What I Did on My Sabbatical
I’m back. I didn’t know I was taking a blogging sabbatical but that’s how it worked out. Things just kept coming up — volunteering in Poland with World Central Kitchen, my son’s wedding, new episodes of Guy’s Grocery Games — that made it impossible for me to find time to write. Oh, and then I got Covid and lost my sense of taste for two weeks in July. That last bit was actually pretty scary. What if it never came back? How could I write about restaurants if I had no sense of taste? I know, many would say I’ve been doing that for years.
Anyway, what finally got me off the couch is something much more serious. Last week was a brutal one for the DC food scene with the announced closures of Magpie and The Tiger, Espita, Rappahannock Oyster Bar, Newland, and Number 1 Sons Pickles (and that follows the recent closure of places like Bad Saint and Max’s Deli). I didn’t see it coming. With the easing of Covid restrictions and the full bloom of outdoor dining, I thought the summer would feel less ominous. But the combination of labor shortages, rising costs, supply chain delays, and weaselly landlords apparently proved too much. I was shaken. I had to do something. It took me over twenty minutes of scrolling, but I must have posted at least a dozen sad, angry, and heart-hugging emojis on Facebook — including several particularly hard-hitting emoji combos. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe there was something more I could do. And then it occurred to me. I could get off my ass and tell the loyal readers of Rick Eats DC about some of the wonderful new/newish restaurants I’ve been to that they could support.
Martha Dear, 3110 Mt. Pleasant St NW, Washington DC (Mt. Pleasant)
My new favorite pizza in the DC area is at Martha Dear in Mt. Pleasant, displacing long-time champ Frankly…Pizza! (what is it with these odd pizza place names? I have dibs on Heathcliff, It’s Me, I’m Cathy). Martha Dear was opened in late 2020 by the husband-and-wife team of Demetri Mechelis and Tara Smith who met working at local gem Tail Up Goat. As you’ll see, I’m a sucker for couples who open restaurants. I find it crazily romantic. Or maybe just crazy and I’m romanticizing. Either way, I always root for them.
I like my pizzas smoky and crisp. Underside char is a must. Crust bubbles bordering on burnt is even better. Even when I specify that I want my pizza well-done most places rarely do it. Not at Martha Dear. I didn’t say anything and it came just as glorious as you see here. The sourdough crust, the spot-on bake, the simple, high quality toppings — it’s a home run. The Caesar salad is terrific as well, not your usual phone-it-in version, with a garden’s worth of radicchio and romaine tucked under a blanket of white anchovies, sourdough bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Ask for it lightly dressed if you’re not a dressing hound like me.
St. James – Modern Caribbean, 2017 14th St NW, Washington DC (near 14th and U)
One solo visit eating at the bar leaves a lot still to be explored at St. James, the new Caribbean restaurant opened by Jeanine Prime (who also owns Cane on H Street). I did have the jerk wings that Cane made famous and they didn’t disappoint — marinated for 12 hours and then smoked over pimento wood until the meat pulls easily from the bone. In about two minutes the plate here looked like the chicken-wing wing in the Paris Catacombs. Speaking of fall-off-the-bone, the oxtail is luscious and picks up extra flavor from a last-minute turn on the grill. My perch at the bar did give me a view of other dishes going by. Next time — writing them down here so I don’t forget — I have my eye on the Brown Stew Chicken, the Pepper Shrimp, the Pork Pow, and the Coo and Callaloo.
Anju, 1805 18th Street NW, Washington DC (Dupont Circle-North, if that’s a thing)
Anju isn’t really new (in 2020 it was Washingtonian’s #1 restaurant in all of DC) but it felt new to me. I was there when it first opened and liked but didn’t love it. Now I’m smitten. Chefs Danny Lee and Scott Drewno (whose Fried Rice Collective also owns the local ChiKo mini-chain) along with Executive Chef Angel Barreto have created a space that combines new and traditional Korean cooking in an irresistible package. The starters are uniformly excellent, including the craveable half fried-chicken with gochujang glaze and white bbq drizzle, the pork-kimchi dumplings, and the beef tartare with palm sugar and chili basil seeds that could only be improved by a better conveyance method than pretty-but-fragile lotus chips. The wok-fried rice with seafood is also excellent, particularly as the rice crisps in the hot-stone bowl. It’s the kind of Chinese-Korean fusion cooking that would make a great concept for a restaurant.
Thompson Italian, 124 N Washington St, Falls Church VA
Another husband-and-wife team, Gabe and Katherine Thompson, met while working at some of NYC’s top restaurant and decided to move to the DC area to be closer to family — and open this little Italian spot known for its house-made pastas.
