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For a while, it looked as if the French restaurant were dead. Not French food—which will never go out of fashion—but the French restaurant, that proud and sometimes stuffy establishment that didn’t so much serve a meal as uphold the exacting standards of Cuisine.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, dining out in Washington more often than not meant dining French. Even ten years ago, The Washingtonian’s 100 Best list was rife with French names—La Colline, La Miche, Jean-Michel, Le Gaulois, La Ferme, Provence, La Bergerie, La Chaumière. Today most of those places are gone or have been eclipsed—casualties of a dining culture that has gone from formal to casual, from set menus to weekly and even daily compositions, from chamber music to iPod rotations.
But French cooking in this area has never been more alive, even if its most passionate practitioners have bent, twisted, and sublimated its principles. At Washington’s best restaurant, Citronelle, the food is subject to so many other influences that you might not recognize its Gallic underpinnings.
Palena is widely thought of as an Italian restaurant—its name refers to a city in Abruzzo—but the precision and intricacy of Frank Ruta’s cooking are indisputably French. CityZen is not nominally a French restaurant, but the cooking will sooner transport you to Paris than will a day trip to one of the region’s French country inns. Power players flock to BLT Steak for the monumental cuts of beef, but the best things about Laurent Tourondel’s New York import are two French touches: an oversize Gruyère popover and a small jar of astonishingly rich pâté.
Restaurant Eve is one of the area’s most ambitious and creative restaurants, with a tasting room that pulls in influences from around the globe, but it’s not for nothing that it calls its main dining room a bistro. In an era when our ardor for going out to restaurants seems to be surpassed only by a disdain for frills and formalities, what could be more appealing than a bistro, with its implicit promise of rootedness and simplicity?
Bistros popped up with such frequency this year that it looked as though a takeover were under way. Michel Richard opened Central, and Robert Wiedmaier opened Brasserie Beck—cheaper alternatives to their fine-dining restaurants, Citronelle and Marcel’s. The Willard brought back Antoine Westermann and his three Michelin stars and opened Café du Parc. Eric Ripert—awarded three Michelin stars for his Manhattan seafood palace, Le Bernardin—opened Westend Bistro.
Dupont Circle’s Montsouris, the steak-frites sister of Montmartre in DC’s Eastern Market neighborhood, finally found its groove. So did the quietly ambitious Bastille in Old Town Alexandria. The exorbitant Gerard’s Place closed and reopened as a bistro, hoping to ride along on the trend. (So far, not so good.)
But you don’t have to eat in a bistro to appreciate the bistroization of the area’s dining scene—menus now are replete with oysters on the half shell, frisée salads, tartares, hanger steaks, pâtés and terrines, cheese plates, and Rhône reds. Charcuterie is as common as Caesar salad, and some restaurants, such as Proof, have gone so far as to install a meat-slicing station near the wine cellar, with some chefs seizing upon the trend as a way of demonstrating their machismo. Most, however, are giddy at showing their mastery of form. Vermilion chef Anthony Chittum is known for his pastas, but his charcuterie board—evincing an old-fashioned love for the earthy arts of curing and casing—will persuade you he’s a Frenchman at heart.
Like all trends, this one undoubtedly has a shelf life. For now, we’ll raise a glass of Rhône red, enjoy a cold oyster, spear a slice of garlicky sausage, and say: Vive le bistro!
Latham Hotel, 300 M St., NW | 202-625-2150
Cuisine: The area’s finest—a culinary tour de force from one of the world’s great chefs, Michel Richard, that stitches together a patchwork of influences—French country and classical, Asian, American, junk food, even pop art—into a seamless whole that revels in its singularity and sense of fun yet still manages to wow you with the intensity and depth of its flavors.
Mood: The open kitchen is the centerpiece of this retreat, a glowing, gleaming stage that lets you know that whoever else happens to be in the room—dignitaries, VIPs, politicos—the focus is on the food. The reason you turn your head here is to see what eye-deceiving concoction—is someone actually eating breakfast for dessert?—has been deposited on a nearby table.
Best for: Foodies who think they’ve seen—and eaten—it all.
Best dishes: Hamachi-eel carpaccio suspended ingeniously atop a bowl covered with plastic wrap, the fish, beet-jelly squares, and dried-beet chips all creating shadows on the inside of the vessel; a dish called “eggs” that is actually diced scallops with saffron made to resemble scrambled eggs, a divine cauliflower mousse in an egg cup, fried eggplant impersonating a sunny-side-up egg with thin strips of bacon on top, and a “hardboiled egg” made with mozzarella and yellow-tomato purée; a profoundly intense wild-mushroom soup presented as a cappuccino and topped with potato foam; a caviar can filled with poached lobster, a soft poached egg, pearls of black squid ink—and no caviar; sablefish with a miso glaze, sublime and elegant; rosy, surpassingly tender venison crusted with black peppercorns and napped by a red-wine/port sauce; a virtuosic, Asian-style “duck three ways”; jolie pomme, an apple sorbet with translucent dried-apple chips; a five-layer huckleberry cheesecake; a napoleon as crunchy as it is sublimely creamy.
