Roasted garlic soup at Vermilion
I can be perfectly happy with a bowl of tomato or split pea soup. Dive in, and savor the simplicity and soothing comfort on a cool, blustery fall day.
The reason I love going to restaurants, however, is to linger over the handiwork of a chef like William Morris, who can turn a mere broth into something as elegant as it is complex.
Like nearly every high-end soup these days, this one comes to the table as a kind of sculpture garden of small garnishes at the bottom of the bowl: on one side, a small mound of finely diced potatoes; on the other, tiny croutons; in between, an egg yolk. The broth is poured tableside.
I confess to worrying before it arrived that the garlic would be too strong, and that I would be dipping my spoon into a sort of liquefied garlic mashed potatoes. Not to worry. The garlic is so deftly handled, it doesn’t dominate—it flavors.
The great thing about the soup—the thing that makes it worthy of a slot on the 14-item menu—is that it seems to morph as you eat it, changing character and even consistency and reminding you of other dishes. The first few bites are reminiscent of a garlic-scented roasted chicken. Then you stir the yolk into the broth, thickening it and calling to mind the viscous richness of an egg-drop soup. Scoop up some potatoes, and you would swear you were eating a chowder.
Morris took over the kitchen at Vermilion earlier this year from Tony Chittum. Anyone who can make soup sing has big-time talent, and Morris is one to watch for 2014.
Baked Alaska at L’Auberge Chez François
When I was growing up in Bethesda, my family didn’t go to restaurants a ton, but when we did, it tended to follow some sort of tradition. Birthdays meant circling the hibachi with Shirley Temples and sake at the much-missed Japan Inn in Glover Park. On New Year’s Eve, a couple of my parents’ friends would bring over strawberry pie from Reeves Bakery. And sometime around Christmas, we’d pile into the car and take the seemingly endless, winding road to Great Falls for a blowout dinner at the ultra-traditional Alsatian restaurant L’Auberge Chez François. For as long as I can remember, I’ve ordered the same thing (something I almost never do but can’t resist here)—a salad with Roquefort cheese; buttery, Sauternes-scented lobster with supremed slices of citrus; and a puffy Grand Marnier soufflé.
This week, I changed course and got the Baked Alaska: a thin layer of cake laden with scoops of pistachio, chocolate, and vanilla ice creams and raspberry sorbet, then covered with tiny snowcaps of meringue and burnished in the oven. Given that dinners at Chez François are not light, especially when you take into account the irresistible, butter-soaked garlic bread at the start of the meal, the Cheesecake Factory-like portion seemed a little ridiculous. Even the red-vested waiter snickered when he set it down. But this was the best kind of dessert: light and rich and eggy and airy (not to mention warm and cool) at the same time. Something both sophisticated and special—you won’t see it coming out of many home kitchens—but totally satisfying. Five minutes later, the dish was empty. And next year, dessert is going to be a tough call.
Spicy scallop rolls at Sushi Taro
One of the things I love about my job is that it’s allowed me to explore the challenges and joys of solo dinners. Because here’s the thing: We live in a city that’s a) full of singles and b) perpetually visited by people on business. If ever there were a place that should cater to parties of one, it’s this one. I’ve always thought Sushi Taro, the terrific Japanese seafood spot at 17th and P streets, Northwest, would be a fun choice for an evening meal alone. The front bar is intimate and attractive, and since Japanese food is often doled out in portions for one, it makes sense to eat on your own.
Unfortunately, this theory did not bear fruit when I stopped by for an early dinner this week. The ice-cold bartender barely acknowledged me throughout the evening, and seemed genuinely annoyed when I ordered food. She poured the (expensive) glass of wine I ordered from the bottom of the bottle, and it tasted distinctly the way white wine does when it’s been sitting in the fridge one day too many. She never asked if I liked it. It didn’t get better from there. The restaurant was out of the oysters I ordered, I was told tersely. No substitution was offered. The three rolls and appetizer I asked for all arrived at once, and the plates were slid my way without comment—I’ve had more ceremonious service at the latte bar at Reagan National’s terminal A. The next time we talked, I was asking for the check.
What made matters worse was that there was a large VIP table at the restaurant that night, and the hostesses—with whom I was in earshot throughout the experience—were treating the arriving diners with such warmth and respect. The only thing worse than being treated poorly at a restaurant is being treated poorly at a restaurant when you know others aren’t suffering the same fate.
Honestly, though, I went home pretty happy. How could I not with food this fantastic? Among the best things I ate: a wiggly square of custardy tofu dressed in creamy sea urchin, soy-marinated tuna nigiri, and translucent slices of scallop slathered in spicy sauce and rolled up in nori and that vinegar-laced rice that Taro does better than anyone else.
Frigid service can absolutely ruin a meal. Just not that meal.
French feta lavash rolls from Yas Bakery & Supermarket
One of my childhood friends is half-Persian, and her mother introduced me to a what’s become a favorite snack: lavash rolled with feta, tomatoes, and whatever fresh herbs are at hand. Of course, as a seven-year-old, all that translated to was “yum.” Other moms packed puddings or PB&J triangles, but my anti-sweet tooth always gravitated toward the mixture of feta, chopped tomatoes, and typically a fistful of dill or mint. (For the record, this is no slight to my own mom, who knows my savory cravings better than anyone and has made more cheese “bags,” now plates, than most.)
As with any simple recipe, the key is good ingredients, particularly the feta. Don’t even try it with those dry Athenos crumbles at the supermarket. What you need is a block of truly great cheese, which I found at the Persian Yas Bakery & Supermarket in Vienna. It’s a wonderful place—friendly and navigable, but also full of hard-to-find items such as Iranian pistachios, sweet lemons, and a large display of baklava and other pastries. You’ll also find tubs filled with gorgeous blocks of French and Bulgarian feta: moist and crumbly, with a perfect balance of creaminess and salty tang. Order by the half or full pound, which you’ll receive wrapped in a produce bag (and at about half the cost of Whole Foods’ version). Grab a springy flat of lavash, some plump tomatoes, and dill, and you’re set for snacking.