beautifully rare atop greens; grilled shrimp over baby greens, or a very good niçoise salad (hold the potatoes).
The Palm is a family-owned chain of more than 25 restaurants. The Washington location, opened in 1972, was the first outside New York. Under the adept management of Tommy Jacomo, it feels more like a homegrown institution than part a chain. The crowd, particularly at lunch, is mostly regulars. The style is irreverent and efficient. The walls are covered with caricatures of the great and would-be great who have eaten here. The menu hovers somewhere between its Italian origins and the steakhouse it has become, with an Asian overlay from the presence in the kitchen of chef Sang Ek, a native of Cambodia.
The quintessential Palm meal would start with lobster--a three-pounder makes a more-than-adequate appetizer for two. Take a break with a house or Caesar salad. Then work through an 18-ounce New York strip or a 24-ounce rib eye. End with cheesecake. It's a meal of Diamond Jim Brady proportions.The Palm, 1225 19th St., NW; 202-293-9091. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
Panino is truly family owned and run: Chef Louis Patierno, an alumnus of DC's long-gone Tiberio, tends the kitchen, while his wife, Lydia, greets diners by name and often with a hug. A long mirror on one long wall reflects colors of food and flowers. The written menu is short--nine appetizers, four pastas, and eight main courses--but an almost equal number of daily specials is offered.
Good appetizers are the baby mussels with marinara sauce; marinated, thinly sliced portobello mushrooms; fried calamari; and snails with parsley, butter, and garlic. For a pasta course, consider the cheese tortellini with a cream-tomato sauce, linguine with a white clam sauce, or rigatoni with meat sauce. Main courses include beef-tenderloin medallions with mushroom sauce, a simple filet of sole with a lemon sauce, and a mixed grill of quail, sausage, and a lamb chop. House-made bread and pastries are excellent.
One of the recent specials, a green-noodle lasagna with mushrooms, was overcooked. But the more serious surprise came with the bill: The price of the dish was $22.50.
The wine selection is good, but the list omits vintages. Several wines are $20 and under, and there's a bargain in the upper range--a 1996 Schiavenza Barolo for $52.Panino, 9116 Mathis Ave., Manassas; 703-335-2566. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
*** Bethesda; Expensive
Persimmon walls and intimate digs spell romance--why couples flock here for a relationship recharge. But even groups can feel at home in this friendly dining room. The Modern American menu is ambitious, and the kitchen is very much up to the task.
Velvety clam-and-tomato chowder is a match whose time has come. A salad of fennel and arugula with shaved ricotta and tangy lemon-oil vinagrette underscores how enthralling a salad can be. Chef Damian Salvatore's duck confit with flageolets is a classic, and grilled flatiron steak with fried onion rings a meat eater's dream, the cut of meat beefy and juicy. A memorable barbecue rack of lamb crusted with pecans comes with mustardy potato gratin. A bouillabaisse gets a healthy dollop of saffron-red-pepper aïoli, and crabcakes are worth ordering as much for the bacon-studded mashed potatoes and roasted corn as for the lumpy-crabby mounds.
House-made desserts go interesting places: Think intense Turkish coffee ice cream, roasted-pecan dacquoise with banana ice cream, and rum-caramel-and-warm-chocolate-espresso tart with bourbon cream. The bar in back is a nice spot to end the evening. There you're likely to see more than one couple holding hands and sipping Muscat.Persimmon, 7003 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-9860. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
This casual Dupont Circle seafood restaurant opened in 1993 under the joint ownership of Roberto Donna and Regine Palladin. A succession of chefs following the departure of David Craig left Pesce in the doldrums for a few years, but the arrival of chef Bobby Beard, combined with the firm hand of Regine Palladin, now sole owner, has given Pesce new life.
The menu is written anew on blackboards daily and changes with the availability of products. A good way to start a meal is with a glass of wine and a cocktail of olives and boqueron anchovies. Recent appetizers have included delicious grilled sardines on a bed of tomatoes and olives and a stew of baby octopus with Yukon Gold potatoes. There are usually a couple of pasta dishes on the menu, and the kitchen will serve half portions as a first course. A fall lobster risotto with wild mushrooms was superb--the generous portion of sweet lobster a nice contrast to the earthiness of the mushrooms and creaminess of the perfectly cooked rice. Almost as good was a piece of seared halibut unexpectedly and delightfully complemented by its accompaniment of puréed butternut squash.
Another unexpected delight was a bottle of Ferrari-Carnero Fumé Blanc Reserve for $36, picked from a blackboard list of wine specials. On being complimented for the selection, the dining room manager replied, "We're a neighborhood restaurant--we have to have good wines at good prices." Would that more restaurants felt the same responsibility to their clientele.Pesce, 2016 P St., NW; 202-466-3474. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
** Woodley Park; Moderate
This cozy French restaurant in a Woodley Park townhouse is a joint venture of brother-and-sister team Cecile and Frederic Darricarrere and chef Oumar Sy, all of whom worked together with Bruno Fortin to help run Bistrot Lepic in Georgetown. Neighborhood regulars flock to Petits Plats to enjoy the friendly greeting and the dependable comfort of Sy's good cooking.
Artichoke soup with scallops is a good beginning on a winter evening, as is the onion soup, hot and savory-sweet under its crust of cheese. Seafood is very good here. Mussels in a variety of preparations--and with terrific frites--are a specialty. Main-course winners include grilled rockfish with braised leeks and a balsamic-vinegar sauce, monkfish with fresh thyme and garlic, and a very good bouillabaisse, chock full of calamari, shrimp, and scallops and served with croutons spread with garlicky aïoli. Desserts include a good lemon tart and a deliciously comforting floating island.
An early-bird special, available daily between 5:30 and 7 PM, offers three courses for $22.95.Petits Plats, 2653 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-518-0018. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner.
** Dupont Circle, Georgetown; Inexpensive
Wood-oven pizza is no longer a rarity in the Washington area. What is rare is a pizzeria--or any kind of restaurant--that achieves Pizzeria Paradiso's absolute consistency, not only at its original location on P Street but at its year-old offspring in Georgetown. The delicious crust is rolled thin. Toppings are applied sparely, and the set combinations are sensible and traditional--no sweep-the-kitchen pies here. The pizza is baked on the floor of the oven until spots of char begin to appear. It is given a final drizzle of olive oil before going to the table, always hot, always delicious.
The only other items on the menu are a few salads and sandwiches on house-baked foccaccia. These include a wonderful roast-pork panino and another stuffed with caper-and-anchovy-spiked tuna salad, but the lure of the pizza makes them second choices.Pizzeria Paradiso, 2029 P St., NW, 202-223-1245. Open daily throughout the day. No wheelchair access. 3282 M St., NW, 202-337-1245. Open daily throughout the day.
THE PRIME RIB
*** Downtown DC; Very Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
Veteran restaurant reviewer Robert Shoffner once described the Prime Rib as Washington's "civilized steakhouse." It's still an apt description. The atmosphere is that of a 1950s Manhattan supper club--Louis Icart lithographs on black lacquered walls, tuxedoed waiters, a Lucite-topped baby-grand piano with a pianist at lunch and a combo in the evenings. It's the only restaurant in the city that still requires men to wear a jacket and tie at both lunch and dinner. Washingtonian readers consistently vote it one of their favorite places to celebrate special occasions.
