Happy Friday, food truck followers! Catch this month's Truckeroo food truck festival at outside Nationals Park from 11 to 11, and enjoy street eats from over 25 trucks alongside cold brews.
Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken Could Have Been . . . Tastes Good, Donut?
Says co-owner Jeff Halpern: “The play on words seemed funny for about three minutes. After that, it seemed like a mouthful.” Other possibilities included Backy’s House of Doughnuts (“We joked with Washington Capitals center Nick Backstrom that if he invested in the company, we would name it after him”) and Mmmm Donuts as a tribute to Homer Simpson.
When opening a new place, one of the biggest decisions a restaurateur will make is what to call it. And while some names seem pretty random—Sally’s Middle Name, we’re looking at you—they’re part of larger trends. Here’s what the last few years have brought us.
O Street, Northwest, is cobblestoned, tree-lined, and quiet. Among the Georgetown rowhouses sits Crumbs & Whiskers, DC's first cat café.
The announcement came last November in a tweet from 24-year-old University of Maryland grad Kanchan Singh: “GUYS. A cat cafe in DC. We’re making it happen!”
An onslaught of media interest followed. Everyone from DCist to the Washington Post wanted to know more. A cafe? With food? And cats? Riding the wave of attention, Singh launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowd-source the seed money for her business, Crumbs & Whiskers—where patrons could sip espresso while playing with cats up for adoption through the Washington Humane Society. When the online fundraising closed April 7, she had raised more than $35,000.
Local “fast-casual” joints have investors lining up: Cava Grill recently raised $16 million, following Sweetgreen’s $18.5-million funding round, led by the likes of fast-casual pioneer Danny Meyer of Shake Shack. But can anyone tell us what fast-casual actually means? We asked area foodies.
It’s customizable . . .
Ashok Bajaj, founder, Knightsbridge Restaurant Group:
“I don’t put McDonald’s and Wendy’s in this realm; it’s Chipotle and Sweetgreen: You come in, the food is prepared to your needs, take out or eat in.”
It’s quick but made from scratch . . .
Daisuke Utagawa, co-owner, Daikaya:
“I was raised in Tokyo, and a lot of Japanese eateries are fast-casual. Ramen is a great example—artisan food, but fast. A lot of young chefs want to do away with the formality and just serve good food.”
It suits everybody . . .
Sal Ferro, executive chef, Old Ebbitt Grill:
“I’d say it has a wide variety to choose from: sandwiches and burgers, salads, pastas, a nice piece of fish. A place where you can hold a business meeting or bring your family—including screaming babies.”
It’s super-fast . . .
Anthony Lombardo, executive chef, the Hamilton:
“It’s counter service. Yoga pants and sneakers. And no need to tell me you have free wi-fi—I’m not going to be there long enough to connect.”
It wasn’t too long ago that our Facebook newsfeeds began to be overtaken with status updates swooning over the wonders of Trader Joe’s “cookie butter.” The grocery chain’s decadent spread—a sweet paste with spicing reminiscent of gingerbread—may be modern, but the basis of the bestselling stuff is something that’s been popular, at least in Belgium, for decades: speculoos cookies. Now pastry chefs at restaurants of all levels—and even Ben & Jerry’s—are capitalizing on our appetite for the cinnamon-and-clove-scented confections. Let’s start with the humble end of the spectrum:
Ben & Jerry’s (area grocery stores) — The cookies hit the ice-cream aisle in the new Spectacular Speculoos, a vertically layered pint holding caramel and vanilla ice creams and cookie butter.
Et Voila! (5120 MacArthur Blvd., NW; 202-237-2300) — What Oreos are to kids in the States, speculoos are to children in Belgium—so it stands to reason the treats would crop up at this Flemish and French bistro, which serves ice cream made by infusing milk with the aromatic cookies.
Mintwood Place (1813 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-234-6732) — Crumbled speculoos take the place of traditional graham crackers for this rustic Adams Morgan restaurant’s Key-lime pie.
