Chef-restaurateur Mike Isabella didn’t want to open your average Spanish restaurant. So he flipped the script as he was creating Arroz an elegant upscale venture that resides inside the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C.’s Mount Vernon Square and boasts 110 seats in the dining room and another 30 in the bar area. First and foremost, he melded Spain’s culinary traditions to those of Morocco, which also inspired décor – from the tiling and fabrics on the banquettes to the keyhole entrances to the booths and the bright flowers positioned throughout. Dishes aren’t served tapas style. There are no paellas on the menu. Don’t expect any bullfighting posters or a flamenco band.
The Top Chef and Man vs. Child: Chef Showdown star – who owns a dozen other restaurants in the Capital Region, including Graffiato, Kapnos, G, and Pepita Cantina – has a deep appreciation for Spanish cooking. The inspiration for Arroz came from trips he has been taking to the Land of the Setting Sun for the last 15 years, as well as more recent travels to Morocco and Portugal, which he undertook with beverage director Taha Ismail, along with Kapnos’ executive chef/partner George Pagonis, and his brother and general manager/partner, Nick Pagonis. The walls of Arroz’s kasbah-inspired foyer are dotted with photos of the quartet on their journeys.
Looking at the menu brings back at lot of memories for Isabella. “We had this awesome foie gras parfait rolled in membrillo when we were in Spain,” he says. “They were these little medallions with sherry vinegar and sea salt on the plate.” As an homage, Isabella, along with executive chef Mike Rafidi – whose resume includes stints at D.C.’s Blue Duck Tavern and Michael Mina’s RN74 in San Francisco – created a foie gras parfait accompanied by fresh-from-the-fryer Ras el hanout spiced doughnuts, salted honeycomb, pickled kumquats, and sesame brittle. It’s one of those dishes that hits almost every part of the palate at once: sweet, savory, salty, and uber-umami.
Of course, the group ate innumerable croquettes. “Ours are a play on fish ‘n’ chips,” says Isabella. “They’re seasoned with vinegar powder and served with served with a quail egg on each one.” There’s also what Isabella calls “pan con tomate on steroids.” Ovals of toasted bread drizzled with olive oil arrive with the usual grated tomatoes, as well as a log of roasted bone marrow topped with oxtail jam. Ultra rich, it’s best tackled by two or more diners.