Traveling wakes up the senses, and what better way to explore tastes, smells, and textures than dining on international cuisine? Fortunately, you don’t have to jet half way around the world to taste ethnic dishes. Just up the road in D.C. you’ll find a plethora of restaurants serving dishes from around the world. The hard part is choosing where you want to go!
Recently my husband Peter and I decided to take a foodie trip to D.C. In three days, we dined in seven restaurants, each serving indigenous food that swept us far away from our nation’s capital to exotic destinations. In these days of tight budgets, traveling abroad can be prohibitively expensive. But splurging on an amazing ethnic meal or two can be much friendlier on your budget.
For this weekend foodie adventure, Peter and I decided to stay in one of D.C.’s most exotic hotels: the Mandarin Oriental, which nestles beside the Potomac and offers amazing views of the Jefferson Memorial and beyond. Its modern Asian vibe, subdued yet classy atmosphere, and elegant decor make you feel as if you have landed in Tokyo or Singapore. We loved our spacious room, the pool and spa, and even the fitness center, which Peter and I visited every day during our stay to work off some of the delicious calories we consumed.
The best part is you don’t need a passport to enjoy this international journey. You just need a plan. Here are a few favorite international restaurants in D.C. and Northern Virginia. Get your taste buds ready!
• Assagi Osteria
This lovely Italian eatery tucked into a suburban shopping center has fresh homemade pasta, delicious buffalo Mozzarella, imported Prosciutto di Parma, and every Italian specialty you can imagine. Peter and I tried the Salad Belga—uber-fresh Belgian endive, frisée and mache greens with goat cheese and toasted almonds. We loved the lemony vinaigrette, which let the delicate flavor of the greens shine through. For our entrée, we shared a house specialty: housemade chestnut tagliatelle served with a ragu of rabbit and mushrooms. The light brown pasta was smoky-sweet, nutty, and unlike anything I’ve ever tasted—a perfect complement to the mildly gamey rabbit ragu. Don’t forget to indulge in the amazing rustic bread, which you must dip liberally in the imported olive oil. Buon appetito!
6641 Old Dominion Dr., McLean
703-918-0080 • www.assaggiosteria.com
• Bistro Vivant
Not far from Assagi, you’ll find another hidden gem at the edge of a nondescript strip mall. But don’t let appearances deceive you. Inside this cozy French bistro you’ll experience authentic French cuisine, chalkboard specials, an endless wine list, and friendly staff—no snobbish garçons in this upbeat eatery. Peter and I chose to try some of the restaurant’s specialties. Our favorites included a to-die-for chicken liver terrine spread on crispy baguette slices (note: this dish is generally on the fall and winter menus only); smoky, tender grilled octopus served with braised fennel; and a juicy, flavorful hangar steak, presented in slices—cooked rare by request—avec Bistro Vivant’s signature sauce, a composite of 32 secret ingredients, fermented overnight to give it a frothy, tangy edge. Absolutely divine. As we dined, we sipped a lovely 2010 Cotes dû Rhone and listened to guests at nearby tables conversing in French, mais oui! Our final course was a light, airy goat cheese cake with caramel topping, candied pecans, and a touch of Calarmaque salt. Bon appetit!
1394 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean
703-356-1700 • www.bistrovivant.com
One of D.C.’s newest restaurants in trendy Barrack’s Row, Ambar features a unique rustic décor—think wood paneling that evokes the inside of a barn—and Balkan cuisine encompassing the flavors of Bulgaria, Serbia, and environs. Peter and I were newbies to this food region so loved exploring a new culture with our tastebuds. We began with cornbread accompanied by three sauces: avjar—bell pepper and garlic; kajmak, a fermented cream; and smoked paprika and cheese, which was our favorite.
We continued our Balkan adventure with grilled asparagus bathed in a breezy veloute sauce, complemented with crispy prosciutto, pumpkin, purple potato, and a quail egg. Rich and yummy. Next we tried cevapi, a Balkan kabob composed of beef and pork on a bed of roasted peppers, the perfect blend of salty and sweet with a touch of aged cheese. A friend of mine with Balkan roots said we must try the sarma or stuffed sour cabbage. It’s not a dish I would have ordered normally, but it was fabulous: savory stuffing included jasmine rice and smoked pork and beef wrapped in a fermented cabbage roll and served with sour cream and a spicy, smoky relish. A full-bodied red Serbian wine called Budimir Triada, featured the prokupac grape, paired wonderfully with these intense dishes, and our Serbian waitress, Ivana, was the perfect guide for this flavorful journey. Prijatno!
523 8th Street SE , Washington, D.C
202-813-3039 • www.ambarrestaurant.com
Maybe you’ve heard of Chef José Andrés? In 1993, he opened Jaleo in Penn Quarter and never looked back. Now this Spanish native is chef/owner of a number of restaurants across the U.S. and maintains his singular passion for Spanish cuisine. Peter and I came for lunch and immediately became enchanted by Jaleo’s décor. Painted in bright, bold primary colors, the restaurant’s interior shouts FUN! in capital letters, apropos since the word jaleo means revelry. Believe me, you will revel in the cuisine here. Peter and I are big fans of Spain, so it was natural that we’d swoon over our favorite Spanish foods—and then some.
After we were seated at a private corner table that overlooked a busy D.C. sidewalk, the food orgy began. How about a liquid olive to get started? Never had one? Me either, but you wait! It pops in your mouth like a fountain of salty goodness. A cheese plate came next with luscious goat’s milk cheeses from Spain followed by the must-try Jamón Ibérico de Belloa Fermin, one of Spain’s prized cured meats from the acorn-fed black-footed Ibérico pigs, salty-sweet, nutty, and delicious. For a veggie course, we shared a lightly charred piquillo pepper stuffed with goat cheese—decadent and flavorful. Next came my first taste of sea urchin, the foie gras of the seafood world. Mmm—‘nuff said.
