20 Farrah Olivia ★★★
600 Franklin St., Alexandria | 703-778-2233
Cuisine: Fusion at its best and most challenging. Chef Morou Ouattara takes familiar Western ingredients and combinations—a salmon, a Caesar salad—and defamiliarizes them in order to reinvent them. Whether he hits or not—usually he hits—each plate is a conversation piece, boasting powders and foams and wildly inventive sauces (roasted banana and celery heart) in startling arrangements.
Mood: You’d hardly guess what the chef was up to from the serene space on a quiet side street in Old Town. Africa is subtly invoked in the dishes—Morou hails from Ivory Coast—and the dining room follows suit with an iridescent jungle design on one wall. Part of the fun is watching diners with wrinkled brows interrogate the staff—what’s lobster tapioca?
Best for: The food is the focus, and it’s interesting enough to carry an entire meal.
Best dishes: Vanilla-poached lobster atop a creamy lobster tapioca encircled by lobster bisque; “painted soup,” a serving of two soups (black bean, squash) in an artful yin/yang arrangement; “deconstructed” New England clam chowder; chorizo-stuffed roast quail; gnudi, a cousin to gnocchi—light, goat-cheese dumplings with no skins—garnished with white and green asparagus; tender black cod in a Thai-style broth of coconut milk, lemongrass, and chilies; gingerbread-and-pear trifle; dark-chocolate/peanut tart.
Insider tips: Here’s one of the few area restaurants where it’s worth turning your meal over to the chef and ordering a tasting menu. And vegetarians, take note: Morou grew up regarding meat as a seasoning; to him, vegetables aren’t supplements—his soups in particular are exceptional for the flavor coaxed out of simple ingredients without resorting to meat, butter, or cream.
19 Corduroy ★★★
1122 Ninth St., NW | 202-589-0699
Cuisine: In an age of look-at-me chefs, Tom Power is as much a throwback as his Johnny Unitas–style hair. He eschews experimentation and showing off in favor of simple, true flavors—from exceptional soups to hand-rolled pastas to unfussy preparations of fish, seafood, and game.
Mood: Removed from its charmless space in a Sheraton hotel to a townhouse, the restaurant now exudes quiet sophistication, with warm lighting and subtle Asian accents. Power dislikes music, thinking it a distraction from the food. To those fed up with the brassy, noisy new restaurants that now dominate downtown, his policy will come as a relief. But sometimes the room is more hushed than peaceful.
Best for: Diners alienated by forced juxtapositions and bewildered by ingredients they’ve never heard of; anyone seeking a leisurely, elegant meal.
Best dishes: Rouge Vif d’Temps–pumpkin soup, a silken, lightly sweet broth over a small mound of minced bacon; snapper bisque; salad of duck egg and duck-leg confit; roast chicken with shallots and arugula; pan-roasted duck with fig sauce; pepper-edged, seared bigeye tuna with sushi rice; tarte Tatin of local apples; pistachio bread pudding.
Insider tips: The new bar menu offers some of the area’s best cooking at a fraction of the cost of the upstairs dining room.
Open Monday and Saturday for dinner, Tuesday through Friday for lunch and dinner. Very expensive.
18 Rasika ★★★
633 D St., NW | 202-637-1222
Cuisine: Indian food at its most inventive. Chef Vikram Sunderam’s refined gravies and elegant presentations will erase the memory of uninspired Indian buffets.
Mood: Few rooms in the area are trendier than this bead-and-silk-bedecked Penn Quarter place. But though the tables are jammed at night with bright young things, the atmosphere manages not to cross into exclusivity.
Best for: All those who say they don’t like, or don’t get, Indian food. This will likely be their gateway drug.
Best dishes: Black cod lightly sauced with star anise, dill, and honey; spicy chicken green masala with coriander and mint; poached lobster in a hot chili sauce; lamb rogan josh; dal makhani, a rich stew of spiced red lentils, perfect as a dip for any of the flavorful flatbreads; carrot halwa with cinnamon sabayon; apple jalebi, a crispy-fried round of apple, with a scoop of orange-cardamom ice cream.
Insider tips: Rasika bills itself as the place to find wine pairings that stand up to the bold flavors of Indian cuisine, but you’re better off accompanying spicier dishes with a traditional Kingfisher beer. A three-course pretheater meal costs $30.
Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday for dinner. Expensive.