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If you desired more options for pizza, burgers, tacos, or even pho, the Vietnamese staple once considered a rarity in the District proper, 2009 was your year. Many of the restaurants that popped up peddled these perennial favorites in a play to our recession-racked budgets and voracious appetite for a little greasy comfort.
Elevation Burger and BGR: The Burger Joint launched a ground (beef) assault on the region, greatly expanding their presence from Baltimore to Old Town; this year also gave rise to such taquerias, mobile or otherwise, as Pica Taco, District Taco, and Tomatillo Taqueria; Columbia Heights opened not one but two new pho parlors in the past 12 months, while a third, Saigon Bistro, took up residence off Dupont Circle; and I stopped counting all the new places hawking pizzas after I reached a googolplex.
Yes, restaurateurs heard your plea for quality cheap eats, and they did their damnedest to honor it. In fact, I’d suggest that 2009 marked the year of budget eating or perhaps, to express it more emphatically, 2009 marked the last dying breath of that D.C. institution known as expense-account dining.
As good as some of these budget-minded newbies are, however, none earned a place on my best new restaurants list. Neither did a few distinguished non-grease purveyors that I thought would be shoo-ins, which is why you don’t hand out these honors based on name recognition alone. A few sloppy or just plain sorry meals (Sou’Wester, Potenza, Blue Ridge) or some bad business planning (G Street Food, where founding chef Mark Furstenberg has already departed) ruined these candidates’ chances.
A few other restaurants performed well in their own niches but not well enough to make the cut: Eatonville, Againn, Kora, H Street Country Club, Room 11, BRABO Tasting Room, Spice X-ing, Kellari Taverna, Columbia Firehouse, and Kabab-ji Grill. Some places I never got around to sampling, either because they’ve just opened (Ping Pong Dim Sum) or because I couldn’t muster the interest or necessary budget to visit another celebrity chef shop (Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s J&G Steakhouse or Susur Lee’s Zentan). And some never stood a chance from the first bite (Social, the rebirth of Nicaro).
So with those notations and caveats, here are the 10 restaurants that did capture my attention in 2009, from the bottom up:
10. Ren’s Ramen This dining room has all the frills of a cable-access set. The joint’s zero tolerance for ambience allows you to focus solely on its steaming bowls of Sapporo-style ramen, these rich broths loaded down with roast pork, bean sprouts, chopped scallions, ground beef, seaweed, bamboo shoots, and whatever add-ons you’d like. Make sure to throw in some fatty pork. These geological slabs, alternating between layers of flesh and fat, are so rich and savory that they go down like salted caramels. 6931 Arlington Road, Bethesda, (301) 693-0806.
9. Birch & Barley/ChurchKey Beer director Greg Engert leads the charge at this dual-concept operation near Logan Circle. Engert’s approach to suds is both broad and deep—more than 500 bottles and 50 drafts, from a humble Brooklyn Lager to a strangely flat and funky Finnish Sahti fermented with baker’s yeast. His prodigious beer list attracts the nerds like buzzards to fresh meat, but it also acts to limit chef Kyle Bailey, whose plates lean toward the rich and unctuous, perfect for those hoppy chasers but sometimes tiring to the palate, which cries for brightness and acid. 1337 14th St. NW, (202) 567-2576.
8. The General Store Gillian Clark’s decision to remodel an old post office in Forest Glen may not have been the greatest business move—the location has all the foot traffic of a Himalayan mountain lake—but the chef still churns out superior comfy dishes that make a trip to her homey/homely space practically a requirement. 6 Post Office Road, Silver Spring, (301) 562-8787.
7. Sichuan Pavilion Located in a former Vietnamese restaurant, Sichuan Pavilion offers further proof as to why Rockville is your one-stop for all cuisines Chinese. As the name indicates, this place does Szechwan cooking, and it doesn’t pander to mild American palates. Its ma-po tofu will numb your tongue, face, and half your offspring. 410 Hungerford Drive, Rockville, (240) 403-7351.
6. Masala Art Something about this modest storefront in Tenleytown made people skeptical; one subcontinental connoisseur told me he’d never step foot in the place, while another thought it was a front. Owner Atul Bhola, a former manager at Heritage India, has proven ’em all wrong with an ambitious modern Indian menu that places a premium on elaborate handmade preparations. 4441-B Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 362-4441.
5. Masa 14 This hotspot exudes a whiff of recession-era contrivance, a Latin-Asian establishment designed by a pair of notable chefs, Richard Sandoval (Zengo, La Sandia) and Kaz Okochi (Kaz Sushi Bistro), all the better to generate marquee value in a time of diner austerity. Contrivance or not, the place works far more often than it doesn’t. It works so well, in fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to land either a table or stool at the bar. 1825 14th St. NW, (202) 328-1414.
4. Bibiana Some have suggested Bibiana is not truly Italian, not with Canadian oysters, Japanese mushrooms, and mid-Atlantic rockfish on the menu (not to mention that chocolate bomb for dessert). The criticism smacks of the “authenticity” question that dogged chef Nicholas Stefanelli’s mentor, Fabio Trabocchi, when the latter left Maestro in McLean and started at Fiamma in New York. Maybe in time I will work myself into a lather over this “issue,” but right now I can’t stop thinking about Stefanelli’s simple, stunning grilled sardines…from Portugal! 1100 New York Ave. NW, (202) 216-9550.
3. Inox Whatever issues the creative team at Inox has had to iron out to reach its present condition—no more two-chef system in the kitchen, a more approachable menu in the dining room—the results are working fine. One of the best deals anywhere continues to be Inox’s $28 three-course lunch, a sort of midday dare to see if you can remain an upright and productive member of the working class after all those delicious calories. 1800 Tysons Blvd., Suite 70, McLean, Va., (703) 790-4669.
2. Siroc Of all the new restaurants I visited this year—not just all the new Italian restaurants, a sizable sub-group itself—Siroc is the only one that feels flawless to me. I’m not saying chef Martin Lackovic made no mistakes during my visits, but they were minor and have all vanished in my mind, replaced with that vague sense of goodwill and glee that the best restaurants inspire from diners. 915 15th St. NW, (202) 628-2220.
1. Eventide Few chefs working now interest me as much as Miles Vaden, the guy in charge of Eventide’s kitchen. His approach to New American cooking is both inventive and approachable, a combination that numerous chefs claim but few actually achieve. Vaden impresses even when he barely uses any BTUs to prepare a dish, like with his exquisite bison carpaccio with ancho-chocolate mole. 3165 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 276-3165.