By Warren Rojas / Photography by Hana Jung, James Kim and Jonathan Timmes
A cavalcade of fresh faces, adventurous cuisines and awe-inspiring environs joins the ranks of our annual fine-dining round-up this year—bumping our epicurean who’s who to twice its original size (now boasting 50 unbeatable restaurants you don’t want to miss).
The competition was fierce. The evaluation process grueling (think back-to-back-to-back meals).
Along the way we got better acquainted with some of the area’s top toques. More importantly, we learned more about how you, our readers, make everyday dining decisions.
3101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-351-1004; www.settebellorestaurant.com
Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily; Sunday brunch.
$$ FOOD: 7.4 AMBIANCE: 7.1 SERVICE: 6.4
“This is actually my favorite table. You can see everything from here,” the manager shares as she slides us into one of the corner perches at the social hub that is Sette Bello—a hipster magnet powered by local dining impresario Franco Nuschese (the mastermind behind D.C.’s Café Milano and Sette Osteria).
Floor-to-ceiling windows ensure that those who come to be seen are—leaving passersby to gaze in longingly at the feasting and frivolity taking place within. Sunken sofas opposite the bar are ideal thrones for oversized personalities come to play. Elsewhere, curvy booths hugging a far wall in the main dining room provide a hint of privacy for more bashful guests.
Bruschetta can be crowned with everything from fresh ricotta (creamtacular) to an exhilarating prosciutto-fig jam duet (cured ham and spicy preserves absolutely sing). Grilled octopus (their tiny bodies infused with smoke) and tender coils of scorched calamari turn seafood salad into a star attraction. Cream-soaked shells play host to savory ground pork (awash in caraway and pepper) and meaty sauteed mushrooms.
Highs: Quattro formaggi pie
Lows: disappearing servers
Share: fettucine alla boscaiola
Savor: Borlotti-stocked pasta e fagioli
5700 Columbia Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-2870; www.meazaethiopiancuisine.com
Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily.
$ FOOD: 7.0 AMBIANCE: 6.7 SERVICE: 5.8
Granted, raw beef and exotic spices may not be for everyone. But those who treasure the allure of warm dough, chilled meats and fiery sauces never need fear walking away from Meaza unsatisfied.
Injera queen Meaza Zemedu decided to consolidate her local power base—until recently, she had been supplying many local Ethiopian restaurants with their porous, utilitarian bread—by opening her eponymous cafe and market.
Inside, sand-colored walls and plaid-upholstered chairs suggest calm, while detailed portraits of revered Ethiopian leaders cast on stretched animal skins are equally patriotic and provocative.
The menu features mostly beef and lamb preparations, with a few safety dishes (spaghetti, mixed proteins and rice) thrown in for good measure.
Fit-fit (diced tenderloin) is sauteedwith hot peppers, tomatoes, onions and torn injera, until everything is coated in fiery berbere paste. Doro wot yields more adrenaline-producing fare—“This is really, really good,” one guest sputtered as I watched beads of sweat collect across his brow—tempered by stewed chicken legs and preserved eggs (potent stuff).
Highs: doro wot
Lows: generic desserts
Share: lamb short ribs
Savor: special kitfo
1250 S. Hayes St., Arlington; 703-412-2760; www.ritzcarlton.com
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, Sunday brunch.
$$$ FOOD: 8.1 AMBIANCE: 7.9 SERVICE: 8.4
The student is indeed becoming a master over at fyve, as Roberto Donna protege Amy Brandwein (for a mini-profile, see pg. 62) carves out a place for herself among the area’s marquee chefs with a bold Mediterranean vision.
The reconditioned property (Brandwein was brought in to revamp the Ritz-Carlton’s sputtering Grille concept) mostly services business travelers, but appears to be making inroads with nostalgic locals as well.
During one visit, confirmed regulars didn’t just greet their waiter, they celebrated his arrival—“Maurice! How are you?” the pair gushed upon spotting a familiar server—and then quickly begin comparing notes about the new restaurant (they were both impressed).
