Boudin blanc partridge sausage at Restaurant Eve
The “lickety-split lunch” at the bar at this Old Town favorite is hands down one of the best dining deals in Washington: For just $14.98, pick any two items from a long list of starters, mains, desserts, and even a beer or glass of wine. But come early or late. The bar starts serving at 11:30 and is generally full before noon, meaning there’s a second seating at 12:45 or so. On a recent weekday lunch, I enjoyed a ham hock bean stew and a delicious partridge sausage on a potato roll, topped with cooked onions. Absolutely satisfying—and we were in and out in under an hour.
Fried cod and skordalia at Trapezaria
I’ve been impressed with this new Greek restaurant, and this is one of the dishes that shows the place at its best.
Think fish and chips, only about ten times lighter than what you usually find. Frying is seldom this immaculate—and of course then you’re usually paying Michel Richard prices. (This beauty goes for $9).
I love the delicate crunch. I love how moist and sweet the cod stays inside.
And the skordalia dip in the center of the plate—a whipped “chip,” if you will—adds a nice hit of lemon, as well as a subtle garlicky kick.
Stone crabs at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak, and Stone Crab
Nearly every year, my best friend and I take a long-weekend trip to Miami. And besides spending a few hours too long in the hammam and paying far too much for a coconut/date smoothie by the pool at the Standard, the thing I look forward to most on those trips is a stop at Joe’s Stone Crab. Sure, there are far more interesting places to seek out in that town. But there’s something wonderfully nostalgic about the gruff servers, the tangy, mixed-at-the-table coleslaw, and of course, those stone crabs with the creamy-sweet mustard sauce that tastes the same as it ever did.
Now, there’s no flight necessary—DC is home to a flashy new Joe’s housed in a soaring former bank. The marble-encrusted setting gives the place a distinct Old Washington feel, but beyond that, the tastes will be familiar to anyone who’s been to the original—with terrific mojitos, a bread basket you can’t stop eating, and pay-through-the-nose plates of chilled crab claws.
Stone crabs, in season from October through May, are easier to deal with than blue crabs. The claws arrived pre-cracked, and the hunks of meat can be pried out easily, so there are no flying bits of shell or need for wet-naps. At its best (it’s easy to find bland, dried stone crabs in these parts), the meat is juicy and sweet, almost like lobster, but with a denser, crabbier texture. It doesn’t need much—just a squeeze of lemon would be fine. But a dip in Joe’s addictive mustard-and-mayo sauce makes it even better.
Smoked salmon from Three Little Pigs
I love smoked salmon and bagels, and not just for brunch. The dish is often my weeknight “in a pinch” dinner, cheffed up a little with caper berries, thin-sliced cucumbers, and fresh dill (come summer I sub in sweet tomatoes and olives, a surprisingly delicious combination stolen from Daniel Boulud). The quality of the smoked fish and bagel really make the meal, but even though Washington isn’t Bagel City USA, the salmon is typically the rogue factor. Packaged brands like Ducktrap River at Whole Foods are typically reliable, but not distinctive like a fresh-sliced piece of lox from Russ & Daughters in New York. Thankfully I stumbled on the Three Little Pigs stand at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market. The smell of the warm pulled-pork sandwiches drew me over, but instead of barbecue I left with a neat brown package of spiced smoked salmon. My quick dinner the next night was the best salmon bagel I’ve had since moving from Manhattan (granted, with some Big Apple assistance from Buffalo & Bergen bagels). Three Little Pigs cures fresh Atlantic salmon with rum and a heady mix of nutmeg, allspice, and cloves before smoking it over hickory. The ingredients sound overwhelming, but they complement the fish’s natural strong flavor without overwhelming it. If you can’t wait for market Sundays, try the Georgia Avenue shop.
Previous Best Things I Ate
Feta dip at Little Red Fox
This newish neighborhood store offers sandwiches by day and prepared foods at night, ready for a busy Washingtonian’s takeout dinner. On the Connecticut Avenue strip with Politics & Prose and Comet Ping Pong, between Friendship Heights and Van Ness, Little Red Fox also includes a small, thoughtful collection of local beers and wines, available by the bottle or on draft to drink at the store’s big picnic table. On a recent evening visit, the spread included roasted whole Amish chickens ($18), baked salmon ($8.50 a portion), mac and cheese ($6.50 for a generous serving), and delicious assorted salads by the pint or quart: beet, kale, roasted red pepper. The warm sweet potato curry with raisins was perfect for a cold evening, but nothing beat the feta-and-olive-oil dip in the refrigerator case, heated a bit and served with one of the store’s tasty, fresh baguettes. And don’t forget to grab a coconut macaroon for dessert.
Meatballs and grilled bread at Bar Pilar
This is exactly what you want out of a dish this time of year, when it’s brutally cold out and you need something to warm you up, and quick. I mean, besides that Negroni that goes down with its sweet-and-bitter burn.
