Best restaurants in the D.C. area: Tom Sietsema’s favorites in January 2023


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Some people’s idea of romance is eating with their hands. Others gravitate to rooms with views, or dishes with a French je ne sais quoi. Fans of the last are especially lucky. French restaurants are making headlines with Prince Harry-like frequency around Washington.

With an eye on Valentine’s Day, I found restaurants to check those boxes, plus a few spots that are worth knowing about even if it’s the family — or just you — going out to dinner.

Nicholas Stefanelli is best known in Washington for his Italian cooking. Think Masseria, Officina and the late Bibiana. But the top chef likes to remind people he graduated from L’Academie de Cuisine in 2001, burgundies are his passion, and one of his favorite resources is the French culinary bible, Le Répertoire de La Cuisine. Three years ago, when the owners of the Morrow Hotel approached him for an idea for their forthcoming property, Stefanelli didn’t hesitate to state his cuisine preference.

Le Clou, rolled out in NoMa in December, is the result, and I only wish I lived closer. Set off the hotel lobby, the airy dining room is both comfortable and chic; baby-blue chairs and brown leather banquettes front the swirled marble tables. For its part, the menu is one of those that calls to both mainstream and adventurous palates. No problem if one of you wants steak frites and the other hankers for cuisses de grenouilles (you know, frog legs).

A $50 Manhattan? Welcome to the era of the ‘unguilty pleasure.’

Late of the Japanese-Italian Tonari, Nico Cezar serves as chef de cuisine in the exhibition kitchen. He’s worked with his boss before, at Masseria, and traces his interest in French cooking to his debut restaurant, Central Michel Richard, where, he says, “I learned to pick up a knife.”

These days, he’s the teacher, making sure sunchokes get their 15 minutes of fame on a plate of bronzed scallops, where the vegetable is served three ways, as a puree, roasted and fried like a chip. The allure of the all-day omelet isn’t just the spoonful of osetra caviar on top, but also the marriage of French butter and farm eggs, cooked low and slow so the eggs cut like custard. The pièce de résistance is sweetbreads staged with buttery roasted cauliflower florets, punched up with anchovies, and showered with earthy black truffles.

Desserts cast a wide net with chocolate custard and ParisBrest, although the richness of the earlier courses finds me gravitating to the fetching fruit tart, bracing with citrus and set off with meringue “kisses.”

The name of the restaurant — clou translates to “nail” in French — conveys “something that holds the greatest attention,” much like Cartier’s signature Juste Un Clou bracelet, says Stefanelli.

Dinner isn’t a nonstop Gallic dream. Service is all over you until you need to find someone to let them know the salad Lyonnaise could double as a deer lick. And some of the early hype hasn’t materialized, like a cheese trolley stuck in a far-off port. But it’s good to know about a restaurant on par with the always-busy, hard-to-book, ever-delicious Le Diplomate in this part of town. Plus, eggs for dinner!

222 M St. NE. 202-742-9777. lecloudc.com. Open for indoor dining. Dinner entrees, $29 to $64 (for lobster thermidor).

Take a creative owner with Lebanese roots and add a talented Egyptian American chef and you get a luscious source for dips, kebabs and “picnic platters” at the Mosaic District in Northern Virginia. Kirby Club stars Rose Previte, the vision behind Maydan and Compass Rose in Washington, and Omar Hegazi, who was raised in Cairo and went on to cook at such diverse restaurants as Bourbon Steak in Georgetown and the fast-casual Zooba in New York.

Kirby Club adds luscious dips, kebabs and ‘picnic platters’ to Fairfax

A diner gets a sense of all that experience in Hegazi’s menu, which acknowledges that the world is made up of some people who want their own plate of food and others who don’t mind competing for the last morsel of whatever on a platter.

Non-sharers will rejoice over the plates for one, featuring a variety of kebabs — chicken, lamb, oyster (mushroom) — that feel like a feast given the fluffy yellow rice, sumac-spiked onions and bright salad that accompany them. “Picnic platters” are a throwback to Previte’s childhood memories of Labor Day spreads with the Kirby Club, a Lebanese social group her maternal grandparents helped found in 1933 in Akron, Ohio. My current fascination is the whole roast chicken, massaged with garlic, turmeric and oil and presented on a raft of flatbread with the aforementioned rice and salad, but also crinkle-cut fries sprinkled with za’atar and a rainbow of sauces.

