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Ruta del Vino Is a ‘Roller-Coaster Ride’

What the critics are saying this week

The bar at Ruta del Vino.
[Ruta del Vino]

The Washington Post’s Tim Carman pits two Washington spots offering pub food and pinball against one another: Vük in Bethesda and Lyman’s Tavern in Petworth. At each, “customers play pinball and then become human pinballs as they bounce back and forth between table and machine.”

Vük is “the brooding black sheep to MOM’s clean, apple-cheeked cherub” (owner Scott Nash is also founder and chief executive of the organic markets chain). Carman notes the spot is outfitted with pitch-black walls, sci-fi-themed machines, and a “killer Klipsch sound system.”

“If MOM’s wants you to eat your veggies, Vük prefers to fatten you up on mozzarella. The place serves pies with dough prepared in-house over a 30-hour-plus period. Unless you opt for a whole round, your pizza is not prepared to order....The thin crust is more crackly, chewy and buttery than many of the foldable slices found in the West Village.”

The Sicilian is “a tasty slab,” even if the “interior crust arrives underbaked and gummy,” while the white pizza is still his favorite — with “its pungent pockets of garlic perfect for pairing with one of the hoppy beers available.”

Meanwhile, Lyman’s (3720 14th Street NW) has a wider selection of dishes than Vük. The pupusas, hand-formed by Dilcia Flores, are “textbook examples of the Salvadoran pockets, their masa shells thin and their cheese fillings generous.” He suggests skipping the accompanying salsa verde (“it makes for an avalanche of acid when combined with curtido slaw”) in favor of the green habanero hot sauce.

The vegetarian Viet tacos provide a “meaty bite of barbecued jackfruit paired with pickled vegetables and a sweet chile sauce.” To pull out all stops, go for the pulled pork sliders. And the best sliders could be meatless; the baby grilled cheese plate is “salty, golden, rich and delicious. Bar food without pretense.” [WaPo]

Carman also visits Matthew’s Grill, a Filipino strip-mall restaurant in Gaithersburg, Maryland, for his $20 Diner feature. Its balut dish — featuring a fertilized duck egg — is unmistakably duck-y in taste, says Carman.

Reymond S. Domingo, the co-owner and head chef behind Matthew’s Grill, “understands that his non-Filipino diners might recoil at the sight of balut.” So he hard boils the fertilized eggs, removes the shells and sautes the oversize ovals in butter and garlic (“he thinks it helps to mask balut’s basic funk”).

But “I can’t say it’s love at first bite,” decides Carman. What he does admire about Domingo and his staff is this:

“They patiently guide non-natives through the dense tangle of international influences that have shaped Filipino food, a cuisine almost impossible to define with any clarity. The ongoing fascination with Filipino fare is, in a sense, a testament to globalism, co­lo­ni­al­ism or some other -ism that will no doubt raise somebody’s hackles out there in the quick-draw frontier known as Twitter. But there’s no denying the influence of both commerce and conquerors on Filipino cooking, which borrows from Spain, China, Malaysia, Mexico and even the United States.”

The buffet at the restaurant “doubles as a road map to the many cuisines that have shaped Filipino food”; the mild bone-in chicken curry “carries a faint echo of India” as does the sinigang na salmon (“a sweet, surprisingly supple soup tarted up with tamarind powder”). And the tocino pork is “a sublime confluence of Chinese and Spanish ingredients.”

Pork, “a gift from the Spaniards,” is central to the Filipino table, and Matthew’s Grill serves up “several plates that speak to the country’s love of pig — and not just the loin, shoulder and belly cuts familiar to mainstream diners.”

He calls out the skillet of sizzling pork sisig is a rich mixture of fried pork belly, chicken liver and onions, as well as a colorful version of the familiar Filipino shave ice dessert halo-halo. [WaPo]

A neighborhood restaurant at the top of Tom Sietsema’s list these days is Ruta del Vino, Spanish for “wine trail,” in Petworth. Launched in November, it serves Latin American food and drink in “a rustic dining room that bucks a few annoying trends and embraces diversity.”

There aren’t small plates, but rather appetizers and entrees (“an idea more restaurants should return to,” Sietsema says).

Steamed clams are an immediate favorite:

“So much more than clams made tender by a broth of white wine, the appetizer threatens my assessment of the restaurant’s portions, lavished as the bowl is with a goody bag of soft potato, smoky pork belly and grilled corn. When each shell contains a sample of the lot, arranged in a broth made sunny with the Peruvian pepper aji amarillo, each bite takes on the heft of a clam bake.”