It’s also exactly what you want from a dish that consists in its entirety of meatballs, sauce, and bread—a lusty simplicity, with all the flavors knitted tightly together. There aren’t any twists in the meatballs: The chef, Jesse Miller, hasn’t slipped in cumin to give an Italian classic a Moroccan spin, or, I don’t know, added some lemon zest in hopes of lightening things up—one of the things restless chefs unable to resist putting their stamp on a great dish tend to do. They’re old-school and perfect, and the tomato sauce has the sweetness and depth you always hope for and seldom (well, seldom around here) find.
Here’s one measure of just how good this dish is: I’d have been perfectly happy with just sauce and bread.
Miller replaces Justin Bittner in the kitchen, and is off to a promising start. I’ve been in twice over the past month: One meal was great, another good. I’ll be writing more about this on next Tuesday’s chat, but for now let me just say that I’m hard put to think of a place on busy, bustling 14th Street I’d rather be eating in right now.
Butterscotch pudding at Ris to Go
As it’s filled out, Union Market has become quite a dangerous place, especially if you’re an impulse shopper like me. Even after gorging on burgers at Red Apron Butchery and pork buns at the Maketto pop-up, stocking up on wine at Cordial (a $30 Bandol rosé? Why not!), and then dropping some cash on gorgeous-smelling Sydney Hale candles and Liber & Co. cocktail mixers at Salt & Sundry, it was hard to walk away. One reason I’m glad I wandered around a little longer: the takeaway counter from chef Ris Lacoste, which stocks bottled salad dressings, sweet and savory mini pies, and grilled cheeses, among other goodies. My favorite find was a small plastic cup of rich butterscotch pudding, which has been a staple on the dessert menu at her West End restaurant Ris since it opened. It’s as salty as it is sweet, and a spoonful of cool whipped cream, dolloped on while you check out, makes it even better. At $5, it was one of the cheapest things I came across on that latest credit-card-weary shopping trip—and the tastiest.
Falafel at DGS Delicatessen
When most people think of DGS, a thick stack of corned beef or pastrami comes to mind, and justifiably so; the deli’s house versions are some of the best around. Still my go-to order of late is chef Barry Koslow’s superb falafel. The patties are tough to get right. Often they’re over-fried or packed into a puck-like consistency. Koslow’s are the opposite, whether you order them on a platter with cauliflower tabbouleh or, as I most often do, at the sandwich counter for a quick-grab lunch. The thick rounds are perfectly crisp but give way to a moist, tender center with discernible bits of chickpea and onion. Instead of golf-like balls, the falafel are fashioned into discs for easier eating, and stuffed into warm pita bread with hummus, feta, pickled beets, and marinated cucumber. Koslow may be known for his meats, but the vegetarian option is one of the most satisfying on the menu. (If you’re going meatless, the shakshouka egg dish is also standout.)
See also: Previous Best Things I Ate
Shrimp and grits at Water & Wall
I remember having a conversation with some people in New Orleans some years ago, pre-Katrina, about Creole food outside Creole country. The idea amused them. They indulged me for a few minutes as I talked about a gumbo I liked up here, and then set about setting me right: No gumbo outside N’awlins is any good, donchaknow?
The gumbo was Ann Cashion’s, which I still love—dark as an oil slick, with a slow burn that sneaks up on you. It’d stand with some of the best versions I’ve tasted in Bayou Country.
And you know what? So could Tim Ma’s shrimp and grits.
Now, the notion that every version of every dish in the great Creole canon in that city is superior is laughable; I’ve eaten some truly wretched gumbo, étouffée, jambalaya, and po’ boys in my many travels through the Big Easy.
But that doesn’t take away anything from this fine preparation. The grits are at once coarse-grained and creamy, the shrimp have a perfect pop, and the bits of venison sausage reinforce the hearty, rustic character of the dish.
Or go to Maple Ave., in Vienna, Ma’s first restaurant, where you can find the same preparation.
Crispy shrimp po’ boy at Hank’s Oyster Bar
Whenever anyone asks me where I eat the most—not where I’d pick for a birthday or anniversary, but rather where I’d choose to go on a random weeknight when I’m not working—the Hank’s in Dupont always comes to mind. The place is as familiar as the 25-year-old Le Creuset pan that sits on my stove, or the worn-through T-shirts I’ve kept around since college. For the most part, Jamie Leeds’s New England-inspired menu has stayed the same over the years, and it is one of very few restaurants where I tend to order the same thing every time (the lobster roll; it’s excellent).
I’m not sure why I broke with the pattern when I stopped in for brunch (okay, fine, I knew there was going to be a lobster roll sitting right across from me), but I went for the crispy shrimp po’ boy instead. After a nicely fiery Bloody Mary and a delicious round of broiled, buttery Hog Island-style oysters dashed with Tabasco, the sandwich arrived. The airy roll was stuffed with plenty of fried shrimp and layered with a sweet slaw. Every bite was crunchy and tangy and somehow, despite all that fry batter, surprisingly light. I definitely stole some bites of the beloved lobster roll, but the next time I visit Hank’s, ordering will be tougher.