The name of the restaurant tells you the house specialty: roast prime rib of beef or the superb bone-in rib-eye steak, large enough to satisfy two healthy appetites at dinner. In addition, the kitchen's crabcakes and crab imperial are among the city's best.
The Prime Rib is generally fully booked and bustling in the evenings, so reservations are necessary. At lunchtime you'll find a remarkably calm atmosphere, a smaller cut of the same prime rib that sells for $19, and daily specials ranging from turkey and dressing to one of the best cheeseburgers in town.The Prime Rib, 2020 K St., NW; 202-466-8811. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
** Falls Church; Inexpensive
Rabieng is the less-elegant sibling of Duangrat's, located around the corner. They have different styles, both in decor and food. Rabieng specializes in Thai provincial cooking, offering less elaborate dishes at lower prices. Instead of white tablecloths, there are straw mats. Except for seafood, most main courses are less than $10.
Along with the standard Thai appetizers of stuffed chicken wings, satay, spring rolls, and crispy wontons, there are essan sausage, made from grilled pork and lemongrass; tidbit, crispy rice cakes with a coconut-pork dip; pla dook, fried chopped catfish filet seasoned with chilies, lime juice, red onions, scallions, and cilantro; and beef nam tok, similarly seasoned grilled beef.
Fine main courses are the essan grilled chicken or quail, marinated fowl with sticky rice and a choice of sauces; tepo, pork sautéed in spicy kaffir-lime sauce on a bed of watercress; peppercorn beef; beef massaman curry; and pad Thai. Shrimp are particularly good, whether simply prepared with garlic or part of Hot Dish Talay Thai, which includes a variety of seafood plus vegetables. The dessert of choice is the mango with sticky rice. The beverage of choice is Singha beer.Rabieng, 5892 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-671-4222. Open daily for lunch and dinner. No wheelchair access.
RAY'S THE STEAKS
** Arlington; Expensive
This is a small, crowded, noisy place. Don't miss it. An exciting restaurant with none of the faux dignity that infects too many purveyors of red meat, Ray's has its priorities right. The open kitchen is almost as large as the long, narrow dining room. Behind the stove, but regularly darting out to check on customers, is proprietor/chef Michael Landrum, a.k.a. Ray, a young steak wizard who served stints at Capital Grill and elsewhere. The decor is spartan and, it seems, designed to create noise. The ceiling is tin, the floors granite, the walls bare. Reserve a table, bring earplugs, and enjoy.
The beef is all-natural, farm-raised, corn-fed Hereford from Iowa, Nebraska, and Washington state. It combines a lean and firm texture with tenderness and good flavor. Landrum does his own butchering on the premises daily, at times to order. The helpful menu explains precisely what the kitchen means by "rare" and "medium rare." Prices are right, too. Most steaks are around $20, a few cheaper. Available are New York strip (including a 20-ounce version for $28.95), filet mignon, rib eye, entrecôte, and Chateaubriand for two. Rarely encountered hanger steak, flatiron, and culotte may be available on particular evenings. Enticing sauces, such as port-peppercorn and brandy-mushroom-cream, smother the steaks. Several seafood dishes round out the main courses. Mashed potatoes and creamed spinach are free sides.
Grilled calamari and porcini-and-black-bean soup are among the eight appetizers. The desserts, such as chocolate mousse, are house-made. The wine list is good.Ray's the Steaks, 1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-841-7297. Open daily for dinner.
** Downtown DC; Expensive
Chef Cesare Lanfranconi, like Fabrizio Aielli of Teatro Goldoni and Todd Gray of Equinox, is a graduate of Roberto Donna's kitchens at Galileo who has established a restaurant that itself makes a significant contribution to the Washington dining scene. Decorated in a monochromatic palette, Tosca is an elegant restaurant. Its location in the Arnold & Porter building and its excellent acoustics make it a good place for business lunches.
Much of Lanfranconi's cooking is influenced by his native Lombardy--gnocchi made with winter squash; fettuccine with a ragoût of veal and duck livers; a marvelous buckwheat tagliatelle with Swiss chard, potatoes, and fresh sage; lamb shanks with buckwheat polenta. The menu also offers a selection of simply grilled fish and a seasonal tasting menu, $60 for five courses.
Desserts go beyond the usual tiramisu--Lanfranconi's modernized, deconstructed tiramisu is anything but usual--to include such treats as strudel made with quince and butternut squash, and a delicious fig tart served with a goat-cheese gelato.Ristorante Tosca, 1112 F St., NW; 202-367-1990. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
** Alexandria; Expensive
This restaurant looks like a neighborhood tavern. The dining room is narrow with green booths, and there is little in the way of decoration. But RT's serves excellent New Orleans cooking. Just as you should not be fooled by the plain decor into thinking the food is forgettable, don't assume that the prices are low. Main courses are $14 to $25, although most are $20 or less.
Oysters are a treat downed raw, enjoyed deep-fried, or savored as Oysters Three Ways--topped with deviled crawfish, crab imperial, and creamed spinach. Other good starters are the popcorn crawfish with horseradish mayonnaise, fried green tomatoes with jumbo crabmeat, sherry-spiked alligator stew, and Acadian pepper shrimp doused in butter.
Good main courses include smothered catfish with a blanket of shrimp étouffée; oysters neypique, fried oysters with lump crabmeat and tasso-ham étouffée; a Cajun-spiced veal chop; shellfish in parchment with rich crab butter; and crawfish crab imperial. Sides of creamed spinach and corn maque choux add to the treat. If you're not counting calories, end with the bananas-Foster cake, pecan pie, or chocolate-encased profiteroles.RT's Restaurant, 3804 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-684-6010. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner. No handicapped bathroom.
* Rockville; Moderate
This Korean restaurant with pale pine accents, shoji screens, and wooden model boats has a user-friendly menu. Ask for a cooking table or join one of the communal tables in the back rooms. Bul goki (thin slices of beef), cha dol baegi (brisket), and kalbi (short ribs) are the classic cooking-table meats. Other pleasures to be had are beef tongue, pork marinated in hot-and-spicy sauce, and sliced squid. Beyond the table grill are hearty casseroles such as bibim bap with beef and vegetables shredded angel-hair-thin over rice, and marinated beef intestine with noodles. A variation on this theme is a raw-beef version of bibim bap. There are also main-course soups of codfish and clam and Tuk Man-Doo Guk, dumplings simmered in beef broth with egg, rice cakes, and short ribs. Kimchee fans will want to test their mettle with the searing kimchee-and-bean-curd stew known as kimchee jigae. Wash it all down with soju, the less-alcoholic Korean take on vodka made from rice or sweet potatoes.Samwoo Restaurant, 1054 Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-424-0496. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
** Georgetown; Very Expensive
Restaurant reviewers often are asked to recommend restaurants for readers celebrating special occasions--from birthdays and anniversaries to visits from out-of-town relatives. We seldom know much about the party's preferences or tastes, but 1789 is a restaurant we recommend with a high level of certainty that diners will go away happy. It's housed in a lovely Federal townhouse near Georgetown University. The main dining room, dominated by a large fireplace, is tastefully hung with period prints; the restaurant is beautifully decorated for the holidays. Chef Ris Lacoste's cooking is dependably first-rate. 1789 is a favorite of Georgetowners, and a meal there is a quintessential Washington experience.
