Top 10 Restaurant Openings of 2012
“Washingtonian’s” food and wine editor reflects on a year that brought us excellent elote, stacked sandwiches from a talented local butcher, and (finally!) a spot to satisfy our Reuben and bagel cravings.
I’ll admit, I rolled my eyes when I heard yet another tapas house was bringing croquetas and $32-per-ounce plates of Iberico ham to town. But with the aid of a grapefruit sangria or two, I happily put my cynicism aside. The New York import puts out brightly flavored salads and garlicky gambas al ajillo, and has a great happy hour, which in the summer you can linger over on the patio.
Finally you don’t have to jump on Amtrak to satisfy a pastrami craving. Or a corned beef Reuben craving. Or a Montreal-style bagel craving. It’s all brought to you by chef Barry Koslow, who had previously elevated the kitchens at Tallula and the late Mendocino Grill with his excellent rabbit pâté and memorable fish dishes. Here, expect sandwiches that are more restrained than the pie-sized behemoths at some big-name New York delis, heftier plates like short ribs braised with Tunisian spices, and egg creams made with good old U-Bet syrup.
I’m a pretty tough critic when it comes to the Mexican street snack known as elote—an ear of corn grilled, slathered with mayo and lime juice, and rolled in crumbly, salty cheese. For one, I spent a summer obsessing over making my own at home. Also it seems ridiculous to pay $4 for corn on the cob (not quite as ridiculous as the $10 I just shelled out for a baked potato at Bourbon Steak, but still). But Jackie Greenbaum’s Columbia Heights hangout does a pretty great version that I can’t help going back for, and somehow, when I had it in November, the corn was just as sweet as it was in August. The place has consistency issues and is seriously lacking in the taco department, but get the elote, a bowl of the chile-red pork stew called posole, and a few Juan Rose cocktails (tequila with pomegranate and an apple shrub) and see if you’re not happy.
Family Meal and Range
Bryan Voltaggio has been in overdrive this year, turning a Frederick Nissan dealership into Family Meal, an elevated diner that’s already famous for its fried chicken. Even more ambitious is his first foray outside of Frederick—the sprawling (14,000 square feet!) Range, which debuted last week in the barren Chevy Chase Pavilion mall. Cocktail talent Owen Thomson is behind the drinks, and the raw bar has a gorgeous array of stone crabs, Taylor Bay scallops, and oysters.
The options for Japanese food lovers widened considerably this year, with four new ramen shops, Michael Mina’s Baltimore sushi-and-sake destination Pabu, and this narrow, two-story izakaya. Veteran sushi chef Hiroshi Seki is behind the downstairs counter (the best place to sit), and he sends out such tiny masterpieces as a sweet, beautifully tender cut of mero (Chilean seabass); thin, chip-like slices of glazed short ribs on the bone; and precisely cut squares of yellowtail sashimi.
If you’re a crowd-phobe, Adams Morgan on a Saturday night is about the last place you want to be. And yet I’ll always brave ’em for a table—preferably the throw-pillow-strewn banquette by the front window—at this cozy spot. Somehow, the exposed Edison bulbs and barns worth of reclaimed wood don’t feel trite. And Cedric Maupillier kills it in the kitchen. His burger is a contender for the city’s best, his bolognese tastes as lovely as it looks, and his fantastic beet salad, with its stacks of fried goat cheese, has turned beet-haters into converts.
On eating-at-my-desk days, it’s hard to think of any other takeout lunch options when José Andrés’s matte silver food truck is anywhere near the Washingtonian offices. Even tougher is settling on what to order. The sandwiches, on skinny loaves of toasted ficelle, are almost all excellent (I tend to favor the simple Manchego and Serrano ham or the tenderloin with blue cheese and caramelized onions). And the silky, olive-oil-scented gazpacho has me counting the days till summer.
Rappahannock Oyster Bar
Smack in the middle of Union Market—the airy, white-walled warehouse that is a one-stop shop for lamb butchers, honey purveyors, and an artisan soda shop—is this oyster bar in the round. It’s mostly a showcase for Travis and Ryan Croxton’s Virginia-bred bivalves, but the kitchen also turns out a fantastic crabcake and a rich, bacon-studded clam chowder. Throw in some cold rosé or a Scotch-and-honey cocktail, and I could sit here all day.
It’s been quite a year for restaurant cloning, with a new Hank’s Oyster Bar on Capitol Hill and a branch of fish and chips house Eamonn’s in Arlington. But the biggest news was that Penn Quarter Indian destination Rasika, the most acclaimed restaurant in Ashok Bajaj’s portfolio, was getting a sibling in a glassy West End condo building. Bajaj could have simply replicated his proven hit, but instead the sleek spinoff has a personality—and menu—of its own.
Chefs are by nature a passionate, obsessive lot. And Jamie Stachowski, who years ago traded fine dining for butchery and charcuterie making, is a textbook example, ever-present at his new Georgetown shop and practically jumping with excitement for his products. This isn’t just the best place in town to pick up a hanger steak or some venison pâté. It’s also putting out excellent sandwiches, from the stacked-high, toothpick-secured turkey club to the Italian-style four-meat grinder dressed with shredded lettuce, onions, and hot peppers.
A few honorable mentions: The bourbon-doused vanilla shake at the Satellite Room; the fried chicken sandwich with pickles at WTF (the takeout arm of Woodward Table); the oversized canelés at the downtown DC spinoff of St. Michel Bakery; the lamb shoulder and lemon yogurt sandwich at Society Fair; the crabcake sandwich at the Tavern at River Falls; and the spring rolls at Rice Paper.
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