This has been a wonky week for dining, so I’m going to cheat slightly and mention a few experiences, including a “worst thing.” Right off the bat, the best dish I ate arrived from the kitchen at (surprise!) Rose’s Luxury. I know, we may have mentioned liking Aaron Silverman’s red-hot restaurant before. Fortunately the hype contains no hyperbole; the excitement is much deserved, and radiates throughout the restaurant in the best—and most unpretentious—way possible, from diners to staff. We had many memorable plates, both old (pork-lychee salad) and new (soft-shell crawfish and grits). My favorite falls into the former category: pickle-brined fried chicken, a perfect balance of moist and crunchy, sweetened with honey and spicy from the accompanying bottle of Krystal hot sauce.
Earlier, over the weekend, my boyfriend and I decided to check out Bar Charley’s new brunch after dropping by a few times for tasty (and moderately priced) cocktails. The deal: $23.95 for biscuits, a choice of entrée, and select bottomless drinks. The brunch rush had dwindled when we arrived, which is likely why the bar ran out of mimosas by the time we placed our order. Instead we were offered a collegiate mix of vodka, Sprite, and orange juice. Things went downhill from there. To be fair, Charley is new to the brunch game, and the bartenders can mix tasty cocktails when not trying to create faux-mosas. But the eatery opened months ago, and I’ve experienced better in week-old restaurants. Biscuits never arrived, and what did, eventually—eggs Florentine, an omelet, sliced fingerlings—was overcooked and/or cold. The waitress avoided the table until it was time to clear a nearly full plate of food and glasses of Sprite-vodka, which she did without a word before plunking down the bill. So we went to Annie’s.
Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse is one of the longest-running restaurants in Washington. It’s well established with the LGBT community, but is typically crowded with the full spectrum of locals and tourists of all orientations one finds along 17th Street. I don’t love the place for Rose’s culinary fireworks, or the funky vibe of Charley’s on a good night. It’s just a fun neighborhood restaurant. You can wrangle a group of friends for brunch—and can typically find a table—or perch alone at the bar. Al and Scott are attentive barkeeps who pour no-frills, perfectly chilled martinis and Manhattans so generous you have to sip a half inch from the bar top before daring to pick up the glass. The American menu isn’t overpriced and doesn’t over-promise, and that afternoon it delivered the perfect brunch-gone-bad remedy: a cold bottle of Prosecco, plump crabcake sliders, and a crisp wedge salad heaped with bacon and blue cheese. Sometimes the best meals are all about the experience—or, in this particular case, the absence of too much experience.
See also: Previous Best Things I Ate
This week, two of our critics independently picked the same dish as their favorite. Read on to find out what they loved about it.
Pho at Pho 88
I’ve spent the past two weeks trying to get over a bad intestinal bug, which has meant, per doctor’s orders, lots of liquids.
The way that works out, for a food critic who spends nearly every lunch and dinner in a restaurant, is a lot of soup, in this case a lot of pho.
This is one of the first places I think about when I think about the dish also known as the Vietnamese Penicillin. The meat and noodles are pretty much the same at every good place; it’s the quality of the add-ins and the broth that separates the great from the good.
(I nearly always think of my friend Lonnie when I eat pho, because she loves the stuff but still, after all these many years, doesn’t get what it’s supposed to be. Her standard order is: “double meat.”)
The oxtail-based broth the night I was in was great, as usual, with a fat-beaded richness that most of the competition never manages to achieve. The spicing (ginger, star anise, cinnamon) was insistent but subtle. And the mound of gorgeous fresh basil—a burst of summer in the midst of a stretch of 20-degree days—was not just enough for me to take home and whip up a batch of pesto; its abundance and freshness, arriving unadvertised and unhyped, put to shame all those restaurants that routinely brag about the provenance of every last little fillip on the plate.
Ann Limpert and Anna Spiegel
Lasagna verde at Osteria Morini
Ann: Lasagna holds a special place in my heart. I’ve always loved it, but when I was a kid, it was never something we had at home. (No wonder—as I’ve since discovered, making it can be a half-day event.) In fact, the only exposure I had to the stuff was at my Catholic high school, when once a year, the nuns would open the convent doors and have our whole class over for a fidgety dinner that revolved around cafeteria-size trays of Stouffer’s.
Now, whenever I see it on a menu, I can’t resist ordering it (like pizza and Peruvian chicken, even bad lasagna is edible enough). And I’m so glad I did one night at Osteria Morini, which takes its inspiration from Emilia-Romagna, where the dish was born. The straight-from-the-oven crock that arrived bore a lasagna that was hearty but not over-the-top—the bechamel was velvety and perfect and, as important, judiciously applied, and the firm noodles were spread with a traditional ragu. My favorite touch: a showering of crispy bread crumbs that gave a little crunch to every bite.
Anna: A group of friends and I tried Rose’s Luxury on a recent Monday night around 6:30, only to find a two-plus-hour wait for a table (blame the holidays, a six-person party, and/or the hype). Instead of gnawing our fingers, we hopped into a cab for the short trip to Osteria Morini near Navy Yard, and had one of the better all-around meals I’ve recently experienced.
