Azifa at Enat
I could pick any of half a dozen dishes to highlight why Enat is the best Ethiopian kitchen in the area right now, but let’s go with this.
Azifa—the sharp, mustardy green lentil salad that many Ethiopian restaurants include on their vegetarian or fasting platters. It’s a great change-of-pace dish to have, if you’re also eating, say, a beef tibs and/or kitfo, a beef tartare, maybe the original beef tartare. But at many places, that’s all azifa is—a respite of cool from the warming heat, a bit of chew amid so many softer, more tender bites.
Here, though, you’re eating something that could stand alone. What makes it superior to other versions of the dish in the area? How about everything. The flavors are sharper and more focused, for one, so that everything pops in a way it doesn’t, usually. The tang is tangier. The mustard bite, more mustardy. It’s also a pleasure to see lentils that are cooked perfectly—no crunchiness, no mushiness.
It’s an exciting, vibrant dish—but again, as I said, one of many at this remarkable restaurant.
Torta cubana at Taco Bamba
At his Penn Quarter steakhouse Del Campo, Victor Albisu slings an almost comically large chivito. The sandwich, which hails from Uruguay, consists of layers upon layers of thinly sliced meats, cheese, tomato, and fried egg. It’s delicious, and eating it tends to leave your shirt looking like a Liz Lemon relic.
Over at his way-more-casual Tysons taqueria, Albisu applies a similar approach to his torta cubana. It’s a towering thing—a departure from the thinly pressed versions you usually see—and it’s as over-the-top rich as Michel Richard’s once-a-year potato puree. For one, there is a generous heaping of tender carnitas along with the ham. Then, two cheeses—melty cheddar and salty chihuahua. Albisu slathers it all with yellow mustard to cut through the glorious fattiness, and swaps pickles for vinegary pickled jalapeños (a great touch, and the kind of surprise detail Albisu is so adept at). The fillings are excellent, but the bread—soft, airy, slightly sweet—is just as special.
Vietnamese fish with turmeric and dill at Hai Duong
The “house special” section of any large menu can be tricky to navigate—sometimes it's filled with pricier dishes the restaurant hopes to sell, other times it's a genuine reflection of the kitchen’s finest work, and often, it's a mix of both. Judging from the items I recently tried at Hai Duong, an unassuming eatery right off the Eden Center parking lot, there’s no upselling here. House specials are a reflection of what the chefs do best, and as an added perk, most come in at $15 and under.
Get a big table in the brightly lit, banquet-like room if you plan to order large. Plates are generous, and dipping sauces many. The menu is also expansive, though doesn’t stretch itself thin—you can do equally well with a bowl of pho or a Northern-style pork bun, here a mix of grilled meat and sausage marinating in a bowl of nuớc chấm. Of the specials, two are absolute musts. First, the banh xeo crepe, both ethereally light and crispy, studded with sweet shrimp and stuffed with bean sprouts. The other, cha ca thang long, fish with turmeric and dill. Two skewers arrive on a sizzling platter, warmly hued by the spice and sitting atop a bed of quickly-caramelizing onions and abundant fronds of the herb. The fragrant plate arrives alongside another heaped with fresh mint, Thai basil, shiso, and chilled vermicelli noodles, plus lettuce leaves for making brightly flavored wraps. More than just a signature, the dish is a reason to visit on its own.
Pork in adobo at Taqueria el Mexicano
Some weeks back I tipped you all to the mole poblano here.
I thought and sort of feared that Taqueria el Mexicano might be a one-hit wonder, like many small, family-run restaurants. Lots of fair to pretty good dishes, and then that one thing on the menu that stands above it all, so good that you have to go back again and again even though that’s the only thing you get.
Well, I can report, now, that the pork in adobo is just as remarkable.
Not hunks of pork, or slices of pork, either of which might have been dry, so that you end up concentrating more on the sauce than the meat. No: this is a large portion of rib meat, lusciously tender, like the best kind of low-and-slow-barbecue.
And then there’s the sauce, a rich, ruby-red that will stain your fingers for hours afterward. Hot, yes, but not too hot, a warm, spreading heat that doesn’t mask the flavors, which are so complex as to keep you eating long after you’ve had your fill, just to work out everything that’s in there.
Finally: the tortillas. The staffers say that they’re made with masa harina, not the shortcut stuff, and I believe them. These are coarse-ground, with a grainy texture that holds the sauce, unlike the manufactured kind, which are flat and slick and allow sauces to run out. And the flavor: a deep, pure taste of corn. As Ghibellina chef Jonathan Copeland tweeted me, after devouring the mole poblano a few weeks back: I could eat a stack of them every day.
