2016/2017 Best of DC: Restaurants and Bars

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I reflected upon the more than 75 bars and restaurants that I visited in 2016/2017 and put together a list of some of my favorites. Whereas some are fairly well known within D.C., others are hidden treasures. I tried to create a list of restaurants and bars that I feel showcase the best that D.C. has to offer and could serve as a guide to visitors and residents alike.

It has been far too long since I posted anything and thought I would get back into the swing of things by creating a new “Best of  DC” for 2016/2017. I recently moved back to California and I suppose my nostalgia for D.C. compelled me to create a combined favorites list from 2016/2017.

2016 was an eventful year for both myself and D.C. Aside from the catastrophe that was Trump’s win in the U.S. presidential election, a lot of wonderful things also happened: I got married to my partner Joel; I graduated from American University; Joel and I traveled to Milan, Nice, Cinque Terre, and Monaco to visit our friend Marie; and Michelin released its first-ever restaurant guide for D.C. As many of you might know or have read, the culinary scene in D.C. has exploded over the past few years; noticeable from even when I moved there in 2012. Niche foods (e.g, halo halo and kolache), hand-crafted cocktails, microbrews, and fast-casual dining make up most of the food and beverage trends in the area.

My partner and I had a lot of visitors in 2016 were thus able to try many new places. I’ll start with my top five venues in each category, then list my favorite menu items and notes from each location (Note: Restaurants are listed in alphabetical order and not by preference.)

Top-Five Locations for Food:

  1. Barcelona
  2. Etto
  3. Izakaya
  4. Mari Vanna
  5. Ottoman Taverna

Top-Five Locations for Drinks:

  1. Columbia Room
  2. Don Ciccio and Figli
  3. Izakaya
  4. Mari Vanna
  5. Tiger Fork

 

Favorite menus items and tasting notes:

  • Barcelona (Cathedral Heights): 

We enjoy three things most about Barcelona: 1) it’s an extremely close walk from our Massachusetts Ave apartment; 2) they have many vegan and vegetarian options; 3) the nature of tapas means you get a variety of flavors without having to commit to a single entree. My partner and I always ordered from the seasonal section (in a rectangle frame towards the bottom of the menu) which changes based on what is fresh and in seasonin summer that means lots of vegetables! The naughtier dish that we always get is the patatas bravas. Other favorite items are the charred shishito peppers, potato tortilla, spinach-chickpea cazeula, spicy eggplant caponata, and the english pea and morels.

  • Columbia Room:

Joel’s parents are craft-cocktail enthusiasts and so whenever they visit we always try to find new places to check out. The first night we tried to go to Columbia Room (a Thursday) the place was closed for a private partywhich is when we walked across the alley to check out Tiger Fork.

The first day we were denied entry due to a private party; the next day we arrived at 5pm and walked straight through the door. The place is a small venue with covered outdoor seating as well as a few tables and booths on the inside. To make a long story short, the cocktails at Columbia Room are some of the best (if not the best) that I have ever had. Altogether Joel, myself, and Joel’s parents got eleven cocktails with our favorite being the Daquirac. Other notable cocktails are the Tinsel on a Palm Tree,  Snake-Bit Flip, Franky Sees the World, Right Side Up, and the Cuba Libre. We ordered from the Winter Menu and it does change seasonally.

Joel’s dad is a friend of Columbia Room’s spirits collector, Brian Robinson, and so we just had to sample something off his menu. “The Brian Robinson” collection ranges in price from a $30/ounce 1930s Benedictine Liquer to a $950/ounce 1811 Napoleon Cognac. We opted for a tasting of the 1960s Valdespino Fine Old Cuban Rum Pre-1962. It was distilled in Cuba in the 1940s then shipped to Spain where it was stored in oak casks and forgotten about in an old bodega until its discovery in 1999 when the Estevez family bought the building. All I’ll say about it is that we each couldn’t stop smelling it for almost ten minutes. It was THAT good. Maybe someday we will go back for the 1811 Napoleon Cognac.

  • Don Ciccio and Figli:

Don Ciccio and Figli is an Italian “distillery” (they’re more of an infusery, really) that makes Amaro and various other -cellos (lemoncello, orangecello) and bitter spirits that are based on old family recipes. Originally from the Amalfi coast in Italy, owner Franceso Amodeo moved to the United States and decided to restart the family business in 2012, after the original family business was destroyed by an earthquake in 1980. The distillery is located in NW D.C. near Silver Spring right on the Maryland border.  While not necessarily a bar, per se, Don Ciccio does serve its own cocktails and offers an extensive tasting. Be warned, it’ll get you buzzed.

I personally loved all of their -cellos, but my favorite was the Fico D’India, or the prickly pear.  I ended up taking home two bottles: one of their Concerto (a coffee and barley liqueur) and one of their Luna Amara, a bitter aperitivo. They’re excellent sipped on their own or made into a negroni.

