James Beard Award-winning chef RJ Cooper has a reputation for pushing boundaries: At his Rogue 24 in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, diners choose between 16- and 24-course tasting menus. Next up: Gypsy Soul, a casual ode to regional dining in Merrifield with a sprawling rooftop grill. We caught up over raw carrots—Cooper is currently dieting—and talked about tattoos, bourbon, and his pet corgi.
Energy source: “It used to be Red Bull with chocolate. Now it’s coffee.”
Bourbon: “Black Maple Hill from Kentucky. It’s not Pappy Van Winkle, so it’s affordable, and it’s just as good.”
Restaurant: “My favorite super-fine dining is the Inn at Little Washington. It’s a very magical, Disney World place. Also magical: Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit.”
Takeout: “I have a soft spot for really bad Chinese food—greasy, starchy almond chicken from any place I can find on my phone.”
Currently craving . . . “I’m on a diet. I haven’t had chocolate in seven weeks. The kitchen crew used to eat a two-pound bag of almond M&M’s every day.”
Ice-cream flavor: “Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby, man—c’mon.”
Day trip: “A motorcycle trip through the George Washington National Forest.”
Tattoo: “I have so many! My Rogue tattoo means a lot to me because I got it three days before my open-heart surgery.”
Always in the home fridge: “Soy milk, so many berries, and a bunch of protein drinks.”
Pet: “Rebecca the Corgi Princess of McLean. She’s 11.”
Breakfast dish: “I haven’t eaten it since I started my diet, but I really like the quiche at Baked & Wired in Georgetown.”
Healthy snack: “A protein shake and raw carrots.”
Fast food: “Wendy’s triple burger with lettuce, tomato, onions, bacon, and fried onion rings on top, all crushed down.”
Four people I’d like to invite to dinner: “Brad Pitt, Woody Harrelson, Jerry Garcia, and Jerry Seinfeld. I’d serve pot brownies. “
Condiment: “If I’m at Daikaya, I like togarashi spice on everything. If it’s a burger, Thousand Island dressing. For French fries, mayonnaise.”
Restaurant music: “When we’re working, it’s whoever gets to the radio first. I’m a big jam-band guy and will put on the Dead, and everyone else is like, ‘Arrrrrrgh.’ ”
Restaurant I’d like to open: “The first chef-driven biker bar. It would have rock ’n’ roll, stripper poles, Miller High Life, and lots of smoked meats.”
Artists: “Warhol. I love the depth and energy, the wackiness. I love Dalí, and I really want to know what drugs he was on.”
This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Get the lamb brains.
I know, I know: There’s got to be a more enticing way to share my enthusiasm for Khan Kabob, one of the very best—maybe the very best—of a slew of kebab houses dotting Northern Virginia.
But it’s true. You may not eat anything all year that’s as exciting, as satisfying, or certainly as interesting, as the lamb-brain karahi ($23.99—enough to feed two), a three-times-a-week special.
Karahi describes both the food and its cooking vessel, a handleless wok of hammered metal into which a cook tosses garlic, ginger, tomatoes, and cilantro. Think of it as the zesty Eastern answer to sofrito, the base for a good bit of Latin American cooking.
Of course, it’s what a cook does with those ingredients that matters, and the crew at Khan Kabob achieves a concentration of flavor unrivaled by the competition, not to mention a smokiness that lends a subtle and seldom-seen perfume. Every bite is a whirlwind of heat, pungency, and heady aromatics.
I haven’t talked about the brains themselves yet, have I? Well, look: I doubt you’d even recognize them as brains. They disappear so completely into the sauce that to stare into the large pot, you might guess you were looking at curds. I like to think of them as a source of creamy richness, the way I do sweetbreads.
Still not sold? You can order the dish with chicken ($21.99) or minced beef ($23.99), and both are terrific, too.
Ladle the stew over the accompanying bowl of steamed rice (which is excellent) or even better, scoop it with bread. Khan makes one of the best rounds of naan ($1.50) you’ll find. The dimpled surface is unexpectedly crunchy—yielding to a soft, chewy interior—and sprinkled generously with sesame seeds.
I also like to tear off pieces and use them to swaddle bites of kebab, drizzling hunks of charred chicken and lamb with the yogurt-cilantro sauce.
Not that the meats need any help.
