Tuesday, May 31, 2011

City Snapshots: Washington DC Dining

Over the past couple months we've done a bit of traveling and, as we always try to do, some good eating along the way. Memory, notes, and photos are not necessarily as good as might be hoped, and so instead of full recaps of meals, here are some quick thoughts on some of the places we visited. I don't begin to pretend that a brief few days can begin to capture the dining zeitgeist of a city; rather, these are more in the nature of personal travelogues. First, a trip to Washington DC over the kids' spring break.

Possibly my favorite of the places we dined at was Palena. Located a bit northwest from central DC, but easily accessible by the DC Metro, Palena has a more formal Dining Room with a prix fixe menu, and a more casual Café with a la carte offerings. With kids in tow, we went the latter route. The food is Italianate (Chef Frank Ruta's family hails from Abruzzo), but not in a way that insists on banging you over the head with it. An appetizer of baby calamari was quickly cooked with Sicilian flavors of tomato, caperberries and chilies. Both roasted and raw slivered beets were paired with hazelnuts in a salad. A steak was cooked over a wood-fired grill that lent a touch of smokiness to the meat, served with an elemental salad of bibb lettuce and blue cheese and nicely crisp fries. But the real standout for me was an absolutely pitch-perfect bollito misto, with tender, deeply flavored veal tongue and corned beef in a soul-restoring broth, rounded out by a coddled duck egg and a few root vegetables. It's deceptively hard to do "simple" foods well; Palena made them shine.

3529 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington DC

Palena on Urbanspoon

I was hoping to take the whole family to José Andrés' minibar, but we were unable to score a reservation. Instead we made a trip to his more straight-ahead tapas restaurant, Jaleo, as well as a visit to Café Atlantico for its "Nuevo Latino Dim Sum Brunch."[1] Jaleo is something like a living encyclopedia of tapas, with nearly 70 tapas selections, along with several paellas for those with even more robust appetites. They range from ubiquitous classics like pan con tomate and tortilla de patatas, to regional specialties like the Canary Islands' papas arrugas and Catalan esqueixada, to more unique items like calamares with pine nut praline and a Pedro Ximenez reduction, or seared salmon with a cauliflower purée and raspberries.

We found that some of the best items were those that hewed more closely to tradition, where Chef Andrés creates what may be close to the platonic ideals of classic Spanish dishes. An order of pan con tomate brings toasted but not completely crunchy bread, spread with softly tangy puréed tomato, a  generous drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of salt completing the composition. His croquetas come to the table hot, with a crisp fragile shell encasing molten bechamel and shredded chicken. Buñuelos de bacalao achieve the same balance, with a honey aioli to play against the salty fishiness of the dried cod. Another contrast of sweet and salty is played out by the berenjenas a la miel, the feathery light fried eggplant glazed with a drizzle of honey.

Ensalada rusa, the curiously named Spanish potato salad (what's Russian about potatoes, peas and carrots bound in mayo?), is given double richness from a generous hand with the mayonnaise and luscious canned Spanish tuna, plus an extra layer of flavor provided by strips of piquillo peppers. I am a huge fan of ensalada rusa and this was one of the best I've had. Fried dates wrapped in bacon are accurately described in the menu as "como hace todo el mundo" (that you will want to eat every day). And those papas arrugas - wrinkly, generously salted marble-sized baby potatoes served with a pungent mojo verde reminiscent of an Argentine chimichurri - are equally addictive.

Surprisingly, the dishes we found to be less successful were the more creative ones. Those calamares with sweet pine nut praline and a Pedro Ximenez reduction couldn't successfully bridge the gap between seafood and sweet. The same was true of the salmon with a (vanilla-touched?) cauliflower purée and raspberries. On the other hand, a dish called Arroz de Pato "Jean Louis-Palladin," after the legendary DC chef, featuring rice with duck confit, topped with a seared duck breast, and drizzled with a foie gras cream, was an overdone layering of rich upon rich.

But Chef Andrés deserves culinary sainthood if for no other reason than that he was instrumental in enabling the import of Spanish jamón ibérico into the United States. Jaleo was the first place it was served in the U.S., and there is possibly no more perfect dish than a plate of jamón ibérico de bellota. Priced at $22 at Jaleo, it's a worthwhile indulgence.[2]

480 7th Street NW
Washington DC

Jaleo on Urbanspoon

(continued ...)

I was hoping that Café Atlantico's "Nuevo Latino Dim Sum Brunch" could be something of a minibar-lite type experience. Atlantico is, after all, the second "restaurant" of the "restaurant-in-a-restaurant" that is minibar, and the small plates format and contemporary flourishes might support that hope. The menu - like a typical dim sum menu, but with predominantly Latin American flavors - offers an extensive listing of items served in small portions, with prices ranging from $2-$8. We tried a dozen of those items, plus a guacamole prepared tableside ($13), but unfortunately, few were really impactful and none were prepared with the finesse I'd experienced a few years ago at minibar.