Grilled octopus tastes of sea and smoke, while cherry tomatoes supply tart freshness. A signature salmon dish summons roast fish (anise and cinnamon shine through) parked atop a checkerboard of black and white lentils (pretty, but otherwise bland). Pasta with pancetta, mushrooms and sweetbreads comes two-thirds of the way through (broad noodles fold over on themselves, creating jolly pockets of pancetta au jus; ill-prepared sweetbreads elicit doughy nothingness).
Highs: fontina-stuffed rabbit
Lows: over-hyped spaghetti squash gratin
Share: broccoli-sausage orechiette
Savor: lemon chicken
24995 Riding Plaza, #120, South Riding; 703-957-4900; www.rangolirestaurant.us
Open for lunch and dinner daily.
$$ FOOD: 7.1 AMBIANCE: 7.4 SERVICE: 7.2
Rangoli general manager Sam Santosh can’t seem to get in a word edgewise.
He’s trying desperately to steer a pair of regulars towards unexplored dishes, but the woman simply won’t stop gushing about her go-to favorites.
“I love all the different flavors,” the loyal patron exclaims. “That’s why we keep coming back.”
Repeat business is a nice problem to have—and it’s one that the entire Rangoli staff seems to wholeheartedly welcome regularly.
Fresh-baked naan is delivered to every table until patrons say halt. Golden cubes of homemade cheese are sauteed with peppers and onions for a fiery vegetarian fix. Tandoori salmon is flavor simplified, delivering a mouthwatering filet of yogurt-bathed fish. Hot pepper-rubbed chicken (hirayali kebab) brings white-meat chicken stained green with mint and cilantro (fragrant and hot).
Highs: robust vegetarian curries
Lows: excessively fatty lamb chops
Share: homemade paneer
Savor: Tandoori salmon
911 King St., Alexandria; 703-837-9117; www.majesticcafe.com
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, dinner daily.
$$ FOOD: 8.3 AMBIANCE: 7.6 SERVICE: 7.4
On any given night, the Majestic’s mod dining room is packed with multi-generational families, relaxing boomers and, increasingly, youngish chowhounds—no doubt training their palates for meals to come at elder statesman, Restaurant Eve.
Executive chef Shannon Overmiller (for a mini-profile, see pg. 78) and her team adhere to the same strict standards as Eve, albeit in a much looser setting (think T-shirts and jeans, but fine-dining protocol).
The addition of “the royal pick” lunch special (any menu item and soda for $12, bar only) is a terrific loyalty-builder. And in a move I hope to see replicated everywhere, staff have abandoned the high-end hydration push, offering ice water as the first best option above bottled fare.
Fried green tomatoes streaked with goat cheese and nestled atop savory tomato jam and sweet corn relish signal the best of summer. The house chicken scores big with a roast breast (rife with butter, herbs and lemon) and comfit leg duo, but dry-ish potatoes disappoint. Caramelized key lime pie sports a lime-spiked center and cracker-y crust.
Highs: from-scratch cocktails
Lows: watery milkshakes
Share: triple-layer cake of the day
Savor: Chesapeake-style stew
42461 Lovettsville Road, Lovettsville; 540-822-9017; www.patowmackfarm.com
Open for dinner, Thursday through Saturday; weekend brunch.
$$$ FOOD: 8.8 AMBIANCE: 8.8 SERVICE: 8.6
One night, the tranquility of Patowmack Farm’s au naturale dining room was shattered by the conspiratorial chatter of guilt-ridden patrons determined to keep their unscheduled visit from a forgotten friend.
“I don’t think we should tell her we came here today,” one woman suggested.
Sorry, ladies. The secret’s out.
Culinary purist Christian Evans (for a mini-profile, see pg. 69) keeps pushing the envelope of the farm-to-fork movement with each passing harvest, conducting local cheeses, humanely raised proteins and just-plucked vegetables into a symphony of natural delights.
