Monday, December 28, 2015

Best of 2015: Restaurants and Cocktail Bars

Is the pace of Washington, D.C. restaurant opening ever going to slow down? That's what comes to my mind first when I think back on this year of dining out at home. 

In 2013 and 2014, we watched 14th Street fill up with seemingly weekly openings. As the "hot" neighborhoods proliferate (Shaw seemed to welcome a particular number of promising newcomers this year), now it's like there are multiple interesting openings per week, making us diners very lucky to be have so much selection (while simultaneously feeling like we cannot possibly keep up). One of my first restaurant reviews of next year promises to be a good one--the recently opened Convivial in Shaw, where Mintwood Place chef Cedric Maupillier is cooking some amazing food. 

Big-name chefs continue to show interest in D.C., the biggest of which to open an outpost in our city this year was David Chang, the man behind the Momofuku collective. Judging be the lines outside Momofuku CCDC, I wasn't the only one impatiently waiting to see how his creative Asian-inspired cooking translated to our market. 

Plus our own Jose Andres continued to expand his gastronomic empire with the one-two punch of the Peruvian-by-way-of-Asia China Chilcano and the vegetable-centric-fast-casual Beefsteak, which I'm happy to hear will be adding a new location in my neighborhood next year. Also coming to my neighborhood in 2016--a new Italian restaurant from Fabio and Maria Trabocchi--the wonderful talent behind Fiola and Casa Luca. After a hard few years where we lost places like Palena and Dino, even stodgy ol' Upper Northwest seems to be getting back in the game.

Outside of D.C., we had our usual jaunts to New York, where we discovered our new favorite Mexican restaurant. We made do with cruise food, but enjoyed some pretty incredible eats in port. And we indulged our love for barbecue, Tex-Mex and good cocktails in Austin, Texas, which was as much a place to spend a long weekend as we'd hoped. Interestingly, a lot of my favorite dishes this year didn't come from the more expensive or buzzy places we visited, but rather the more casual, less flashy places we stumbled upon.

Here then are the best eats we enjoyed outside the home this year (restaurants named are in Washington, D.C. unless otherwise indicated).

Palak Chaat, Rasika
Best Starter: Palak Chaat (Rasika). Rasika is widely considered to be D.C.'s best restaurant, a pretty cool honor considering that it's Indian, a cuisine too many sneer at to their detrimental. Dinner at Rasika is an amazing experience--even more so after this year's design refresh. While everything we ate there was good, the Palak Chaat, an appetizer of chickpea-battered flash-fried spinach, is absolutely amazing. The kind of thing you'd just have to order a side of even if you promised yourself to try something new. Honorable mentions: Fried Avocado (Tupelo Honey Cafe, Arlington, Virginia), Fried Chicken Skins (The Partisan), Guacamole (The Black Ant, New York), Spicy Cucumbers (Momofuku CCDC), Hush Puppies (Fat Pete's).

Frida Kale, Beefsteak
Best Salad: Make Your Own (Beefsteak). The first thing that struck me upon walking up to the counter at Beefsteak was the amazing variety of fresh vegetables. As it should be for famed D.C. chef Jose Andres's first outing into the fast-casual corner, a beautifully minimalist space that puts all its focus on the one thing we all know we should be eating more of: our vegetables. And what better way to enjoy then to design your own salad here with all the amazing blanched, raw, crunchy, bitter and sweet you can imagine. Honorable mentions: Shredded Cabbage Salad (Tico), Quinoa Salad (China Chilcano), Lettuces and Vegetables (Hearth, New York), Dungeness crab salad (The Rookery, Juneau, Alaska), Pea Tendril Salad (White Street, New York).

Sliced Brisket with Beans and Slaw, Fat Pete's
Best Entree (Meat): Sliced Brisket (Fat Pete's). I've been pretty open about my love of barbecue. It seriously literally (yes, I'm using this correctly) makes my mouth water. Like right now as I write this, thinking about the amazing sliced brisket at Fat Pete's, which is so meaty, smoky and tender. I just love it. And it's within walking distance of my home. Yeah, I know Franklin's in Austin is the best, but really, if I can get barbecued brisket this good close to home, I can forgo Franklin's. Honorable mentions: Brisket Taco (Guero's Taco Bar, Austin, Texas), Black Angus Short Rib (Lamberts, Austin, Texas), cochinita pibil tacos (La Condesa, Austin, Texas), Slow Cooked Pork Shoulder (The Partisan), Meatloaf Tacos (Tupelo Honey Cafe, Arlington, Virginia). 

