I live in DC, which is a great place to live and visit. I try to make the most of it. However, I also love to leave my home and see what the world has to offer. Come and join me!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Mid-Priced Eats in DC

So, I already gathered together a bunch of cheap eats. But what about somebody who has an income? I used to be that person. Then I took a new job at a pay cut of over 50% and got my life back. But I still have fond memories of the few times I was let out of my office to gather enough nourishment to get me through another 12 hour day.

Some restaurants appear on both the cheap eats list and the splurgey restaurants list. They're relatively cheap (in the cost/benefit sense) if you don't get drinks, appetizers, or desserts, and splurgey if you do the whole experience. So that's how I explain that little discrepancy away. I define splurgey as over $35/person, and cheap as under $25/person.

I am a vegetarian. I only eat at places where there's something more for me than bread and a plate of iceburg lettuce (hold the bacon dressing). There is a whole world of fancy restaurants out there to which I have never been and am never likely to go. I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding recommendations for places at which you can eat large quantities of animal flesh in DC. All my recs are veggie-friendly, which is much harder to find in upscale. They are not exclusively vegetarian unless noted otherwise, so your dining companion who will allegedly drop dead if not fed morsels of dead animal at every meal will be fine. That said, these are *good* restaurants, not just veggie-friendly restaurants. Although these restaurants are splurgey for me, it's hard to spend a lot of money on a vegetarian meal, so most are going to be under $50/person if you're going meatless and getting a glass of wine rather than a bottle. Check out the links to the restaurants to see menus; most list prices.

If you are a gastronome who can drop upwards of $250 per person and just want to go straight to the top, you don't really need my help but FYI Washington's two creme de la creme restaurants are Michel Richard Citronelle and CityZen. If you would like to experience either of these restaurants on a weekend, you must book several months in advance. You *might* be able to get a weekday table at an undesirable time within the month, but call as soon as you plan your trip. Michel Richard has established a chef's table at Citronelle which puts you in the kitchen on a tasting course of his choosing (from my understanding) at a prix fixe of hundreds of dollars per person. You probably have to book it a couple of years in advance. OK, maybe that's a slight exaggeration...but only slight.

Restaurant Week

There is a thing in Washington called "Restaurant Week." And it is good. During Restaurant Week, which occurs twice a year (February and August), participating restaurants offer prix fixe three course lunches or dinners for $20.0x or $30.0x respectively, x being the year. So last year it was $20.08/$30.08. This is a really great way to experience upscale restaurant dining without the major price tag. You're not *really* going to get out for that price, of course. DC restaurant tax is 10%, then there's a 20% tip (stop whining and just do it). If you order a glass of wine that's $8 or so. Some restaurants will offer the entire menu with a supplemental charge of $2 or $3 for more expensive dishes. But you'll still do better than $50 for a dinner that can cost twice that much under normal circumstances. Before you decide on a restaurant week location, though, be sure to browse through the regular menu. Some places it would be hard to put together a meal, especially a vegetarian one, costing $30 from the regular menu and restaurant week actually ups the price!

Reserve in advance if you're planning to do restaurant week. Most of the fancier restaurants participate in Open Table which makes reservations easy and painless to make online. Open Table operates year-round, not just during RW and I recommend it for making reservations. If there aren't any reservations left for RW check the restaurant's website--many restaurants now extend Restaurant Week beyond the official designated week. Most extend to the next week to do a two week stint, but Dino, for instance, did Restaurant Month for the whole of January.

Some restaurants cheap out during restaurant week. I tried Galileo (which is closed right now for renovation) during two separate restaurant weeks and was disappointed both time. The portions were teensy and the staff surly. Many people had the same complaint. I won't be returning.

Where I have only tried the restaurants below during restaurant week it is duly noted. It's probably safe to assume that it can only get better during the regularly scheduled program.

And now, the restaurants

Penn Quarter/Chinatown/Metro Center/The Mall
http://www.finemondo.com/ is one of my favorite restaurants in the city. It's a place where everybody knows my name. OK, not really, but there is zero staff turnover and you get recognized after a couple of visits. That's a really nice feeling. Start with the finocchio (fennel) soup in the winter, the insalata finemondo (avocado, tomatoes, and fresh mozarella) in summer. Move on to the gnocchi with asparagus and fava beans. Finish with the chocolate hazelnut cake. You can actually order anything off the menu and it will be sensational, but those are some of my favorites. My only teeny tiny complaint is that the by-the-glass menu is a little limited. If you're getting a bottle of white, my favorite is the Soave.

