Review | Tom Sietsema’s 7 favorite places to eat right now

Review | Tom Sietsema’s 7 favorite places to eat right now

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The area’s best strawberry shortcake might be in Annapolis, Md., and if you’ve never tried yak, a Nepalese restaurant in Ashburn, Va., is a great place to make its acquaintance. You’ll find the draws at Preserve and Himalayan Wild Yak, respectively, among the seven Washington-area restaurants I’m encouraging you to try right now.

Since it set sail in Annapolis seven years ago, this mom-and-pop from Jeremy and Michelle Hoffman has featured dishes reflective of Jeremy’s origins in Pennsylvania Dutch country and his interest in all things fermented. Expect pierogies as appetizers, tang throughout the menu and … duck tongues, anyone?

“We’re a family-friendly restaurant,” says Brian Cieslak, Preserve’s chef de cuisine. “But we don’t think parents should miss out on flavor.” Hence the fried duck tongues, offered with rice vinegar aioli and chile crunch oil. Preserve sells “a lot,” says the Maryland native, who is turning 30 this month.

A byproduct of the first course is duck fat, which the restaurant uses to delicious effect in a Caesar salad dressing for the shredded lettuce that helps pack a gyro. The sandwich, built with pillowy sourdough bing bread, is a showcase for shaved lamb terrine.

Things that sound familiar never taste that way. What reads like pasta with clams turns out to be buckwheat bucatini flavored with bacon, black garlic and diced asparagus, all of which slide across the tongue with the help of a cream reduction. A spritz of lemon and filings of Parmesan complete the generous bowl. Scallops, striped from the grill, get a lovely charge from a relish of fermented fish pepper, cilantro, lime juice and celery, an idea Cieslak picked up on his honeymoon in St. Lucia.

Similar to his boss, Cieslak works with his wife, Sommer Walker, a former ballerina who’s now bar manager at Preserve. “It’s a dream team,” the chef says of the time with his colleagues, a detail anyone can fact-check by observing the tiny open kitchen crammed with people who look like they’re having as much fun as diners. It doesn’t hurt that kids’ meals are served aloft toy dinosaurs. The sight of a child’s hamburger being ferried through the snug dining room is as happy-making as Preserve’s stellar strawberry shortcake, robed in a combination of cream cheese and whipped cream and glinting with gold leaf. The seasonal dessert’s equal is a tall slab of many-layered crepe cake, flavored as if it were tiramisu.

Hoffman says he stepped away from Preserve a year or so ago to concentrate on a second restaurant, the 140-seat Garten in Severna Park. Look for a fall launch for the indoor-outdoor wine-and-beer garden.

164 Main St., Annapolis. 443-598-6920. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Entrees $26 to $43.

Danny Chavez serves some of the most artful food around. Little green scrolls of shaved cucumber surround his racy Wagyu beef tartare; his pure-as-spring asparagus soup is presented with concentric rings of creme fraiche and a float of baked Parmesan; and precise dots of avocado puree border the ruby-colored tuna crudo, strewn with fried shallots. The dishes inside the Yotel on Capitol Hill are served on plates and bowls, but really, they merit pedestals and frames.

In the cooking (but not the decor), Art and Soul lives up to its name

If only the setting, a couple bland rooms divided by sliding doors, lived up to the chef’s cooking. The bar has all the charm of an airport lounge, and even the patio looks onto a big beige Hyatt across the street.

You’re here for the food, though, and the chef’s handiwork isn’t merely easy on the eyes. He also packs a lot of flavor into his compositions, what he likes to call “wow” moments. Braised rabbit is but one reason to order the spaghetti, almost hidden by a garden of Eden composed of wilted spinach, blanched carrots, pickled pearl onions and (oh, why not?) ramp pesto. Sweet Maine scallops, capped with pureed garlic and minced chives, share a soft bed of couscous with blood oranges. At the table, a reduction of saffron and orange completes the canvas. The second half of the restaurant’s name is represented by the fried chicken, a lip-smacker arranged on smooth-as-silk whipped potatoes with sautéed dandelion greens.

Attention, bargain hunters: Lunch at the bar finds a choice of sandwich, salad or fries and a glass of beer or wine for $22. Be warned: Ciabatta packed with smoky pork barbecue and tangy slaw is a whopper that threatens to ruin your dinner plans.

415 New Jersey Ave. NW. 202-393-7777. artandsoul.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining and takeout. Dinner entrees $27 to $46.

