Best restaurants in DC: Tom Sietsema’s favorites right now

Still, it feels like old times as dinner — four courses for $79 — unfolds on the heated patio and street outside. As when the dining room bustled, diners are treated to a revivifying shrub (flavored with orange and fennel most recently) and a lovely snack (kale-colored mornay sauce in a miniature tart). From there, take your pick from one of three or so dishes per course. Better yet, go with a food lover so that you can share more of chef and co-owner Jon Sybert’s handiwork. Life feels more worth living in the company of sweet bronzed scallops garnished with crisped fennel and chiles and poised on creamy pine nut mousse; beef tongue, sliced thin as paper and gathered with creamy white beans and fried capers in a lemony broth; and a salad of sumac-sprinkled Gold Rush apple wedges alternating with roasted Brussels sprouts on dollops of smoked yogurt, a prompt that diners who refrain from meat have serious, and delicious, choices. Desserts sing, too. Taleggio mousse sprinkled with semolina crumble and a spoonful of jam makes a sublime finish.

The advantage to ordering takeout from TUG, as it’s affectionately known, is the option of ordering a la carte. But this fan prefers Sybert’s beautiful food on a plate rather than out of a carton, and in the good company of Tyler and her colleagues, who manage the neat trick of making you forget we’re in a crisis while adhering to admirably strict safety protocols.

Cheers to co-owner Bill Jensen and wine director Ali Thorburn for injecting so much fun into wine service. Their varied tastes — he leans classic, she’s more eclectic — result in pairings that inform and delight: “Beyoncé vs. Solange,” Thorburn likes to joke.

1827 Adams Mill Rd. NW. 202-986-9600. Open for outdoor patio dining and takeout. Delivery can be arranged through Skip the Line. A la carte dishes (for takeout only) $14 to $28. Four-course dinner at the restaurant $79.

1789 Restaurant

Kyoo Eom’s August audition for his future employer ended with an invitation to head up the kitchen at this grand dame in the shadow of Georgetown University. “This is a coronation, not an interview,” John McDonnell, president of Clyde’s Restaurant Group, recalls telling the South Korea-born chef, who has worked for esteemed French chef Daniel Boulud in Manhattan.

Fast forward to now. Eom’s takeout is as careful and considered as the food served in 1789’s handsome dining rooms, one illuminated by a fireplace. Just look at the pheasant ballotine, ground pheasant and duck liver foie gras in a band of puff pastry, served as thin slices alongside a pinch of salad and spark plugs including pickled Swiss chard stems. At home, the only thing the appetizer seems to be missing is a landing spot of cream-colored linen. Other seductions include hand-cut steak tartare flanked with slender bars of golden fried potatoes, curry-laced squash soup fancied up with coconut milk panna cotta and halibut decked out with a light-as-air lid of toasted brioche — dishes you are apt to recognize but whose clever touches make them seem fresh, and easy as Dolly Parton to like. Veal tagliatelle, its richness countered with orange zest, is dinner enough for two. Here and there, the food speaks to the chef’s heritage. Note his use of black garlic, and the pickled turnips and radishes with the ballotine.

1789 is all about thoughtfulnesses. Meals come with a gratis box of pillowy, house-baked rolls and — another plus — room-temperature butter. Want some wine with your meal? General manager Brian Zipin, another major asset, is happy to advise on selections to-go, plucked from a cellar of about 250 different bottles, with a focus on major U.S. wine-growing regions as well as France.

Greeting and feeding diners since 1962, 1789 is aging with relevance.

1226 36th St. NW. 202-965-1789. Open for takeout, delivery and indoor dining. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates and Uber Eats. Takeout main courses $28 to $48; dining room main courses $31 to $52.

A & J Restaurant

The flavors of Northeast China are on parade at these same-named dim sum outposts in Rockville and Annandale, where, despite the pandemic, customers are treated to an improbable selection of nearly 70 dishes. The tip of the iceberg finds chicken smoked over tea leaves, cigar-length pork pot stickers, crisp cabbage ignited with Sichuan peppercorns, and nugget-size steamed spareribs, coated in soft rice crumbs seasoned with five-spice powder.

A & J has its roots in Taiwan, where co-owner Elaine Tang’s uncle launched the brand, known there as Half Acre Garden, some 40 years ago. In 1986, Tang’s brother introduced A & J to Los Angeles; Tang and her husband, Jay, followed up with dining rooms in Rockville and Annandale in 1996 and 2000, respectively.

