At Arroz, Travel Is Mike Isabella’s Secret Ingredient

by Robin Bennefield

Chef and restaurateur Mike Isabella led an extensive tasting trip through Portugal, Spain and Morocco to find the flavours and creative inspiration for one of his latest restaurants.

06 min. read time


R&D. For most it conjures thoughts of engineers pouring over manuals or tinkering in a lab to develop the next big invention we didn’t know we needed. For chef and restaurateur Mike Isabella, R&D means travelling the world and tasting everything it has to offer as inspiration for the next big restaurant D.C. never expected.

At the moment that restaurant is Arroz, where diners are transported through a cerulean-blue arched hallway to a modern Morocco-inspired space and indulge in a Spanish-Moroccan flavour fusion on their plates and in their cocktail glasses. Opened March 2017 and nestled inside the Marriott Marquis Washington, D.C. , it’s exactly the kind of experience Isabella envisioned and researched extensively firsthand.

“It’s that feel of walking in the Kasbah in Morocco. There’s all these cool little alleys and the windows with the keyholes and all the tilework on the walls. That’s the feel that I wanted coming in here,” Isabella says.

It wasn’t his first thought when he saw the empty hotel space. The former Top Chef contestant turned prolific restaurateur was leaning toward a Spanish fine dining concept for his tenth restaurant in the D.C. area. But he and his business partner, Taha Ismail, who is also the beverage director at Arroz, wanted to play with the flavours of the places they love and know well. Isabella, drawing from his frequent travels throughout southern Spain, and Ismail, drawing from his Moroccan heritage, settled on combining the two — something they knew they hadn’t seen or tasted anywhere.

“When you look at the flavours of southern Spain, you have a lot of Moroccan flavours in the spicework. There was a lot of culture [transferring] between southern Spain and Morocco because they were so close,” Isabella says.

He’s done his homework. Isabella, Ismail and two other members of his restaurant group spent two and a half weeks eating and drinking their way through Portugal, southern Spain and Morocco to get this education, spark original ideas and bring authenticity to their new concept.

“We went to wineries; we went to distilleries; we went to Michelin restaurants; we went to holes in the walls; we went to see a little of everything to try to capture everything,” Isabella says.

This kind of deep dive into a culture is what gets Isabella’s creative juices flowing. He shares this with Ismail, who also travels extensively to explore what the world is eating and drinking.

“We like to see and feel the culture. Know how [food] is done and how it’s made and kind of get a different perspective about how you appreciate things and what they do in other countries,” Ismail says. “You see the flavour; you see the cooking; you see how people eat. Tasting street food is one of the things I always like to do because you see what the locals are eating and this gives us inspiration.”

The team’s research is like an extended tasting table, where the group orders the entire menu, including drinks, passing dishes and cocktails around to share and discussing flavours and techniques they’ve never seen before.

“I like to order a lot of desserts because desserts and cocktails are kind of similar and because you’re looking at flavours and seasonal fruits — the kind of things we do with the cocktail programme,” Ismail says.

The standout beverage on the Arroz cocktail menu, The Daisy, represents the best of what Ismail tasted during his travels. The ingredients: Lustau Palo Cortado (a sherry from Spain) mixed with Mahia (a spirit known as the Moroccan moonshine), along with honey and lemon (reminders of Portugal), ginger and Peychaud’s bitters.

But there was one stop in Morocco that embodied the essence of what the team wanted to capture in their new venture. Isabella gets a bit nostalgic when he describes El Morocco Club in Tangier’s Kasbah.

“When you walk in upstairs, it’s this really nice restaurant that does a little bit more modern food. You go downstairs and you have a bar, and it’s really lounge-y with pillows and very colourful,” Isabella says. “There was a DJ spinning Jazzanova music. There were a lot of Europeans in there smoking cigarettes. It was like a cool vibe.”

Details from the music to the glassware had the team thinking about what they could adapt and expand upon for their own space. At Arroz a blend of Mediterranean and Arabic beats compliment the restaurant’s Moroccan aesthetic, while Arroz staff pour red, white and rosé sangria from handblown porróns, wine decanters found in Spain.

The food at Arroz is actually derived mostly from the Spanish parts of their journey, but not in an expected way. Arroz in Spanish means “rice” and an entire section of the menu is dedicated to Valencia’s bomba rice, served in large pans similar to paella and topped with non-traditional ingredients like Maryland crab, fried egg or suckling pig.

“I think we really wanted to focus on the flavours not on the tradition and that’s what makes us different from everyone else,” Isabella says. “It’s not like when you go to a classic Spanish restaurant and you know what you’re going to get. Here we wanted people to come in and eat and be like wow, I never expected that.”

Isabella has left the menu in the deft hands of his executive chef, Michael Rafidi, who trained under Michael Mina at Bourbon Steak in D.C. and RN74 in San Francisco. But he couldn’t turn down a chance to return to D.C. and run his own kitchen while marrying his modern-American and French cooking skills with the comforting Middle Eastern flavours he’d grown up eating.

Rafidi, whose roots are Palestinian and Jordanian and whose grandfather was a hotel chef, didn’t travel with Isabella, but he could envision the dishes he wanted to make, like the charred eggplant dip that starts a typical Moroccan meal.

“We did a take on that [dip] where we burn whole eggplant over charcoal, for a couple hours, where it’s burnt to a crisp, and then we balance that with sesame-based tahini,” Rafidi says. “We puree it all with tahini, black garlic [and] then we burn lemons to a crisp, and we make an ash out of that. So it’s essentially this little burnt eggplant hummus, if you will. We top it with a little bit of lemon and honey at the end. I think that was one of the first dishes that I knew was going to go on the menu and that’s actually our biggest seller on the menu.”

Rafidi says it’s this level of detail, attention to concept and care for a dish’s origins that makes Arroz special. This is what Isabella wanted to build above all.

“The food is something you will not see in Washington, D.C. or in New York. There [are] not many places you can compare this with,” Isabella says. “There [are] not many places where you can say, ‘Where can I find a northern Moroccan and southern Spanish restaurant?’ There’s nothing like it out there, and that’s what we wanted — to create something new and unique.”

Marriott Marquis Washington, DC