Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Tom Sietsema’s 5 favorite places to eat in February

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When people ask me how I hear about restaurants, I tell them some of my informants are publicists, chefs and restaurateurs. Only a lazy critic would rely exclusively on a group with vested interests, though, so I take pride in walking or driving around neighborhoods where I find myself eating to poke around for additional review prospects.

A line leading out of a little storefront at high noon or a busy parking lot might find me joining the ranks. If I smell something enticing coming out of a mom and pop, my tendency is to investigate the source of the aromas. Whenever I’m out of town and I’ve had a good meal, I ask the staff where else I should eat before I leave — never “What’s best?,” which too often lands you someplace fancy, but often, “Where do you dine on your off hours during the week?,” which feels more personal.

Other times when people ask me where I get my tips, I respond by pointing at them: Readers and others are among my best sources. Thanks to my discerning friend Todd, I discovered a Japanese oasis above a Thai retreat in Washington. Another reader was worried that a rave of a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant in Northern Virginia might bring in crowds, but he thought I needed to know about the newcomer anyway. And a proud mentor of a rising star in the exurbs let me know the young chef was ready for prime time at a restaurant of his own.

Dining chat: ‘Help! My food comes out too fast.’

My point is, the majority of this month’s favorite places to eat are suggestions from readers, whom I’d like to thank for looking out for their fellow diners. It takes a village.

Bangkok native Jenistar Ruksirisopha says she’s been a Japan fan since she first visited the country as a 10-year-old. “To be honest, if I could only eat one food for the rest of my life,” it would be Japanese, says the owner of the second-story restaurant whose name combines the Japanese word for treasure with its location on 14th St.

As she prepared to open two and a half years ago, however, her mother’s warning nagged her: As a Thai native, “no one’s going to believe you,” the budding restaurateur recalls being told. The daughter’s response was to hire a chef from what she considers the No. 1 Japanese draw in D.C., the sublime Sushi Nakazawa behind the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

Visit Takara 14 — and you should — and you’ll spot Johnny Yi behind a slim sushi counter. Like his employer, he’s not Japanese. The Maryland native’s parents are from Korea. Does it matter? Like the owner, he’s ever present in a restaurant I’m always happy to find myself in, which is precisely how Ruksirisopha wants customers to feel after they climb the steep stairs to the 30-seat dining room.

Potomac’s newest restaurant has too much style, too little substance

“Forget about being serious,” she says. The design helps. Cheery pink blossoms frame the front picture window and canary-yellow banquettes run along the sides of the walls, hung with illuminated branches. The setting is a fetching backdrop to a surprisingly long a la carte menu whose small-plate highlights include juicy pork belly and kabocha squash gyoza and tuna tartare — red with gochujang and fruity with apple — scooped up with nubby tempura seaweed chips. Did I mention the $5 beers, $7 drinks and $21 bottles of house wine at happy hour? Or the fact a server insisted on running to a neighboring restaurant to fetch mezcal after a customer requested a mezcal negroni? No wonder so many customers treat the space as a date night.

The food romances us, too, especially the well-priced omakase, or “chef’s choice.” A recent parade of dishes delivered one hit after another. One moment, we’re spooning into tofu whipped with radish, dashi and sake, a creamy base for blow-torched salmon glistening with orange roe. The next, we are scarfing folds of dewy hamachi wrapped around thread-thin fried potatoes, the soft and the crunch tied together with a hint of truffle oil. There are housemade pickles to escort wispy, panko-crusted pork tucked in its bowl with curry-kissed carrots and potatoes, distinctive sushi, and steaming red snapper broth to revive yourself at the end of six or so courses for $75 a diner.

The owner says she argues with the chef about some dishes. Yi prefers simplicity. She likes a little extra flourish. I’m only privy to what comes to the table: some of the most enthralling food of several seasons, and this amid a boom in Japanese restaurants in Washington.

Within the next three months, Ruksirisopha plans to open an eight-seat room upstairs just for omakase. Otherwise, she says, “we want to keep it intimate.”

I like the way she thinks, and I love the way Yi cooks.

1326 14th St. NW. 202-507-8973. takara14st.com. A la carte entrees, $24 to $46 (for A5 Wagyu beef).

Quick, what do the “clam” dip, shaky “beef” and spicy noodle soup at this young restaurant in Northern Virginia have in common?

They’re all vegetarian versions of familiar Vietnamese dishes, and they’re all impressive. That dip, flanked with rice crackers for scooping, is bright with lime and pungent with vegetarian fish sauce. The convincing stand-in for meat turns out to be nuggets of soy protein flavored with sesame oil and pineapple soy sauce. And the steaming Hue-style soup — red with annatto and tingling with lemongrass — is a throwback to when chef Lan Tran ran a pho restaurant in her native Vietnam.

Vietnamese and vegetarian, Chay makes a splash in Falls Church

Tran’s partner in the restaurant and in life is Thi Le. He’s the guy you see hopping from table to table in the always-busy dining room, joking with customers and pointing out hits on the menu, like “Heavenly” rice, which the co-owner describes with a big smile and you greedily devour once you taste the fluffy, grease-free grains scattered with fresh cilantro and dry tofu floss that look like wood shavings.

The food comes out as if you’re eating in a chain (fast), but the setting is personal. A small burbling fountain welcomes you at the entrance, and outsize lotus flowers draw eyes to the painted walls. Style is a side dish at Chay.

6351 Columbia Pike, Falls Church. 571-378-1771. chayrestaurant.com. Entrees, $15 to $48 (for shareable hot pot).

Some of the region’s most beloved dining destinations are found in small towns in Virginia. Think the Inn at Little Washington, the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville and, since fall, Alias in Warrenton, an hour outside the District. The 30-seat newcomer is modeled after the intimate Three Blacksmiths in tiny Sperryville, which is where chef Stephen Burke worked with his wife, Kelly, before the couple opened a place of their own. Like Three Blacksmiths, Alias serves a tasting menu.