Insider tips: If the tasting menus are tantalizing but too expensive, ask your server to supplement the three-course prix fixe with an extra appetizer or two—a great way to experience more of Richard’s genius. But when it comes to the city’s deepest, most impressive wine list, no such outs exist. The cost is high, but the wines are well worth the expense.
Mandarin Oriental hotel, 1330 Maryland Ave., SW | 202-787-6006
Cuisine: A dazzling mix of French, Asian, and American regional influences that, for all its finesse, never seems pretentious. Chef Eric Ziebold, a Thomas Keller disciple, is equally adept at raising the eyebrows of the palate-fatigued—with, say, chili consommé with chili-powder mousse—as he is at coaxing sighs from the unsuspecting with his butter-sheened Parker House rolls.
Mood: High ceilings, stone pillars, oversize swag lamps, and a serious waitstaff make it hard to forget you’re in a temple of exalted cuisine. But when the dining room is full, as it is most of the time, there’s a communal hum of satisfaction.
Best for: Impressing pals or clients from New York or toasting a milestone.
Best dishes: Plumjack cocktail made with plum extract and Jack Daniel’s on the rocks; a signature amuse-bouche of olive-oil custard with red-chili sauce on top; chili consommé with an oval of chili-powder mousse to cool the liquid fire; grilled sirloin of Kagoshima Wagyu beef, worth every penny of the $30 surcharge; succulent roast shoulder of shoat with caramelized salsify; rib eye with caramelized short ribs and chestnuts; cheeses from the trolley; “s’mores” crepe with marshmallow soufflé and smoky milk-chocolate sauce; Valrhona-chocolate croquettes with pears.
Insider tips: Ask for a second round of those gemlike Parker House rolls and the server will “have to check,” but there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll get another box. If you have a child in tow, don’t hesitate to inquire about an alternative to the fixed-price three-course menu ($75) or six-course tasting menu ($105). The result might be fresh fettuccine you’ll want yourself. A three-course, $50 menu at the bar is a good option if you’re dining alone.
1509 17th St., NW | 202-332-9200
Cuisine: Brilliant moments abound on these prix-fixe ($84) and multicourse degustazione ($104) menus that nod to Greece and Italy but are chef/owner Johnny Monis’s own thoroughly modern cuisine. Monis’s family hails from the Greek isle of Chios, but his approach to cooking is almost Spartan: pristine ingredients with minimal manipulation.
Mood: A bit austere—the former townhouse has bare-wood floors and Champagne walls with a few well-chosen antiques. As the place fills up—which doesn’t take long with only 12 tables—the room gets warmer. Sommelier Derek Brown, who has put together an original wine list, exudes charm and generosity—extra pours of Champagne, a nip of sherry just because.
Best for: Food lovers with time to spare—the three-course prix fixe (with extras) takes 2½ hours, the tasting menu more like 3½.
Best dishes: Mezzethakia such as the perfect house-cured olive, buttery amberjack sashimi with Maldon salt, crunchy slivers of breakfast radish with trout roe, and savory miniature goat gyros on house-made pita with tzatziki and pomegranate; veal-brain raviolini, both meaty- and buttery-tasting; tender spit-roasted goat served with house-made hot sauce and crunchy tzatziki slaw; salty caramel ice cream with chocolate.
Insider tips: Reserve at least a month in advance for weekends, three weeks for weekdays. Monis is fond of artisanal salt—even in dessert.
110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria | 703-706-0450
Cuisine: Irish-born chef Cathal Armstrong extols the pleasures of nose-to-tail eating—nowhere else in town will you find a chicken-fried honeycomb of tripe and a delicate crepinette of pig’s feet. Zealous about lovely produce, he spends much of his time gathering the bounty of local farms.
Mood: Three distinct dining rooms make up this brick-enclosed Old Town jewel: a firelit, no-reservations bar where neighborhood regulars hover over bowls of mussels and chat with the wine-savvy bartenders; a mirrored bistro room where couples can celebrate an anniversary or show up in jeans with the kids; and the quieter tasting room, where the mood is more serious and diners settle in for a five- or nine-course tasting menu. Wherever you sit, the service is crisp—show up in the bistro in dark pants, and your white napkin will be whisked away and replaced with a black one.
Best for: Destination diners, farmers-market foodies, offal lovers.
Best dishes: In the bistro, a bacon-egg-and-Parmesan salad with cured pork belly, frisée, and smoked-bacon vinaigrette; creamy crab bisque; house-made charcuterie, especially the peppery Chinese-style pork sausage and airy chicken-liver mousse; bouillabaise loaded with clams, mussels, and fingerling potatoes; sablefish, its dark-gold crust set off by bits of pancetta and swipes of paprika cream. In the tasting room, duck foie gras paired with Molly Delicious apples and a snifter of South African Chenin Blanc; buttery lobster simmered with ginger and baby cilantro; a wilted-cabbage crepinette filled with braised pied de cochon; custardy clafoutis studded with tiny, tangy Duarte plums.
