Lots of luscious things passed my lips in the course of dining around the region for my 22nd annual fall restaurant guide. These 10 dishes are the ones I can’t stop thinking about. Let the ordering begin.
A diner’s first taste of Imperfecto in the West End is a splendid amuse-bouche: mushroom soup that gets its texture and depth from a host of ingredients — braised pureed leeks, cauliflower, guajillo pepper, dried porcinis, allspice, cream — and arrives in a delicate coupe. Chef de cuisine Rene Gonzalez says the liquid introduction, dotted with truffle and chive oils, conveys a message: “Welcome to my house.” Pleased to be here.
Celery root fritters
Chef Rob Rubba says he wanted something fun to launch his $75 plant-based tasting menu at Oyster Oyster in Shaw. Sure enough, it’s smiles all around when diners pluck a hot celery root fritter off a napkin pillow. The crackle of fried julienne celery root is followed by the rush of creamy smoked tofu in the center of the golden orb. On with the show.
Tofu skin salad
Family history explains the tofu skin salad ($12) at Mama Chang in Fairfax. Chef Peter Chang’s grandfather practiced Chinese medicine; his grandmother was a vegetarian. The couple lived in a part of Hubei province where a lot of Buddhists lived, says the chef’s daughter, Lydia Chang. To make the popular appetizer, a block of tofu is braised for several hours in what sounds like a spice cabinet: star anise, cardamom and licorice root, to name just a few flavor pumps. After the tofu is sliced into ribbons resembling pasta, it’s slicked with either sesame oil or, better yet, Sichuan chile oil, and garnished with cilantro and scallions.
Pan con tomate
The key to this seemingly simple snack at Spanish Diner in Bethesda: “the right bread, good ripe tomatoes and great Spanish olive oil,” says chef de cuisine Daniel Lugo. Beefsteak tomatoes from the farmers market are grated and brushed on bread — airy-crumbed pan de cristal, imported from Barcelona and toasted twice — then finished with a drizzle of olive oil and sea salt. Delicious on its own, pan con tomate ($10) is headier in the company of meaty Pujadó Solano anchovies ($10 more) from the northern coast of Spain. Indeed, to pair the two is to eat the best fish sandwich around.
There’s no flour, cream or egg in the superior, Armagnac-fueled pâté ($18) at Annabelle in Dupont Circle, where chef Frank Ruta opts to bind his appetizer — developed and served during his White House years — with liver. Heart, kidney and beef tongue weigh in with more richness; the organ meats are diced so recipients can see the chunks. Pistachios punctuate each porky slab, garnished with something pickled and set on a brushstroke of mustard glaze.
Thamee revels in the flavors of Myanmar but allows sous-chef Jafar Umarov to express his Central Asian roots with a refined version of the samusa he grew up eating — at home and on the street — in Tajikistan. The savory pastry ($7) evolves from several sheets of thin dough, brushed with butter, rolled into a log and cut into pieces, which are then stood up, rolled and filled with diced potatoes and garam masala. An egg wash is brushed onto the packets before they hit the oven. Terrific by itself, the labor of love, which shatters like a good croissant, comes with a (you decide) dunk or spread powered with tamarind and fermented Chinese black beans.
Green bean tartare
Who says a tartare has to involve meat or fish? The starry Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., demonstrates #greenisgood with a vegetarian alternative. Green beans from the property’s garden are minced, blanched, shaped into a cake with potatoes and capers, and finished at the table with spiced fried onions that suggest French’s by way of France. Rounding out the verdant pleasure (a selection on the $265 vegetarian tasting menu) is toasted bread slathered with tomato jam and a sublime tomato vinaigrette.
Grandma pizza slice
Can’t do a 16-inch round of pizza from Happy Gyro? Chef Johnny Monis offers an old-school baked square — “what grandmothers might make in a home oven,” says co-owner Anne Marler — dappled with a zippy vodka sauce and light applications of pecorino and mozzarella. While a square shares the whole pie’s sourdough profile, the former offers the springy-spongey texture of focaccia. Similar to the larger pizza, the grandma slices ($6 each) are personally crafted by the top chef.
Peking duck confit
David Deshaies loves Peking duck, says “duck confit always sells,” and combines cuisines as deftly as Bob Woodward gets people to talk. At Unconventional Diner in Shaw, the French chef offers confit duck legs ($27) treated to honey, Chinese five-spice and sesame seeds, and served in the company of Korean-dressed chopped cucumbers, a housemade hoisin sauce and steamed buns for bundling the bird. Asia meets Europe in every bite.
Bar ace Tom Martinez took inspiration for his best-selling cocktail at the new Daru off H Street NE from mint chutney, an Indian staple. The drink incorporates curdled, clarified kefir, which is turned into a syrup; the fetching green base is courtesy of mint and cilantro, pureed just ahead of dinner service to retain their brightness. Mix in some Denizen white rum with three years of age on it, and you’ve got a Hari Daiquiri ($14) — a vivid cocktail that neatly captures its restaurant.
Illustrations by Kristen Sgalambro. Design and art direction by Clare Ramirez.