June 23, 2024

Best restaurants in the D.C. area: Tom Sietsema’s favorites in November 2022


Diners in and around Washington have much to be grateful for this season: a German-inspired dining (and drinking) destination, an exciting new Chinese restaurant from one of the region’s best chefs, and an expanded interior — and menu — at a popular Italian outpost.

Tom Sietsema’s 2022 Fall Dining Guide

For sure, it tastes as if Christmas came early for food lovers. Check out these gifts:

Approaching the new Garten in Severna Park, a patron can see how owners Jeremy and Michelle Hoffman were captivated by the acre or so of property in Anne Arundel County when it became available. The combination of a plot of wildflowers and the good bones left behind by Cafe Bretton charm the senses, and the couple, who also own Preserve in Annapolis, have only enhanced the grounds, which now include a beehive and a shop devoted to natural wines.

As the name suggests, the restaurant, which opens with a patio and comes with two fireplaces inside, is German. Contentment comes by way of a couple of grilled sausages, maybe bratwurst and knackwurst courtesy of Binkert’s in Baltimore, flanked with braised red cabbage that balances tang and sweetness.

But start with a dip: dilly smoked salmon shot through with capers or spinach that’s threaded with sauerkraut and accompanied by warm pretzel rolls. The sleeper on the list is a warm brie sandwich, sweetened with figs and crisped with apple, recommended by one of the most attentive servers in recent memory, former government contractor and real estate agent Steve Case. The miss is a pot pie composed of chicken, corn and enough salt to qualify as a promotion by Morton’s.

The kitchen, led by chef de cuisine Greg Anderson, reveals a playful side with its sauces. Dutch lebneh is rich with cream cheese and potent with garlic. “Campfire” sauce pays respects to the Red Robin burger chain, says Jeremy Hoffman of the condiment whipped up from barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, liquid smoke and chipotle — in your face and direct as “Yellowstone’s” Beth Dutton.

Bees, a passion of Michelle Hoffman’s, insinuate themselves outside, where they’re painted on Garten’s handsome facade, and in the glass. It’s smiles all around at the sight of the Tipsy Winnie: gin, cava, Meyer lemon and honey sipped from a Pooh-shaped jar.

849 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd., Severna Park, Md. 443-261-3905. garten-eats.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Sandwiches and platters $14 to $27.

No one goes to this south Indian outpost in Northern Virginia for the attention or the ambiance. Honestly, I’ve had sunnier service encounters at the DMV, and the sole splash of color in the square, low-ceilinged dining room is a screen above the counter displaying photos of meatless dishes.

Give it a whirl anyway. Amma Vegetarian Kitchen is all about the food — crepelike dosas, made from a batter of fermented rice and lentils, and pancake-esque uttapam — whose taste testers include the mother of owner Saku Nair. Amma translates from Malayalam, the official language of the state of Kerala in India, as “mother,” he says. “Mother is where everything starts.” For quality control, Nair says, he brings dishes to his own amma, 87-year-old Rajamma Devakiamma, for her input, although he’s quick to credit his wife, Sridevi Nair, as “an excellent cook, too.”

You can roam in many directions on the menu. My routine is the Amma feast, which lives up to its description and is priced to please at $13. Picture warm-spiced chickpeas, cooling raita, the lentil stew sambar and the coconut-refreshed vegetable medley known as aviyal — everything partnered with steamed rice and breads including chapati and papadum. The spread also includes rasam, tomato soup ignited with black pepper and tangy with tamarind, and a little cup of semiya payasam, a loose pudding flavored with cardamom and threaded with vermicelli.

If I’m not getting the feast, I’m requesting uttapam, crisped on the griddle and best laced with onions and chiles, or one of the many dosas, maybe a golden scroll with a filling of potato, onion and green peas, the owner’s favorite. (Ask for “extra crispy” dosa, achieved by leaving the crepe on the griddle longer and brushing it with ghee.) There’s no dishwashing machine at the restaurant, so everything is served in paper or plastic on trays. The food, and environment, deserve better.

The flavors might inspire you to cook Indian at home. Nair has you covered. Aditi Spice Depot, the restaurateur’s supermarket, beckons from across the street.

344 Maple Ave. E., Vienna, Va. 703-938-5328. ammavegetariankitchen.com. Open for indoor dining, delivery and takeout. Dosas and uttapam $8.50 to $10.50.

Behind a walnut door in Washington’s Blagden Alley, Carlos Delgado gives diners a high-end, six-course taste of his native Peru that begins with a little speech from a server. “We’re going to touch on coastal cooking, then the Andes, and finish in the Amazon,” an attendant says as she drops off a snack that reduces Peru’s popular causa rellena to a single bite. Mouth, meet world-class potato salad.