The Nepalese newcomer makes itself hard to forget. I mean, there’s a stuffed yak near the entrance, and he even has a name, “Rocky.” The beast shares its stage with a beauty — the cooking — and a menu that shrugs off supply issues with more than 30 dishes.

Himalayan Wild Yak aims high — and scores — with Nepalese delights

Every other table seems to be dressed with momos. Make sure you ask for some of the steamed dumplings, too. They show up as eight supple, see-through bites on the rim of a bowl containing roasted tomato sauce. The restaurant’s theme has me springing for the momos stuffed with ground yak, deftly seasoned with coriander, cumin and garam masala so you can still appreciate the delicate beefy flavor of the mountain cow. The chow mein is also required eating. A reminder that China is Nepal’s neighbor to the north, the street food staple is a tangle of thin yellow wheat noodles with a confetti of scallions, red cabbage, carrots and more, each bite smoky from the wok and splashed with sweet-salty oyster sauce.

You can pretty much point anywhere on the list and come up with a success story. Luscious chunks of pork, crisp from their time in a clay oven, resonate with mustard oil, ginger and garlic. Chicken stir-fried with purple onion and bell peppers is finished with a chile sauce that leaves a thrilling wake of heat. Appetizers are apportioned like main courses, and crowds of Indian customers prompted the owners to add to their menu such prizes as lamb korma, soft bites of meat in a dark golden gravy thickened with yogurt and cashew paste — as light and luscious as I’ve had anywhere.

The restaurant puts its customers first. Floating near the Himalaya-high ceiling are fabric panels to sponge noise, the drinks list is as interesting as in a D.C. hot spot, and the person ferrying food from kitchen to table might be one of the two chef-owners.

22885 Brambleton Plaza, Ashburn, Va. 703-760-3710. himalayanwildyak.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining and takeout and delivery. Entrees $12 to $35 (biryani for two).

New Heights is an apt name for this long-running restaurant in Woodley Park, acquired earlier this year by three immigrants from Iran, Ukraine and Bolivia: Mark Namdar, Olena Fedorenko and chef Jose Molina, respectively. Veterans of the hospitality industry, the trio share a lofty mission. “Our goal,” says Namdar, “is to make it a destination again.”

New Heights, a longtime favorite, undergoes a delicious reinvention

The setting will be familiar to anyone who visited the modern American restaurant when it was owned by Umbi Singh, who opened the place in 1986 and guided it up to the pandemic. Guests encounter an airy bar, specializing in gin, before ascending to a dining room set off with windows looking onto treetops and photos and maps of D.C.

A glance at the menu only hints at the fun to follow. Like many restaurants now, this one offers predictable dishes certain to have lots of takers. Yet, no sooner do the plates start arriving than you pause to admire a fresh take here, a luscious twist there — a new restaurant for your rotation. The Caesar salad is built from grilled broccolini and a creamy dressing, bold with black garlic. Instead of french fries, there are beech mushrooms dipped in tempura and seasoned with warm spices. Juicy chicken is staged with velvety roast peppers and buttery potatoes whipped with rosemary and lemon juice. Drama accompanies the lamb, presented in a smoke-filled cloche that perfumes (but doesn’t mask) the meat. A Bolivian touch comes by way of a salsa verde bright with lime juice, cilantro and shallots.

Amazingly, the chef has a single line cook helping him feed a potential crowd of 70 in the dining room — more if you count the bar and patio. Blame the labor shortage and applaud the talent.

2317 Calvert St. NW. 202-290-2692. newheightsrestaurant.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining and delivery and takeout. Entrees $18 to $42.

Parkway Deli & Restaurant

March and April found me eating almost nonstop in new restaurants, inevitable given the theme of my annual spring dining guide, a celebration of youth. When I made my deadline, one of the first places I hit was Parkway Deli & Restaurant. A blast from the past, it’s watched over by Danny Gurewitz, whose grandfather opened the place in 1963.

After almost six decades, Parkway Deli still nails the comfort

The menu gathers a lot of wishes spanning breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you go for just one dish, make it chicken soup. Tender chunks of chicken pack the golden broth, gently herby and crammed with a fistful of carrots, celery, onion and egg noodles. (Matzoh balls are optional.) Every spoonful has the power of a hug. As for sandwiches, the reuben hits pleasure points with tangy sauerkraut, sweet Russian dressing and half a pound of thinly shaved corned beef. The best of the pastry case is a warm-spiced slab of carrot cake that can easily satisfy three forks.

