40. Sushi Sono ★★½
10215 Wincopin Cir., Columbia; 410-997-6131
Cuisine: Some of the most creative, exuberant sushi-making in the area emerges from the busy kitchen at this lakefront restaurant. Chef King Lin is a persnickety shopper (he procures some of the best chu-toro, or fatty tuna, around) and possessed of a vivid imagination. Witness the fishing boat he fashions from a small horse mackerel (the fish is sparklingly fresh) or his magnificent Dragon Roll, a tour de force of color and drama. Rolls are a point of pride—they’re not filled with the scraps from preparations of nigiri and sashimi but treated (and often priced) as featured players.
Mood: Eye-catching plates of sushi sail through the dining room as heads turn and point, and the line of diners congregating by the door for a table grows longer. (This is arguably the toughest reservation in Columbia.) The bustle is balanced by the serenity of Lake Kittamaqundi visible through the long plate-glass windows.
Best for: A night of splurging on the high-priced delicacies and rarities that dot the menu.
Best dishes: Snow Balls, panko-rolled, deep-fried shrimp croquettes dusted with Old Bay; shrimp hand rolls; sashimi or horse mackerel (ask the kitchen to fry the skin and bones for a pleasurable treat); sashimi of wild baby red snapper, fatty yellowtail, and o-toro, shipped from Japan; salt-grilled geoduck clam.
Insider tips: Stick to sushi and sashimi—the tempura and the rendition of shabu shabu are ordinary.
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Moderate to expensive.
39. Willow ★★½
4301 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington; 703-465-8800
Cuisine: Briny scallops get a hit of sweetness from a dice of butternut squash. Creamy-sweet smoked tomato bisque goes tart and grainy with a zesty olive tapenade. Chef Tracy O’Grady plays with flavor and texture on her seafood-centric menu, and more often than not her pairings come off well. Her years with Bob Kinkead have also made her a master fryer; shrimp, scallops, and sweetbreads are all done to a golden turn.
Mood: This sprawling space, with its dramatic drapes and oversize burgundy lamp shades, is more fun when full; the bar/lounge has an intimate vibe.
Best for: After-work get-togethers and dinner with gal pals—the rooms are spacious, and the menu abounds in high/low options.
Best dishes: Crisp fried veal sweetbreads; lobster agnolotti filled with sizable chunks of lobster and berthed on a “butter” of lobster roe and sherry; lemony fried chicken; flatbread pizzas, including the signature Willow, with fontina, thyme, lemon, and truffle essence; gorgeous farm lettuces with shaved Manchego and citrusy sherry dressing; a perfect-for-sharing fisherman’s platter with fried shrimp, scallops, lobster, calamari, pickled fennel, and spiked rémoulade; seared day-boat scallops with butternut squash two ways, diced and in ravioli.
Insider tips: Desserts have been disappointing lately, and the wine list is full of underwhelming picks. When making a reservation, ask to be seated in the main dining room; the two annexes, often used for private events, feel B-list.
Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday for dinner. Moderate to expensive.
38. Poste ★★½
Hotel Monaco, 555 Eighth St., NW; 202-783-6060
Cuisine: Respectful of the classics but with a bit of whimsy, Robert Weland, one of the area’s most underrated chefs, has turned this hotel restaurant into an exciting and consistent destination for smartly conceived, carefully executed American cooking.
Mood: A bright and bustling multilevel space with vaulted ceilings, an open kitchen, and the air of a big night in the making.
Best for: Dinner before or after a show or a game or concert at Verizon Center.
Best dishes: Steak tartare on brioche, a clever variation on the mini-burger craze; a slow-cooked hen egg on toasted brioche with hollandaise and black truffles; wild-mushroom consommé, earthy and intense; spit-roasted poussin; a crisp-skinned filet of sea bass capped by a red-wine-poached egg; a loving ode to salted caramel, a multipart dessert that never descends into gimmickry.
Insider tips: The restaurant hosts Poste Roasts several times a year during spring and summer—moderately priced prix fixe dinners centered on spit-roasted meats and small-batch whiskeys and served in the courtyard.
Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch and dinner. Expensive.