Ask most Washingtonians what words come to mind when they think of 1789 Restaurant and you hear things like, “Grande Dame,” “Power Dining,” and “THE place for Easter and Mother’s Day.” From the beginning, 1789 was meant to be a place revered for its traditions, the opulence of its food, the discretion of its waiters, and the romance of its dining room. The complex flavors and hearty dishes offer a gourmand mouthwatering choices, but we have a different approach to the menu. Revel in just three courses from the Second Course menu and you will experience chef Samuel Kim’s true genius. One test of the greatness of a chef is his or her ability to cook an egg correctly. Begin with the “Coddled Egg” and you will see greatness unfold before you. The sweetness of the golden yolk is complimented by the umami of the duxelles prepared with chanterelle, maitake, and oyster mushrooms, but it’s the spicy meatiness of the pork ‘Nduja sausage that is the dish’s star. Infused with the creamy flavor of the ink, the squid ink Tagliarini is laced with the sweetness of squid, calamari, and Maryland blue crab with a hint of jalapeño. Tossed with Meyer lemon confit and breadcrumbs, this is not your Nonna’s pasta: the spice of the chili and the tang of the lemon confit counterbalance the silky richness of the dish. The last dish is an homage to the beauty of rustic ingredients elevated by butter. The potato gnocchi are light and pillowy and soak up the aromas and savory flavors of the fried Burgundy snails, baby leeks, and smoked quail eggs. The beurre noisette is like the nightcap to a perfect meal and each dish is a vignette of the chef’s latest work of art.
Belgium is not a country many Americans are familiar with, and they definitely don’t see many restaurants featuring the native cuisine, but at Belga Café they make the exploring the menu worth the effort. What stands out here is the personal service combined with a homey atmosphere and a fabulous beer and wine selection served by knowledgeable professionals. Newbies should start with an order of garnaal beignets. They are light, crispy batter-fried shrimp served with a tomato mayonnaise; what’s not to like? Then move on to one of the great carnivore dishes: quintessential steak frites Belge. The tenderloin lives up to its name and is properly seasoned and cooked with a great crust, but the frites are true to form and quite a revelation. They are first properly blanched and then refried so the outer part of the potato is brown and crisp while the interior is meltingly soft and piping hot. Be sure to try the beer béarnaise with your steak. It is totally Belgian and should be generously slathered on your meat, eaten with a spoon, or dipped with bread. You choose. For a return to reality, we suggest you finish with a slightly bitter endive salad, and then enjoy a large glass of Trappist ale. Then you really will feel you are doing it Belgian style.
One part fresh fish market, one part incredible restaurant, BlackSalt is in the Palisades along a pretty forgettable stretch of MacArthur Boulevard. But what the street lacks in charm, the restaurant more than makes up for in style. This is a seafood lover’s paradise; a fact confirmed the moment you enter. Flanked by cases displaying fresh fish and other seafood, the restaurant’s entrance tells it all. The ambience is low key, the décor is modern, the service is attentive, and the food is dynamic and original — oh, and the wine list is one of the best in D.C. To get a sense of just how fresh their seafood is, order the fried Ipswich clams. Crisp, sweet, and tasting of the ocean, the clams are wonderful dipped in the madras curry aioli that comes with your order. Bi-valve fiends will kvell over the choices of mussels and oysters on the half shell, and you can splurge on more than 10 caviar offerings, including blini. For fish fans, the real finds are the Market Features and entrées. Don’t miss the tilefish on the Market Features menu. Yes, the potatoes and rock shrimp are tasty, but the smoked tomato butter paired with the tilefish is a combination you will want to place between bread for the best fish sandwich ever. However, leave room for the bouillabaisse, as it’s packed with scallops, shrimp, mussels, and monkfish, and will turn your head with its rich saffron broth.
Blue Duck Tavern is one of those places in D.C. you can always count on. They have incredible food, the wine list is world-class, and the service is impeccable. It’s the place you want to go for your engagement party or wine and dine an important client, and yet it never feels too formal. The menus change with the seasons and wine-centric service rules here, but without any snootiness. Executive chef Sebastien Archambault and his team construct their menus like architectural works of art. Each layer builds onto the next so the final work is structurally harmonious and unique. Take the scallop carpaccio; it’s a real showstopper that is a little sweet, a little salty, and yet is still rich from the creamy, buttery avocado. The final touch of acidity from citrus leaf is what keeps the scallops at the forefront of your memory. For a touch of satin earthiness, the smoked eggplant introduces a smoky Mediterranean influence that is complemented by the goat’s milk yogurt and cucumber tomato salad. Carb lovers will swoon over the large French fries cooked in duck fat and the creamy stone-ground grits with smoked Gouda. It’s low country with an Old World flavor profile.