Insider tips: Armstrong is a technique-obsessed craftsman—the charcuterie board boasts 14 house-made sausages and cured meats, and he’s been known to make his own cheese. Same goes for sommelier/cocktail guru Todd Thrasher, whose specialty drinks are made with freshly pressed juices and house-made sodas. Desserts are a relative weak spot. Our favorite sweet: the Eve’s Temptation cocktail, the purest liquid expression of apple we’ve tasted.
405 Eight St., NW (Cafe Atlantico) | 202-393-0812
Cuisine: A freewheeling, genre-defying banquet of 27 experimental courses—conceived by chef José Andrés and protégé Katsuya Fukushima—that play with flavors as they play with your mind. It all starts with a caipirinha gone Weird Science—rocks of cocktail-flavored sorbet that froth and melt at the pour of liquid nitrogen—and careens through hypermodern twists on chicken wings, corn on the cob, even a Philly cheesesteak. The foams-and-“airs” trend may be dying off elsewhere, but here you feel at the forefront of something that transcends fads.
Mood: This restaurant within a restaurant, housed inside Café Atlántico, is a small, six-seat bar at which three chefs prepare each dish in front of you. It’s like a master class in avant-garde cooking, with much of the course coming straight from ElBulli, Andrés mentor Ferran Adriá’s mecca of gastro-science in Spain.
Best for: Adventurous couples, chemistry buffs, foodies looking for something to talk about.
Best dishes: The lineup changes, but look for the Parmesan “Pringle”—a dough of egg whites and shredded Parmesan baked into a chiplike round—with Greek yogurt for dipping; deconstructed clam chowder with clams encased in clam aspic, bacon and caramelized-onion creams, and potato purée; cigala, a sweet, langoustinelike crustacean served with soy “air,” hijiki, and lemon marmalade; Philly cheesesteak: a baguette filled with drippy cheddar cream and topped with slices of Wagyu; a passion-fruit-flavored marshmallow.
Insider tips: Getting in is the hardest part: You have to call the reservationist at 9 am exactly one month prior to the day you want to dine. If you’re flexible, ask to be placed on the waiting list for a couple of specific dates. There are two seatings each night, at 6 and 8:30.
309 Middle St., Washington, Va. | 540-675-3800
Cuisine: Country ham and caviar share pride of place on chef Patrick O’Connell’s Modern American menu, which mixes his classic signatures—foie gras two ways, tuna pretending to be filet mignon—with newer delights, such as a deconstructed veal Parmesan. The fireworks begin with the amuse-bouche, a parade of 12 porcelain spoons bearing miniature masterpieces of flavor.
Mood: Despite a year that started with some strife—the personal and professional split of O’Connell and former co-owner Reinhardt Lynch—the show goes on at the inn, still a paragon of baroque-meets-bucolic grandeur. The dining rooms are ornate, with striped-silk wall coverings and tapestries. Servers, thanks to pop quizzes, know the menu and the place’s history in and out. It’s a lavish but tightly controlled experience: You’ll be in and out in 2½ hours.
Best for: Special-occasion celebrants who want to go all out; toasting a really big promotion.
Best dishes: Stellar crab cakes with puréed sorrel and red pepper; kingly macaroni and cheese gilded with black truffles; a tender, prosciutto-wrapped veal loin in an intense Parmesan broth; peppered bluefin tuna with foie gras, an O’Connell signature; creamy port-braised sweetbreads with huckleberries and house-made pappardelle; cappelletti filled with a silken purée of artichoke; apricot tart with sharp Taleggio cheese.
Insider tips: The loveliest tables are the tucked-away banquettes overlooking the garden. And ask for a peek inside the state-of-the-art kitchen—it’s a marvel to watch the brigade of cooks, clad in dalmatian-spotted pants, quietly moving around the induction cooktops. But not everything is fabulous: The mostly ice-cream-based desserts feel simple compared with what precedes them, and flaws such as tepid entrées become glaring when you’re tallying up the dollar signs.
3529 Connecticut Ave., NW | 202-537-9250
Cuisine: Chef/owner Frank Ruta combines the soul of an Italian peasant with the perfectionism of a French culinary master at his Cleveland Park restaurant. The result? Dishes that shimmer but never cross into egotism or lose their rootedness.
Mood: Refined touches abound in both the sconce-and-chandelier-accented dining room—which offers three-, four-, and five-course tasting menus—and the no-reservations cafe up front.
Best for: Revelatory soups and stews at the bar, thrillingly original multicourse feasts.
Best dishes: In the cafe, the house-made hamburger topped with truffled cheese on a freshly baked bun; roasted chicken; minestrone; a fry plate of frizzled lemons, onion rings, and potatoes dauphinoise; charcuterie plate; foie-gras terrine; an inspired take on bollito made with veal tongue, Ruta’s own corned beef, and a coddled duck egg. In the dining room, sardine galette; kabocha-squash-filled raviolini with shavings of aged goat cheese; gnocchi with bleu-cheese fonduta; sturgeon over braised cabbage; German-style apple cake; orange-poppyseed gelato with citrus salad.
