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Best restaurants in the D.C. area: Tom Sietsema’s favorites in August 2022

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One of the great joys of living in the Washington area is a world of flavors. A diner doesn’t need a passport to experience the Mediterranean, Ethiopia or Thailand, among the places I felt I got to visit this month, thanks to several restaurants.

The farthest I actually traveled this month? Rehoboth Beach, Del., where I discovered lip-smacking fried chicken and seafood.

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From the looks of it, the food faces stiff competition from the scenery at Gypsy Kitchen, the pan-Mediterranean restaurant whose main dining room unfolds beneath dozens of baskets on the ceiling and whose second floor is so green and light-filled, you swear you’re eating in the great outdoors. Two handsome bars, one per floor, are animated with what people seem to be swiping for on Tinder and company.

Then you see chef Eric Milton’s handiwork land at nearby tables and start rethinking your order. How could we leave out the baked-to-order, Astrodome-shaped pita, anointed with garlic oil and sprinkled with za’atar? The mere sight of the spectacle finds neighbors asking for a balloon of their own. The chicken, brushed with a combination of pomegranate molasses and honey and served with a bevy of accents — warm-spiced basmati rice in a bowl swiped with creamy hummus is almost a meal in itself — catches a lot of attention, too. (Toum, let me count the ways I love you.) Milton previously cooked for ThinkFoodGroup, the brand that includes Zaytinya, a detail made evident in much of what leaves the open kitchen.

Perfect? Not all servers are created equal. Kudos to the attendant who bothered to pack up a few tablespoons of tomato jam, for instance. Asked about the restaurant’s name, another server said: “I’ve only been here a few months. I’ll ask a manager.” She forgot. (Given that the menu embraces accents from Spain, Italy, Greece and Morocco, “a nomadic culinary personality” seemed fitting, says Brad Bernardo, director of operations for Southern Proper Hospitality, the restaurant’s Atlanta-based parent.)

Shame on me for waiting two years to try this fashion statement on 14th Street. And shame on me for breaking a promise to a friend who joined me last minute last visit, lured in part by my invitation to take all the leftovers home. “Dude, I’ve never seen you eat this much before.”

If you’ve tried Gypsy Kitchen’s lovely herbed falafel or tuna crudo — a shout-out to summer with chopped tomatoes, grilled corn and cucumber, plus shoyu vinaigrette — you’ll understand the plates I cleaned.

1825 14th St. NW. 202-765-0500. gypsykitchendc.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Small plates $9 to $27.

Returning to a favorite restaurant after a long spell is like encountering an old flame: Will there still be sparks?

Let’s just say there were some fireworks, at least for me, when the food started coming out of the kitchen at Afghan Bistro recently. The smoky, sumac-spiced beef kebabs paired with tomato-sauced chickpeas, and shredded chicken tossed with slow-cooked greens and garlicky yogurt, represent love at first bite (again). The epic menu forces tough decisions; this family-run storefront in Springfield helps out with a sampler plate that brings together four choice appetizers, including minced beef dumplings dusted with cayenne and crushed mint, and soft roasted eggplant flavored with tomato sauce and striped with yogurt sauce.

“Afghan Bistro is our first baby,” says Omar Masroor, who co-owns the business with his wife, Sofia, and once wore multiple hats here, tending the grill, waiting tables — anything as needed. “There was fear in the beginning. We didn’t know what we were doing.”

They sure do now. After introducing Afghan Bistro in 2015, mom and pop went on to open two more restaurants, Bistro Aracosia in the Palisades and Aracosia McLean in Northern Virginia. A third establishment is on its way, across from the Four Seasons hotel in Georgetown. Masroor says he hopes to open Afghania, serving “frontier food” from eastern Afghanistan, within the next four or five months.

The dozens of choices on the menu are a throwback to pre-pandemic times. The owners say Afghan Bistro’s siblings, which offer mezze portions of, say, whole veal shank, allow for the variety. What all the restaurants share are recipes from Sofia and her mother-in-law that make you feel as if you’ve been invited into their homes. Better yet, the meals are sized so that tonight’s dinner can be tomorrow’s lunch.

