Although I adore New York, I'm still a Washington DC girl at heart – I like political talk shows, unnecessarily aggressive driving and despite their ranking, the Nats. As for the restaurant scene? It has come along way since the politico's taste for classic French and steakhouse ruled the scene. The quality and diversity can't compare to New York, but DC is host to some gems that are (gasp) even better than restaurants in Manhattan. Accuse me of running with the Washington herd, I don't mind.
Top tier, high end establishments like Cityzen, Restaurant Eve and Citronelle aside, there are a few joints I always visit when home. I have yet to find their equivalent in NYC, so try to visit the following whenever I'm inside the beltway.
Moby Dick House of Kebab
(mult. locations; http://www.mobysonline.com)
There was a summer I lived on Moby Dick kebabs, or "Dick House" as we fondly called it. Now a series of 14 restaurants in the DC area, they all serve the tastiest charcoal grilled morsels of meat I've encountered. There's nothing fancy about the food or the digs. But at entrees hovering between $7-12 for a heap of fragrant rice, tangy yogurt sauce, flatbread, grilled vegetables and sumptuously marinated meat, you don't miss the white tablecloths. My staple is the Moby Combo II ($12), juicy chunks of chicken and zestily seasoned ground sirloin with all the accompaniments. There's no false advertising – it's "a whale of a kebab!"
(4883 MacArthur Blvd Washington, DC 20007; (202) 342-9101
There's no worrying about the freshness of seafood at this Palisades hotspot. Half restaurant, half fish monger, Black Salt serves and sells some of the best fin fare in Washington. The contemporary, seasonal menu changes with the day's catch, but there are a few staples. One standout is the Belgian Mussels, a pile of plump bivalves cooked in Chimay Ale, lemon fumet and leeks. If an Asian-inspired fish stew or wood grilled sardines don't catch your eye, just point to one of the seafood items on display. The kitchen is always eager to create a special dish out of their market, or prepare it to your liking.
(1112 F St. NW, Washington, DC 20004; (202) 367-1990
Ok, New York Italian restaurants rival Italian Italian restaurants, and DC Italian doesn't come close. The one exception is Ristorante Tosca, an upscale eatery in the trendy Penn Quarter. The kitchen shows a talented hand with both seasonally driven meat and fish entrees, but I have difficulty straying from two particular items. One is a composed salad of radicchio, pears and gorgonzola cheese, the other tender folds of carrot pappardelle with rabbit and thyme. Whether you stop in for a bowl of pasta or the chef's tasting menu, you won't be disappointed.
Peking Gourmet Inn
(6029 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church VA 22041; (703) 671-8088
This old school Chinese duck house isn't technically a DC restaurant, located in an unassuming strip mall in Fairfax, Virginia. But if you're a lover of peking duck, it's worth the trip out of the city. The restaurant serves the dish exactly as it should be – the meat is moist and tender, the skin cracklingly crisp, all carved table side by an expert server. Other dishes like shrimp with garlic sprouts are also delicious for those not down with the duck.
(2434 18th St NW Washington, DC 20009; (202) 462-4100
We may not have much of a Little Italy, but our Little Ethiopia in Adams Morgan/U St may rival Africa's Ethiopia. Yes, Washington DC is home to the largest Ethiopian population in the US, and as a result, many authentic restaurants. It's a transporting experience to sit at one of the low basket tables at Meskerem and scoop flavorful lamb watt (stew) with injera, a spongy Ethiopian bread/edible version of silverware. It's a particularly fun date spot, because a variety of items are served together on a shared platter. Just don't joke about how you're surprised to discover they actually had food in Ethiopia.
(1001 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20004; (202) 626-0015
I briefly mentioned Citronelle, Michelle Richard's landmark restaurant. It's truly an experience, but this James Beard Award winner is a definite special occasion destination. For a fix of Richard's cooking on an average weeknight, there's Central. The French bistro menu is more conventional than Citronelle's whimsical offerings, but the dishes still have the perfectionist Richard touch. In particular, there are two must-gets: a perfectly seasoned steak tartar, and the lobster burger – a patty of lobster bound with scallop mousse on a brioche bun. Both are devilishly rich and entirely addictive.