Insider tips: Up front in the cafe, you can order from either the lower-priced menu, which changes daily, or the more intricate tasting menus, and you won’t worry about being underdressed. But you can’t reserve a table, so if you don’t want a wait, show up early or late.
1990 M St., NW | 202-659-1990
Cuisine: Surpassingly rich Southern comfort. Its refinement bespeaks a classically minded French kitchen, but its generosity of spirit could come only from below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Mood: The clean-lined dining room mirrors the lightness and simple elegance that chef R.J. Cooper’s food strives for.
Best for: Persnickety diners, traditionalists who turn up their noses at small plates, lovers of cream, butter, and bacon fat.
Best dishes: A plate of molasses-marinated yellowtail hamachi as bracing and fresh as any sushi bar’s; hand-rolled pumpkin cavatelli with crispy sweetbreads and chanterelle mushrooms; definitive shrimp ’n’ grits; saddle of rabbit stuffed with sweetbreads; roasted breast of partridge with applewood bacon, squash agnolotti, and braised onions; lemon chess pie and pecan pie, each so perfectly rendered that you’d swear you were in the deepest South.
Insider tips: The wine list, under the direction of Doug Mohr, might be the most interesting in the city. If you can afford it, get a wine pairing with each course. If not, there are good wines by the glass and even half glass. Regulars swear by Mohr’s happy hours, featuring a changing lineup of wines and free canapés.
2000 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW | 202-296-7700
Cuisine: DC’s preeminent seafood emporium, a bastion of the traditional, regionally rooted American cooking that has fallen from favor with the influx of trendy, high-concept restaurants.
Mood: A mix of sophistication and conviviality, polish and accessibility. High-rollers, tourists, conventioneers, politicos—all flock to Bob Kinkead’s Foggy Bottom brasserie for the fresh fish and seafood, nightly jazz piano, assured pacing, and extensive wine list.
Best for: Groups with cautious or persnickety diners, oyster lovers (five varieties are flown in fresh every day), travelers seeking sure-handed preparations of regional delicacies such as shad roe and soft-shell crab.
Best dishes: Butternut-squash ravioli in brown-butter sauce garnished with sage and pancetta; butter-poached lobster with shell-bean succotash; fried Ipswich clams with tartar sauce; elegant Chesapeake-oyster stew; the city’s definitive crab cake; delicately fried soft shells (in season); crab-imperial-stuffed cod with ham spoonbread; crispy skate wing with cauliflower flan; milk-chocolate tart with salted peanuts, peanut-butter ice cream, and a duo of sauces (caramel and vanilla).
Insider tips: Dine at the bar, where—steep prices notwithstanding—the atmosphere is unpretentious, even boisterous. The veteran barmen, quick to chime in with a quip, lend the place the air of an Irish pub—and mix an incomparably smooth Manhattan.
1001 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW | 202-626-0015
Cuisine: Stylized American comfort food (fried chicken, hamburger, mac and cheese) as translated by an haute French chef.
Mood: A shot of chef Michel Richard’s laughing mug on the wall sets a tone of joie de vivre that attracts the full spectrum of Washington diners—from politicos and media stars to food lovers who can’t afford Richard’s four-star Citronelle—to this blond-wood dining room five blocks from the White House.
Best for: Convivial groups, foodies, hard-to-impress out-of-towners.
Best dishes: Expertly shucked West Coast oysters; plump asparagus in a tarragon vinaigrette; a cone of gougères, as cheesy as they are airy; an elegant mussel chowder; lobster-claw meat bound in a scallop mousse and served in a butter-topped bun; “72-hour short ribs” cooked for three days so the meat requires no knife; intensely chocolatey chocolate mousse topped with miniature cocoa puffs; a plain but perfect apple brown Betty.
Insider tips: Don’t splurge on a bottle of wine—as good as the list is, there are worthy picks by the glass, plus terrific beers, including the brewed-for-Central Blusser, which pairs beautifully with oysters. Besides, you may want to splurge on the glorious $29 lobster burger. Central is slightly cheaper at lunch, when there’s also the option of enjoying DC’s best corned-beef sandwich.
101 Constitution Ave., NW | 202-547-8100
Cuisine: Seeing the $14 truffled baked potatoes, a $72 seafood platter for two, and a $100 Japanese Miyazaki Kobe strip steak, you might ask: Is anybody here not using a corporate card? But there are just as many less-showoffy treats—lovely salads, terrific roasts—on executive chef Bryan Voltaggio’s forward-thinking American menu.
Mood: Washington had long been a steakhouse town when New York–based chef Charlie Palmer set up shop here nearly five years ago. But with clean lines, brushed steel, and mocha leather, the urbane power-dining room and lounge seems a class apart from the traditional brass-and-bourbon boys’ clubs. Still, it feels wholly DC thanks to its postcard view of the Capitol, C-Span–tuned flat-screens, and—hey, is that Nancy Pelosi? Probably.