One of the best was a grilled "Cuban"[3] corn, dipped in mild queso fresco and sprinkled with aleppo pepper. Plump sea scallops were fresh and nicely seared, though the cauliflower purée beneath didn't bring much more to the party. Mushrooms with egg 63° would perhaps be a novelty for someone who's not yet experienced the "contemporary classic" immersion circulator-cooked egg. For those who have, this dish will please the fans of it without showing them anything new, and will fail to convert those who are not. Coconut rice was creamy and rich, but more savory than sweet, inflected with ginger and given some textural contrast with a sprinkling of crispy rice on top.

Pineapple shavings with corn nuts and tamarind oil made an intriguing pairing of sweet, salty and sour, but the thin strips of fruit were unwieldy and this seemed more a sketch than a completed dish. More complete was the unagi topped with a sheet of pineapple and paired with an avocado sauce. Also a nice composition was the frothy potato and vanilla mousse, crowned with a dollop of caviar.

Conch fritters with a liquid center promised an effect similar to xiao long bao, but didn't quite deliver, the flavor and texture of both the exterior fritter and the interior chowder sacrificed somewhere between concept and execution. The same was true of a "hot and cold" foie gras and corn soup, where neither hot nor cold, nor foie gras nor corn, could be clearly distinguished from one another. We did close out the brunch on a strong note, the pan dulce with cinammon syrup being a great take on french toast.

Café Atlantico
405 8th Street NW
Washington DC

Café Atlántico on Urbanspoon

Miami sadly no longer has any Ethiopian restaurants, so this was one of the things we set our eyes on when we were headed for Washington DC. The city has a sizable Ethiopian population and there were a number of restaurants clustered around the corner of 9th and U Streets, NW. The one that seemed to be most consistently recommended by Chowhounds was Etete, which is where we went.

Etete's menu offers all the regular staples of Ethiopian cuisine. We started with an order of sambusas, samosa-like triangles of pastry filled with lentils spiked with jalapeño, onion and green peppers. We followed that with the classic doro wat, a chicken stew flavored with a berbere spice mixture and niter kibbeh (spiced clarified butter), goden tibs (marinated short ribs), the "Special Etete's Kitfo" (minced beef cooked with mitmita spices and served with several variations of seasoned cottage cheese and collard greens), and a vegetarian combination which brought a variety of items - lentil stew, split peas, collards, cabbage, carrots and string beans.

Everything was served on a broad platter laid with spongy, tangy injera bread, from which everyone helped themselves using more rolled injera brought to the table in a basket. It was all good, but also all a bit more tame than I had expected. What I enjoy most about Ethiopian food is how it is highly spiced without necessarily being "spicy." It's not just about capsaicin heat, but about the intense yet balanced combinations of spices that give such depth of flavor to these deceptively simple stews. Etete's dishes all seemed like they were turned down a notch, as if someone was pulling punches.

As we were riding back from dinner, our taxi driver confirmed it for me: "Etete? That's Ethiopian food for white people. Good place to go for tej, though." (That would be Ethiopian honey wine, typically home-brewed). Sadly, I forgot to note down the suggestions he made for where to get "real" Ethiopian food, though there are several other options in the neighborhood.

1942 9th Street NW
Washington DC

Etete on Urbanspoon

Another must-visit for us was Central Michel Richard. We had actually tried to eat at Chef Richard's satellite restaurant in Carmel, California a couple years ago, but he had left the building shortly before we got there. For DC, with kids in tow, we decided the more casual Central would be a better option for us than the higher-end Citronelle. This wouldn't seem much of a compromise, given that Central was bestowed the James Beard "Best New Restaurant" award in 2008, when it was also included in the NY Times' top 10 "Intriguing New Restaurants Outside of New York."[4]

Central's menu is very much a compilation of French bistro favorites given a bit of an American diner spin in a few instances: a selection of burgers, fried chicken and meatloaf also make appearances. Chef Richard's "faux gras" recipe has gotten a lot of attention - a downmarket mock foie gras made with chicken livers and lots of butter in lieu of the richer, and more expensive, fattened duck or goose liver. Personally, I don't need my chicken livers to taste like anything other than chicken livers, and pretending that they're foie gras really doesn't add anything to the experience for me. But this was a very good chicken liver mousse, which was matched up with an equally good country pâté.

A generous basket of gougères was a welcome sight for snacking between courses. A frisée lardon salad was largely textbook, except that the egg may have seen an immersion circulator rather than being traditionally poached. The bacon and onion tart was another spin on a classic, the pizza-like Alsatian tarte flambée. A paper-thin crispy crust managed to support rather thickly chopped bacon and sweet caramelized onion, drizzled with perhaps more crème fraiche than was strictly necessary. Another classic, beef tartare, was outstanding - cool, rich, intensely beefy, perfectly seasoned and spiced.

Central's burger offerings - which include a classic hamburger as well as an ahi tuna burger, lobster burger, and chicken burger - have gotten some acclaim. The hamburger was good, but not mind-blowing, though the potato tuile he sticks in there is an intriguing touch. The chicken burger, however, was overwhelmed by the aroma of lemon. An even more surprising disappointment were the french fries. Frites are one of those things that are essential to get right at a bistro-style place like this, but ours were unexpectedly limp. That disappointment was made up for by a couple more classic desserts: a textbook crème brûlée and a warm chocolate lava cake (which is dessert menu kryptonite for Frod Jr.).

