Congratulations on the good judgment you’ve shown in your first few months. Not your economic plan—your dining-out judgment.
Some critics in the press have suggested that you’re playing a kind of culinary politics with your eating-out excursions. They point to the fact that you followed up date-night dinners with Michelle at Equinox and Citronelle—temples of fine dining—by swinging by Ben’s Chili Bowl (with DC mayor Adrian Fenty) for a chili dog and Ray’s Hell-Burger (with VP Joe Biden) for a hamburger. That’s the same high/low approach you took when you lived in Chicago: Your date-night restaurant was the elegant Spiaggia, with its vistas of Lake Michigan. But the place you went most often was MacArthur’s, a soul-food cafeteria where a plate of chicken with two sides costs $6.99.
like to think that your sensibilities are my sensibilities—a love of eating out at the extremes of the dining spectrum. And so, in that spirit, I’ve come up with ten of my favorite spots you really ought to try.
Komi. The most personal, the most soulful, the most distinctive restaurant in DC. Can you set aside your BlackBerry for three hours? Dinner is a lingering affair. From the mezzethakia, which starts a meal and takes at least an hour, to the communal-style final course, where you’ll be tearing the crisped meat off a baby goat or baby pig, the cares of Washington will seem a million miles away.
Palena. Frank Ruta might be the most technically proficient local chef who’s in his kitchen every day. His soups and pastas are very good, and his charcuterie will open your eyes to the small miracle of cured meats. As great as Ruta’s brand of French-Italian cuisine can be, maybe the greatest thing about it is that you come out of the place talking not about the chef but about how good simple cooking can be.
Vidalia. You’ve professed your love for Southern cooking, and this subterranean roost does soulful refinement as well as anyone in the country. Start with a perfect mint julep, load up on the cornbread in the stellar breadbasket, and then settle back and enjoy the imaginative preparations of country staples such as shrimp and grits and crabcakes. If you don’t have room for the killer lemon chess pie, ask for a doggy bag.
Four Sisters. This is one of the oldest Vietnamese restaurants around, newly relocated to the Merrifield section of Falls Church. I don’t think there’s an area restaurant that’s more beautiful, more delicious, or more inexpensive. An order of the marvelous shrimp toast, the juicy lacquered quail with blood-orange segments, the mushroom-filled rice crepes, and a Vietnamese coffee—and all that carping by the Republicans will be like water under the bridge.
Ravi Kabob House and Ravi Kabob II and III. Here’s the other reason to head into Virginia: It’s got the area’s best and most varied ethnic eating. The kebabs—marinated 18 hours and tended with great devotion over a charcoal flame—are superlative: as juicy and tender as any grilled slab at a big-ticket steakhouse. Go for lunch, and take Joe with you. But beware: If the right-wingers could light into you for chowing on a gourmet burger at Ray’s, just think what they’ll do to you for eating at a Pakistani restaurant.
Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza. Everyone knows you like pizza, and I know your favorite spot in Chicago is a thin-crust place. I think you’ll fall hard for Pete’s, which is serving the area’s best pizza. Big, crispy thin-crust pies with a balance of sauce, cheese, and topping. Take the girls and get the Sorbillo’s Original (a glorious turnover) and the clam pie, which is better than the one at Manhattan’s legendary Lombardi’s.
Poste. In a dining landscape ruled by chefs with bigger names and splashier dining rooms, this DC brasserie doesn’t receive nearly as much chatter as it deserves. The chef, Rob Weland, is the kind of kitchen talent whose confidence never crosses the line into showing off, and his Americanized bistro cooking, built on a foundation of top-notch ingredients—including herbs from his garden out back—is consistent and creative.
La Caraqueña. You got some flak over your handshake with Hugo Chávez, so coming to this Venezuelan-Bolivian restaurant would amount to a tweaking of those critics. But it also would mean a great afternoon of cheap eating. The sopa de mani (peanut soup), the fried arepas, and the salteñas are all superb.
Volt. This restored townhouse in historic Frederick is the best restaurant in the Maryland suburbs—elegant and unfussy American cooking in an atmosphere as cool as it is serene.
Faryab. Remember when you addressed the Muslim world and said we weren’t at war with Islam? Think about what you might achieve by dropping by this Afghan cafe for aushak (scallion-filled dumplings topped with a tomato-based meat sauce and spattered with yogurt), kadu (sweetened pumpkin), and mantu (dumplings with meat sauce and yogurt). You’ll be reassuring the Afghanis of your sincerity—all by having a delicious and inexpensive dinner.
This appeared in the July, 2009 issue of The Washingtonian.