There’s more: gambas al ajillo, perfectly cooked butterflied shrimp swimming in a garlic sea; housemade chorizo atop garlic mashed potatoes; and finally the piéce de résistance, Pluma Iberica De Bellota con Manzana, more of the black-footed pork, this time served medium-rare with roasted apples. I know what you’re thinking? Medium-rare pork? Trust me, it’s the best pork I’ve ever eaten. Dessert included a deconstructed gin and tonic and grapefruit with olive oil ice cream, each of which burst with citrus flavor. Peter and I were ready to burst too after this meal, a complete stunner and one I hope to reprise one day. ¡Buen provecho!
480 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC
202-628-7949 • www.jaleo.com
That evening we headed to Ceiba, a Latin American restaurant I’d visited once before and loved. Colorful paintings of parrots, soft Samba music, and candle-lit ambiance made it easy to transport ourselves to the jungles of South America. After delicious cocktails featuring pisco—a grape brandy from Chile—and cedilla—a fruit liqueur made from açai berries—the feasting began with an amusé bouche that set the stage: a crispy fried oyster served with jicama and apple slaw, micro celery, and aged blue cheese. Mmm. The ceviché sampler is a popular appetizer—no wonder. Tilapia with popcorn (!) delivered spicy-lime notes; next a cooked shrimp and avocado version reposed in a spicy tomato sauce that reminded us of gazpacho; tuna ceviché with jicama, mango, and cashews had its own spicy heat; lastly a wild striped bass in a rocoto—read hot—pepper sauce. Peter and I loved the spicy flavors of this starter—they got the juices flowing, for sure!
Grilled octopus—twice in one day—arrived next with a gazpacho vinaigrette, black olive aioli, and manchego cheese. It was tender and smoky. Next we tried the shrimp and goat cheese chili relleños, which came with three sauces we dubbed hot, hotter, and hottest. Luckily, Peter and I love spicy food, so we relished these fiery dishes. To put out the heat, we enjoyed some simple sorbets—passion fruit, coconut, and mango—and at our server’s insistence, we tried churros served with melted Mexican chocolate and homemade marshmallow, Ceiba’s version of s’mores. Wow, was it decadent and good. After this second visit, I remain a big fan of Ceiba’s. Bom apetite!
701 14th St., NW, Washington, DC
202-393-3983 • www.ceibarestaurant.com
• Fuego Cocina y Tequileria
A short walk from the Metro stop in Arlington, Fuego features a classy south-of-the-border vibe and a fresh take on Mexican food. During our Sunday noon visit, the tables filled to overflowing with families and couples enjoying drinks and amazing food. Peter and I had to try the unique tequila cocktails. I chose Amor Prohibido, a strawberry-infused tequila with triple sec, lime, and arbol chili salt to balance out the sweetness. Peter’s libation, Mala Suerte, featured habanero-infused tequila with triple sec, grapefruit, and lime—both cocktails were a carnival of flavors.
To begin our meal, we tried Flauta de Pato, duck confit in a tamale served with a tasty mole negro with nutty-cinnamon notes. For our entrée, Peter and I shared a hearty brunch plate featuring Carne Asada—grilled skirt steak; napoles salad—diced cactus (!) cooked al dente; plus two over-easy eggs, fried potatoes, and grilled jalapeño. Luckily we saved room for dessert: a to-die-for Latin-style French toast with caramel and vanilla icing and a crunchy topping. The upscale Mexican vibe, friendly service, and tasty cuisine make this a must-stop next time you’re in Arlington. Buen apetito!
2800 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington
571-970-2180 • www.fuegova.com
This unpretentious venue near Dupont Circle was the perfect spot to wind down after our hectic foodie weekend. Dark wood interior, charming Greek music, and conscientious servers combined to create the ideal setting for a two-hour journey into the heart of the Med. Chef Ghassan Jarrouj, a Lebanese native, offers Mediterranean fusion cuisine that draws from his roots in Lebanon, as well as the nearby countries of Turkey and Greece. From the puffy, light-as-air bread served with olive oil that tastes like sunshine through multiple small plates, Peter and I immersed ourselves in the flavors and textures of one of our favorite corners of the world.
The waiter recommended I try the Fig Delight, a cocktail with homemade fig-infused tequila that reminded me of a margarita. I loved it. Then Peter and I sampled a silky Turkish red wine featuring two native Turkish grapes: oküzgözü and bogazkere—a great fit for the incredible dishes the Chef created for us: chef’s borek, delicate phyllo roll with goat and kasar cheeses served with a tomato relish; roasted Brussels sprouts with truffle crème fraiche; garides tava, sautéed shrimp with garlic, lemon, and cilantro; Mediterranean sea bass with grilled lemon; a simple savory lamb chop served with a grilled tomato and Charleston pepper; and heavenly desserts including one called Aegean Delight, an apricot stuffed with walnuts, mascarpone cheese, vanilla bean, and topped with caramel sauce. Are you in a food stupor just reading this? Luckily, Peter and I took our time at Agora, and the server was happy to let us enjoy our small plates at our leisure. I have to admit, though, I did doze off on the way back to Tidewater that evening. Luckily, Peter was driving. Afiyet olsun!
1527 17th St., NW, Washington, D.C.
202-332-6767 • www.agoradc.net
For information about lodging, visit www.mandarinoriental.com/washington/.