Best for: Impressing a client, power players, out-of-towners hoping to catch a glimpse of an ’08 candidate.
Best dishes: Yellowfin-tuna tartare with soy and lime; roasted foie gras with blood orange and ginger; oysters on the half shell with crisp crackers, spicy cocktail sauce, and horseradish cream; a tart red-endive salad sweetened with dates and honey-poached pears; meltingly delicious Miyazaki Kobe beef; roasted duck with a foie-gras-topped nectarine tarte Tatin; goat-cheese tortelloni with buttered wild mushrooms; roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms; hazelnut pyramid, a theatrical chocoholic fantasy that’s one of Palmer’s signatures; a trio of perfectly burnished crèmes brûlées.
Insider tips: The designer beef, whether American Angus or Wagyu, is expertly aged and prepared, but all the à la carte sides and sauces can get expensive.
1201 24th St., NW | 202-419-6755
Cuisine: Trendily traditional American cooking bolstered by chef Brian McBride’s sourcing—purveyors are exhaustively listed on the menu—and ability to coax the utmost flavor out of whatever’s in his sauté pan.
Mood: Glass walls, wide-plank wood floors, and handcrafted furnishings make a spare backdrop for the theatrics of the open kitchen, where sous chefs churn the ice cream of the day and fuss over burnished pies from the oven.
Best for: Aesthetes who want it all: austere yet beautiful surroundings and stellar cuisine. It’s close enough to the Kennedy Center to make it a pre- or postshow contender. And the outdoor patio is ideal for one of the best brunches in town in summertime.
Best dishes: Rave-worthy smoked-trout-and-potato rillette with Riesling-mustard gelée; pickled baby beets with a hit of curry; tender long bone of beef; thrice-cooked finger-thick French fries (dip them in the house-made steak sauce that comes with the beef bone); roasted scallops perfumed with lemon and thyme; caramel cheesecake with roasted pears and tart cranberry compote; house-made ice creams.
Insider tips: There are some truly great—and expensive—wines by the glass, so check the price before going with sommelier recommendations or you could end up with a $55 glass of Meritage “Opus One” 2003. The blossoming teas, served in clear glass pots, are another high point—you can see the leaves morph into a flower before your eyes.
800 Connecticut Ave., NW | 202-463-8700
Cuisine: With its puréed fruits and vegetables, herb-infused oils, and delicately applied microgreens, chef Tony Conte’s brightly flavored food tastes straight out of revered chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s handbook. Which makes sense: Conte spent three years as executive sous chef of Vongerichten’s Manhattan flagship, Jean Georges.
Mood: By day, this airy dining room, with its colorful abstract canvases, is a favorite lunch spot for boldface names such as Condi Rice and George Stephanopoulos. By night, it feels more like a serious restaurant than a place to schmooze.
Best for: Power lunchers and anyone tired of cream- and butter-laden restaurant dishes.
Best dishes: Beet salad, a Conte signature of roasted beets with passion-fruit gelée and a mignonette made with ice wine; creamy burrata cheese with dried papaya, basil, and salt; an artful tuna tartare made with ribbons of raw fish, avocado, and crisped tapioca; burrata-filled ravioli with corn; New Zealand pink snapper accented with licorice and anise; seared venison with a quenelle of chopped dates and hazelnuts; butter-poached lobster with wasabi, peaches, and young coconut; PB&J vacherin, a layering of Concord-grape sorbet and peanut-butter ice cream with salted peanuts; apple-confit tart with a shot glass of mulled cider.
Insider tips: Ignore the Cobb salads and turkey club sandwiches. Here you can feel comfortable ordering adventurously.
575 Pennsylvania Ave., NW| 202-637-6100
Cuisine: High-concept Asian fusion devised by Wolfgang Puck and executed by Scott Drewno, resulting in a synthesis of Western proteins and portion sizes with Pacific Rim accents, sauces, and preparations.
Mood: Want to see Wolfgang? Get a doggy bag—the sepia-toned picture of the Austrian celebrity chef on it is as close as you’ll come. But the place still conveys a sense of excitement thanks to the elegant dining room, with its elevated perch looking onto Pennsylvania Avenue, and the swiveling heads of patrons on the lookout for the rich and famous.
Best for: Taking out-of-towners skeptical of DC’s star power.
Best dishes: Delicately fashioned crab-and-shrimp shu mai; a small terrine of roast suckling pig with plum-fig chutney; prawns in a mustard-yogurt curry full of fresh curry leaves; crispy sea bass, carved tableside, in a subtle Thai chili sauce; Indian-spiced short ribs with dal and raita; Szechuan steak au poivre; Cherry Blossom, a dessert of cheese dumplings drenched with sour cherries that’s as light as it is rich.
Insider tips: The price of Puck’s star power is evident from the start. Glasses of wine are priced like appetizers, many appetizers are priced like entrées, and some entrées edge toward the $40 mark. The downstairs lounge is slightly less prohibitive.
