Washington DC may have a reputation for power dining but its restaurant scene is one of the most vibrant in the country thanks to its young, well-to-do inhabitants and the large international community. Then there is the outsize influence of two culinary forces to be reckoned with, Chef Jose Andres and Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, along with culinary upstart Mike Isabella. Here is a look at what’s hot and what’s new in Washington DC dining and imbibing.
Jose Andres casts an oversized shadow over the DC dining scene, from his now twenty year old tapas hotspot Jaleo to the culinary wizardry on display at the twelve seat minibar. Andres has long been adept at melding cuisines and one example is Zaytinya (701 9th Street NW, website), his Greek-Turkish-Lebanese spot just behind the National Portrait Gallery. Here the emphasis is on mezze (small plates) broken into categories for vegetables, seafood, and meat. Start with a spread like fresh Hommus or smoky Baba Ghannouge, then pick a few mezze per person. The grilled Octopus Santorini comes deliciously charred while spice-rubbed Border Springs Farm lamb Adana Kebab with a harissa conjures up memories of Istanbul. Top it off with a wine from Greece or lesser explored areas like Lebanon and Israel. In season, pull up a chair on the roomy outdoor deck and imagine yourself transported to the Mediterranean.
Ashok Bajaj is renowned as DC’s most visible and successful restaurateur. Arriving from New Delhi, Bajaj saw room in the city for upscale Indian and opened a series of spots, not least of which four-star Rasika (633 D Street NW, website). Though it may hold four stars, Rasika is surprisingly accessible with a large menu of items from the tawa (griddle) and sigri (barbecue). The large room fills up with DC power players but the place to be is the chef’s counter opening into the dining room, or the tables across from it. The expansive menu shouldn’t dissuade – when in doubt ask the well-trained servers for their recommendations. Ours was helpful in narrowing down the choices. Try the succulent tandoori lamb chops, a nicely spiced Gobhi Mattar (cauliflower, green peas, ginger, cumin), and the thick, spicy Dal.
Mike Isabella has capitalized on his Top Chef success to open two highly-regarded, uber popular spots in DC – Graffiato and newcomer Kapnos. Isabella was chef at Zaytiyna and ups the ante with Kapnos (2201 14th Street NW, website), just north of the booming U Street corridor. If there’s room at the kitchen counter, pull up a stool and watch the action. Start with a cocktail like the Hollywood (Basil Hayden bourbon, Dolin sweet vermouth, benedictine, cherry heering, angostura bitters) and order one of the spreads – we’re partial to the delicious Melitzanosalata (smoky eggplant, roasted peppers, walnuts, feta). Then you have your choice of mezze – raw, from the ocean or best of all, from the spit turning ever so slowly in front of you. We liked the Suckling Pig but it needed a bit salt to really shine, but the Goat is moist, tender and flat out terrific. Prices are reasonable and you can eat well for $40 – $50 a person.
Isabella’s first spot Graffiato (707 6th Street NW, website) offers a mix of seasonal dishes, pastas and pizzas from a wood-fired oven. Here you’ll fall in love with your veggies thanks to starters like the excellent Broccolini and red pepper relish. Next up, meats from the wood oven, everything from Hanger Steak to Wild Boar Rack. Then there’s pasta and pizza. How about Pappardelle with braised rabbit, lobster mushrooms and fennel pollen? Yeah, we thought so. Ten pizzas pay homage to American pop culture – think the Rocky Balboa, or Porky’s Revenge.
Working hard means DC plays hard and the city does not suffer a shortage of bars. You can sidle up to one in a downtown hotel and hob nob with Capitol Hill lackeys or you can head to the areas around U Street or the Verizon Center for the city’s hottest spots.
The Gibson (2009 14th Street NW, website) sprawls over two floors and even into a backyard in warmer weather, yet still proves a difficult reservation. The main level is full on speakeasy, dim, with a short bar and lots of tables tucked away into nooks. On weekends, the second floor offers a no menu, single bartender set-up to handle the overflow. Just tell the barkeep what you like to drink and they’ll mix something up. Booking essential on weekends.
Ashok Bajaj stepped outside the realm of upscale Indian for his latest spot, Nopa Kitchen and Bar (800 F Street NW, website), somewhat oddly perched above the Spy Museum (which is really cool and worth a few hours of your time). The happy hour is worth checking out – you’ll get 20% off any booze except for the reserve list of wines. We tried a good sparkler from Thibaut & Janisson in Virginia and enjoyed a well-executed Blood and Sand (Black Bottle Scotch, maraschino, Dolin rouge, blood orange puree). Even better, cocktails are just $10 to begin with.
More of a honky-tonk vibe infuses The Passenger (1021 7th Street, NW, website), just a few blocks north of the Verizon Center. This is a hybrid bar, beer and casual drop-in up front, buttoned-up cocktail tasting menu The Columbia Room (website) in the back. There, the bartender will craft a three drink tasting menu with a bite to eat ($69 all-inclusive) according to your taste. Reservations are essential for the experience as there are only 10 seats. Don’t want to commit? The bar upfront has a strong craft beer list with three dozen choices (all $5 – $6) and a short list of cocktails but the bartenders can make you most anything you want. Creative bar snacks like Pork Cheek Nachos and a Kimchi Hot Dog round out the offerings.
The Passenger’s owner Derek Brown recently opened a sister spot near the Shaw Metro stop, Mockingbird Hill (1843 7th Street NW, website) with a focus on sherry, sherry and more sherry (plus some ham). Here put yourselves in the hands of the bartenders and they’ll craft a flight or two for you.
Daikaya (705 6th Street NW, website) occupies a bi-level space next door to Graffiato, with a popular ramen joint on the lower floor and an expansive izakaya on the second. Climb the stairs to the izakaya and slide into a stool to enjoy a cocktail or one of dozens of sake selections, which are listed according to flavor profile (light and smooth, dry and crisp, complex and full-bodied, etc). Or you can just go straight to the post-modern Sake Bombs – a sake sphere dropped into a Sapporo beer!