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The best D.C.-area restaurants for burgers, kebabs and Vietnamese food – The Washington Post – The Washington Post

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As much as a sense of taste, practice is one of the best ways for a chef to get ahead. Rare are the cooks who ace their first soufflé.

As I was thinking about some of my favorite meals this month, a lot of them were whipped up by people who have moved around a bit, lived a little — and enjoy some nice age on them. If there’s another link the established chefs share, it’s cooking that delights and surprises.

Alma Cocina Latina

Irena Stein is particular about who heads up the kitchen at her restaurant, a destination that puts the charm in Charm City. Only a Venezuelan chef will do. No wonder it took her six months — and interviews with candidates in Barcelona, Copenhagen, Lima and Paris — to find the latest talent: Hector Romero. He’s from “Caracas, like me,” says Stein, who co-owns the worldly restaurant with her husband, Mark Demshak.

Romero, 55, stood out from the pack for a couple of reasons, foremost his stature in Venezuela. He’s the founder and director of a leading cooking school, Instituto Culinario de Caracas, opened 21 years ago. “If the situation were different in Venezuela,” a country beleaguered by economic and social problems, “he wouldn’t leave,” says Stein, also the author of a new cookbook, “Arepa,” an homage to her country’s signature stuffed cornmeal cakes. Unlike his talented predecessors at Alma, Romero isn’t inclined to open his own restaurant.

End of carousel

Settle in with a taste of tradition: tequeños, pastry wrapped around molten cheese and better than any mozzarella sticks, especially when the fat thumbs are dipped in grass-green cilantro mojo. Also fetching are mussels, stinging with serrano, gathered under a cover of sliced cucumbers and bright pomegranate seeds — an unforgettable aguachile. Whatever your appetizer, it is best paired with something from the long bar backed with white tiles, perhaps a pisco cocktail refreshed with pineapple and capped with egg white dotted with basil oil.

The hospitality — some of the best in Baltimore, sunny from the start — runs gracious and smart. The secret to the service is good people bringing like minds with them, says Stein. A lot of her employees come from big establishments in search of a more intimate working environment, she says, and the dining experience reveals this. Staff know their stuff, pointing out the fresh hearts of palm next to the rosy duck breast, imbued with cardamom and orange, and the nubby coat on the fried branzino, a crust made of coconut and plantains. The fish is fried to create a cradle for salad — julienne daikon, cucumber and smoky pineapple — between head and tail, and the construction teeters on a vinaigrette that’s racy with ginger and chilies.

Romero’s food comes with an alluring backdrop populated with so many plants, some as tall as the ceiling, it’s like a walk in the woods or, in this case, a jungle. The outdoor look “creates a calm,” says Stein, who not only feeds the greenery, she talks to it. “I say thank you to the plants.”

1701 N. Charles St., Baltimore. 667-212-4273. almacocinalatina.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Entrees $34 to $75 (for strip steak).

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