But first, some appetizers. First among equals is the muhammara, dark with charred red peppers and sweet-tart with pomegranate. Then again, the falafel are also excellent snacks, flavored with the same coriander, garlic and onion Hegazi recalls from his youthful grazing in Cairo.

Previte’s newcomer is personalized with a central bar, walls with mod colors evoking the 1970s and an album’s worth of the owner’s family photographs. “It’s always sunny here,” an attendant says of the vibe and the flavors. For sure, for sure.

2911 District Ave., Fairfax. 571-430-3650. kirbyclub.com. Open for indoor dining. Entrees, $17 to $32.

In recent years, this shoe box in Petworth has hosted a handful of restaurants, including Magpie and the Tiger, Pom Pom and the late, great Himitsu. Here’s hoping the newest occupant, with a mere 22 seats, sticks around for a while. I, for one, would miss the source for lamb dumplings, warm with cumin and sharp with lemongrass; a turmeric-tinted crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork, mung beans and bean sprouts smoky from the wok; and drinks that go down as vividly as they’re described on the menu.

Little Vietnam is a good thing in a small package in Washington

Behind the pleasure are a handful of people who have put in time at the local Daikaya Group and the modern Vietnamese Moon Rabbit. Like the dining room with its open kitchen, the menu is small, fewer than a dozen dishes. But most of the efforts are the type you can’t wait to repeat, like the strapping bowl of red coconut curry with a meaty duck leg poking out of what looks like lava, fueled in part with ginger-scallion oil.

Little Vietnam, which crept into the neighborhood on little cat feet in December, has no phone or website. It also doesn’t mention my favorite dish on its menu. Pro tip: Visit when the doors open at 5 p.m. for the chance to try the fabulous chicken Caesar wrap, made in small batches and offered on a first-come, first-served basis. You’re welcome.

828 Upshur St. NW. No phone. No website. Open for indoor dining. Soups and entrees, $16 to $22.

The Roof Terrace Restaurant

The biggest challenge for the fleet of waiters and cooks at the 265-seat restaurant atop the Kennedy Center?

“To get everyone seated, fed, up and out” in time for their performances, “and to do it seamlessly,” says the dining draw’s general manager, Jared Richardson.

At the Kennedy Center’s Roof Terrace, it’s dinner and a show

The key to success must be practice, practice, practice, based on recent meals at the Roof Terrace Restaurant, which serves dinner and Sunday brunch in an expanse dressed with illuminated columns, giant mirrors that reflect the great outdoors, an endless ceiling and a sea of tables, many of which take in views of such Washington wonders as the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Water is poured ASAP, bread is dropped by in a flash and the drinks are delivered with cheetah-like speed.

A million bucks went into the recent refresh, which includes a more streamlined menu from chef Jaime Montes de Oca Jr., a veteran of the Cosmos Club and Lafayette in the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington. The first courses play up the tried and true. Think yellowfin tuna tartare, lit with chili mayonnaise, and lobster bisque, whispering of brandy and capped with a tuft of whipped cream and tarragon. Main courses could be lifted from name-your-preferred steakhouse, but they incorporate worldly accents, too. Yes, you can get a prime steak with hand-cut french fries. The more adventurous options feature salmon poised on black lentils seasoned with garam masala and chicken plied with chayote slaw and mole sauce sweetened with white grapes.

At its best, the Roof Terrace isn’t just convenient — an elevator ride away from a performance hall — it’s worthy of polite applause.

A tray of petit fours draws dinner to a sweet conclusion, but the best finish is a stroll around the expansive terrace outside. The show includes the Watergate Hotel, Georgetown University and other famous sites — and doesn’t require a ticket.

2700 F St. NW. 202-416-8555. roofterracedc.com. Open for indoor dining. Main courses, $27 to $68 (for prime rib eye). Bottomless mimosa brunch, $66.

The owners of the popular Thompson Italian in Falls Church were scouting locations for a Tex-Mex restaurant when they came upon the space for the original Hank’s Oyster Bar in Old Town Alexandria — and promptly decided it was better suited to a second branch of their proven concept.

For Tex-Mex to happen, Gabe and Katherine Thompson wanted a lot more outdoor space, which the King Street quarters lack. The couple were also reminded of the West Village spots they opened together in Manhattan and figured the 25 minutes or so separating two Italian restaurants in Northern Virginia meant they wouldn’t compete with each other.