Even though Morini arrived on the scene with plenty of clout—chef/owner Michael White is a Michelin-starred toque, and the Soho flagship receives raves—the DC branch still boasts the feel of a hidden gem. As they say in real estate: location, location. The Capitol Riverfront is preparing for a boom in residents, retail, and restaurants, but has yet to hit the buzz level of a neighborhood like the 14th Street corridor (not to mention the seasonal absence of thousands of Nationals fans at the nearby stadium). Count all of this as a good thing when it comes to getting a table at Morini, especially in winter months when the weather begs for a hearty bowl of pasta. We started with heaping plates of meats and cheeses, tender mortadella meatballs, and a salad of bitter greens rich with caramelized onions, guanciale, and a poached egg (if you haven’t already guessed, the fare runs hearty). Pastas—curly gramigna with a creamy sausage sauce, truffled ricotta ravioli—are standout, but the winner of the evening was the lasagna verde layered with bechamel sauce and a robust beef, pork, and veal ragu. It proved a perfect anecdote to the frigid night, and we managed to polish it off, despite our less-than-light meal. It’s one of the many reasons to hit this restaurant before hour-long waits ensue, not to mention summer heat.
See also: Previous Best Things I Ate
If you’ve been following our weekly “Best Thing I Ate,” series, you know we’ve had many wonderful dishes over the course of 2013. Here are the standouts, as well as a few we resolve to never eat again.
Todd Kliman, Food and Wine Editor
BEST: Pepper Crusted Tuna Pretending to be a Filet Mignon at the Inn at Little Washington
Tuna, over the last decade, has supplanted swordfish as the steak-fish of choice for many chefs (you don’t have to know how to cook fish—just crust it with pepper and side it with a heap of mashed potatoes) and a default option for dieting or finicky diners (hate fish? no worries—after it’s been seared it won’t really taste like it, and it's also lighter than a porterhouse).
I almost never order tuna-as-steak when I’m on my own dime, because the cost of getting a good piece of tuna is so prohibitive that the loin of tuna would have to be two or three times as expensive as most are. Most of the time the texture is soft or mealy or both, and often there's no flavor apart from a marinade or seasoning.
This is tuna to remember.
The chef, Patrick O’Connell, goes to great lengths to source his product—his supplier shows up at the back door of the restaurant with a Big Eye tuna from Hawaii, sitting on ice in a cooler, his car idling as the chef and his team nibble on plugs of the fish. O’Connell has been known to turn him away.
Go to any of the premier sushi bars in the US, and you won’t find a better piece of tuna. O’Connell could have contrived a showcase for its quality and freshness, seasoning it simply and presenting it with a sauce and a small, contrasting side as so many of his peers in this age of sourcing and simplicity might have done. It would have been a good dish.
What makes this a great dish is the imagination and insight to cap the loin of pepper-crusted tuna with a thick lobe of seared foie gras and encircle it with a Burgundy butter sauce. These touches of genius transform the tuna into something that isn’t just thick and meaty and seasoned like a steak, but something that actually tastes like a steak. Only better and more interesting, because unlike most steaks, each bite, here, is a revelation, bathing you in waves of umami richness.
Surf and turf is a cute notion, but most of the time it’s more fun to say the words than to eat the clunky combo that turns up on the plate. This is a surf and turf to redeem the term.
And, not least, to redeem your faith in tuna.
WORST: DC Monument Roll, Ikko Sushi
I know it’s called a roll—it’s not a roll. Rolls are small, and cut into discrete pieces.
It’s also presented as sushi, and only in the sense that it contains raw fish and rice can it lay claim to that categorization. The Japanese disdain the big, the hefty, when it comes to the food on their plate. Beauty, balance, harmony are their abiding virtues.
So what is it, then?
I still ask myself that question.
It looks like one of those dessert monstrosities that you find at places like Applebee’s and Friday’s and Chili’s. It’s a tower. It’s at least six inches high. It should come with a cherry on top.
They do it with ring molds. Bottom layer: more than an inch of densely packed sushi rice. Then, mashed avocado. On top of that—a mess of chopped, low-quality tuna mixed with mayo and probably Sriracha. It’s buried beneath a wet and gooey layer of creamy crabstick. Wait, we’re not done. This cut-rate vision of Vegas excess is finished with a sweet, goopey sauce, thick, painted dabs of spicy mayo, and—for decoration—not one but two mounds of roe.
The dominant taste is wet.
Wet and sweet.
I can still taste it.
Even after 550 meals at restaurants this year, it survives, somehow, in all its ill-conceived awfulness.
Ann Limpert, Food and Wine Editor
Although 2013 was undoubtably a year of great eating—and some of the most exciting restaurant openings here this decade—there wasn’t one singular dish that shone brighter than all others for me. So, here are four bests and one worst.
