You might momentarily forget your hunger when you step into Curry Mantra's striking, newly expanded dining room, where vivid Indian artwork speckles the warm orange and yellow walls. Your appetite is reawakened, however, when you peer into the large kitchen window and catch sight of juicy morsels of lamb, salmon, and chicken waiting to be cooked in tandoori ovens. When discussing his decision to install a kitchen window with a food critic Tom Sietsema from the Washington Post, owner Asad Sheikh explained, "I want my customers to see what's going on in the tandoor." He's proud of the work that goes on in his kitchen, which earned Curry Mantra a spot on Northern Virginia magazine's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2011 and 2012, and Washingtonian Magazine's Best of Fairfax 2013. His chefs pull culinary inspiration from all four corners of India, folding lamb, chicken, and seafood into a wide variety of flavorful curries and fiery vindaloos. To craft their goat biryani rice dish, the chefs use a generations-old recipe passed down to Sheikh from his grandmother, peppering aromatic basmati rice and tender goat meat with saffron and nuts.
Silverware clinks against glass tabletops in the dining room, where diners sip on glasses of wine and creamy mango lassi. Come lunchtime, a buffet table will stretch across the room, lined with silver trays of freshly made dishes. On the weekends, the eatery hosts live music, as traditional flutists and drummers play classical Indian music and the theme from Three's Company upon request.
Futoshi “Tao” Takazato got his first gig working at a sushi restaurant when he was 24 years old. From the start, he was mesmerized by how fish could be transformed into a colorful, delicious piece of art. It took Tao six months of practicing and learning before he’d make sushi for a customer; it took him five years to actually feel comfortable doing it. Eventually, Tao graduated to head chef. Rather than marking the occasion by etching an oven mitt into his driver's license, he decided it was time to open his own restaurant, and Maneki Neko was born.
Translated, Maneki Neko means “beckoning cat.” In Japan, a waving cat is a symbol of good fortune. In fact, the image is often propped up in the windows of businesses as a way to welcome customers inside. A similarly welcoming atmosphere pervades Maneki Neko, with staff members reaching a first-name basis with regular customers and customers who bring in notarized copies of their birth certificates. Niceties aside, it’s the cooking that turns first-time guests into regular visitors. Tao and his staff specialize in sushi, but they also craft other traditional Japanese dishes. They create savory pancakes called okonomiyaki and sauté pork with noodles to form the Okinawa Soba entree.
At Pie-tanza, chefs slide Neapolitan-style pies into wood-fired ovens, along with assembling traditional Italian fare subs, and giant salads. With 35 toppings ($1.49 each), including pine nuts, pancetta, and fontina, diners can decorate a 12-inch pizza in countless fashions ($9.69) or select from specialty pies such as onion and gorgonzola pizza ($11.99). Meanwhile, nine pasta dishes such as the twice-baked meat lasagna ($11.99) fill the dining room with rich scents and 13 subs, sandwiches, and wraps keep hands from compulsively slapping their owner's cheeks. Customers celebrating a birthday or hosting a seminar can also count on Pie-tanza to cater their event with fare such as baked ziti ($44 for a half pan) and goat cheese salad ($46 for a large bowl).
Chefs use grass-fed beef, cage-free chicken, and steroid-free pulled pork that hail from sustainable sources to craft a bounty of tortilla-wrapped treats that take their names from the likes of Caddyshack, Fletch, and Seinfeld. It's this dual mindset of serious food and irreverent attitude that tinges every one of the eatery's southwestern morsels, from the Art Vandalay burrito to the John Coctostan quesadilla. As the kitchen staff crafts their daily batch of guacamole to join the lineup of six zesty salsas, diners choose from a list of more than 20 ingredients to fill out the entree that will soon be conjured before their eyes. Because dishes are made to order, each finds easy customization for vegetarian, gluten free, and low-calorie diets, and the absence of microwaves, trans-fats, and MSG keep eats wholesome. Meanwhile, a complimentary accompaniment of chips and salsa turns portions into full meals faster than an industry-grade blow-up ray.
Bamian Restaurant gained the attention of The Washington Post in 2006 when its traditional Afghan cuisine drew in an Afghan ambassador and embassy staff from Kuwait and Qatar. Plates teem with housemade flatbread prepared in a tandoor oven and kebabs grilled over open flames, earning the restaurant a "very good to excellent" Zagat rating. Vegetarian items include the sautéed pumpkin with yogurt and mint and hummus dusted with paprika.
The interior of Bamian Restaurant is elegantly decorated with leopard-print chairs in the foyer and sparkling chandeliers in the dining room. Gayot describes the restaurant as "large-as-a-barn and gussied up like a deb ready for a coming-out party." The large space includes a full dance floor, which lends itself to hosting large parties, wedding receptions, and rehearsal lunches to practice for dinner.
At Argia's, chef Ryan Baldini and proprietors Pragun and Salina Rana strike a balance between serving fine northern Italian cuisine and fostering a laid-back dining atmosphere. Many of Ryan's dishes, such as his grilled beef tenderloin and range of handmade pastas, come in solo portions or shareable famiglia servings that sate larger parties. For a taste of the kitchen's signature dish, guests can pry open a Prince Edward Island mussel—shipped to the restaurant daily—and sop up its juices with housemade bread still warm from the oven or a pet sea sponge in need of a soak. Outside, the clinking of wineglasses rings out across a patio enclosed by fragrant herbs; inside, a rustic Sienese-style mural matched with eye-catching frescoes conjures an air of the Italian countryside.