Welcome to my Spring Food Guide which toasts 25 young people on the food scene. I’m kicking things off by presenting my top 5 picks, which are announced a day at a time before the full list is released. The selection encompasses a world of flavors at different price points; what the restaurants share is consistency — and lip-smacking cuisine.
Washington is full of casual Italian eateries and expense-account Italian spots, which makes L’Ardente especially welcome. The newcomer, part of the billion-dollar Capitol Crossing development, combines the best of both worlds, on and off the plate.
The great chef’s mantra: “Keep it simple but elegant”, says David Deshaies, also the talent behind Unconventional Diner. Wooden farmhouse beams and Murano glass chandeliers share the soaring ceiling, and pasta covers goat cheese ravioli and a 40-layer lasagna that has garnered more ink than some entire restaurants are getting never. One of the first things you see when you enter the main dining room is a wood-fired grill whose dancing flames help explain the restaurant’s Italian name – ‘scorching’, as in passionate – and the succulent char whole chicken.
Full Review: L’Ardente, an Italian stunner, combines pleasure and finesse
The aperitif with the best sense of humor is the “duck hunt”: a raviolo filled with duck suspended in a mousse of duck juice, cream and foie gras and presented in a small dish with… duck legs in stuffed toy. The playfulness continues with a risotto surrounded by quotation marks, as chopped calamari replaces the expected rice. Lobster broth mixed with seafood gives the dish its maritime flavor and creamy texture. My new favorite seat faces the marble counter in the back, where I can thank the pizza maker himself for his masterful margherita.
Every aspect of your visit supports the good intentions of the owners. The toilets are adorned with pegs and full-length mirrors, the tiramisu is hidden in a ball of chocolate that ignites at the table and the tile is presented in a small golden crown with Italian sweets. Sold!
200 Massachusetts Avenue NW. 202-448-0450. lardente.com. Dinner every day. Main dishes to share between $48 and $135. Seats inside. Take out and delivery. Sound check: 75 decibels/Must speak in a high voice. Accessibility: A small lift at the reception stand allows people in wheelchairs to access the dining room. Restrooms are ADA compliant.
When looking for a chef for his Modern Greek restaurant in North Bethesda, Dimitri Moshovitis knew exactly who he wanted: Aris Tsekouras, whose koulouri, or sesame sourdough, reminded the restaurateur of the bread of his youth. “So much love in something so simple,” recalls Moshovitis, founder of the fast-casual Cava chain.
Full Review: Melina is already one of the best in Montgomery County
Bread turns out to be one of the talents of chef Melina, named after Moshovitis’ 13-year-old daughter. His beef tartare and grilled octopus are also special. The first is raw beef with chopped pickled cabbage, pickled mustard seeds and dried lemon – ingredients associated with the traditional stuffed cabbage of Greece. The latter, brightened up with a parsley puree, is accompanied by an elusive floral note: vanilla, which the chef adds in contrast to the salinity of the octopus. The best kebab in recent memory is ground lamb pulsed with cumin and fenugreek and topped with burnt onion ash.
The meal that transports me to Athens on Sundays is lamb’s neck. Folded in roasted red peppers, the feast is served in folds of parchment paper with sprinkles of hazelnut kefalograviera cheese and trailed by side dishes including fried potatoes and pickled onions. The idea is to make your own gyros using sourdough and oregano pita bread.
The restaurant has been given a lot of thought, dressed in faux olive trees, spacious booths with eye-level mirrors, and theatrical-length white curtains in the floor-to-ceiling windows. Congratulations to whoever thought of fitting the toilets with changing tables — black, matching the walls.
905 Rose Ave., North Bethesda, Maryland 301-818-9090. melinagreek.com. Dinner every day. Mains $20 to $44. Indoor and outdoor seats. No take-out or delivery. Sound control: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; ADA compliant restrooms.
NO. 4 MODERN INDIAN KISMET
Eyes have it at Kismet in Alexandria, a spinoff of chic Karma Modern Indian in Washington.
Take a look around you. One wall is lit by what appear to be flickering candles; a wide ramp leads to a beautiful raised bar, its stools arranged as if by a choreographer.
Full Review: Kismet Modern Indian Adds Artful Touch to Alexandria
The food, from chef Ajay Kumar, is equally mouth-watering. Cubes of grilled sweet potatoes, seasoned to make your tongue spin, are stacked to form an orange pyramid on a plate dressed in white (yogurt), green (mint chutney) and red (tamarind sauce) dots. A jazzy salad of puffed rice drizzled with green chili and date chutney is presented in a small golden cone. Kumar’s emphasis on presentation comes naturally. “I’m an artist,” says this native Indian, who paints landscapes and abstracts when he’s not in the kitchen.
Karma and Kismet are linked by a handful of dishes (lamb kebab, palak paneer), but the branching was designed to be less formal. A few seafood selections highlight Kismet’s proximity to the Old Town waterfront. The grilled snapper, lightened with Kashmiri chilies and tamarind, is not so hot that you cannot enjoy the naturally sweet fish. If the food here tastes better than at some competitors, it’s down to whole spices that are ground in-house and the use of ingredients like fresh coconut rather than bagged. Considering main courses hover around $24, the chef’s impulses are commendable.
111 N. Pitt St., Alexandria, Virginia 703-567-4507. kismetmodernindian.com. Lunch from Friday to Sunday, dinner from Wednesday to Sunday. Area $22-$34. Indoor and outdoor seats. Take out and delivery. Sound control: 77 decibels/must speak in a high voice. Accessibility: A ramp leads to the entrance; a second ramp inside leads to an ADA-compliant restroom.
It’s the most splashy place to open in Washington in years. No matter where you sit in the Japanese restaurant designed by Arman Naqi, there is something to do. See the installation of hundreds of rocks, torn from an active volcano and suspended above your head! The 25-foot ceiling pays homage to Japanese basketry, and an entire wall is green with preserved ivy, interspersed with faux lights.
Full Review: Shoto is a sight for tired eyes and a must for Japanese food lovers
“We wanted to provide a transformative experience,” says Naqi, who was born in London and raised in Bethesda. It includes food and drink in this mission statement. The kitchen is overseen by chefs Alessio Conti and Kwang Kim, whose lengthy menu includes take-out tacos (pictured salmon mixed with wasabi mayonnaise cradled in a potato chip shell), binchotan’s own heat-treated dishes ( spring for the shiny pork ribs with bonito-flavored barbecue sauce) and sushi cut with the precision of a Savile Row tailor. (Kim has worked with some of the best in the business, and her attention to detail, including weighing the salt and sugar for her sushi rice, shows.) Don’t like making decisions? Let the talent take charge by ordering omakase, five courses of whatever Conti and Kim think is the best around. An upgrade is suitable for Wagyu beef, caviar and truffles.
Naqi relied on his international connections to recruit personnel. Your savvy server may be from Italy; the endearing bartender shares that he is from Hungary. Does the team have favourites? Reports from the field suggest VIPs are getting the red carpet treatment while strangers are squeezed in for dinner. On a happier note, the audience on any given night might be the most diverse of any crowd in Washington right now. “Kanpai” at that.
1100 15th St. NW. (entrance on L Street NW). 202-796-0011. No website. Dinner from Monday to Saturday. Seats inside. Main dishes $34 to $48. No take-out or delivery. Sound control: 82 decibels / extremely loud. Accessibility: The front door is heavy, but attendants help open it. One seat at the bar and two seats at the chef’s counter are reserved for wheelchair users. Restrooms are ADA compliant.