Mixed greens are enlivened by blueberry vinaigrette and cheery marigolds. Luscious veal shares the spotlight with herb-roasted potatoes and wild mushrooms (big flavors, all around). An espresso cake—forged from handcrafted ingredients supplied by a local chocolatier—arrives bathed in blueberry compote (syrupy pods burst with flavor), crème anglaise and cinnamon crumbs (irresistibly rich).
Highs: farm-fresh everything
Lows: bungled drink orders
Share: herb-laced breads
Savor: seared veal loin
3998 Jefferson Davis Highway, Stafford; 703-221-4635; www.zumrheingarten.com
Open for dinner, Wednesday through Sunday.
$$$ FOOD: 6.9 AMBIANCE: 7.3 SERVICE: 6.6
Visit Stafford hideaway, Zum Rheingarten, more than once, and you’ll no doubt start to spot familiar faces.
And I’m not just talking about caretakers Jannec and Katherine Hornig (he’s the executive chef; she’s the general manager). It’s the recidivist families that seem content to spend every weekend feasting within the same four walls.
And who can blame them?
A creamy brew of tender potatoes and salty kielbasa is guaranteed to ward off any winter chill. Jumbo bratwurst summons a savory-sweet link of homemade sausage that makes American dogs seem toothless. Pork Wellington yields ham-wrapped tenderloin baked within phyllo (succulent meat, flaky dough) and accompanied by bacon-topped mashed potatoes (three shades of swine = one happy camper).
Highs: tall mugs of Spaten Optimator
Lows: fighting Route 1 traffic
Share: Rheingarten kaseplatte
Savor: wiener schnitzel a la Holstein
The Dock at Lansdowne
19286 Promenade Drive, #P-101, Leesburg; 571-333-4747; www.thedockatlansdowne.com
Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily, Sunday brunch.
$$ FOOD: 7.0 AMBIANCE: 7.1 SERVICE: 6.9
A welcome port for post-work revelers, The Dock appears to be a hands-down favorite among Lansdowne residents.
The restaurant originally built up a loyal following with its happy-hour specials (discount snacks, cut-rate martinis) and has since solidified its base with rotating nightly specials (pasta, prime rib, lobster).
Perhaps more importantly, staff stays alert when menu items seem to falter—as was the case when one server instinctively struck a half-eaten bisque from our bill “because it didn’t seem like it was up to par” (my guest later confided that it was a tad cold).
Fried shrimp arrive drizzled in tangy-fresh chili-lime sauce. Homemade crab cakes taste of jumbo lump, eggs and a touch of baked cheese (quite tasty). Grilled pork chops, on the other hand, are big, but terribly plain.
Highs: catching the early-bird specials
Lows: too few barstools
Share: fried buttermilk shrimp
Savor: hickory-grilled salmon
The Grille at Morrison House
116 S. Alfred St., Alexandria; 703-838-8000; www.morrisonhouse.com
Open for breakfast and dinner daily, Sunday brunch.
$$$$ FOOD: 8.9 AMBIANCE: 8 SERVICE: 8.4
Rather than divorcing the two, executive chef Dennis Marron seems determined to mix business with pleasure—tempting Morrison House’s globe-trotting clientele with his epicurean artistry.
Hidden within a boutique hotel, the Grille pulls no punches on pricing (expense accounts help). Still, the menu has enough built-in flexibility—including three-, five- or six-course tasting menus (wine pairings are $20, $30 or $40, respectively), a la carte options and bistro nibbles (truffled fries)—to accommodate curious locals.
A shrimp-salad teaser delivered even shots of sweet meat and fresh dill. Pork cheeks are showered in sweet thanks to a brown-sugar braising and caramelized shallots (sublime). Scallop range from raw (lemon-spritzed crudo) to ravishing (flash seared and enveloped in bacon foam) in four delicious bites. A bison tutorial summons grilled loin meat flanked by smoky homemade sauce and a tartare burger that mimics traditional barbecue (pristine buffalo pulls off a great pulled-pork impression).
