Best of Washington 2006: Food

Where to find the best delivery pizza, luxe mac and cheese, stadium dining, wine expert, Parisian bistro, chocolate dessert, guilty pleasure burger, and much more. Plus, overrated restaurants and great gifts for foodies.

By: Todd Kliman, Ann Limpert, Cynthia Hacinli, sara levine, Erin Zimmer

Best Museum Cafe

Museum cafes can be a maze of steam tables with overpriced cafeteria food. Skip the chicken tenders and head for the National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe (Fourth St. and Independence Ave., SW; 202-633-1000). The sunlit eatery offers cuisines of five Native American regions, from Pacific Northwest to Great Plains. Selections change often, but we recommend empanadas and pork pibil tamales from the South America station, fresh smoothies and juices, and Indian fry bread dipped in honey.

How to Feel Like You’re in Italy

Maybe it’s the red-pepper-and-eggplant crostini glistening with olive oil, or the rough-textured, ultra-thin slices of prosciutto, or the aroma of strong espresso, but Cornucopia (8102 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-1625) just feels like Italy. Owner “Ibo” Selmy, who assembles panini as if they were works of art, is passionate about Italian food—he’s half Italian himself—and it shows at this salumeria/bakery/espresso bar.

Luxe Mac and Cheese

The haute-comfort-food trend has seen its day, but we’ll never tire of the elegant macaroni and cheese ($8) that chef Todd Gray serves at Equinox (818 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-331-8118; equinoxrestaurant.com). It arrives bread-crumb-toasted and bubbling in a cast-iron crock—with crusty, caramelized edges—and is gooey with Gruyère, cheddar, and a rich truffle reduction. Give it a few seconds to cool, and let the fork fights begin.

How to Feel Like You’re in Paris

The carte de vin and unopened wine bottle on every table at Montmartre (327 Seventh St., SE; 202-544-1244) feel very Left Bank. Add in the cheek-by-jowl tables (space is always at a premium in the City of Lights), the very French hostess, and long-simmered stews that taste as if Tante Delphine fussed over them and you’ve got a Parisian idyll right on Capitol Hill.

Most Welcome Teacher

The departure of two-star Michelin chef Gerard Pangaud from his restaurant, Gerard’s Place, left a hole in the dining scene. But the gastronome’s loss—those crispy sweetbreads! that egg-white soufflé!—is the aspiring cook’s gain.

Pangaud is directing the culinary-arts program at L’Academie de Cuisine’s professional school in Gaithersburg, but he also teaches recreational classes at the Bethesda location (5021 Wilson La.; 301-986-9490; lacademie.com). Classes have ranged from “Cuisine du Bien Être,” a one-session course on healthful cooking—Pangaud has committed to losing weight—to themed tributes to great chefs. Coming up: “teaching dinners,” in which he gives tips and demonstrates techniques while preparing a multicourse meal.

Chocolate Times Three

Pastry chef Janelle Birdsall is serious about the cocoa bean. Her Chocolate Trio at Black’s Bar and Kitchen (7750 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-6278; blacksbarandkitchen.com) is intense, playful, and original. The mini portions are just enough to satisfy and maybe leave you wanting a bit more. One is silky chocolate panna cotta with a brownie base and a cocoa nib. Next is a gooey dark-chocolate soufflé tart tucked into a brittle dark-chocolate shell. Rounding things out: mini ice-cream “sandwiches”—house-made chocolate ice cream between tiny chocolate-chunk brownie cookies. It would be hard to pick just one. Luckily, you don’t have to.

Toast the Wine Guy

One of the things that make Pearson’s Wine and Liquor Annex (2436 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-6666; pearsonswine.com) such a pleasure is the table in the back with a dozen open bottles for sampling. We like it best when Larry Gilden—he of the tousled white hair and booming nasal accent—is pouring. Make that pouring and discoursing. Pearson’s staffers have long been among the country’s best, and Gilden carries on the tradition. He doesn’t just sell you a wine; he arms you with knowledge. He also fills you with wonder for the mystery and complexity of wine—without the jargon.

Overrated Restaurants

Why are these mainstays always packed? It’s not the food.

