Best restaurants in D.C.: Tom Sietsema’s 7 favorite places to eat in March 2022

Frankly, if all she served was her signature chicken leg, I’d be grateful. A holdover from when Hanumanh opened in Shaw, the chicken, steamed in a banana leaf and stark as a sheet, doesn’t immediately signal seduction. Then you take a bite and discover the magic imparted by a brine of garlic and coriander, not to mention the wonder of a pool of sauce, gently numbing with prickly ash and roaring with fried red chiles. (Show up early for the pleasure; only 20 orders are available a day.) Another luscious memory from better days is the peanut-laced, coconut-refreshed banana blossom salad, pulsing with heat, funk, crunch — flavor.

Cocktails dreamed up by returning bar director Al Thompson, a veteran of the top-shelf Barmini, flatter the eating. His nutmeg-fragrant, rum-punched “maitaicolada” makes a spirited beginning, as does a bowl of crackling shrimp chips zapped with tamarind salt.

This is food accorded lots of TLC. Luangrath’s beef curry involves braising the meat low and slow for almost four hours and chopping a jungle of enhancers — lemongrass, galangal, limes leaves and more — for the sauce based on coconut milk and gently sweetened with ground litchis. Time well spent.

For now, the rear patio remains closed and takeout is limited to “neighbors who come by and ask,” says the area’s premier Laotian ambassador, who owns Hanumanh with her son, Bobby Pradachith, and includes in her realm the popular Padaek in Falls Church and Thip Khao in Columbia Heights.

The setting at Hanumanh is as vivid as the food. Rice baskets strung on bamboo poles draw eyes to the ceiling, and fanciful murals feature the monkey gods that lend the eatery its name and evoke the temple school Luangrath recalls from her childhood.

“I never thought I’d open a bar,” says the chef. Fans are thrilled she’s done so — twice.

1604 7th St. NW. No phone. Open for indoor dining. Large plates, $19 to $20.

The Restaurant at Blue Rock

I can’t decide what’s more curative, the steaming mushroom “tea” that eases diners into dinner or the view of pond, vineyard and mountains from a table near the window. Whatever, I’m glad to be back at the Blue Rock in Washington, Va., after the inn’s $2 million refresh, a makeover that encompasses a casual, 20-seat tavern and a reservation-only, 32-seat restaurant watched over by executive chef Bin Lu, late of the acclaimed Pineapple & Pearls in The Other Washington.

Regarding diners and preferences, “there’s no one size fits all,” says the chef, 36. Lu’s four-course dinner gives patron’s options, typically something traditional (a salad, a steak) and something daring (foie chantilly tart, aged duck atop a sauce made dark and delicious with blood sausage). There are no ordinary moments. That salad might involve seasonal vegetables atop two sauces in a nest of greens; the savory tart is basically chilled whipped foie gras topped with a dark cocoa glaze in a pastry crust — a pie like no other. Pastas are particularly distinctive. Sourdough cavatelli teamed with shrimp, clams and mussels suggests “bouillabaisse” when finished with a sauce that fuses saffron, cream and flavors of the sea.

Looking for a small party space in the countryside? The 12-seat, low-ceiling private dining room beckons with botanical wallpaper and wood rafters that let you pretend you’re supping al fresco.

The restaurant’s nearby competitor is the revered Inn at Little Washington. Intimidating? The chef says his aspiration is to have his customers leave thinking “overall, I’ve had a great night.” And that they do, view included.

12567 Lee Highway, Washington. Va. 540-987-3388. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Four-course dinner, $99 a person.

The cuisine is clear the moment you step inside the restaurant and spot an ad for Callebaut chocolate on a wall and multiple little statues of boys, uh, relieving themselves. Le Mannequin references the famous “peeing boy” in Brussels, which also translates to nearly 20 ways to eat steamed mussels. They’re served as they are abroad, in double pots (one for empty shells) with a cone of can’t-eat-just-one frites. Some like it hot; Red Devil bathes the mussels in wine, herbs, harissa and horseradish.

