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.
Roasted garlic soup at Vermilion
I can be perfectly happy with a bowl of tomato or split pea soup. Dive in, and savor the simplicity and soothing comfort on a cool, blustery fall day.
The reason I love going to restaurants, however, is to linger over the handiwork of a chef like William Morris, who can turn a mere broth into something as elegant as it is complex.
Like nearly every high-end soup these days, this one comes to the table as a kind of sculpture garden of small garnishes at the bottom of the bowl: on one side, a small mound of finely diced potatoes; on the other, tiny croutons; in between, an egg yolk. The broth is poured tableside.
I confess to worrying before it arrived that the garlic would be too strong, and that I would be dipping my spoon into a sort of liquefied garlic mashed potatoes. Not to worry. The garlic is so deftly handled, it doesn’t dominate—it flavors.
The great thing about the soup—the thing that makes it worthy of a slot on the 14-item menu—is that it seems to morph as you eat it, changing character and even consistency and reminding you of other dishes. The first few bites are reminiscent of a garlic-scented roasted chicken. Then you stir the yolk into the broth, thickening it and calling to mind the viscous richness of an egg-drop soup. Scoop up some potatoes, and you would swear you were eating a chowder.
Morris took over the kitchen at Vermilion earlier this year from Tony Chittum. Anyone who can make soup sing has big-time talent, and Morris is one to watch for 2014.
Frisée with duck gizzards at Bastille
Christophe Poteaux has come up with a sly twist on the classic frisée and lardons, a salad you’ll see on many traditional bistro menus. The frisée is tossed with a shallot vinaigrette that delivers a perfect mix of sweetness and tang. Nothing unusual there.
The first slight tweak comes with the egg. Cooked to 60 degrees, it sits on top, the yolk held in a kind of strange suspension—not runny, exactly, but not intact either. The part typically played by the rendered bacon is here assigned to duck gizzards.
Gizzards remain in the shadows for most chefs, even in these offal-mad days when hearts and kidneys are enjoying a triumphal coming out. It’s hard to understand. They can be fantastic in soups, as the Peruvians know—an aguadita is immeasurably better with gizzards, rather than diced chicken, floating in the fragrant, cilantro-thickened soup. The Japanese like them salted assertively and threaded on a skewer, to cook slowly over a charcoal fire: an irresistible izakaya snack.
Pepper-Crusted Tuna Pretending to Be a Filet Mignon, at the Inn at Little Washington
It’s fashionable for chefs nowadays to talk about “retiring” dishes. These are, invariably, dishes the chef has become bored with after years or, increasingly, months of repetitive cooking, and so he (and it’s almost always a he, never a she) has decided to remove it from the repertoire for good. The fact that his customers love the dish—that, in some cases, they come to his restaurant just to have the pleasure of eating it again, or talk about it for months in advance of coming—this matters not. The dish must go. Creativity, originality must triumph! New ideas! The chef is an artist!
By way of extreme contrast, Patrick O’Connell has shown no inclination to shelve this masterpiece, which has been a mainstay on his menu at the Inn at Little Washington for as long as I can remember. There might not be a more rewarding entrée in the entire region.
Why ever would he retire it? Not on the chance that its replacement might be more satisfying, because it would be almost impossible to come up with a dish that is more satisfying. Simply to plump his ego or—egads—stretch himself? The Inn has been around for 35 years; O’Connell is beyond stretching.
Just to count off the roll call of elements—peppered tuna, seared lobe of foie gras, charred onions, Burgundy butter sauce—is enticing, and yes, each is perfect on its own. But it’s the way these components mingle that’s so interesting, and that makes the dish so memorable.
Trotter tots at 8407 Kitchen + Bar
At first glance, the menu at 8407 Kitchen + Bar in Silver Spring doesn’t look to be substantially different since Justin Bittner replaced Ed Witt in the kitchen in early August. The format remains much the same as it did under founding chef Pedro Matamoros—a charcuterie board, a selection of cheeses, a handful of small plates, and some sandwiches and salads, along with a separate card of entrées to reflect what’s new and in the markets.