Reliability is a hallmark of the Washington-area restaurants, where the shredded pork and mustard green soup is as delicious and restorative as I remember it back when Facebook was in its infancy, and the shaved dry bean curd, pungent with cilantro and crunchy with peanuts, remains a prized snack. Soups, including a subtle beef broth, come with a choice of thin or wide noodles; the latter, made with the wheat common in northern China, are rolled out in-house.

Even though the small dining rooms are offering
only takeout for now, the servers handing over bags of food manage to personalize the experience. “Hot sauce? Chopsticks?” a server at the Rockville branch asked me at the door in February. Mindful of the recent Chinese holiday, she added, “Happy New Year!”

A & J offers its menus in Chinese and English. Fear not, say the Tangs. The lists are the same, except for the fuller descriptions on the English version. Equally enticing are the prices: Only one of A & J’s many dishes costs more than $10.

1319 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 301-251-7878. 4316 Markham St., Annandale. 703-813-8181. Open for takeout/delivery only. Delivery in Maryland via Chowbus and Uber Eats; delivery in Virginia via Hungry Panda and Uber Eats. Small plates $1.40 to $10.05.

La Famosa

Details do their best to put you smack in San Juan. The outdoor seating includes gliders and chairs in pastel hues, rum flows on the drinks list, and the mofongo — mashed fried green plantains — envelops diners in a haze of garlic.

The all-day restaurant, from Puerto Rico native Joancarlo Parkhurst, refers to itself as “fast-fine” (instead of “fast-casual”), which means you order at a counter and wait for finesse to follow. Pretty fluted pastelillos crack open to reveal juicy, cayenne-fired beef picadillo, the pork chop squirts juices at the touch of a knife, and passion fruit mousse provides just the right tart finish to any feast. Parkhurst is both owner and cook, relying on his grandmother’s recipes for inspiration (don’t skip the chicken fricassee) and an old family canning business in Puerto Rico for the name of his sunny spot in Navy Yard.

This is humble food with haute touches. Hearts of palm are a welcome sight in the house salad, its dressing punchy with lemon and mustard. The good taste extends to the dining room, where leather pads dress up the black benches.

In a town stacked with great sandwiches, La Famosa weighs in with the mighty, mouthwatering Tripleta: marinated rib-eye, pork butt, deli ham and Swiss cheese captured in a long roll called pan de agua, imported from Miami. Parkhurst calls the handful, littered with potato sticks, “Puerto Rico’s answer to cheesesteak.” Philly, meet your match.

1300 Fourth St. SE (entrance on Tingey Street). 202-921-9882. Open for takeout, delivery, inside and outside dining. Delivery via DoorDash and Uber Eats. Entrees $14 to $29.

Pennyroyal Station

It took three years for the restaurant to open in Prince George’s County. Blame the delay on a gut job, permits and the stops and starts caused by the pandemic. Whatever. Pennyroyal Station is serving some mighty fine cooking in a roost that’s so inviting, you ought to fetch your food in person just to see it.

The menu, from former Bar Pilar chef Jesse Miller, might read familiar, but everything tastes better than the same old. Squash soup gets a charge from lemongrass, ginger, turmeric and a topper of Calabrian chiles. And lasagna is outfitted for the season with sliced squash in the role of pasta and presented with a cream sauce shot through with rosemary and ginger. “Sammies” enjoy a category of their own; the star showcases buttermilk fried chicken, snappy sliced pickles and “ramp ranch” dressing inside a soft toasted bun. Vintage china underscores Miller’s nostalgic, Southern-accented cooking, which includes family meals. Think brisket with biscuits and collards. (Oh my!)

You can’t miss the building, dressed on the outside with a flowery mural and inside with a handsome retro bar. Bonus: Recently expanded hours mean everything is offered throughout the day.

3310 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainer, Md. 240-770-8579. Open for takeout/delivery/indoor and outdoor dining. Delivery via DoorDash and Uber Eats. Sandwiches and dinner entrees, $12 to $27.


The award for the best-insulated delivery meal goes to the four-year-old Rohobot in Silver Spring, which bundles its vegetable combination like a babushka wraps a Russian baby: so completely, it’s hard to see what’s inside. Peel back the folds of injera, though, and you witness a kaleidoscope of yellow lentils, dark green collards, crimson beets and turmeric-colored cabbage with bright orange carrots.

It’s all as luscious as it looks. Those chopped collards have lots of garlic, ginger and red onion going for them. Same for the earthy-sweet beets, which also get a stab of heat from jalapeños. The fire in the red lentils? Berbere, the Ethiopian spice blend that torches whatever it touches. Customers asked for breakfast and chef-owner Tsehay Beferdu recently delivered, with a menu offered daily until noon. Eye-openers include kinche — boiled cracked wheat finished with clarified butter — beef stew mixed with torn injera.