Rice Krispie Treats at WTF
Upscale bakeries have been raiding the elementary school bake-sale table for ideas for years. But for some reason, Rice Krispie treats never took off in the way that cupcakes or brownies did. Probably, that’s because they’re at their best when they are in their most basic, utterly simple form—in other words, straight-up marshmallow and butter. No Valrhona chocolate dips, no painstakingly made caramels or obscure nuts or other add-ins.
Earlier this week, I had a belated birthday celebration at a dear friend’s apartment in Dupont. After her (killer) lasagna was cleared off the table, another pal brought out dessert. She’d stopped at WTF along the way, and picked up a sugary feast of creme brûlée doughnuts, chocolate-chip whoopie pies, and yes, Rice Krispie treats. All the sweets were super-tasty, but the Rice Krispie treat, which left a buttery sheen on my fingertips, is what I keep thinking about. It took me a few bites to realize what made it even more delicious than other marshmallowy versions—a faint hint of cinnamon, which came from what seemed to be squares of the world’s other greatest cereal creation, Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Shaanxi homemade noodles at Panda Gourmet
Panda Gourmet is far from a hidden gem—the Szechuan restaurant in a divey Days Inn Hotel on New York Avenue has long been a destination for Chinese food lovers looking for an inexpensive adventure within the confines of the District. Still you won’t find lines out the door. The experience isn’t for everyone. The large dining room is brightly lit, though not in a pleasant way. Service can be perfunctory, as is often the case when a language barrier exists between staff and guests. Go for superb Szechuan and Shaanxi dishes, and bottles of cold Tsingtao brought glassless to the table. Just don't expect extra niceties.
A large menu includes the regular melange of Americanized Chinese dishes for mainstream tastes, and regional specialties for those in the know. Don’t bother with the former. We feasted on delicate cold dumplings in mouth-numbing chili oil; dan dan noodles scattered with minced beef; lamb sautéed with copious amounts of cumin and chilies; and the “Chinese burger” with pork, where the spicy roast meat is tucked inside a house-made flatbread similar to pita. Still the dish worth braving New York Ave. traffic for is the Shaanxi noodles. The light, hand-pulled ribbons are topped with bok choy, diced pork, and a heap of toasted garlic and chilies, all ready to be tossed in a fiery chili sauce (though you’ll have to convince the kitchen to really turn up the heat, toned down for Western palates). The flavors manage to be delicate and striking all at once--possibly the best dish ever served in a Days Inn.
Siin heng (sun-dried beef) at Thip Khao
I’ve had a number of good dishes at Thip Khao and some very good ones. Put this in the very good camp.
The Band-Aid-size strips of meat—sun-dried, according to the menu—are at once chewy and slightly crunchy, like jerky, whose concentrated intensity it also resembles. Unlike jerky, however, the flavor is not one-note; a sort of dry rub of pounded lemongrass, ginger, sesame, and chilies lends the strips heat and depth and crunch.
I’ve had three meals, now, at this Columbia Heights spinoff restaurant from Seng Luangrath and the crew at Bangkok Golden in Falls Church, and each time out has been better than the last. Stay tuned for more.
Kaing som (sour soup) at Thip Khao
January is never an easy month, but this winter seems to be a particularly bad mash-up of colds, brutal temps, and zero snow days spent in front of the flicker of a Netflix screen. So this week’s trip to Thip Khao felt like a visit to a sort of culinary apothecary. Beyond the fact that there’s an actual shot called the Stomach Settler—it’s vodka infused with various aromatics and barks—many of the sharable dishes are so heavy on the capsicum that you’ll be sweating and sniffling your way through dinner.
There was plenty of joy to be found in the chili-heavy stuff: a blistering larb salad with pork skin, pork liver, and minced pork, or luscious slices of grilled pork neck dipped in a sauce bobbing with chili seeds. But that night, I needed soothing more than I needed scathing, and I found it in a bowl of soup called kaing som. The clear broth is wonderfully sour, thanks to a good dose of tamarind, and packed with long-stemmed mushrooms (enoki, I think) that served in place of noodles, plus fresh basil, green onions, thin slices of chicken, and cherry tomatoes.
Amazingly, five of us managed to share the bowl—a steal at $10—but next time the winter blues hit, I’m slurping through one on my own.