A Jose Andres creation, Jaleo brought tapas to DC, and continues to serve it up better than anyplace else. The small plates are divine and you'll want the server to keep 'em coming. I love the spinach sauteed with raisins and apples, the endive and goat cheese salad, the chickpea stew, the tuscarora mushrooms, and well, everything on the menu. The white sangria is nice, if they're serving it up. My only gripe with Jaleo is that the bar is teeny-weeny, way too small for a restaurant of that size and popularity. Reservations are not accepted so you'll be waiting in the cramped bar for quite a while at the weekend for a table. At lunch or dinners early in the week this won't be a problem. The Jaleos in Crystal City and Bethesda probably have larger bars, though are not likely to be less crowded.

Zaytinya offers more small plates from Jose Andres. If the squash blossoms are on special you must order them; they are stuffed with a mild feta cheese and I wish zucchini tasted as good as its blossoms. Everything is divine, although they changed the recipe for the Santorini fava recently and I don't like the new iteration as much. The old version had raw shallots, now the shallots are caramelized. It's more civilized on the breath but less bracing on the tongue. You must, absolutely must, get the potatoes fried in olive oil topped with yogurt (aka fries). The cabbage dolmades are not good, but they are literally the ONLY thing I've had there that I didn't love. The apricot yogurt dessert is not to be missed, and the sesame seeds sprinkled on the chocolate dessert are intriguing.

Tosca is another Italian place on F Street, three blocks from Finemondo. It is slightly fancier, a bit more expensive (both of which add up to less veggie friendly), and certainly more intimate with a much smaller dining room than Finemondo. It is located in the building where I used to work the aforementioned 12 hour days so I hyperventilate a little when I walk in, but the food is worth a little hyperventilation.

Zola doesn't have a lot of exciting vegetarian options; it resorts to the old pasta stand-by which is perfectly good but not, well, exciting. Apparently the burgers are very good so this is a nice place to take your meat-eating companion where they can have their meal and you won't be served a plate of iceberg lettuce with carrot shavings. The atmosphere is fun and funky and the cocktails are excellent. The server will thoughtfully provide you with a black napkin if you're wearing dark clothes. The desserts are good. I like the chocolate peanut butter one (but I'm a sucker for that combo). Zola is in the Spy Museum building, an easy walk up from the Mall around the National Gallery of Art-ish, and directly across the street from the Portrait Gallery. I love to do cocktails in the bar.

Rasika is upscale Indian street food. No danger of Delhi Belly here! The portions are delicate and the food delicious. I've only been for the pre-theater dinner special (prix fixe around $25 before 6:30 pm), but want to go back someday to try the full menu. Its D Street location makes it an easier walk from the Mall than most Penn Quarter restaurants, which are concentrated on F Street for the most part.

TenPenh is located at Tenth and Penn (note the clever pun of the name). This Thai restaurant serves up plenty of heat, though you can ask them to tone it down. The desserts are not to be missed, especially with a glass of sparkling wine. The dining room and bar are very well done; you'll feel much further from the dusty paths and hordes of tourists on the Mall than you really are. It's nice to feel civilized.

Indebleu is getting a provisional mention. The concept is French-Indian fusion, and when it opened I was quite excited about it. French food is not just veggie-unfriendly, it is veggie-hostile. Indian food, of course, has a long tradition of vegetarianism. I thought the two might tone each other down--Indian a little less earthy, French a little less involving the parts of 12 different animals in each dish. Unfortunately, the original menu had virtually nothing vegetarian on it, the prices were ridiculous, and the portions were minuscule. After our meal there, all three of us (small women) went home and had dinner as what we got there for $60/person amounted to a small nibble of appetizers. The menu has now been revamped and is a little more veggie friendly, but I have not been back yet. One of Indebleu's strengths is its cocktail menu; it's in the form of the metro map, with each line representing a different liquor. The drinks are as fun to drink as they are to order.

Convention Center
Vegetate is owned by an African-American couple doing their part to revitalize Shaw, my neighborhood. They chose to open their upscale vegetarian restaurant on a street that is not (yet) upscale. It's an easy walk from the Convention Center. The streets are "urban" and "mixed income" but it is safe--I walk through my neighborhood every day and I love living there. If you're not from an urban area you might feel more comfortable taking a cab. Vegetate's menu changes often according to what is seasonably available. This is the only fancy vegetarian restaurant in the area (there are other veggie restaurants but they concentrate more on food than atmosphere), and makes for a great meal with a nice experience.