Highs: braised pork cheeks
Lows: gummy catfish in muddled gumbo sauce
Share: ingenious dessert medleys
Savor: scallops progression
200 Lafayette Blvd., Fredericksburg; 540-371-7080; www.claibornesrestaurant.com
Open for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.
SSS FOOD: 7.3 AMBIANCE: 7.6 SERVICE: 7.4
“I’m not much of a wine connoisseur,” my obviously green server informs me when I fish for suggestions from Claiborne’s fairly straightforward wine list.
Nothing a few samples of primo wine can’t solve.
Things get somewhat testier another night when I catch a server and her customers commiserating about the dreadfully slow pacing of the meal (“We’re ready for our entrees now,” the couple states. “So am I,” fires back the clearly frustrated/embarrassed server).
Still, Claiborne’s keeps chugging along.
Fried oysters are exalted by zesty green goddess sauce (excellent herbiness). A mixed-seafood grill weaves together crab cake (lemony meat), sauteed shrimp (buttery) and broiled haddock with wild rice and pungent collard greens. Prime rib arrives awash in salty au jus, but devoid of the promised horseradish.
Highs: mid-summer meal on the patio
Lows: bold-faced nametags have got to go
Share: fried oysters
Savor: single-malt scotch selection
2919 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-521-4070; www.bangkok54restaurant.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily.
$ FOOD: 6.5 AMBIANCE: 6.9 SERVICE: 6.6
Stylish seats and pulse-racing eats are hallmarks at Bangkok 54, a hipster noodle house specializing in tongue-teasing Thai cooking.
Staff looks sharp from season to season (sporting pastel golf shirts in warmer weather, stark black button-ups and vibrant ties during colder months) in an effort to match the trendy decor within (fashionable cushions, overhead spotlights).
Monthly jazz sessions and a sleek bar setup help ensure that even the most timid of diners can enjoy a lengthy visit.
Meanwhile, the tantalizing cooking keeps spice-seeking locals from having to wander too far from home to get their fiery fix.
Breaded catfish tossed with fresh basil, baby corn, hot peppers and eggplant arrives steeped in blistering curry (phenomenally spicy). Batter-fried duck receives the four-alarm treatment courtesy of fresh chili peppers and ample garlic. Slow-roasted pork shows its sweet side beneath a layer of Chinese five-spice, delivering fragrant nuggets of clove, cinnamon and pepper-streaked meat (well-structured dish).
High: special duck roll
Low: deficit of sake-loving companions
Share: chili-soaked larb
Savor: crispy pork belly
1905 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-548-2592; www.lastrada-ontheave.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner daily, weekend brunch.
$$ FOOD: 8.1 AMBIANCE: 7.4 SERVICE: 7.1
The space is so small and the business so new, that the waiter thrusts out his hand and offers a booming, “So nice to see you again,” the minute I walk through the front door.
Truth is, I’m just as happy to be back at La Strada—an encore performance for chef/owner Stephen Scott in the neighborhood Italian category (Argia’s was his most recent community dining venture) that’s taken root amongst a revitalized Del Ray.
The quaint establishment boasts a patio and just over a dozen cozy tables sprinkled about the main dining room.
Daily specials often include intimate touches like garden-fresh tomatoes (grown out back) and homemade mozzarella.
An all-encompassing fritto misto turns up deep-fried squid, octopus and even lemons, all liberally sea salted (adds both crunch and zip). Crusty, cubed bread serves as the high-fiber foundation of a salad replete with seared scallops, vinegar-soaked peppers (hot and sweet), red onions, diced tomatoes and capers. Saltimbocca yields veal cutlets wrapped in baked prosciutto, all submerged in puddles of sage, butter and white wine (bellissimo!).
Highs: homegrown tomatoes
Lows: over-mushroomed pasta
Share: panzanella salad
Savor: spicy sausage penne
4000 S. 28th St., Arlington (S); 703-931-0777; www.greatamericanrestaurants.com
Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily, weekend brunch.
$$ FOOD: 8 AMBIANCE: 7.6 SERVICE: 7.8
Shortly after an ordering snafu at Carlyle caused some nearby patrons to receive their entrees ahead of a planned appetizer, an apologetic manager swooped in with the comped snack in hand and a chorus of mea culpas.