8081 Alban Road, Springfield. 703-337-4722. afghanbistro.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, delivery and takeout. Entrees $12.95 to $29.95.

The mural on the wall promotes Delaware’s state bird and steers you to one of the restaurant’s signatures: chicken from the pedigreed D’Artagnan that’s brined, spiked with pepper and paprika, and fried to a fetching shade of gold before it departs the open kitchen on a metal tray. All the senses are engaged. Expect a good crunch.

Planner that I am, I dislike restaurants that don’t take reservations. But the drill suits the beach scene. Accepting customers as they walk in “lightens up the structure” of the restaurant, says chef Julia Robinson, who, with her wife and general manager, Heather Sharp, recently acquired the dining destination from the original owners.

There’s a lot to like on the modern American menu incorporating coastal influences. Busy as the restaurant is, cubes of yellowfin tuna, charred pineapple, crisp jicama, whipped avocado and (we’re almost there!) pickled peppers on a crisp tortilla finished with adobo sauce provide an entertaining start to dinner. Gazpacho yields liquid sunshine, courtesy of yellow tomatoes and bell peppers, and I love the kick delivered by aji amarillo in the blend. Robinson sounds proud when she says her crab is delivered “fresh off the boat” from local suppliers. The chef knows she doesn’t have to do much more than add a little egg and mayonnaise to form her lovely “no filler” broiled crab cakes or sprinkle rice flour on her buttermilk-bathed soft shell crabs before frying them to a delicate crisp.

The dining room comes with high ceilings, clean lines, streams of light and a lot of noise at prime time. The restaurant’s consistency is aided by the fact Robinson helped open the Blue Hen, located within the Avenue Inn & Spa, five years ago. Offseason, she uses her Italian heritage to draw locals. Come October, the Blue Hen adds pizza and pasta nights to its lineup.

At the Avenue Inn at 33 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach, Del. 302-278-7842. thebluehenrehoboth.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining and takeout. Dinner entrees $29 to $36.

Wisely, the owner of the late Punjab Grill kept its beautiful interior intact when he replaced the Indian restaurant with Rania, whose name in name in Hindi and Sanskrit translates to “queen.” The inherited marble bar and booths with silhouettes of a temple make for one of the most regal dining rooms in Washington.

Rania delights with some of the most inspired Indian cooking in D.C.

Everyone’s first taste of Rania is a gift from chef Chetan Shetty: a rice flour crisp in the shape of a flower, dabbed with avocado puree, set off with tamarind chutney and glinting with trout roe. The sumptuous snack hints of the heat and spice to follow on the menu.

As with so many upscale restaurants now, this one forgoes a la carte. Diners select from three or four courses, with a handful of options per course.

Live large and go big; the courses are sized like generous appetizers. The dishes I tend to repeat include the eye-catching shiso leaf chaat, herby chicken kofta cloaked in truffle cream, and brined, grilled monkfish. The last, an entree, is staged on sauteed baby spinach and a pool of coconut milk pulsing with ginger and green chiles. The jewel box to the left of the entrance? That’s the 10-seat private dining room, distinguished with mirrored walls and a chef’s tasting menu that doesn’t repeat anything on the standing list, delicious and original as it is.

427 11th St. NW. 202-804-6434. raniadc.com. Open for indoor dining. Three courses $75, four courses $90.

They take meat seriously at this year-old Ethiopian restaurant in Silver Spring, a corner of which is devoted to butchering beef — “four to five cows a week” when customers aren’t fasting during religious holidays, says co-owner Temesgen Gebeyehu. When I enlist him for a recommendation, he steers me to shint tibs. A mound of juicy cubed rib-eye, sweet with onions and sharp with jalapeños, eventually makes its way to the table, where I tackle the entree with the help of pieces of injera, the tangy crepelike bread that doubles as a utensil.

Clouds of incense, part of Shalla’s coffee ceremony, greeted me on my first visit to the restaurant that once housed the groovy Jackie’s and where I splurged on an upgraded version of kitfo, Ethiopia’s steak tartare. The surface of the minced raw beef, glossed with butter infused with cardamom, mitmita and other spices, was sculpted into little red ripples. Similarly wavy scoops of housemade cottage cheese — one green with collards, another orange with cayenne — helped fill out the platter. Wedges of kocho, made with the grated and fermented root of the enset plant, a member of the banana family, accompanied the raw beef and served as a starchy alternate to the scrolls of injera.

