The Best Thing I Ate This Week: Pepper-Crusted Tuna, Shigoku Oysters, Bao Buns

Washingtonian’s food team shares favorite dishes from their past seven days of dining.

By: Todd Kliman, Jessica Voelker, Anna Spiegel

Todd Kliman

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.

You’ve no doubt eaten tons of peppered tuna, but never, I’m guessing, with foie gras, which perhaps more than any other complement or condiment succeeds in turning the fish into the role it is so often forced into playing on American menus—that of a steak. The sauce, meanwhile, works the way a glass of good red wine would, tightly knitting the flavors of the fish and foie while with its gentle acidity very nearly balancing the over-richness. From the charred onions comes a slight bit of sweetness and a nice hit of smoke.

O’Connell is not one for understatement, but the title of the dish is actually an uncharacteristic piece of underselling. Pretending to be a filet mignon? No filet mignon has ever come close to matching the deep, complex pleasures of this ingeniously enhanced tuna. And I haven’t had an actual steak this year that I would choose above it.

Jessica Voelker

Shigoku oysters at Taylor Shellfish

This will be the last Seattle-based Best Thing I Ate, I promise. I just can’t resist the opportunity to talk about the oysters at Taylor Shellfish. Based in Shelton, Washington, Taylor cultivates and sells really kickass crustaceans—Manila clams, geoducks, and Mediterranean mussels—all of which I’d recommend if they didn’t seem like delicious distractions from the best thing at this cafe and seafood shop: the oysters.

A word about Taylor’s Seattle storefront: It’s in Capitol Hill’s Melrose Market, a collection of fancy stands—cheese, meat, flowers—anchored by Matt Dillon’s Sitka & Spruce and Bar Ferd’nand, his wine and coffee spot. Think Union Market, only much smaller and far more Seattle-y. At Taylor, the friendly staff pull the shellfish for you right from the tank and shuck them on the spot. There’s also a lovely list of oyster-friendly wines and chowder for those who don’t want to do the raw thing. To recap: good wine and Pacific Northwest oysters that are shucked a few seconds before you slurp them. Do we need to discuss this further, or are you too busy buying a plane ticket?

When I went on Monday, Taylor was out of Kusshis, the sweet little guys I’d been eating as much as I could on this last trip. So I went for a combination of Kumamotos and Shigokus. Fun fact: Shigokus are actually an invention of Taylor—they’re Willapa Bay oysters that are grown in floating bags, the way many Pacific oysters are. But these are set up in such a way that the  oysters tumble around with the changing current, which causes them to grow deep, scoop-like shells and a firm texture. They do that great oyster thing—capture the entire ocean in a little bite—but are so light as to almost defy gravity, with the cleanest salinity. All in all a very elegant thing to eat alongside something sparkling while propped up on a stool watching the hoodie-clad Capitol Hill characters roam by.

Two more bonus fun facts for you: Shigoku means “ultimate” in Japanese, and John Rowley, co-owner of Taylor, also created the current oyster program at our own Old Ebbitt Grill.

Anna Spiegel

Steamed pork belly buns at Fatty Crab

Trips to New York are often more fraught for former residents than they are for your average visitor. I lived in Manhattan before moving back to hometown DC, and each return visit is a tug-o-war between old and new. Nowhere is this battle more apparent than at mealtime. I’m constantly torn between exploring the scores of eateries that crop up between visits and returning to old favorites, even the unglamorous ones—Milano Market doesn’t draw food tourists up to 115th Street for its Italian sandwiches, but it calls my name as loudly as it did during my grad school days.

There’s one dish I almost always stop for, however, probably because it mixes deliciousness and nostalgia: the pork belly steamed buns at Fatty Crab. They’re the best bao buns in the city, and yes, I’ve had the much-hyped buns at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar, which helped launch the whole trend. (You know it’s a trend, albeit a downward-sloping one, when Cheesecake Factory hawks them as “Vietnamese tacos.”) The Fatty crew came up with their version long before steamed buns hit suburban malls, and even before the “Asian hipster” dining scene took over New York. I was living with two chef friends, and we’d sometimes meet at Fatty Crab in the West Village for their late-night happy hour after work. True to the Asian hipster cliché, the PBR and whiskey backs flowed, and the buns came at a discount. These days I tend to order them at regular dining hours with just a cocktail under the belt, but the buns remain the same: pillowy warm steamed bread stuffed with soy-glazed pork belly, served alongside a tangle of cilantro, onions, pickled radishes, sliced egg, and charred jalapeños. Plenty of other dishes tempt my appetite: crispy pork and watermelon salad, a decadent whole crab in chili sauce with sides of thick Texas toast for dunking. Still the buns are the one that keep me coming back (and cross your fingers they’ll make it to Washington).