Pasta with clams, pancetta, and shiitake mushrooms
It may be cheating, but the best thing I ate this week was a meal at home. That’s not to say the many dinners out were bad. It’s a food writer’s curse—cue the tiny violins—that after a string of decadent tastings, the thing you crave most is a homemade sandwich or bowl of pasta.
Linguine with clams is my go-to dish. I've cobbled together a formula that's a combination of an old Bon Appétit recipe for pasta with clams and wild mushrooms, and New York-based chef Andrew Carmellini’s creation called spaghetti “clams casino,” which adds bacon or pancetta and breadcrumbs to the mix.
Italian recipes—even unorthodox ones like this—are all about the ingredients. My ideal lineup for the main components: fresh shiitakes from North Cove Mushrooms at the Dupont FreshFarm Market; any local garlic; pancetta sliced to a quarter-inch thick from Balducci’s (they have a wonderful cured meat selection); and Olde Salt littleneck clams from Rappahannock Oyster Co., which can be picked up at Union Market or ordered online. The beautifully plump, briny bivalves really make the meal.
Obviously this is more of a dream grocery list than a one-stop shop, so start with the clams and go from there.
Pork-belly bao bun at China Chilcano
There's much to like about José Andrés's newest restaurant, a Peruvian spot in Penn Quarter. The place has energy, and not just the hype and crowds of any big opening. You feel it in the decor—which pops with bright pillows and winding red lights—the staff, and the menu.
Perhaps the eclectic nature of Peruvian cooking lends a natural liveliness to the concept. Influences from Spain, China, and Japan meld with native South American ingredients and traditions, making for a cuisine that's interesting to explore from a chef's perspective, and eat from the diner's.
The menu is fairly large, and a meal for two feels like a brief introduction—earthy squash and rocoto pepper dumplings; a bright ceviche studded with corn and sweet potato; "airport" fried rice with 20 vegetables, some fashioned into tiny planes. The best item came from the "dim sum" section of the menu: a pork bao bun. I’ve ordered the dish dozens of times—who doesn’t love a steamed bun stuffed with a slab of hoisin-glazed pork belly?—but this version is the most unusual, and one of the tastiest. In addition to the rich meat, Andrés adds puréed sweet potato, miso, citrusy ají limo peppers, and a slice of pickled daikon. The bun itself is lightly fried at the end for a crisp exterior, lending layers of texture.
One bun comes per order. I’d suggested adding a few.
Mole poblano at Taqueria El Mexicano, Hyattsville
This is one of my favorite dishes in the world, and this memorable preparation is the best I’ve had in years.
The taqueria’s owners, Bernard and Claire Lucero, hail from the state of Puebla, which some culinarians regard as the birthplace of mole poblano. Some, not all—many centuries later, its origins remain in dispute. In any event, Pueblans are passionate and fiercely particular about their mole poblano, which some culinarians (some) believe to be the national dish of Mexico.
The sauce is the thing—thick, brown-black, dotted with sesame seeds, and with a taste as rich and complex as any of the French master sauces. At the same time, it’s infinitely more idiosyncratic, a sauce that seems to change the way you think about it with each bite: now sweet, now slightly bitter, now spicy, now slightly smoky.
Dark chocolate is the not-so-secret ingredient, and gives the dish its identifiable color, but the strange, mysterious character of mole poblano cannot be chalked up, simply, to the inclusion of chocolate—the mix also includes sweet, smoky guajillo chilies, fried nuts, and raisins, as well as a larder’s worth of toasted, ground spices.
A great mole poblano—and this one qualifies—has such depth that it seems almost impenetrable, unknowable.
Each order comes with two pieces of unexpectedly tender chicken (in most cases, a leg and a piece of meat cut from around the breast), good rice and stewed beans, and—an even bigger surprise—two handmade corn tortillas. (If there’s anybody making tortillas like this in the area, with this perfect, pebbly surface, please let me know; these are fabulous.)
The cost to walk away with a memory: $11.50.
Nicolaki Cocktail at Iron Gate
I start pretty much every weekday morning with some kind of yogurt—whether it’s Fage with chopped apples and honey, a grab-and-go muesli cup from Pret, or rich Noosa swirled with coconut. It’s not so often though, that I end the day with the stuff.
My new favorite cocktail might change that.