Blue Duck Tavern (1201 24th St., NW; 202-419-6755) — Pastry chef Naomi Gallego reimagines grandmotherly tea and cookies by pairing Earl Grey custard with speculoos and mandarin-orange sorbet.
Quill (1200 16th St., NW; 202-448-2300) — The Jefferson hotel’s swank cocktail lounge accents its tart lemon custard with caramel containing a dose of cookie paste.
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
There are so many great and interesting developments in the world of food and drink these days. But that’s for another column. Give me a moment, now, to talk about one of the worst.
I hate how coffee is going the way of beer, in becoming more and more like wine.
Here’s what happened the last time I visited a place not named Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks.
Scanning the printed sheet of ten coffees, each accompanied by long, detailed tasting notes identifying the provenance of the beans and the particular “profile” of the brew, I asked the guy behind the counter for a little help.
A tight-laced sort with a mien more suited to puzzling over Wittgenstein than pouring coffee, he replied that I should instead tell him what I like in a coffee.
What I like in a coffee: a coffee that tastes like coffee.
“Dark, round, mellow, intense,” I said.
He chewed his lip—clearly this was a conundrum—and recommended “the closest thing we have.”
I read the description on the sheet, stopping when I got to the phrase “notes of citrus and cherry.”
“No citrus,” I said, joking that I didn’t care to mix my morning coffee with my OJ.
No laugh or smile, but oh, my goodness—the frown! It was as intense as the coffee wasn’t.
Look, I love the idea of not giving my money to a corporate multinational like Starbucks. But that’s not to say I want what so many indie coffee shops—including DC’s Wydown and Slipstream and others—seem intent on providing.
As if to position themselves as far as possible from the mainstream java behemoth, they’re turning a cup of joe into something it never was—something esoteric and precious, which, in the foodie world these days, means something more deserving of our close scrutiny and, therefore, worth our extra money.
In the past month, I drank one cup that put me in mind of a Belgian sour beer, one that tasted like a chai dashed with lemon, and one—strangest of all—that was like a cross between a cup of tea with milk and a Beaujolais on the verge of turning.
I know I’m not alone in my simple needs.
I mean, right? In the morning, we want our caffeine and we want it now, and we really don’t care to ruminate on what we’re drinking. As long as it’s full-bodied and strong. And when we want something to lift us out of our post-lunch lethargy, yes, of course we want something delicious, but it’s just as much about taking the time out to warm the hands, breathe in the hot steam, and luxuriate in the comforting taste of something rich and mellow.
There’s a time and a place for “notes of citrus and cherry”—and that time and place is summer on the patio with a nice crisp glass of rosé while the steaks cook.
This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
My friend stared down at the little bowl the waiter had set down in front of him. A single, stinting scoop of ice cream. No sauce, no cookie, not even a prettifying sprig of mint.
“Is this the palate cleanser?” he asked.
I had to keep from laughing at his expectation that something more substantive and exciting was still to come, a touching bit of naiveté that spoke to an age that now feels long past.
Not a simpler age—a grander, more exuberant one, when good restaurants understood that they needed to dazzle you at the finish and send you home smiling.
No longer. In our supposed golden age of Washington dining, the end of the meal is marked by $9 dishes that look like something you could whip up yourself—without a cookbook.
It’s confounding. Meals of elaborate technical excellence and imaginative daring now peter out in a procession of puddings, custards, and creams (or, increasingly, crémeux—which I guess is supposed to make the price feel less extortionary). You can begin a night out, as I did recently, with sweetbreads and Pinot Noir and end it with cookies and milk. Imagine someone changing the channel on you from Truffaut to Disney.
Perhaps my friend should have been grateful even to get that dollop of ice cream. Some restaurants, including the new Ocopa on H Street, Northeast, have done away with dessert altogether—a one-bite cookie comes gratis with your check.
