Critics’ choice: Three chefs who’ve emphatically hit their stride
Arroz Washington, D.C.
“Practice makes perfect, or something approaching it,” said Tom Sietsema in The Washington Post. Take Mike Isabella. For years, the chef-restaurateur has been ramping up his game while steadily scoring hits with concepts like Kapnos (a modern Greek taverna) and Yona (Japanese meets Korean). But the ninth try appears to be the charm. Arroz, which combines the flavors of Spain, Portugal, and Morocco, is his finest effort yet, a distinctive, lively place that “reinforces Washington’s status as a dining powerhouse.” Sure, it’s located in a Marriott Marquis. But it’s easy on the eye, with a white coffered ceiling, splashes of turquoise, and semi-private booths for two that have to be the most charming in town. Chef Michael Rafidi is “cooking with such assurance and exuberance,” he makes fresh even common ideas like patatas bravas or a foie gras parfait. The menu stars are the bombas, paella-like rice dishes made with brined duck or crab or—best of all—suckling pig. At Arroz, diners are “likely to eat and drink more than they expect.” So be it. “That’s what happens at a good party.” 901 Massachusetts Ave., (202) 869-3300
One of Texas’ premier pastry chefs has “moved big-time into savory,” and that’s good news for diners, said Pat Sharpe in Texas Monthly. Philip Speer’s ambitious but relaxed new restaurant “hits a brilliant sweet spot somewhere between a Parisian bistro and a Waffle House.” Short-order slang and a sommelier’s counsel somehow coexist in the same simple modern space, and the menu “strikes a balance of comfort and creativity that is rare these days.” Start with a plate of pommes rosti—“hash browns” to the unpretentious staff—and you’ll get a nest of perfectly golden skinny fries topped with housemade applesauce and Greek yogurt. Your next move should be salmon cru—cubes of raw fish with cantaloupe, blood orange, and a citrus vinaigrette— or perhaps the steak bavette, which comes with a terrific ratatouille. Given Speer’s background, dessert is nonnegotiable. The devil’s food cake gets a “decidedly French” accent from its whipped chocolate ganache, while the mille-feuille “echoes another all-American favorite: s’mores.” Bonhomie is like that: “classy without being snobby, novel but not bizarre.” 5350 Burnet Rd., (512) 243-8558
Waypoint Cambridge, Mass.
Get ready for “serious, unmitigated richness,” said Jolyon Helterman in Boston magazine. Michael Scelfo’s cooking is “gorgeous the way a Strauss symphonic work is gorgeous: big, confident, sensuous, using every last instrument in the orchestra.” Expanding on the success of his nearby Alden & Harlow, the chef’s latest concept teems with opulent food that “triples down on the hedonistic pleasures of fat, salt, supple textures, and pure-pigment flavors.” There’s king crab, butter-poached and enriched with a buttery aioli and a citrusy chile oil. The boneless Maine lamb shoulder is “an all-out showstopper,” richly marbled and “enough for three famished carniphiles.” There’s also a “Pig’s Face” pizza, topped with salty neck and jowl meat plus whipped pecorino, and best chased with a “brash, tannic” red from the indie-leaning wine list. Pace yourself. If there’s anything wrong with Waypoint, it’s that every dish is set at fortissimo. Fortunately, that problem can be mitigated by the right server—the kind who speaks up “when the pig factor gets out of hand.” 1030 Massachusetts Ave., (617) 864-2300