When I ordered Jeff Faile’s Nicolaki on a recent heat-lamp-fueled evening inside the surprisingly cozy carriageway at Iron Gate, my friend looked skeptical. Greek yogurt and honey in an alcoholic beverage sounded as potentially heavy as a TGI Friday’s mudslide. But the result—an ethereal shake-up that included vodka, rosemary, and lemon—was wonderfully light and airy, with the slight sweetness and tang of a lassi. It was a lovely prelude to a leisurely dinner. But it went down so easy I’d just as soon order it up with brunch, too.
Ten bucks for a dosa? And one that looks to be about half the size of a normal dosa?
Yeah, not great, though nearly every thing you can ingest at Union Market is priced to make the upscale customer feel that he or she is getting quality.
On the other hand: tasty, very tasty.
The dosa maker pressed chopped onions and cilantro into the batter as it sizzled atop the Bunsen flame, adding flavor and crunch to the four-lentil mixture. The crepe emerged thin and slightly crunchy, with a subtly fermented taste.
I asked for curried potatoes, and the dosa maker didn’t skimp. If anything, there was too much potato inside—it was as densely packed as one of those overstuffed Chipotle burritos. Which I guess is good for people who've never had a dosa before—makes them feel as if they got good value. I prefer the traditional dosa, with much more crepe and much less filling.
But that’s not to say it wasn’t good. It was good: a nice meatless lunch. I’d go back.
Oh, and one more thing: Points to owner Priya Ammu for the cilantro-sesame chutney, which brought tang and gentle heat to every bite.
Eggplant Parmesan at Society Fair
Despite the proliferation of new Italian restaurants over the past couple of years, it’s been tough to find the sloppy, red-sauce-y dishes of my checkered-tablecloth-covered dreams. Walking into Society Fair, with its little girl’s tea party aesthetic (so much pink, so many table arrangements that look like they belong in an Anthropologie window), I certainly wasn’t expecting to satisfy any cravings along those lines.
But the eggplant Parm I impulse-bought from the grab-and-go case proved my assumptions wrong. After 45 minutes in the oven, it emerged topped with a thick, bronzed layer of gooey Parmesan. Underneath, there was plenty of zesty tomato sauce, a few fragrant basil leaves, more cheese (provolone), and breaded eggplant that stayed firm, not mushy. Béchamel-laden lasagna and ornate salumi boards are lovely and all, but sometimes—authenticity be damned—it’s the messy grandma-style fare you want. And this little casserole hit the spot.
Ham-and-cheese biscuit at Bread Furst
Breakfast sandwiches, while wonderful, can be a morning death sentence. Fried chicken thighs sandwiched between buttermilk biscuits are the stuff Sunday dreams are made of, but many mornings call for some happy medium between a green juice and breakfast burrito—which is why I found myself in a state of pure contentment at Bread Furst.
It’s an easy level to achieve at Mark Furstenberg’s Upper Northwest bakery, the kind you leave wishing was right around every corner. The smell—and sight—of croissants and braided breads being prepared greets guests at the door through the window-walled kitchen. It’s tough to pick among the many items, or whether to go sweet or savory; blood orange doughnuts and robust slices of frittata both beckon.
The perfect choice may be the miniature ham-and-cheese biscuit. Two perfectly crumbly rounds, a little larger than Oreos, are swiped with apple butter and stacked with thinly shaved ham and a melty slice of Swiss. Delicately sweet and salty, it’s the ideal flavor and portion for a morning on the go.
This won't be a thing. It'll be a things.
I was in Columbia, Missouri, recently to give a talk at the University of Missouri, and was fortunate to visit some favorite spots (I've been going out there to do research and talk for the past five years now) and some new ones, too, while reconnecting with good friends.
I've always been drawn to college towns, and Columbia is a great one, with a growing arts scene that is at least partly responsible for the tremendous sense of energy and possibly I sense right now.
Inevitably, whenever I come to Columbia, I find myself sitting down to a meal at Sycamore at least once and often twice. The chef, Mike Odette, was a James Beard semifinalist in 2009 for Best Chef Midwest, and his cooking is rooted and direct and appealingly understated, even when he's ringing such sly changes on Americana as his plate of deep-fried gizzards, a recent special. The gizzards are corned, then confited, then breaded and fried. Which is, yes, a helluva lot of work for what essentially is a snack—the result tastes like a cross between pigs in a blanket and fried oysters—but it gives you a good idea of just how detailed and process-oriented the chef is. I also love his trout bellies. This is the fattiest and therefore most luscious part of the trout, and Odette turns to them for a wonderful meatless twist on rilletes. He cuts them into strips, smokes and peppers them, and serves them with pickled onions and crème fraîche.
