Fresh Flavors: These restaurants are new on the scene but already making an impression
This stylish Korean-owned sushi spot opened earlier this year in the corner space that housed the Cafe Europa. The new place has a loungey feel with sunken booths, cool light fixtures, and DJs spinning on weekend nights.
Sushi chefs fashion specialty rolls such as the Cherry Blossom—white tuna, salmon, and avocado topped with slices of tuna and drizzled with wasabi aïoli—that are as tasty as they are attractive. Lightly pan-seared gyoza stuffed with vegetables or pork are some of the best we’ve tried. The menu skews pan-Asian with the likes of pad Thai and gal bi (Korean barbecue). The vibe is festive: In addition to candy-colored cocktails, there are more than a dozen sakes.
7820 Norfolk Ave.; 301-654-7851. Entrées $12 to $32.
The football on TV and buddies erupting into cheers might make you skeptical of the flat-iron steak with Cabernet Sauvignon–mushroom sauce—and its $19 price tag. Fear not. Fried green tomatoes were crisp and nicely seasoned, pairing surprisingly well with their sprinkling of feta. Roast chicken (a good test for any kitchen) with a mustard-thyme sauce was homey and well executed. We’ll head back to try the Italian meatball sliders next time there’s a game on.
7141 Wisconsin Ave. Dinner entrées $22 to $29.
Restaurateurs Eli Hengst and Jared Rager—owners of Capitol Hill’s Sonoma and, until recently, Mendocino Grille in Georgetown—have specialized in unpretentious spots where the focus is on the food and wine, not a flashy setting.
Their sprawling 315-seater in the sparkly new Bethesda Lane, done up with stretches of slate and marble, artfully arranged piles of firewood, and a frosted-glass mounting of a stag’s head, turns that formula on its head.
That’s not to say you can’t get a good bite. Although chef Andrew Kitko is still finding his footing (a recent chicken-liver spread—an old standard at Sonoma—was grainy), the charcuterie and cheese plates are sure bets, and the oversize burger, made with Maryland beef, is satisfying and juicy.
7121 Bethesda La.; 301-656-5515. Dinner entrées $13 to $44.
Known as “the new Houston’s,” this clubby dining room is still owned by the chain’s parent company. Not much has changed—the decor is still comfy and low-lit, and the kitchen serves most of the menu favorites for which regulars are happy to take a beeper and wait.
Along with the classics—spinach-artichoke dip, a hearty bean-and-brown-rice veggie burger, tuna sashimi salad—there is a handful of new picks, such as pan-seared scallops with white-bean ragu and crisp-skinned rotisserie chicken over a pile of raisin-studded couscous. Another welcome addition is the live jazz that sets the mood each night.
7715 Woodmont Ave.; 301-656-9755. Entrées $11 to $30.
Modern Classics: Celebrating a special occasion—or looking for a great date spot? Check out these longtime favorites.
Black’s Bar and Kitchen
Jeff and Barbara Black—the hitmakers behind the popular BlackSalt in DC’s Palisades, Addie’s in North Bethesda, and Black Market in Garrett Park—have owned this downtown Bethesda spot for more than a decade.
Two years ago, they gave it a needed makeover—gone is the rickety porch, and in its place is a shimmering reflecting pool—and spruced up the menu with American dishes that carry a whiff of trendiness.
Beet salads are on seemingly every menu these days, but the one here, reimagined as beet tartare, is a standout with finely chopped red and gold beets flanked by a small wedge of aged goat cheese. Wide ribbons of house-made pappardelle with dates, mushrooms, and cubes of pork jowl are addictive comfort food. And a seared filet of sturgeon takes a lovely autumnal turn with walnut cream and apples.
The downer is dessert, once the restaurant’s strong suit. Since the departure of pastry whiz Janelle Birdsall, the sweets have become simplified and uninspired.
7750 Woodmont Ave.; 301-652-5525. Dinner entrées $24 to $33.
Eight years ago—long before the wine-bar trend exploded in DC—chef Jeff Heineman opened this California-style bistro that takes its cellar as seriously as its kitchen. He was the first in the area to offer half-glass pours and tasting flights, and he managed to build an impressive list of bottles despite Montgomery County’s restrictive wine laws.