  • Etto:

My husband and I stumbled across Etto while we were out on a long walk this past winter. We started out near our apartment by the National Cathedral and made our way down Embassy Row all the way to U-Street when we realized how much we had worked up an appetite. We stood at the bar and ordered cocktails and appetizers while waiting for a table to become available. The bartender was super friendly and hospitable that we ended up standing at the bar the whole time. The cocktails were great, the wine selection was decent, and the food was quite good. We had just returned from our trip to Italy a few weeks prior, and the taste of fresh gnocchi and ossobucco had not quite escaped our memories, which is probably what made Etto’s fare all the more impressive. Great date night spot.

  • Izakaya:

I have posted before about Daikaya and their D.C.-famous ramen, but Izakaya is just as wonderful if not an entirely distinct experience in itself, despite being housed in the same building. To the left of Daikya’s door, a tall and narrow set of stairs leads to Izakaya. Joel and I had sat at the bar before and ordered cocktails, but it wasn’t until this last December that we got a table for dinner. We had the server surprise us with her favorite items off the menu and not once were we disappointed. Both the food and the cocktails were excellent, which I why I included Izakaya on both lists. For food you can’t go wrong with any of the oysters, or the chawanmushi, fried garlic, edamame, hotaru-ika, grilled avocado (seriously good), seared enoki mushrooms, grilled octopus, pork and brussels sprouts, humba, grilled okra…and on and on. To drink, we especially loved the hirakegoma and shiroi hina. We loved it so much that we actually went back a few days later when Joel’s former Chinese teacher from Peking University came to visit us. Her and her boyfriend loved it as much as we did.

  • Mari Vanna:

We discovered Mari Vanna in the depth of winter, which was an absolute blessing given its ambiance, menu, and hospitality. It’s a Russian restaurant with the warmest, most welcoming decor. The interior space alone should be experienced. What I love about Mari Vanna is that they serve dishes that are extremely hard to find and, despite the prices and clientele, treat all their guests remarkably well.

For food, I recommend the cheese flat bread, blinis with salmon roe, and (my favorite) the half roasted duck with pomegranate sauce. For dessert, we enjoyed the sour cherry vereniki, which come served in tall clay pots, as well as the traditional honey cake, the medovik.

Mari Vanna offers unique cocktails like my favorite, the Grusha: house-infused pear vodka, St. Germaine, pear puree, splash of champagne, and garnished with a slice of pear and grated nutmeg. Other favorites are the Bird’s Milk, Moscow Mule (extremely good), Klubnichka, Black Sea, and any of their house-infused vodkas. This was another place we visited with Joel’s parents and some friends, and after a long night out we finished at Mari Vanna with cocktails, dessert, and a round of vodka shots: cranberry, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry honey pepper, pear, and honey and oats. What was interesting about that visit is Dennis Rodman was leaving right as our shots arrived. Perhaps a North Korea-U.S.-Russia deal is in the future lol. Mari Vanna has incredible food, incredible people, and is especially perfect in winter.

  • Ottoman Taverna:

Ottoman Taverna is a fantastic restaurant in the Mt. Vernon Square area of Washington, D.C. and offers a large selection of vegan and vegetarian options. Joel and I like to get the six mezze platter, which is incredibly filling for two people, in addition to the kekikli keçi peynirli pide, a vegetarian flat bread. The mezze platter usually includes hummus, muhammara (which is really good), dolmasi, ezme, haydari, and börülce. This was one of the restaurants listed on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand and it is easy to see why it made the list.

  • Tiger Fork:

Tiger Fork is an unmarked restaurant with a distinct façade: bright red paint with a large black octagonal window. It’s impossible to miss despite the lack of signage. Tiger Fork is listed as a Hong Kong-style bar and restaurant and the ambiance is quite relaxed. I only stayed for cocktails but boy were they great. What the cocktail menu lacked in ubiquity it made for in creativity: One section was described as being based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), with a 2-drink-limit warning included at the bottom of the menu; a second section was labeled “Originals and Classics,” though I was hard-pressed to find anything “classic” (which I loved).

My first cocktail was from the TCM menu. The Happy Happy [Aphrodisiac]: guotai legend baijiu, szechuan sour cherry soda, pomegranate, cardamom, ginseng, gingko, muira puama, passionflower, and saffron. For those who are sensitive to root flavors it might not be as palatable, but I found it to be quite complex and appealing. The fizz from the cherry soda, sweetness from the pomegranate, smoothness from the baijiu, and spice from the herbs all came together to form a refreshing and easy-to-drink cocktail. The bartenders are very skilled and noticeably passionate about their craft. One of our bartenders gave my party a taster shot of the baijiu that was used in the the Happy Happy and it was quite different from others I’ve tasted in the past. I appreciated that they engaged my curiosity. My second cocktail, also from the TCM menu, was called Nathan Road [Detox]: bourbon, angostura bitters, plum wine, lemon, hibiscus, calendula, mullein flower, purple basil, english violet, echinacea, stevia leaf, and rhodiola. This was less sweet than the first and the combination of the herbs came together in a unique but not overpowering way. When I return to Tiger Fork I will certainly order another Nathan Road. In sum, I find Tiger Fork to offer a great range of cocktails that is able to satisfy cautious and adventurous drinkers alike.