Central reminds me in many ways of Thomas Keller's Bouchon - classic, old-school bistro food, but done at a high level of execution with some new-school technique. There were more miscues than I might have expected, but still, any city would be fortunate to have a place like this.

Central Michel Richard
1001 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC

Central Michel Richard on Urbanspoon

After a visit to the Capitol building, we found ourselves conveniently close by Chef Spike Mendelsohn's pair of restaurants, Good Stuff Eatery and the aptly named We, the Pizza around lunchtime. More in the mood for pizza than burgers, we tried the latter.

Their pizza is available by the slice or by the pie in about ten different configuration, along with a short selection of other stuff (a couple salads, chicken wings a few ways, and a pretty tempting collection of subs). I was not at all mad at the roasted potato and pancetta slice I got, generously sized for $4 and rounded out with some caramelized onions, fresh rosemary, and just enough tomato sauce and mozzarella to make it right. The crust falls into no particular conventional pizza rubric, reminiscent - in a good way - of a thin focaccia dough taken a bit more to the crisp side. Also very good were the house-made sodas, including a puckeringly sour cherry and a vividly flavored Vietnamese coffee. Afterwards, we made our way next door to Good Stuff for a toasted marshmallow shake, and were very glad to have done so.

We, the Pizza
305 Pennsylvania Avenue SE
Washington DC

We, the Pizza on Urbanspoon

Mendelsohn got some heat recently for calling his home town a "second-tier city." Frankly, he should have gotten just as much heat for lauding himself as a "big fish in a small pond." Easy, there: you've got a burger joint and a pizza place. They're good, but I don't see Michelin stars coming any time soon. You're not such a big fish yet.

Whether or not Mendelsohn's assessment is on target, I'll leave to DC locals. It's ultimately a sort of goofy and pointless discussion, as nobody can even agree on what makes for a "first-tier" food city. New Yorkers willl invariably refer to the breadth of both high-end, low-end, and multiple ethnic choices, while West Coasters in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland will point to their unparalleled natural bounty, their farmers' markets and food trucks. Meanwhile, there is plenty of good eating to be found in places like Washington DC, no matter what "tier" they may be.

[1]Andrés has now closed Café Atlantico and will be using the space for a pop-up venture to be called "America Eats Tavern," tied into a National Archives exhibit called "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" that explores the government's effect on diet. The pop-up apparently will feature Andrés' spins on classic American dishes, such as a version of Antoine's 1899 Oysters Rockefeller recipe, pictured here. Interesting to see yet another spin on "history cooking," something that's also happening with Heston Blumenthal's Dinner in London and Grant Achatz's Next in Chicago.

[2]I've seen comparable servings go for $35 in Miami.

[3]We see a lot of Cuban food here in Miami. I have never seen this particular dish at a Cuban restaurant in Miami. On the other hand, I've always understood it to be very common in Mexico. From a little googling, it seems that the notion that this is a Cuban dish may come from a restaurant in New York called Café Habana, where it is listed on the menu as "Grilled Corn Mexican Style." This is a restaurant that also serves such legendary Cuban specialties as taquitos, Baja style fish tacos, and enchiladas. In fairness, it describes its food as "Mexican/Cuban cuisine" and is owned by a fifth-generation New Yorker. Just saying.

[4]The solipsism of which still makes me laugh three years later.


  1. Going to DC in two weeks so this comes in very handy. Thanks!

  2. Damn, you always make me go to the online dictionary. 'Solipsism' Nice to know. Is it an irony to suggest New Yorkers share a collective solipsism?
    As for the Iberico ham... I would wager that Chef K was among the first in South Florida to bring the Bellota in house (tho it was not for the general public). I'll admit that I was not very familiar with it, but when he noticed that it was going to become available in the US, he ordered a leg. We used it for special menus and such instead of on the main menu, but mostly kept it in the back to eat. What an amazing product! I won't divulge the cost of a leg, but let's just say it's unfortunately no longer in our current budget. I do miss it.

  3. I used to live in DC and my go-to Ethopian restaurant was Dukem, at the intersection of 12th and U St. NW. Dukem had as a side dish a whole fried fish (scored, but not breaded), which was delicious. At certain times they had a special vegetarian menu. Usually there was only one waitress there that spoke English well enough to answer any questions, so I never could exactly figure out the timing, but I believe it had something to do with Christmas based on a orthodox calendar.

  4. Thanks for all the San Sebastian information which brought me to your blog, I used to live in DC so thought I'd see what you wrote, on your next visit try 2 Amy's for pizza, once voted second best pizza in US by NY Times and the only (last time I checked) Neapolitan DOC certified pizzeria in the US (www.2amyspizza.com)

  5. 2 Amy's is not the only DOC even in DC, certainly not close to the only one in the US. It's not the best pizzeria anymore in DC either although it is still solid, but nothing spectacular among those who know great pizza. The best is now in Fairfax, northern Virginia and is called Pupatella. That is the place for people in the know. Sadly, no place down here in south florida worth a damn for pizza.