Amazonia and Causa: Two delicious tastes of Peru under one roof

A flurry of hors d’oeuvres follows, including a single mussel, nestled in its shell with a tangy tomato emulsion and presented as if on a beach, amid small stones and seaweed. Delgado, a veteran of China Chilcano in Penn Quarter, explains much of his cooking in person. An earnest teacher, he welcomes patrons to what he calls “my home, my kitchen, where I just try to take care of you.”

A diner could get used to the attention (and the many fine piscos Causa offers). The showy first course salutes Delgado’s mentor, José Andrés: yellowtail that’s been aged a week to develop umami and arranged with crushed Peruvian corn and yellow crumbles of frozen leche de tigre, the “tiger’s milk” that “cooks” the raw fish. Liquid nitrogen is added to the dish before it’s served, creating a light fog. Recipients are coached to stir the ingredients together and create their own ceviche. Fun! Delicious, too.

On and on the night goes, with herbed potatoes baked in egg white cocoons; skewered salmon belly sauced with red wine vinegar, cumin and ají panca; and bomba rice swollen with garlic and culantro — think cilantro but more pungent — and dressed with soft scored squid. In a hat tip to the ancient practice of cooking layers of food underground over hot rocks, Delgado pairs thinly sliced Wagyu beef with a 30-layer bar of potato, Parmesan and brilliant ají amarillo.

It took the chef five years to bring his dream, including a casual bar upstairs, to life. Worth the wait, I say. The best dishes at Causa summon Central in Lima, widely regarded as one of the top restaurants in the world and a reminder that Peru has one of the best natural pantries of any country.

920 Blagden Alley NW, 202-629-3942. causadc.com. Open for indoor dining. Tasting menu $85 for six courses.

Anytime Peter Chang opens a restaurant is news, but No. 13 is the sweetest bulletin yet for Washingtonians, who just got a place of their very own, Chang Chang, near Dupont Circle. The addition is two treats in one. The lunch and takeout menu, dubbed “Chang Out,” gathers the esteemed chef’s greatest hits, including mapo tofu and bamboo fish; the list at night, “Chang In,” lets Chang and company showcase more than the Sichuan fare for which the headliner is known.

Worth the wait: Peter Chang finally opens a Chinese restaurant in D.C.

No other restaurant in Chang’s collection offers pig terrine, for example. Served as little squares shaped from braised pork feet and shoulder, topped with aspic and decked out with crisp watermelon radishes, the appetizer is finished with a stinging mala vinaigrette that makes Canton taste close. Also new and luscious: mushroom-packed spring rolls offered with a dip designed as a nod to the Worcestershire sauce favored by Hong Kong diners, and eggplant stir-fried with chiles and fermented soybeans, then nestled in a bowl with cloudlike tufts of whipped tofu. The dish is hot, cold, smoky — and sensational.

Changians, as devotees of the chef are known, might spot a familiar name or two on the menu, but chances are they’re enhanced versions of earlier recipes. Here’s our old friend, cumin lamb chop, its kick extended with turmeric, coriander and black cardamom, and how great that the lamb is propped up by kabocha squash and lemony yogurt.

The showiest creation is duck presented four ways, as spiced sliced breast, broth, fried wing and “pie.” No offense to everything else, but the last is the prize: forbidden rice and shredded duck confit in a crisp-airy bowl of phyllo. The talent behind the spectacle is pastry chef Pichet Ong, the whirling dervish who doubles as a guide in the dining room and the reason you want to stay for dessert. His chèvre cheesecake, tiled in sliced plums, and passion fruit pie, garnished with pepper-spiked meringue wands, are equal to the class acts that precede them.

1200 19th St. NW. 202-570-0946. changchangdc.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Large plates $26 to $120 (for shareable duck).

Until recently, my only experience with this Japanese retreat in Montgomery County was from a distance, out of cartons. (Thanks, pandemic.) What a pleasure to finally sit inside, soak up the atmosphere, enjoy the chipper service and eat chef Ken Ballogdajan’s food off plates and bowls. I could easily make a habit of his siu mai, juicy with pork and shrimp and capped with housemade chile crunch, as well as his sister and co-owner’s Aviation, bold with gin and purple with crème de violette.

Lighten up, with the help of Japanese takeout

Introduced three years ago, Kenaki blends the chef’s name with that of sibling Aki Ballogdajan. Fronted with a patio, the restaurant revels in style. Running the length of the dining room is a long blond banquette; walls are alternately painted in fetching blue waves and elegant graffiti. Chopsticks get tucked into paper sleeves the color of green tea and are best used to pick up the luscious sushi. Aim for hamachi toro, veined with fat and lit with a pinch of wasabi, and lightly torched branzino dabbed with cilantro pesto.