Owner Tariq Khan commanded the kitchen for more than a decade at Ravi Kabob, the grande dame of Washington’s kebab houses, developing its recipes and refining its techniques. Khan declines to divulge his secrets but does allow that he marinates his meats at least 24 hours. The complex flavor of the finished product isn’t hard to identify, at least in part: garlic, onion, coriander, red chili, black pepper. The juiciness is the great wonder, given that nothing here is ever cooked rare or medium-rare.
Go for the bone-in chicken kebab ($10.49), which has more succulence than the breast-meat alternative; the seekh kebab ($9.99), aggressively spiced minced beef molded around a metal skewer; or the champ tandoori ($15.50), whose three foil-tipped lamb chops—cooked perfectly, despite their relative thinness—will leave your lips tingling from the spices rubbed into the meat before grilling.
If I’m looking for a spice rush, though, it’s the karahi I want.
Khan says the lamb brains are available on a limited basis because of how often he’s able to procure them from his source—also because the supply itself isn’t large. Most people, particularly Americans, aren’t often tempted to try a dish made with brains.
Which just makes this sometime special that much more special.
Khan Kabob. 4229 Lafayette Center Dr., Chantilly; 703-817-1200. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
A gyro, in the usual sense, means a kind of grayish-brown mystery meat shaved from a conical spit, stuffed into a dry pita, and folded into a sandwich. It’s often serviceable, but hardly more than that. Certainly not something you’d crave returning for, like the marvelous pork gyro ($10) at YiaYia’s Kitchen in Beltsville.
Pork is the meat of choice in Greece, rather than the typical lamb/beef blend you see in the States. At YiaYia’s, you can spot it immediately among the three upright spits. It’s the one that looks charred beyond recognition.
Not to worry. The black amounts to a kind of bark, not unlike what you’d find atop a properly tended rack of ribs, and has much more going for it than smoke. The cooks rub the meat with oregano, cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, and paprika, among other seasonings, before setting it on its rotating spindle, where it slow-roasts at an almost glacial pace, for five or six hours. The finished product summons memories of the best dry-rub barbecue, lip-smacking and luscious. For the gyro, the sliced meat is nestled in a warm, griddled pita, along with tangy tzatziki and a dice of onions and tomatoes. For an extra $3, you can add another detail from the Greeks—a fistful of hot, hand-cut French fries.
This is an order-at-the-counter operation with a sit-down aesthetic. Owner Michael Harrison was previously a general manager at the Rockville and Clarendon locations of Cava Mezze, and before that he ran the floor at his father’s Parthenon Restaurant in Chevy Chase DC. Harrison’s aim was to come up with a place that could service the grab-and-go needs of his audience—YiaYia’s sits almost at the nexus of busy Route 1 and the Beltway—while functioning as a sort of latter-day Greek diner.
The fluorescent lights and cold, open room are not selling points, nor are the black plastic plates, but the food has more than enough rustic warmth—and finesse—to make you want to pull up a chair and stay. The spanakopita ($6), far from the sodden mass that so many versions end up as, is all lightness, flake, and crunch, despite its generous allotment of spinach and feta. The avgolemono ($5), a Greek version of chicken-and-rice soup (with a generous spike of lemon juice), has the roughly chopped carrots and celery that usually signal a grandmother’s homey efforts. (Yia yia means grandma; Harrison named the place in honor of his own, who passed away not long ago.) The Bolognese ($9) is a massive mound of well-cooked macaroni drenched in a cinnamon-spiced tomato-and-meat sauce.
The night I ordered them, the pork chops ($15) were a touch overcooked and the green beans alongside them had an institutional look. As it turned out, the beans were excellent, the dull green color a result of having been simmered slowly in a good sauce of tomatoes, onions, chicken stock, and dill.
The green beans also arrived one night on a plate with pastitsio ($10), a dish that often invites comparison to lasagna. The huge, dense square of ground beef and macaroni is topped with béchamel and haloumi cheese. Nothing subtle or fancy—just good, simple cooking at a reasonable price. The kind we can never have too much of.
YiaYia’s Kitchen. 10413 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville; 301-595-1855. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Washingtonian.
Combined-in-advance mixers have long been the secret to fast service at high-volume bars, but only recently have we begun to see premade cocktails poured from a tap.
“Kegging” a batch of a restaurant’s specialty drinks ensures consistency—the only skill that the on-duty bartender needs is the ability to pour—and the draft cocktails often cost a few dollars less than their à la minute counterparts.
Here, five of our favorites.
