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Spring is a good time to break out of the old winter habits and try some new places to chow down. After all, Washington is blooming with more than cherry blossoms. New and unexpected restaurants are showing up beyond the usual haunts of K Street and Capitol Hill. They might work for a meal with a colleague, a client, or, yes, even those family members you leave back in the ‘burbs every morning. That associate might want a heart-to-heart with you, or your corporate client might have a “personal matter” to discuss (better read up on divorces and estates before you go). For any number of reasons, you might find an out-of-the-way but in-the-groove restaurant a good choice. We sent reporters Tony Mauro and Joe Crea to seek out some less-traveled possibilities, as close in as the Verizon (formerly MCI) Center to as far away as Garrett Park, Md. By accident, they settled on two — Black Salt and Black Market — owned by the same couple, Jeff and Barbara Black. But no matter who the owners are, Mauro and Crea found that you don’t need to stay downtown or on Capitol Hill to find interesting, fine cuisine.
RESTAURANT EVE 110 South Pitt St. Old Town Alexandria, Va. (703) 706-0450 If you’re a lobbyist in need of reform, dismiss the near-daily Hill calls to cement your feet and dump yourself in the Anacostia River. Instead check out Restaurant Eve. Tucked away in Old Town Alexandria, the eatery — with a dark and dimly lit entrance in a tight alley — leaves patrons uncertain about what lies ahead. It’s as mysterious and tempting as the Garden of Eden itself. Press ahead and enter the historic warehouse that houses the restaurant. A painting of verdant apples greets and tempts guests. The hometown yet sophisticated menu relies heavily on locally grown produce and ingredients. The restaurant offers two dining experiences: the chef’s tasting room and the bistro. Both are excellent and offer two entirely different experiences. Seating in the bistro is spacious and private. The bar offers a bevy of innovative, seasonal drinks. Currently on the menu is “Eve’s Temptation,” Granny Smith apples soaked in a simple syrup, pureed, strained, mixed with green-apple vodka, and topped with a sour-cherry Altoid. Bistro entrees are comforting and satisfying. The confit of house-cured pork belly with cannellini beans, tomatoes, and oregano provides a necessary blast of consolation in colder months. And the salad of bacon lardons and frisee with a soft-boiled egg on top is a lovely, semigooey, and crisp beginning to your meal. The tasting room offers a five- or nine-course menu with selections such as lobster crème brûlée with baby fennel and gnocchi with oven-dried tomatoes and arugula. Continue with an individual birthday cake for dessert. Moist, yellow, and topped with little-girl pink frosting and multicolored sprinkles, the cake is pure joy and always a staple dessert, “just because,” as the menu notes. As an innovative culinary and social experience that leaves guests deliriously happy, Eve delivers. Just because. — Joe Crea
ROCK CREEK 4917 Elm St. Bethesda, Md. (301) 907-7625 A restaurant that touts itself as a venue for “mindful dining,” with nutritionally balanced, low-calorie, low-fat offerings, is a place to approach with caution. Will the meal be punishment or pleasure? And will I be hungry a couple of hours later? Rock Creek dispels those fears quickly. Now in its second year on bustling Elm Street in Bethesda, Rock Creek is a tranquil oasis. A Zen-like waterfall soothes in the back of the dining room, and music is turned down to a whisper. A loud guffaw would turn heads. The menu may be mindful, but it’s not preachy, and it’s not even entirely vegetarian. A Mediterranean sampler plate was carefully done, complete with warm pita and stuffed grape leaves that didn’t seem to come from a can or a jar. My winter soup seemed bland, and the fennel listed as an ingredient seemed AWOL. But friend Anita, who knows her root vegetables, said the soup brought out the best in parsnips, celeriac, and Jerusalem artichokes. The harissa-broiled shrimp was a triumph; harissa can be cripplingly hot, but as a marinade it lent a modulated zing to the dish, which also included a lemony arugula salad. I had a pasta dish and was marveling over the flavorful vegetable sauce — hedgehog mushrooms, roast peppers, and broccolini — when the waiter stopped by to explain how it was cooked. Nice touch. There was no deprivation in the dessert offerings, either. We had a sublime warm chocolate cake, topped with real whipped cream. According to the chart on the back of the menu (which you are free to ignore), it weighed in at only 185 calories. You won’t mind the mindful cuisine one bit. — Tony Mauro
VIRIDIAN 1515 14th St. N.W. Washington, D.C. (202) 234-1400 Even on a relatively busy night the large dining room at Viridian, the new, sleek restaurant in Logan Circle, can be quiet. Sistine Chapel quiet. It appears that the owners took great pains to create an atmosphere where patrons can go to be seen but not heard. It’s a showy room, surrounded by tall cream-colored walls with bits of light-green accents. In fact, it’s like dining in an art gallery. The dining room’s art show, managed by Viridian co-owner and curator Giorgio Furioso, changes every seven to nine weeks and is presently displaying the paintings of District native Steve Lewis, whose political inspirations are duly noted, particularly in one work that dominates the dining room. It depicts a battle between President George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, replete with samurai swords. Privacy is paramount here; all of the tables are padded underneath with foam, reducing noise in what could be a noisy room. The restaurant has seen its fair share of District celebrities. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was recently spotted there dining with a small entourage. The food is comforting in nature but starkly elegant. The multicolored beet pave salad with goat cheese, oranges, and walnuts was arranged in a checkerboard pattern. The seasonal menu also features a roasted pork loin with pistachio spaetzle and a seared beef ribeye with mushrooms and a truffle sauce. And the reliable side dishes, particularly the stir-fried brussels sprouts with fresh ginger and carrots and green lentils with leeks, are delicious safe bets. So go to Viridian, show off, and maintain that healthy distance between you and your onlookers. — Joe Crea