Last year, Heineman doubled the size of the dining room, adding floor-to-ceiling windows, an attractive bar with views into the kitchen, and two private dining rooms—great for private parties.
The food is still some of the best in Bethesda, from a pot of bouchot mussels to a chocolate crémeux. Though the menu changes often, one appetizer has become something of a signature: cornmeal-crusted chicken livers served with seasonal accompaniments, recently a poblano-and-bell-pepper jelly. The livers are flawlessly fried and worth every calorie.
4865 Cordell Ave.; 301-986-9592. Dinner entrées $25 to $38.
The folks behind Persimmon know how to set the stage for fine dining. Rich orange walls and interesting artwork create a warm, romantic space that still feels modern.
The American bistro has a passionate following, perhaps because of the classic mussels with white wine, garlic, and lemon or the crab cakes paired with roasted-corn hash and sweet-corn sauce. The beef tenderloin is also impressive, topped with a stack of fried onion rings and flanked by sautéed spinach and mashed potatoes.
7003 Wisconsin Ave.; 301-654-9860. Dinner entrées $20 to $28.
This always-humming dining room does Asian fusion better than most. Oversize chopsticks and pop-hue parasols hang from the rafters, making the space feel like an edgy art gallery.
The menu careens from inexpensive noodle bowls (you get a choice of udon, soba, or egg noodles) like coconut red curry to pricier entrées such as wok-charred sea bass, five-spice duck breast, and a Thai-curry bouillabaisse. Raku does sushi too—tuna tartare with lemon basil sauce is an attention getter—and rolls like What a Match! with apple and mackerel. Skip dessert, which is not up to the rest of the menu.
7240 Woodmont Ave.; 301-718-8680. Entrées $8.50 to $29.95.
Rock Creek Bethesda
Lots of restaurant fare is larded with more fat, cream, and salt than you’d imagine. At this usually packed dining room, the kitchen takes pains to prove that low calorie doesn’t equal low flavor.
Most dishes have less than 600 calories, even the chocolate cake with whipped cream. We’d be fans of the slow-cooked miso salmon, the crab cakes with celery-root slaw, and the chipotle-rubbed pacu ribs even if we didn’t know they were so good for us.
4917 Elm St.; 301-907-7625. Dinner entrées $18 to $41.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House
For a sure thing, head to the Bethesda outpost of this national powerhouse for a juicy T-bone or a hefty New York strip, both finished with butter and served sizzling hot. The carefully choreographed experience begins as you walk through the dining room, where all servers greet you as they pass.
The food is good, too, including a delicious rendition of a retro classic: mushrooms stuffed with crab, garlic, Romano, and parsley. The sweet-potato casserole for two—crusted with pecans and, we’re guessing, a whole mess of butter—had us dueling with our spoons. If the boss is buying, end with a crème brûlée (or another sweet-potato casserole) for dessert. Free valet parking is available on Elm Street.
7315 Wisconsin Ave., 301-652-7877. Entrées $21 to $64.
Casual and Easy on the Wallet: Places to drop by for a spur-of-the-moment meal
Former Pizzeria Paradiso employee Melissa Ballinger opened her tiny, sun-yellow pizza shop two years ago, and it has quickly become known for putting out some of the tastiest pies not just in Bethesda but in the whole Washington area.
The Margherita is a thing of simple beauty, with careful applications of buffalo mozzarella, Parmesan-infused tomato sauce, and fresh basil. It’s the best way to take in the fabulous, yeasty crust.
But more offbeat creations—an Alsatian-inspired layering of Gruyère, caramelized onions, and pancetta, or a pileup of sausage, pepperoni, and mushrooms—make it tough to choose. Round out your meal with deviled eggs, abundant salads, and a confection from the cupcake tower on the bar.