Me sitting down: I’m just going to have the pasta with shrimp and the butter lettuce salad. Oh, and how about getting those fried artichokes with pecorino for the table? They’re amazing. And maybe some garlic bread. And will everyone have a bite of the stracciatella with heirloom tomatoes and the striped bass in saffron broth? Just save room for dessert. That’s critical. The olive oil cake is the absolute best.
Me running into someone on the street the next day: Thompson Italian is so great. Sometimes all you really want is a plate of pasta and a salad, you know?
Queen’s English, 3410 11th St NW, Washington DC (Park View/Columbia Heights)
Yet another husband and wife team that made the move to DC from NYC. Henji Cheung does the cooking and runs the kitchen. Sarah Thompson seems to do everything else (general manager, beverage director, decorator, deliverer of extra rice when she sees we’ve run out). Cheung’s food is personal and specific — you won’t find steak-frites or a burger — but that’s what makes it so fun to eat here. I’ve never had anything like this lobster egg custard with hirosaki turnip, thai basil, and lobster bottarga. And I would usually never order squab but took the recommendation of our waiter and was rewarded with this terrific five-spiced dry-aged squab with persimmon. While these dishes are both off the current menu, whatever strikes your fancy will be delicious. You can start with two delicious menu regulars — the Paddlefish Caviar with Scallion Pancakes and the Daikon Fritters — and go from there.
Moon Rabbit, 801 Wharf St SW, Washington DC (InterContinental Hotel at The Wharf)
I’d follow Chef Kevin Tien anywhere — and I have — from his start at Himitsu in Petworth, to his tumultuous tenure at Emilie’s on Capitol Hill, and now to Moon Rabbit in the Intercontinental Hotel at the Wharf in the space formerly occupied by Kwame Onwuachi’s Kith/Kin. What makes Tien so good? I’m not really sure but I want to eat anything Tien cooks. He has a knack for combining sweet, sour, spicy, crunchy, herbaceous, and acidic elements that to me are like the tumblers of a lock falling into place. Pictured here: Sugarcane Shrimp with Thai basil and garlic butter muoi ot xanh sauce, and Crawfish & Noodles with Temomi noodles, confit garlic, miso, crab fat liaison, and aromatic panko. By the way, “liaison” is a cooking term for combining eggs and cream to thicken a sauce that I would retire. I can only imagine how many young female chefs were subjected to a creepy explanation by an older male chef who would draw out the explanation until she assured him that she got it.
Causa/Bar Amazonia, 920 Blagden Alley, Washington DC (Convention Center)
Blagden Alley is one of my favorite places in DC. The Convention Center may only be a stone’s throw away, but walking down Blagden Alley always feels special. Not of this city or even of this era. It feels a bit dangerous in a Sweeney Todd sort of way, as if street urchins might suddenly materialize underfoot and grungy men in fingerless gloves were about to break out in song about picking a pocket or two (just some ideas if someone wants to arrange a flash mob for my next birthday).
Causa/Bar Amazonia is a new Peruvian spot in the Alley next to Tiger Fork. We ate at the casual/hip Bar Amazonia upstairs because Causa hadn’t yet launched in the downstairs space with its $85 per person tasting menu (it has now). Bar Amazonia itself has plenty to offer. There’s the cool bar/deck area with excellent cocktails that range from classics like Pisco Sours to unique drinks featuring ingredients from the Amazon. On the food side, be sure to get the Hearts of Palm Salad with avocado, tomato and passion fruit. Also good was the Madurito (plantains with air-dried beef, melted cheese, and peanuts, pictured above) and the Amazon “fruit salad” for dessert. Surprisingly, classic dishes like ceviche and Lomo Saltado (pictured above) were not as strong. I’m all for experimentation, but in what world are roasted potatoes an improvement on the traditional french fries? Here’s the Lomo Saltado at the wonderful Llama Inn in Brooklyn. I rest my case.
Melina, 905 Rose Ave, North Bethesda MD (Pike & Rose)
When Melina opened last year it immediately became contender for best restaurant in Montgomery County. That’s both a testament to Melina and a reflection on MoCo. But let’s focus on the positive. Melina is a modern, “vegetable-forward” Greek spot opened by the Cava folks in the Pike & Rose development (motto: “Pretending North Bethesda isn’t Rockville since 2014”). The carbs at Melina are stand-outs — the bread of the day (see pic above), the crispy potatoes, the sourdough pita that comes with the slow-roasted lamb’s neck. By the way, that lamb’s neck is a must-order. It comes not only with the terrific pita but other accouterments to make your own succulent gyros sandwiches like the one above.