Places that regard something sweet as the final act of the play still find ways to ruin a perfectly good meal. Witness the recent practice of turning pie into a cerebral deconstruction: the filling turned into a chilled slab of gel, the crust reduced to a dusty heap, dabs of cream all around. Or pulling the “for two” scam, in which a soul-satisfying item—the fruit crumble at Gypsy Soul, say, or the baked Alaska at DBGB—is sized a little larger than normal and given an inflated price.
What’s going on? If a nice dinner out is a three-act play, why are so many theaters content to mount a production that goes out with a whimper?
The answer is more economic than gastronomic.
In the post-crash economy, pastry chefs are no longer seen as essential employees but as pricey appendages.
“It’s not just saving the salary,” one restaurant owner told me. “It’s saving the space, too. To have a good pastry program, you need a designated area of the kitchen, you need a place to store the ingredients. The 10,000-square-foot restaurant has become the 7,000-square-foot restaurant. Everything’s smaller now. There isn’t the space.”
More and more, the task falls to chefs and line cooks who, lacking any background in baking, have contrived to fill their menus with simple, quick-fix solutions. Puddings, custards, panna cotta (an Italian term for what is essentially Jell-O made with cream) don’t require a lot of effort or expense; all can be made in the morning and stashed in the walk-in refrigerator.
Some restaurants have given up entirely. “More restaurants than you would think” are outsourcing their sweets to independent bakers, says Mark Bucher, who owns Medium Rare, with locations in Cleveland Park and Barracks Row. Bucher’s is among them. “You give them your recipes and they’ll make them for you. That way you can still say that they’re your desserts.”
He makes no apologies for outsourcing most of his sweets, pointing out the difficulty of delivering a streamlined meal of steak, fries, salad, and dessert—the only meal his restaurants serve—for $19.75. “The economics of the business—and I mean all of the business, not just dessert—are brutal right now,” Bucher says, adding that “most restaurateurs aren’t out consciously to gouge you. They’re trying to make the numbers work.”
The problem is that restaurateurs are unwilling to charge more than $30 an entrée. That number has held steady for years, the Maginot Line of the industry. Forced to look elsewhere, they’ve sought to recoup their escalating expenses by aggressively targeting the start of the meal, upping the prices of appetizers and “snacks,” cocktails, and glasses of wine. At some places, you’ll pay nearly as much for a six-ounce pour of Chardonnay as you would for a plate of chicken.
The question is why so many restaurateurs have opted not to jack up the prices of dessert, too.
“It’s just not worth it,” a successful owner told me, noting that the prices of dairy have gone up by as much as 150 percent in little more than a year. High-fat butter, a necessity for gourmet baking, sells for more than $4 a pound, double what it was in the summer of 2013. “A cocktail brings in twice as much money as a dessert, and it doesn’t hold up a table at the end of the meal. You have to turn the tables.”
There are holdouts, and the amateurishness and asceticism of the scene have only made them seem more glorious. Alex Levin at Osteria Morini, Naomi Gallego at Blue Duck Tavern, Tom Wellings at Fiola, Fiola Mare, and Casa Luca—all stage a rousing final act. A fitting one, too, reinforcing the level of detail and the lusty abundance of everything that has come before.
The king of the scene, Central Michel Richard, still produces ten desserts of extraordinary imagination and technical excellence, including its tour de force, Celebration Cake—a Trojan horse of a chocolate shell concealing sponge cake, fresh fruit, and whipped cream, capped off with a candle that blazes like a roadside flare.
Why is Central the anomaly and not the norm?
The average food cost for most restaurant desserts is 12 to 15 percent. At Central, according to one of the restaurant’s investors, the average is 30 to 35 percent. He told me that scaling back on desserts was never under consideration. Chef Richard began as a pastry chef, and sweets have long been his signature. To scale back at the finish would be to betray the restaurant’s identity.
