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 Kapnos 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 now shuttered 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.
A roving snack cart features an array of one-bite nibbles, such as mashed dates rolled in crushed pistachios topped with piquillo jam, seaweed bread dressed up with aioli and a boquerone (marinated anchovy) looped around a tiny tomato, and cubes of chorizo and Garrotxa goat’s milk cheese crowned with mustard seeds and a ring of kumquat.
With a name like Arroz—which means ‘rice’ in Spanish—there are bound to be a few entrees starring the grain. Isabella focuses on Bomba, a varietal from Valencia. It’s pan cooked in a way so it crisps up on the bottom and top while staying creamy at the core. Guests can choose a variety of toppings, including fried soft shell crabs, suckling pig, and seasonal vegetables.
To complement the food, Ismail—a native of Casablanca, Morocco—put together an impressive slate of offerings that showcases the restaurant’s Mediterranean roots. Expect to find mahia behind the bar, a spirit from his homeland distilled from figs. “It’s our moonshine,” he says.
As a nod to Spain’s love of G&Ts, there are a slew of gins—including Spanish options: Gin Mare, Wint & Lila, and Mahon—as well as nearly half a dozen tonics from Spain’s Indi. There are sherry cocktails, house favorites (the sour made with Moscatel sherry, rum, velvet falernum, roasted carrots, and grated cinnamon has a deep sweetness and an energizing freshness to it), and a trio of funky Spanish sidres (ciders). The wine list is 250 options strong with an emphasis on Spanish and Portuguese varietals (there are even three from Morocco). Three sangrias are on tap: red, white and rosé. Each takes 36-48 hours to make and there’s no extra sugar added to the macerated fruit so the natural flavors of the wine and produce can shine.
Though Arroz is Isabella’s most ambitious undertaking yet, he is nowhere near slowing down. Next up? Kapnos Taverna in College Park, Maryland, in late July, Kapnos Marketa in Baltimore’s BWI Airport sometime this summer, a second Requin in mid-October on the new the Wharf running along the Potomac River in southwestern D.C., and Isabella Eatery, a sprawling mega food hall featuring 10 different concepts in Tysons Galleria mall in McLean, Virginia, which is set to debut in the last quarter of the year.
After that, Isabella swears he’s done opening restaurants for the foreseeable future because his plate will be more than full. “It’s a lot, but it’s what I’ve always wanted,” he says.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.
Photo credits: Greg Powers.