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

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No restaurant roundup can be all things to all people, but this month’s collection of favorites addresses diners itching for road trips, private rooms, plant-based menus, half-portions of French food and eye-popping ambiance with their lunch or dinner. Read on, and reserve away.

Even if I didn’t know Jarad Slipp was behind this wine bar/cocktail lounge/small plates space, the sign outside the Middleburg newcomer would draw me in.

“Wine is now cheaper than gas,” the message read on a recent weekend. “Drink, don’t drive!”

Slipp, the former estate manager at RdV Vineyards in Delaplane, Va., brings a world of expertise and wit to the 40-seat Tremolo Bar, a two-story vision in white interspersed with a display of plants hanging from the ceiling of the ground floor. In an earlier life, the owner patrolled the dining rooms at CityZen in Washington and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. A 1996 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Slipp knows his way around the kitchen, too. Did I mention he’s also a master sommelier? His new roost, which succeeds a juice bar, launched after plans to open “a fancy restaurant” in the area fell through early in the pandemic — “not the time to put millions” into a dining project, says the owner.

Slipp pours his many skills into Tremolo Bar, which offers 75 wines by the glass, half-bottle and full flask; highlights classic cocktails (“No hipster drinks that take 25 mins to make,” declares the list); and features a short but wide-ranging menu that takes into account snackers (Thai fried peanuts, a lemony rocket salad) and people who might want something more substantial (see: lobster mac and cheese and duck confit).

Worth the journey? You bet. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another single venue that can deliver by the glass Château Latour bordeaux; a Prohibition-era, chartreuse-colored Last Word as balanced as a scale; and juicy meatballs formed with local lamb. Warm with Calabrian chiles, they’re stacked on cooling raita.

Three wine-preservation systems allow Slipp to pour the sea of wine. Amazingly, there’s no stove here. Slipp and staff rely on fast-cooking TurboChefs to make a crab dip — rich with cheeses including cheddar and fontina and flanked with brioche “soldiers” for dipping — and cubed potatoes and bacon in a bubbling blanket of pungent taleggio cheese. The beauty prize goes to a bowl of hummus artfully paved with Fresno chiles, charred Brussels sprouts and fried shallots.

Maybe you had pizza on your mind. Slipp has you covered — down the street at Knead Wine, his boutique wine shop that serves to-go pizza named for musicians.

The owner initially aspired to fancy. This customer is glad he settled on fun with high standards.

19 E. Washington St., Middleburg, Va. 540-687-5784. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Small plates, $8 to $90 (for caviar and potato chips).

Chef Frederik De Pue is betting people are hungry for space to entertain with his latest restaurant, named for a beloved Belgian grandfather and conveniently located near the National and Warner theaters. Fully half of the Henri, which opens as a public bar and 60-seat dining room, is devoted to private events in the back. Four large rooms, named for the four seasons, and two smaller venues, Dawn and Dusk, claim their own sleek oval kitchen, bar and custom-written menus.

The chef did his homework before opening in February, asking prospective clients what they wanted: nothing stuffy, they told him. The maiden menu combines familiar staples (steak frites, crab cakes) with flights of fancy (cauliflower “couscous,” suckling pig crepe).

The new Henri downtown is a real crowd-pleaser, with room for privacy

The spare but stylish main dining room would look at home in Brussels. The focal point is a $50,000 Bonnet rotisserie in the exhibition kitchen, although the whimsical collection of brown lights suspended from the ceiling are just as seductive. (Recycled cardboard has never looked better.)

That porcine wrap is wonderful, by the way. Slices of piglet stuffed with herbs and slowly cooked on the spit are bound in a delicate chestnut crepe that’s topped with raw onions and lime — a racy foil to the rich pork. Sauteed turbot filet, strewn with herbs and shiny with butter, swims to the table with fluffy-centered chickpea fritters. Of the meat dishes, my preference is for lamb, brushed with Dijon mustard and presented as tangy pink slices. The sides go beyond the usual suspects to include kale, fried to a wisp and splashed with a champagne-raisin dressing. Desserts are pretty but forgettable; drinks show flair and balance.

1301 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (entrance on 13th Street NW). 202-989-5881. Open for indoor dining. Dinner entrees $28 to $46.