The next day I hit Uprise, a bakery with sandwiches, for a small snack. I'd already had lunch, and dinner was in two hours, but for some reason I was hungry. I asked the woman at the counter what sandwiches she liked. "Anything with bacon," was the answer. And I understood why when I took a bite of my BLT. The bacon wasn't crispy, which for me is usually a turn-off, but I loved this. Uprise cures its own, and the strips were infinitely richer, smokier, and porkier than any bacon I've had in a while.
I left town after a quick brunch at Cafe Berlin: three good breakfast tacos filled with ground pork and a waffle topped with peanut butter, honey, granola, and banana.
I know I'll be back soon, but every time I leave now it's with a sense that I'm missing out on something good.
Tonnarelli cacio e pepe at Lupo Verde
This Roman-style pasta is one of my favorite things to make at home (I usually go with this trusty recipe), and it's so quick and super-simple that when I see it at restaurants I'm rarely tempted to get it. I mean, butter, Parmesan, pecorino, black pepper—that's it. How different could it really be? When I ordered it the other night at Lupo Verde, I discovered the answer: very.
For one, the kitchen isn't using dried spaghetti like I usually do—they're actually not using spaghetti at all. Instead, they make their own tonnarelli; long, thick strands with a hole extruded through the center (they're like bucatini, but a little bit more robust). And the noodles are cooked beautifully, with just enough chew and heft to keep them from getting weighed down by the massive amounts of butter and cheese and black pepper. The end result is the perfect comfort food, chilly weather food, drunk food—a glorious, gooey mess.
Beets with wasabi kefir at the Oval Room
I know, beet salad, yawn. It's like the god of New American dining gave the commandment "Thou shalt not serve a menu without beets and goat cheese," and all restaurants obey. While the dish is a reliable staple, few versions are remarkable; the beet-and-chèvre mountain pie at Mintwood Place is one notable exception. Just as good, though less hearty: chef Tony Conte's citrus-roasted beets. The appetizer is bright with wasabi-spiked kefir, which tastes like a tangier yogurt, as well as blackberry vinaigrette and thin wheels of the fruit. Beets and blackberries? Not a frequent combination, but the natural sweetness and acidity of both work together beautifully. Maybe even better than goat cheese.
Haneeth at Saba
Taha Alhoraivi longed desperately for two dishes when he arrived in America on a student visa 15 years ago to attend Long Island University. One was haneeth (lamb over spiced rice), the other fahsa (a slow-cooked beef stew).
The fact that he didn’t know how to cook—the kitchen was solely the province of women—and was forced to subsist on bread, eggs, and cheese only exacerbated his ache for home. Eventually he prevailed upon his mother and sisters to teach him, initiating a long and tortuous process of research and experimentation at the stove.
Three months ago, Alhoraivi—armed with a master’s in business administration and years of experience as a regional manager at Pizza Boli’s—opened the superlative Saba, in Fairfax. Haneeth and fahsa are both on the menu, and in having to single out one dish for this column, I debated for days which one to choose; they’re equally wonderful. I decided to go with the haneeth, primarily because of its rice.
Haneeth is a dish of slow-cooked lamb and rice, and the putative star, hacked into four good-sized pieces, is everything you want it to be: The meat comes away easily from the bone, it’s rich and juicy, and most of the excess fat has been melted away in the braising. The rice, however, is even better. Each grain is distinct, fluffy, not the least bit oily, and so flavored by the juices of the meat that you think you’re eating something much more substantial than you are.
I’ve had the great privilege to eat some exceptional dishes this year, across a wide range of cuisines, cities, and even countries. But this was one of the most memorable and most rewarding.
Hot Mess at Frankly Pizza
There’s a lot to love at Frank Linn’s Kensington pizzeria: the twinkly patio stacked with chopped wood, the chilled rosé on tap, the simple but lovely salads—and happily, most of all, the pizza. Linn got plenty of practice toting his mobile pizza oven around to Maryland farmers markets over the last few years, and his pies are terrific. They’re Neapolitan-ish—cooked in a 700-degree wood oven—but not as delicate (or sopping wet) as their Italian-style counterparts can be.
The crust has great char and chew. I could eat it without any accoutrements at all. It holds up well to a thick smear of zesty tomato sauce with coins of pepperoni and a healthy handful of mozzarella. The true standout, though, is the Hot Mess, a sauceless round layered with intensely smoky bacon (you’ll see it curing behind the bar), pickled jalapeños that still offer plenty of heat, super-sweet caramelized onions, and a gooey mix of Gruyère, mozz’, and romano that serves to mellow the other ingredients.
