Washington DC may be a very dysfunctional place when it comes to politics, but the contemporary food scene is anything but that. Having just returned from six nights in the nation’s capitol, I can attest that when it comes to culinary matters, there is no debilitating gridlock. Dining options seem to keep getting better and better and more and more varied. Over the twelve or so meals I had, there was not a clunker in the bunch. I chose the restaurants I did, because they were ones I had wanted to visit or return to based upon previous experience and reputation. For the latter, I relied heavily on Don Rockwell and his superb food discussion forums, DonRockwell.com, currently the best option, in my opinion, for getting a handle on what is available in this fair city.
My wife and I arrived on a Friday evening in time to get to Rogue 24 after settling into our hotel, the pleasantly funky Kimpton Helix. Though most contemporary American restaurants have moved away from overt Vanguardist cooking, Chef RJ Cooper has continued to embrace it along with elements of Rene Redzepi’s New Naturalism, making creative, tasty and fun food served in a tasting menu format. My wife and I opted for the 16 course tasting menu rather than the more typical 24 courses since we were tired from traveling and it was already late. We also wanted to save some room for the rest of our time in DC. Chef Cooper’s food and “Cheftender” Bryan Tetorakis’ superb cocktail program hit the mark, as we left satisfied and feeling good. With the inclusion of peat bubbles, Tetorakis’ Gin and Tonic was one of the most original and tasty G&T’s I’ve ever had.
I’ve been a big fan of Jose Andres’ restaurants for a long time. Since I was in DC for a conference at the Convention Center, his restaurants were close enough to hit up for lunch. I couldn’t get enough of either Oyamel and ate there twice during the week. Oyamel has to be one of the best traditional Mexican restaurants in the country, right up there with Frontera Grill in Chicago and perhaps a handful of others that make top-flight traditional dishes from around Mexico. The special soup of the day, Rockfish Soup, was full flavored, delicious and reasonably priced. A Torta Milanesa made with chicken and chipotles was also notably tasty as were the cocktails.
Linch at the revamped Jaleo were also superb. A flauta of jamon Iberico de Bellota with tomato and extra-virgin olive oil was other worldly. The bread, shaped like a flute, was warma and fresh with a delectably crisp crust and pillowy crumb. The Iberico was silky, rich and sweet. Croquetas were creamy and served in an acrylic sneaker. An Ensalada Rusa was as good an example as I’ve had. The gambas al ajillo were very good, but I would have preferred them less sweet. (Flick’r Photoset)
Andres also has a Spanish food truck called Pepe. With a touch less time one day, I visited that for a another torpedo shaped flauta. This time, I had a Butifarra “Burger” – a burger made from Spanish pork served with aioli and bravas sauce. It was tasty as was an Escalivada sandwich with roasted eggplant, red peppers, sweet onions, spinach and “mojo rojo.”
Still with a Spanish fever, my wife and I visited Boqueria for lunch . It was located near our hotel and we were curious to compare it to Jaleo. The restaurant is beautifully designed, but instead of having proximity to Oyamel (across the street from Jaleo), it sits directly above a Chipotle. We sat at a window table and ordered a few tapas. The first, a Tortilla Española, was a bit disappointing. It fell apart easily and lacked depth of flavor. Croquetas of ham and of mushroom were ok, but lacked the depth and creaminess of those at jaleo. They also came out overcooked and barely warm, despite the fact that they came out just after they had been ordered. Despite those flaws, our other two dishes were excellent. Sauteed mushrooms were garlicky and lemony and the Gambas al Ajillo were delicious. Not as sweet a preparation as that at jaleo, I preferred these at Boqueria. We followed our lunch with a Segway Tour of the Mall and the Monuments. I heartily recommend this as a great way to see these landmarks. (Boqueria Flick’r Photoset)
On our last day before heading out of DC, we rented bikes from City Bikes and returned to an old lunchtime favorite, The Bread Line, where I enjoyed what was the tastiest Cubano sandwich that I’ve had in some time. They do sandwiches right, using top ingredients and fresh, in house bread at reasonable prices. Besides, I love the name of the place.
