Before you get a taste of Venezuela on the plate, you get a sense of the country’s affection for greenery at Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore. A jungle of plants — fiddle leaf figs, Norfolk pines, a 50-year-old chiflera — fill the dining room. “They give you a sense of comfort, like when you walk into a forest,” says Irena Stein, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Mark Demshak. Outsize murals of a fish and rooster draw eyes to the walls, and a loan of art from Stein’s brother means a gallery’s worth of baskets from Indigenous communities in Venezuela’s rain forest on display.
Two years after it relocated from Canton to Station North, the heart of the city’s arts district, Alma Cocina Latina remains every bit the draw it was when I first experienced the restaurant under the watch of Enrique Limardo, who went on to culinary acclaim at Seven Reasons, Immigrant Food and Imperfecto in Washington. Lucky for diners, Alma’s current chef, Venezuelan native David Zamudio, trained under Limardo. Zamudio, 28, went on to cook at such diverse venues as Pujol, the esteemed restaurant in Mexico City, and for Silversea, the luxury cruise line.
His experience translates to memorable dishes at Alma Cocina Latina, starting with Latin “gyoza,” wrinkly dumplings stuffed with smoked bacon and sweet plantains and sent off with airy sails of seaweed “chicharron.” A thatch of fried yuca strips provides cover for sautéed wild mushrooms and sliced red grapes on a slick of coconut sauce, teasing with cayenne. Tucked into the “twigs” are glassy beads of white balsamic, a gorgeous garnish. Yuca plays a starring role in the yucas bravas, an artful stack of nubby fries tossed with cotija cheese and merkin, a spice blend from Chile made from ground smoked chiles. Lashings of goat cheese sauce and a combination of avocado, cilantro and garlic — Venezuela’s popular guasacaca sauce, a sidekick to its arepas — complete the picture.
Zamudio deftly borrows from different countries — Argentina, Mexico, his place of birth — to create one-of-a-kind dishes. Alma’s handsome roast chicken shows up with a glaze of honey, soy sauce and thyme — the lacquer is a looker — atop a pool of romesco sauce dotted with guasacaca sauce. The secret to the vivid seafood paella involves caramelizing the bomba rice, which swells with the flavor of a paste the chef makes with chorizo and calamari.
No wonder everyone is passing plates; Zamudio’s food is beautiful and delicious — best shared. And how nice to slice into the entrees with a sleek Laguiole knife. (Alma is full of swell touches. Notice how the plants separate tables, a subtle way to maintain social distancing?)
The tres leches cake, served on passion fruit sauce, takes some of us back to childhood. The creamy cap of vanilla foam on top is flavored with (ha!) Frosted Flakes steeped in cream and coconut milk.
1701 North Charles St., Baltimore. 667-212-4273. almacocinalatina.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Entrees, $29 to $60 (for prime rib-eye for two).
Cedric Maupillier decided he needed to do something to stand out from the crowd at his six-year-old restaurant in Shaw. So the Provence native reached back into French culinary history and began serving antiquities such as wild hare and pigeon in puff pastry — Old World signatures that he says got him excited about cooking again.
Rest assured, you can still find steak frites, trout amandine and bouillabaisse on the chef’s menu. Delicious as they are here, those dishes are also everywhere these days. Crayfish quenelles? Not so much. Convivial makes you ask why more bistros aren’t offering the classic, presented here as an ivory custard made from fish and cream and circled by an orange moat of lobster bisque dotted with sautéed crayfish. For something that originated as peasant food, the dish proves surprisingly elegant.
While Convivial is best experienced in person (I gravitate to the central bar, the source of some terrific hot drinks), its takeout is superb. Dishes you don’t expect to travel well do, in fact, including seafood stew. One container is a treasure trove of prawns, steamed mussels and a trio of fish; a second carton contains the broth, a smooth lip-smacker coaxed from tomatoes, wine and what tastes like a sea of fish bones. Obvious to fans of bouillabaisse, the zesty rouille is destined for the flat croutons. Assembly at home is a (sea) breeze. The pork chop is mighty fine, too, thanks to its thick cut and a drape of cornichon-crisped charcuterie sauce.