El Codo Margarita from El Chucho
3313 11th St., NW; 202- 290-3313
Five bucks—four during the weekday happy hour (4 to 6:30 and all night Monday)—buys you an excellent on-tap house margarita at this Columbia Heights Mexican spot. Made with silver tequila, Triple Sec, and lime juice, it’s refreshing and balanced—just right with the menu’s unfussy tacos and tortas.
A Draft of Route 74 from Jackson 20
480 King St., Alexandria; 703-842-2790
Head bartender Dean Feddaoui will serve you an $11 refresher of watermelon water, lime, and orgeat (almond syrup with orange-flower water) poured from a tap crowned with a bobblehead of Andrew Jackson, for whom the restaurant is named. Feddaoui adds vodka and orange liqueur just before serving, but customers are also welcome to sip the concoction booze-free for $7.
Lemonade Punch from Kapnos
2201 14th St., NW; 202-234-5000
Taha Ismail developed three draft punches ($11) for Mike Isabella’s new Greek restaurant. Skinos, a floral Greek liqueur, forms the basis of a cocktail with watermelon, tarragon, and lemon. The gin ade—with Batavia Arrack, honey, thyme, and soda—gets a hint of smoke from a grilled lemon. Rum plus lemon-verbena tea, lemon, cane syrup, and angostura bitters make up the elegant third option, our favorite of the lot.
Sage-and-Green-Apple Gin and Tonic from Mockingbird Hill and Red Apron Butcher
Mockingbird Hill, 1843 Seventh St., NW, 202-316-9396; Red Apron Butcher, 1309 Fifth St., NE, 202-524-6807
Sage and tart apple complement the locally made Green Hat gin’s fennel notes in this effervescent debut from Brigade—a collaboration between Passenger/Columbia Room owner Derek Brown, bartender J.P. Fetherston, and a few of their friends. Find it for $9 at Brown’s new sherry bar, Mockingbird Hill, and for $9 at the Union Market location of the charcuterie shop Red Apron Butcher.
On-Tap Sangría from Hogo
1017 Seventh St., NW; 202-393-1313
At the easygoing tiki bar Hogo—run by Passenger co-owner Tom Brown—general manager Julia Ebell developed this slightly fizzy, island-inspired red-wine mixer with ginger, hibiscus, and lime juice ($8). Ebell’s drink is less intense than the typical tropical cocktail, but she sneaks in those citrus and spice notes to winning effect.
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
Chef at Rasika and Rasika West End
Instrument: Tabla, an Indian-style pair of drums.
His learning process: “If I hear something often enough, I can play it.”
Tip for tabla mastery: “You play with your hands, so you have to have skillful fingers.”
Influences: Indian tabla maestros Zakir Hussain and Alla Rakha.
Where he plays now: “I have a tabla set and a drum kit at home, so I definitely keep the neighbors up.”
What he listens to in the kitchen: Pop, rock, Bollywood tunes, Hindi music.
Chef at Cedar
First restaurant job: Playing violin during Sunday brunch at the Gandy Dancer in Ann Arbor as a teenager.
Pay at the time: $100 an hour.
Training: At McCloud’s peak, he was practicing up to ten hours a day and spending summers at Michigan’s Interlochen Center.
How performing informed his cooking philosophy: “A lot of chefs have this idea that they cook for themselves. If guests like it, that’s great; if not, screw ’em. I’m the opposite because I cook for other people.”
Career high: Taking a class with violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman.
Uncle Brutha's Allsauce No. 9
District native Brennan "Uncle Brutha" Proctor blends serrano chilies, ginger, and cilantro for his smoky twist ($8) on Mexican salsa verde. All the ingredients are natural and gluten-free.
Best for: Eggs and fish or pork tacos.
Where to find it: Order online at unclebrutha.com.
Woodberry Kitchen Snake Oil
Chef Spike Gjerde of Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen uses fish peppers for this searing sauce ($12). The chili shows up on his menu in everything from deviled eggs to Bloody Marys.
Best for: Dashing on rich seafood dishes.
Where to find it: Salt & Sundry in Union Market, 1309 Fifth St., NE; 202-556-1866.
Apinya Thai Chili Sauce
Love Sriracha? Try this similarly flavored Thai sauce ($6) out of Herndon. It delivers a bigger hit of ginger plus hints of garlic and roasted bell peppers.
Best for: Marinades, Asian noodles, and grilled meats.
Where to find it: Order online at apinya.co.
Capital City Sweet Hot Mumbo Sauce
The District's iconic condiment ($5)—a flavor mash-up of barbecue and sweet-and-sour sauces—gets extra punch from cayenne and habanero peppers.