A fan of the late, Japanese-inspired Himitsu in Petworth can’t help but compare it with the new, Korean-accented Magpie and the Tiger. The former, with Kevin Tien in the open kitchen, served food as clever as it was delicious. The latter, starring Caleb Jang, who helped open Himitsu, is doing similar, but different, and in the same small storefront once occupied by Himitsu.

At Magpie and the Tiger, a young chef shows a flair for flavor

Translation: Jang can cook. This is clear the moment his lightly cured salmon alights on your table. Bites of the fish are arranged with diced Asian pear and brilliant purple radishes on a dashi broth practically reverberating with kimchi juice — a pool that turns magenta when lemon juice is added. Equally beautiful is a caramelized sweet potato festooned with pickled Fresno chiles, crisp little onion rings and diced jalapeño; the tuber arrives on a puddle of coconut milk, lime juice and ginger syrup that elevates the eating. To the moon!

Magpie and the Tiger references Korea’s national bird and the belief, stemming from folklore, of the tiger’s protective character. While there’s plenty of innovation here — the bread is a cracker-y style of focaccia stuffed with cheese and scallions — Korea-philes will recognize dishes including the whole rib kalbi accompanied by the jazzy “umami” rice, as well as kkanpunggi, wet-battered, Chinese-Korean fried chicken cloaked in a sauce that mixes pleasure with pain (hello, chile oil).

The bill shows up inside a cookie tin alongside sewing items, a touch Jang attributes to the habit of legions of practical, repurpose-minded Korean mothers. Here, the gesture is accompanied by delicate butter cookies. Ha! And sweet.

828 Upshur St. NW. 202-882-2605. Open for indoor dining. Large plates, $29 to $63.

Did the U.N. buy out the place? There’s no more diverse restaurant around than this lively, plant-based restaurant in Bethesda (Bethesda!) that checks off a bunch of appetites. We’re talking sushi, pizza, pasta and links to co-founder David Lee’s Chinese heritage. The chef’s supple, spinach-filled dumplings splashed with chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns are a blast to eat.

Planta in Bethesda shines a light on vegetables

Planta acknowledges local affection for crab with an Old Bay-seasoned dip that swaps cooked hearts of palm for seafood (it’s convincingly delicious) and makes a star out of broccoli with the help of a deep-fryer and peanut and sweet chile sauces. Find time for florets given the “bang bang” treatment. Pizzas have improved every visit. My current pet is the pleasantly chewy “bianca” dressed with rosemary potatoes, olives, onions, capers and a flourish of chile oil. As for pastas, I like the simplicity of lumaconi draped in a tomato sauce made sweet and velvety with coconut milk.

Light streams into the corner space, whose smart couches, parked near the windows, offer prime people watching and whose bar is awash in shiny green tile. Custom-made botanical wallpaper turns a section of dining room into a cross between a garden and gallery.

Service is as steady as the room is diverse. Planta trains its staff for a minimum of two weeks and retains workers with carrots including health insurance, gym discounts and referral bonuses. The chain’s care and feeding of employees seems to pay. Servers seem to have memorized the makeup of every dish and respond to design questions with ease. The cool water glasses? “They’re made by Fortessa.”

4910 Elm St., Bethesda, Md. 301-407-2447. Open for indoor dining, delivery and takeout. Entrees, $18.50 to $25.50.

Roberto’s Ristorante Italiano

Allow me to introduce you to my new favorite mom and pop, named for longtime Washington chef Roberto Donna and owned by his wife, Nancy Sabbagh. He’s the talent behind the best risotto for miles and the guy carving a whole chicken on a roving food cart. She’s the smile and the “buona sera” presiding at the host stand.

Roberto Donna is doing what he does best at Roberto’s in Vienna

It’s always Throwback Thursday in the dining room, which gathers food enthusiasts, many of whose history with Donna dates to his glory days at Galileo in Washington, and servers who know the audience from way back then.

For the most part, Donna is cooking to the tune of the season at Roberto’s rather than resurrecting greatest hits, although (hot tip) he keeps in his freezer meat-filled agnolotti del plin should anyone inquire about the signature pasta.

The bread basket could pass for a bakery, filled as it is with twiglike grissini, tender focaccia, an Italian roll that tastes like a flaky croissant flavored with Parmesan and sometimes even slices of pizza. Lasting impressions are also made from squash blossoms swollen with ricotta flavored with lemon zest and breezy mint, scallops hiding behind a veil of black lace (well, fried squid ink), and roasted venison dappled with a glossy reduction of barbaresco and balsamic vinegar.