An August kitchen renovation gave Lacoste and her staff expanded work areas and greater flexibility in menu planning. The resulting fall menu has some not-entirely-successful innovations, such as a dull lobster-tempura roll. The great attraction of 1789 remains the tried-and-true favorites on the Tasting Table of the restaurant's greatest hits, available for $60--a cocktail of salmon and cucumber with crème fraîche and American-sturgeon caviar; oyster stew with walnuts and ham; an endive salad with bleu cheese, duck confit, and walnuts; 1789's justly praised rack of lamb with feta potatoes and garlic spinach; and crème brûlée for dessert. All items also may be ordered à la carte.1789, 1226 36th St., NW; 202-965-1789. Open daily for dinner. No wheelchair access.
* Stevensville; Expensive
The scent of prime rib wafts through this firelit dining room every Sunday night. Meat is carved to order and has a quickie date with the grill, so it's practically sizzling when it arrives at your table. But that's not the only reason to seek out this casually elegant restaurant; for much of the year, a panorama of the Chesapeake Bay is visible through the sweeping windows.
In recent months, the menu has gone broader and a bit simpler--more main-course pastas and grilled items--but many of the dishes that distinguished this Modern American kitchen from others along the Bay are still getting raves. A salad of wilted spinach with walnut-crusted brie medallions is as savory as ever. So are crunchy, panko-crusted tuna rolls, crabcakes with rémoulade, and bouillabaise.
New stars include caramelized-onion soup heady with with lavender flowers; port-roasted wild-mushroom cassoulet with a nugget of rare Black Angus filet mignon; crabmeat-stuffed roast cod; and portobello-mushroom Wellington with herbed goat cheese and sweet peppers poofed in house-made pastry dough.
A five-course game menu ($42) highlights such finds as free-range venison stuffed with chestnuts, and a fish menu ($40) offers the likes of tempura-style rockfish with black sticky rice. The wine roster has gotten a bit more expansive, and desserts have evolved as well. Pistachio-bittersweet-chocolate cake and the frozen soufflé of the day wrap things up with finesse. Here is one restaurant with a view that caters to the palate, too.Silver Swan, 412 Congressional Dr., Stevensville, Md.; 443-249-0400. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
* Bowie; Expensive
The pleasures at Strawberry's Bistro are simple: a swanky space, live jazz on Friday and Saturday nights, and a Modern American menu by way of the South with enough going on to keep things from becoming a yawn. Sautéed shrimp in cream laced with sherry spill over hunks of French bread. Fried calamari is all crunch--frying is an art here. Homey roasted corn chowder is good, too.
Standouts among entrées are crabcakes with lemon beurre blanc, potato-crusted salmon, grilled pork chops with honey mustard, lamb chops with Burgundy-wine sauce, and the catch of the day, especially if it's fried catfish. Sides of collard greens, mashed sweet potatoes, and au gratin potatoes make a nice change from the mashed-potato rut, though a garlic whipped version is quite good. Skip the pastas, which can be overcooked, and pass up the stir-fry too. Service can be erratic, but desserts like moist apple cake with cinammon ice cream and New Orleans-style bread pudding with bananas Foster sauce are worth the wait.Strawberry's Bistro, Bowie Town Center, 3851 Town Center Blvd., Bowie; 301-262-7300. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch, daily for dinner, Sunday for brunch.
* Middletown; Very Expensive
Historic surroundings and stylish Modern American cuisine make for a nifty mix at this 114-acre farm, parts of which date from the 1760s. Dining rooms done up with antique breakfronts, Duncan Phyfe tables, oriental rugs, and real china and crystal suggest formality--and most diners do dress. But chef Christian Evans isn't bound by tradition. The fixed-price $69 five-course menu runs the gamut of culinary trends, from roasted-cauliflower soup with honey-roasted beet hash to seared foie gras en croute with bruléed quince to partridge with wild-game sausage. There are at least two choices for each course, and the chef sends out an amuse-gueule and house-made sorbet as extras.
On a recent foray, roasted-corn-and-crab napoleon with osetra caviar and corn purée thrilled. Also delicious was Maine-lobster ravioli with fennel confit. Best among the entrées were apple-wood-bacon-wrapped salmon with scallop-sage mousse, and an autumnal seared venison loin with cheddar-and-onion pie, fried shallots, and caramelized Brussels sprouts. Less enticing: crispy beef-carpaccio napoleon and 19-bean cassoulet. For dessert, roast baby pumpkin crowned with cinnamon soufflé and flourless chocolate cake with honey-lavender sauce ruled.
Evans's menu changes seasonally and sometimes daily. A three-course lunch menu is a bargain at $36 a person--it features the same items as the dinner menu. A stroll around the grounds will reward you with views of some of the most amazing shrubbery this side of the Atlantic.Stone Manor, 5820 Caroll Boyer Rd., Middletown; 301-473-5454. Open Wednesday through Saturday for lunch and Sunday for dinner, Sunday for brunch.
** Glover Park; Moderate
Even though the menu at Washington's oldest freestanding sushi restaurant contains cooked dishes of various kinds, regulars come for the sushi. Owner Daisuke Utagawa is no longer in the kitchen, but head chef Koji Terano, a seven-year veteran of the restaurant, shares both Utagawa's mastery of the tradition and his fondness for innovation.
In addition to the usual nigiri sushi and sushi rolls, Sushi-Ko offers a selection of "small plates"--cooked dishes such as delicious grilled baby octopus with mango sauce, and a salmon spring roll with a citrusy jalapeño-ponzu sauce. A good way to try a variety of cooked and raw dishes is to order one of Terano's tasting menus, five courses for $40 or six for $65.Sushi-Ko, 2309 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-4187. Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
* Bethesda; Moderate
Sweet Basil owner/chef Napaporn Pitayatonakarn takes Thai cuisine and runs with it. You'll find innovations like tiger prawns wrapped in crispy dough, lamb ribs with tamarind-bean sauce, and green-curry scallops atop wedges of eggplant. Julienne beef with lemongrass and roasted chili paste delivers sweet heat. Panang curry with kaffir (lime) leaves is born anew with pork tenderloin and Thai eggplant. Vegetarians are given their due with baked acorn squash filled with souffléd zucchini, green beans, and Asian greens.
Other offerings include more-traditional Thai fare such as meat and seafood satays, chili-spiked Thai salads, stir-fries featuring Thai basil, and noodle dishes ranging from pad Thai to pad see-ew. The modern dining room, with its recently added bar, is as personal as the cooking. Pitayatonakarn's collection of Thai string instruments on the creamy walls has the look of an avant-garde art installation. You half expect this gracious chef to take one down and play.Sweet Basil, 4910 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-657-7997. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
TABERNA DEL ALABARDERO
** Downtown DC; Expensive
The Washingtonian's Robert Shoffner has called Taberna del Alabardero "the best Spanish restaurant in the country." It recently was named Best Spanish Restaurant Outside Spain by the Spanish government. But there's been a succession of staff changes in the kitchen in the last couple of years. In 2002 executive chef Josu Zubikarai returned to Spain. His successor, Enrique Sanchez, is also headed home, leaving sous chef Santi Zabaleta to take over. It is to be hoped that he will be able to maintain the restaurant's reputation for quality; meanwhile, the recent return of longtime general manager Paco Pena provides reassurance to frequent customers.