Apples with pecan butter at Woodberry Kitchen: I felt like a five year-old ordering this snack (it also came with celery sticks) but this wound up being one of the best food pairings I’ve had in a while: juicy, tart apples (I think they were Granny Smiths) swiped with salty-sweet, ruddy pecan butter. Imagine crunchy Skippy, just a million times better.
Celery salad at Etto: A salad for true celery lovers, with stalks and leaves of both Chinese and regular celery, plus walnuts, shavings of salty pecorino, and a hefty dose of lemon and sour orange juices. Co-owner Peter Pastan’s family calls it the “dreaded celery salad,” since he makes it so much in the summer. Happily, it’s at his tiny, sunny pizza spot year-round.
Ribeye with chimichurri at Del Campo: Victor Albisu’s South American-style steakhouse presents most of its meats in a wonderfully rustic manner: on wooden platters strewn with halved heads of garlic, grilled red peppers, and a long marrow-filled bone. My favorite centerpiece was the dry-aged ribeye from Maryland’s Piedmont Ridge farm with a side of parsley-heavy chimichurri sauce. Honorable mention for another Albisu winner: the crunchy, carnitas-topped sope with jalapeno, sour cream, and shredded lettuce at his Tysons taqueria, Taco Bamba.
Goat sandwich at G: Deciding what to order at Mike Isabella’s 14th Street sandwich shop is not easy, and I often wind up bringing home three or four different ones (the lamb on pita, the Italian, and the meatball sub are all delicious). But I never miss out on the baguette filled with crispy bits of spice-rubbed, spit-roasted baby goat (the meat is hauled over from Kapnos, Isabella’s Greek restaurant next door), plus a whole mess of lemony roasted potatoes and spicy harissa.
A much easier call—the roast chicken at Bistro LaBonne. After cocktails that tasted like they came from a sticky-tabled frat bar, onion soup that called to mind Campbell’s, and a grey hunk of something resembling cube steak, I wasn’t sure things at this U Street French spot—which feels like a less-hopping Bistrot du Coin—could get much worse. Enter the roast chicken, which arrived oddly sheened with a KC Masterpiece-like glaze hiding flabby skin. Between that and the dry, stringy meat, there was a crumbly grey matter, which led my husband to ask the following question: “Am I eating chicken cancer?”
Anna Spiegel, Associate Food and Wine Edtior
BEST: Chestnut soup at Patowmack Farm
You’ve probably heard the old adage (from Ratatouille, if not elsewhere): a chef’s talent can be judged by the soup. While it’s not a hard rule, much of what chefs do best is evidenced in a bowl done well; the ability to build flavors, play to our nostalgic cravings (who didn’t eat soup as a kid?), and elevate a seemingly simple dish to something truly memorable. Of all the meals I’ve eaten this year, superb soups stand out more than any other category of food: spicy kimchi ramen from Toki Underground, Daikaya’s vegetarian version (with a very non-vegetarian roast pork add-on), decadently rich oyster stew at the Bartlett Pear Inn, Nava Thai’s floating market noodle bowl scattered with pork cracklings, and a velvety cauliflower soup so comforting you could curl up in bed with it, minus the fact you’re seated at Corduroy.
It’s hard to pick one as a favorite, but in terms of taste and creativity, I’ll have to go with Tarver King’s chestnut soup at Patowmack Farm. King has a way with soups—it’s not a coincidence that he’s also a very talented chef. I still remember a heady bowl of mussel broth from his Ashby Inn days, served atop a smoking bed of hay. Most of King’s dishes contain such modern twists, but they tend to enhance the natural ingredients instead of distracting from them with molecular trickery (if you’ve ever eaten a meal of many foams, spheres, and gels, you know what I mean). The style is fitting for the setting; the farm’s dining room is a converted greenhouse, perched atop a hill overlooking the Potomac River. Order the appetizer and a plate arrives with a single smoked leaf from a nearby chestnut tree, on which a cup is placed for the table-side pour. The woodsy brew is studded with bits of barley and given a bright swirl of brown butter vinaigrette. Many dishes worth traveling to Lovettsville, Virginia follow, but I could go just for this one.
WORST: Oyster flatbread at Teddy & the Bully Bar
To be fair to Teddy, I tried this dish during the opening month, and it now seems to be off the menu. Hopefully the move is permanent. The flatbread had more of a cracker-like consistency, and came topped with an oddly furry parsley spread. A small bowl of raw, shucked oysters arrived alongside, and as the server explained, the warm flatbread was supposed to “cook” the bivalves. Unfortunately the cracker didn’t hold any heat, so the oysters—which were particularly slick, having been coated in oil—they slid off when we tried to maneuver the slices from the plate. After the first bite it was clear they were better left off, since they tasted more like the dock and less like the ocean.
Basque stew at Restaurant Eve
In warmer months, Cathal Armstrong serves a bouillabaisse; this is the replacement dish, for colder months, and it’s also a knockout.
What makes it so good is not the quality of the fish and seafood, which is first-rate, nor even how delicately the kitchen treats its treasures from the deep, which include prawns, clams, and black bass. No, what makes it so good is the broth, the product of laborious, slow coaxing of flavor from shells and bones, and the way all the various components are brought together and simmered gently, giving up their natural juices and imbuing the dish with a depth and body that are, increasingly, rare in an age of quick-trick small plates.
