Best Thing I Ate: Chicken-Fried Quail, Elote-Style Cauliflower

Our favorite dishes from the past seven days of dining.

Tico’s cauliflower with cotjia cheese tastes even better than elote. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

Todd Kliman

Chicken-fried bobwhite quail at Gypsy Soul

Rarefied roadside food.

The two quails are treated like chicken-fried steak. Each dark-meat bite of bird combines the juice and crunch of the Colonel but without the sugar, salt, and grease. They sit atop the most silken pool of grits you’ll ever eat, a nearly grit-less emulsion of whipped butter and cream. The smoky collards, shot through with unholy quantities of pork fat, don’t taste the least bit larded down. The unexpected touch, here, is the terrific gizzard gravy, which emphasizes the down-home rootsiness of the dish without somehow sinking the plate in excess.

Chef RJ Cooper is off to a very good start at his new restaurant in Merrifield’s Mosaic District.

(Can I just say that while I understand the Mosaic District exists to inject some edginess into the usual faceless suburban mall—and a soulful dish like this is indisputably part of the mission—it’s still not a little strange to dine in a contrived and upmarket shopping complex that uses urban tropes and symbols in order to appear less square. “District” in this case means “mall,” and although the restaurant is housed on “Glass Alley,” this alley looks an awful lot like what most people would call a “street.”)

Ann Limpert

Cauliflower with cotija cheese at Tico

My love for elote—Mexican-style corn rolled in mayo, lime, and cotija cheese—has been well-documented in this column, and now is the time to get it, while the corn is still super-sweet. This summer, Estadio has been serving the deconstructed version it always does so well, and food truck La Tingeria offers a delicious, more straightforward take. Meanwhile, the Partisan has been less successful, turning the dish into a cilantro pasta that loses any brightness and tastes more like creamed corn.

My new favorite version, though, doesn’t involve corn at all. At the loud, color-splashed small-plates spot Tico, Michael Schlow offers a riff on elote that uses cauliflower instead of cobs. Now, I know there are plenty of people who love the stuff, but I think cauliflower is one of the world’s blandest vegetables. So how has Schlow turned it into something I’ve actually become hooked on? By pan-roasting the hell out of it, until it gets a gorgeous caramelized sweetness. He then tosses it with chipotle-spiked mayo sweetened with honey, crunchy fava beans, and a handful of salty, crumbly cotija cheese.

Finally, an elote for all seasons.

Anna Spiegel

Sungold tomatoes from New Morning Farm (Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market)

I’ve written about these tomatoes in the past, but it’s time for their yearly due. Perhaps more than any other seasonal ingredient, they’re the one I look forward to most. Sure, there’s nothing like a local strawberry in late May, but you can also fudge it with a pack of Driscoll’s in February.

Sadly (or maybe not) there’s no faking Sungolds. The intensely sweet cherry tomatoes typically start appearing in late July and can last through early fall. Think of the best, brightest, tomato flavor, condensed into a bite-size round. The certified organic New Morning Farm is my favorite source, especially if I’m planning to pick up the superb basil, zucchini, and yellow squash to toss together for a tweaked version of this pasta recipe. Whether added to a salad, sautéed for sauce, or, as my boyfriend prefers to do, eaten alone by the pint, nothing else tastes quite like summer.

Nelson Billington

Pollo a la brasa from Grupo Norkys (Lima, Peru)

A weeklong service trip to this bustling South American city brought me together with some fabulous cooking. Peru is known for its colorful variations on chicken, and the local chain Grupo Norkys was no exception. The bird was topped with salt and pepper as well as several traditional spices, but its juiciness and flavor stood out the most. It was conveniently halved, which made cutting into the meat easy.

There is something distinctive about the chicken from Peru. Maybe it’s the daily trips made to find the best products at local markets, maybe it’s the loving care that goes into each preparation, or maybe it’s the years of history and culture behind it. Whatever the reason, my experience at this open-air establishment solidified my belief in food being a universal language that is understood throughout the world.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.