Beef isn’t the sole attraction. Ground tilapia jump-started with jalapeños and the eight-item vegetable combination platter also draw me back. The latter is a kaleidoscope of colors: dark green garlicky collards, sunny yellow cabbage and carrots, and red lentils whose hidden serrano pepper creates a slow burn in your mouth. Chef Tsiga Mera comes to the kitchen from the late Addis Ababa, also in Silver Spring.

Shalla takes its name from Lake Shala in south-central Ethiopia, a place Gebeyehu knows well, having worked there as a surveyor. Indeed, all three owners come from construction backgrounds.

8081 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301-920-0082. shallarestaurant.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, delivery and takeout. Entrees $13 to $19.

The family behind this fresh face in Dupont Circle aspired to channel a Bangkok Chinatown. Mission accomplished, thanks to steep stairs lined with Thai and Chinese newspapers and an underground bar and dining room that glow red and green, respectively.

Sura serves Thai food, drinks — and plenty of kicks

Yes, it’s loud and dark. But Sura is also lip-smacking. Billy Thammasathiti, who last worked in a Japanese restaurant, heads up the kitchen; his brother Andy covers the small bar. (Sura translates to “spirits” in Thai.) Together they are doing atypical Thai food and drink in a space with a nice past: The brothers’ grandmother cooked here when she left Bangkok, and the restaurant was known as Sala Thai.

Don’t come looking for fish cakes or tom yum soup. An order of skewered beef shows how the chef makes some Thai basics his own. A riff on crying tiger beef, the ropy meat is marinated in fish sauce, palm sugar and salt and sprinkled with what Billy calls “rice spice” — roasted sticky rice, lemongrass, lime leaves — before hitting the grill. The textures and aromatics are riveting. The chef likes to play with fire, evinced by pork belly finished with a chili sauce that races from hot to tangy and back, a sensation (somewhat) tamed by Thai basil in the jumble.

Other dishes seem designed to go with Andy’s libations. “Chips & dip,” for instance, find garlic-scented rice crackers and a little dish of ground pork and roasted peanuts souped up with coconut milk. Munch, munch, gone, just like the bean curd skin rolls paired with what looks like honey but turns out to be salted plum caramel.

The drinks, affixed with Asian accents, are as spirited as the cooking. The pause that refreshes most is a daiquiri swirled with passion fruit liqueur and fancied up with an orchid.

2016 P St. NW. 202-450-6282. suradc.com. Open for indoor dining. Dishes to share $8 to $18.

Happy days are here again in Alexandria, now that the crown jewel in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group has reopened after a pandemic-induced pause. A little facelift finds the brick-walled, gas-lamp-lit dining room looking fresh; a new head chef, Ben Pflaumer, delivers some of the most appealing food in Old Town.

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His opening “snacks” are superb. Crab croquettes are little balls of seafood dipped in (unsweetened) doughnut batter and fried to a fine golden crisp. Juicy nuggets of fried chicken stay in place on their plate with the help of dabs of dilly yogurt. First courses will find you smacking your lips, too, especially the scallop crudo arranged with lightly charred snow peas and set in a clear snow pea broth zapped with cured seaweed, an umami-rich dish that looks as cool as it tastes.

Pflaumer’s résumé checks off a number of Italian dining destinations, including the chic Masseria in Washington and the acclaimed Vetri in Philadelphia. That’s your cue to investigate his pastas, maybe risotto made with locally grown brown Arborio rice and flavored with smoked candy onions and black truffles, or ravioli plumped with braised pork and finished with a wash of brown butter and fresh sage.

One of the most creative vegetarian dishes in recent memory is found here. Sauteed oyster mushrooms staged atop summery peaches and tender black soybeans (the combination works, deliciously) come with a sherry-kissed beurre blanc that makes you glad to have ordered some house-baked milk bread to soak up all the goodness.

1120 King St., Alexandria. 703-684-9669. vermilionrestaurant.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Entrees $24 to $35.

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