4926 Cordell Ave.; 301-718-6427. Entrées and pizzas $7.95 to $16.95.
Passage to India
Tapping into the exoticism of E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name, chef/owner Sudhir Seth draws from the cuisines of North, South, East, and West in this elegant eatery done up with wood carvings, sepia photos of the days of the Raj, and even a weathered temple door or two.
Parsi-style lamb is enlivened with apricots and straw potatoes. Tender baby eggplants bob in a rich sesame-peanut gravy. More offbeat are the garlicky goat curry, a curry of lotus stems and peas, and shredded carrots in seasoned yogurt, a cool condiment to counter the fire in many of these dishes. The samplers—an array of appetizers, main courses, sides, and dessert sent out on silver platters—are generous enough for two and a bargain at around $25.
4931 Cordell Ave.; 301-656-3373. Entrées $13.95 to $21.95.
Bethesda is packed with overcrowded, sceney spots that are as much about looks as food (sometimes more). This sparely appointed Afghan gem is a respite from all that.
That’s not to say you won’t wait for a table or that you won’t need a reservation (especially on weekends). The homey, pretention-free cooking runs from starters such as mantu—free-form, meat-filled dumplings doused with tart yogurt—and aushak, their scallion-filled cousins, to fluffy, spice-studded rice pilafs and garlic-punched vegetable stews. The weak link? Kebabs, surprisingly, which tend to be dry.
4917 Cordell Ave.; 301-951-3484. Entrées $13 to $20.
Downtown DC has no shortage of high-end Italian spots where you can be showered with all the Alba truffles your heart desires. But a good chicken parm? You have to come to Bethesda for that.
This dark little dining room, which doesn’t take reservations and is usually overflowing, serves mammoth portions of Sunday-at-Grandma’s cooking. There’s a crispy chicken Milanese, a lasagna Bolognese that’ll yield plenty of leftovers, and a chicken Cardinale draped with tomatoey cream sauce. You have to pay extra for garlic bread, but green-leaf salads come free.
7921 Norfolk Ave., 301-654-9496. Dinner entrées $12 to $17.
The Bethesda branch of celebrity chef José Andrés’s tapas restaurant is a big, loud, bilevel space with a crazy sloping ceiling (an ode to Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi) and buzzing bar scene. Fino sherries (the traditional quaff with tapas), boutique Spanish wines, and small plates both clever and classic evoke the cuisine of Spain.
Jamón Ibérico, sliced paper-thin, is worth the $12 price tag and makes a rarefied anchor for a platter of Spanish cheeses and cured meats. The Spanish potato omelet, called tortilla, is the most iconic of tapas, but the fried egg with a dollop of caviar speaks to the inventive streak in the kitchen.
Also worthwhile: pork cheeks in a tart orange sauce, cauliflower and olives with smoked paprika, salt-cod fritters to swipe in honey aïoli, and the silkiest of flans. There are bargains for early birds: a happy hour with drink specials from 5 to 7 on weekdays and a pretheater deal, three courses for $25 from 5 to 7 Tuesday through Sunday.
7271 Woodmont Ave.; 301-913-0003. Tapas $5.50 to $12, paella $30 to $42 (serves four).
Quick Bites: Keep going past the drive-throughs—these spots are made for a fly-by meal or fast takeout
BGR Burger Joint
The booming rock at this music-obsessed snack bar may be classic—there’s a gallery of vintage album covers on the walls and a pair of Rolling Stones lips on one of the tiled tables—but the burgers go far beyond old school. There are versions made from lamb (Greek-style and good), lobster (New England–inspired and great), tuna, and veggies.
The wildly concocted burgers of the month pay homage to anyone from a recent Iron Chef contender to Barack Obama and John McCain. Still, you’ll do well with the good old cheeseburger, its prime, aged beef topped with Maytag bleu or cheddar.
On the side are frothy root-beer floats, addictively salty/sugary sweet-potato fries, and puffed-up Vidalia rings. It all makes for a happy meal but isn’t priced like one—a burger, fries, and soda total around $13 unless you go for the weekday lunch deal, which is $8.99.