Tired of scant dessert lists? Convivial offers almost a dozen choices, astonishing even outside a pandemic. Better yet, they’re best in class. Pastry chef Mark Courseille previously cooked at the French embassy. Look for a lighter-than-usual chocolate soufflé, a seductive apple tart and confections that speak to the season. Already, my name is on a bûche de noel from Courseille for next Christmas.
801 O St. NW. 202-525-2870. convivialdc.com. Open for takeout, delivery, indoor dining and outdoor dining (weather permitting). Entrees, $18 to $45.
Take a look around the new kid on the block. One wall is illuminated with what appear to be flickering candles; a broad ramp leads to a handsome raised bar, its stools arranged as if by a choreographer.
The food, from chef Ajay Kumar, is just as fetching. Grilled cubed sweet potatoes, seasoned to make your tongue turn somersaults, are stacked to form an orange pyramid on a plate dressed up with dots of white (yogurt), green (mint chutney) and red (tamarind sauce). A jazzy salad of puffed rice tossed with green chile and date chutney is presented in a little gold cornet. Kumar’s focus on presentation comes naturally. “I’m an artist,” says the Indian native, who paints landscapes and abstracts when he’s not in the kitchen.
Karma and Kismet are linked by a handful of dishes (lamb kebab, palak paneer), but the offshoot was designed to be less formal. A few seafood selections underscore Kismet’s proximity to the waterfront in Old Town. Grilled snapper, lit with Kashmiri chiles and tamarind, is not so hot you can’t appreciate the naturally sweet fish. If the food here tastes notches better than at some of the competition, it’s explained by whole spices that are ground in-house and the use of ingredients such as fresh coconut rather than bagged. Considering main courses hover around $24, the chef’s impulses are commendable.
111 North Pitt St., Alexandria, Va. 703-567-4507. kismetmodernindian.com. Open for takeout, delivery and indoor dining. Entrees, $22 to $34.
Johnny’s Half Shell, the beloved seafood restaurant created by chef Ann Cashion and John Fulchino, is no more, a victim of the pandemic. In its place in Adams Morgan is a Mexican outpost, from the same owners. Anyone mourning the loss of the best gumbo in Washington should know the Mexican seafood soup at Los Compañeros scratches a gumbo itch with pearly shrimp, sweet crab and cod bobbing in a bowl of shrimp stock seasoned with dried herbs, sliced serrano and cayenne.
There’s more where that deliciousness comes from: Tacos stuffed with sweet roasted squash and peppery arugula, lit with lemon dressing and garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. Grilled chicken thighs that raise the bar, thanks to a dry rub and brushstrokes of vinegar and oil. Johnny’s served a model crab cake. Los Compañeros does, too, although its sweet crab bound with housemade mayonnaise omits Old Bay seasoning and rises from a Veracruz sauce spiked with pickled jalapeño juice.
An outsize painting of Frida Kahlo, two new zinc counters bridging inside and out, and signage from the owners’ restaurants past and present, including Taqueria Nacional, add up to a festive setting for tequila, carne asada and first-rate churros. “You get a side of neon with your rice and beans,” cracks Fulchino, still the host with the most.
1819 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-238-1819. loscompaneros.net. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, delivery and takeout. Small plates and dishes to share, $4 to $26.
When he was looking for a chef for his modern Greek restaurant in North Bethesda, Dimitri Moshovitis, a founder of the fast-casual Cava chain, knew exactly who he wanted: Aris Tsekouras, whose koulouri, or sesame sourdough, reminded the restaurateur of the bread of his youth. “So much love into something so simple,” recalls Moshovitis.
Bread turns out to be just one of the chef’s talents at Melina, named for Moshovitis’s 12-year-old daughter. His beef tartare and grilled octopus are special, too. The former is raw beef shot through with minced pickled cabbage, pickled mustard seeds and cured lemon — ingredients associated with Greece’s traditional stuffed cabbage. The latter, brightened with a parsley puree, comes with an elusive floral note: vanilla, which the chef adds as a contrast to the salinity of the octopus. The chef thinks outside the forum with a skewer of grilled portobello mushrooms on smoked graviera cream — a meat-free souvlaki prettied up with grated cured egg yolk and newly rethought with farro and hazelnuts.