The owners didn’t have far to look for a chef. The clear choice was Lucy Dakwar, who had worked with Gabe Thompson at L’Apicio in New York and helped opened the original Thompson Italian in 2019. (“I packed my weekend bag and never left,” says Dakwar.)

Her menu isn’t a clone of what’s cooking in Falls Church. The chef’s fresh ideas include lamb meatballs, kicky with Aleppo pepper and staged on a tomato sauce enriched with pecorino, and a luscious salmon spread — cold-smoked fish poached in garlic oil — served with toasted focaccia. The glimmering garnish? Limoncello “pearls” created with the help of lemon and agar agar.

Pastas, which make up the bulk of the script, are made in-house. Lemony bucatini blackened with squid ink and tossed with sweet scallops sees the most action from my fork, and I appreciate the light crunch from toasted breadcrumbs. A close second is sage-scented gnocchi with slivers of braised chicken and a sauce sweetened with minced carrots. Dakwar is working on a few dishes representative of her Palestinian heritage. I’m looking forward to shish barak, a take on lamb ravioli with yogurt sauce.

The clean design of the original carries over to the owners’ new spot, which opens with a long stretch of bar leading into a couple of dining rooms decorated with mirrors and art on butter-colored walls and lighted to flatter the assembly.

The bar weighs in with a liquid curiosity: a vodka gimlet flavored like cacio e pepe. The expected hit of lime juice is accompanied by notes of (pink) peppercorn and parmesan. Sip it fast. As the combination warms up, it suggests a plate, not a glass, is in order.

1024 King St., Alexandria. thompsonitalian.com. Open for indoor dining. Pastas and entrees, $19 to $36.

Talk about something for everyone! Zinnia, the successor to Mrs. K’s Toll House in Silver Spring, serves multiple menus from morning to night, indoors and out, across three acres. No wonder Chris Brown, also the owner of Takoma Beverage Co., has introduced his replacement to the dowager restaurant in stages since October last year, culminating most recently with brunch service.

While Zinnia is free of the antiques that populated Mrs. K’s, the owner repainted the 90-year-old, 11,000-square-foot space with the blue-and-white color scheme it bore decades earlier. Indoor destinations include a light-filled bar and dining room, warmed up with a double-sided fireplace and overlooking the lawn, and a cozy, low-ceilinged tavern with booths downstairs, host to live music Wednesday through Friday nights.

In the kitchen: Danny Wells, a veteran of the Black Restaurant Group, a brand that includes Black’s Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda and BlackSalt in the District. His menu is one that could suit date night, business deals or family needs (starting with the crayons and paper at the host stand). The winter attractions embrace smoked braised lamb set in puff pastry and capped with whipped feta cheese, and winy braised chicken thighs arranged in their dish with mushrooms and farro.

Hot apple cider? Check. Something for vegetarians? One option is soup flavored with squash and red pepper. I’ll be back for brunch again, too. Crackling bread, fried Gulf shrimp, shaved onions, and housemade bread and butter pickles add up to a swell po’ boy.

Zinnia’s service is spot on, efficient and enthusiastic. Kids’ burgers and fries have been observed landing on the table ahead of their parents’ food, and inquiries about outdoor dining are met with descriptions that have diners rethinking their inside perches. “We do fire pits, we do s’mores,” a waiter teased us one night. When the bill comes, servers point out that gratuity is included. If only every restaurant shared as much.

The expansive lawn, dressed with clusters of chairs and tables, a gazebo and garden, are tended to by the same groundskeeper retained by Mrs. K’s — for 25 years. (Thank you, Marvin Barrera.) Zinnia borrows one of Brown’s daughter’s middle names, apt given the bucolic ambiance. The seniors showing off the nooks and crannies to juniors are people who remember the destination as Mrs. K’s, says Wells of the informal tours he routinely encounters.

Brown considers the parking lot he inherited from the previous restaurant a huge asset. The space, across from Zinnia, can accommodate 70 cars. Turns out the restaurateur isn’t quite finished with his monster project: The sign in the lot still announces Mrs. K’s Toll House.

“I’ve got the new sign in my garage,” says Brown. “I just need to paint it.”

9201 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 301-704-6653. eatatzinnia.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Dinner entrees, $17 to $35.

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