Farragut Area
The K Street corridor is very 9-5 (well, this being Washington more like 9-8) and most of the restaurants cater to the power lunch or intern lunch crowd. There are a few sit-down gems, though, and among them is Vidalia. Vidalia's concept is upscale Southern cooking. I have only been during Restaurant Week, but they get a mention for always having a vegetarian option during RW. It's generally an unimaginative not-super-tasty rice pilaf, but they still get an A for effort. The sides and dessert are always amazing, so I suspect they can do much better than that off the regular menu.

I don't care for Georgetown and don't spend any time there, but I did have a memorable meal at Cafe Milano. This Italian restaurant is known more for its nightly parade of political celebrities than for its food, but they wouldn't all go there if it was terrible. I really enjoyed everything I had there. My taste buds *might* have been impaired by all the pre-dinner cocktails and during-dinner wine I had, but my palate is so discerning that no amount of alcohol...oh never mind.

If you absolutely must have dinner on the Waterfront, Sequoia isn't as bad as it could be. I was, in fact, pleasantly surprised at the pasta dish I got when taken there by a date. The draw is the view so I expected a frozen dinner brought to me still in the cardboard tray. The food is at least one step up from that. The crowd skews young and scantily clad.

I like Neyla in Georgetown, though my opinion is not universally shared. The middle eastern food (it doesn't seem confined to a single cuisine) is quite good, and if it's nice eating outside is a lovely option. It's a little out of the major hustle and bustle, which I like.

DuPont Circle
One of Washington's favorite places for sushi is Sushi Taro, which is closed for renovation until early March 2009. The location above a CVS isn't auspicious, but once you enter the dining room you'll forget that you're sitting on top of the hair care aisle. The menu offers plenty besides sushi. I got the seaweed salad, an avocado roll, and the tempura vegetables. I wouldn't recommend the tempura vegetables, but that's more the nature of tempura--it cools too quickly to be good for longer than a few minutes. I wished I had ordered two seaweed salads, though. It was delish. In the spirit of Japanese hospitality, the server will bring you a complimentary[CHECK] amuse bouche. I didn't know how much I wanted some miso soup until she brought it to me. The door is to the left of the CVS on 17th St and looks almost like a delivery entrance--don't miss it! You must climb the stairs to get to the dining room, so it's not for the mobility impaired.

Sette Osteria was conceived as a more affordable answer to Sette Bello in Northern Virginia. I haven't been to Sette Bello, but I love Sette Osteria. This casual Italian restaurant has excellent pizza from a wood burning oven as well as a variety of pasta and meat dishes and great wines by the bottle. If it's nice, get a table outside and enjoy the people watching in DuPont Circle.

Cleveland Park
Dino is at the Cleveland Park metro stop, so it's easy to pop onto the train and head out there even if you have no other reason to be in Cleveland Park. This Italian restaurant is in a strip mall, but does not suffer from strip mall blandness in decor, menu, food, wine list, or anything else. All the food is exquisitely prepared, and the owner prides himself on the extensive wine list with affordable bottles. If the strawberry-rhubarb shortcake is on the dessert menu, order it. Maybe as an appetizer and then again as dessert. As mentioned above, Dino extends restaurant week throughout the entire month. There was no vegetarian entree option on the RW menu, and they made me up an amazing plate anyway at no extra charge.

Woodley Park
Lebanese Taverna isn't quite a splurge, but it's not quite cheap either so I'll include it on this list. This local chain (with lots more locations) serves up consistently good Lebanese food in a great variety. The small plates are great for sharing with the table, and they have full plates for those who don't enjoy the communal food experience. The green beans are really, really good. The Taverna is located across the street from the metro stop, so it's a good last stop in Woodley for dinner after a visit to the zoo; it's a convivial and somewhat noisy place and therefore pretty kid-friendly.

Capitol Hill
Sonoma, a few blocks from the Capitol and a pretty quick walk from the Capitol South stop, brought California cuisine (and wine!) to DC. Start with a cheese plate or charcuterie, or end with the cheese plate if you're more European. Just don't miss the cheese plate. You can order 3, 6, or 9 cheeses and various accompaniments. You can order bottles of course, but Sonoma's space-agey wine preservation system allows them to offer many varieties by the glass. I'm sure your server can recommend wine pairings for your courses. I like the pizza, but they have a variety of entrees to choose from. The restaurant is easy to miss because the sign is just its name frosted into the glass above the door (this sort of thing drives me crazy). Check the address and look closely.