Even though one of the first lessons to be learned from Taberna del Alabardero's menu is that there's a world of Spanish cuisine beyond paella, it is very good here in any of its five varieties. And there's much more to explore--from the fall and winter menu, wonderful first courses include chickpea stew with shrimp and sautéed squid in its own ink with root vegetables. Main courses included a moist cured pork loin with roasted peppers and a sauce made from blue-veined Cabrales cheese, more successful than a slightly dry chicken sautéed with garlic. Two good choices for dessert are ice cream delicately flavored with bleu cheese, and torrijas, which has much in common with French toast.Taberna del Alabardero, 1776 I St., NW; 202-429-2200. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
** McLean; Moderate
The only Japanese restaurant in Virginia on the 100 Very Best list, this restaurant excels in everything. Even the simplest noodle dishes stand out. The standard udon--a large bowl of soup with thick rice noodles, a rice cake, a lightly cooked egg, and seaweed--is very good. The sushi and sashimi are thickly sliced and fresh, including the two or three types of tuna, yellow tail, red snapper, and marinated salmon.
The nine-page menu goes far beyond raw fish and noodles. Tachibana does well with traditional offerings of crisp and greaseless shrimp and vegetable tempura; crunchy negimaki, made of grilled beef rolled to encircle scallions; and such appetizers as octopus salad and the pan-fried dumplings known as gyoza. It also does a good job with teriyaki of beef, salmon, and chicken and with breaded and deep-fried cutlets of pork and chicken. The daring can try the crisp broiled horse mackerel, the calamari teriyaki, or the exotic monkfish pâté, which consists of soy-marinated slices of monkfish liver.Tachibana, 6715 Lowell Ave., McLean; 703-847-1771. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
* Bethesda; Moderate
Here's a Japanese restaurant that goes beyond the requisite sushi, teriyaki, and tempura. Way beyond. Stroll in past a whooshing wall of water and you're in a postmodern sake bar that offers a couple of dozen boutique sakes--try the cedar-barrel-aged taru. You can set up camp here or head to the dining room, with its crazy jellyfish halogen lights and, on crowded evenings, a frenetic pace.
Among the more eye-catching starters is a bowl of black seaweed, fried tofu, and soy--soft and crunchy at the same time. Another not-often-seen item is crackling jellyfish in sesame oil and rice vinegar. Beyond the classic shrimp and vegetable tempura are versions with squid, New Zealand mussels, and shiitake mushrooms. Tempuras also find their way into noodle bowls, most notably over green-tea noodles and buckwheat noodles, both served cold. A sleeper on the menu is an elemental stir-fry of pork, onions, ginger, and teriyaki sauce.
There's also a large robatayaki menu of grilled items: tiny octopus with eel sauce; salted ginger gingko nuts; beef tongue; and whole flounder, red snapper, and rockfish, depending on what's at market that day. The specials menu offers such diversions as on-the-shell Blue Point oyster sashimi; tuna loin (toro) sashimi with wasabi root and vinegared miso paste; and Japanese-red-snapper sashimi, from fish flown overnight from Japan. You can get all the usual plates, too, from salmon teriyaki to California rolls. But this is the sort of place that will inspire even the stodgiest to live dangerously.Tako Grill, 7756 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-7030. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
TASTE OF SAIGON
* Rockville, Tysons Corner; Moderate
These twin Vietnamese restaurants done in shades of gray, black, and salmon and showcasing museum-quality ceramics are modern without being hypertrendy--a restful backdrop for perusing the large menu.
Sweet, sour, and salty at the same time, Vietnamese salads make for a zippy beginning--a lobster-flecked version of shredded green papaya tossed with peanuts, lime juice, and fish sauce is a smashing riff on the shrimp-and-pork classic. And Vietnamese ravioli, little cellophane-noodle pillows filled with finely minced carrots, pork, and crab are the definition of savory. Always well done: Saigon-style dumplings in gingery dipping sauce, and the traditional Vietnamese crepe or pancake. Even wonton soup chock full of dumplings and watercress is special.
For the main event, go for gingery squid with black-bean sauce, garlicky fried frog's legs, or lemongrass chicken laced with hot peppers. Also good are pork, peanut, and carrot-stuffed game hen and quail, steamed whole rockfish, and Vietnamese steak--tiny seared cubes to bundle in lettuce. The restaurant is known for its caramel-shrimp and -pork plates and its black-pepper dishes, in which fried meats and seafood meet a piquant sauce made with black pepper. Sometimes they're breadier than need be, but when the fryer's on, look for glorious crunch. Though beers and wines are available, the house-made Vietnamese lemonade--lemon juice, sugar, and soda water--delivers the most authentic sparkle.Taste of Saigon, 410 Hungerford Dr., Rockville, 301-424-7222; 8201 Greensboro Dr., McLean, 703-790-0700. Both locations open daily for lunch and dinner.
** Chevy Chase, Expensive
The lower level of a bank building seems an unlikely spot for a restaurant, but Tavira offers wonderful interpretations of Portuguese cuisine, rare in these parts.
Traditional starters include salt-cod fritters; caldo verde, the potato, kale, and sausage soup; and fragrant clams and chorizo sautéed in white wine and olive oil. Less conventional but no less memorable are warm roasted red peppers stuffed with goat cheese and spritzed with sherry vinaigrette. Salt cod, a Portuguese staple, gets attention in two more substantial plates, one a melange of onions, straw potatoes, olives, and boiled eggs, the other a pared-down version with onions and garlic. Both are delicious--and the essence of Portuguese cuisine. Ditto for grilled chicken with the hot-pepper sauce known as piri piri and pork cubes with clams and fried potatoes. For a showy seafood platter, try arroz Valenciana. Really a paella, the seafood stew of shrimp, clams, mussels, and scallops arrives redolent of the sea; ;it's served with bread rubbed with garlic, olive oil, and coriander.
The gracious dining room, with its majolica plates, white linens, and small tapas bar, is perfect for a quiet rendevous. Linger over the strong native coffee and sweets like pan-fried milk, orange pudding, and a winey poached pear sporting a scoop of honey-cinammon ice cream.Tavira, 8401 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase; 301-652-8684. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
** Downtown DC; Very Expensive
The colorful carnival decor of chef Fabrizio Aielli's fine downtown restaurant is a fitting setting for his cooking, inspired by that of his native Venice. Aielli's menu is particularly rich in the seafood and rice dishes at which Venetians excel. If there's one dish not to be missed at Teatro Goldoni, it's Aielli's gran fritto misto of crisply fried oysters, calamari, scallops, shrimp, and zucchini, priced at $20.50 at lunch, $25.50 at dinner. Other fine seafood dishes are flounder served with rapini and a lobster-truffle emulsion; John Dory on polenta with a sauce of mushroom, tomatoes, and shrimp; and lemon-perfumed risotto with arugula and rockfish.
Lunch at the bar is a good bargain--an entrée from the small but enticing bar menu goes for $12.50 and includes a glass of wine.Teatro Goldoni, 1909 K St., NW; 202-955-9494. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Sunday for dinner.
** Downtown DC; Expensive
The second of three successful restaurants owned by the team of David Wisenberg, Gus DiMillo, and chef Jeff Tunks, TenPenh is a good example of the reasons for their success: striking decor, attentive service, and an interesting but accessible menu. TenPenh was designed by Walter Gagliano as a contemporary American restaurant with Asian accents, many of which he gathered on journeys to the Far East with the owners. The menu likewise visits several Asian cuisines, picking and adapting freely to suit contemporary American tastes. Peking duck becomes a Peking-style duck roll using the ingredients of the Chinese classic but in a form easier for American diners to eat. A thoroughly American ahi-tuna burger with a Japanese wasabi-flavored French aïoli is served next to a China-meets-the-American-South five-spice pecan-crusted halibut. The style would be easy to parody if it weren't so delicious.