And a salad incorporating cactus paddle “offers a pleasing texture, soft yet crisp, and a flavor reminiscent of okra or green beans.” In combination with pickled tomatillo, shaved cabbage, jalapeño and sherry vinaigrette, “the cactus takes your tongue on a roller-coaster ride.”

Brazil is represented via little slabs of skewered cheese (queijo caolho) warmed on the grill. But not all is well. Ceviche sauce “takes the fish hostage by overwhelming it with lime or heat, sometimes both.”

In the fried fish department, try crisp mahi-mahi — which is tucked into a house-made corn tortilla. “Close your eyes and you could be in San Diego,” Sietsema says.

Ruta del Vino doesn’t take reservations (for parties of less than seven), but sports a spacious dining room and has overflow space, he notes.

The “most eye-popping visual” is a board of mixed meats: zesty house-made chorizo, smoked sausage, chicken confit, and rosy slices of that hanger steak, all flanked by a trio of sauces.

For sausage, go for choripan, popular street food in Argentina that’s offered as a racy link inside a split bun accompanied by a bushel of fries. “Thin and hot, the papas fritas are of the frozen variety, but their ground chile pepper seasoning is made by the chef.”

He likes Ruta del Vino’s nut-sprinkled chocolate tart, which reminds him of fudge, while the “crowd-pleaser” is an order of warm, sugar-sprinkled churros.

As for the interior, the “heart of the restaurant is the bar in the center of the room, my favorite place to land if there’s just me or we’re two.” [WaPo]

DC Modern Luxury’s Nevin Martell heads to Kōbō, where “a terrarium unlike any other” sits in front of him at the unique restaurant-within-a-restaurant den inside Friendship Heights-based Sushiko.

“The glass cloche covers a micro-plot of baby turnips sprouting from a bed of whipped black edamame. I use my hands to uproot the miniature vegetables and drag them through the “dirt” (a mixture of olives, roasted nori and sunflower seeds), so I feel like I’m eating straight out of the garden.””

His 12-course vegan Kappo experience includes an imitation caviar course, with tiny ebony pearls forged from black seaweed he spoons into a crystal candy jar containing silky house-made tofu submerged under a subtle dashi broth. “The flavors are admirably restrained; a contrast to the playful presentation, which makes its debut on my Instagram feed a few minutes later.”

The seating arrangement and ambiance looks like this: “Up to eight guests are arrayed along a two-toned wooden counter arcing across the main dining room like a sickle. Patrons have an unfettered view of the action unfolding in the exhibition kitchen in front of them.”

The first course of his vegan dinner features spherifications of mango, strawberry and lychee that pop in his mouth, yielding “intense bursts of fruitiness that give way to the spices in the seasonings.”

As for sushi, there are two gunkan-maki rolls, and a piece of nigiri with a pink-hued sliver on top of the rice that “turns out to be a pickled ginger blossom with a pleasant rosewater aftertaste.”

The vegan experience offered on Monday through Wednesday nights is followed up by a 15-course omnivorous version Thursday through Saturday.

All meals begin with a siphon packed with sencha and kombu (kelp), he notes, and “the resulting tea smells like you’re beachcombing after a storm, briny and fresh with vegetal notes from the seaweed. It’s a transportive opener to help patrons quickly forget they’re in the middle of a dining room whose muted music is a welcome relief from all the this-one-goes-to-11 eateries.”

For his non-vegan meal, Martell’s sake-blanched oyster “is complemented by red shiso foam and golden pearls of roe, wisps of cherry smoke disappearing into the ether”; there’s also a “row of orange uni tongues sitting on a cradle of silky tofu and submerged in a delicate sauce of soy, sake and sugar.”

A few courses later, the meal takes a turn: Grilled Wagyu beef is wrapped around uni and a pinch of wasabi, graced with thin slices of black truffle. The dish “should be called All the Good Things for its decadence and divinity,” he decides. He also calls out the seared foie gras wrapped with a ribbon of kombu, and a taco-style temaki roll cradling uni galore — it’s “one hell of a grand finale.” [DC Magazine]

FROM THE BLOGS: Rick Eats DC heads to Range, while BYT gives Maketto’s dim sum brunch a taste test.

Lyman's Tavern

3720 14th Street Northwest, , DC 20011 (202) 723-0502

Sushiko

5455 Wisconsin Ave, Chevy Chase, MD 20815 (301) 961-1644 Visit Website

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