Though we didn’t have lunch there, we did pay a visit to the famous Dupont Circle Farmers Market while in town. There were plenty of stalls selling produce, cheese and meats that I would have loved to buy and cook, but it just wasn’t in the cards for us here. Nevertheless, it was a fun visit and recommended for anyone, whether able to purchase or not. One need not look further than a city’s top food markets to sense where it is at in terms of a food culture. This market proves that DC has arrived.
The evening were where we went to (mostly) experience restaurants that were new to us. I have certainly enjoyed Chef Fabio Trabocchi’s food before in New York City, but this was the first time I had it here in the city that has fully embraced him. Fiola, the Trabocchi’s triumphant return to DC is not cheap, but the quality of the food, the service and the setting justify its dizzying prices. Trabocchi can cook with anyone. His food is sublime. I have seldom, if ever, had lobster as sublime as I had with his lobster ravioli. The rest of our meal was equally delicious. (Flick’r Photoset)
Following our dinner at Fiola we continued on to Derek Brown’s fabulous bar within a bar – The Columbia Room – for some late night classic cocktails. One must wend through the crowd around the bar of The Passenger to find the hidden bar in the rear of the space and one must have a reservation. The work is worth it though, to sip on beautifully crafted, detail oriented cocktails in an intimate setting. This is a place to reflect and enjoy, to relax in the eye of the DC hurricane.
One place that I visited specifically due to a recommendation by Don Rockwell, that I might not have otherwise was Sushiko in Georgetown with Chef Koji Terano. While Terano’s ingredients were fine, especially considering that we ate there on a Sunday night, the menu was not loaded with an abundance of unusual or arcane imported ingredients. It was up to Koji to do special things with what he had access to and that he did. His creations were unique and delicious. I particularly enjoyed his house-cured wild Alaskan king salmon roe, which had incredible pop and flavor. The meal was a delight and reasonably priced for an omakase dinner.
My wife and I had bee to The Oval Room before to experience Chef Tony Conte’s remarkable, Italian influenced fine dining. It was so special then that it deserved a return trip. Chef Conte somehow seems to remain under the radar despite his ambitious and stellar cooking. Like the Fabio Trabocchi’s lobster ravioli at Fiola, Conte transformed a very good main ingredient into a dish that was a real standout, both in an absolute sense and relative to its kind. His Hawaiian blue shrimp with pistachio was nothing short of extraordinary. The Oval Room under Chef Tony Conte is a restaurant that I could return to again and again.
With limited time and many restaurants to choose from, I don’t ordinarily choose one that doesn’t allow photography during the meal, but I had heard so many good things about Chef Johnny Monis’ Northern Thai inspired Little Serow, that I decided to go anyway. At $45pp for a tasting menu served family style, the dinner is a steal. Monis’ flavors and textures were finely balanced, deftly produced and remarkably delicious. As it turned out, so much of what I had to eat was done using my hands that wielding a camera would have been out of the question anyway. For one night, I didn’t miss the photos, as much as I would have liked to have them for this blog and for posterity. Photos or not, Little Serow has to be the best dining value in DC and possibly the country right now.
Last but not least, our DC journey took us to Chef Eric Ziebold’s CityZen, where I had arranged for a mini-reunion dinner for some of my college classmates living in the DC area. We enjoyed Chef Ziebold’s dazzling creations seated at a table overlooking his efficient and well managed kitchen. Our five course set menu was delightful with his Elysian Farm lamb particularly noteworthy and delicious. (Flick’r Photoset)
My wife and I barely touched the tip of the iceberg that is currently DC dining. There is an abundance of excellent and varied dining choices in this city that not too long ago was a collection of steak houses and cheap ethnic eats. The political climate in DC right now may be somewhat chaotic, but with already existing restaurants and a number of enticing and exciting kitchens on their way, the DC dining scene has never been better. It gets my vote as one of this country’s top dining destinations.