But the chef, who built a following at Bar Pilar with his playful, lusty cooking, has nonetheless asserted his presence in the early going—and memorably in this minor masterpiece of designer junk food.
Imagine biting into a tater tot and unearthing a rich deposit of pork belly.
The outside is as golden brown and crunchy as the fried food of your dreams; inside is the essence of porky lusciousness—a ball of meat from the flavorful foot of the pig that is as rich and smoky and salty as first-rate barbecue.
Like all chefs who are drawn to working with fatty, funky foods, Bittner attempts to leaven the heartiness by dolloping his tots with a preserved lemon relish. A fine condiment, nicely tangy—though it lightens the effect about as much as a witty riposte in the midst of Macbeth.
Lamb brain karahi (mughaz karahi) at Khan Kabob (4229 Lafayette Center Dr, Chantilly; 703-817-1200)
This is the best karahi I’ve had in ages—by far. The flavor is more concentrated, the texture is lusher, and there’s a subtle smoke somewhere in there, too.
Check that: This is one of the best dishes I’ve had in ages.
Karahi, if you don’t know, is both the dish and the vessel it’s cooked in; what hits the table at this Chantilly kebab house (co-owned by Tariq Khan, who broke off from the Ravi Kabob empire to open a place of his own), is a wok-like bowl of hammered metal but without the long handle, inside of which is a zesty, aromatic, sinus-clearing stew native to Pakistan and built on a foundation of garlic, chilies, cilantro, tomato, and ginger.
Brains, I realize, are not for everybody, but if you’re even mildly curious, perhaps I can nudge you to make the trip by telling you that they’re not served in their potentially off-putting wholeness but rather subjected to a fine dice and tossed with the sauce until they resemble curds. In other words, you don’t have to think for even one moment that you’re eating brains.
The naan here is fabulous—the rounds are cooked to a darker brown than most, and given a nice crowning scatter of sesame seeds. Tear off hunks to scoop up the stew, and just see if you can stop before the bowl is clean.
Short-rib frankfurter at Lyon Hall
Hot dogs are great. And one of the things that’s great about them—for me, at least—is that I don’t have to think about them.
I spend so much of my life analyzing and assessing what I eat that having something I can just eat like a normal person is a relief.
This is not that kind of hot dog.
It’s better than that kind of dog.
So much better, in fact, that you probably shouldn’t even think of it as a hot dog—as a bar snack, as junk food—and instead think of it as a core component of a meal.
I don’t mind that it makes me stop and think. What’s inside? Short ribs. And the spicing! It puts you in mind of a great artisanal sausage, it’s that subtle and that complex. The roll: homemade, sprinkled with poppyseeds. Which all by itself would be great, but then the kitchen swabs it with butter and gives it some time on the griddle.
I ordered it for my 21-month-old son, but, alas, ended up eating most of it myself.
At least I had the decency to do it when he wasn’t looking.
Pork gyro at Yia Yia’s Kitchen (Beltsville)
It was a holiday week, so my thoughts of food are inevitably skewed in that direction. But it’d be wrong to go with my mother’s brisket in a rich, oniony red sauce, or her light, sesame-encrusted challah, or her sour cream coffee cake, which, despite my vows to keep to one slice, always tempts me into three.
I mean, right? It’s not as if you’re going to be able to swing by her house and sample them, so why even mention them, except, perhaps, to tantalize you with what you can’t have? Well, except to say that that’s where my sentimental attachments lie.
But in a week dominated with family eating, I do want to single out for praise a very good gyro—a gyro so good I have no doubt whatsoever that I will be tortured with memories of it this Yom Kippur weekend, when I will be refraining from all food and drink for 26 hours.
At this point you may be thinking: Um, Todd, did you, in the very same sentence, tell us that you would be observing the Day of Atonement fast and confess your crazy lust for a pork gyro?
Look, a) that just gives me more to atone for, and 2) on such comical incongruities my complicated faith is founded.
You can order your gyro here with chicken or lamb and beef; I haven’t had those yet. Pork is what calls me. What has always called me.