A sublime new fine-dining oasis makes Warrenton, Va., worth the trip

Like the Sperryville attraction, the Warrenton restaurant also embraces a couple hours of sublime entertainment, starting with snacks whose plates are as fetching as what they carry. Hope for sparkling ceviche in a fluted pastry shell on a scalloped gold plate, my first taste of a recent winter evening. Thoughtfully, Alias offers a vegetarian option along with its regular five-course menu. The best strategy is to order both and pass plates. Because the truffle-showered sliced roast chicken has an equal in housemade ravioli stuffed with pureed carrots lit with aji amarillo. Bread — a cross between French brioche and Japanese milk bread — gets it’s own course here, and the hot rolls are divine sops for the chef’s fine sauces.

My memories might not be yours; the menu, which incorporates ingredients from local farms and gardens, changes every few weeks. What I had this winter makes me hopeful for a return engagement in spring.

No disrespect to the pastry chef, the talent behind the lovely bonbons and edible parting gifts, but the sweetest thing here is the Burkes’ toddler, Atticus, who plays or naps behind the kitchen door and whose dad might trot him out at the end of service. Alias is a family affair, and an engaging one at that.

7150 Farm Station Rd., Warrenton, Va. 540-422-0340. aliasvinthill.com. Tasting menu $145 to $165 (at chef’s counter).

What to order? A newbie could refer to the window, covered with photos of dishes, or the wall near the entrance, plastered with rave reviews. I’m inclined to check out what my Chinese neighbors are eating as I make my way to a table in this busy storefront in the shadow of the University of Maryland.

Noodles, definitely something with noodles, are in my future. Steaming knife-cut noodles, cooked to retain some bite, coil beneath a cover of crumbled pork, shot through with garlic and black vinegar, everything cooled with torn romaine lettuce. The kitchen, under the watch of chef-owner Hua Wang, makes its own liang pi, wheat-flour noodles. I wouldn’t think of leaving without a “burger,” or rou jia mo, either. The chewy bread is baked in-house, twice a day, and makes a great companion to a filling of crumbled lamb, warm with cumin, sweet with onion and hopping with jalapeños. Then there are dumplings to consider. Make mine pork dumplings draped with a creamy blanket of sesame seeds and lit with chile oil.

The owner is from Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province in China, where she ran a noodle restaurant before coming to the United States in 2007. Wang says she opened Northwest Chinese Food in 2015 as a way to introduce people to the food she ate and loved growing up in a part of China known for its bold flavors and Korean influences. Indeed, there’s housemade kimchi in the restaurant’s little market within the dining room, which also sells Chinese candy and snacks and three kinds of Wang’s chile oil.

I’m reminded this is a student hangout when the college kid waiting on a table of his cost-conscious peers asks whether they’re ready for their check: “Together or separate?” I’m also reminded not to go solo on my next visit. Wang’s food begs to be shared.

7313 Baltimore Ave., College Park. 240-714-4473. northwestchinesefood.com. Small plates, $7.50 to $12.50; noodle dishes, $10.50 to $19.50.

December saw chef Enrique Limardo’s splashy flagship restaurant move from 14th Street to CityCenter DC, and I’m happy to report the trip was a success. The relocated brand retains the taste and look of the South American original, meaning one-bite, cheese-filled arepas await your appetite and green is a dominant color throughout the space, almost twice the size of the first.

“We kept the feel of an urban jungle,” says Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger, CEO of the Seven Reasons Group, now six restaurants strong. Vines crawl over brick walls, and verdant tiles pave the front of the bar, the source of drinks designed to impress. One bold statement, Bourbon Street, envelopes recipients in a little cloud of smoke when it’s presented. Take a sip. Calvados, apricot, thyme and nutmeg add to the cocktail’s intrigue.

There’s more where that came from thanks to the kitchen, headed up by José Ignacio “Nacho” Useche, the group’s general chef director. Visitors are welcomed with a gratis snack, on one recent night a creamy pumpkin soup dappled with chipotle oil.

Seven Reasons gives you many more than that to dine there

One of the more dramatic ceviches in town, filed under “Joy” on the menu, finds red snapper and crunchy quinoa ringed in purple sweet potato puree and capped with what looks like meringue but is in fact a whip of coconut, fish bits and lemon juice playing the role of leche de tigre. A server tells us to “eat the parts separately, then together” for the full effect. Plump medallions of lamb loin are paired with a black rectangle of forbidden rice laced with bacon and plantains on a plate finished with a dollop of pureed black beans, feta and sour cream — my kind of dip — and an amber hot sauce sprung from chimichurri. The entree is among dishes labeled “Memories.” Useche says the categories underscore some of the guiding principles, including “Experience” and “Knowledge,” at Seven Reasons.

Desserts are as complex — and easy to like — as anything else on the menu. Take the guava cheesecake, which gathers almond crumble, dark chocolate pearls, goat cheese ice cream and guava in the form of gummies, foam and sheer tiles on top. The bill is sweetened with gratis little chocolate and peanut butter sweets.

Next month or early April, Seven Reasons plans to offer twice-monthly, 22-course chef’s tasting menus in a private room, Useche says. The event promises to be unlike any other tasting experience in Washington. For one thing, the menu will be all-Venezuelan, reflecting Limardo’s mother country. Guests will also interact with fellow diners. The biggest distinction? An escape room sounds like an icebreaker to me.

931 H St. NW. 202-417-8563. sevenreasonsdc.com. Dinner entrees, $30 to $165 (for shareable 35-ounce dry-aged rib-eye).

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