Critics’ choice: Simple foods from top chefs

Cathal Armstrong at Virtue Feed & Grain; Bryan Sikora at; Seamus Mullen at Tertulia

Virtue Feed & Grain Alexandria, Va.

The fine print on the menu at chef Cathal Armstrong’s new place might be too humble, said Tom Sietsema in The Washington Post. It promises “pub grub, nothin’ fussy”—then opens to reveal beef tongue and braised pig feet alongside more-predictable crowd-pleasers such as chicken wings and a Cuban sandwich. But the disclaimer makes sense in its way, and everything else about Armstrong’s first departure from multiple-star-worthy fine dining is “perfectly suited for the times.” At Virtue, entrées average $18 and the feel is modern American tavern, with a two-story space that seats 300 and seems to exist in a perpetual happy hour. The menu is essentially Armstrong’s comfort foods—dishes he was raised on in Ireland or grew to love on these shores. One of our favorites: a garlicky roast chicken that comes with a pile of fat fries “that only get better as they absorb the bird’s juices.” The leg of lamb is made with equal care: “Thick, pink slices of roasted meat huddled with fingerling potatoes, soft pearl onions, and bits of green olive are a dream of an Irish Sunday supper.” 106 S. Union St., (571) 970-3669 Philadelphia

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Philadelphia has its own candidate for the American restaurant that best captures “the dining spirit of late 2011,” said Craig LaBan in The Philadelphia Inquirer. A hybrid of wine bar, breakfast café, and kitchen atelier, is “laid-back and linen-free,” and it marks a nice return for chef Bryan Sikora, a talent who fell off the radar in recent years. “The polished young crowd” that frequents the place is rewarded with a menu that whispers “casual sophistication” and allows diners to “scale up at a whim from nibbles to a full-blown meal.” Skip the $39 dry-aged New York strip; you’ll get more satisfaction sampling “small ideas executed to perfection”: a warm dome of creamy burrata paired with fresh melon and ribbons of country ham, or chorizo meatballs braised in a seafood broth and topped with green olives and curls of calamari. Sikora’s inventions are “strikingly soulful.” 135 S. 18th St., (215) 825-7030

Tertulia New York City

At this “bare-bones, raffishly fashionable” downtown taverna, chef Seamus Mullen is doing for tapas-style Spanish cuisine what Mario Batali did for pastas, said Adam Platt in New York. The cooking here is “authentic in its essential Spanishness, but it’s also brawny, seasonal, and deeply flavored in a nuevo rústico, distinctly New York kind of way.” At the heart of this snug space is a wood-fired oven that’s a close replica of one that Mullen saw outside Bilbao, in the Basque Country. From it come chorizo, whole fish, and “great salvers of paella.” Every Spanish restaurant needs a squid dish, and Mullen “composes his excellent chipirones a la plancha by cooking soft twirls of baby squid two ways—the body seared, the tentacles deep-fried”—then tossing them together with pine nuts and fresh mustard greens in a spicy poblano vinaigrette. Order a sangria before it arrives and you’ll find yourself watching the flames of that rustic oven “in a kind of silent reverie.” 359 Sixth Ave., (646) 559-9909

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