70. Zentan ★★½
Donovan House, 1155 14th St., NW; 202-379-4366
Cuisine: What Wolfgang Puck is to America, Susur Lee is to Canada—a culinary mastermind who fuses French techniques and Asian flavors into an exuberant brand. Lee—whose now-shuttered Lotus, in Toronto, was acclaimed as Canada’s best restaurant—was recruited to DC’s new Donovan House hotel after Todd English backed out, and his signature take on Asian fusion is on vibrant display: a Szechuan-style duck that pairs a confit-like bird with a stack of lotus pancakes; a mountainous slaw of 19 ingredients tossed tableside; a platter of dumplings concealed by a lacy pancake; and dazzling plates of unconventionally dressed nigiri and sashimi.
Mood: The hotel is owned by the fashionable Thompson Group, and the moodily lit dining room bears the hallmarks of that boutique chain: slick and garish and populated largely by businessmen dining alone and high rollers in search of a good time.
Best for: Sushi. The freshness of the fish and the detail that goes into its preparation make this one of the area’s best spots for sashimi and nigiri.
Best dishes: Singapore slaw; robust hot-and-sour soup; sashimi of scallop, yellowtail, mackerel, and fatty tuna; Brick Roll of spicy lobster, barbecue eel, and scallop; duck with lotus pancakes; crispy garlic chicken, a fine-dining take on the stir-fry classic; black cod with miso mustard; molten chocolate cake.
Insider tips: Consider forgoing a main course and instead front-loading your meal. Some entrées rank among the most expensive in town, and the most successful meals here tend to be cobbled together from various parts of the menu: a soup, a salad, a couple of starters, and above all sushi.
Open Monday through Friday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Saturday for breakfast and dinner, Sunday for breakfast. Expensive.
69. Sou’Wester ★★½
Mandarin Oriental, 1330 Maryland Ave., SW; 202-787-6868
Cuisine: Straightforward Southern cookery as seen through the eyes of one of the area’s most celebrated chefs, Eric Ziebold, and one of the world’s elite hotels, the Mandarin Oriental. From the expertly engineered biscuits and hushpuppies to the meticulously rendered grits and fried chicken, the mastery of detail is inescapable—you may come away marveling at the clarity of many of these dishes. It’s hard, too, not to wonder whether it was all necessary—whether down-home food really benefits from being so technically proficient.
Mood: The plate-glass window looks out onto the Southwest DC waterfront, but there the appeal of the multilevel room pretty much ends. This is as sterile as hotel dining gets (pouring a Miller into a Champagne glass seems as incongruous as grits and hushpuppies at the Mandarin Oriental), despite the few Southern-style touches on the table and the earnest efforts of the excellent staff.
Best for: Those who crave unpretentious comfort food and who can put up with digging into it in a pretentious setting.
Best dishes: Root-beer float with Jack Daniel’s; a remarkable, seemingly cream-free crab bisque; Rappahannock oysters with a house-made grilled sausage; the best hushpuppies you’ll ever eat, Sou’Wester’s inspired counterpart to the irresistible mini–Parker House rolls at CityZen; creamy yellow grits with a yolk-spilling poached egg and miniature bites of veal sweetbreads; juicy, well-seasoned pan-fried chicken; a filet of porgy with a rich crab imperial; banana cream pie.
Insider tips: The hushpuppies, unlike a lot of hot, fried foods, hold up surprisingly well; order an extra round or two and take them home.
Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Moderate to expensive.
68. Sei ★★½
444 Seventh St., NW; 202-783-7007
Cuisine: Asian/Latin fusion often seems sillier than Tom DeLay on Dancing With the Stars, but this Penn Quarter small-plates spot/sushi bar—a sister to nearby Oya—defies expectations. Dubious-sounding creations such as a fish-and-chips sushi roll and wasabi-jolted guacamole prove smart and satisfying.
Mood: With its white-on-white palette and mod wall of red branches, Sei makes a striking perch for the fashionistas and pretty young things who gather around the bar to sip Liquid Wasabi cocktails. The dining room tends to be just as loud but not as show-offy.
Best for: A working lunch or pre-theater dinner; a big group of friends up for sharing small plates; creative and high-quality sushi.
Best dishes: Steamed buns stuffed with hoisin-slicked pork; wasabi guacamole with wontons; Kobe-beef tataki dotted with jellied ponzu; fish-and-chips roll; Snow White roll with eel and roasted apple; traditional nigiri such as fatty tuna, fatty yellowtail, sweet shrimp, and sea urchin; lunchtime miso-glazed salmon burger on brioche.
Insider tips: This is one of the town’s better sushi restaurants, and you can find traditionally cut fish amid all the funky rolls.
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Expensive.