I don’t live anywhere near Kensington, and there's plenty of good pizza in DC, but a 45-minute car ride is a price I'd easily pay for that pie.
Chilito at Meats & Foods
Most restaurant owners would cringe at comparisons between their food and items at a mass chain, but not so at Meats & Foods.
"I don't know if you ate at Taco Bell in the '90s, but it's basically their chili-cheese burrito," said co-owner Ana Marin enthusiastically when asked about the "chilito" on the menu, which even shares a name with the Bell's discontinued dish.
Analogies to TB end there. Marin and husband Scott McIntosh run the newish Florida Avenue corner shop, the first retail location of their sausage company, 13th Street Meats. Brats, chorizo, and their ilk are made with locally sourced pork, beef, and chicken. Even the look of the place is about as non-mass-produced as possible, with a concise menu and handful of stools for perching with a tasty griddled sausage tucked into a potato bun.
One of the few food options outside meaty links is the chilito, and the small snack alone makes me crave more visits. A warm, house-made flour tortilla is filled with spiced beef chili and gooey-in-the-best-way cheese. The molten wrap is well-proportioned and easy for a bite on the go, but probably best taken down on premises with a few dashes of Crystal hot sauce and a cold DC Brau.
Pupusas at Pupuseria y Taqueria Rios
I recently asked David Chang, the celebrated Momofuku chef, what sorts of things he’s passionate about right now in the world of food. “I’m fucking infatuated with fucking Salvadoran cuisine,” he told me.
Two f-bombs in one sentence: now that’s passion.
Salvadoran isn’t a recent discovery for me—I’ve been eating it for more than two decades, now—but it’s not often I come across a plate as terrific as this one.
So, yeah, I’m pretty fucking infatuated, too.
Marian Rios runs the place, which occupies the former Suporn in Wheaton; one of her sisters, Lucia Ochoa, runs the kitchen. Ochoa is a master of the pupusa, the griddled, stuffed corn cakes that are a staple of the Salvadoran table.
Picture it: thick and warm and soft and rich, with the slightest crispiness at the edges, and not even a little—no, not even a hint—of grease.
Ochoa serves them with a yellow curtido (a cabbage relish) which you almost never find; most Salvadoran spots favor the easier-to-make white curtido. The color comes from pickling, and a heaping spoonful of the tangy, crunchy slaw makes each cheesy rich bite that much more delicious.
Now, the sad part.
I can count the number of other diners in the room in all of my recent meals here on one hand. And I wouldn’t need two of my fingers.
Go, please, and help these people out.
Sugar toad with Darden ham salad, okra blossoms, and green-tomato coulis at CityZen
My mom grew up in Connecticut, and as such, I grew up on a steady diet of dishes that are familiar to all New Englanders: baked beans with salt pork, lima-bean succotash, and a sandwich filling she called “ham n’ pickle.” That last thing—a mix of baked ham and dill pickles buzzed in the Cuisinart and mixed with a dollop of Hellman’s—was always my favorite, despite its rather disgusting appearance, which drew lots of grimaces from my friends whenever I unwrapped my lunch at school.
I know ham salad exists out there in the rest of the world, but I’ve never had it made from anywhere but my mom’s kitchen, much less in a deli or restaurant. So I was floored when my second course arrived at CityZen, the hushed dining room in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. I’d ordered the sugar toad, a little-seen Chesapeake pufferfish I’d never tried before, and the tiny, lightly seared filets turned up atop a mound of—you guessed it— finely chopped ham salad. I’m sure Eric Ziebold makes his own mayo and he definitely didn’t use Honeybaked ham, but his version tasted uncannily like my mom’s. It was circled by a ring of grass-green tomato coulis, which had a sour tanginess that played a similar function as the pickles. It might not be for everyone—the friend sitting next to me didn’t love it—but for me, it cued one of those Proustian waves of nostalgia that you always hope for but rarely find, especially on a $90 four-course menu.
Steamed blue crabs from Wild Country Seafood
I discovered Wild Country Seafood thanks to my colleague Todd Kliman. The nondescript seafood joint outside Annapolis has topped his Where I'm Eating Now list for several weeks. Though the recommended soft-shell crabs are no longer in peak season, their hard-shell counterparts are worth the trip.
