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.