“We’ll try harder next time, I promise,” he pledged. And that is what’s known around these parts as “GAR star” service.
Local diners have come to expect a lot from the GAR family of restaurants, and most staffers seem all but too happy to live up to the well-deserved hype. One overachiever ticked off his specials with ease, breezily segued into a mini-profile of new daily wine deals (much appreciated), provided regular status reports and checked back like clockwork.
Batter-fried shrimp join diced papaya (mostly sweet), sliced peppers and seasoned noodles in a flashy Asian salad. Lean hanger steak can’t quite hang with other local beef barons, but a side of deep-fried mashed-potato rolls interlaced with pungent blue cheese goes a long way to filling in the cracks. Grilled halibut sizzles astride andouille and crawfish succotash.
Highs: sun-drenched meals on the patio
Lows: staggering beer markups
Share: Tex-Mex eggrolls
Savor: roast chicken in brown butter
110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria; 703-706-0450; www.restauranteve.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner, Monday through Saturday.
$$$$ FOOD: 9.2 AMBIANCE: 9.2 SERVICE: 9.2
Restaurant Eve’s official motto is “nourish the palate.”
But the one-dimensional slogan fails to capture the truly restorative nature of a dining experience predicated upon artfully crafted food, unabashedly attentive servers and the lavish little details that make Eve a cherished epicurean paradise.
Chef/owner Cathal Armstrong (for a mini-profile, see pg. 49) has collected enough awards and neighboring properties to warrant the by-BlackBerry-only management style adopted by other celebrity chefs.
Yet there he is in the Eve kitchen, coming in early to inspect the latest haul from the local farmers’ market and staying late to make sure even night owls have a shot at sampling his next great creation.
Chicken-confit salad spreads luxe bird (crackling, brown skin, glistening meat) across mixed greens and julienne tomatoes, tossed with a tomato-basil vinaigrette that’s all acid and flash (glorious). Poached fluke (clean, uncomplicated fish) provides the perfect foil for a cushion of buttery corn veloute and crunchy green beans. Au jus-soaked lamb steak reigns supreme over a landscape of tiny potatoes, caramelized onions and spicy, split sausage.
Highs: lobster garganelli
Lows: gift-free dinners (no amuse or sweets?)
Share: blocks of garrotxa and cashel blue
Savor: lamb steak with merguez
203 Harrison St. S.E., Leesburg; 703-771-9300; www.tuskies.com
Open for lunch and dinner, daily, late-night dining, Monday through Saturday.
$$$ FOOD: 7.2 AMBIANCE: 7.0 SERVICE: 7.1
Most nights, Tuskie’s plays home to local retirees and distinguished professionals looking to mix business with pleasure. But thanks to executive chef Patrick Dinh, the menu remains more daring than mere status quo cooking.
Extended families and casual diners usually lay claim to the mill’s maze of dining rooms. While budding beer connoisseurs seem most content in the laid-back lounge (nearly two dozen handcrafted brews on tap).
Dinh appears to draw inspiration from around the globe, rolling out ambitious daily specials that make the whiffs more painfully obvious.
Fried oysters fizzle beneath a timid sauce that lacks the promised curry punch (much more sweet than savory). Seared scallops fare much better atop a sweet pepper couscous littered with feta, black olives and capers (entrancing). Smoked pork shines beneath a saucy ancho chile glaze.
Highs: adventurous daily specials
Lows: epicurean mismatches
Share: basmati-crusted scallops
Savor: salmon club
827 Slaters Lane, Alexandria; 703-224-5051; www.rusticorestaurant.com
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday, dinner daily.
$$ FOOD: 8.3 AMBIANCE: 7.8 SERVICE: 7.3
Rustico is raising the bar on everyday beer havens by weaving handcrafted brews, superlative mains and whimsical sweets into a fresh interpretation of fine dining.
