The idea that great food is a matter of good location or a function of a household name and a well-designed space has rarely seemed quainter. Many of the most memorable meals I had in 2012 weren’t stately progressions from appetizer to entrée to dessert, nor did they unspool in white-linen settings. Some of them weren’t even in what you’d call a restaurant.
The baby-pig tacos at R&R Taqueria in Elkridge and the magnificent chivito (Uruguay’s overstuffed answer to the Cubano) at Fast Gourmet, two blocks north of U Street, stand as moments of brilliant clarity amid a cluttered montage of 500-plus meals out—gas-station eating as destination dining.
Rasika is fantastic, but the most exciting Indian meal I ate all year was a plate of chicken tikka with Punjabi chole and an egg paratha at a place called Punjabi by Nature, a food-court stall in Chantilly’s Lotte Plaza.
Among the many tasting menus I explored, three impressed me with their novelty and daring. None had a big name attached.
Thai X-ing, Taw Vigsittaboot’s BYOW (bring your own wine) place in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, may not belong in the same rarefied class as Little Serow, but it’s one of the most interesting nights out in the District—a somewhat uneven five-course meal full of bracingly pungent flavors in what would appear to be the chef’s own rowhouse in Shaw.
Six blocks south, Dan O’Brien converts his mini-general store, Seasonal Pantry, into a mini-supper club four nights a week. Cooking for a communal table of 12 with only a couple of burners and a staff of two, O’Brien serves an elaborate, multicourse dinner punctuated with restaurant-world gossip and brash declarations of his own awesomeness. It’s a dinner party for the Top Chef age.
One-upping him in effrontery if not execution is 24-year-old publicist Tom Madrecki, whose culinary bona fides consist of unpaid stints in the kitchens at the renowned Noma in Copenhagen, Le Chateaubriand in Paris, and Zaytinya in DC’s Penn Quarter. Madrecki stages Chez le Commis in the unfurnished living room of his one-bedroom Clarendon apartment. (The $50 charge essentially covers the cost of ingredients for six courses plus wine.) You can marvel at his willingness to handpick the crab for his salad while scanning the spines on his bookshelf.
The night I attended, one course bombed and another was kind of blah. But the rest were pretty brilliant. And you have to love the kid’s daring, the gumption of trying to pull off haute cuisine in his cramped living quarters.
“Can you believe we’re eating this where we’re eating this?” the guy across from me asked, dazzled and a little bewildered, as he smeared butter the color of tar (squid ink, of course) on a slice of crusty bread.
I didn’t want to spoil his awe, so I lied, reveling with him in the illicit thrill of underground discovery. But in a year in which I’d eaten gloriously at gas stations, food courts, and butcher shops, the truly surprising thing about Madrecki’s apartment experiment was just how unsurprising it was.
Read more from our Best in Food 2012 package.
This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.