It’s not often that soups or stews are compared to wines, but in this case the analogy could hardly be more apt, especially in the long, lingering finish that coats your tongue and calls to mind a brisk day in a foreign land.
Milk chocolate s’mores at Blue Duck Tavern
S’mores seem to be the nostalgic dessert of the moment on high-end pastry menus—not that I’m complaining. I could eat marshmallow on a piece of newspaper and probably be happy. But the riffs (they’re always riffs, never straightforward), usually seem to be more about deep, dark, super-rich Valrhona than anything else. And for chocolate apathetic folks like me, it’s a bummer.
My introduction to pastry chef Naomi Gallego’s version after a boozy lunch at Blue Duck Tavern didn’t start so promisingly. “The s’more? It’s decomposed,” the server said. Decomposed. Huh. Whether it was actually rotting away on the plate or simply deconstructed, I wasn’t getting my hopes up. But turns out, this is a s’more for true s’mores lovers. There’s plenty of fluffy, vanilla-scented marshmallow, for one, which is wonderful mixed with bits of graham-cracker streusel. And the chocolate custard—made with unfashionable but delicious (here, at least) milk chocolate—does just fine in the background. The final flourish: slices of banana topped with crackly panes of bruleed sugar. It’s rare to find takes on kid-like desserts that don’t leave you pining for the real thing. But for once, I wasn’t just wishing I’d gone to CVS and bought a bag of marshmallows and a Hershey bar.
Pomegranate gelato at Dolcezza Factory + Coffee Lab
It’s not exactly frozen dessert weather, but you know gelato is good when you’re still thinking about it a few frigid days later. Dolcezza has always been a freezer favorite, what with Robb Duncan’s unusual flavors and careful sourcing of ingredients (just try and stop scooping the Honey Crisp Apple). Still the freshly-churned version you can sample at their newly opened factory is something above and beyond.
Duncan and wife Violeta opened their new production facility behind Union Market with sharing just-made gelato in mind. It’s not that the packaged version you get at the farmer’s market or in local restaurants is inferior; mainly, the exceptional flavor is all about timing. Scoops that are only minutes-old aren’t as cold, so they’re creamier, airier, and the flavors come through more vividly without a cold-shock to the tongue. The pomegranate variety tasted true to the bulbous crimson fruits Duncan has crated in the back of the factory; tart, lightly floral, and truly addictive. The space doesn’t officially open for tours and tastings until March, but chances are you can snag a sample if they’re around.
Slushie at Shoo-fly Diner
Imagine a Slurpee. Only with a smoother, more sophisticated texture that delivers the wetness, coldness, and density but not the spiky crunch of pulverized ice.
And instead of Coke or that candy-tasting cherry—101-proof bourbon.
And to balance the booze, a generous pour of fresh pear cider from Reid’s Orchard in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
I’ve had a lot of terrific cocktails in 2013, and I think DC has pretty well staked its claim to being called the Cocktail Capital of America. But I can’t think of another drink I had this year that was better, or more fun, than this amazingly simple twist on the trashiest treat of summer.
Only problem is, it disappears as fast as a Slurpee on a brutally hot day, and you immediately feel the need for another—until the buzz overtakes you and you realize it’s an hour-plus drive back home.
What to do? Order another, then head downstairs to the playroom to sober up with a few games of pinball.
Vongole Pizza at 2 Amys
At my first magazine job in New York, I worked with a guy who had grown up in DC and by his late twenties had become a caricature of the droll, jaded New York editor. He rarely had a non-snarky word to say about, well, anything. So it surprised me one day when he a) smiled, and b) asked the following question: “Have you had the pizza at 2 Amys with the cockles? It’s amazing!”
I made a point of trying it on my next trip to DC, and since then I’ve been hooked. I can’t go to the place without ordering the Vongole, with its stretchy crust, slightly caramelized layer of Grana Padano cheese, and tiny, briny-sweet cockles baked in their shells. Unlike many sauceless clam pies, it isn’t inundated with garlic, and it has just the right amount of chili-flake burn. I had it the night before Thanksgiving (the restaurant was packed and the Blue’s Clues set was out in full force, per usual), cramming it onto a whole tableful of small plates. A decade later, it still has the power to make even the most sullen of folks talk in exclamation points.
Bún bò huế (Vietnamese noodle soup) in the Maketto pop-up at Union Market
It’s officially soup weather. If your weekend plans involve heading to the Eden Center for pho or slurping noodles at Daikaya, consider one more possibility: the Maketto pop-up at Union Market, which serves as a testing ground and preview for Erik Bruner-Yang’s upcoming H Street restaurant/market.