Bombay Club (815 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-659-3727; bombayclubdc.com). There may have been a time when this elegant, Colonial-style Indian dining room seemed unusual. But good samosas and chicken tikka masala aren’t hard to find anymore. And the food is underseasoned and overpriced.

Cafe Milano (3251 Prospect St., NW; 202-333-6183; cafemilanodc.com). This clubby cafe remains a favorite of local and visiting celebs—Bill and Hillary Clinton, Angelina Jolie, and Catherine Zeta-Jones all made appearances there this past year. What’s there for the rest of us? So-so $30 pastas, often pretentious service, and at night a gold-digging bar scene.

Georgia Brown’s (950 15th St., NW; 202-393-4499; gbrowns.com). The portions are supersized at this plush, Lowcountry/Southern dining room, popular for power lunches and Sunday brunch. But everything is so drenched in butter, fry batter, or honey mustard that it’s hard to stomach more than a few bites.

Sequoia (3000 K St., NW; 202-944-4200). This glassy Washington Harbour restaurant might have one of the prettiest perches in town, with views of the Kennedy Center and Potomac River, but unless you’re in the mood for cafeteria-level salads and overcooked chicken cutlets, take your $18.95 elsewhere.

Sushi Taro (1503 17th St., NW; 202-462-8999;sushitaro.com). This quiet spot is a favorite of visiting dignitaries, but over the past couple of years the quality of the cooking—and the raw stuff—has slipped.

Good Gifts for Foodies

Here are three attention-getting presents for the gourmand in your life—from stocking stuffer to over-the-top splurge.

Go for laughs instead of tears with Onion Goggles ($19.99 at Home Rule, 1807 14th St., NW; 202-797-5544). Fans swear they keep tears away when chopping even the most potent onions. The nerdy-chic eyewear comes in black or white with acid-green accents and soft foam around the lenses to keep fumes out. One caveat: It’s tough to wear them over your own glasses.

The Waring Pro Electric Wine Cooler chills—or warms—wine to the right temperature in 20 minutes. Punch in the varietal—there are 26 choices from Chardonnay to Barolo—and this stainless-steel gizmo does its stuff. No more buying from the wine-shop fridge when you’re pressed for time. Around $100 at Williams-Sonoma stores (locations at williams-sonoma.com).

Or treat your loved one to a ringside seat at the chef’s table in the vast and monastic kitchen—the background music is Gregorian chant—at the Inn at Little Washington (Middle and Main sts., Washington, Va.; 540-675-3801; theinnatlittlewashington.com)—$300 ($450 Saturday) for the table plus $138 to $168 per person for chef Patrick O’Connell’s six-course extravaganza, including cocktail canapés and a cookie basket to take home (get a wine pairing for $100 extra per person).

Throw in a night at the inn’s posh new Suite 16 in the Norman House, where the soaking tub has a view of the Shenandoah Valley through an oversize window (from $745 a night). Then go for the Trio of American Breakfast Favorites in Miniature—oatmeal soufflé, corned-beef hash with sunny-side-up quail’s egg, and scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. It’s $25 on top of the already filling—but included—Continental spread of housemade jams, tea breads, croissants, and yogurt-and-granola parfaits.

Guilty-Pleasure Burger

Upscale hamburgers are iffy propositions. We love the burger at Palena Cafe (3529 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-9250; palenarestaurant.com)—topped with truffled cheese and a gorgeous, amber-brown bun. But too many high-end burgers leave us wanting. Most of the time, when we want a burger, we want it big, juicy, and sloppy.

What we want is a burger like the one at Harry’s in DC’s Hotel Harrington (436 11th St., NW; 202-624-0053). Harry’s isn’t a hangout for the self-important; the place is ringed with cops and conventioneers. Burgers are rarely so guilty a pleasure: nothing fancy, no technique on display, and the meat doesn’t come from some farmer who gets credit on the menu. It’s a real juicy, sloppy sandwich. Oh—and chips and two Oreos on the side. What’s not to love?