Most nights, when making my rounds as a critic, I order dessert more out of a sense of duty than with an expectation of getting something exciting. Often, I’m tempted to do what my friend did when he discovered that his palate cleanser turned out to be his ice cream and go get a second dessert someplace else. That night, it was Georgetown’s Baked & Wired, the best of a burgeoning crop of bakeries in the city.
Baking, it turns out, is alive and well—just not in restaurant kitchens.
The biscuit company Mason Dixie recently found a home at Union Market; Frenchie’s is producing terrific breakfast pastries at the H Street, Northeast, farmers market and other outlets; District Doughnut has given DC a third gourmet doughnut shop; and the boutique bakery Rare Sweets just opened in CityCenterDC. And cupcakes continue to be baked by the thousands across the area at the many high-end “cupcakeries.”
“I keep hearing about the death of pastry, but pastry chefs are flourishing,” says Tiffany MacIsaac, who recently left the Neighborhood Restaurant Group to open her own project, Buttercream Bakery, a full-service sweet shop she hopes to launch next fall. Like Dominique Ansel, who left chef Daniel Boulud and birthed the Cronut, and Sherry Yard, who after nearly two decades with Wolfgang Puck ventured out on her own to make both sweets and savories for a national chain of restaurants and movie theaters, MacIsaac is gunning to become “a star and not the punctuation to the meal.”
Another breakaway act is New York-based Christina Tosi, whose hotly awaited Milk Bar opens this year at CityCenterDC. Tosi didn’t break from her partner, chef David Chang—Milk Bar will be adjacent to his forthcoming restaurant and will prepare all of his menu’s desserts. But it will be a standalone venture, with its own staff and its own entrances and exits. If you’re hankering for a slice of her vaunted Crack Pie, you won’t have to sit down to a meal next door to have it. All you’ll have to do is walk up to the counter.
You might run into me in line, en route home from dinner cut short someplace else.
This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
Dessert in this town: oy.
Deconstructed pie (or “decomposed," as an addled server at Blue Duck Tavern explained one of the sweets on the menu to a friend of mine last year). Precious portions that are carried off without flair or exuberance. Sorbets everywhere.
Now comes an insidious little innovation called “dessert for two.”
Take the peach crisp at chef RJ Cooper’s new Gypsy Soul in Falls Church. It’s listed as “for two,” and charges accordingly ($14). Daniel Boulud’s DBGB launched last month in City Center with a baked Alaska, also for two and also charging accordingly: $14.
Nor is the trend limited to the splashy and cheffy. Jeff Black’s Pearl Dive, on 14th Street, has an apple pie for two. Founding Farmers, a kind of Bob’s Big Boy for the World Bank set, offers its chocolate mousse for two. At Kellari, the Greek fish emporium on K Street, the chocolate dessert—there’s one at every restaurant, always—is a trio of tastes, and it, too, is priced for two.
A couple things are going on here.
One is that the economy still isn’t great, food costs are high, and restaurateurs are loath to jack up the costs of their entrées. So what they do is, they pinch at either end of the menu.
That’s one reason appetizer costs are skyrocketing (I’ll talk more about this next week).
The final course of the night is an even more prime place to pinch.
Prices for desserts have remained steady in recent years, even as pastry chefs are becoming extinct in all but a handful of restaurants and the selection in most restaurants has become pitifully uncreative. (The only thing more annoying these days than hearing "Are you still working on that?" or "Let me tell you how the menu works" is seeing: "scoop of gelato or ice cream $9.")
“Dessert for two” is another low-cost gambit for turning a profit. Restaurateurs know that couples who go out to dinner tend to split a single dessert, so coming up with desserts for two is a shrewd way to squeeze more money from the cover.
Good for them, I guess. But do we really need two slices each of baked Alaska? Is a peach crisp really the kind of thing you want to eat an entire casserole dish of?
And even more to the point: do we really want to be made to feel that dessert, which should be all about joyous indulgence, is becoming little more than a cynical exercise in maximizing profit?