To look at it on the vertical spit, you would guess that the meat had been charred, or even burnt. That’s the first sign that you’re in for something special. It looks nothing like the gray conical slabs of pressed meat you may be used to when you visit a gyro shop. The meat is sliced in not-too-thin strips and has a marvelous bark, reminiscent of the best ribs: crusty, smoky, slightly salty, and aromatic with what tastes, to this trained tongue, like oregano, olive oil, cinnamon, and maybe nutmeg. It’s stuffed inside a griddled round of pita, along with a thick smear of tzatziki, chopped tomatoes and onions, and a fistful of hot fries.
This is a gem of a new restaurant, about which I’ll be saying more on Tuesday. But first I need to get through a very rough weekend—made rougher by a sandwich I can’t stop thinking about.
Michel’s napoleon at Central Michel Richard
Take your standard napoleon.
Now quadruple it.
And lighten it by half.
And make it, oh, about ten times more delicious.
That’s the rough blueprint for the napoleon at Central, the most memorable dessert on a menu full of knockouts.
As with so many of the master chef’s sweets, diners aren’t immediately certain what to do with the thing when it hits the table. They point and gawk and laugh and reach for their phones to snap a picture—in other words, everything but grab a fork and begin eating. Richard frowns at such stand-backishness. In the dining room at the late Citronelle, I once saw him pick up a stunned customer’s fork and, with one swift, dramatic downward swoop, demolish one of his own exquisitely stacked pastries.
Leave it to Richard, I remember thinking, to present you with a dessert that fills you with awe and wonder, then leave you no other option but to smash it to smithereens like a little boy destroying his sandcastle in a gleeful assertion of toddler power.
Swift demolition is the only option here. Bring the fork downward suddenly and with almost violent force, breaking through the bubbled layers of pastry that have no comparison in the dessert world—a dozen crunchy, tissue-thin flatbreads? Underneath those shattered, now scattered layers you’ll find a rich fluff of pastry cream, so good that many lesser restaurants would be content to serve it alone, adorned, perhaps, with macerated fruit.
The dish hardly needs a sauce, but Richard gives it one anyway, a crème anglaise whose multitude of black flecks points to the presence of vanilla beans—not that an intense and sustained vanilla flavor is something you need to see seeds in order to identify.
Spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and Thai basil at Graffiato
Last week, I went on a bender. Not on a Kate Moss-inspired 72 hours of Champagne and Marlboro Lights, or the entire season of Orange Is the New Black (I knocked that out a long time ago), but on all things Mike Isabella.
It spiraled unintentionally, like most benders do. First was a weeknight dinner at a table crammed with taramasalata, Flintstone-size gigante beans, fantastic spit-roasted lamb, and rum and gin lemonades at Kapnos. Then, over the weekend, a spur-of-the-moment craving while walking the dog led me to G, where I alternated bites of the vinegar-soaked Italian hero, the chicken Parm sub, and more of that lamb stuffed into a pita with tzatziki. Somehow that night, after a movie (In a World. . . . Go see it.), Graffiato happened. I’d probably never have ordered the spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and basil on my own—it sounded so plain next to the prospects of Jersey Mike’s fried-calamari pizza and buttery corn agnolotti. Luckily, I snagged a bite off a vegetarian friend’s plate. The strands of spaghetti were just firm enough, and the sauce had the deep sweetness that happens when peak tomatoes meet slow-and-low cooking. The next night, I spotted Isabella’s cookbook on the shelf and decided to make it myself with Sungold tomatoes (thanks for the tip, Anna). It was not a quick dish—about an hour and a half from start to finish—and it didn’t have nearly the flavor the restaurant version did. A bummer—but it was finally time to step away from the Isabella.
Various vegetables at Table
At a recent dinner at Table, it wasn’t one single dish that impressed more than the others—from veal sweetbreads to ginger flan, they were all fantastic—but rather the vegetable sides that decorated each of the plates. There were crunchy-sweet zucchini blossoms complementing chubby escargot ravioli, the brightest sorrel “salsa verde” perking up a perfect filet of Arctic char. Chef Frederik de Pue’s stuffed squid first course is an inspired dish, but the earthy piperade—a Basque stew with peppers, tomatoes, and onion—was, for me, the star component.