The recently ended Maketto “residency” at Hanoi House was a comparative commitment: $30 for a six-course meal, which had to be reserved in advance. Now you can now drop by Maketto’s temporary stall at the NoMa market, sit at one of two one-sided tables, and order whatever chef de cuisine James Wozniuk is able to produce with two induction burners. I hate to draw comparisons, having visited the residency in its first week, but let’s just say I’m left craving Woznuik’s version of the Vietnamese soup, bun bò huế. The steaming, aromatic bowl swims with noodles, brisket, pork knuckles sourced from Harvey’s Market across the aisle, and “blood cake”—essentially a house-made mixture of pork blood, sugar, and fish sauce that enriches the dish. A scattering of fresh herbs and bean sprouts adds brightness to the complex broth, a spicy-sour brew that draws flavor from simmered beef bones and a mixture of fried garlic and lemongrass, shrimp paste, and chilies. So yes, vegetarians won’t be pleased, but don’t be scared off by the odd bits. None are potently flavored, and even if you push aside the “cake,” the heady broth is worth an order itself. If you’re intrigued, hurry—the pop-up is over at the end of December, and soups change frequently.
Tamer eaters, take note: Freshly steamed cha siu bao, buns stuffed with barbecue pork, are also on offer and make a good side dish. Snag one literally steaming and redolent of yeast and sweet meat.
See also: Previous Best Things I Ate
Barbecue at Kogiya, Annandale
A good friend and I have this ongoing conversation about the cuisines we like best when they’re not their best.
I like mediocre Mexican, he likes mediocre Italian, and we both have a fondness for mediocre Ethiopian. For some reason we have never discussed mediocre Korean barbecue, which certainly belongs in the conversation. There’s nothing bad about not-great Korean barbecue—the DIY aspect of it, the glut of panchan at the table, drinking Cass beer while the meats cook.
Why bring up mediocrity in the context of the new king of Korean barbecue?
Merely to frame its greatness. This is Korean barbecue to travel for. Korean barbecue to build a night around. If you think you’ve had good Korean barbecue before, when you eat at Kogiya you will realize you have had merely good Korean barbecue, or passable Korean barbecue. The marinades have more flavor and depth than the competition, the cuts of meat are superior, and the tableside grills are hotter. Be sure to get the marinated pork ribs and any of several iterations of pork belly.
The panchan are generous, and the portions of meat are gargassive, but make room anyway for the steamed mandu, which are uncommonly delicate, and a very good seafood pancake.
Foie gras French toast with cinnamon-toast ice cream at Rose’s Luxury
Foie gras is one of the most beleaguered ingredients out there. Not only does it have a terrible reputation (the poor geese, the nasty force-feeding) but it’s nearly impossible to get the good stuff anymore. And when you wind up with flavorless—or worse, bile-tinged—liver that probably has run you $20-plus and half a day’s Weight Watcher’s points, well, it sucks. I love the stuff, but I’ve had one too many cola glazes and huckleberry jams that are there to mask the main event’s middling quality.
So a foie dessert? No, thank you . . . or so I thought. But Rose’s is deservedly the buzziest—and surprisingly the friendliest—restaurant in town right now, and after a knockout dinner at the chef’s counter (which was nearly empty when I arrived at 6 PM), I didn’t really want to leave. I’m glad I stuck around, because not only was this the best foie gras preparation I’ve had in a long time, it was also the best-tasting liver—slightly sweet, custardy, exactly how it should be. The generous seared slice melted into lightly toasted bread, and a small scoop of ice cream, which tasted like the glorious dregs of a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, served as an enhancement rather than a distraction. It’s just one of many reasons Rose’s is worthy of all the hype.
Oddjob Goes to Spain at Mockingbird Hill
I’m cheating on this series today, because the Oddjob is a) a cocktail, and b) one I had a few weeks ago. Given how often the menu changes at Derek Brown and Chantal Tseng’s Shaw sherry bar, Oddjob may have moved on. Still the drink has stuck in my mind, and on a somewhat dreary day, I’m craving a sip.
Creative cocktails rarely woo me. I’m a classic gin martini and Manhattan girl, and have tasted so many overly sweet creations that I rarely deviate from the two if not exploring for work. Mockingbird Hill is an exception: The mixtures are expertly balanced, even when incorporating sweeter styles of sherry (if you’re a Manhattan-lover, try the Adonis). The Oddjob is a perfect example, with Gonzalez-Byass Amontillado, navy-strength gin, and orange bitters, served alongside a slice of sherry-poached plum. The fruit arrives atop a shiso leaf, and the cocktail glass has a dab of shiso sugar along the rim. “You kind of drink it like a tequila shot,” instructed the bartender: Lick the citrusy sugar, then take a sip (not the whole drink, mind you) and a bite of the leaf-wrapped plum. The flavor is lightly fruity and herbaceous, with a richness from the sherry and a kick from the gin. I’m sure the knowledgeable bartenders could describe it much better than someone just starting to delve into the sherry world. I’ll be happy sipping my drink.
Previous Best Things I Ate
Crispy rice salad at Bangkok Golden
Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Admit it—you’re picturing a bowl of Rice Krispies dumped unceremoniously over some lettuce.