Credit Sabbagh and her family for the distinct look of the place. Colorful Venetian masks and a collection of glass “bonbons” grace the walls; the owner’s mother made a “permanent” loan of the whimsical Chihuly chandeliers, while a niece designed the logo and the plates evoking Miro over the fireplace.

Roberto’s looks like it tastes: great.

144 Church St. NW, Vienna, Va. 703-223-5336. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Entrees, $28 to $46.

An exemplar of thoughtful gestures, this French outpost offers “small bites” of bistro classics and deploys staff to make deliveries within a two-mile radius, although “I try never to say no” to greater distances, says chef-owner Frederic Darricarrère. His name might be familiar to regulars of Petits Plats in Woodley Park, which Darricarrère operated with his sister for 20 years. Two years ago, he opened a place of own across from the original Politics & Prose that comes with streetery seating for 60 — bigger than inside — and bids diners welcome with gratis warm bread.

Darricarrère wears multiple hats. One minute, he’s behind the bar, shaking a classic cocktail. The next, he’s seating or serving customers in a long dining room dressed with a mirror on one wall and festival posters by the late artist Arnaud Saez on the other. The owner cooks, too, although “I’m not at the piano every day,” he likes to joke.

Lots of happy-making dishes leave the kitchen, which buys its meats from the pedigreed D’Artagnan. Tender rabbit leg draped with mustard sauce and bedded on buttery potatoes gets a little color and crunch from a snappy carrot. And how nice that it can be ordered as a half-portion, like the crisp sweetbreads showered with sautéed mushrooms. Not every plate rocks my world — the salmon in one day’s seafood risotto tasted long out of the water — but misses are infrequent. Dishes that sound routine in print can surprise recipients with their artfulness. Take the simply billed “beet salad,” accessorized with roasted peppers, walnuts, mandarin orange bits and goat cheese piped to resemble a flower blossom.

Pro tip: If you see something on a menu that reads like a deviation — say, Asian dumplings on a French menu — check it out. The owner credits his Japanese girlfriend for Rosemary’s supple wrappers stuffed with a choice of ground pork or vegetables, as in cabbage, carrot, garlic, ginger and tofu, plus a splash of sake. The dumplings come six to a plate and don’t last long.

Floating island, crisp with slivered almonds and staged on vanilla custard, is the perfect finish to a rich meal in a restaurant that doesn’t require deep pockets to enjoy.

5010 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-506-5961. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, delivery and takeout. Entrees, $22 to $29.

The owners asked their designer to recreate a Thai night market inside their Rockville restaurant, and Wirat “Pop” Assawamahasakda over-delivered by filling the lofty dining room with a tuk-tuk parked near the entrance, carousel horses, even a movie marquee to evoke Bangkok’s famous Scala theater. Thai Chef is a riot of color, with the power of a five-spot, discovered in a coat pocket, to slap a smile on your face just by walking in.

Knowing what to order sustains the mood. Catfish dry curry — fried fillets ignited by their coat of chile peppers, galangal, coriander and more — should be mandatory eating, along with jiggly tapioca-and-rice-flour “cakes,” bite-size blocks veined with chives and served with a soy sauce dip. Garlic fried rice provides a trumpet blast of garlic and yellow squiggles of scrambled egg amid the greaseless grains, whose topper of fried shrimp isn’t necessary to enjoy the dish. Misfires such as a soggy green papaya salad can be smoothed over by the engaging service at Thai Chef, a spinoff of the same-named restaurant in the District.

Delays in opening meant lots of time to train staff, who got to try everything on the menu, “including the cocktails,” says Chalisa Fitts, who co-owns the business with her parents. The sustained practice results in attentive hospitality.

Another secret weapon is the drinks list, a passion project for the Bangkok-born Fitts. The gimlet infused with Thai basil makes a breezy companion to the cooking, and Crazy Thai Lady — a blend of rum, tequila, pineapple juice and aromatics including lime leaves — reveals the family’s sense of humor. Crazy Thai Lady, says Fitts, is “just what my dad calls my mom.”

29 Maryland Ave., Rockville, Md. 301-339-8045. Open for indoor dining, takeout and delivery. Entrees, $15 to $19.

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