BLACK SALT 4883 MacArthur Blvd. N.W. Washington, D.C. (202) 342-9101 Some restaurants adorn their entranceways with photos and mirrors and cushioned settees. Black Salt greets you with a far different scene: a fully stocked fish market. It’s a sure sign that Black Salt will be a different dining experience. Part of an appealing stretch of galleries, shops, and restaurants on MacArthur Boulevard in Palisades, Black Salt exalts seafood in all forms, treating it with care and attention, coaxing it to new levels of flavor and appeal. Among appetizers, grilled shrimp wrapped with serrano ham were terrific, if pricey, at $3 apiece. Fried Ipswich clams were spiked with curry powder — an interesting twist, but as someone who once lived near Ipswich and reveled in the real, unadorned thing, I thought the spice interfered. The restaurant offers succulent mussels in a variety of broths; daughter Emily, who once lived in Brussels, picked the Belgian version, steamed in Chimay ale, and she pronounced them better than any Belgian moules. The star among entrees was parazuela, one of several stews offered. But it was not a swimming-in-liquid stew, instead offering a spectacular mix of mussels, squid, avocado, chorizo, and a meaty half-lobster in a small measure of coconut-coriander broth. Attention to flavor and detail continued through the desserts we tried, a rich butterscotch pudding and a picture-perfect trio of créme brûlées. Service is also attentive. For instance, when wife Kathy asked for an off-list wine, the waiter returned to offer her a sample of a close substitute. The wait staff has a special challenge at Black Salt: The acoustics are awful, and on a busy evening, our waiter had to nearly shout out the specials to be heard. But the food made it all worthwhile. — Tony Mauro
BLACK MARKET BISTRO 4600 Waverly Ave. Garrett Park, Md. (301) 933-3000 It would be like taking Jack Abramoff to Grandma’s house. Black Market Bistro, tucked away in a Garrett Park neighborhood, boasts comfort food for city dwellers in an intimate setting near a small, pretty park. Roughly a 25-minute drive from downtown Washington, the restaurant offers the perfect opportunity for business types to ditch the power suits, put on the chinos, and get real. The restaurant’s country-style main dining room is decorated with a collection of rolling pins and oil paintings of celery stalks. Yet it bears contemporary elements, as if Grandma got her groove and discovered Restoration Hardware. Tables are somewhat close together but not on top of one another. There are also several other smaller rooms with fewer tables, allowing for a bit more privacy. While patrons may be startled by the occasional roar of a train passing by — the restaurant sits practically atop a set of train tracks — it adds to the restaurant’s hometown ambience and offering of comfort food with a few modern twists. Certainly you can order a rare burger with thin, crispy onion rings. But there’s also the warm grilled squid served over arugula tossed with Calamata olives, feta cheese, pine nuts, and lemon zest for a zingy appetizer. Or the very Caribbean-tasting hardwood-grilled yellowfin tuna over black rice and a mango-ginger purée. The menu also features several Italian-style pizzas. The Bianca, with caramelized onions, parmesan reggiano, garlic, fresh mozzarella, and herbs, makes for a satisfying start. And the small park next to the restaurant offers a nice strolling opportunity after a semifilling meal. Just look both ways before you cross the train tracks. — Joe Crea
ANDALE 401 Seventh St. N.W. Washington, D.C. (202) 783-3133 In the zone among the Verizon Center, Pennsylvania Avenue, and the FBI building, Andale has become a steady draw, not far from its trendier neighbor Jaleo. Andale serves well-made Mexican dishes — not Tex-Mex, mind you — with enough flair for an engaging meal, but nothing to knock your socks off. If you want to go ethnic but are unsure how adventurous your mealmate is, Andale is a good place to try. The menu offers an interesting range of antojitos, or “little whims,” but we went for a combination appetizer platter — plenty for a foursome — including a dish of melted cheese and chorizo, some chicken taquitos, and a shrimp empanada — all good and freshly made. Most entrees were under $20. Mole poblano, chicken braised in a chocolate-tinged sauce, was done in classical Mexican style. But if you don’t like the idea of chocolate on your chicken, go for caldo de mariscos, with scallops, shrimp, squid, and other seafood simmered in an expertly flavored coconut broth. As a fan of lamb dishes, I was looking forward to barbacoa de borrego, leg of lamb roasted with chilies, garlic, and avocado leaves. But it came to the table looking and tasting somewhat tired — like ropa viejo done in lamb. The enchiladas verdes were more successful. The best dessert was a pineapple upside-down cake with coconut ice cream. Chocolate churros fell apart when we did what we were told and dipped them into a cup of what seemed like watery hot chocolate. But all in all, with attentive service and quiet surroundings, a visit to Andale might be a good, reasonably priced alternative to trendier — which usually means louder — spots nearby. — Tony Mauro

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