Tunks and chef de cuisine Cliff Wharton have a keen sense of the uses--and the limits--of their Asian sources of inspiration. The salinity of Malpeque oysters, for example, is thrown into relief when topped with a granita of pickled ginger and sake. In Tunks's signature Chinese-style smoked lobster, Asian spices set off the sweetness of the lobster meat. Both dishes are superb.
Pastry chef David Guas takes on the challenging task of making Asian-inspired sweets appealing to the American palate using the same restrained, basically American approach. Doughnuts are dusted with coconut and served with coconut-caramel pudding. Crème brûlées are variously flavored with coffee, macadamia nuts, and ginger and vanilla--imaginative combinations of comfortable ingredients.TenPenh, 1001 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-393-4500. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
* Chevy Chase, Expensive
Nestled on the second floor of 1 Wisconsin Circle, this ocher dining room is something of a hideaway. Which means you might be able to get a last-minute reservation on a weekend.
Terrazzo has an ambitious Northern Italian menu and a chef who's no stranger to preserved lemons, truffle oil, and other postmillenium foodstuffs one finds at top restaurants like Galileo and Maestro. Mediterranean sea-bass carpaccio--think Italian sushi--sits on a bright vinaigrette of citrus and chives. Delicately fried calamari dazzles with hits of preserved lemon. And for the comfort-food crowd, soft peaks of polenta and wild-boar sausages are moored in a broth of tomato and bay leaves.
The best of the inventive pastas may be the butternut-filled leaf-shaped ravioli bussed with a sauce of cinnamon, parsley, and Parmesan. With a couple of exceptions, main courses don't stray far from the originals. Veal scallopine with prosciutto and sage gets a wisp of mint. Red snapper is swathed in garlic crust and paired with oven-dried tomatoes and balsamic glaze. The food is light and clean--some might even call it Cal-Ital. Desserts follow suit with bittersweet-chocolate-and-ricotta cheesecake and a cinnamon beignet with vanilla crème brûleé.Terazzo, 1 Wisconsin Cir., Chevy Chase; 301-951-9292. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
TONY CHENG'S SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
** Chinatown; Inexpensive
The big menu at this Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant, located on the second floor above Tony Cheng's Mongolian Restaurant, includes Szechuan and Hunan dishes as well as Cantonese. Exploration is likely to be rewarded with real finds: on a recent visit, shrimp and asparagus in black-bean sauce, duck in spicy garlic sauce, and a generous mixture of delicious fresh seafood on crispy noodles.
At lunchtime, Tony Cheng's also offers dim sum--it's served from carts on weekends and may be ordered from a menu on weekdays. Although the food is probably the best in DC's shrinking Chinatown, the restaurant's somewhat dowdy appearance is a reminder that Chinatown is no longer the center of the area's Chinese community.Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant, 619 H St., NW; 202-371-8669. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
* Leesburg; Expensive
A 105-year-old mill provides an interesting setting for eating and drinking. The mill machinery looks down on a bar and dining room whose rough-hewn walls are decorated with handmade quilts.
Chef Patrick Dinh prepares an eclectic, seasonally changing menu of preparations from Vietnam, China, France, and Italy, along with lots of Modern American cooking. Appealing appetizers are the sautéed medallions of lobster with lobster butter and potato polenta; an Alsatian baked-onion tart with Port Salut cheese and blackberry coulis; oyster stew; and Vietnamese spring rolls. Main courses to savor are the grilled lamb loin with Dijon mustard and rosemary-garlic sauce; sesame-roasted salmon with stir-fried vegetables and jasmine rice; grilled buffalo strip steak with a bacon-and-onion sauce; and shrimp with sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, Madeira, and cheese grits. The restaurant offers several main courses in two sizes--a choice of one or two pork chops, for example.
The wine list is impressive. There are more than 40 Cabernets or Cabernet blends from California and dozens of wines under $30. A very good selection of house-baked desserts, including warm mocha-truffle-mousse cake, provides a grand finale.Tuscarora Mill, 203 Harrison St., SE, Leesburg; 703-771-9300. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
** Falls Church; Expensive
This restaurant, on the ground floor of a big office building, is the most exciting Virginia newcomer to the Very Best list. The restaurant's moniker is its Fairview Park Drive address in Falls Church. The dining area features a 30-foot-high wall of windows looking out on Fairview Lake. A pair of large fireplaces offers warmth. Handling the cooking is Jonathan Krinn, a graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda who served a stint at the highly regarded Gramercy Tavern in New York City.
The modern French-American menu changes seasonally. Appetizer successes have included a bay-leaf-stuffed quail with apple and bleu cheese; carnaroli risotto with fresh Gulf shrimp and a tomato sauce; seared yellowfin tuna served on skewers with a sake glaze; and a fine butternut-squash soup. An airy salmon mousse with oysters and caviar was diminished by below-par caviar.
Meat shows well. Try the New York strip with foie gras and roasted mushrooms and the herb-roasted veal tenderloin offered with crispy sweetbreads. Seafood triumphs include local wild rockfish in a broth of fresh tomatoes, fennel, capers, and olives and Alaskan black cod with a honey-soy glaze. The breads and garnishes are top of the line, but the better red wines could use some aging. Krinn makes his own desserts, and they are good. Lunch is a bargain.2941 Fairview Park Dr., Falls Church; 703-270-1500. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner, Sunday for brunch.
**** Downtown DC; Very Expensive; Blue Ribbon Award Winner
Vidalia recently celebrated its tenth anniversary by remodeling its dining room, adding a wine bar, and expanding its private dining areas--an attempt to make the restaurant less formal and give patrons dining options other than the traditional three-course meal. The striking setting by architects Adamstein & Demetriou, the new format, and the new life on the menu should carry Vidalia well into the 21st century.
Customers who want a bite before the theater or a light meal afterward can order from a new bar menu that includes deviled eggs, macaroni with truffled goat cheese, and rabbit rillettes. (One hopes, however, that the service plan is altered so theatergoers are not subjected to long waits while their waiters attend to tables in the dining room.)
Executive chef Peter Smith's cooking has never been better. The restaurant's signature shrimp-and-grits dish is still wonderful, as are less-Southern options like veal sweetbreads paired with a crisp lobster crepe. Grillades-and-grits is a star of the appetizer menu, here made with meltingly tender veal cheeks rather than the usual beef- or veal-round steak. Lunchtime is a treat at Vidalia--fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, Kentucky burgoo, a wonderful sandwich of barbecue pork shoulder served open-face on toasted cornbread, all priced at about $12.
The large and well-chosen wine list features about 30 wines by the glass, available in full glasses or three-ounce tasting portions.Vidalia, 1990 M St., NW; 202-659-1990. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
WOO LAE OAK
** Arlington; Moderate
Korean food has not caught on with Westerners, who more readily enjoy Vietnamese and Thai cooking. While connoisseurs of Korean cuisine may search out mom-and-pop storefronts in Annandale, the wiser choice is Woo Lae Oak, part of a small international chain. This is no watered down-version of Korean cooking. The ethnic Koreans in the large upstairs dining room or in the private room downstairs attest to the restaurant's authenticity and quality.
