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Sometimes Spanish restaurants feel formulaic. Serve up some tortilla Española, maybe toss in paella for two, keep the sangria flowing, and you’ve got all you need to remind study abroad kids about the semester they spent in Madrid falling over each other in Sol. Arroz,opening for dinner March 27 inside the Marriott Marquis,is not one of these restaurants. Rather, it’s Chef Mike Isabella‘s most elegant restaurant to date and it’s informed by a trip he took with his partners to Southern Spain and Morocco over the summer.
“Morocco was always on my top three countries to visit until I finally went there, and now it’s on my top three to go back again,” Isabella says. He calls the food and the culture in both Morocco and Spain “amazing,” and says he’d never disrespect the Spanish by trying to do what they do. So he’s using the flavors, spices, and techniques as inspiration instead.
It’s almost like Arroz is turning up the volume way up on classics. Take pan con tomate, for example. Arroz serves the traditional bread and slather of tomato with hot smoked bone marrow with oxtail marmalade. Then there’s the Valencia duck bomba rice with aged duck breast, confit leg, cilantro aioli, and harissa.
Isabella tapped Chef Michael Rafidi to lead the kitchen, bringing him over from San Francisco where he was working for Chef Michael Mina at RN74. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Rafidi who grew up in Maryland and Virginia. “It was important for me to come back to D.C. My grandfather was a chef in this city for years,” he says.
Rafidi has been traveling extensively, even completing an apprenticeship at Noma in Copenhagen, but he says he’s ready to grow roots. “Coming back to D.C. and making a big splash is important,” he says. “The booming food scene is one of the best in the nation right now. That attracted me.”
Other highlights from the Arroz menu include lamb ribs, lobster soupy rice with sea urchin and mussels; octopus a la plancha sitting on top of an octopus terrine; and Moorish chicken, or a harissa-marinated bird served with couscous, olives, chickpeas, and preserved orange.
There will be a whole section dedicated to eggs on the menu, since the staple is popular in the south of Spain. Dinner at Arroz will likely kick off with a visit from an ornate wooden cart displaying snacks like pintxos, house-made charcuterie, montaditos (mini sandwiches), and more.
The same spices making repeat performances in the cuisine (Moroccan cinnamon, ras el hanout, and harissa) will also find their way into Taha Ismail’s cocktail menu. The beverage director for Mike Isabella Concepts is from Casablanca, and pulled from his past in creating drinks for Arroz.
“My research is my mom. I call her and ask her,” he says. “In my family, we always had fresh-squeezed juice—kind of like punch—with carrots, OJ, and cucumber. Those are the things you’ll see in the cocktail list.”
One drink will feature moscatel sherry, butter-infused rum, Velvet Falernum, roasted carrot juice, lemon, egg white, and cinnamon. There will be at least one cocktail that highlights mahia, Morocco’s fig brandy, but don’t expect to sip it neat. “It’s the moonshine of Morocco. We don’t have corn; we have figs,” he jokes.
Sherry will be a prominent part of the beverage offerings. Ismail plans to use it in classic sherry cocktails, like cobblers and sours, as well as offer a broad range of styles by the glass. Because they’re popular in Portugal, guests can also expect to find port and madeira. Sangria on tap and an array of gin and tonics will also take center stage. Finally, Ismail says the wine list will include 250 selections—not including wines by the glass—primarily from Spain and Portugal.
One might expect to see a dining room awash in color, but Natalie Park of Natalie Park Design Studio went with neutrals for a reason. “By keeping everything simple, we let the food speak for itself,” she says. “We had to practice a lot of restraint in not overdoing it with colors and patterns.” That’s not to say there aren’t ornate details, including an eye-catching wood cut-out separating the bar and lounge from the dining room and a line of blue-hued booths for dining duos set back into little enclaves. The archway theme carries over to the main entrance of the restaurant, which is through the hotel’s lobby.
Charlie Nemeth, Isabella’s father-in-law, pitched in (as he has with other concepts) by building the dining room’s gray-stained elm tabletops as well as a live-edge, natural elm table in the 12-seat private dining room.
Compared to the grey, white, and blue dining room that seats110 people, the 28-seat bar and lounge are dimmer and a little more luxe thanks to touches of bronze. Arroz will also have a Massachusetts Avenue-facing patio come early summer. Park says to expect a few fire pits, comfortable upholstered seating reminiscent of Morocco’s cushion seating, heat lamps, and a trellis that will be draped in fabric and hanging lanterns. It would have been a suitable perch for Scheherazade to tell his stories.
Isabella says his overall goal is for guests to feel comfortable. That’s how he felt during his most memorable meal in Morocco, when he and his team dined at restaurant recommended by Anthony Bourdain called Al’Anglaise.
“It’s a woman’s house. She lives there with two daughters,” Isabella says. “You knock on the door, tell them you want to eat, and they bring you up to their third floor.” There, diners encounter a partially-enclosed patio filled with pillows and couches.
“They tell you what they’re making for the day and they cook for you.” That night it was couscous and a tagine. “That was pretty memorable.”
Arroz will open March 27 for dinner only, with lunch and weekend brunch following later this spring. Dinner hours are Sunday- Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Thursday-Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Reservations will be accepted through OpenTable.
More pictures below.
Arroz, 901 Massachusetts Ave. NW; (202) 869-3300; arrozbymic.com