’Tis the season for all things pumpkin-spicy, sure, but also all things cheeseladen, brothy, creamy, and soothing. In other words, comfort food. And while the concept is subjective—my balm might be your bore, and vice versa—here are the dishes I’ve been turning to lately.
French Onion Soup
Charley Prime Foods | 9811 Washingtonian Blvd., Gaithersburg
Onion soup pops up everywhere once the weather gets chilly—who can resist that dreamy cheese pull?—but not many kitchens get it right, and no amount of Comté can make up for a ho-hum broth. At this steakhouse from Jackie Greenbaum and Gordon Banks, there are no such problems. Chef Adam Harvey derives his soup from a recipe he learned decades ago at Alexandria’s Morrison House, and the broth—amped with Worcestershire and lemon—could stand on its own. But slowly cooked onions deglazed in port, sherry, and Madeira, plus lots of gooey Gruyère, make it a bowl to remember.
Kema by Kenaki | 11325 Seven Locks Rd., Potomac
If you’re an unabashed lover of over-the-top sushi rolls—bring on the zigzags!—Ken Ballogdajan is a chef you want to know about. His latest restaurant, which he runs with his sister Aki, echoes the menu and fast-casual vibe of his Gaithersburg hit, Kenaki. I was at first skeptical of this collision of spicy-tuna and shrimp tempura rolls, which gets a dose of umami from shiitakes and bonito plus a stripe of zesty mayo. One bite in and I was sold.
Spaghetti With Clams
Opal | 5534 Connecticut Ave., NW
Colin McClimans says spaghetti with clams was one of his father’s go-to party platters. At his airily pretty Chevy Chase DC dining room, McClimans’s version is more refined. The chef makes his pasta in-house, for one, and tints it with saffron. He serves the clams, steamed with white wine and shallots, without their shells for easier eating. But he finishes the bowl the old-fashioned way, with chili flakes, parsley, and herby breadcrumbs. Most important, he retains the salty, garlicky soulfulness of the Italian-American classic.
Virginia’s Darling | 277 S. Washington St., Alexandria
“I love that this dish is having a moment,” says Nicole Jones, owner of this cute Old Town wine bar. “It’s as super-classic culinary-school as it gets.” Indeed, she learned to make the brown-buttery French plate at L’Academie de Cuisine. Her technique is simple: Sizzle the wide, flat filet of mild white fish in clarified butter until it turns crispy and golden, add even more butter to the pan, then balance out the richness with plenty of lemon juice, capers, and parsley. Sole meunière is the dish that sparked Julia Child’s obsession with French cuisine, and Jones’s rendition makes it easy to imagine why.
Mac and Cheese
Doro Soul Food | 1819 Seventh St., NW
As the mother of a seven-year-old, I have a lot of mac and cheese in my life. But the version that chef Elias Taddesse makes at his Ethio-American fried-chicken spot near Howard University is on a level all its own. There’s nothing mild about it: It’s as sharp as it is creamy, has a zesty kick, and gets its slight sourness from a dusting of breadcrumbs made from injera. There’s no better partner to a plate of Taddesse’s supremely crunchy, berbere-spiced fried chicken.
Vera | 2002 Fenwick St., NE
“I feel like I’m sitting inside a Miley Cyrus album cover,” says a friend as we take in the pulsing, cactus-lined dining room in Ivy City. The cocktails are head-turners (so many flowers!), and the kitchen fuses Mexican and Lebanese flavors into flashy, often skillful share plates. Given all that, my favorite dish here is relatively homey and subdued. The simple cut of grilled branzino is set atop rice that’s bright with turmeric and sided with a trio of sauces that reflect the kitchen’s viewpoint: two vibrant salsas and a pool of labneh.
Irregardless | 502 H St., NE
This H Street–corridor bistro is obsessed with Virginia wine. Even its pierogi plate—more cheffy than Polish church supper—owes something to the state. The crisply pan-fried dumplings are filled with ricotta and Gouda from a Loudoun County farm, then served with pickled rutabaga and fennel in place of sauerkraut. A buttermilk-and-dill sauce adds a sour-cream-like tang.
Bao Bei | 11910 Parklawn Dr., Rockville
It takes a little work to find this takeout-only, Taiwanese-style bao maker, hidden along the backside of a Rockville strip mall in a communal kitchen with a buzzer entry. Inside, you’ll find twentysomething owner Kevin Hsieh, who has dedicated himself to crafting these cloud-light, slightly sweet buns. He folds them to make Pacman-like sandwiches, the best of which is stuffed with luscious soy-braised pork belly, plus pickled greens and a dusting of crushed peanuts and sugar.
Little Blackbird | 3309 Connecticut Ave., NW
What was once the mod-Indian restaurant Bindaas is now a moodily lit wine bar. Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj flipped the Cleveland Park space to its new concept in September, and it shares a kitchen—and chef, Ryan Moore—with Bajaj’s next-door Israeli dining room, Sababa. Moore stays mostly faithful to the thin, crispy Alsatian-style tart, delicately arranging it with onions, bacon, and Gruyère. But there’s one smart Mediterranean tweak. Instead of fromage blanc, Moore uses a slather of tangy labneh.
Joon | 8045 Leesburg Pike, Vienna
Tahdig—the prized, deliciously crunchy layer of rice that forms at the bottom of a pot as it cooks—steals the spotlight at this Persian fine-dining room near Tysons, a joint effort between Iranian cookbook star Najmieh Batmanglij and ex–Maydan chef Chris Morgan. You’ll find tahdig in many guises—plain and saffron-scented, speckled with dill and fava beans—but the kitchen’s best preparation is ladled with sour cherries that are scented with cinnamon and vanilla. It’s a dish of luxurious contrasts, between the cherries, fluffy and crispy bits of rice, and aromatic hits of saffron and pistachio.
El Presidente | 1255 Union St., NE
The second wave of restaurateur Stephen Starr’s DC takeover is upon us, starting with this theatrical Mexican bar/dining room, which debuted in September near Union Market. (Also in the works for Starr: an Italian market in Georgetown and a takeover of the historic Occidental restaurant, among other things.) This early hit on chef David LaForce’s menu borrows from yet another Starr spot, El Vez in Philly. I get why the kitchen cribbed the recipe. The crunchy, batter-fried hunks of mahi-mahi accented with avocado and smoky rémoulade instantly became the best fish tacos in town.
Crinkle Fries With Za’atar
Kirby Club | 2911 District Ave., Fairfax
Sure, there are far more interesting dishes on the menu at Rose Previte’s boho-cool Lebanese dining room in the Mosaic District. So you should not skip, say, the kalamata-olive-and-walnut dip or the lamb kebabs. But side whatever you order with these crispy and salty crinkle fries, among a few dishes Previte keeps around to make the menu “approachable” and kid-friendly. The snack is really all about the dip—a salty-sweet layering of feta and apricot marmalade—and the liberal shake of za’atar, made by local spice purveyor Z&Z.
This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Washingtonian.