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

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Washington chef Nico Cezar was a customer the first time he experienced Tonari, the Chinatown restaurant with the Japanese-inflected Italian menu introduced in February 2020. “It eats right,” he says he thought to himself as he tried pasta and pizza unlike that served anywhere else in town. “It’s so well done.”

Tonari lasted about a month before the pandemic forced its closure. When the owners of the Daikaya Group turned on the lights again, in December, Cezar, 36, found himself in the kitchen as chef de cuisine. The reborn restaurant offers a sign-of-the-times, reservations-only, thrice-weekly tasting menu that picks up where co-owner Katsuya Fukushima left off and benefits from Cezar’s rich résumé. The Philippine native has cooked at such diverse establishments as Michel Richard Central, Mintwood Place and Masseria in the District.

Diners get a choice between two dishes per course. The best strategy is to go as two and sample everything. Your menu is likely to read differently than mine (the menu changes every two weeks or so) but with luck might list beluga lentils cooked in dashi and bulked up with garlicky Toulouse sausage, and spiral pasta whose supple ridges catch the heat of Calabrian chiles and the sass of pepperoni and other meat — Spam, included. Spiky bitter greens stand in for traditional romaine in Tonari’s Caesar salad. “Japanese love bitter,” says Cezar. “So do Italians.” The anchovy dressing gets its umami from shio koji, a condiment based on fermented rice.

The pizzas take me back two years, meaning the crust is seductive as ever: pillowy in the middle, crisp along the edges, faintly sweet (like Japanese bread). Picture something between focaccia and Detroit-style, with toppings that might include clams, pecorino, oregano and — this being wafu Italian fare — pickled seaweed. Cezar is letting the season guide him. Spring is expected to see a Hawaiian pizza topped with grilled pineapple and plum sauce.

For the moment, only the ground floor of the two-story restaurant near Capital One Arena is open. The owners hope to move the tasting script to the fancier upstairs dining room soon, and to dedicate the first floor, dressed with bar and booths, to an a la carte menu and walk-in traffic.

707 Sixth St. NW. 202-289-8900. tonaridc.com. Open for indoor dining. Five-course tasting menu $75.

The crown jewel in a collection of culinary draws created by energy mogul Paul Prager on the Eastern Shore, Bas Rouge pays homage to his pet city of Vienna. As the founder of Beowulf Energy says, “For opera, sweets and crystal, it’s hard to beat.”

Prager has spared no expense at his formal restaurant, which uses a French nickname for a breed of herding dog distinguished by its red feet. German hunting scenes are captured in 19th-century paintings, and the delicate crystal, from Zalto, all but defies gravity. The recent addition of a second dining area, a cheese cart and a bar reserved solely for reservation-holders adds to the posh quotient. The winter menu gathers Asian accents (beef tataki), European classics (chicken ballotine) and ingredients from the Chesapeake Bay (smoky local oysters, served as a soup with crisp bacon, tender potatoes and hot cream).

The Old World setting demands Wiener schnitzel. Bas Rouge delivers, with a deboned veal loin that’s pounded thin, lightly dusted with flour, dipped in an egg wash and rolled in crumbs from bread produced at Prager’s nearby bakery. The veal slices are cooked over low heat in a constantly moving pan, creating a “souffle” effect whereby the crust lifts away from the meat. A staple on the lunch menu, the entree can be ordered in advance for dinner.

Your wish seems to be the dining destination’s command. Twenty wines are poured by the glass, little sweets are offered before you exit and (ahhh) the background music never interferes with conversation. Bas Rouge is nothing if not civilized.

19 Federal St. Easton, Md. 410-822-1637. Basrougeeaston.com. Open for indoor dining. Three- and four-course menus $100 and $125, respectively.

Rupa Vira never went to culinary school. She learned her craft in Mumbai, where her husband frequently invited company for dinner at the last minute. “I want you to be famous!” he told her.

Vira relocated to the United States with her family in 2003 and went on to become a caterer and the owner of two restaurants, the latest being Celebration in Ashburn. The name suits the design and the cooking. Both are easy on the eyes. The lounge — my preferred perch — is set off with chairs the color of lemongrass and a sleek bar, illuminated so that the spirits on the shelves seem to glow. The plates are distinguished with edible flowers and avant-garde touches.