If I’m not eating mussels here, I’m slicing into sausage — warm-spiced boudin noir or wild boar with cranberries — on tangy chopped cabbage or spooned into a lobster bisque supporting a handful of scallops, salmon and more — a respectable waterzooi. (Save you steak frites for elsewhere; the beef tastes as if it had been frozen.) A nice balance to the rich fare is a salad of hearts of palm, baby spinach and apples brightened with a citrus vinaigrette.

It’s not just the cooking you’ll appreciate. Le Mannequin Pis keeps long lunch hours and offers half-price wine Monday through Wednesday. Yellow walls, red velvet drapes and recorded chanteuse music create a modestly romantic backdrop.

Dessert is a no-brainer. You’ll want the chocolate mousse.

18064 Georgia Ave., Olney, Md. 301-478-4741. Open for indoor dining, delivery and takeout. Entrees, $22 to $34.

The latest draw from siblings Alfredo and Jessica Solis contains everything we want from a neighborhood restaurant: service that treats diners like investors, a long menu that highlights seafood but takes other flavors into account, a cozy dining room dressed with pandemic-friendly booths, and prices that encourage frequent visits.

The list of appetizers alone runs to nearly 20 dishes. The stars include a trio of handmade blue corn tortillas piled with marinated tuna, shaved red onion and avocado and lashed with a creamy citrus emulsion. “Let the party begin!” the colorful first course seems to say, and its accents support. Shrimp threaded on sugarcane skewers arrives with a smoky pineapple relish and a scoop of rice made fragrant with fresh coconut; whole scored flounder — fish enough for two — benefits from a marinade of garlic, lime juice and onions and a swim through flour seasoned with paprika before it hits the fryer.

The chefs wanted everyone to feel welcome, Alfredo Solis says. Plus, “my sister likes meat and chicken.” So the main courses include juicy skirt steak served with a neat stack of crisp yuca, stinging chimichurri and a choice of beans (go for charro beans swollen with the flavor of their porky broth). Jerk chicken might not register precisely Jamaican — there’s loads of cilantro in this version — but it definitely passes the deliciousness test. Birria tacos are packed with beef braised with chiles and not a little cinnamon. You decide how to use the customary hot consommé — as a dip or a sip.

No part of the experience gets overlooked. Almost two dozen wines are offered by the glass, and the cocktails, like the cooking, consider the expanse of Latin America. Toasts can be made with pisco sours, caipirinhas, pina coladas and more.

1133 11th St. NW. 202-836-4107. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, takeout and delivery. Entrees, $14-$29.

Washington’s best known avant-garde performance space reopened its doors after 19 months in October with a cocktail that signaled its new theme: gin-infused matcha, a refreshing, brilliant-green drink garnished with gold leaf.

Welcome to a Japanese-inspired evening during which 10 or so chefs serve 20 or so courses to no more than a dozen diners seated at a counter looking into a futuristic kitchen. The idea should come as no surprise to followers of José Andrés, who aimed to introduce a Spanish-Japanese restaurant in the Trump hotel but pulled out when Donald Trump insulted Mexicans at the dawn of his campaign for president. Anyway, “Japanese and Spanish food have a lot in common,” says Koji Terano, the research and development chef at parent company ThinkFoodGroup, who points out “tuna, rice, cooking over charcoal” as links.

If Minibar is sending out fewer magic tricks than before, the new format still introduces some sublime creations: a gorgeous one-bite taco that’s green with seaweed powder and rich with Iberian pork; abalone brushed with tamari and garnished with doll-size balls of compressed green apple; and shimmering caviar atop Wagyu beef in a nasturtium cup. The parade of dishes moves at a nice clip, concluding with desserts that include a tiny sesame tart served by a chef from a long-handled spoon — dinner as theater.