Rania, 427 11th St NW, Washington DC (Federal Triangle)
The team behind Punjab Grill essentially rebranded and re-opened as Rania offering a prix-fixe menu (three courses for $75, four courses for $90). Some of the best dishes can be found in the opening course. There’s the Instagram-darling Shiso Leaf Chaat (above) which arrives looking like an outcropping of sea coral in a frothy white pool. But the real stars of the opening course are the Chicken Kofta Meatballs in truffle cream and the Shrimp Koliwada. Unlike other Indian restaurants, there are beef choices that show up in subsequent courses, like the Beef Short Ribs with saffron nihari above. For dessert, try one of the city’s best mango sorbets (you can eat around the fennel granita it comes with).
Patty O’s Cafe, 389 Main St, Washington VA
Patty O’s is the casual offspring of The Inn at Little Washington (which you can see in the background behind Sonia). Sit on the patio and tuck into a meticulous Greek salad, a good burger or chicken salad sandwich, and finish with the Inn’s famous butter pecan ice cream with caramel sauce. It’s the perfect lunch spot if you’re heading to the Shenandoahs to see the fall colors or girding yourself for the crowds at Luray Caverns. What’s my advice for those planning to spend 6-7 hours scaling Old Rag? I hear Kind Bars aren’t bad.
Bistro Provence, 4933 Fairmont Ave, Bethesda MD
I’m always surprised by the blank stares I get when I mention that Bistro Provence is one of the better restaurants in Bethesda. Bistro what? And it’s where? Mind you, many of these people frequent places like Medium Rare and Casa Oaxaca on the same block as Bistro Provence. What makes it even stranger is Yannick Cam is cooking at Bistro Provence. Yes, that Yannick Cam, the legendary chef of famed restaurants like Le Pavillon and Le Paradou. And he’s literally still cooking. Every time I’ve been to Bistro Provence, Chef Cam is there, buzzing about like a short-order cook in the tiny open kitchen, somehow turning out luxe dishes like Tomato Risotto with Saffron, Shrimp and Milk Foam and Duck Confit with potatoes (see above). And to top it off, Bistro Provence has the nicest garden patio in Bethesda.
So do yourself a favor and call for a reservation on a nice weeknight when things aren’t too busy (yes, you have to call; you can’t reserve online). Sit on the back patio. Order a bottle of wine. Have Yannick Cam cook for you. Order the tarte tatin for dessert. After dinner, take a stroll through Bethesda. Observe the middling food and the makeshift sidewalk eating areas. Calculate that whatever extra you spent for dinner you’ll more than make up for it in reduced therapy bills.
Rosemary Bistro Cafe, 5010 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC (Chevy Chase DC)
There’s a single block on upper Connecticut Ave that solves a very specific dilemma for those of us who live within a two-mile radius. It’s Friday night. You don’t feel like cooking or schlepping. Maybe you’re meeting another couple and you’d like to sit outside. And maybe someone in your group is a fussy eater. What to do? For many years, it felt like I had a single answer to that question: Buck’s Fishing and Camping. Then I’m Eddie Cano opened across the street and there was a second option. And now — on that very same block — Rosemary Bistro makes three. Start with good bread and solid bistro classics. Maybe call an audible by ordering a special that pays attention to the season like the well-crafted gazpacho or summer tomato salad. You’ll leave happy. I didn’t even mention the kicker. If you arrive early for your reservation, Politics and Prose, also on that block, is the best time-killer around.
Mercy Me, 1143 New Hampshire Ave NW, Washington DC (West End)
It’s only fitting to close with another husband-and-wife team. Andrew Dana and Daniela Moreira, founders of Call your Mother and Timber Pizza, opened this “Sorta South American hangout” in the Yours Truly Hotel. While the food at Mercy Me is good, it’s not really what sets it apart. Mercy Me is about the hang. As the Mercy Me website puts it, the restaurant is “the Dupont Circle neighborhood living room,” featuring a sprawling collection of big couches and comfy chairs in pods of various shapes and sizes radiating from a central bar. The back patio is more serene, with well-spaced tables and no visible foot or vehicular traffic to harsh the vibe. Go with a group after work for drinks and snacks. Or go off-hours when the place is empty and enjoy an amazing game of Floor Is Lava.
There are a bunch of other restaurants I want to try: Daru, Duck and Peach, Baan Siam, Wren, Ruthie’s All-Day, Destino, Green Almond Pantry, Michele’s, Hanumanh, Caruso’s Grocery, Chennai Hopper, Honeymoon Chicken, Roberto’s Ristorante Italiano, and Rumi’s Kitchen. Plus there are all the places in my regular rotation. It’s daunting. But last week was a grim reminder that restaurants are hurting and we may not know just how badly until it’s too late. We need to recognize that the crisis has morphed but is still very much with us. We need to support the restaurants we want to see survive. No excuses. Guy’s Grocery Games is on summer hiatus.
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