It’s not surprising that this most uncomfortable year and a half has been an excellent time for comfort food—restaurants have embraced familiar, easy-to-like (and sell) dishes since the pandemic began. Sure, comfort is a totally subjective idea, with roots in personal nostalgia. But here are 13 things that have been fortifying this food critic lately, all from places that have opened or transformed since early 2020.
The Point (2100 Second St., SW)
One of the best things about this Buzzard Point mega-restaurant from the folks behind Ivy City Smokehouse is the sheer number of outdoor tables overlooking the Anacostia River. But the best thing is this appetizer, which merges two of life’s greatest pleasures—warm, creamy crab dip and fried dough—into one neat little package. It’s the rare dish that sounds stunty (and indeed, it’s TikTok-famous) but manages to live up to the hype.
La Collina (747 C St., SE)
Some years ago, La Collina chef Katarina Petonito and her husband launched a friendly competition: Which of them could make a better meatball? After several tries, they agreed on this mix of pork, beef, and hot capicola, which is kept moist and light with sheep’s-milk ricotta and freshly toasted bread crumbs. At this Capitol Hill Italian spot, you’ll find the browned meatballs—which have a perfect, not-too-ruddy but not-too-mousse-like texture—simmered in a sauce made from one thing only: Bianco DiNapoli canned tomatoes from California. “The flavor of the tomato speaks for itself,” Petonito says.
Smokecraft (1051 N. Highland St., Arlington)
A high-end barbecue joint isn’t the first place we’d think to look for a great Jewish-deli classic, but for chef/owner Andrew Darneille, the sandwich has a personal connection. Decades ago, his mom would shuttle him to and from a job at a restaurant that made a killer Reuben, and he’d bring her one each time. His version switches traditional corned beef for pastrami, which is rubbed with pickling spices and mustard barbecue sauce, then smoked with cherrywood for eight hours. The toppings are the usual Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing—but the sauce gets a nice tang from Darneille’s chopped housemade pickles.
Rumi’s Kitchen (640 L St., NW)
This rice dish—a staple on Persian menus—is so bountiful and beautiful, it practically begs for a celebration (in fact, it’s often served at weddings). Fluffy mounds of basmati rice are threaded with strips of orange peel that—in the kitchen of this year-old Atlanta import in Mount Vernon Square—have been lightly candied with butter, sugar, rosewater, and barberries, among other things. The result is a dish that’s less about dessert-like sweetness and more about fra-grant nuance.
Brisket Mac and Cheese
Pennyroyal Station (3310 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainier)
“Don’t laugh,” says Jesse Miller—a master of ambitious pub grub—when he reveals the inspiration for this meaty mac: Hamburger Helper. But Miller takes no shortcuts to get to his end result. He dry-rubs brisket, slow-roasts it, then smokes it for nine hours. When an order comes in, he doses the meat with marrow to make it even richer, then stirs it into a traditional mac and cheese bound with cheddary Mornay sauce. In other words, nothing like Mom used to make.
Rogi (4238 Wilson Blvd., Arlington)
While everything bagels have inspired such items as doughnuts, ice cream, and sushi over the years, few rethinks feel more natural than the pierogi at this fast-casual stand inside Ballston Quarter. (It was formerly known as Zofia’s Kitchen.) Chef Ed Hardy’s rustic Eastern European turnovers are stuffed with smoked salmon, scallion cream cheese, dill, and plenty of that poppy-seed-heavy bagel seasoning. Get them fried to a crisp and sided with either horseradish or lemon-dill sour cream.
Dauphine’s (1100 15th St., NW)
This New Orleans–inspired dining room from the Salt Line crew serves both a $150 French 75 cocktail for two and one of the best cheap (at least in high-end-dining terms) bar snacks in town. It’s a $7 plate stacked high with shards of thin-sliced, puffily fried potatoes that taste cribbed from century-old French Quarter menus. They’re a good reminder that the best mate for fried potatoes isn’t ketchup or mayo—it’s a gravy boat of béarnaise.
Shrimp and Grits
Yardbird (901 New York Ave., NW)
A great shrimp and grits isn’t about any one element. Yes, you want juicy shrimp, lush grits, and a sauce that cuts through all the heaviness, but when any one of those things dominates, it usually means the dish is out of whack. At this Miami-born Southern restaurant, the bowl is as well harmonized as a Fleetwood Mac joint. Creamy, coarsely ground grits are balanced by fat shrimp in a sauce made from veal stock and PBR, plus bits of aggressively salty country ham, cherry tomatoes, and scallions.
Mama Tigre (10443 White Granite Dr., Oakton)
Some dishes at this Mexican/Indian fusion kitchen—chicken-tikka burritos, say, or fiery masala queso—make a straightforward sizzle-plate of fajitas sound downright boring. Nope. Go for the top-of-the-line “supreme” version, which comes with carne asada, chicken, shrimp, and bacon. (The last acts more as a richness-booster than a filling in itself.) The accessories are exactly what you want: fresh flour tortillas, shredded cheese, and copious caramelized onions and peppers.
Mastiha Bakery (10560 Metropolitan Ave., Kensington)
Katerina Georgallas has been selling pita, dips, and other Greek specialties at lo-cal farmers markets for years. Early in the pandemic, she revved up a part of her business that had until then been a sporadic offering: cook-at-home meals. They include these perfectly flaky turnovers filled with lemon-scented semolina custard. Pop them into the oven for a half hour, dust them with cinnamon and sugar, and you’ve got a pretty stellar breakfast (or dessert, or afternoon snack).
Spanish Diner (7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda)
The cheesecake at José Andrés’s latest spot—a diner-style ode to all things egg and potato—are nothing like the stiff New York–style slabs or fluffy Italian ricotta wedges you mostly find around here. More slender than towering, the crustless cake, which has roots in a San Sebastián pintxos bar, is made with both cream cheese and goat cheese. A deeply browned surface tempers the slight sweetness. If you’re a person who usually leans toward a cheese plate rather than dessert, this one’s for you.
Menya Hosaki (845 Upshur St., NW)
Financial consultant turned chef Eric Yoo opened this sliver of a ramen shop in Petworth in September. He offers a few different broths, including smoky dashi; clear, chicken-based chintan; and milky, porky paitan. Or you could just order this bowl, a combo of all three. Peeking through the broth are a soft-boiled egg, a circle of pork belly, a few bamboo shoots, and an unusual find in local ramen shops: slender, chewy noodles that are made in-house.
Preservation Biscuit Company (102 E. Fairfax St., Falls Church)
A biscuit sandwich is great—until the thing falls apart in your hand (and possibly your lap). At this Falls Church cafe, executive chef* Jonathan Coombs, who formerly led the kitchen at Matchbox, combats the problem by building a sturdier, less towering biscuit. Thankfully, it’s as good stuffed with shaved prime rib, caramelized onions, and Swiss as it is with a slathering of strawberry jam.
This article appears in the November 2021 issue of Washingtonian.
*An earlier version of this post referred to Preservation Biscuit’s Jonathan Coombs as “chef/owner.” He is the executive chef, not the owner.