You may have come for raw fish on pads of rice, but be sure to check out other parts of the menu. New since my initial visit are the tender bao buns (head for the filling of crisp fried chicken, shredded napa cabbage and creamy tobanjan) and peppery chicken wings presented in a pool of ponzu with oh-so-necessary moist towelettes. Maki rolls are Beltway-busy, but they reflect the kitchen’s devotion to fine points. The crunch in the relatively restrained sweet russet roll, starring eel, salmon and cucumber, comes from potato chips made in-house and crushed for garnish.

Good news for diners in Potomac: The owners aim to open a fast-casual offshoot in Cabin John Village. Continuing a family tradition of combining names, the spinoff acknowledges the chef’s son and daughter, Kenzo and Emma. Stay tuned for Kema by Kenaki in the new year.

706 Center Point Way, Gaithersburg, Md. 240-224-7189. kenakisushi.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, delivery, and takeout. Small plates at dinner $6 to $16.

Did you know? Centrolina’s little sister got bigger over the summer. The all-day Italian cafe from chef Amy Brandwein added more than 1,000 square feet, tripling the number of seats inside and allowing for a longer menu. Bestsellers, including the escarole chicken salad and eggplant Parmesan, have been joined by skewered dishes and (hip, hip, happy hour!) cocktails. What opened as a shoe box in CityCenterDC three years ago, a place for takeout or a quick bite, has morphed into a full-service establishment, with people lingering over bottles of wine and pizzas crisped in an oak-fired oven.

Fueled by fire, Piccolina does a lot with a little (space)

More space lends an airier feel to the room, across the alley from Centrolina and newly dressed with salmon-colored chairs and fuchsia banquettes. Eggs for dinner? Count me in, especially when they’re aerated with cream to puff up in a hot pan, paired with pancetta and Gruyere cheese, and slipped into a tender brioche bun. Fellow egg fan Brandwein says the sandwich was inspired by her affection for “omelets and a glass of rosé” at night. Another choice pairing of bread and filling is panuozzo, created from pizza dough, and porchetta layered with mustard greens, grilled onions and provolone that melts in the mix. Try the mouthful with Piccolina’s ratatouille, each bite of which goes down like summer in Provence. I love the skewered items, too, especially salmon chunks sprinkled with coriander and fennel seed and threaded with tomato, onion and zucchini.

More news you can use: Happy hour, a daily 5 to 6 p.m. affair, offers a chance to try the first-rate margherita pizza for $8, and the entire venue is available to rent out starting at $3,000.

Breezy as it is, Piccolina is a study in detail. The glasses fit like gloves in your hands, that salmon skewer arrives on a handsome block of wood (“a nice way to eat casual,” says the chef) and leftovers go home in chic pink bags. They look like you’ve seriously shopped when in fact you’ve seriously eaten.

963 Palmer Alley NW. 202-804-5713. piccolinadc.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, delivery, and takeout. Panini and pizza $15 to $21.

The U.S. chief of protocol is huddled with a former ambassador to France, and the risotto, earthy with mushrooms and finished with vegetable ash, gets passed around so everyone can spoon and swoon. Long story short: Power players and excellent Italian cooking continue to fill the room at downtown’s Tosca, whose new-in-August chef, Fortunato Nicotra, hails from the Fabio Trabocchi school of cool.

Tosca returns to business downtown with a fresh look and new chef

One night’s amuse-bouche introduces Nicotra’s fresh approach. Creamy burrata and beads of caviar nestle in a delicate semolina shell, reminiscent of India’s panipuri. More fun comes by way of the “tutto tonna tonnato,” a riff on the classic vitello tonnato. In this case, raw folds of tuna loin are draped over little mounds of minced tuna belly, ruby bites destined to be swabbed in nearby dots of anchovy sauce, some brilliant with carrot. “My life on a plate,” says Nicotra, a Sicilian native raised in Piedmont.

Nicotra, a veteran of Babbo and the sadly closed Felidia in New York, keeps attention on the ingredients. Scallops from Hokkaido, Japan, are simply seasoned with salt and pepper before they meet up with cauliflower, both sliced raw and pureed, on the plate. The contrasting textures play up the vegetable’s multiple charms.

Wisely, Tosca has kept some signatures. The ever-present, forever-plump veal chop is carved into blushing slices of meat, each glistening from a brush with olive oil; double-roasted marble potatoes and rosemary jus complete the plate.

A glance around the room captures a lively bar, nubby green banquettes, scooped gold chairs, waiters in black ties and vests, a wall of wine, a cozy alcove built for two — and a beaming owner. “We’re busier than before 2019,” Paolo Sacco tells us. Life is buono.

1112 F St. NW. 202-367-1990. toscadc.com. Open for indoor dining. Dinner pastas and entrees $26 to $62 (for the signature veal chop).