1190 22nd St., NW | 202-974-4900
Cuisine: The long-awaited Washington outpost of Eric Ripert’s growing culinary empire is no note-for-note re-creation of his revered Le Bernardin in New York. Ripert has dispensed with the formal elegance of his flagship, along with its purely piscatory focus, opting for a roster of classics—fish stews, braised veal cheeks, pasta Bolognese, even a hamburger—all rendered with the touch of a four-star chef.
Mood: The generic upscale design does little to create a specific sense of place in the glass-walled ground floor of downtown DC’s Ritz-Carlton—you could be in any hotel in any city in the world. But there is buzz: In the early weeks, young, well-heeled diners flocked to the place, dishing knowingly about the pouty-lipped chef between sighs over the food.
Best for: People looking for the elegance and finesse of dining out at the highest level without the formality and the fuss—or the exorbitant prices.
Best dishes: Creamy West Coast oysters; mini fish burgers topped with shaved fennel; rich and zesty tagliatelle Bolognese; veal cheeks in a buttery pillow of potato purée; Chesapeake seafood stew abundant with shellfish, its broth intense and light; poached skate wing and braised endive in a lush brown-butter sauce; chocolate-caramel cream topped with sea salt.
Insider tips: If you’ve never eaten at Le Bernardin and wonder what the fuss is about, zero in on two dishes: The salmon rillettes is the same recipe as the one served in Manhattan, and the Chesapeake seafood stew, though shy of four-star elegance, hews to the parent kitchen’s philosophy of seeking out the freshest fish and treating it with reverence. You won’t find mini fish burgers at Le Bernardin, but don’t miss them here: The two-biters—served three to an order on the bar menu—are even more satisfying than the regular-size fish burger. They’re also easier to share and a lot cheaper.
2029 P St., NW | 202-872-1180
Cuisine: Slightly modern takes on regional Italian as delicious as if you were eating them in Emilia-Romagna. The handwritten menu, $65 for five courses, changes daily.
Mood: A sparely appointed townhouse with the feel of a low-key dinner party. This is not the place to discuss family or state secrets.
Best for: Diners as passionate about things Italian and artisanal—the burrata is shipped in daily from Puglia—as chef/owner Peter Pastan, who travels to Italy yearly in search of the new and wonderful, and anyone weary of impersonal restaurant experiences.
Best dishes: Antipasti such as squid stewed with chard; airy fried rice balls with mozzarella; burrata drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with cracked pepper and fleur de sel; plump house-made pork sausages with pickled onions. Rustic plates such as roasted quail with spinach; a luscious chocolate pudding with fresh whipped cream; Sicilian breakfast, a layered parfait of grape granita and yogurt cream with a miniature turban of brioche.
Insider tips: The antipasti and cheese courses are the highlights of this generous meal, and desserts are full of whimsy. By comparison, main courses can seem uninspired, so load up early and save room for the finish.
1201 K St., NW | 202-589-0699
Cuisine: Down-to-earth roasts, masterful salads, elegant soups, and terrifically fresh seafood from culinary craftsman Tom Power, who quietly wows from the kitchen but eschews the spotlight.
Mood: It’s a testament to the chef’s skill that Corduroy’s many fans have been filling this blandly functional setting—the corduroy-covered menus are the restaurant’s most striking design touch—for so long. In March, Power will move out of the Sheraton Four Points hotel and into a more fitting setting: a 19th-century townhouse a few blocks away with intimate dining rooms and an open kitchen.
Best for: Dining by yourself—or spending happy hour—at the bar presided over by smart, friendly bartenders.
Best dishes: A warm mushroom-and-frisée salad with a lightly poached duck egg; red-snapper bisque; goat cheese wrapped in frizzled potatoes; seared bigeye tuna over sushi rice; meaty sea scallops over garlic mashed potatoes; braised pork belly with Savoy cabbage; classic roasted chicken with a deliciously crisped skin; a perfect crème brûlée; chocolate tart with bananas; house-made chocolate and vanilla ice creams.
Insider tips: Don’t skip dessert: Power learned pastry during his long tenure with Michel Richard, and while his desserts—save for a faithful rendition of Richard’s famous “Kit Kat” bar—are simpler than his mentor’s, they’re almost always perfect.
2941 Fairview Park Dr., Falls Church | 703-270-1500
Cuisine: Founding chef Jonathan Krinn has left, but the high-minded, high-priced menu—which calls itself contemporary American but is grounded in classical French technique and flaunts its Asian accents—remains much the same. Scott Bryan, most recently of Veritas in New York, has been minding the kitchen until a new chef, Bertrand Chemel (formerly of Café Boulud in New York), arrives in January.
Mood: Intended as a wooded retreat from the stress of the city and the Beltway, this suburban fantasia bespeaks new money, from the manmade lake outside to the soaring interior with angled mirrors, glass walls, and sumptuous oil paintings.
Best for: A big date, an important business dinner, a special occasion.
