Best restaurants in the D.C. area: Tom Sietsema’s favorites in February 2023

News flash: Washington is on a French kick, and one of the most exciting debuts finds a Breton native cooking in a fetching dining room in Georgetown. Welcome, L’Avant-Garde.

I wasn’t only chasing shiny baubles this month. In fact, a lot of my meals took place in restaurants whose chefs have been around awhile but whose cooking is worth bringing to your fresh attention.

A flock of people speaking multiple languages crowd the foyer of the West End outpost when I show up. Despite the early dinner hour on a recent Monday, more than a few tables are occupied.

“Is it always this busy?” an arrival asks the host.

“Chef was just recognized by the James Beard Foundation,” the greeter replies, which put her establishment on a list of semifinalists for outstanding restaurant award consideration.

Cheers to Ris Lacoste, a veteran of 1789, the Georgetown classic, and the late Kinkead’s, one of the best seafood restaurants ever to launch in Washington. The chef opened her own place in 2009 and says the last decade, even before covid-19, has been a challenge, what with waves of “small-plates” competition around town and her penchant for serving “regular food.”

Can we agree to disagree, chef? Her scallop margarita is a fan favorite for a reason: What’s not to like about lime-kissed scallops tucked into a cocktail glass with tequila ice, creamy avocado, red onion and racy chilies? Keep her seafood background in mind when you’re mulling the menu. The shrimp tempura lashed with sriracha aioli rocks, too. I have yet to find a finer quiche than the tall wedge here, a Thursday special that calls to me with its streaks of kale and buttery crust. And the herby chicken Milanese is so big and delicious, it could yield another meal if you’re able to show any restraint. The restaurant’s generosity extends to the servers, some of whom have been with the place since it set sail and know that, say, helping diners with their coats adds a personal touch to a night out. Need a private room? Ris has three.

“I always wanted to have a diner,” says Lacoste, a Massachusetts native and one of seven kids whose father’s job as a firefighter encouraged her to always try to “help somebody” and whose mother’s recipe for meatloaf inspired the entree at Ris. (Mom’s secret: oatmeal instead of bread as a binder.) The chef likes to think of her food as “unfussy.” I say it’s worth a reservation.

2275 L St. NW. 202-730-2500. risdc.com. Open for indoor dining, delivery and takeout. Main courses $23 to $48.

Chef Gilles Epié says he aimed to create a restaurant that looks and tastes just like what you find in Paris, and lo and behold, he accomplished that lofty goal with L’Avant-Garde, which wastes no time spiriting diners across the ocean, starting with a menu offered in both French and English and ingredients — butter, fish — sourced from his native France.

L’Avant-Garde is raising the bar for French dining in D.C.

Born in Brittany, he’s been in the game since he was 15 years old and counts some of his homeland’s most revered chefs as mentors. Since 1993, he’s cooked in the United States as well, in Los Angeles and Miami. “He doesn’t have to prove himself,” says the restaurant’s owner, Fady Saba, who spent $3 million on the project. Ribs of wood on the walls, an imposing hearth, velvet drapes and gold domed lights over the luxe booths yield a cocoon of comfort.

The good looks extend to the food: a clever duck foie gras beignet glossed with a port wine reduction, marinated Scottish salmon paired with potato slices enlivened with tomato vinaigrette, a snow-white macaron, garnished with raspberries, that’s almost too pretty to eat. His kitchen is composed of a dozen newbies who learned the menu by taking cooking classes from Epié for two months before the restaurant opened in Georgetown. Diners taste the education in such details as the textbook-perfect roast chicken and french fries whose golden hue is the result of twice frying the potatoes in clarified butter.

The French-focused wine list, created by the warm and discerning Samantha McCrimmon, is rich in every sense. (Patrons can pay $50 per bottle to bring in their own wine; unusually for a restaurant of this caliber, there’s no limit on the number of bottles.)

The arrival of L’Avant-Garde, one of the most important debuts this year, adds another star to the constellation that already makes Washington the best fine-dining destination in the country.

2915 M St. NW. 202-652-1855. lavantgardedc.com. Open for indoor dining. Entrees $43 to $62.

You get what you ask for here. “Spicy means spicy,” says Mandalay owner Kyaw “Joe” Myint.

Sure enough, the fried jasmine rice mixed with shrimp and sour mustard greens I request “spicy” is packed with dynamite in the form of roasted Thai red chiles. Ground before it goes into the dish, the TNT is invisible to the eye. But the tongue immediately detects a bonfire, which hotheads will appreciate.

Launched by Myint’s parents in 2000, Mandalay shuttered in 2021 and reopened nine months later, with delivery and takeout. Earlier this month, the dining room reopened with limited hours (11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and 5 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday for dinner). “I don’t have the staff” to do more, says Myint, who also halved the number of seats in the restaurant to 40.

The owner’s wife is Mandalay’s chef, Latt Naing, who relies on Myint family recipes. A recent delivery showed care in the packaging — pieces of cardboard separated cold and hot dishes — and encouraged future orders. Two of multiple hits included green tea leaf salad, lightly crunchy with cabbage, yellow peas and roasted garlic, and a standout curry marrying tender chunks of pork and pickled mango. The donutlike gram fritters are fluffy sops for the sauces.

Myint’s parents are retired but make occasional stops. “They make sure we’re doing the right thing,” their son says with a laugh. “If not, we hear about it.”