The looker among first courses is a variation of the palak chat made famous by Rasika in Washington. Vira’s yogurt-striped stunner brings together fried kale and spinach, juicy pear, brilliant pomegranate seeds and what look like pearls. (They’re actually blueberry and yogurt inside gel-like spheres of the kind made popular by modernist chefs including José Andrés of Minibar fame.) Full of flavor, the salad’s airy-crisp texture is a wonder. Delicious lamb patties are staged on flaky paratha alongside a trio of colorful sauces in an appetizer with a backstory about a long-ago Nawab of Lucknow. The aging monarch loved meat but had lost his teeth, prompting royal cooks to create something soft. Vira’s contemporary version is galouti kebab, lamb seasoned with star anise and other warm spices and mashed so as not to overtax the jaw.

Vira uses color like a painter. Tender morsels of chicken in a velvety green drape of pureed cilantro and cashews add up to a superlative korma, simply streaked with chile oil. Goat meat cooked to soft succulence pulses with fresh ginger in a curry colored with ratanjot, a plant whose roots yield a natural red dye. We ask for the goat “spicy,” which translates to teasing rather than sweat-inducing. Nevertheless, it’s luscious. Vira’s on-the-fly dinners in Mumbai are recalled in her butternut squash kofta, a dish she made for her husband and associates, and a prize among Celebration’s vegetarian selections. Thumbs of mashed, fried squash and potatoes lounge in a creamy onion gravy that acquires its red shade and touch of sweetness from goji berries.

The owners aimed for a restaurant in which diners could count on a festive time, regardless of the day of the week. Celebration by Rupa Vira feels like just that party.

44260 Ice Rink Plaza, Ashburn, Va. 571-281-2233. celebrationva.com. Open for takeout, delivery and indoor dining. Entrees, $16 to $30.

It’s a family affair at this shout-out to Mercat de la Boqueria, the must-see maze of food stalls and eateries in Barcelona. In the kitchen is Georges Rodrigues, late of Boqueria in Washington. At the bar is his brother-in-law, Wendel Alves. Like the design? Credit for the red shutters framing painted alleyways and the handsome wall of wine goes to the chef’s wife, Wanessa Alves.

If you’ve been grazing on small plates for a while, there’s little on the menu you probably haven’t seen. Tortilla Espanola? Fried calamari? The gang’s all here, along with luscious cod croquettes and chorizo and green salsa on toasted bread — the best open-face sandwich for miles. There’s a single main dish, paella, albeit in four guises. The most dramatic pan is the most delicious: bomba rice, stained black with squid ink and decorated with grilled calamari and sunny aioli. To spoon is to swoon.

Resist filling up on tapas. Desserts are simple but sublime. Churro “rellenos” are fat with fillings of caramel or chocolate, and the “burnt” cheesecake delivers a heady taste of San Sebastian.

101 Gibbs St. Rockville, Md. 240-403-7436. elmercatbardetapas.com. Open for takeout and indoor dining. Tapas $5 to $25.

Knowing where Matt Baker has been helps explain one of the most eclectic menus around. Born in Houston, the chef spent a lot of time in New Orleans, home to his mother, Michele. Baker’s French training at culinary school in Miami was put to delicious use at his upscale Gravitas in Washington.

His latest attraction unfolds in the Eaton hotel downtown, where hamachi crudo, pork crepinette and a Flintstonian grilled rib-eye compete for diners’ attention. But first, a steaming cup of artichoke velouté, a gift from the kitchen that keeps alive the memory of his late, soup-loving mom.

Who needs pizza when there’s tart flambee, its thin, puff pastry crust a canvas for caramelized onions, creme fraiche, sliced potatoes and gooey Gruyere? A star among appetizers is the razor clam ceviche arranged with marcona almonds and juicy grapes and haunting with smoked Spanish paprika. Any meal is enhanced with brioche flavored with scallions, chives, garlic and sesame oil, a nod to the Chinatown of Houston.

The food is served by gracious people in a dining room that seems suited to the times, with comfortable booths hugging the walls. Baker’s biography frees the pastry chef to put on the menu a souffle and a sundae, as well as the city’s best rice pudding, flavored like the tropics with coconut milk and glassy pineapple chips.