Beferdu uses the recipes she learned from her restaurateur-mother as a girl growing up in Addis Ababa and later showcased in a trio of hotels she ran in Ethiopia’s capital. The meatier draws on her menu include awaze tibs — sauteed lamb, rosemary and jalapeño — and kitfo, blazingly spiced minced beef cooked (or not) the way you ask. Diners who forget to specify get the dish, often eaten rare, cooked medium. Upgrade to “special” and the kitfo comes with collard greens and housemade cottage cheese.

No utensils necessary, chowhounds know; the extra scrolls of spongy injera in your order are all the scoops you need.

7833 Eastern Ave., Silver Spring. 301-650-7595. Open for takeout and delivery only. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates and Uber Eats. Entrees $10.45 to $28.95.

Spice Kraft Indian Bistro

The prospect of feeding an influx of Amazon workers lured friends Anthony Sankar and Premnath Durairaj from Roanoke to Northern Virginia, where the entrepreneurs replaced Bombay Curry Company in Alexandria and Delhi Club in Arlington with their distinctive brand of Indian hospitality. Hoping to fill some gaps on the scene, they’re offering curry wraps and chicken tikka burgers, among the bistro’s lunchtime selections, and desserts such as coconut pineapple bread pudding.

The restaurants share the same menu created by Durairaj, who as a junior cook at the Taj Coromandel hotel in Chennai, in southern India, says he tried to push the envelope and give his cooking some twists. Customers can taste what he means by ordering the grilled shrimp at either eatery. The most Indian thing about the dish is that it’s cooked in a tandoor. Otherwise, accents of crushed olive, crumbled feta and balsamic reduction suggest you’re in a Greek taverna. “I like sweet and spicy,” says the chef, whose chicken nuggets glazed with mango and ginger back him up.

Spice Kraft is a welcome compromise for bubble mates with different views on meat, which is to say, vegetarians and carnivores can go their own ways on the menu and have fun. Let me suggest the smoky eggplant, onion and tomato shot through with green chile for the former and the braised lamb shank, marinated in garam masala, for meat eaters. The bistros also allow customers to mix and match, with a roster of “proteins” (salmon, lamb, paneer) and sauces (spinach, korma, vindaloo). Like every other restaurant, this one is offering a chicken sandwich. The sesame seed bun says “America,” but the interior of the whopper places its recipient squarely in India.

2607 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria 703-836-6363 and 1135 N. Highland St., Arlington. 703-527-5666. Open for takeout, delivery, indoor and outdoor dining. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats and the Arlington branch (five-mile radius). Entrees, $13 to $24 (for mixed grill).

Sharbat Bakery

The young bakery has friends in high places. No less than Elin Suleymanov, the Azerbaijani ambassador to the United States, says he makes multiple trips to Sharbat in Adams Morgan every week. Among the dishes he gravitates to are pakhlava, as in baklava. The shape of the sweet, its light pastry layers and comparatively gentle sweetness, distinguish it from the foreign competition back home, a country that shares borders with Armenia, Georgia, Iran and Russia. The ambassador jokingly says, “We have three epic battles” in the region: “who makes the best tea, dolma and baklava.”

The shorgoghal reminds the diplomat even more of home, he says of the bun-shape pastry, whose flaky exterior gives way to a center seasoned with anise, black pepper and cumin. Both Suleymanov and Ilhama Safarova, Sharbat’s owner, are from Azerbaijan’s capital and largest city, Baku, where shorgoghal is a featured attraction at Nowruz, the five-day Azerbaijani holiday celebrating both the new year and the arrival of spring. Shorgoghal, glossy from a wash of egg yolk and freckled with poppy seeds, calls to all the senses. Bite down and the treat shatters audibly, like footsteps in hard snow.

Safarova bakes a dozen or so cakes, most in fruit flavors, and I could make a case for every slice — raspberry, apricot, caramel mousse — I’ve tried. What each type shares are a moist crumb, fresh whipped cream and a restrained hand with sugar. The baker’s Russian-inspired honey cake, however, is in a class of its own. Both the dough — made from honey, eggs, butter and flour — and the filling — coaxed from milk, egg and sugar — are whipped up on the stove and later alternated in a brown beauty rising as high as 30 thin layers. The combined flavor is similar to graham crackers and creamy white filling — pleasantly mysterious.

2473 18th St. NW. 202-843-5252. Open for takeout, delivery and indoor dining. Delivery via Grubhub. Sweet and savory pastries, $2.49 to $6.69; cake by the slice $5.99 to $6.49.

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