Snaring a seat requires some thought and speed. Tickets for the show go online at noon the first of every month for the following month, and typically disappear within 24 hours. Worth the effort? Minibar is as much a vacation from the routine as a dinner for the memory books.

855 E St. NW. 202-393-0812. Open for indoor dining. $295 per person for 20 or so courses, excluding tax and tip.

Well-shucked oysters, fluffy Parker House rolls, a comfortable room staged with nautical mementos: Just about everything that helps pack ‘em in at the Salt Line in Navy Yard can be found at its young spinoff in Ballston. Really, the only ingredient missing from the original is a water view, although if you squint from a table inside, you can imagine boats and waves beyond the already-popular outdoor patio.

Why Ballston? “It’s always about the neighborhood,” says chef-partner Kyle Bailey. The combination of corner location and foot traffic makes for “a cool spot.” The interior — picture lots of white subway tile, an upturned boat dangling from the ceiling, roomy sea foam-colored booths and an antique harpoon over the semi-visible kitchen — almost begs you to order a bowl of chive-speckled clam chowder — lightly creamy but thick with tender clams and potatoes — and some stuffies whose lemony sausage-and-baked-clam filling would benefit from a crisper surface.

Hired from Boston, Chile native Matt Singer has personalized the menu with dishes including lightly torched mackerel crudo, splashed with ponzu sauce and garnished with Lilliputian onion rings, and housemade tagliatelle dressed with butter-poached squid. The entree rocks with the help of a red pepper cream sauce and crunch from breadcrumbs and crushed hazelnuts seasoned with paprika and saffron. Singer also heaps golden fried scallops on a split buttered bun. So sweet!

Salt Line’s terrific roast beef sandwich acknowledges the many sources for such on the North Shore of Massachusetts. The version here is built from rosy shaved meat, American cheese, horseradish-spiked mayonnaise and a toasted onion roll. The beast, also zingy with barbecue sauce, comes with a choice of a salad or fries. Let your bad angel prevail; the hand-cut, twice-fried potatoes are terrific.

Maryland, specifically Bethesda, is poised to welcome a Salt Line as early as eight months from now, says Bailey, although a year is more likely — you know, supply chain and all.

4040 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-566-2075. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Entrees, $29 to $56 (for whole branzino).

2 Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria

A look around 2 Amys helps explain the long run of the pioneering pizzeria opened by chef-owner Peter Pastan after 9/11.

The genial guy slicing the mortadella behind the wine bar lets you know that he made the pork sausage, shot through with coriander seed and circles of fat, and that the crusty brown bread accompanying it is from flour milled on-site.

As for the Neapolitan-style pizza, 2 Amys puts out a pie that seduces me with char marks reminiscent of leopard spots, titanic lips, pleasant chewiness and a lovely yeasty flavor. Go for the Pozzuoli — zesty housemade sausage, velvety red peppers, nutty fontina and more on a 10-inch canvas. If you want to eat it like the owner, ask to have the pizza served uncut.

Some of the many “little things” — deviled eggs with brassy green sauce, salt cod fritters served with garlic aioli — have been around forever and continue to delight with their quality and consistency. Pizza might be the shiny bauble in the window, but a handful of dishes would look at home at a proper Italian ristorante. Picture vitello tonnato and even steak, as in super-beefy, well-marbled dairy cow, butchered by hand and dry-aged for up to 100 days. (“Tuscan Steak Night” is typically weeknights only.)

Tile floors, pressed-tin ceilings and naked tables do nothing to absorb the clamor of a busy lunch or dinner, but come on, no one goes to a pizzeria to meditate. Besides, you’re eating in a Washington standard-bearer, brimming with thoughtful details: wines priced to suit every budget and palate, desserts every bit as good as what comes before them and hospitality included in the price of a meal.

3715 Macomb St. NW. 202-885-5700. Open for indoor and outdoor dining and takeout. Pizzas, $12.75 to $19.75.

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