Greeting diners are small plates of appetizers--shredded radish, bean sprouts, and fiery kimchee made of layers of cabbage and hot-pepper sauce. Order the barbecue dishes, which diners cook on the grills built into the center of most tables. The marinated slices of beef (bul goki) and short ribs (bul kalbi) are the most accessible, but the spicier pork or beef tongue are good, too. Eat them neat or wrapped in lettuce leaves with bean sprouts. Other good dishes are the bibim bap, a warm salad of steamed rice with morsels of meat, vegetables, and egg, enlivened with a dollop or two of hot sauce; pan-fried medallions of fish or meat in a thick egg batter; pan-fried dumplings (mandoo); stir-fried Chinese-style dishes such as jap chae; or the meal-size soups, including mild versions with dumplings or searing versions with seafood.Woo Lae Oak, 1500 S. Joyce St., Arlington; 703-521-3706. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
* Rockville; Moderate
So you missed Oktoberfest. Head to Wurzburg Haus, where German brews flow like the Danube. This restaurant/biergarten has 26 beers, mostly German--think Warsteiner Dunkel, Heifeweizen, and Degroen Marzen. All go with the robust German fare--herring salad, a melange of apples, pickles, and beets in sour cream; wursts and sandwiches; and more-substantial pork and veal plates.
Like the wood-paneled dining room decorated with beer logos and signs, the menu is big. Look for gems like the bauernomelette, an omelet studded with smoked sausage, pickles, onions, potatoes, and mushrooms. Or share a combo platter of sausages--bratwurst, weisswurst, knockwurst, and bauernwurst--with a round of house-made sauerkraut and bread dumplings. For a "lighter" meal, try German liverwurst or beerwurst slathered with grainy mustard on marvelous house-made dark bread mated with vinegary German potato salad.
Forget cholesterol counts with sauerbraten, the sweet-sour marinated beef, and breaded and fried veal schnitzel. Baked pork chops and smoked pork loin are two other winners, and seafood is nicely turned out, be it trout meunière or flounder stuffed with smoked salmon. Crusty home fries are a bonus. An accordionist plays oompah beer-hall standards most Fridays and Saturdays. If that's not enough to make you smile, the children doing the cha-cha will.Wurzburg Haus, Red Mill Shopping Center, 7236 Muncaster Mill Rd., Rockville; 301-330-0402. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Red-and-yellow splattered paint and convex tanks of parrotfish are a fitting backdrop for chef Jerry Trice's joyous take on Asian fusion. The place is more fun than the Cat in the Hat.
Order a round of house-made root-vegetable chips sprinkled with gorgonzola and then check out the serious sake, beer, and wine lists. (Ask to see the reserve list, too). Wontons plump with shrimp and scallions and steamed beggar's purses of ginger and chicken are other fine noshes.
A spirited sushi roster offers classics like yellowtail and fatty tuna as well as originals like Sukamto Special--tuna with cashew, nori, and avocado. Then there are the larger plates: banana-leaf-and-curry roasted fish with ancho-banana jam, seared Norwegian salmon, and crabchops, a witty approach to crabcakes--they're shot with chilies and plopped on a stick of sugarcane. Meat dishes--pan-fried steak, for example--usually show up on the specials roster, but this really is a seafood lover's paradise. Trice is not timid with chilies, so if your palate can't take it, let him know.
Sides are stars in their own right. Experiment with wok-seared crispy bean salad, wasabi-infused mashed potatoes, coconut rice, and spiced-potato gaufrettes. The showboat dessert is Crazy Banana, a melange of house-made coconut ice gream, mango and berry purées, and a grilled honey-drizzled banana.Yin Yankee, 105 Main St., Annapolis; 410-268-8703. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
** Downtown DC; Moderate
Chef José Andrés's new Middle Eastern restaurant has been on everybody's list of hot new places, and the enthusiasm is justified by the scene and the cooking. Zaytinya is an attempt to duplicate the success of Jaleo--the tapas restaurant Andres owns with Rob Wilder and Roberto Alvarez--with mezze, the small plates of food that begin a Middle Eastern meal. Taking his inspiration from the eastern Mediterranean, Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon, Andrés devised a menu that goes far beyond the usual hummus, baba ghanoush, and tabbouleh. The 60 or more selections include such Middle Eastern-inspired dishes as a pork and orange-rind sausage; braised rabbit with lentils; addictive little manti, beef-stuffed pasta in yogurt sauce; squid with spinach and sometimes other greens; and fried mussels with pistachios. Seasonal specials in the spring and summer included crisp plates of batter-fried soft-shell crabs.
Zaytinya takes no reservations at lunch and only between 5 and 6:30 for pretheater dinner patrons, so getting a table at busy times can involve a wait. Note that the restaurant is set up for serving food quickly and turning the tables. If you want a more leisurely experience, order your mezze a few at a time rather than all at once.
It's worth saving room for a couple of pastry chef Steve Klc's desserts, accomplished improvisations on Middle Eastern themes--medjool dates with olive-oil ice cream or a wonderful apricot cream with Muscat-vanilla gelée.
Zaytinya, 701 Ninth St., NW; 202-638-0800. Open daily from lunch through dinner.
Blue Ribbon Award Winners
The Inn at Little Washington
Cashion's Eat Place
Colvin Run Tavern
Four & Twenty Blackbirds
L'Auberge Chez François
The Prime Rib
CHANGES in the Top 100
Hollywood East Café
Mark's Duck House
Ray's the Steaks
Bistrot du Coin
Ha Ku Ba
Hama Sushi Japanese Restaurant
Turning Point Inn
Bistrot Lepic * to **
Black's Bar & Kitchen * to **
Cashion's Eat Place ** to****
Equinox ** to ****Grapeseed **to ****i Ricchi * to **
Jean-Michel * to **
Johnny's Half Shell * to **
Taste of Saigon * to **
Bobby Van's Steakhouse *** to ***Carlyle ** to **Elysium ** to *
Haandi ** to *
La Colline ****to ***Majestic Café ** to *
Rabieng *** to **
Tako Grill ** to *
Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant *** to **
Twenty to Watch
DC: A Bistro, A Steakhouse, A Fishing Camp, And More
Bistro d'OC (518 Tenth St., NW; 202-393-5444). Convenient to Ford's Theater, this French bistro is run by Bernard Grenier, former chef/proprietor of the popular La Miche in Bethesda. Moderate.
Buck's Fishing & Camping (5031 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-364-0777). With the help of James Alefantis, veteran chef Carole Greenwood has redecorated her restaurant to resemble a fishing camp, has lowered prices, and now offers a menu of updated comfort food. Moderate.
Ceiba (701 14th St., NW; 202-393-3983). A lively new restaurant from the owners of DC Coast and TenPenh, Ceiba celebrates the flavors of Latin America and the Caribbean. Expensive.
Charlie Palmer Steak (101 Constitution Ave., NW; 202-547-8100). This sleek restaurant from the owner of Aureole in New York is not just another steakhouse. The Modern American cooking is impressive, and the wine list is presented in a hand-held computer. Very expensive.
David Greggory (2030 M St., NW; 202-872-8700). Two longtime restaurateurs, Greggory Hill and David Hagedorn, pool their talents at an imaginative downtown restaurant that's as comfortable at dinner as at lunch. Expensive.
Dish (924 25th St., NW; 202-338-8707). From the spinach-artichoke dip to the best meatloaf in town, chef Ron Reda's classic American cooking is consistently delicious. Moderate.
