For the well-heeled, well-fed gastronomes who attend dozens of wine dinners and restaurant openings each year, the annual Capital Food Fight is the crème de la crème of foodie events. It was held Tuesday in the Ronald Reagan Building’s massive atrium, and it seemed as though every local restaurant you’d ever heard of had set up a table for its chefs to proffer samples of signature dishes. But the real center of activity was an Iron Chef-style kitchen stage, where six area chefs faced off in cooking battles featuring a secret ingredient. And it was all for a great cause: Proceeds benefit DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that trains homeless men and women for the food industry and provides meals to shelters.
This year, reigning champ Roberto Donna of Bebo Trattoria, and his teammate, chef Tony Chittum of Vermilion, lost to first-time competitors Barton Seaver and Joshua Wigham of Hook. The secret ingredient? Red orach. (We’d never heard of this reddish-purple cousin of spinach, either—read on for details.) In early rounds of the evening’s competition, Seaver had beaten Vidalia’s R.J. Cooper and Restaurant Eve’s Cathal Armstrong.
Here are the night’s highlights:
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Most creative use of cheese: A tie between Café Atlántico’s liquid mozzarella, which executive chef Katsuya Fukushima served on baby spoons, and Ristorante Tosca’s buffalo-ricotta gnocchi, topped with chestnut sauce and crispy prosciutto.
Most ubiquitous dish: Tuna tartare was everywhere (Olives, Zengo, Hook, Hudson, and some others we’re probably forgetting). But the best version by far was from chef Haidar Karoum of Proof. His tartare was like a deconstructed spicy tuna roll, with avocado, nori tempura, and wasabi (in fancy soy-emulsion form).
Best showing by a grocery store: Wegmans (again). This year's offerings were even more impressive than last year's. Its cups of fork-roasted duck, skookum oysters with mojito foam, and sushi spread featuring a spicy lobster roll on a bed of bleu-cheese foam could hold their own with any of Washington’s finer restaurants. Watch out, Balducci’s and Trader Joe’s.
Most ubiquitous ingredient: Butternut squash. We saw it as a garnish, as a ravioli filling, and smashed up like baby food. It was at Vermilion, Bastille, and Charlie Palmer Steak, among others. Our favorite rendition came from PS7’s, where chef Peter Smith fashioned the veggie into a terrine with goat cheese, a wild-mushroom confiture, and Tasmanian-pepper-and-walnut brittle. While Smith plated it up, he eagerly asked for feedback on whether he should serve it at PS7’s. So Peter, after winning last night’s People’s Choice Award for best dish, did the audience get the point across? Put that delicious thing on the menu!
Best live music: Attendees got together for a group rendition of “Happy Birthday” for DC Central Kitchen founder Robert Egger’s 18-year-old daughter, who took the stage, all adorable in a black dress and tights. She eerily resembled Kirsten Dunst.
Best cold-weather accessory: Camera-ready Spanish chef/emcee José Andrés’s striped green scarf, which looked straight out of a J. Crew catalog. He didn’t take it off all night, not even in the steamy kitchen.
Best soul-warming soup: Butterfield 9’s pumpkin soup, made from all kinds of pumpkins (white, orange, and green) and garnished with pancetta and apple. It was like autumn in liquid form, and something we’re thinking of recreating for Thanksgiving. Chef Michael Harr was two for two: His soup sat next to slices of seared elk, which could have won Best Reindeer-Like Meat That Once Had Antlers.
Best-looking chef in skinny jeans: A tie: rabble-rousing TV personality Anthony Bourdain, who nailed the chiseled and grizzled older-man-with-grandeur George Clooney look, and Barton Seaver, whose form-fitting dark jeans and intentionally messy hair epitomized the hipster-chef vibe. Incidentally, Seaver’s style secret is that he buys women’s denim.
Dish most worth the wait: Kaz Sushi Bistro’s made-to-order hand rolls with spicy lobster and tuna, crafted by chef Kaz Okochi himself. He churned them out nonstop and served the creations in a special plastic ice-cream-cone holder.
Most worthwhile dessert, even for the dangerously full: The chocolate cake from 1789 Restaurant, which was worth seeking out behind tiers of decadent yet forgettable cakes and cookies.
Most questionable excuse: Tony Bourdain’s “reservation” at Ben’s Chili Bowl—which, he claimed at one point during the show, was in 15 minutes. Can you really fit a chili dog in those tiny jeans, Tony? Hmm.
Most confusing secret ingredient: Red orach, which nobody seemed to have heard of or could pronounce. “Sounds like a baseball player’s name,” noted host Mark Kessler (also the voice of the Washington Redskins). The purple-leafed green has a flavor similar to that of chard.
Most exciting celeb sighting for a food writer: Phyllis Richman, former Washington Post restaurant critic and friend-crush (for these two writers). She sneaked in later in the evening after a dinner at the new Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert. Must have been a good one, as she wasn’t too concerned with sampling the offerings from the 40 restaurants. She and her daughter just wanted to observe the action onstage.