Coolest Edible Cocktail

Piña coladas have a bad name, and when they’re made with fake coconut mix, they deserve it. But there’s nothing lame about chef Katsuya Fukushima’s sophisticated take on the spring-break staple, on the dessert menu at Café Atlántico (405 Eighth St., NW; 202-393-0812; cafeatlantico.com). His piña colada ($8) layers pineapple gelée, pineapple ice, fresh juice, and coconut mousse with coconut sorbet. In place of the Bacardi is a potent shot of vanilla-infused dark rum.

Under-the-Radar Pizza

New Yorkers, Philadelphians, and Chicagoans hardly know what to make of the wonderful pizzas at the original Ledo Restaurant in Adelphi, with their sweet, tomatoey sauce and biscuity crust—qualities that mark them as hopelessly out of pizza fashion. If locals aren’t as enamored of them as they ought to be, it might be because their acquaintance with the pies is through the mediocre Ledo Pizza chain. The owners franchised their business in the ’80s, and the spinoffs don’t do justice to the real thing.

For that, you have to go to the Adelphi location—now called Tommy Marcos Ledo Restaurant (2420 University Blvd; 301-422-8122; ledorestaurant.com)—a wood-paneled, memorabilia-lined place that opened in 1955 and remains a family business. Our pick: a medium with pepperoni, light on the cheese.

Unexpected Bar Snack

Who’d have thought one of the best bar-snack deals is at one of the most sceney steakhouses? In the sleekly comfortable lounge at Charlie Palmer Steak (101 Constitution Ave., NW; 202-547-8100; charliepalmer.com/steak_dc), you can sample five generous slices of American-made cheeses with a basket of raisin crisps for $12.50. The selection—including deliciously melty Humboldt Fog, rich Old Chatham Camembert, and Tarentaise, a subtly sweet hard cheese from Vermont—feels lavish. The price doesn’t.

Spot for a Spot of Tea

Georgetown isn’t known for serenity. But ChingChing Cha (1063 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-8288), a skylit Chinese-style tea­house and shop, provides just that. You can curl up on the pillow-strewn floor with your journal or share pan-Asian nibbles at a table (try the marinated eggs and flaky curry puffs). On the tea menu, you’ll find oolongs and lapsang souchong; lovely jasmine blossoms that unfurl in their glass pot; and puerhs—aged leaves steeped in the meticulous manner of a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. If you’re in a rush, peruse the shelves—lined with loose teas, diffusers, and a colorful array of cups and pots—and unwind at home.

Special Fridge Staples

Cowgirl Creamery (919 F St., NW; 202-393-6880; cowgirlcreamery.com) is known mostly as a cheesemaker and fromagerie, but you can fill your shopping basket with more than just expensive hunks of Neals Yard cheddar and Epoisses. The store also stocks butters from Amish dairy farms (our favorite is the one-pound tub from Trickling Springs Creamery, which at $5 doesn’t cost much more—but tastes a lot better—than the mass-market stuff), goat’s-milk yogurt, and luscious homemade cottage cheese. The fromage blanc ($4 for eight ounces) is a fluffier substitute for cream cheese—great on a bagel but also delicious drizzled with honey.

Sweets With an Accent

Fill up the holiday des­sert table with these unusual—and unusually good—sweets.

Swedish lingonberry-mousse cake from Ikea (10100 Baltimore Ave., College Park, 301-345-6552; 2901 Potomac Mills Cir., Woodbridge, 703-494-4532; $3.49) makes an airy finish to a heavy meal.

Stollen—a light and not overly sweet German holiday coffee cake—at Leopold’s Kafe & Konditorei (3315 Cady’s Alley, NW; 202-965-6005; kafeleopolds.com; $22) is studded with dried citrus and almonds and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Go festive with an ornate tin of lebkuchen cookies from Nuremberg decorated with chocolate and nuts at the German Gourmet (7185 Lee Hwy., Falls Church; 703-534-1908; german-gourmet.com; five sizes, $20.99 to $120). Or celebrate French-style with the log-shaped chestnut-and-chocolate bûche de noël strewn with marzipan-and-meringue mushrooms from Patisserie Poupon (1645 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-342-3248; three sizes, $31.50 to $72).