Many Chesapeake crab houses source their crustaceans from beyond the Bay, even in peak season. At Wild Country, the father-and-son watermen owners pluck fat crabs from the waters just beyond the storefront. There's a reason other establishments import their catch from the Carolinas and Texas: the harsh winter made for leaner traps this summer, and prices are high. A dozen jumbos cost $90 on my visit—a comparable cost to other Annapolis-area spots—but these were some of the heaviest, meatiest, most perfectly steamed blues I've had this summer. Discard the notion of tearing through ten shells just to get a cocktail's-worth of crab. I filled up after four, plus a few addictive, corn-studded hushpuppies and a side of tangy slaw.
If your ideal crab feast includes a pitcher of beer, consider taking your catch to-go, as I did. The few outdoor tables fill up quick on busy weekend afternoons, and there's no alcohol to speak of. Thankfully the crabs carry out just fine to a picnic table, and there's a liquor store nearby for grabbing a few cold ones.
Maine lobster and jumbo lump crab salad at Fiola Mare
Some of the best dishes at Fabio Trabocchi's ode to the sea are simple, yet bursting with flavor. Although market counter items like grilled dover sole seem most popular, we found that appetizers stole the show.
Imagine all of summer's bounty on a single plate: beautiful red and yellow tomatoes at peak ripeness, fresh crab meat, and tender lobster. Thin slices of cucumber nestled in between the seafood offers a welcome crunch, while edible flowers bring bursts of color to the dish. Their summer salad offers a sophisticated take on a classic Maine tradition.
Chicken-fried bobwhite quail at Gypsy Soul
Rarefied roadside food.
The two quails are treated like chicken-fried steak. Each dark-meat bite of bird combines the juice and crunch of the Colonel but without the sugar, salt, and grease. They sit atop the most silken pool of grits you’ll ever eat, a nearly grit-less emulsion of whipped butter and cream. The smoky collards, shot through with unholy quantities of pork fat, don’t taste the least bit larded down. The unexpected touch, here, is the terrific gizzard gravy, which emphasizes the down-home rootsiness of the dish without somehow sinking the plate in excess.
Chef RJ Cooper is off to a very good start at his new restaurant in Merrifield’s Mosaic District.
(Can I just say that while I understand the Mosaic District exists to inject some edginess into the usual faceless suburban mall—and a soulful dish like this is indisputably part of the mission—it’s still not a little strange to dine in a contrived and upmarket shopping complex that uses urban tropes and symbols in order to appear less square. “District” in this case means “mall,” and although the restaurant is housed on “Glass Alley,” this alley looks an awful lot like what most people would call a “street.”)
Cauliflower with cotija cheese at Tico
My love for elote—Mexican-style corn rolled in mayo, lime, and cotija cheese—has been well-documented in this column, and now is the time to get it, while the corn is still super-sweet. This summer, Estadio has been serving the deconstructed version it always does so well, and food truck La Tingeria offers a delicious, more straightforward take. Meanwhile, the Partisan has been less successful, turning the dish into a cilantro pasta that loses any brightness and tastes more like creamed corn.
My new favorite version, though, doesn’t involve corn at all. At the loud, color-splashed small-plates spot Tico, Michael Schlow offers a riff on elote that uses cauliflower instead of cobs. Now, I know there are plenty of people who love the stuff, but I think cauliflower is one of the world’s blandest vegetables. So how has Schlow turned it into something I’ve actually become hooked on? By pan-roasting the hell out of it, until it gets a gorgeous caramelized sweetness. He then tosses it with chipotle-spiked mayo sweetened with honey, crunchy fava beans, and a handful of salty, crumbly cotija cheese.
Finally, an elote for all seasons.
Sungold tomatoes from New Morning Farm (Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market)
I’ve written about these tomatoes in the past, but it’s time for their yearly due. Perhaps more than any other seasonal ingredient, they’re the one I look forward to most. Sure, there’s nothing like a local strawberry in late May, but you can also fudge it with a pack of Driscoll’s in February.
Sadly (or maybe not) there’s no faking Sungolds. The intensely sweet cherry tomatoes typically start appearing in late July and can last through early fall. Think of the best, brightest, tomato flavor, condensed into a bite-size round. The certified organic New Morning Farm is my favorite source, especially if I’m planning to pick up the superb basil, zucchini, and yellow squash to toss together for a tweaked version of this pasta recipe. Whether added to a salad, sautéed for sauce, or, as my boyfriend prefers to do, eaten alone by the pint, nothing else tastes quite like summer.
