Rick’s Top 20 DC Restaurants — Summer 2017
The DC restaurant scene continues to froth along with major openings dwarfing significant closings (RIP, Ripple) and gentrifying neighborhoods like Ivy City creating ambitious new dining options where none existed before.
It does make you wonder where the people are coming from to fill all those seats — particularly the 20-somethings who can afford to eat out so often — and how long this pace can be sustained. But now’s not the time for worry-warting. That’d be like Golden State fans stewing about what’ll happen when Durant and Curry retire. We’ll deal with it then. For now, enjoy the run.
But all that change does mean it’s time to take another look at my top-20 restaurant list from last fall. That list no longer reflects the current state of DC dining. If it were any more dated, I could hang it in my closet with the rest of my neckties.
As before, these aren’t necessarily the “finest” restaurants in DC or where I’d go if I were eating on someone else’s dime. Nor does it include my favorite “cheap eats” destinations (you can find those here, here, here, and here.) Instead, these are the restaurants I’m most excited to go back to and that I’d be most likely to recommend to a friend who wants to know what’s worth checking out.
You’ll see that there are a lot of newer restaurants on the list. Some of that is inevitable when the standard is what’s exciting right now — your first time eating bomba rice at Arroz is more exciting than your third helping of fried chicken “coq au vin” at Convivial. But it also reflects the fact that we’ve had an incredible influx of ambitious restaurants in the past year or two that are now in their prime.
Here are the changes since last fall:
In — Himitsu, Arroz, Tiger Fork, Mirabelle
Out — Komi/Little Serow, Oyamel, Masseria, Nido
Moving Up — Tail Up Goat
Moving Down — Rose’s Luxury, Convivial
1. Himitsu, 828 Upshur Street NW, Washington DC
My favorite restaurant in DC right now is this charming 24-seat pillbox in Petworth. Opened last fall by first time restaurateurs Chef/Co-Owner Kevin Tien and Beverage Director/Co-Owner Carlie Steiner, Himitsu draws on Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai influences to create food that’s complex, personal and completely delicious. The most popular dish — which was named one of the Washington Post’s 40 Essential DC Restaurant Dishes of 2017 — is the karaage fried chicken thigh with Korean gochujang glaze and cooked-to-order biscuits. And it is very good, particularly with the addition of a few pickles and a swab of kewpie mayo. But there are so many terrific dishes on the menu, from the refreshing bigeye tuna sashimi with compressed watermelon to the hearty Korean bbq braised pork shank. And don’t sleep on the vegetarian dishes. The Japanese eggplant with fermented black bean and pickled onion, the inventive cabbage e pepe topped with shaved celery miso and parmesan, and the rapini, pea leaves and snap peas with soft-cooked egg are all stand-outs.
Somehow the no reservations policy here feels more civilized than Bad Saint or Rose’s Luxury. There’s no line outside at 4 in the afternoon. If you’re there between 5:30-6 pm on a Tuesday or Wednesday you have a good shot of being seated immediately. And the outside seating in warmer weather almost doubles the seating capacity.
Rapini, pea leaves, mushrooms, snap peas, chili soy dashi, toasted rice with soft-poached egg and herbs at Himitsu
Korean bbq pork shank with barley, quinoa, snap peas and shallots at Himitsu
2. Arroz, 901 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC (in the Marriott Marquis)
I find myself recommending Arroz a lot these days. Looking for a good downtown lunch spot? Try Arroz. A fun new place with great food? I’ve never had a bad dish at Arroz. Top-tier restaurant where you can get a last-minute reservation? Yep, Arroz. The Spanish/Moroccan flavors and technical execution are spot on at this latest entry in the growing Mike Isabella empire. There are several dishes I find myself daydreaming about, like the patatas bravas, the chermoula lamb ribs, the octopus a la plancha, the burnt eggplant with Moroccan flatbread, and the duck bomba rice. Isabella and Chef Michael Rafidi are masters at finding the sweet spot between the familiar and the inventive that makes the cooking at once comforting and fun. It feels like quibbling to point out that even if the somewhat generic dining room wasn’t in a Marriott, that’s how you’d describe it.