930 Bonifant St., Silver Spring. 301-250-4078. mandalayrestaurantcafe.com. Open for indoor dining, delivery and takeout. Entrees $16 to $22.

Part of the fun of dining at Nostos is tagging the celebrities — Maria Callas, Anthony Quinn — whose near-life-size photographs grace the chalk-white walls of the Greek restaurant in Vienna. Owner Peter Pagonis says the black-and-white images help explain the name of his restaurant, rooted in the Greek word for nostalgia, “the desire to go back to where you were born and raised.”

I’ve yet to check a trip to Greece off my wish list. In the meantime, Nostos delivers some of the sun and flavor I expect to see when I get there. A visit invariably starts with my favorite dip: fish roe, lemon juice and olive oil whipped into pink clouds and quickly dispatched with triangles of warm pita. The food engages the senses. Saganaki provides a floor show when a slab of fried cheese is splashed with brandy and set aflame at the table, and spanakopita sounds off with an audible crackle — and a shower of flaky pastry — when diners bite down on the spinach- and feta-filled phyllo packets. Eggplant layered with cinnamon-spiced ground beef and béchamel-topped potatoes makes for a comforting moussaka.

In the small-world department, the Nostos-branded red wine on the all-Greek list is produced by the former owner of Taverna Cretekou in Alexandria. Based on syrah and other grapes, Nostos makes a nice companion to the juicy grilled lamb chops.

Some dishes are more compelling than others, but the hospitality is consistently warm. Regulars, for instance, might be greeted with gratis swordfish skewers, which are otherwise $18 on the appetizer list, including a beet salad. (Pagonis jokes that recipients of the gift swear it’s better than the same version on the menu. “One is free,” he figures; “you pay for the other.”) While the restaurateur wants people to enjoy their meal, he says the best compliment is when departing guests tell him, “We had a good time.” Good times are ensured when lunch or dinner concludes with a nutty, gooey, raisin-laced pastry sandwiched with scoops of vanilla ice cream.

Since my last meal, Nostos reopened for lunch, Wednesday through Friday, and takeout is doubly improved: Not only do orders come with the option of curbside pickup, bottles of wine are available for half-price.

8100 Boone Blvd., Vienna. 703-760-0690. nostosrestaurant.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Entrees $26 to $44.

Esther Lee is one of the most modest top chefs in Washington. Ask her about her background and she simply says she’s “a kid from the suburbs.” If it weren’t for the pleading of her staff, her long-running Italian restaurant, Obelisk, which she took over from the equally private Peter (2 Amys) Pastan in 2016, might not be on Instagram.

“I’m doing what makes me happy,” says Lee of her work in her spare townhouse setting in Dupont Circle.

By never veering from its recipe, Obelisk remains a top draw in D.C.

What makes the chef happy makes her audience happy, too. The drill has been the same pretty much since the place opened in 1987: five courses, with a few choices per course, starting with some skinny house-baked breadsticks and dreamy burrata trailed by a blizzard of antipasti, including unrivaled suppli and snacks that speak to the season — one winter night puntarella slick and delicious with anchovy dressing. Next, some wonderful pasta, in a portion that acknowledges more food is on the horizon.

Fish tends to be my default main course, although a plump pork chop massaged with “porchetta” spice and splayed on cranberry beans and smoky radicchio provides stiff competition. Insist your dining companion get something different from you, then insist on trading plates halfway through. For better or worse, your choices might not be mine; Lee changes her script every week. The only details I can promise are a fine plate of cheese after the entrees are cleared, and further tough decisions come dessert.

Here’s one of the rare memorable dinners where you can hear yourself think. Obelisk doesn’t play music in its intimate dining room. It’s also the uncommon restaurant that doesn’t set a time limit these days. Diners can pretty much stay in Italy as long as they want.

2029 P St. NW. 202-872-1180. obeliskdc.com. Open for indoor dining. Five-course menu $123.

The pandemic prompted the owner of Woodberry Kitchen, the barn-size tribute to the Mid-Atlantic, to rethink his vision. The biggest change? “We turned the restaurant into an event space and the event space into a restaurant,” says Spike Gjerde, the James Beard Award-winning Baltimore chef.

Woodberry Tavern thinks big in a small space in Baltimore

Woodberry Tavern, a former private room, is where diners can now book one of 22 seats for dinner five nights a week. Knotty wood paneling punctuates the soaring brick walls, and amber votives cast a warm glow. No sooner are you settled in than a “welcome” board is set on the table, a grand gesture of hospitality that threatens to spoil your appetite with house-baked cheese twists, local charcuterie, pickles that get their punch from premium Keepwell vinegar and more.

The original Woodberry Kitchen had a menu the size of a poster. The tavern is a much shorter read, but no less delicious. Welsh rarebit is reimagined as a “vase” of grilled spelt bread capped with mustardy beer cheese. Slicing into the construction reveals a boiled egg and ham inside. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to appreciate the carrot tartare, a brilliant orange mash seasoned with coriander, bay leaf and white soy sauce. The homier entrees — fried chicken, pork schnitzel — call to me most, and if you like oysters, spring for the fried, raw and roasted Ruby Salts from the lower Eastern Shore of Virginia.

The appearance of a candle signals the arrival of baked Alaska, splashed with rum and ignited at the table. The space might be small here, but the ideas are big.

2010 Clipper Park Rd., Baltimore. woodberrykitchen.com. Open for indoor dining. Entrees $27 to $67 (for rib-eye).

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