The meal that transports me to Sunday in Athens is the lamb neck. Plied with roasted red peppers, the feast is served in the folds of parchment paper with pinches of nutty kefalograviera cheese and trailed by side dishes including fried potato and pickled onions. The idea is to make your own gyros with the help of the accompanying oregano-freckled sourdough pita.
A lot of thought has gone into the restaurant, dressed with faux olive trees, roomy booths with mirrors at eye level and theater-length white curtains in the floor-to-ceiling windows. Kudos to whoever thought to stock the restrooms with changing tables — black ones, to match the walls.
905 Rose Ave., North Bethesda, Md. 301-818-9090. melinagreek.com. Open for indoor dining. Entrees, $20 to $44.
The guys behind Washington’s singular Swiss restaurant have a PSA regarding fondue.
“Dip your fork all the way down to the bottom of the cheese,” and swirl, to prevent the cheese — a blend of Vacherin and Schlossberger, similar to Gruyere — from burning, says co-owner Silvan Kraemer.
Stable chef David Fritsche applies the Korean barbecue rule (“Don’t eat the rice, eat the meat”) to the Swiss staple: get lots of cheese on every bite of bread so you’re not filling up on bread.
Pals and I got a chance to put those and other tips to use at brunch this month, just ahead of a few inches of snow in the District. My posse was parked outside, but near a heater, on metal chairs draped with blankets — a comfortable environment, if not quite as cozy as inside, where little chalets welcome diners who thought to reserve in advance. Stable’s hot drinks — gluhwein all around! — helped ward off the chill, too. While it isn’t listed on the menu, the bar serves white as well as red mulled wine. Kraemer says the pale version, incorporating apple juice, is trendy in his native Switzerland.
Fondue paired with potatoes and pickles lured me to Stable. Chicken liver pâté and grilled bratwurst made me happy to be there, too. The appetizer, made with duck fat butter, brandy and port, is one of the richest spreads around; housemade wurzel bread makes for a fine canvas. The veal sausage, based on a recipe from the chef’s cousin, a Swiss butcher, arrives with shattering-crisp potato rosti, a plate so hot it continues to steam for several minutes. Be sure to find room for some Tête de Moine, if only to admire how the mountain cheese is carved into what resemble boutonnieres.
Snowflakes falling faster and harder suggested it was time to leave. Kraemer sweetened our goodbye with a gratis Berliner, or sugar-dusted doughnut, each. Hospitality is one of Stable’s strong suits. So is practicality. The restaurant isn’t open for dinner on Sunday, which prompted the giveaway of pastries toward the end of service. “We have no use for them,” says the chef. Grateful diners do!
1324 H St. NE. 202-733-4604. stabledc.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, delivery and takeout. Brunch entrees, $14 to $18.
No thanks to the pandemic, the swank new Watermark hotel in Tysons is only 10 percent full. Beds might go wanting at the fashion statement, but tables in the hotel’s restaurant are magnets for locals. The owner aimed to create a dining destination. The hotel, located in Capital One Center, offers just that in the Japanese-inspired Wren, helmed by executive chef Yo Matsuzaki.
The Japanese native says he’s “cooking food I like to eat,” which is food you’re likely to enjoy, too. Fried Tokyo chicken translates as piping hot nuggets of thigh meat made flavorful with soy sauce, ginger and garlic and partnered with snappy pickled cucumbers — a pause that refreshes between bites of chicken. Rich pork belly, julienne carrot and jalapeño fill the maw of a bao bun. Sweet day boat scallops arrive with scrolls of bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms. “I want sweetness, sourness and saltiness” on every plate, says Matsuzaki, whose dishes are as beautiful as they are mouthwatering. Even the hamburger, made with buttery Wagyu beef and served with hand-cut fries, proves impressive.
Illuminated as if by a moonbeam, the oval bar is the heart of the restaurant, situated on the 11th floor of the Watermark. Anticipate top-drawer cocktails and service that acknowledges the current labor situation: all the attendants are bartenders — easier to find these days than experienced waiters, says their boss.
1825 Capitol One Dr. South, Tysons, Va. 703-655-9527. wrentysons.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Entrees, $15 to $31.