Pollo a la brasa from Grupo Norkys (Lima, Peru)
A weeklong service trip to this bustling South American city brought me together with some fabulous cooking. Peru is known for its colorful variations on chicken, and the local chain Grupo Norkys was no exception. The bird was topped with salt and pepper as well as several traditional spices, but its juiciness and flavor stood out the most. It was conveniently halved, which made cutting into the meat easy.
There is something distinctive about the chicken from Peru. Maybe it’s the daily trips made to find the best products at local markets, maybe it’s the loving care that goes into each preparation, or maybe it’s the years of history and culture behind it. Whatever the reason, my experience at this open-air establishment solidified my belief in food being a universal language that is understood throughout the world.
Sisig at 7107 Bistro
My tipsters aren’t always right. Sometimes, they’re wrong. Occasionally, very, very wrong.
But I almost always heed their recommendations, mostly for fear of missing out on something as good and memorable as my meals at 7107 Bistro.
The restaurant occupies a small, unmarked storefront in the bustling restaurant row of 23rd Street in Crystal City—you could easily miss the it if you weren’t looking for it.
The name only added to my growing unease that I had chased a tip in vain. Here, it seemed, was yet another trendy, uninspired bistro doing the same things every other trendy, uninspired bistro does.
I was happy, therefore, to open up the menu and learn that the name is not an incorporation of the street address; it’s a reference to the number of islands that make up the Philippines.
I was even happier when the sisig arrived. Sisig is a staple of the Filipino table, a hearty preparation of pork that is shot through with so much brightness and acidity that it can almost justify being served, as chef Pete Snaith does here, as an appetizer.
Some cooks opt for pork shoulder; Snaith uses pork belly and pig ears, giving them a preparatory soak overnight in a soy brine. The ears are braised to tenderize them, while the belly meat is sautéed to render its fat. The ears and belly are then brought together, along with onions, chilies, and a splash of calamansi juice, to sizzle in a heavy skillet.
The result is fajita-like, only richer and with a lot more depth of flavor—and a lot more power to make you keep eating long after you have had your fill.
Chicago dog at Windy City Red Hots
The sun-baked parking lot of a garden store in Ashburn is about the last place you’d expect to find the most authentic Chicago dog in the area, but there it was, courtesy of Chi-town expats Angel and Pia Miranda and their trailer kitchen. The hot dogs are nothing fancy—in other words, they’re the real deal, with hot, steamed buns that leave poppy seeds on your fingertips, Vienna Beef franks, that unmistakable green relish, fiery sport peppers, and a long spear of pickle topping the whole thing. The only downside: They disappear so quickly. Next time I’ll take my cue from the guy in line behind me, who ordered a couple for himself (along with two plain dogs for his pair of German shepherds).
The four-salad sampler at Glen’s Garden Market
As a food writer, sometimes you just want a salad. A bounty of greens isn’t as exciting as crispy pig ears or as sexy as foie gras. But after so many carnivorous, fatty indulgences, tomatoes and radishes can feel like comfort fare.
I’m rarely impressed with “prepared foods” sections in markets, where the dishes often taste as generic as the name suggests. The selection at Glen’s Garden Market is an exception. Like the stock in the rest of the shop, items are grown or produced within the Chesapeake Watershed. The variety of salads is one the best ways to see what a difference such careful sourcing makes.
A heaping platter of four sides costs only $10, and changes frequently based on the market. Recent finds include a tangle of green beans, snap peas, and arugula; roasted cauliflower with chickpeas and onions; vinegary cucumbers with sweet Sungold tomatoes; and Asian noodles kicked up with kimchee. And if your idea of homey eats is more like deviled egg salad, they have that, too.
BLT Benedict at Art and Soul
After a missed train left me with plenty of time to kill, I ventured from the confines of Union Station in search of better dining options. My morning walk led me to Art and Soul, inside the nearby Liaison Hotel. Chalkboards listing various suppliers from the region brought to mind the large board hanging in the foyer of Husk Restaurant in Charleston. The emphasis on local ingredients hooked me from the beginning.
Drinks served in Mason jars play up the Southern theme. My BLT Benedict, served on a rustic wooden board, featured warm biscuits topped with chunky tomato jam, watercress, runny eggs, and aromatic smoked bacon. The standard side of breakfast potatoes received an extra kick from sautéed onions. The restaurant was mostly filled with hotel guests, who seemed just as content as I was—if a bit more contained—with their Southern-accented breakfast.