Some crave the excitement of opening presents on Christmas day or on each night of Hanukkah, while others look forward to their summer vacation after a long, tiresome school year. I, however, desperately await the arrival of D.C. Restaurant Week. Come August and January, the joy of Restaurant Week arrives in the Washington Metropolitan area, showcasing a diverse selection of local cuisine. This unique week presents the perfect opportunity for foodies and tourists alike to explore different cultures through a well-rounded culinary experience.
From August 15-21, hundreds of restaurants served lunch and dinner from fixed menus to highlight their best offerings at reduced prices: $25 for lunch and $55 for dinner, per person. Although I’d love to dine in D.C. at night, I decided to survey Restaurant Week’s lunch scene due to the budget restrictions that come with four back-to-back reservations to attend to. With pep in my step and a rumble in my stomach, I set off to explore D.C. Restaurant Week.
#1 Ambar (4.1/5)
Located in Capitol Hill, Ambar proved to be a busy spot. Eager customers occupied every table, and even more waited for a seat in a long line outside.
Upon entering the restaurant, I followed the hostess up brightly lit steps to an upstairs dining area. Ambar showcases varieties of Balkan food, a cuisine filled with grilled skewers, pepper dishes and spicy, hearty flavors. The restaurant’s decor displayed aspects of Eastern European design through the geometric-patterned bar chairs and stone-collaged walls. Unlike other eateries with fixed course menus, Ambar’s $25 special allowed me to order as many small dishes as I wanted. It’s safe to say that I indulged.
My server first brought out a bread basket, accompanied by an array of hummuses. The pita bread was warm, soft and delectable alongside the roasted red pepper relish, beet tzatziki and cheese emulsions. Soon after, our entree of steak tartare arrived, drizzled with spicy mayo and topped with some fresh sprouts. The savory, slightly acidic steak dish was perfect, and it only became better as I tasted the accompanying chipotle pesto butter. From there, my dining experience was a roller coaster of sensation. Some dishes exceeded my expectations while others failed to impress me. High points included the crispy brussel sprouts with caramelized bacon — a perfect balance of sweet and savory in one bite. Another favorite was the tender, six-hour braised lamb. The pork salami and the pork-belly stuffed cabbage were at the bottom of my list. These dishes dried up my palette, leaving it desperate for some flavor. The highly-recommended stuffed pepper had a flavorful rice and meat filling, but was unfortunately drowned in a heavy cream sauce. As I wrapped up my meal, the waiter insisted that I try the cheese-stuffed pepper croquettes — and thankfully so. Rich in flavor and creamy in texture, the cheese paired superbly with the sweet pepper and lightly fried coating, providing a delightful crunch. Although the meal was filled with ups and downs, I continue to dream about the steak tartare and unlimited $25 Restaurant Week menu, starting the week with a 4.1/5.
Ambar’s charismatic service was certainly memorable. However, at points throughout the meal, it almost seemed as if the waiters would avoid my table out of fear that my company and I would order more dishes. Satisfied with my lunch, it was time to go home, nap and dream about what tomorrow’s meal would have in store.
#2 Via Sophia (3.2/5)
I frantically awaited this second reservation. After carefully examining Via Sophia’s Restaurant Week menu, my love of Italian food turned into a craving. With marble walls illuminated by contemporary light fixtures, the modern restaurant was surprisingly empty. Via Sophia offered a three-course menu for the week. It came with a fixed appetizer of gazpacho and dessert of tiramisu. I chose the main dish from a selection of salads, sandwiches and pastas. I ordered the rigatoni alla norma, a traditional Sicilian eggplant-based dish.
The meal began with a bowl in front of me — a dollop of cream and halved cherry tomatoes lay at the bottom; the server then gracefully poured a stream of gazpacho. The cold, creamy soup immediately overwhelmed my taste buds and the freshness of the cucumbers, sweet tomatoes, garlic and bell peppers came together to sing one blended chorus of flavor. It had a pungent zestiness to it and was a hefty portion for an appetizer. To accompany the dish, I ordered a delectable thyme-infused focaccia bread and olive oil which was soft, warm and everything bread should be.