Executive chef Frank Morales and beer director Greg Engert are the team to beat in the beer-as-gourmet-dining-bait universe, completing each other’s epicurean sentences—when Morales unveils a crushed ginger snap-crusted foie gras, Engert counters with the perfect Scotch ale—without so much as a stutter. Their passions run so high (Engert has an Orvist Trappist emblem tattooed on his wrist; Morales fought to keep his chef’s tasting bar because “it’s the most logical way for me to get out to talk about the food”), it’s no wonder the pair have been tapped to recreate their magic at D.C.’s forthcoming Birch & Barley/ChurchKey.
Seafood pizza boasts plucky shrimp, diced tomatoes, fontina and a chewy, wood-fired crust. Fried chicken (think ethereal crispiness rather than deliberate crunch) is drizzled with honey and partnered with whip-smart salt-and-peppered beans. A slice of devil’s food is as heavy as Lucifer’s soul, but a clever buttermilk chaser cuts through the sugary decadence.
Highs: grilled watermelon salad
Lows: nearly 400 beers = mucho cab fare
Share: fruity brew pops
Savor: anything short ribs
Menu: 7 courses
Scene: snazzy bar stools peering right into the main kitchen
Cost: $98 pp (includes beer pairings)
Reserve: 48 hours in advance
Mulitple NoVa locations; www.lebanesetaverna.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily.
$$ FOOD: 6.8 AMBIANCE: 6.8 SERVICE: 6.2
With a half-dozen area restaurants now under their belt, it should be safe to crown the Abi-Najm clan as the heavyweight champs of modern mezze.
Although each Lebanese Taverna shop fosters a different look and feel than its siblings—the original Arlington location is all etched glass and historical snapshots, whereas Tysons II showcases faux stone walls and twinkling lanterns—the near-uniform menu allows longstanding Taverna devotees to feast on all their favorites no matter where they might go.
Spice-infused feta (bold cheese gets kicked up a few notches by mint, paprika and black pepper) lights a fire in your belly. Seared lamb is accompanied by a mint-cilantro paste (warm meat, herby coolness work well together) and roast potato spears. Piles of shaved beef take comfort in the company of basmati rice, tahini and garlic puree.
Highs: happening happy-hour crowd
Lows: curt servers
Share: beef shawarma
428 Maple Ave. E., Vienna; 703-281-7550; www.ristorantebonaroti.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily.
$$$ FOOD: 7.9 AMBIANCE: 7.8 SERVICE: 8.2
Though dressed to the nines in a neatly pressed tuxedo, it’s obvious the waiter is up for some mischief. “Can I complicate things a little?” he coyly inquires before filling our heads with a litany of off-the-menu temptations that spin simple decision-making right out the door.
Welcome to another evening at Ristorante Bonaroti—a fine-dining paradise cum hell for the indecisive.
Each day, the kitchen trots out nearly a dozen rotating appetizer, soup, salad, pasta, fish and meat specials (lots of lobster, monkfish, veal and lamb in play here).
Mozzarella-filled zucchini are fried to a crisp and drizzled with mushroom ragout. Roast rockfish draws strength from zesty peppers and creamy polenta. Mouthwatering veal cutlets are filled with ground veal and mozzarella, rolled up on themselves and smothered in a captivating wine sauce.
Da Domenico/ Zeffirelli
Multiple NoVa locations; www.zeffirelliristorante.com
Check locations for times.
$$ FOOD: 7.5 AMBIANCE: 7.0 SERVICE: 7.5
Not to make sweeping generalizations, but Da Domenico and Zeffirelli are more than simpatico establishments that happened to join forces.
They are actually mirror images of one another—at least when viewed through the prism of unparalled veal-chop appreciation.
To be perfectly fair, each of the restaurants beneath the Zeffirelli umbrella harbors its own unique charms (Tysons does veal and pork justice; Herndon fields better seafood specials) and built-in clienteles. But after making the rounds, it became clear that collectively comparing them as components of a much larger whole made more sense than parsing them separately.