Patatas bravas at Arroz
Aged duck bomba rice at Arroz
3. Kinship, 1015 7th St NW, Washington DC
At Kinship, Chef Eric Ziebold manages to walk the fine line between fine dining and a slightly more casual vibe (I haven’t yet been to the fancier Metier side of the house). Sometimes Kinship veers off into mild pretentiousness, such as the division of the menu into vague categories like “Craft,” “History,” and “Ingredients.” But Ziebold’s cooking redeems all, with careful technique and plating that let you know you’re in good hands. The menu changes often but the whole roast chicken and lobster French toast are stalwarts that are likely to be around for good, as are Ziebold’s Parker House rolls that he brought from CityZen. The desserts get as much attention as the savory courses, as does the coffee, which comes with a round of toffee that you break into pieces with a little metal hammer.
Kinship Roast Chicken
4. Tail Up Goat, 1827 Adams Mill Rd NW, Washington DC
A big move up from #11 last fall. Started in 2016 by several Komi/Little Serow alums, TUG was a hit from day one but lately seems to have really hit its stride. The must-order here is any of the breads. There are always three options with seemingly odd combinations (like the current brown rice bread with green tomato, hazelnut picada, pine nut syrup and yogurt). Pick any of them with confidence. It’ll be the highlight of your meal. Then supplement with some other plates like the stracciatella or a pasta and then add one of the bigger plates like the whole stuffed fish (usually branzino or porgy) or the popular lamb ribs for two, stacked high with herbs and sumac onions (the price of ribs has recently increased from $42 to $52, which makes them less of a bargain). Michelle Obama ate here recently, and if you’ve followed the other places she’s dined in DC, you’ll see she may have been our first foodie First Lady.
Brown rice bread with cauliflower, yogurt, black garlic and benne seeds at Tail Up Goat
The thing I appreciate about Fabio Trabocchi is not only that he’s a great chef, but unlike other chefs with multiple restaurants, he still gets his hands dirty in the kitchen. Fabio and his wife Maria, who works the front of the houses, may be the closest thing we have to DC restaurant royalty. Fiola and Fiola Mare are their high-end outposts, featuring luxe ingredients coaxed into delicious presentations. If there’s any criticism, it’s that the luxury sometimes becomes excessive – with sky-high prices to match. Perhaps that’s why I’m more likely to be drawn to the more casual (but hardly cheap eats) Casa Luca and Sfoglina. Casa Luca is a great spot for a business lunch with both good food and tables spaced far enough apart to talk (ask to sit in the back room) while Sfoglina’s pasta-focused menu is a great addition to underserved Van Ness (you can read my longer review of Sfoglina here).
Squid Ink Casarecce with Lobster, Clams and Scallops at Sfoglina
6. Rose’s Luxury, 717 8th Street SE, Washington DC
Why did my previous number #1 restaurant fall to #6? It’s nothing major, but at this level it doesn’t have to be. First, the ordering options have shrunk. The current menu is limited to five small plates (including, thankfully, the iconic pork-and-lychee salad), three pastas (including one with a strawberry-tomato sauce with which I have a hate-hate relationship), and one family-style entree (whole fish, eggplant parmigiana or smoked brisket, depending on the night). That’s not a lot to choose from if you have a party of four and want to sample a variety of dishes or if the one family-style entree doesn’t work for whatever reason. Second, during a recent dinner the pastas were a step below their usual high standards — two of the three we sampled had a similar butter-type sauce — and the smoked brisket only reminded me how good the brisket is at Federalist Pig. Having said all that, the unique flavor combinations at Rose’s can reach heights few can touch. Right now I’ve got my eye on a large raviolo with egg yolk, spring onion and peas on the current menu that I need to try. Rose’s may have slipped a bit from the loftiest heights, but I can’t quit her.
Kale garlic pasta in buttery sauce at Rose’s Luxury
7. The Dabney, 122 Blagden Alley NW, Washington DC
Much has been made of Chef Jeremiah Langhorne’s commitment to creating a “Cuisine of the Mid-Atlantic.” I kind of scoffed at the notion that we had a regional cuisine beyond crabs, half-smokes and pit beef, but Langhorne’s cooking could make me a believer. Sure it’s keenly (some would say obsessively) local and seasonal, but it’s the flavor combinations that inspire – smoky, charred, pickled, herbal, crunchy and creamy. And while I’m usually not too hung up on atmosphere, there’s no cozier space than the Dabney — particularly during the cooler months — with its huge blazing hearth being tended by the well-trained kitchen staff.
Fried Sugar Toads at The Dabney
8. Convivial, 801 O St NW, Washington DC
Down from #2 on the fall list. Chef-owner Cedric Maupillier’s creative spin on classic French and American food reminds me of his mentor Michel Richard. You can point to anything on the menu and know you’ll get something delicious and bit surprising. Still, the last meal I had there was good but not great. “Leeks Dijonnaise” is usually a symphony of steamed and sliced leek salad with mini croutons, fried capers and chopped egg, but this time the symphony felt a bit pianissimo. And the fried chicken “coq au vin,” which I’ve defended online against those who claim it’s an overhyped General Tso’s knock-off, no longer tasted as crisp or coq au vin-like. Desserts remain fully worth the calories, including a good sticky toffee pudding with maple ice cream.
