I make a lot of soup at home. French onion on cold nights, vegan mushroom cream for weekday lunch, almond gazpacho in the summer. What unites them is that they fall into the category of “pretty damn easy.” Restaurants are where I go for the more complex stuff—the broths conjured from long-simmered stocks and the bowls loaded up with a rainbow of herby, tangy accents. Take these five soups, some of my recent favorites: immensely comforting, especially in the hands of pros.
Joy by Seven Reasons | 5471 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase.
Vichyssoise, the cold potato-and-leek soup, is an endangered species in all but the most old-school Gallic restaurants around here. So it was a surprise to see the potage on the menu at this new mod-Latin dining room in Chevy Chase, a spinoff of the 14th Street hot spot Seven Reasons. Venezuelan chef/owner Enrique Limardo discovered the soup not in France but at ABaC, a three-Michelin star kitchen he once worked at in Barcelona. “I fell in love with the simplicity of the combination of potato and leeks,” says Limardo. “The flavors [chef Xavier Pellicer] combined at that moment were superb. He used Granny Smith apples to cut all the fat coming from the butter and cream.”
Limardo has been playing with his own recipe for years. His current version, which adds cauliflower to the potato-leek purée, is not chilled but warm and velvety. His richness-cutting trick comes in the form of artful swirls of red (a slightly spicy guajillo oil) and green (an aromatic oil made from rosemary and briny sea beans). Don’t overlook the side of crispy yuca, which you crumble into the bowl like saltines.
Makan | 3400 11th St., NW.
There are dozens of versions of curry laksa soup across the states of Malaysia. When James Wozniak opened his Columbia Heights Malaysian restaurant in 2020, he decided to spotlight a sour, Assam-style seafood rendition. But just six days after he began tastings for friends and family, lockdown happened. When Wozniak reopened the fledgling restaurant for carryout, he knew he needed a more familiar, gentler bowl—an easier sell.
Enter his rich, sun-yellow curry mee. Wozniak creates the broth—you’d never know it was vegan—from housemade curry powder; a Southeast Asian mirepoix of onion, garlic, lemongrass, and ginger; and plenty of coconut milk. Pandan leaves impart a grassy, nutty flavor. Fried tofu, disks of chicken sausage, and a mix of egg/wheat noodles and glassy threads of mung bean make the bowl a hearty meal in itself, while lime, fresh mint, sour mustard greens, and spicy sambal turn the flavor Technicolor.
Cielo Rojo | 7056 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park.
There’s a lot that sets this Mexican cafe apart from the competition: a veganish bent, an obsession with heirloom ingredients and fastidious process—and this version of traditional red hominy soup. The broth gets its crimson hue and aromatic, roasty flavor from an array of chilies. But this is a bowl that’s about the sum more than the parts. Each element—the crunchy slabs of watermelon radish, the copious squeezes of lime, the creamy bites of hominy—plays brilliantly off the next. Get everything in one spoonful and it’s magic.
Co-owner and chef David Perez grew up on posole, which his family served on holidays and special occasions. His own soup takes plenty of liberties with the old recipe: The broth is vegan, not chicken-based, and bolstered with red wine. He uses a drizzle of cashew cream in place of traditional Mexican crema. And for non-vegans, he bulks it all up with tomatoey chicken tinga instead of plain shreds of the bird.
French Onion Soup
Central Michel Richard | 1001 Pennsylvania Ave., NW.
The late DC chef Michel Richard was known for brilliant culinary trompe l’oeil at Citronelle, which two decades ago was one of the city’s hottest haute dining rooms. In his mischievous hands, what looked like a yellow rubber duck plucked straight from a bubble bath was actually a meringue. (He’d have schooled everyone on the Is It Cake? baking show.)
Richard’s onion soup—still served at the Penn Quarter bistro he founded in 2007—isn’t quite as whimsical, but it is definitely deceiving. Its broth is robust, deeply flavorful, and somehow completely free of beef stock, the very foundation of the Parisian classic. David DeShaies—who was Richard’s longtime number two in the Citronelle kitchen and remains a chef/partner at Central—remembers the phone call: “I want to make onion soup,” Richard said. “But vegetarian . . . and with miso.”
The two got to work, settling on a mix of red and yellow soybean paste, but keeping everything else by-the-book—caramelizing onions in French butter, adding white wine and thyme, then finishing each crock with a cap of burnished Gruyère and provolone. A neat trick, but the result is no gimmick: “It’s lighter and cleaner and makes you feel good to eat it,” DeShaies says.
St. James | 2017 14th St., NW.
Callaloo—a dish of cooked greens with West African roots—is everywhere across the Caribbean and, depending on where you are, has different guises. Jamaicans treat its amaranth leaves more like a stew. In Trinidad and Tobago, native taro leaves are spun into a coconut-milk-based soup, often accented with seafood. The latter is what you’ll find at St. James, the eight-month-old Trini dining room overseen by Jeanine Prime, also behind Cane on H Street.
The kitchen sticks to Prime’s simple family recipe for the thick, darkly verdant soup. Greens are blanched to keep them vibrant, then simmered with coconut milk and chilies. Her only swap: using a mix of collard greens and spinach instead of taro leaves, which are hard to find in these parts. And while an island table might feature a soup crowned with a whole crab, Prime takes a more delicate, dining-room-friendly approach, topping her generous bowl—served with a ladle and smaller cups for easy sharing—with lump blue crab sautéed with garlic and onions. Nudge the hunks of sweet meat with your spoon until they fall apart, spilling into every bite.
Prime’s callaloo is popular, but Jamaicans are a tougher sell when it comes to the more liquid Trinidadian version. “They’re like, ‘What is this?’ ” says Prime. “And then we have a vigorous conversation about what callaloo is. Now our servers know to tell them.”
This article appears in the January 2023 issue of Washingtonian.