A salad of shaved fennel (mellow, but refreshing), walnuts and goat cheese decorated with pesto dots provides a welcome change from your average mixed/bitter greens fare. The signature veal chop reveals a three-fingers stack of red wine-soaked meat that readily melts across the tongue (potent wine-pepper blend impregnates the tender flesh). Shrimp- and calamari-filled ravioli bathed in lobster cream sauce are a seafood symphony, bar none.
Highs: veal-chop special
Lows: parking shortage at Da Domenico
Share: whopping antipasti plate
Savor: ravioli alla Genovese
4121 Hummer Road, Annandale; 703-914-4646; www.yechonrestaurant.com
Open 24 hours.
$$ FOOD: 6.6 AMBIANCE: 6.0 SERVICE: 6.0
Some might dismiss the string of neon orange and green lights outside Yechon as so much window dressing. But to ethnic-dining scouts and ravenous night owls, that same pastel glow serves as a beacon for those in search of sustenance during the witching hours.
The all-night venue specializes in Korean barbecue (typically prepared on tabletop grills) and Japanese sushi (hand rolled by dedicated personnel). Crowds tend to skew majority Asian, but the ranks of in-the-know Westerners seem to be growing daily—with good reason.
A scathing codfish-and-tofu soup sweats the toxins right out of you. Short ribs arrive lacquered in a fiery marinade (fresh pepper flakes cling to the grill-marked flesh). A mammoth seafood omelet envelops shrimp, fresh octopus and whole scallions in a crispy shell.
Highs: scoring a hot meal at 3 a.m.
Lows: being snubbed by grumpy servers
Share: bul gogi
Savor: seafood-laden hot pots
112 King St., Alexandria; 703-739-1124; www.danieloconnells.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily, weekend brunch.
$$$ FOOD: 7.7 AMBIANCE: 7.6 SERVICE: 6.9
Though not yet a threat to that other Irish food-slinger further up King, Daniel O’Connell’s has certainly made great strides towards solidifying itself as a respectable dining spot in just a few short years.
The popular gathering place continues to draw its share of jersey-clad expats who’ve come to catch the latest futbol matches. But local professionals are just as likely to conduct unofficial business meetings over proper Guinness pints.
Though owner Mark Kirwan can claim credit for the authentic Irish feel of the place, the contemporary cuisine being spun out of the kitchen is all courtesy of executive chef Colin Abernethy.
Pancetta-wrapped tuna is peppered on top, Italian baconed in the middle and mushroom hashed at its base (each tier more delicious than the last). Pulled pheasant is tossed with candied nuts, goat cheese and dried fruits, and then anointed in bacon-molasses vinaigrette. Pepper-rubbed pork loin joins bonus pulled pork atop buttery wild rice (salt, pepper, fat; this dish has it all).
Highs: pheasant salad
Lows: dry coffeecake
Share: Guinness short ribs
Savor: peppered pork loin
600 Franklin St., Alexandria; 703-778-2233; www.farraholiviarestaurant.com
Open for dinner daily and weekend brunch.
$$$ FOOD: 9.1 AMBIANCE: 8.6 SERVICE: 8.5
“No, you order something different so the table gets a little bit of everything,” the woman chided a companion who even dared consider denying everyone at their table the opportunity to eat their way around the Farrah Olivia menu by duplicating a fellow hospitality professional’s meal request.
Carefully choreographed dining assignments? Sounds like these folks can’t bear to miss a single morsel that might spring from the mind of the mad genius better known as chef/owner Morou Ouattara.
Though still in its infancy, Ouattara’s Alexandria restaurant has spawned legions of devoted followers anxious to explore his seasonal creations and West African accents.
A chilled watermelon-ginger-lemongrass shooter touches off a series of fireworks across the palate. Twin towers of beef tartare are bridged by micro greens-covered toast points and accompanied by pulverized cream cheese, a faux egg yolk (golden coin bleeds mustard sauce), pickled piquillo peppers (sweet) and a streak of berbere oil (savory runway). Orange-infused salmon (enticing skin) float atop shrimp-tinged yucca couscous, while a chilling mint-pea sauce waits in the wings (gorgeous dish).