Fried chicken “coq au vin” at Convivial
9. Requin, 8296 Glass Alley #110, Merrifield VA
Some of the best food in DC is coming out of this Gallic seafood kitchen in Merrifield. Every time I’ve dined there, Le Bernadin-trained Chef Jen Carroll has been at the pass, ensuring that every plate leaving her kitchen is up to snuff. It doesn’t get the respect it deserves for a couple of reasons. First, it’s in Merrifield. Second, it’s not particularly flashy. There aren’t any obscure ingredients that will send you to your phone or crazy culinary mash-ups. Requin is about classic French technique and familiar French flavors (you’ll notice the anise notes of tarragon in several dishes). Focus your ordering on the “for the table” section — the whole fish in smoky tomato butter, the roast chicken and the bouillabaisse are all terrific. Read my full review here.
Chef Jen Carroll serving up whole fish with smoky tomato sauce at Requin
10. Kyirisan, 1924 8th St NW, Washington DC
There aren’t many places that are as much an idiosyncratic vision as Kyirisan. This is Tim Ma’s cooking and you’re along for the happy ride. There isn’t a single dish you’ve had before, unless you’ve eaten his creme-fraiche chicken wings, duck confit with caramelized Brussels sprouts, or the scallops with coconut risotto and basil ice cream at Ma’s earlier Maple Avenue restaurant in Vienna. That duck confit is wonderful as are newer creations like the raw sea bass with orange and fish sauce aioli and the whole fried fish with mushroom and pecan stuffing. I may be in the minority, but I find the scallops with coconut risotto and basil ice cream cloying and dull.
Raw sea bass with orange, radish and citrus aioli at Kyirisan
11. Maketto, 1351 H St NE, Washington DC
Erik Bruner-Yang is a local treasure. His rock ‘n roll ramen shop Toki Underground put H Street on the map. Then he opened Maketto, a combination restaurant, retail operation and coffee bar in a sprawling space that feels like the coolest community center ever. And the food, oh, the food. If you’re a fan of the spicy, sweet, tart, pungent and herbaceous funk of Southeast Asian food, this is the place for you. Get the Cambodian sandwich at lunch. And don’t miss the signature Taiwanese fried chicken at dinner – it’s in the running for the best fried chicken in town.
Maketto fried chicken and bread
Mike Isabella continues to open new restaurants at a blistering pace (see, for example, Arroz and Requin above), but he and George Pagonis continue to maintain quality at these Greek stalwarts. While there are some similarities among the various Kapnos outposts – like the must-order dips with warm flatbread – each one is a slightly different take on the basic rustic Greek theme. I still have a soft spot for the rotisserie meats at the original – the lamb makes a dynamite gyros sandwich – but Kouzina is a close second for upping the ante on a Bethesda dining scene that needed a quality infusion more than Arlington. (BTW, G by Mike Isabella, connected to the original Kapnos, is an often overlooked gem for sandwiches during the day and simple Italian cooking by night.)
Melitzanosalata (smoked eggplant, roasted peppers, walnuts and feta) at Kapnos
13. Bad Saint, 3226 11th St NW, Washington DC
I feel badly about this one. Bad Saint clearly would be a top-five restaurant except for the insanity of actually trying to eat there. Its no-reservations policy actually feels more oppressive than Rose’s Luxury. Rose’s has long lines but also lots of room, and once you’re in you know you’ll be seated at a table. Bad Saint could be the set for Tiny House Living, with a seating capacity of 24, 16 of which are stools at cramped counters. I may launch a Kickstarter campaign to buy whatever is next door so they can expand. Because once you get in, this is bold Filipino food without compromise – bursting with big and challenging flavors and ingredients that will surprise the most jaded palate. Try the garlic rice with pork and fried egg or the tiger shrimp with mango and cucumber. A dish like clams with Chinese sausage and Sichuan chile reminds me why seafood and pork is such a beloved combination in different cultures around the world.