Dinners are served starting at 4 p.m. — my kind of happy hour — and include such comforts as cabbage stuffed with ground beef, fried chicken and sliced turkey with cornbread stuffing and cranberry sauce. Diners select a side; lightly dressed coleslaw or creamy mac and cheese tend to round out my plates.

The front of the operation is a small food store and deli, where you can buy wine or beer to eat with your meal and which you pass through to reach the dining room. Painted in purple and aqua, the restaurant is otherwise plain and practical. A band of mirrors lets you play voyeur from just about every table, and how thoughtful that the condiments extend to two kinds of hot sauce and three kinds of sweetener. Comfort and abundance explain what the owner calls “a cornucopia” of diners here.

Can we talk? Your mileage depends on knowing the kitchen’s strengths. (See above.) But there’s something to be said for a place that has outlived so many other area attempts at “deli.”

8317 Grubb Road, Silver Spring. 301-587-1427. theparkwaydeli.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining and takeout. Sandwiches $7.49 to $16.99, dinners $14.49 to $18.99.

The dining room is designed to evoke the owner’s native Trinidad. “When I go back home,” says Jeanine Prime, “I’m struck by the lushness. You see green everywhere.” You see green everywhere at the light-filled St. James, too: in the shiny front of the bar, on the plant-filled shelves behind it, and atop the plates that crowd your table as you make your way through the menu.

St. James brings on the Caribbean fun and flavor

Take the soup known as callaloo. The color of moss, it’s thick with spinach and collard greens, cooked with coconut milk and finished with sweet crab. The red oil on the surface hints at the cayenne punch to come; the body is deeper for a splash of oxtail juice.

My strategy is to order a few dishes at a time. The food flies out of the kitchen but merits leisurely appreciation. Notice the habanero heat in the pork filling of the Chinese steamed bun? How the colorful purees on a plate of salt cod crudo follow traffic indicators, starting with good-to-go green (avocado)? The bar stocks about 50 rums, splashes of which find their way into the gravy for the brown stew chicken, a sauce that finds fingers dipping into the combination of soy sauce, tomato paste and butter.

The showstopper, similar to an Indian thali, is designed for a group: a spread of braised beef, goat, smoky garlicky eggplant and curry-seasoned chickpeas arranged in little bowls on a platter and accompanied by flaky paratha, which you tear off and use to scoop bites and mop sauces. The beef, soft from low, slow cooking, benefits from the house green seasoning and a hit of culantro. The goat, cooked similarly, is sharpened with ginger and garlic.

You’re on restaurant row on 14th Street. But a feast like this puts you close to surf and sun and sand.

2017 14th St. NW. Open for indoor dining. stjames-dc.com. Entrees, $16 to $60 (for paratha platter).

The only difference between the calamari “pasta” I recall from Takumi earlier in the pandemic and this month is the mode of delivery. Take it from this fan. The most popular dish at the Japanese retreat looks better on a plate than inside plastic — and is better experienced in view of the open kitchen than as takeout. Otherwise, the poached calamari (sliced into ribbons, formed into a turban and topped with seaweed matchsticks and a quail egg) is as compelling as ever. The appetizer comes with instructions to break the yolk to create a sauce and combine it with the other ingredients, which include custardy sea urchin tucked within the “pasta.”

Spotting tuna napoleon on the menu, I’m reminded that chef-owner Jie (“Jay”) Yu borrowed the idea from his former employer, Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington. The beet-red minced fish, which gets its kick from a spicy miso sauce and its slick from sesame oil, arrives atop little rounds of corn chips. One is never enough.

Maybe you’re in a snug booth or on one of only six counter stools for something more traditional. Let a server steer you to what fish you should order as sushi. A recent request included yellowtail belly with a pinch of lime zest and pale pink o-toro, unadorned to let its buttery flavor shine. Yu fries as well as he slices and dices. Right now is the time for soft-shell crabs from the Carolinas, crisp and sweet as you want them to be and enhanced with a dip of ponzu sauce. Any time of year you might find calamari in a sheath of tempura. Yu knows the trick to successful frying is clean oil, the right temperature and timing.

There’s no set price for omakase, just a base price of about $80; Yu lets you decide how much you want to eat and works within your budget. At a minimum, you’ll get two small plates and about 10 pieces of sushi — a meal to remember.

310 S. Washington St., Falls Church. 703-241-1128. takumiva.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Small plates $3.50 to $15.

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