Crystal CityBebo Trattoria was opened by Roberto Donna as a more casual addition to his empire, the flagship of which is Galileo (I already gave my opinion on this one), and the flagship within Galileo is the Laboratorio--a chef's table. Bebo's space in Crystal City used to be occupied by Jose Andres's Oyamel, which has since moved to 7th and E. Because it's outside the District, the dining room is much bigger than your average DC restaurant, which I assume makes it a little easier to get a table. I've only eaten from the bar menu, but the food was great and the wine selection excellent. The service here is notoriously bad and my experience was no exception (one bartender alleged there was no bar menu when we knew there was one and finally another bartender gave us one; super super slow). If you're willing to trade good food at more affordable prices for bad service, I recommend a visit.

My wish list
There are a few restaurants I haven't been to that have been on my list to get to eventually. Some opened after I had already left the lucrative job, some I just didn't get around to before leaving. If you would like to make my dreams come true, please leave a comment. :-P If you try them for yourself, leave a comment to let me know how it was!

Restaurant Eve (Old Town Alexandria) is the brainchild of new critical darling Cathal Armstrong. Within the restaurant is the tasting room, which does multi-course meals (ten-ish I believe) of whatever tickles the chef's fancy that day. Apparently, if you call ahead they will do a vegetarian tasting menu. In the dining room, the birthday cake dessert is supposed to be fabulous. Armstrong also runs Eamonn's Dublin Chipper, a fish and chips place. Do NOT go there if you are vegetarian, as the fish and chips are fried in the same oil and there is literally nothing for you (i.e., me) to eat. If you eat fish it is supposed to be fantastic.

Cafe Atlantico Minibar (Penn Quarter) is another tasting experience, this one of the gastro-chemistry variety. The most famous (notorious?) item is probably the foie gras cotton candy. I wouldn't have this of course, but Jose Andres also says he will do a vegetarian tasting menu with advance notice. You have to give advance notice anyway--the minibar is usually booked up for months. Call far ahead of when you'd like to do it; I believe they open the reservation book two months in advance and you pretty much have to call the day the reservation becomes available to get it. Minibar is located in Cafe Atlantico. This is the only Jose Andres restaurant I don't particularly care for. It's Mexican-ish food, but I am not wowed by it. Maybe the meat dishes are better than the one veggie option on the menu. The tableside-prepared guacamole is good, though.

Restaurant Nora is a certified organic restaurant. It's quite expensive and not as veggie friendly as you'd expect a certified organic restaurant to be. I'd like to try it someday, but the price tag and limited veggie options have put me off so far.

I haven't yet been to Heritage India (Upper Georgetown/Cathedral area) more because of location than price. The only way to get to upper Georgetown is to drive or take the bus. I hate driving anyway, and I really hate not to be able to enjoy a glass of wine with my meal because I've driven. The 30 buses are fine, but buses are always few and far between at night. There are always cabs, of course, but getting into a cab to me equals getting into a car with a man I don't know who probably has nothing to lose. I really don't like taking cabs. However, it is reputed to be the best Indian in town with a lovely atmosphere and I'll bite the bullet and get out there someday.

Central, pronounced the French way, is the less expensive sister restaurant (sound familiar? this is a very popular thing among DC star chefs right now) of Michel Richard Citronelle, arguably DC's premier restaurant, and unquestionably one of its fanciest. Citronelle is not only stratospherically out of my price range, it is also French. We have already established the veggie-hostility of French food so really, there would be no point in me going to Citronelle. I would perhaps someday like to go have dessert at the bar because Michel Richard is a pastry chef by training and I hear the desserts are out of this world. Anyway, Central is closer to my price range and hell, it's Michel Richard, DC's honest to god French chef. Incidentally, if you know a little of Michel Richard's life story it makes you want to try his food even more. He was completely neglected as a child and was sent out to work around age 9. He didn't go to culinary school, but learned the art of food through apprenticeship. Now he lives a big cushy life as a celebrity chef, though a chef's life with its brutal hours and non-stop physical exertion cannot really be called cushy, but he was not to the manner born. He's the quintessentially French chef with the quintessentially American success story.