Poste (555 Eighth St., NW; 202-783-6060). Chef Jay Comfort's contemporary American cooking--uncomplicated food with sharply focused flavors--is well suited to this skylighted dining room, a former postal-sorting facility with cement walls. Expensive.
MARYLAND: Great Ethnic Eating And Modern American Sophistication
Amada Amante (9755 Traville Gateway Dr., Rockville; 301-217-5900). The Modern Italian menu has improved since the early days, and it could be a contender if service, which seems perpetually confused, gets better. Very expensive.
Divino Restaurant (7345-B Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 240-497-0300). With a swanky lounge in front and a cool yet elegant dining room in back, it's a hip setting for an Argentine meat extravaganza or tapas and small plates. Moderate.
Olazzo (7921 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-9496). The price is right in this intimate trattoria, where adeptly rendered Southern Italian classics like crisp calamari, Italian wedding soup, and lasagna bolognese rule. Inexpensive.
Sol de Españna (838-C Rockville Pike, Rockville; 240-314-0202). Classic Spanish cooking done with flair is the hallmark of this new restaurant. It's managed by Joaquin Serrano, who ran Andalucia in Bethesda until it closed last year. Expensive.
Tandoori Nights (106 Market St., Gaithersburg; 301-947-4007). One of the area's most attractive Indian dining rooms. Food is mostly familiar Northern Indian cooking with a few wild cards. Moderate.
Tony Lin's (12015-G Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-468-5858). Tony Lin's proves that authentic Chinese cuisine and fine dining can coexist. Ask for the menu given to Chinese diners. Inexpensive.
Zest (11791 Fingerboard Rd., Monrovia; 301-8650868). Polished wood floors, abstract art, and a relaxed sensibility are the ideal setting for unfussy Modern American food. Expensive.
VIRGINIA: Many New Asian Places, Plus Syrian, Spanish, And French
China Star (9600-G Main St., Fairfax; 703-323-8822). One of the area's authentic Szechuan restaurants, with a long menu that includes both staples and exotic dishes. The cooking is spicy but not overly so. Don't expect K Street decor. Inexpensive.
Dragon Star (Eden Center, 6793 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-533-8340). A new addition to the vibrant collection of Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants at Seven Corners. Try the fresh seafood, main-course soups, casseroles, and dim sum. Inexpensive.
Layalina (5216 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-1170). This longtime favorite, which serves Syrian and Lebanese food, got a boost with the addition of 20 dishes. The engaging atmosphere includes indefatigable hostess Rima Kodsi. Moderate.
Lucky Three (5900 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-998-8888). The big treat at this new Hong Kong-style restaurant is the weekday buffet, where $8.95 gets you an array of good dishes, including clams with black-bean sauce and pan-fried shrimp in the shell. Dim sum is served seven days a week. Inexpensive.
El Manantial (12050-A N. Shore Dr., Reston; 703-742-6466). Ten members of the Fuentes family work at this Spanish-Italian-French eatery, which takes its food seriously. Moderate.
Le Tire Bouchon (4009 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax; 703-691-4747). A highly professional restaurant run by alumni of some of the area's top restaurants, Le Tire Bouchon provides a warm ambience to go with the mostly French-provincial cooking. Expensive.
RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEAR
John Laytham of Clyde's
When John Laytham was a freshman at Georgetown University in 1964, he got a job as a busboy at Clyde's, a Georgetown saloon that had been started by Stuart Davidson a few months before. In 1968, Davidson asked Laytham to become a partner.
In 1970, the two went to an IRS auction at the historic Old Ebbitt Grill, intending to buy a collection of antique beer steins for Clyde's. They unexpectedly found themselves buying the whole restaurant, starting a steady expansion that led to Clyde's of Columbia (1975), Clyde's of Tysons Corner (1980), and the acquisition of the Tombs, F. Scott's, and 1789 Restaurant (1985). The Clyde's Restaurant Group now includes 11 restaurants. Following the sudden death of Stuart Davidson in 2001, Laytham became president.
The success of Clyde's is tied to its knowledge of the Washington area. Davidson once said that the group chose locations only "where we were desperately needed." The Old Ebbitt Grill is DC's highest-grossing restaurant and one of the highest nationally. Within one month of its opening, Clyde's of Reston was the third busiest restaurant in the region. 1789 Restaurant, with chef Ris Lacoste in the kitchen, is a longtime winner of The Washingtonian's 100 Very Best Restaurant awards.
Clyde's restaurants always have been dedicated to the use of fresh local products. The restaurants are also remarkable for their striking decor. John Laytham's passionate urge to collect interesting things is responsible for the extraordinary artifacts in the restaurants--automobiles and airplanes in Clyde's of Chevy Chase, objects recalling sporting life on the water at Clyde's at Mark Center, the re-creation of an Adirondack lodge at Tower Oaks Lodge.
For his commitment to friendly customer service and good value, his civic leadership, and his contribution to high-quality dining in the Washington area, The Washingtonian is pleased to honor John Laytham as the 2004 Restaurateur of the Year.
Photograph for The Washingtonian by Matthew Girard
100 Very Best Restaurants
QUALITY: *****Excellent; ****Superior; ***Very Good; * Good. PRICE RANGE: $$$ Very Expensive; $$ Expensive; $ Moderate; ¢ Inexpensive.