Though accountant turned baker Natalia Kost-Lupichuk doesn’t have a storefront yet, her inventive Euro-style sweets can be ordered at nataliaselegantcreations.com or 571-239-0256. One of our favorites: Hungarian hazelnut torte—layers of hazelnut cake, buttercream, and brandy-spiked apricot preserves topped with candied hazelnuts. Six-inch cake $34, eight-inch, $37, nine-inch $40.

Pizza 101—College Students Give Grades

College students probably eat more pizza than anyone else, so we asked five college seniors to taste delivery pies from 16 pizzerias. Included were national chains as well as neighborhood places that deliver within designated areas. Pizzas were plain cheese—and to even the playing field, we reheated all of them, as many people do at home.

Our tasters were Andy Duffy, Sasha Irving, Matan Shamir, and Erin Zimmer of Georgetown University and Emily Axford of George Washington University. Here’s how they rated the pies:

The winners (a tie): Armand’s Chicago Pizzeria (various locations; armandspizza.com; $11.95 for a 14-inch) and Don Corleone’s Brick Oven Pizza (21018 S. Bank St., Sterling; 703-444-4959; doncorleonespizza.com; $15.95 for an 18-inch). One taster summed up Armand’s strength as “perfectly balanced cheese and sauce.” Don Corleone’s had “the deepest flavor” plus sprigs of basil and an “amazing” crust.

A close second: Listrani’s (5100 Mac­Arthur Blvd., NW; 202-363-0620; also in Arlington and McLean; listranis.com; $11.99 for a 16-inch) for its “simplicity,” “tangy tomato sauce,” and “crisp crust.”

Next up: Angelico (4529 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-243-3030; $11.83 for a 14-inch), with “great sauce that actually tastes like tomatoes,” and Geppetto’s (10257 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda; 301-493-9230; $17 for a 15-inch) for its “three-star tomato sauce” and “homemade Italian taste.”

Best of the big chains: Pizza Hut (various locations;pizzahut.com; $14.26 for a 14-inch)—“a classic.”

Okay but not sure we’d order it again: Baffetto, Duccini’s, and Pumpernickle’s in DC; Lost Dog in Arlington; Mamma Lucia, with several Maryland locations; and the Domino’s, Papa John’s, and Pizza Boli’s chains (various locations).

Fugeddaboutit: Mario’s in Arlington and McLean Pizza in McLean.

 

Stadium Food That Scores

Eating at the game isn’t just a dog and a Bud: Stadiums have joined the food revolution with designer sandwiches, ethnic junk food, and microbrews turning arena concourses into food courts.

This past season the food at RFK Stadium got an upgrade—although there was nowhere to go but up. Bringing in Red Hot & Blue to provide pulled-pork and pulled-chicken platters was almost as smart as the midseason trade for Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez.

How well you eat at Verizon Center depends on how much you’ve paid for a ticket—seldom is dining out more stratified than at Abe Pollin’s playpen. The most consistently delicious spot is the club level, available to VIP and lower-level season-ticket holders in the center three sections and once monthly for upper-level season-ticket holders. The long-cooked beef barbecue—flecked with char and topped with a tangy, sweet sauce—makes a nice sandwich, and the crab cakes are light on binding and mayo.

The 400-seat Acela Club is a disappointment—a sprawling, multistation spread of middling, warmed-over cooking. The Mediterranean table, though, is stocked with a good selection of cheeses, olives, and breads.

At FedEx Field’s Touchdown Club, the higher-end pregame party, you can follow up a plate of tasty Italian sausage and peppers with a delicious fruit tart. At Tailgate Club’s game-day party, you can chow down on all-you-can-eat barbecue ribs—meaty and messy.

Inside, the trick to eating well is to get as close to The Danny as you can. That’s easier said than done. If you’re a Cabinet member or a TV talking head—or a certain movie star—chances are you’re sitting in the Owner’s Club, the premium suite area, and dining at the massive buffet on juicy baked ham and sliders topped with onion marmalade.

At the club level—a notch below in comfort and prestige but plenty swank for a football stadium—stop by the West End­zone Bar to fix your own bloody mary from myriad choices of mixes, peppers, hot sauces, and pickled green beans and okra. A few of these combustible cocktails and your frustration at all those offside penalties and botched coverages will be distant memories.