And here’s the thing: I eat so many dishes heavy on meat and cream that somehow don’t add up to something delicious. Take away technique, presentation, and trendy ingredients, and often little remains. Not at Table, a neighborhood restaurant that is killing it right now.
Wood-grilled calf’s heart salad at Mintwood Place
Eating heart isn’t for everyone. And the hearts of baby animals? For even fewer. Still, it’s worth overcoming any biases to try Cedric Maupillier’s unusual appetizer. Think of everything that makes a classic frisée bistro salad addictive: the tangle of crunchy lettuce and tangy vinaigrette, contrasted with meaty hunks of bacon and a creamy poached egg. Now amp those flavors and textures way up. Like most offal dishes, the hearts need some coaxing into deliciousness. First Maupillier brines them in salt, garlic, lemon, and bay leaves for 48 hours, then gently cooks them in butter for another 24. Once ordered, the tender muscles are given a light char over the wood grill alongside cauliflower florets and chopped onions, and then tossed with baby kale, Dijon vinaigrette, and shards of thin-sliced garlic toast that best any blocky crouton. The salad is crowned with a perfectly poached egg, which you should mix in immediately for the full effect: bright and earthy, crunchy and creamy, absent of any gaminess. Maupillier first experimented with the dish during winter Restaurant Week, worried it wouldn’t appeal to first-time customers and infrequent restaurant patrons. A surprising 250 orders rolled in during the promotion, and it’s been a menu staple since. Having done it, I don’t recommend chasing the local Roseda Farm hearts with a dry-aged burger from the same beeves; unless you have a carnivorous appetite, it’s best not to keep it in the family for sake of richness. Though should you crave both, as I almost always do, try to convince your dining partners to split the appetizer. They won’t regret it.
Shrimp dumpling soup at Full Key
I know for a fact that if the restaurant were industrial and don’t-give-a-damn and tucked into some buzzy pocket of the city, every DC foodie blogger would be hyperventilating about this the way every New York foodie blogger has been go-tell-it-on-a-mountaining about the cronut.
But because it’s Wheaton, and because the dining room is old-school nondescript, and because Full Key has been around seemingly forever—nothing.
Well, their profound loss, because this might be one of the ten best dishes in the entire city. Still. After almost 20 years.
The broth has a clear beauty that tells you how methodically it’s been strained, and the flavorings are subtle (dried shrimp, white pepper) but unmistakable. The dumplings are more delicate than their plumpness would indicate. Their centers bulge with scallion, mushroom, pork, and shrimp.
About those shrimp—not at all the rubbery texture you have sort of been conditioned to expect when the shrimp are, after all, slipping into a filling with other assertive tastes and textures to, presumably, cover for them. Cooked to that delicate midpoint between translucence and overfirmness, they pop when you bite down.
Every time I come here, I think the exact same thing when I’m done: “I could eat this soup every night of the week.”
One more thing to move you to urgency, if you’re not feeling urgent already: It’s seven bucks for a large bowl.
London dry gin and tonic at Jaleo
I’m always in search of the ideal day drink—in summer, that means a cocktail that is easy drinking but not overly sweet, and not so potent that I’m sleeping off a headache by 4 PM. Often, it also means gin is involved. Already in my canon: the orange-and-thyme gin and tonic at Estadio, the elderflower-laced cucumber Collins at Ris, and the sparkling, crème de violette-tinted Fleur 75 at Pearl Dive. The drink I had yesterday at Jaleo—home of G&T obsessive José Andrés—easily lands in that top tier. It’s made with Tanqueray, a curl of grapefruit rind, a tiny bunch of mint, and a few white peppercorns. It looked so elemental I thought maybe I could replicate it at home, but then I saw the bartender add a brown liquid from an unmarked bottle. “Quinine,” he said. “We make our own tonic.” I think I’ll just find an excuse to come back this week—and the next, and the next.