1201 K St. NW. 202-758-0895. michelesdc.com. Open for takeout, delivery and indoor dining. Entrees, $24 to $90 (for shareable rib-eye)

A lot of restaurants trimmed their selections during the pandemic, partly because of the uncertainty of supplies but also because of a smaller pool of workers. Shilling Canning Company in Near Southeast took another tack. “How do we make this more exciting, and get people to come back again and again?” chef-owner Reid Shilling asked.

His response was to introduce a three-course menu that changes weekly and costs about what dinners go for during Restaurant Week promotions: $60. The meal deal is in addition to a small a la carte menu (pork chops and fried chicken are among the crowd pleasers) and the option of a seven-course spread at the chef’s counter, with Shilling playing tour guide.

Bargain hunters should act on the three-course list, a snapshot of the chef’s range that recently featured brook trout and short rib en croute as entrees. The fish, splashed with horseradish butter, and its bed of blackened cabbage sprang from the restaurant’s wood-fired hearth. The brioche-enclosed beef and mushrooms showed up on creamy spinach lapped with madeira sauce — “the complete package,” says the chef of the handsome feast, and I concur. “Classics are classics for a reason,” says Shilling, who also makes a meatless Wellington using butternut squash.

Returning to the restaurant after an absence of two years made me feel guilty. There I was, not telling you about a dreamy risotto made with farro and carrots or silken orange panna cotta brightened with citrus salad and served with buttery pistachio shortbread. “Everything we serve here, we make,” says the chef. That includes the snappy garlic sausage splayed over braised greens and creamy grits, a choice first course.

Shilling Canning Company — a salute to the chef’s family’s onetime business in Carroll County, Md. — reminds me that cooking is not the sole reason we go out to eat. Ambiance and attention are equally important tugs. The dining room benefits from streams of light, nice music, pillows on the banquette and servers who make you feel like you’ve chosen the perfect place for date night.

360 Water St. SE. 202-554-7474. shillingcanning.com. Open for takeout, delivery, indoor and outside dining. Entrees, $29 to $45.

The guys behind Washington’s singular Swiss restaurant have a PSA regarding fondue.

“Dip your fork all the way down to the bottom of the cheese,” and swirl, to prevent the cheese — a blend of Vacherin and Schlossberger, similar to Gruyere — from burning, says co-owner Silvan Kraemer.

Stable chef David Fritsche applies the Korean barbecue rule (“Don’t eat the rice, eat the meat”) to the Swiss staple: Get lots of cheese on every bite of bread so you’re not filling up on bread.

Pals and I got a chance to put those and other tips to use at brunch this month, just ahead of a few inches of snow in the District. My posse was parked outside, but near a heater, on metal chairs draped with blankets — a comfortable environment, if not quite as cozy as inside, where little chalets welcome diners who thought to reserve in advance. Stable’s hot drinks — gluhwein all around! — helped ward off the chill, too. While it isn’t listed on the menu, the bar serves white as well as red mulled wine. Kraemer says the pale version, incorporating apple juice, is trendy in his native Switzerland.

Fondue paired with potatoes and pickles lured me to Stable. Chicken liver pâté and grilled bratwurst made me happy to be there, too. The appetizer, made with duck fat butter, brandy and port, is one of the richest spreads around; housemade wurzel bread makes for a fine canvas. The veal sausage, based on a recipe from the chef’s cousin, a Swiss butcher, arrives with shattering-crisp potato rosti, a plate so hot it continues to steam for several minutes. Be sure to find room for some Tête de Moine, if only to admire how the mountain cheese is carved into what resemble boutonnieres.

Snowflakes falling faster and harder suggested it was time to leave. Kraemer sweetened our goodbye with a gratis Berliner, or sugar-dusted doughnut, for each of us. Hospitality is one of Stable’s strong suits. So is practicality. The restaurant isn’t open for dinner on Sunday, which prompted the giveaway of pastries toward the end of service. “We have no use for them,” says the chef. Grateful diners do!

1324 H St. NE. 202-733-4604. stabledc.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, delivery and takeout. Brunch entrees, $14 to $18.



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