My pleasant experience at Via Sophia came to an abrupt end with the arrival of the main course. The rigatoni alla norma was simply not up to par. Before taking my first bite, I tilted my bowl to one side to expose a river of excess oil. I struggled to pick up a singular piece of overcooked rigatoni without the pasta falling apart and nearly turning to mush. The flavors from the eggplant tomato mixture had a smoky taste and the ingredients were clearly high quality, but the dish’s poor execution made it difficult to take a bite that didn’t seem like oil with a dash of pasta.
After a disappointing main course, I hoped for a rebound with the dessert and chose a classic tiramisu. I dug into the traditional-looking cake sprinkled with cocoa powder and I couldn’t help but squint. The small amount of alcohol — traditionally kahlua — that soaked the lady finger filling was too overpowering, and I only took about four bites before tapping out of the meal. While the Restaurant Week special at Via Sophia may not be at the top of my list, I’d gladly return for the gazpacho and I am willing to try different pasta dishes in the future.
#3 Bindaas (3.8/5)
Located just around the corner from the White House, Bindaas features traditional Indian street food. Walking into the brick building and down a few steps, it wasn’t long before the smell of cardamom and coriander — the traditional Indian spices — filled my nose with joy. The modern Indian street food hot-spot radiated the perfect vibe for a lunch with friends. This week’s menu included an appetizer, main course and dessert.
After consulting the server, I decided to start with the roti pe boti, a diced lamb mixture on a roti flatbread, topped with green onions. Bite after bite, I indulged in the spicy lamb that accompanied the pillow-soft, delicious flatbread that laid below. The only thing missing from this dish was a dollop of cream or yogurt sauce. For the main course, I selected the lamb goli shashlik, spiced lamb chunks with kashmiri chili served on saffron rice. There were about four chunks of tender lamb with its respective sauce over a large bed of rice. The portion was sizable, but the ratio of meat was minuscule compared to the amount of rice. The rice dried out my mouth, and I kept wishing that there was more curry sauce to go with the hefty amount of rice, which wasn’t flavorful enough on its own. The curry was especially flavorful because it wasn’t lost in a cream base, allowing the spices to come through.
For dessert, I ate gajar halwa, a carrot cake containing cashews and green cardamom. I wasn’t fond of the dish because of the unexpectedly overwhelming sweetness and grainy texture. I took one last look around the framed pictures of Indian streets and the patterned tiles that lined the restaurant’s floor, feeling bittersweet that I’d be visiting the final restaurant of the week tomorrow.
#4 Zaytinya (4.6/5)
Founded by world-renowned chef José Andrés, Zaytinya highlights Turkish, Greek and Lebanese cultures. Such cuisine is known for its tapas, which are smaller plates meant for sharing. Nearly every table was full; the restaurant was lively for a Thursday lunch. The host seated me in an airy part of the restaurant near a wall of windows, a marble fireplace and blue and white patterned vases that lined the shelves.
Zaytinya’s Restaurant Week menu included one item from each of four different sections: an appetizer, first main course, second main course and dessert. The server arrived with the first of many baskets of warm pita bread — an excellent start to the meal.
I started off with the baba ganoush appetizer, a traditional Eastern Mediterranean dish made with fire-roasted eggplants, tahini, lemon juice and garlic. The smoky eggplant and its garlic and lemon aromatics made the hummus-like dish savory and palatable; the spread was simply a heavenly pair with the fresh pita. For my first main course, I tried beef soutzoukakia: cumin-spiced meatballs simmered in tomato sauce. Topped with strong feta, the tasty dish contains hints of capers and a dash of cinnamon. I savored every bite, devouring it with the warm pita at the table. My second main course consisted of falafel — my favorite dish of the meal. The chickpea fritters were crisp on the outside, with a soft, vibrant green core. Resting on a spread of greek yogurt, the falafel was delectable.
To end the meal on a high note, I selected Greek yogurt with fresh apricots for dessert. The fresh layer of apricots and crunchy texture from the pistachios perfectly complemented the rich yogurt.
Zaytinya broadened my culinary horizon through their balance of produce and meat-centered dishes, combining simple flavors of yogurt, tomato and spices to create perfect dishes. I’ll certainly return well before the next Restaurant Week — as soon as my wallet can bounce back.