Yes, of course, José Andrés understands the food of his native Spain, probably better than anyone in America, but he also understands food, period. Thus, it's not surprising that when he undertook the creation of a restaurant specializing in the cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean — specifically of Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon — he'd figure it out pretty quickly, and pretty well. In Zaytinya's airy, blue-haloed white-walled dining room, tables are crowded with hummus, taramosalata, tabouleh, Turkish flatbreads and stuffed grape leaves, lamb in myriad forms, octopus Santorini-style, grilled veal breast, grilled chicken skewers with sumac and onions, and a whole host of other savory delights.
Finding a restaurant whose food consistently lives up to its hype is rare, but that’s just one of the reasons Red Hen is exceptional; the other is location. Tucked in the popular neighborhood of Bloomingdale, the atmosphere is so welcoming you will want to make it your new regular hangout, especially after you taste the food, which is the real reason you will be going back repeatedly. Chef Michael Friedman spent years cooking and eating in places like Turkey, Italy, Greece, and North Africa and after tasting his tender, perfectly cooked grilled octopus, it’s clear he really took the Greek and Turkish cultures and cuisines to heart. The salt cod brandade is a creamy classic and Red Hen’s version is silky and gently kissed by sweet flavors of cod and chives. Addictive side dishes like the crispy fingerling potatoes with dill and anchovy aioli should come with a warning label, but the true gem worth waiting for is the black paccheri with calamari, chickpeas, and pea shoots. It is both a taste of Calabria and a sweet, savory, earthy harmony of flavors and textures.
With its luminous contemporary-style interior enhanced by vivid Indian art, and a varied menu that offers many familiar Indian flavors but avoids cliché, Rasika is one of the most appealing restaurants in our nation's capital. In addition to the expected tandoor oven, utilized for such dishes as swordfish tikka and tandoori salmon as well as more familiar offerings, the kitchen makes good use of a traditional tawa, or griddle, to produce delights like spiced potato and chickpea patties, shrimp-rice pancakes with tomato chutney, and griddled kidney beans with figs and vermicelli. Breads include mint paratha, truffle naan, and goat cheese kulcha, while the sigri (barbecue) preparations include fresh mango shrimp with cashews and ginger and paneer (cheese) brochettes with onions and peppers.
Surprise is the name of the game at Komi, an upscale, modern Greek restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle. James Beard Best Chef Mid-Atlantic 2013 winner chef Johnny Monis offers a tasting menu that changes regularly, but gives no clues as to what might be on it until diners arrive. A quick look at their website yields no clues either, although past dishes have included 100-layer beef tongue gyros, charred octopus with peaches, and goat wrapped in pita that earned rave reviews from Washingtonian Magazine and The Washington Post. If you like the idea of putting complete control of your dining experience in the hands of the chef — think Greek omakase — then you’ll like Komi.
Having just received its ninth consecutive prestigious AAA Five Diamond Award for 2014, CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is the place to go to celebrate or to see and be seen in D.C. Whether sitting with a view of the open kitchen, or next to the floor-to-ceiling windows dressed in rich, warm fabrics, diners will marvel at James Beard Award-winning chef Eric Ziebold’s talent as he serves up modern American cuisine with a sophisticated and creative touch. Maine lobster consommé with baby leeks à la grecque and lobster spaetzle, quail satay with persimmon marmalade and yuzu jam, and salt-baked Virginia beef with egg noodles and abalone mushrooms are among his many no-nonsense specialties.
A reservation at minibar can be very difficult to come by; you need to send them an email ahead of time and keep your fingers crossed. Diners perch at two counters overlooking the kitchen, which The Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema called "suggestive of an operating theater when you factor in the chefs in their whites, bending over dishes manipulated by tweezers, tongs, liquid nitrogen and cloches galore." Expect a "molecular gastronomy" experience filled with culinary hat tricks; think edible rubber duckies, popcorn that smokes in your mouth, and a churro made with veal tendon. Even with a price tag of $225 for 30 (mini) courses, it's a steal of a deal. The imaginative cuisine displayed at minibar scored chef José Andrés a 2011 James Beard Outstanding Chef Award. The adjoining barmini is Andrés’ “culinary cocktail lab” where more than 100 adventuresome cocktail creations adorn the menu and, according to Tom Sietsema, is “home to some of the most fascinating liquids this city has ever sipped.”