Best dishes: Supremely smooth celery-root velouté with black truffles; chilled lobster salad, its sweet, lightly poached claw meat set off by a fava-bean purée and white asparagus; well-seared foie gras with a vanilla-scented pineapple confit; crisp-skinned filet of snapper in a green curry of elegant lightness; slowly braised short ribs with a creamy potato purée and a rich Bordelaise sauce; warm apple turnovers with butterscotch ice cream.
Insider tips: Krinn’s father has left, too, but his terrific bread recipes remain. So does the signature parting gift—a fluffy bowl of cotton candy, which follows an ample selection of petits fours. Unless you’re famished, it’s best to go light at the start and finish. And give attention to the wine list, which includes, among the big-name estates from France and California, reasonably priced selections from up and down the East Coast.
2401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW | 202-296-1166
Cuisine: Chef Robert Wiedmaier’s labor-intensive Franco-Belgian fare doesn’t stint on butter and cream, and his reductions and sauces—dark, rich, and complex—are reminiscent of an earlier age.
Mood: Silver domes and attentive, black-suited waiters make this expansive dining room with art-nouveau accents one of the most pampering palaces in town.
Best for: High-maintenance Francophiles and the Kennedy Center–bound who come for the great pretheater deal: $48 for three courses and a chauffeured Caddy or Mercedes to the performance.
Best dishes: An earthy roasted-chestnut soup with disks of house-made venison sausage; boudin blanc with celery-root purée and an intense Cabernet reduction; roasted pheasant with a terrine of pheasant confit; roasted figs with thyme mille feuille and honey goat cheese; blood-orange sorbet; chocolate-chip-mint ice cream.
Insider tips: Book the pretheater ride with your dinner reservation. Appetizers and desserts usually show more savoir-faire than entrées do. You can also sup in the swanky bar, where a jazz pianist plays Tuesday through Saturday.
1112 F St., NW | 202-367-1990
Cuisine: Rich, luxurious northern Italian—house-made pastas, intensely flavored game—with lofty aspirations and prices. You’ll wish you had a fatter wallet along with a bigger belt.
Mood: Clubby, with affable Italian-accented waiters in cream-colored jackets assuring diners they’ve chosen the best dish. With many of the city’s top law firms nearby, someone’s surely treating a client to dinner and billing him for the pleasure.
Best for: Power lunches and dinners, dinner before a show at the Warner or National, a special dinner out.
Best dishes: Silken carrot pappardelle in a rabbit ragu; kabocha-squash tortelli floating in a truffled Parmesan sauce; roasted veal tenderloin with porcini mushrooms and farro; rack of venison with beet tartare and currant sauce; a fascinating Gorgonzola ice cream served three ways, including with a delicious slaw of celery, fennel, and pear.
Insider tips: Chef Massimo Fabbri’s menu offers so much variety that it can spark arguments among couples intending to share. Don’t ignore the tasting menus—each item can be ordered à la carte. Pastas can be ordered by the half portion, which is advisable for a second course—or if you want to try more than one. Early diners can take advantage of the $35 three-course pretheater menu. Groups of four to eight can make an evening of dinner by reserving the chef’s table in the kitchen, where Fabbri cooks a seven-to-nine-course meal for $105 a person—a relative bargain.
No. 21: Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar ★★★
2917 M St., NW | 202-333-2912
Cuisine: Lobster with oxtail broth? Spiced beer jelly? Expect the unexpected at this cozy Georgetown bistro/wine bar, where executive chef Barry Koslow turns out inspired terrines, pastas, and fish with lots of little surprises.
Mood: A crowd of urbane families and polished thirtysomethings settles into this narrow dining room—California cool with blond wood, flagstone, and blue-sky murals.
Best for: Casual romantic dinners, hanging out at the sophisticated bar, winetasting and cheese-nibbling.
Best dishes: Oysters roasted with garlicky gremolata, chopped chard, and bacon; duck pâté dotted with pistachios; open-faced ravioli with chanterelle mushrooms and sheep’s-milk ricotta; braised suckling pig with shavings of grana padano cheese and soft gnocchi; quail with pheasant-sausage stuffing; black bass with hazelnut-coriander crust and blood-orange sauce; apple-stuffed beignets with cinnamon ice cream.
Insider tips: Not in the mood for a big dinner? You can graze wonderfully here on artisanal cheeses—cloth-aged Vermont cheddar, pungent Hudson Valley Camembert—and house-made terrines and pâtés. By-the-glass selections on the mostly West Coast wine list come in usually generous half pours.
600 Franklin St., Alexandria | 703-778-2233
Cuisine: Ivory Coast–born Morou Ouattara’s freewheeling style draws on influences from Africa, Asia, and France and revels in foams, jellies, and powders. Its juxtapositions are meant to baffle, surprise, and provoke conversation. Often they do—all in the same delicious dish.
Mood: On a side street in Old Town, the serene dining room—even the ’80s-leaning soundtrack, with forays into heavy metal and Prince, is kept low—gives no hint of the madcap explorations going on in the kitchen. Only a wall stencil that evokes the African bush and dangling coconut shells suggest the chef’s source of inspiration.