And yet I kind of like the blandness of the dish’s name, if only because it makes the first taste, for a newbie, that much more surprising.
Even salad seems a misnomer, given that we’re conditioned by the term to expect a mild-tasting mélange of vegetables that isn’t teribly ambitious or inspired and is, as often as not, designed not to draw focus from the main course.
This one is a riot of flavor, and the only way I can think to communicate its popping intensity is with italics and exclamation points— brightness! pungency! funkiness! crunch!
The main ingredient is rice, but not the fluffy thing you see in a pilaf—the chunky stuff you find at the bottom of the pot. (In Valencia, the birthplace of paella, this hard layer is so revered that they came up with a name for it: socarrat. In fact, in many culinary cultures, the greatness of the crunchy bits is acknowledged with an identifying word. In Puerto Rico, they call it pegao; in Cuba, raspa. A specialty of Persian cooking is Tahdig—a celebratory dish built upon a delicate foundation of rice that’s been crisped at the bottom of a pan. In America? No name—we peel it off and dump it in the trash or squeeze a bottle of detergent onto it and let it sit in hot water.)
The crunchy bits here are tossed with sliced red onion, chopped cilantro and lime leaves, toasted peanuts, shredded coconut, and tiny cubes of smoky ham (the vegetarian version is minus the ham, and just as good) and slicked with a zesty lime dressing. Scoop up some of the mixture and fold it inside a lettuce leaf.
Little Serow has the buzz, and the lines, but there’s nothing on the excellent fixed-price northern Thai menu that I would take over this exuberantly prepared Laotian staple. My most recent dinner here, by the way—ordering only from the Lao menu—consisted of four stellar dishes and a beer, and cost me $43 before tax and tip.
Oyster po’ boy salad at Woodward Table
Po’ boys are among the easiest sandwiches to love. Who doesn’t fall for things that are fried or drenched in remoulade? But they’re also so easy to get wrong, and what often kills them, at least in these parts, is the bread. Now matter how many pronouncements a place makes about flying in rolls from Leidenheimer Bakery or someplace else in Louisiana, it’s rare to find a baguette here that hits the right crisp-but-fluffy notes. Then you’re left with a foot-long calorie bomb, the heavy, chewy bread obscuring any other flavors.
If a craving strikes, get yourself to Woodward Table, where chef/owner Jeffrey Buben smartly loses the bread and turns his oyster po’ boy into a salad. Before I lose you, know that there is really nothing salad-y or virtuous about the way it tastes. Big oysters, still warm and crunchy from the fryer, get tossed in zesty remoulade and thin threads of coleslaw. There are baguette croutons, but they kind of disappear into the mix—it’s the bivalves that command all of the attention, as they should. And if you need a carb fix, the basket of Parker House rolls that precedes meals here should do the trick.
Vietnamese pâté at Rose’s Luxury
No one who drops by sites like this needs a nudge to go to Rose’s Luxury, which has been the very definition of buzz since it opened not quite three weeks ago.
But I still keep thinking about chef Aaron Silverman’s Vietnamese pâté. Topped with crushed peanuts, it’s as brown as the darkest roux, as smooth and spreadable as whipped cream cheese, and as rich as a lobe of seared foie gras. The notes of star anise are unmistakable, and if you close your eyes and concentrate on the residue of the pâté on your tongue, the depth and intensity of the flavor, you might think what Silverman and his team had done was to reduce a tureen of pho down to an ounce and then somehow convert it into a solid.
It’s served with small, crusty squares of garlic bread. Slather it on, and garnish with bright pickled onions, cucumbers, and jalapeños.
Fusion gets a bad rap. We think about some guy in the back of the restaurant throwing together foods that don’t really go, hoping vainly to strike gold, or, failing that, to win over a diner with novelty—the shock of the new. But this pâté is proof that you can cross cultures and make magic, if you know what you’re doing. Silverman knows. The influences here are French, Vietnamese, Italian, and Jewish deli, and the wonderful thing is that at the same time you can pick apart what goes into the dish, the dish itself feels new and without precedent.
Burger Americain at Le Diplomate
When it comes to burgers in the $10-plus range, I often find myself coming back to one conclusion: I’d rather just have Shake Shack. I mean, cave-aged cheddar and brioche buns have their place, but the Shack’s perfectly proportioned burgers, with their greasy-salty patties doused with creamy Shack sauce and squished onto Martin’s potato rolls, are tough to beat.
The burger at Le Diplomate (which arrives bearing French and American toothpick flags) comes close. Like the best high-end burgers in town—the ones at Mintwood Place and Westend Bistro are in the top tier—it takes cues from Le Big Mac. The two patties are diner-style thin. And they’re not afraid to use American cheese, which melts beautifully and crisps up at the edges. There’s special sauce and a sesame-seed bun. I’m not ready to give it the best-in-show crown quite yet, but this is a hell of a burger, and well worth enduring the inevitable wait for if you go at night (late brunches are a much easier bet, though). And Le Diplomate does best Shake Shack on one front: the salty, crunchy—and, yes, McDonald’s-skinny—fries.