Manila clams with Chinese sausage and sichuan chiles at Bad Saint
The best Indian food in DC, although not as far ahead of other good spots – like Passage to India in Bethesda – as some of the accolades would imply. You can’t not start with the palak chaat, one of the truly iconic dishes of DC, and one that lives up to its billing. Then go with whatever sounds good — maybe the tuna chutneywala, the braised lamb kashmiri, or the old standby chicken tikka masala — you can hardly go wrong with Chef Vikram Sunderam’s cooking. Bindaas, Rasika’s street-food centric offspring in Cleveland Park, is also very good although when I eat there I miss the curries of the mother ship.
Palak chaat at Rasika
15. Tiger Fork, 922 N Street NW (Blagden Alley), Washington DC
Tiger Fork brings a hip(ster) slice of Hong Kong to Blagden Alley just around the corner from The Dabney. It’s not for traditionalists or those who like their Chinese food to pack mouth-numbing heat. It’s really for umami-heads. As I said in my longer review, I don’t think of Tiger Fork as a Chinese restaurant. I think of it as a little umami munitions factory. Try the Kowloon bun with dairy cow, the turnip cake in XO sauce, the crispy sour potatoes or the crispy whole dourade with Chengdu sauce. And don’t forget to save room for a bubble waffle with ice cream for dessert.
Beef Chow Foon at Tiger Fork
16. Izakaya Seki, 1117 V St NW, Washington DC
This unassuming father-daughter Izakaya knows what it is and what it isn’t. It’s an authentic Izakaya, or Japanese gastropub. That means you can get pristine sashimi here but not sushi. Udon and soba noodles yes; ramen no. Maybe some Japanese restaurants would try to expand their offerings to reflect trending American tastes. Not Seki. And that’s the beauty of the place. It has integrity, focusing on what it does well and what is traditional rather than trying to be all things to all people. Try something from each menu category to create a balanced meal: raw, fried, grilled, steamed and simmered. And bring the meal to a simple and comforting end with some fried rice with garlic chips.
17. Le Diplomate, 1601 14th St NW, Washington DC
Give Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr credit. He knows how to create an atmosphere. Step into the meticulously re-created French bistro and you feel like you’ve stepped through a wormhole from 14th Street straight to the 14th arrondissement. That attention to detail carries over to the food. Textbook onion soup, salade Lyonnaise, steak frites/au poivre, loup de mer, and one of the best bread baskets in town.
Steak Frites at Le Diplomate
18. Hazel, 808 V St NW, Washington DC
Even in a crowded field in Shaw, few places can match the combination of creative food and comfortable vibe of this hang-out. Try the steak tartare with egg yolk and caramelized onion dip, the clay pot halibut or the spicy lamb ma-po. Somewhat disappointing were the much-touted sticky-crunchy ribs and the gnocchi with pork-kimchi ragu. Nice outdoor seating in warmer weather — or even cooler weather with the heaters.
Steak tartare with tater tots, egg yolk, watercress and caramelized onion dip at Hazel
Let’s say it’s a Friday night after a long week at work. You don’t have dinner reservations and you’re trying to figure out where you can get some good, comforting food with a minimum of hassle. I give you Alta Strada and Casolare, Michael Schlow’s Italian comfort food outposts. They have a similar cooking style and price point although I think the pastas are a smidge better at Alta Strada (particuarly the first-class tagliatelle Bolognese). Still they’re close enough in quality that I’d think of them interchangeably and go to one or the other based on convenience. The common thread of many dishes at both locations is a background chile heat that never overwhelms but keeps things interesting.
Tagliatelle Bolognese at Alta Strada
I almost left Mirabelle off the list (I did intentionally leave Pineapple and Pearls off, for those wondering; I explain why in one of my first posts here). But in the end I felt like I had to include Mirabelle because I recognize it could be a top choice depending on your tastes. There’s no doubt that Mirabelle is an elegant restaurant guided by the sure hands of Chef Frank Ruta and Pastry Chef Aggie Chin. Everything that comes out of the kitchen is thoughtful and well-cooked. If you wanted to show a culinary student a textbook consomme with a crystal-clear broth and perfectly diced vegetables, take them to Mirabelle. I can’t fault it for anything; it’s just not my kind of cooking. I appreciate and respect it more than I love it. For all of the impeccable technique, the flavors feel a bit muted. I did see Michelle Obama the night I ate there and apparently she brought Barack back sometime later, so there’s that. As for me, the only reason I’m really interested in going back is to try the chicken at dinner and the lunchtime burger — both of which Ruta excelled at going back to his days at Palena.
Note: I haven’t yet been to Joselito Casa de Comidas, The Salt Line, Whaley’s, Metier, Kobo at Sushiko, or Siren. Will update list, if necessary.