A Night Out: Taste of the Nation

Charlie Palmer Steak's pork belly BLT. Photographs by Rachel Cothran.

Taste of the Nation—the annual benefit for Share Our Strength in which scores of restaurants serve one-bite samples of their cooking—helps raise money and awareness to end childhood hunger. But this past Monday at the Hilton Washington, it was impossible not to stuff yourself—if you didn’t leave the party wishing you had worn something a bit more stretchy, you did something wrong. (Does anyone else appreciate the irony?)

Still, it’s a great cause filled with offerings from DC’s most celebrated restaurants and chefs. Beverages abounded too: Several wineries showed up, and there was an Iron Chef-like cocktail contest featuring four local bartending whizzes (Justin Guthrie of Central Michel Richard reigned supreme). But really, the highlight was the food. Here’s our take on how the restaurants stacked up.

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Most popular ingredient
: Pork belly. We saw it at Mendocino Grille’s table, sitting atop a ginger-cabbage slaw, at Charlie Palmer Steak in the form of a “belly” BLT, and at Vidalia capping a spoonful of roasted polenta with pickled Vidalia onions and rye-whiskey jus.

Most popular table
: PX, Todd Thrasher’s Old Town speakeasy, which made its name with intricate cocktails and a healthy dash of exclusivity—only 34 people are allowed in at a time, and only when the blue light is on outside—had a table at the event. The line for fresh-basil-infused cocktails remained five to six people deep all night.

Most popular cop-out
: Crostini. There were at least two tables offering fava-bean crostini topped with a Parmesan shaving. That’s at least one too many and a big tip-off that these spots were just phoning it in. Still, one crostini stood out both in flavor and creativity: BLT Steak’s duck-rillettes crostini with charred onion, date marmalade, and baby-fennel pickles. Yum.

Most impressive showstopper: Molecular gastronomy might be so 2006, but it’s still fun to watch. And if it tastes delicious, all the better. Butterfield 9 chef Michael Harr dipped a mixture of black peppercorn, lavender honey, and bleu cheese into a smoking cauldron of liquid nitrogen and poured it over a dollop of beet purée. Next to him, pastry chef Manabu Inoue popped disks of white-chocolate espuma into the liquid nitrogen, then plated it with a black-cherry sauce and sprinkled it with dark-chocolate flecks.