4827 Fairmont Ave.; 301-358-6137. Burgers $7.49 to $14.99.
Snagging one of the handful of tables at this snug cafe and Italian salumeria always feels like a win. Though you can get anything to go, nibbling amid boxes and bags of Italian foodstuffs with Pavarotti singing opera in the background really feeds an Italophile’s soul.
Owner Ibrahim “Ibo” Selmy loves good food, and it shows. There are platters of crostini with red and yellow peppers and smoky roasted eggplant, and carefully made sandwiches of salami doused with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, Italian roast beef, and prosciutto. Meats are sliced paper-thin with a manual slicer Selmy imported from Italy.
Don’t overlook smaller pleasures like anchovy-wrapped olives, macaroonlike pignoli cookies, made-to-order cannolis, gelato, and Italian espresso.
8102 Norfolk Ave.; 301-652-1625. Sandwiches $7.99 to $9.99.
This colorful Peruvian-style fast-food rotisserie is an ideal spot for an inexpensive yet delicious meal. A juicy leg/thigh plate with such sides as well-seasoned black beans and rice, golden hand-cut fried potatoes, or chunky red-skin potato salad is plenty good, but the cryptically named pulled chicken is a dish to dream about. It’s a piquant chicken stew studded with carrots and piled atop a mound of beans and rice, the sort of homey cooking that offers comfort on dank wintry days. Not every plate is a win: Skip the scorched, too-chewy plantains, mayonnaise-logged slaw, and pedestrian tortillas.
7007 Wisconsin Ave.; 301-652-0001.Chicken dinners $7.99 (half with two sides) to $13.99 (whole with two sides) and up.
5 Sweet Stops
Ice cream, cupcakes, and other treats
On a nice day in downtown Bethesda, you’ll probably see lots of kids with ice-cream cones. Scooping chains Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs have outposts here, but Gifford’s Ice Cream is a true Bethesda institution. It opened here in 1938 and, after a change in ownership, moved a few years ago to spiffier digs next to the Bethesda Row Cinema. It still has an old-fashioned ice-cream-shop feel and a roster of rich, mostly traditional flavors.
7237 Woodmont Ave.; 301-907-3436. Other locations in Chevy Chase, Rockville, Hyattsville, and downtown DC.
One of the most anticipated tenants in the new Bethesda Lane shopping strip was Dolcezza, the Argentinean gelato shop that won raves at its first location in Georgetown. Now Bethesdans are lining up for this Italian cousin of ice cream. Gelato is richer and denser because it has less air—and because this one is made with milk, it has half the fat. The owners regularly troll farmers markets for inspiration and fresh, local ingredients. Gelato and dairy-free sorbetto flavors include watermelon-vodka, dulce de leche, and white peach/Prosecco.
7111 Bethesda La.; 301-215-9226.
With cupcake shops sprouting all over Washington, it’s refreshing to walk into Just Cakes, a classic bakery on a Bethesda side street. Sure, it’s got cupcakes—super-moist ones with caps of not-too-sweet buttercream—but the cafe also displays buttery pound cakes, colorful tarts, molten lava mini-cakes, and decadent bars and brownies. The staff also designs cakes for any occasion, in styles from traditional to artistic.
4849 Rugby Ave.; 301-718-5111.
A recent addition to downtown Bethesda, Fancy Cakes by Leslie has long been a favorite for exquisite custom wedding and special-occasion cakes. Now owner Leslie Goldman-Poyourow is also offering ready-to-go cakes, cupcakes, and other treats—all beautifully decorated—in her new storefront bakery.
4939 Elm St.; 301-548-9390.
Away from the hubbub of downtown Bethesda, Praline is a sunny French bakery and restaurant tucked in a shopping strip. The bistro upstairs serves lunch and dinner, but the first floor is dedicated to all things sweet. Flaky almond croissants and raspberry twists make a wonderful Gallic breakfast. For an anytime snack, there are dozens of cookies, pastries, pies, and cakes. Don’t leave without sampling the delicate Parisian macaroons: The array of colors and flavors makes it tough to choose, but we can’t get enough of the classic pistachio.
4611 Sangamore Rd.; 301-229-8180.