As I recently dug into Baltimore‘s burgeoning food scene (more on the city’s top cocktail bars this spring), I now explore the exciting scene that is D.C. dining right now. With Michelin arriving for the first time to the nation’s capitol in 2016 (for perspective, the venerable awards have only awarded three other US cities over the years: NY, SF, Chicago), they awarded 12 restaurants with one to two stars (the list here).
I visited a few restaurants on this list and beyond, impressed by the fast rise of a city that was overrun with steakhouses and power lunches when I last visited. It may still be flush with both, but it’s also lined with international eateries and forward-thinking menus that combine cuisines in inspired ways or offer modern day fine dining.
D.C. has officially become a “foodie” city, as local Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema has been calling attention to in recent years. Soon I will run down some of D.C.’s best cocktail bars, but now I talk top places to eat, from inventive fine dining to casual Laotian food.
PINEAPPLE & PEARLS
Pineapple and Pearls, the second restaurant from chef Aaron Silverman of wildly popular Roses Luxury, could have been seen as a guaranteed hit given its neighboring location and relationship to Rose’s, but as an ambitious and pricey fine dining restaurant ($250 per person including drinks, tip and gratuity), it could just as easily crashed and burned.
But in its initial year, P&P already garnered two Michelin stars and in my experience, rightly so. It keeps up with the whimsy and execution of some of the better two Michelin-starred restaurants I’ve dined at around the globe, with a chic yet relaxed, intimate dining room hidden through a tiny coffee bar they run during the day. As fried chicken comes out in takeout boxes with dipping sauces or fennel absinthe bonbons are served on classic absinthe spoons, it becomes clear this is an experience… a playful, delicious, elegant experience.
Hipster? Sure. Housed in a retail space selling clothing and shoes with second floor pastry and coffee shops and a patio courtyard giving way to an open kitchen, Maketto is indeed cool. What feels a bit “poser” as you sit down in the small, glowing white space facing an amari-lined bar, Maketto quickly wins you over. Young servers look urban ready with a similar “cool” profile then you get into a deep conversation about the arts, creativity, living the real life in pursuit of what you love, and what could just be a “trying to hard” hotspot turns into a meaningful interaction.
Then there is the food from chef Erik Bruner-Yang. Heavily pulling from Taiwanese and Cambodian cuisine, Asian influence shows up from numerous countries. Vinegar cocktails (and this dreamy, tamarind-arrak egg cream cocktail), crispy Gruyere dumplings in Chinese chili beef ($13), banana nutella bread pudding with tahini ice cream and that out-of-control, fried chicken ($26) in five spice caramel fish sauce… and I’m SOLD. Maketto’s vibrant flavors were lingering on my palate and memory throughout the evening.
In keeping with those rare, authentic Mexican gems in the Northeast like Clavel in Baltimore, Espita Mezcaleria, which just opened in spring 2016, is a Shaw destination for modern Mexican dishes, agave spirits and cocktails. Beverage manager Megan Barnes and team offers a winning cocktail menu and mezcal, tequila, sotol list. You know the food is going to be good from the moment you taste the salsas ($3 each), from pistachio or chipotle tomatillo salsas, to a borracha salsa laced with mezcal, orange and chipotle morita chile peppers.
Spanking fresh snapper ceviche ($14) a crudo-like presentation laced with lemongrass cucumber habanero dressing and pickled Asian pears, smoked pork jowl tacos ($12/18) or a crazy-decadent hamburguesa ($16) piled with short rib, green chorizo, rajas (creamy poblano pepper), Oaxacan queso, lime mayo and salsa roja, all seal the deal. Espita also blessedly serves Oaxacan specialties like lush mole dishes and tlayudas.
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While I was a bit disappointed in the cocktails despite how good they looked, the wine list is Italy-robust and the pastas are downright inspired with an east-meets-west ethos. Go decadent with agnolotti filled with chestnut, accented by anchovy, butter, cocoa, honey and Gran Bú cheese. It’s savory, umami, sweet, lush and earthy, all in one heavenly bite. Then there is that fantastic linguini in spicy XO sauce marked with olive oil, pepperoncinos and bread crumbs. There are other worthwhile dishes on the ever-changing menu and the special black truffle menu was dreamy but the pastas alone make Masseria worth a visit.
TAIL UP GOAT
Another Michelin starred restaurant (among many other accolades), hip, relaxed Tail Up Goat felt like home in the Bay Area with a tight, refined list of wines (including orange wines and local DC rosé) and a similarly focused food menu of comforting yet forward-thinking combinations in a packed, small space with friendly, informed servers.
The popular seaweed sourdough toast ($14) laden with pickled sardines, whipped lardo and Hungarian wax peppers struck a fine balance of umami, fatty comfort and bright, pickled kick.
Stracciatella pasta ($16) sported an unusual mix of winter radishes, Mexican sour gherkins and almonds, while cavatelli pasta ($18) gains spicy contrast in a pork belly ragu marked by fermented hot peppers and Calabrian chili breadcrumbs.
Head chef Michael Costa keeps José Andrés‘ vision going strong at Zaytinya, his Mediterranean great since 2002, in a lofty, white Penn Quarter space filled with a DC power lunch crowd and families and friends at night. During my visit, my server offered exceptional service, having worked their for years, clearly knowledgeable and passionate about the cuisine.
Highlights are many among the small plates-heavy menu, including a fine rendition of traditional Lebanese-style (i.e. green) falafel ($8.50) in tahini sauce, tender octopus Santorini ($14.50) braised in red wine and served over a yellow split pea puree, or an osso buco-esque hunkar begendi ($14), a traditional Turkish braised lamb shank in an eggplant kefalograviera puree.
My favorite dish may be the simple but divine htipiti ($7), a bright dip of marinated roasted red peppers, feta, and thyme. Then there is deconstructed Turkish delight for dessert.
Focused on Laotian and southeast Asian cuisine, airy and humble Thip Kao makes for a great lunch in D.C.’s Columbia Heights ‘hood. Chef Seng Luangrath thankfully keeps the heat authentically hot with some of her best dishes on the “jungle menu,” like the uber-spicy tam muk houng phet phet ($13), a salad of shredded papaya salad, padeak (unfiltered fish sauce), cherry tomatoes, lime, dried shrimps and shrimp and crab paste, or paa tod ($20), fried fish typically catfish or snakehead fish in spicy mango sauce, accented by avocado, red onions, mint and cashews.