This has been a(nother) tough year for restaurants—but also for diners. Menus have downsized, portions and cocktails have shrunk, service is often iffy, and prices have seriously spiked. Still, there were so many highs. Here are the dishes that wowed me the most this year.
Shrimp scampi at Caruso’s Grocery
I last settled into this Italian-American spot on Capitol Hill a few Sundays ago, after a long, overpriced, and very underwhelming meal the day before at one of downtown DC’s befuddling hotspots. It was one of those tired nights when I just wanted to stay in and watch White Lotus and be done with it, but my husband and I had managed to snag an early table at Caruso’s. Matt Adler’s menu reinvents nothing, but it puts so much care into dishes like fried calamari and garlic bread and fettuccine Alfredo. You have to love lemon to love his scampi, which is as acidic as it is buttery, and finished with a dash of Limoncello (Adler’s dad’s move). It was the centerpiece of a dinner that was like a mood reset: restorative and happy-making on so many levels.
La Belle Farm duck with quince, foie gras, sauce bigarde at Lutece
This is the year of the duck—you’ll find fantastic versions at the Dabney and Bresca and Duck and the Peach, among other places. My favorite: this charmer of a Georgetown bistro’s gorgeously seared slice of breast, sourced from New York foie gras producer La Belle Farm, carefully salted, and draped with rich, orange-scented sauce bigarde.
Curry mee at Makan
James Wozniuk originally set out to make a sour, seafood version of curry laksa soup when his Columbia Heights Malaysian spot opened in 2020. Then, six days later, lockdown happened, and he decided he needed a sure-thing seller. Enter this crowd-pleaser, which has happily stuck around. Squeeze plenty of lime into the (vegan!) coconut-based broth, which holds both glass and egg noodles, slices of chicken sausage, and pillowy fried tofu, and is topped with a ton of fresh herbs and tangy mustard greens.
Korean potato salad at Magpie and Tiger
RIP to this Petworth mod-Korean spot, one of the year’s most exciting, innovative—and short-lived—restaurants. Caleb Jang’s take on the panchan staple, Korean potato salad, arrived wrapped in a taco-like shell of caramelized cheese. I wanted to get up and tell every table in the place to order one. Jang and wife/co-chef Roren Choi just held a pop-up on H Street. Here’s hoping this rockstar dish will make an appearance sometime in the future.
Carrot cappelletti at Bresca
Food critics have likes and dislikes just like every eater—my no-gos happen to be pesto, grocery store canned tuna aka cat food, bonito flakes (also used to feed them to my cat), and carrots. But sometimes we have to ignore them in the process of doing the job, which is how I wound up staring down this dish of carrots on carrots on carrots. But the little folds of pasta, filled with roasted-carrot puree, polenta, and Parmesan—all glazed with a sauce made from reduced carrot juice and butter— won me over fast. Credit to how well it all played off its accompaniments: bits of cured lamb neck and a honeyed hazelnut granola. I’m not ordering a carrot cocktail anytime soon, but this I’d devour again and again.
Macha Roni pizza with salsa macha at Boogy and Peel
I eat a lot of pepperoni pizza. Every Friday is Friday Pie-day in our house, as the lord intended. And while DC is awash in great delivery pizza, thanks to Andy’s, Della Barba, Timber, Comet, etc., etc., the pep’ that bested them all came out of Rachael Jenning’s Dupont pizza place. Her pies have the stretchy and blistery qualities of a Neapolitan round, but are way sturdier. All the better to hold the little coins of pepperoni, plus crunchy, peanut-y salsa macha, honey, and basil. “Every pizza is a personal pizza if you try hard and believe in yourself,” reads the sign at the restaurant, which shares space with her brother’s gym. Eff 10,000 steps. Challenge accepted.
Grilled oysters with sidra blanca at Bar Spero
“I grew up thinking all grilled oysters were shriveled up and covered in bacon,” says Johnny Spero, the chef/owner behind this Spanish newcomer at the Capital Crossing development. Not so in this kitchen. Spero’s memorable take involves shucking the bivalves as if they were going to be served raw, topping them with pickled garlic and a buttery sauce conjured from sidra blanca and cider vinegar, then roasting them quickly, so they stay plump and juicy.
Pulled pork sandwich at 2Fifty
The Wagyu brisket gets much of the attention at this Central-Texas-style barbecue destination from Fernando Gonzalez and Debby Portillo, which is based in Riverdale Park and has a Union Market satellite stall. Don’t sleep on the pulled pork, though, which like the other meats, is slowly cared for over a white-oak fire and emerges perfectly tender and smoky. It’s piled high on a brioche bun and terrific with pickles and slaw—not that it needs anything, really.
Mushroom chawanmushi at Pineapple and Pearls
This revamped Capitol Hill tasting room opened in May after a two year pandemic hiatus, and goes for a glam, all-about-excess Studio 54 vibe—minus the coke spoons (plus bedazzled handcuffs). The result is a super-fun take on special-occasion dining. Owner Aaron Silverman has traded the old 10 course menu for a more manageable—and just as satisfying—four course lineup (bolstered by plenty of snacks and gifts from the kitchen). One of the early dishes looks like an intimidatingly long femur bone of marrow. Turns out, the spear is actually bamboo, and its interior holds savory chawanmushi, the eggy Japanese custard arrayed with mushrooms and hazelnuts. I loved every kaleidoscopic bite.
A whole lot of baked goods
My blue ribbons this year go to: the foie-gras-mousse-filled puff at Moon Rabbit, the baguette at Convivial, the sourdough at Manifest Bread, the balsamic-cherry-and-blood-orange scone at Little Food Studio, the coconut layer cake at Mah Ze Dahr, the s’mores cake at Little Red Fox (another RIP), the sweet potato brioche rolls and biscuits at Dauphine’s, and the olive oil cake at Thompson Italian.
And a few honorable mentions: jalapeno poppers at Buck’s; cauliflower 65 at Bansari; mushrooms with wafu butter at Shoto; meatball sub with vodka sauce from Compliments Only; lamb chops at Daru; galbi and eggs at Anju; callaloo with crab at St. James; and Wuhan noodles at Q by Peter Chang.