Best for: Eggs and fish or pork tacos.
Where to find it: Order online at capitalcitymumbosauce.com.
Small Small Red Pepper Sauce
Aromatic berbere—a spice mix that's a key ingredient in Ethiopia's long-simmered stews—is the basis for this complex and fragrant sauce ($9).
Best for: Marinating meats and vegetables or substituting for awaze, a hot-pepper paste.
Where to find it: Order online at buysmallsmall.com.
Photographs by Jeff Elkins.
This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
In the world of dessert, canelés are an underdog. Those who have had the Bordeaux-born confections—made from crepe-like batter baked in thimble-shaped copper molds—tend to love them fiercely for their custard-meets-cake insides and slightly chewy, burnt-sugar exteriors. But canelés have yet to receive the recognition afforded their macaron and madeleine cousins. Stéphane Muszynski, a Frenchman who works in sales at a software company, is seeking to change that with Smack, his canelé delivery service that debuted in February and serves DC and its immediate suburbs.
The chicly packaged treats are perfectly burnished and still delicious even after sitting around a few days. Muszynski has come up with flavors of his own—salted caramel, raspberry—but we can’t get enough of the vanilla-bean-flecked originals. Order them, in sets ranging from 8 pieces for $10 to 50 pieces for $45, at iwantsmack.com, and a satin-bowed box will arrive the next day. There might never be canelé bakeries on every corner, but Muszynski’s sweets deserve to hit the big time.
This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.
As a native of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I’m tickled to see the grocery staples of my youth—chickens raised on Amish farms, for instance—receive star billing on Washington menus. The fascination with Pennsylvania farm products here means I get to try new-to-me foods from home, too, such as raw honeys ($5 to $8) from Stockin’s Apiaries in the small town of Strasburg.
I learned about Stockin’s from Columbia Room bartender Katie Nelson, a bee-nectar connoisseur who keeps her own hive on the roof of the bar near DC’s Mount Vernon Square. Nelson loves orange-blossom honey, which has a delicate, floral aroma and a rich, spreadable consistency—it’s great slathered on a buttered baguette for breakfast. Funkier and bolder, Stockin’s wildflower honey works well in vinaigrette or diluted into a syrup and combined with an earthy gin and lemon juice for a down-home take on a Bee’s Knees cocktail.
You can find both flavors, plus the company’s alfalfa and buckwheat honeys, at Smucker Farms of Lancaster County (2118 14th St., NW; 202-986-7332), which specializes in local produce and other regional treats.
This article appears in the October 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.
In their 1950s heyday, soda jerks hollered jargon such as “heavy on the hail” (extra ice) and “shot in the arm” (cola) at 100,000 soda fountains around the country.
About 125 traditional soda fountains survive today, and this fall local bartender Gina Chersevani is adding another with Buffalo and Bergen—a 15-stool bar at the new Union Market, DC’s answer to Philly’s Reading Terminal Market. Several other restaurants already serve from-scratch “pop.”
Lots of Cleveland Park residents use Spices for takeout and delivery, but the food is at its best in the warmly lit dining room. We dug into a tangy salad of green papaya, mango, and red cabbage, and another Vietnamese classic—grilled shrimp over cold vermicelli with nicely crunchy spring rolls, cucumber, mint leaves, and peanuts. Less inspiring: gummy drunken noodles with flavorless minced chicken and the limp, over-steamed edamame. 3333-A Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-686-3833. —JV
Ray’s to the Third
We took the casual route at Michael Landrum’s latest restaurant. The enormous Mack burger—with American cheese and tangy “heck” sauce—was juicy perfection. Tender slices of rib eye elevated a sandwich that included melted American and provolone and grilled onions on a Lyon Bakery sub roll. A side salad lent lovely contrast to the sandwiches, and a boozy shake with bourbon and bacon bits made an indulgent ending. 1650 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-974-7171. —JV
Spike and Amy Gjerde may have their mind on new projects, but that hasn’t diminished anything at their farmhouse-cool flagship. Our table became cluttered with terrific snacks: cucumbers seasoned with fish pepper, crab dip with a shot of sherry, a crisp salad of charred sugar-snap peas. Excellent desserts—from a blackberry meringue pie to a marshmallow-and-malt sundae—helped make the meal one of the best we’ve had here. 2010 Clipper Park Rd., Baltimore; 410-464-8000. —AL
This article appears in the September 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.