Corn Ravioli, Ghibellina
Best Entree (Pasta and Grains): Ravioli di Mais Dolci (corn ravioli) (Ghibellina). Graffito used to be the undisputed champion of corn ravioli (or technically agnolotti) in D.C., but with this dish, Ghibellina has emerged as a formidable challenger to that title. The popular 14th Street venue garnishes its ricotta and corn-stuffed pasta pockets with toasted almonds, a delicious idea. Honorable mentions: Beef Noodle Soup (Momofuku CCDC), Aeropuero (China Chilcano).

Halibut Fish & Chips, Alava's Fish & Chowder
Best Entree (Seafood): Halibut Fish & Chips (Alava's Fish & Chowder, Ketchikan, Alaska). You know how people rave about sometimes those ramshackle hole-in-the-wall places have the best food? In this case, it's absolutely true. We're not big seafood eaters, but of all the dishes we enjoyed in Alaska, the best was the halibut fish & chips at Alava's. The fish was incredibly fresh--caught that morning I imagine--and the light breading added just enough crunch. Honorable mention: Slow-Cooked Cod (White StreetNew York), Grilled Salmon (Landing Zone, Icy Strait Point, Alaska).

Breakfast Tacos, Taco Joint
Best Breakfast: Steak and Egg with Smokey Gouda Cheese Taco (Taco Joint, Austin, Texas). Breakfast tacos were one our favorite finds during our trip to Austin, and this taco, from a little taco restaurant just north of the University of Texas campus, was the best of the lot. Honorable mentions: 24 Hash (24 Diner, Austin, Texas), Omelet (The Royal Treat, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware). 

Fried Apple Pie, The Partisan
Best Dessert: Fried Apple Pie (The Partisan). Sure, it sounds like something you get at McDonald's, but consider that the apple pie is actually most people's second-favorite thing to eat at the Golden Arches. Then take that concept and turn it into something freshly made by a pastry chef, and you're in dessert heaven. Honorable mentions: Dulce de Leche Pudding Cake (La Condesa, Austin, Texas), Key Lime Pie (DBGB Kitchen & Bar)

Best service: Dos Locos (Rehoboth Beach, Delaware). Maybe I'm getting pickier, but service was an area where few restaurants really excelled this year. Service where we ate was fine, for the most part, but rarely was it a memorable aspect of our dining experiences this year. A notable exception was Dos Locos, our favorite restaurant at the beach, where we are always made to feel welcome no matter if we're sitting down for dinner or just pop in for an afternoon margarita. Even when they are crushed under the busy dinner service, our needs for condiments, refills or just the check are always anticipated and never delayed. Honorable mention: China ChilcanoLa Condesa (Austin, Texas).

Lamb Pot Stickers, China Chilcano
Most Visually Striking Dish: Pegao Norteño (Lamb Pot Stickers, China Chilcano). At China Chilcano, a starter of lamb dumplings arrive connected by a lacy layer topped with flowers and gold hovering above a few artful brushstrokes of squash puree, like some sort of beautiful garden that's also quite tasty. Honorable mention: Ponderaciones de Kiwicha (China Chilcano).

Best Cocktail (Restaurant): Maybe a Joyful Noise (The Partisan). I'm breaking cocktails into two parts, since it doesn't seem fair to compare cocktails from cocktail bars (where they do little, if anything, else) to those at restaurants. That said, the Maybe a Joyful Noise from The Partisan is a pretty incredible drink that rivals our favorite tipples from the next section. The mixture of bourbon, bitter-sweet Italian digestif, French digestif and chocolate bitters was a perfectly balanced and heady concoction that I would happily drink again. Honorable mentions: Cool Hand Luke (Tico), Cholotini (China Chilcano), Dennis Coles (Hearth, New York), Colonial (DBGB Kitchen & Bar), Honey & Chamomile G&T (Tupelo Honey Cafe, Arlington, Virginia), Devil in Oaxaca (The Black Ant, New York).
Ready to Depart (left) and Dijahbone (right), Mayahuel
Best Cocktail (Cocktail Bar): Dijahbone (Mayahuel, New York). This was the year we really made an effort to visit cool cocktail bars. We hit up some pretty amazing ones in Austin, and even found a cool one in D.C. But the two best were in New York and they are relatives of sorts (they share some of the same talent): Death & Co., whose book I can't stop raving about, and Mayahuel, its Mexican-spirits-focused offshoot. While we had wonderful experiences in both bars, we found the focus on mezcal, tequila and newcomer (to many Americans at least) sotol, to be particularly intoxicating. The Dijahbone, a blend of sotol, duck fat infused Grand Marnier, carrot juice, lime juice and cumin, was as delicious as it was interesting, a wonderful example of how to blend a number of unusual ingredients into something magical. Honorable mentions: Herb Alpert (Mayahuel, New York), Elijah's Railcar (CU29, Austin, Texas), Sierra Madre (Death & Co., New York), Someday Baby (Garage, Austin, Texas), Devil's Grin (2 Birds, 1 Stone).

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