|Addie's, 11120 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-881-0081||***||Modern American||$$|
|Andale, 401 Seventh St., NW; 202-783-3133***Mexican||$|
|Bistro Bis, Hotel George, 15 E St., NW; 202-661-2700||**||French||$$|
|Bistrot Lafayette, 1118 King St., Alexandria; 703-548-2525***French||$|
|Bistrot Lepic, 1736 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-0111||**||French||$|
|Black's Bar and Kitchen, 7750 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-6278**||Seafood||$$|
|Blue Point Grill, 600 Franklin St., Alexandria; 703-739-0404||***||Seafood||$$|
|Bobby Van's Steakhouse, 809 15th St., NW; 202-589-0060||***||Steak||$$|
|Bombay Bistro, Fairfax (703-359-5810) and Rockville (301-762-8798)||**||Indian||¢|
|Buon Giorno, 8003 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-1400**||Italian||$|
|Café Atlántico, 405 Eighth St., NW; 202-393-0812||**||Nuevo Latino||$|
|Café Milano, 3251 Prospect St., NW; 202-333-6183||***||Italian||$$|
|Carlyle, 4000 S. 28th St., Arlington; 703-931-0777||**||Modern American||$|
|Cashion's Eat Place, 1119 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-797-1899||***||Modern American||$$|
|Chez Marc, 7607 Centreville Rd., Manassas; 703-369-6526***French||$$|
|Citronelle, Latham Hotel, 3000 M St., NW; 202-625-2150||****||French||$$$|
|Colvin Run Tavern, 8045 Leesburg Pike, Vienna; 703-356-9500||***||Modern American||$$$|
|Corduroy, 1201 K St., NW; 202-589-0699||**||Modern American||$$|
|The Crossing at Casey Jones, 417 E. Charles St., La Plata, Md.; 301-932-6226***Modern American||$$|
|DC Coast, 1401 K St., NW; 202-216-5988||**||Modern American||$$|
|Duangrat's, 5878 Leesburg Pike, Baileys Crossroads; 703-820-5775||***||Thai||$|
|Elysium, Morrison House Hotel, 116 S. Alfred St., Alexandria; 703-838-8000||**||Modern American||$$|
|Equinox, 818 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-331-8118||**||Modern American||$$|
|Etrusco, 1606 20th St., NW; 202-667-0047||**||Italian||$|
|Evening Star Cafe, 2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-549-5051||**||Modern American||$ Four & Twenty Blackbirds, 650 Zachary Taylor Hwy., Flint Hill, Va., 540-675-1111||***||Modern American||$$|
|Four Sisters (Huong Que), 6769 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-538-6717||**||Vietnamese||¢|
|Galileo, 1110 21st St., NW; 202-293-7191||****||Italian||$$$|
|Gerard's Place, 915 15th St., NW; 202-737-4445||****||French||$$$|
|Grapeseed, 4865-C Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-9592***Modern American||$$|
|Green Payaya, 4922 Elm St., Bethesda; 301-654-8986**||Vietnamese||$|
|Haandi, Falls Church (703-533-3501) and Bethesda (301-718-0121)||**||Indian||¢|
|Heritage India, Northwest DC (202-333-3120) and Bethesda (301-656-3373)||***||Indian||$|
|Hollywood East Café, 2312 Price Ave., Wheaton; 301-942-8282**||Chinese||¢|
|Il Pizzico, 15209 Frederick Rd., Rockville; 301-309-0610||**||Italian||$|
|Indique, 3512 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-244-6600||**||Indian||$|
|Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Va.; 540-675-3800||****||Modern American||$$$|
|i Ricchi, 1220 19th St., NW; 202-835-0459||**||Italian||$$|
|Jaipur, 9401 Lee Highway, Fairfax; 703-766-1111**||Indian||$|
|Jaleo, Downtown DC (202-628-7949) and Bethesda (301-913-0003)||**||Spanish||$|
|Jean-Michel, 10223 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda; 301-564-4910||**||French||$$|
|Jerry's Seafood, 9364 Lanham-Severn Rd., Seabrook; 301-577-0333**||Seafood||$$|
|Johnny's Half Shell, 2002 P St., NW; 202-296-2021**||Seafood||$|
|Kaz Sushi Bistro, 1915 I St., NW; 202-530-5500||**||Japanese||$|
|Kinkead's, 2000 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-296-7700||****||Seafood||$$|
|La Bergerie, 218 N. Lee St., Alexandria; 703-683-1007||**||French||$$|
|La Chaumière, 2813 M St., NW; 202-338-1784||**||French||$$|
|La Colline, 400 N. Capitol St., NW; 202-737-0400||***||French||$$|
|La Côte d'Or Café, 6876 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-538-3033||***||French||$$|
|La Ferme, 7101 Brookville Rd., Chevy Chase; 301-986-5255***French||$$|
|L'Auberge Chez François, 332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls; 703-759-3800||***||French||$$|
|Le Gaulois, 1106 King St., Alexandria; 703-739-9494***French||$|
|Les Folies Brasserie, 2552 Riva Rd., Annapolis; 410-573-0970||**||French||$$|
|Les Halles, 1201 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-347-6848||**||French||$$|
|Maestro, Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner, 1700 Tysons Blvd., McLean; 703-917-5498||****||Italian||$$$|
|Majestic Café, 911 King St., Alexandria; 703-837-8117***Modern American||$|
|Malaysia Kopitiam, 1827 M St., NW; 202-833-6232||**||Malaysian||¢|
|Mannequin Pis, 18064 Georgia Ave., Olney; 301-510-4800||**||Belgian||$$|
|Marcel's; 2401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, 202-296-1166||**||French-Belgian||$$|
|Mark's Duck House, 6184-A Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-532-2125**||Chinese||¢|
|Melrose, Park Hyatt Hotel, 1201 24th St., NW; 202-955-3899||**||Modern American||$$$|
|Montmartre, 327 Seventh St., SE; 202-544-1244***French||$|
|Mykonos, 121 Congressional La., Rockville; 301-770-5999**||Greek||$|
|Nizam's, 523 Maple Ave. W., Vienna; 703-938-8948||**||Turkish||$|
|Obelisk, 2029 P St., NW; 202-872-1180||***||Italian||$$|
|Palena, 3529 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-9250||***||American||$$$|
|The Palm, 1225 19th St., NW; 202-293-9091||**||American||$$$|
|Panino, 9116 Mathis Ave., Manassas; 703-335-2566***||Italian||$|
|Persimmon, 7003 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-9860||***||Modern American||$$|
|Pesce, 2016 P St., NW; 202-466-3474||**||Seafood||$$|
|Terrazzo, 1 Wisconsin Cir., Chevy Chase; 301-951-9292||*||Italian||$$|
|Petits Plats, 2653 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-518-0018||**||French||$|
|Pizzeria Paradiso, 2029 P St., NW; 202-223-1245||**||Pizza||¢|
|The Prime Rib, 2020 K St., NW; 202-466-8811||***||American||$$|
|Rabieng, 5892 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-671-4222||**||Thai||¢|
|Ray's the Steaks, 1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-841-7297||**||Steak||$$|
|Ristorante Tosca, 1112 F St., NW; 202-367-1990||**||Italian||$$|
|RT's Restaurant, 3804 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-684-6010||**||American||$|
|Samwoo Restaurant, 1054 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-424-0495 or 301-424-0496***Korean||$|
|1789 Restaurant, 1226 36th St., NW; 202-965-1789||**||Modern American||$$$|
|Silver Swan, 412 Congressional Dr., Stevensville; 443-249-0400***Modern American||$$|
|Strawberry's Bistro, 3851 Town Center Blvd., Bowie; 301-262-7300***Modern American||$$|
|Stone Manor, 5820 Carroll Boyer Rd., Middletown, Md.; 301-473-5454||**||Modern American||$$$|
|Sushi-Ko, 2309 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-4187||**||Japanese||$|
|Sweet Basil, 4910 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-657-7997**||Thai||$|
|Taberna del Alabardero, 1776 I St., NW; 202-429-2200||***||Spanish||$$|
|Tachibana, 6715 Lowell Ave., McLean; 703-847-1771||**||Japanese||$|
|Tako Grill, 7756 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-7030||**||Japanese||$|
|Taste of Saigon, Rockville (301-424-7222) and McLean (703-790-0700)||**||Vietnamese||¢|
|Tavira, 8401 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, Md.; 301-652-8684||**||Portuguese||$$|
|Teatro Goldoni, 1909 K St., NW; 202-955-9494||**||Italian||$$|
|TenPenh, 1001 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-393-4500||**||Asian||$$|
|Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant, 619-621 H St., NW; 202-371-8669||***||Chinese||¢|
|Tuscarora Mill, 203 Harrison St., SE, Leesburg; 703-771-9300***Modern American||$$|
|2941, 2941 Fairview Park Dr., Falls Church; 703-270-1500||**||French-American||$$|
|Vidalia, 1990 M St., NW; 202-659-1990||****||Modern American||$$|
|Woo Lae Oak, 1500 S. Joyce St., Arlington; 703-521-3706||**||Korean||$|
|Wurzburg Haus, 7236 Muncaster Mill Rd., Rockville; 301-330-0402***German||$|
|Yin Yankee, 105 Main St., Annapolis; 410-268-8703||*||Asian||$|
|Zaytinya, 701 Ninth St., NW; 202-638-0800||**||Mediterranean||$|