Casual, Everyday Delicious
Our reputation as the home of Capitol Hill power lunches – which, in many ways, our chefs are still trying to shake – has become a sort of cultural heritage, building a duality of seriousness and leisure that pervades the sensibilities of dining rooms and kitchens across the city.
It is excellence meets informality, seriousness meets raucousness. Washingtonians work hard and expect good food to come from places that soothe their collectively weary spirits. We want a place to sit and relax without putting on appearances.
Here at Georgetown Media Group, we were excited to explore this side of dining: the restaurants and chefs that offer extraordinary cuisine without requiring a bank-breaking budget or jacket and tie. We wanted to know where the city’s frequent diners grab a great bite, to track down the casual, everyday delicious. With the RAMMYs -- Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s annual restaurant awards -- coming up on June 22, it was a perfect time to highlight some of our favorite nominees.
Washington’s restaurant community recently lost an important member of the family, former Washington Post food writer Walter Nicholls. A longtime champion and translator of our area’s food culture, particularly significant in calling attention to the once-cloistered pockets of authentic Asian and Latino cuisine, his passion for food helped elevate our culinary scene to its current status. This issue is made in his memory: these are the kind of restaurants that Walter loved.
Tim Ma Water & Wall, Maple Avenue Restaurant RAMMY Nominations: Rising Culinary Star of the Year, Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year
Tim Ma should never have opened a restaurant. At least that’s what he says. Working for eight years as an engineer before attending culinary school, he found a restaurant for sale on Craigslist in Vienna, Va., and bought the lease. With a handful of friends and his wife and business partner, Joey Hernandez, he opened Maple Avenue Restaurant in 2009.
“It should never have happened,” he said. “And it didn’t go well for a very long time. But I’m pretty used to succeeding through failure. So we just evolved very quickly and kept drastically changing the menu until we hit on something that we knew was right. And in the process we taught ourselves how to run a restaurant.”
An experimental fusion of French and Asian cuisine, Maple Avenue is a culinary destination, currently RAMMY-nominated for Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year. Their seared scallops – served on a bed of coconut risotto with scallions and basil ice cream – are alone worth the trip.
“You see risotto in a lot of places,” says Ma. “But we wanted to introduce these Asian flavors that I knew would pair well with the scallops. And infusing a delicate herb like basil into such a rich plate was an interesting challenge.”
Despite Maple Avenue’s success, Ma took his unique culinary style and approach in a different direction with Water & Wall, his new restaurant in Arlington, to better fit the profile of the surrounding neighborhood.
“Eventually it’s the neighborhood who will support you,” he said. “And the French-Asian thing didn’t catch on in the same way as it did in Vienna. The tilt that we’ve taken is now more traditional French-American food, but in our style. It tends to be a lot more playful, a little tongue-in-cheek.”
For example, Maple Avenue had a rib platter with a Dr. Pepper-based barbecue sauce. At Water & Wall, it was reimagined as a cured, slow-braised beef brisket. “My sous chef is from Tennessee and has a southern tilt to his cuisine, so we made it a Cheerwine-based sauce,” utilizing the red cola distributed exclusively in the South. It is paired very simply with applewood-smoked mashed potatoes and pickled mustard greens (Ma’s favorite part of the dish).
Water & Wall’s soft-shell crab is a seasonal must, gently tempura-fried and served with sauteed spinach, house pickles and an Old Bay aioli.
“I love what’s happening with this area’s food culture,” says Ma. “If this were ten years ago, I would have never been interviewed for anything – no one would care who I was. But the fact that there’s all this attention on D.C. food makes you feel rewarded for working hard in an industry that for the most part, until five years ago, was never rewarded for working so hard.”
WaterAndWall.com 3811 N Fairfax Dr, Arlington 703.294.4949
MapleAvenueRestaurant.com 147 Maple Ave. W, Vienna 703.319.2177
Will Artley Pizzeria Orso RAMMY Nominations: Everyday Casual Restaurant of the Year, Everyday Casual Brunch of the Year
“As a cook and an eater, I’m really most attracted to the craftsmanship of old, lost arts like bread making,” says Will Artley, head chef of Pizzeria Orso. “Pizza dough takes an extreme amount of discipline and you will always continue to learn.” Artley and Pizzeria Orso defy every expectation. A neighborhood pizza place in Falls Church, Va., Pizzeria Orso sits on the ground floor of a four-story office building off Lee Highway. A makeshift vinyl sign dangles next to gray block letters that read “TAX ANALYSTS,” visible from the interstate beyond a local burger joint and an auto-parts retailer.
But inside this unassuming building, Artley is making some of the best pizza in the Washington area. A RAMMY-winning chef for his work at Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria and a finalist on Food Network’s “Chopped,” Artley had been looking for his next move. When Pizzeria Orso came his way, he saw an opportunity to put Falls Church on the map and return to his roots as a neighborhood chef.
“I had never done pizza,” he says. “But what I saw in Falls Church was a tight-knit community who stuck by each other. And I wanted to be a part of that.” He immediately enrolled in a bread program at the Culinary Institute of America, and before long, Pizzeria Orso was making waves.