Best for: Culinary adventurers for whom a “deconstruction” is a delight.
Best dishes: Eggplant gazpacho, refreshing and intense; “shocked escolar,” thin slices of flash-blanched fish to be swabbed in Merlot powder, speared with pickled quince, and topped off with wasabi tapioca pearls; a perfectly undercooked halibut with a sweet-onion purée; panko-crusted cured quail sauced with a kind of savory crème brûlée and drizzled with chorizo oil.
Insider tips: Soups are a point of pride for Morou, who is disinclined to rely on cream for richness; instead he cooks his vegetables until they break down, the natural purée fortifying the flavor of his broths. Having grown up in a culture where meat was a luxury, he’s capable of assembling a vegetarian menu of imagination and depth.
4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda | 301-656-3373
Cuisine: Elegant Indian that goes beyond the usual—chef/owner Sudhir Seth’s menu spans the subcontinent with regional entrées that remind us that Indian cuisine is as varied and complex as any.
Mood: The formal servers and the dining room decorated with portraits of rajahs and viceroys and carvings of Hindu gods conjure the Raj as portrayed in the film A Passage to India.
Best for: Adventurous groups willing to explore—and share—exotic flavors.
Best dishes: Sev-mumura chaat, a bizarrely delicious salad of puffed rice and vermicelli with cilantro, dates, and tamarind; lentil “pebbles” flavored with ginger and dates; lamb curry with apricots and straw potatoes; succulent tandoori chicken; kulcha, bread stuffed with lightly spiced onions; and a pickle platter to cut the heat and weight of the curries.
Insider tips: You can travel the subcontinent two ways here—by jumping around the menu choosing something from each region or with a more methodical exploration—say, of the Parsi specialties of western India. Don’t see your favorite dish? Just ask.
1776 I St., NW (entrance on 18th St.) | 202-429-2200
Cuisine: A tour of Spain’s regional cuisines, with rustic, crowd-pleasing tapas and magnificent paellas commanding most of the attention.
Mood: The oxblood-red walls, formal fixtures, and portraits of dons put you in mind of a classic hotel in Madrid. Those suavely accented suits at the next table are likely to be financiers from the nearby World Bank or International Monetary Fund.
Best for: Noshing at the tapas bar weekdays from 3 to 7, when tapas are half price, and special-occasion dining.
Best dishes: From the tapas bar, salpicón de marisco, a ceviche of octopus, scallops, mussels, and shrimp with peppers and onions; chorizo; Serrano-ham croquettes; quail cured in sherry vinegar. From the menu, paella (traditional seafood or with chorizo and chicken); veal sweetbreads with spinach, capers, and potatoes; rabbit with carrots. An all-seafood menu in November featured humble grouper gratinéed to a new level and a pristine sea bream baked in rock salt.
Insider tips: While the happy hour makes the tapas bar one of the city’s best dining deals, seats are few, so arrive early or be prepared to stand. Spain is producing exciting wines, and Taberna remains the best place in town to explore them. The list ranges in style from classic Riojas and sherries to the trendy wines of Priorat, and in price from prestige wines to an impressive array under $50.
552-I Governor Ritchie Hwy., Severna Park | 410-315-8088
Cuisine: Generously portioned Modern American cooking from a husband-and-wife team (Brian Bennington handles savories, Cindy Bennington sweets) that sometimes bends toward the straightforward and comforting (a steak dinner) but is almost always served with flair and wit—a pork chop, the menu notes, is napped with “yummy sauce.” The many thoughtful touches—from Guggenheim rolls at the start to simple but sublime desserts and fresh-baked muffins the staff sends you home with—linger in memory long after you’ve left.
Mood: Neither the exterior—a strip mall in Severna Park—nor the open, off-white interior has much to recommend it, but the dining room at night has a buzz, animated as it is by smiling, toasting, laughing Baltimoreans and suburban Washingtonians who know they’ve turned up a gem in the unlikeliest of settings.
Best for: Diners who prize value and comfort over trendiness, foodies tired of going into DC for an adventurous meal.
Best dishes: A luscious slab of foie gras atop a ripe, caramelized peach; a fan of rosy-hued duck breast with baked root-vegetable terrine and caramelized apple; a rectangular filet of salmon painted with Cabernet sauce to resemble a barbecue spare rib, with bacon-fortified purée of potatoes and leeks; a pearlescent halibut with fried coins of potato in a sweet, creamy corn sauce; “breakfast” at Cynthia’s, its Prosecco sabayon drenched hollandaise-style over a fresh sponge cake topped with peaches; lemon “cannoli” with sour-cream ice cream and fresh fruit.
Insider tips: The Benningtons don’t practice portion control—appetizers are the size of entrées, and entrées are almost certain to yield leftovers. Consider splitting a first course and saving some calories for the end of the meal: It’s at dessert that the restaurant really soars—every one of Cindy Bennington’s desserts hits the mark. And look to the weekly wine special, a bottle priced much lower than the usual restaurant markup of three times the retail cost.
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