Highs: wonton-wrapped organic greens
Lows: shoddily attired servers (stained shirts, missing buttons)
Share: ginger cheesecake
Savor: Manhattan chowder with parsley crumbles
523 Maple Ave. W., Vienna; 703-938-8948
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.
$$ FOOD: 7.6 AMBIANCE: 7.4 SERVICE: 7.2
After over three decades in the hospitality game, you might imagine restaurateur Nizam Orguz might be ready to slow down a bit.
The always presentable Orguz greets every guest as they cross the threshold into his eponymous Vienna restaurant. And most long-time patrons refuse to leave without a least shaking Orguz’s hand, if not affectionately embracing the well-known host.
The venerable Turk has fostered a loyal following by keeping things intimate (main dining room accommodates maybe a dozen tables), while serving up unabashedly Mediterranean cuisine.
Paprika-sprinkled cheese is melted for easy scooping with toasted pitas. Rotisserie beef is sauteed with pitas and yogurt sauce, then topped with a blistered hot pepper. Seafood casserole layers red snapper, spinach, onions and cream beneath a canopy of au gratin (delicious).
Highs: greeting/farewell from owner Nizam Orguz
Lows: dodging kitchen staff to reach the restroom
Share: kasar sahanda
Savor: red snapper a la Bosphorus
1141 Walker Road, Great Falls; 703-759-4150; www.serbiancrown.com
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.
$$$ FOOD: 7.4 AMBIANCE: 7.5 SERVICE: 7.1
Showmanship remains the Serbian Crown’s saving grace, a bastion of continental cuisine and exotic game.
Proprietor Rene Bertagna remains intimately connected to his restaurant, greeting guests with a welcoming smile and playful entreaties to become better versed in the pleasures of chilled vodka (the bar stocks a dizzying array of top-shelf spirits).
Reduced traffic seems to have force staff reductions at lunch, an ill-advised move given the need for expediency if one wishes to take full advantage of the three- and four-course prix-fixe deals ($19.95 and $29.95, respectively; feature many of their greatest hits, including zesty cevapcici, tasty zakuska, stuffed cabbage and wild boar).
Eastern-European staples (chicken kiev) and gourmet meats (antelope, rabbit) work best, as these dishes allow the kitchen to show off a bit.
Roast swordfish is enveloped in butter and lemony béarnaise. Veal scallopine is better, delivering tender filets drenched in sour cream and mushrooms.
Highs: spicy kick of a Moscow mule
Lows: mushy avocado dishes
Savor: wild boar
2250-B Crystal Drive, Arlington; 703-412-5077; www.bebotrattoria.com
Open for lunch, Monday through Saturday, dinner daily.
$$ FOOD: 7.5 AMBIANCE: 7.4 SERVICE: 6.4
Perhaps now more comfortable in his Crystal City skin, Roberto Donna seems to have tamed problem child Bebo Trattoria—tweaking his menu too play up his newfound pizza-making passion and plugging nagging service gaps.
Hostesses acknowledge and seat guests (gasp!) right as they arrive. Ordered meals actually reach the table (hallelujah!). Things take a turn back toward the embarrassing when a companion points out a slick of mystery substance coating our just dispensed ice water (waiter offers no explanation, just whisks the offensive liquid away and returns with plain H2O).
The menu seems just as revitalized, thanks to some clever wine and pizza deals—Barbera with broccoli rabe, merlot and margherita, nebbiolo with prosciutto—one server cited as part of a new push to educate locals about commonsense wine pairings.
A coil of homemade sausage swathed in salsa verde (basil, oregano dominate) satisfies. A sunny egg crowns a yeasty pie padded with buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil (busted yolk is ideal for crust dipping). Anchovy-topped veal soaks up the love of zesty tomato ragout.
Highs: myriad wood-fired pizzas
Lows: blasé house meatballs
Share: homemade lardo plate
Savor: fettucine bolognese