Turning the Tables

Turning the Tables

8 ways we're dining differently-from fast-casual to small plates to Instagramming our meals

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1. Four New Favorites

Veggies Du Jour

Who would have thought that beets, Brussels sprouts and kale—three vegetables whose bad reputations are often due to outdated cooking styles—would end up being the darlings of side dishes?

“Growing up, my mother used to boil the hell out of them,” says Dimitri Moshovitis, executive chef of Cava Mezze, echoing a common complaint. “Now, people are saying, ‘I can’t believe I like these.’ ”

The reason for the change in taste is that farmers are growing unique, boutique varieties of the vegetables, and chefs are coming up with inventive ways to use them. Couple that with a dining public hungry for healthy alternatives, and suddenly Mom’s dreaded dinner dishes have become top trends.

Below are three innovative takes on the vegetables, as prepared by area restaurateurs.

Beet Salad at Wildwood Kitchen
Lots of restaurants pair beets with goat cheese, but Wildwood Kitchen achieves the creamy-tart contrast using Greek yogurt. Under a canopy of baby greens tossed with beet vinaigrette lie chunks of red and yellow beets and spiced walnuts. The outskirts of the plate are then framed with orange wedges, drizzles of vinaigrette and dollops of yogurt. The total package is sweet, tart, spicy and acidic, all at once. $11. (10223 Old Georgetown Road, The Shops at Wildwood, Bethesda; 301-571-1700, www.wildwood kitchenrw.com)

Brussels Sprouts at The Tavern at River Falls
While we love Brussels sprouts crisp-roasted or fried, Executive Chef Brian Nussear of The Tavern at River Falls cooks up a simple sauté. The halved sprouts are quickly blanched in salted, boiling water; sautéed in a hot pan with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper; and then tossed with toasted hazelnuts and topped with freshly grated shards of parmesan.

Comforting and uncomplicated, it’s the restaurant’s top-selling side dish. $7. (10128 River Road, Potomac; 301-299-0481, www.thetavernatriverfalls.com)

Kale, Brussels Sprouts and Beet Salad at Cava Mezze
Executive Chef Dimitri Moshovitis hit the trend trifecta with this crunchy slaw-like dish, which combines shredded purple kale, shaved Brussels sprouts and roasted baby beets, tossed with olive oil, lemon juice and chunks of flavorful barrel-aged feta cheese. The transformation from loathed vegetables of yesteryear to lovely, lively and terrific-tasting is amazing. $8.95. (9713 Traville Gateway Drive, Rockville, 301-309-9090, cavamezze.com)

Mussel Mania

Upscale, downscale and every restaurant in between seems to be showing their mussels. Restaurateurs cite lots of reasons: They’re cheap, easy to prepare, versatile, appealing to those who don’t do raw shellfish, good as either a shared appetizer or main course—and definitely fun to eat.

“If you’re not a person who likes raw oysters, mussels are an easy transition,” says James Turner, chef at Blue 44 in Chevy Chase, D.C., where the mollusks have been served in a variety of ways—including with homemade Limoncello, roasted garlic butter, fresh tomatoes and parsley; or sherry saffron butter with chili flakes and garlic.

“They’re also one of the easiest things to cook and one of the most affordable shellfish out there,” he says. Like other restaurateurs, Turner pays about $2 a pound for mussels. Blue 44  charged $12 for a winter menu dish featuring about a pound of mussels served with hard cider, smoked tomatoes, roasted shallot butter, leeks and garlic.

Among our favorites are the ones below.

—Carole Sugarman

The “Wicked Mussels” at Nantucket’s Reef are named after the “wicked” compound butter—spiked with a Cajun-inspired spice mixture—in which the mussels are first sautéed. Steamed in a broth with white wine, lemon juice, chorizo and pico de gallo and served with two dynamite dunkers of garlic ciabatta bread, this buttery-spicy mussel dish is wicked good. $9. (9755 Traville Gateway Drive, Rockville, 301-279-7333, www.nantucketsreef.com)

2. Fast-Casual Nation

Fast-casual restaurants—with their in-and-out counter service, fresh ingredients, customized combinations and reasonable prices for the quality—seem to be sprouting as fast as construction cones in the Bethesda area.

Visits to fast-casual restaurants have been steadily increasing nationwide for the past five years, according to the NPD Group, a global information company. In 2013, the number of visits jumped 8 percent, while traffic to traditional fast-food and full-service restaurants remained flat.

Local fast-casual operators say the concept works particularly well in the Bethesda area. It has “the demographics that everyone loves,” says Pam Felix, co-founder of California Tortilla, which first opened in 1995 in Bethesda. For restaurants, that means plenty of time-strapped, high-income and health-conscious diners.

Stuart Biel, leasing agent for Federal Realty’s Bethesda Row, which has gradually been transformed into a fast-casual hotbed, says the proximity of residential neighborhoods, offices and the Capital Crescent Trail provides lots of customers who may be enticed by good-quality grab-and-go.

—Carole Sugarman 

Fast-Casual by the numbers

  • Average fast-casual check: $7.40
  • Traditional fast-food check: $5.30
  • Top-grossing national fast-casual chains (in order of sales) in 2013: Panera, Chipotle, Panda Express, Jimmy John’s, Five Guys Burgers and Fries
  • Increase in Visits: 8% fast-casual restaurants, 0% all other restaurants
  • Increase in Spending: 10% fast-casual Restaurants, 2% all other restaurants

Local Leaders

There are plenty of popular fast-casual chains, including Nando’s Peri-Peri and 100 Montaditos, in Bethesda. But among the area’s best fast-casual restaurants are those established by local people. Here’s a look at some of them.

BGR: The Burger Joint
Opened: 2008 (Bethesda)
Number of locations: 17 (three in Montgomery County)
Fun fact: BGR says it’s the only local fast-casual burger joint that uses Prime, the top grade of beef, as part of its patty mix.

Bold Bite
Opened: 2011 (Bethesda)
Number of locations: two (one in Union
Station, Northeast D.C.)
Fun fact: Although originally an upscale hot dog shop, Bold Bite began serving burgers in 2013; they now comprise more than half of its sales.

California Tortilla
Opened: 1995 (Bethesda)
Number of locations: 38
(six in Montgomery County)
Fun fact: After the original Cordell Avenue restaurant moved across the street in 2012, the owners say sales shot up 50 percent.

Cava Mezze Grill
Opened: 2011 (Bethesda)
Number of locations:  five (Washington metropolitan area)
Fun fact: The Bethesda location goes through more cabbage than any other restaurant in the chain—a total of 3,000 pounds a month.  

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