“It’s instilled in chefs from the get-go to constantly strive for perfection,” he says. “But neighborhood restaurants are so special because they teach you that perfection is subjective. Perfection is someone walking out of your restaurant satisfied, happy and wanting to come back.”
His pizzas, crafted in the age-old Neapolitan tradition, are simple and extraordinary. The marinara pizza with house sausage is perhaps the perfect example: tomato puree with hand-chopped tomatoes, sea salt, olive oil, shaved garlic and oregano.
“It’s one of the most classic pizzas,” Artley says. “I know it seems strange not to have cheese on a pizza, but I promise you’ll be sold. It’s simplicity and beauty, without being crushed under the weight of forty toppings.”
Beyond the pizzas, diners would be remiss not to try the grilled lentil salad over grilled squash with green peppercorn dressing. The seared scallops with corn succotash and tomato jam is also an unexpected highlight. Grilled octopus with white artichoke puree and white bean ragout is a slice of southern Italian divinity, worthy of Poseidon himself.
“I want people to come get to know us,” says Artley. “If you’re a vegan, gluten-free, I can cook for you. I want to do it. I want everybody who walks in these doors to have a great experience.”
PizzeriaOrso.com 400 S Maple Ave., Falls Church 703.226.3460
James Huff Pearl Dive Oyster Palace RAMMY Nomination: Everyday Casual Restaurant of the Year, Everyday Casual Brunch of the Year, Manager of the Year (Tyes Zolman)
Chef James Huff has spent his career falling into the sea. From cutting his teeth with groundbreaking D.C. seafood chef Bob Kinkead in the late nineties to working at Emeril Lagasse’s Delmonico Steakhouse in New Orleans, his career seems to have been destined for a focus on fish.
It is only natural that he would end up in Washington working for Black Restaurant Group, arguably the royal family of Washington-area seafood culture. But when he came across the opportunity to run Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, Black Restaurant Group’s 14th Street hot spot, Huff wanted to bring more to the table than your average array of fine-dining oceanic gastronomy.
“Everyone in our kitchen comes from fine-dining backgrounds,” he says. “And that knowledge and technique is the backbone of all our cooking. But there are a lot of people in this city just like me – three kids and a busy life – and I want to cook for them, give them a neighborhood gathering place, somewhere they can swing by any time of day and get simple, consistent, quality food and service.”
The highlights of the menu, to hear Huff tell it, are the simple delicacies, such as the wood-grilled oysters with garlic, red chile butter and gremolata and the wood-grilled redfish, a skin-on filet that picks up the natural richness of the wood smoke, served with cayenne stoneground grits and a simple brown butter sauce with sage and pecan and lemon. The cornmeal-fried oyster po’ boy with cayenne aioli and the Dive Burger with roasted green chilies, pepper jack and bacon are also things of not-so-guilty epicurean pleasure.
The servers wear t-shirts and jeans and greet you with a warm smile. The exposed brick of the walls reflects the streetlights, making you feel like you’re hanging out in your best friend’s kitchen. Pearl Dive is a place to relax and enjoy the simple pleasures in life.
“At the end of the day,” says Huff, “we just want to make food taste good. That’s our mantra.”
PearlDiveDC.com 1612 14th St., NW 202.319.1612
Victor Abisu Del Campo RAMMY Nomination: New Restaurant, Chef of the Year
“I like eating really authentic foods,” says chef and restaurateur Victor Abisu. “And that’s what I wanted to cook. Good food, the food of my heritage.”
This was the inspiration for Abisu’s flagship restaurant, Del Campo, when he opened it in Chinatown in 2012. The airy, agrarian space is home to a meat-driven, wine-centric menu that brings together the chef’s Latin American roots – from his Peruvian mother and Cuban father – as well as his childhood experiences in an Argentine butcher shop.
“We are focused on the grill culture of South America, the parrilla,” he says. “My mission is to showcase these cultures in the ways that they affected me, and paint a picture of what I love about each one.” Everything touches the grill at Del Campo, transporting diners to the Andes Mountains, where they are connected to the history of it all.
The restaurant’s grilled octopus causa is based on a traditional Peruvian dish dating back to the late 19th-century War of the Pacific. Abisu breaks it down in a way that is undeniably tasty. The octopus is served with tuna confit, prawns, pickled leeks, potato, piquillo peppers and avocado. Each ingredient is independently grilled, then they are stacked together, offering a smoky, 360-degree crunch.
Rolled Wagyu skirt steak stuffed with cheese, burnt onions and rosemary is inspired by an Argentine dish called matambre, a rolled piece of meat stuffed with vegetables and poached. Needless to say, Abisu’s variation goes right to the grill, and results in a flavor both ancient and mesmerizing.
Del Campo’s tuna ceviche utilizes a citrus dressing made from smoked uni. “Even our ceviche touches the grille,” says Abisu. Putting together timeless, old-world techniques and elevating them to an approachable level, Del Campo offers a perspective on dining unique to Washington’s culinary scene. “It’s a balance you have to strike,” says Abisu. “You want to be satisfied as a chef and cook the food you love, but you also want to reach a wide audience. Hopefully that goes hand in hand when you stay true to yourself.”
DelCampoDC.com 777 I St., NW 202.289.7377