The potpie, as most of us know it — frozen by Swanson — was not always so humble. Before the company made the pastry-encased entrée convenient in 1951, the dish was a from-scratch showcase of local ingredients and a baker’s skills. Similar to its predecessors the English meat pie and the French savory tart, the casserole-sized creation was to be admired and devoured by the entire family. “Growing up, every couple weeks [Mom would make] a potpie,” says Dennis Marron, the former executive chef at Jackson 20 (who created the eatery’s chicken potpie). “It’s one of those go-to meals. It warms the soul a little.” Induce comfort with these elaborate nods to the potpie we used to dig into.
After failing to sell Occidental’s upscale clientele on chicken potpie two years ago, executive chef Rodney Scruggs is worried his Rabbit Pot Pie ($15) may not fare too well either. (The dish is an off-the-menu lunch special for now.) It’s not that the mixture of tender strips of rabbit with pieces of parsnip, celery root, carrot, pearl onion, turnip, garlic and potato swimming in thyme-infused braising liquid isn’t flavorful. “You don’t get a lot of people that want to go with that comfort type of food at a fine dining [establishment],” Scruggs says. “I think potpie is one of the American classics. So it’s fitting to have it on the menu here. The restaurant dates back to 1906.”
Occidental, 1475 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-783-1475 . (Metro Center)
At Bourbon Steak, it’s not love at first sight when Michael’s Lobster Pot Pie ($68, right) arrives tableside with its dark brown puff pastry casing. Be patient. Desire builds as the waiter performs a plating feat that takes about one week to perfect, according to executive chef Adam Sobel. First, the pie’s top is transferred to a platter. A 2-pound lobster (in pieces with its shell intact) is arranged on top of the dough. Turnips, shiitake mushrooms, celery, pearl onions, baby leeks and a brandied lobster cream sauce follow the shellfish. “Potpie has been made into a convenience food, so people don’t put in the effort,” Sobel says. “It may not seem like it, but even with the prep work, it’s a simple thing to do. And who doesn’t love a good potpie?”
Bourbon Steak, 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-944-2026. (Foggy Bottom)
“There’s something distinctly American and comforting in the way we think about potpie,” says Jeff Tunks, chef and owner of District Commons. “I grew up in a single household with a working mother. I’ve had my share of Swanson’s pies, and at some point, I’d imagine everyone has.” Tunks’ Roasted Vegetable Pot Pie ($13), an aromatic lunch and dinner option, is an array of vegetables — celery root, sweet potato, butternut squash, oven-cured tomato, green beans and honey mushrooms — drenched in a porcini mushroom stock and topped with a piece of puff pastry. Even carnivores “can eat this with a nice glass of red wine and be satisfied,” Tunks says.
District Commons, 2200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-587-8277. (Foggy Bottom)
Marron may have left Jackson 20 to head up the kitchen at its sister restaurant Poste Modern Brasserie, but his Chicken Pot Pie ($24) stayed behind. In a clever take on the meal, a freestanding tart shell is filled with warm chunks of chicken, celery, onion, carrot, parsnip, rutabaga and celery root. To add a “different texture and flavor,” a rectangle of puff pastry covers the creation. When asked how the imaginative foundation holds up against the moist filling without crumbling, Marron only grins. “That was a little tricky,” he says. “I’ll just say my pastry department hated me for that one.”
Jackson 20, 480 King St., Alexandria; 703-842-2790. (King Street)
If you need a quick fix, Daniel O’Brien suggests you stop by Seasonal Pantry. The co-owner of the market, which sells high-quality prepackaged foods, says his Oyster Pot Pie ($12-$15) will make you “swear Mom or Grandma just came to the house.” Depending on market availability, the former sous-chef (at Bibiana and Equinox) uses parsnips, celery and turnips to complement Rappahannock oysters, a secret sauce and a buttery pie crust. Ingredients aside, “potpie just makes so much sense,” O’Brien says. “For us Americans, it’s [satisfying] like a meatloaf sandwich the day after.”
Seasonal Pantry, 1314½ 9th St. NW. (Mount Vernon)
Chef Michel Richard’s Personal Recipe for Mussel Cauliflower Pot Pie (Serves 4)
3 lbs mussels, cleaned, scraped with knife, beard removed- keep in cold water
4 shallots, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 cup white wine, sauvignon blanc
1/2 cup cream
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons flour
1 lbs cauliflower, green leaves cut off, any brown parts removed with knife
4 oz peas, frozen, blanched
4 oz Swiss cheese, shredded
Salt and pepper
For potpie pastry:
1 box frozen puff pastry, defrosted
1 egg, beaten (egg wash)
In a large pot, combine mussels, thyme, white wine, shallots, garlic, salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil. Add cream. Cook until the mussels are opened. Remove from heat. Remove the mussels from the broth and the shells, and place in a bowl and cover.
Strain the mussel liquid to another pot. Mix together the olive oil and flour, and add to the pot. Bring to a boil for 1 minute. Add additional salt and pepper to taste.
Grate the cauliflower using the largest holes of a cheese grater. Place the cauliflower bits into the steam basket and steam until tender, approximately 8 minutes. Remove from heat.
Transfer the cauliflower to the mussel sauce, and mix together.
Take the defrosted puff pastry and cut 4 discs, the same size as the 5-inch ceramic bowls that you will use for the potpie. Place the cut puff pastry discs on a cookie sheet. Prick each of the tops 20 times with a fork, and then brush with the egg wash. Bake the disks at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.
While the puff pastry is baking, take 4 ceramic baking dishes, and divide the cream of cauliflower mixture evenly among the bowls. Place the mussels evenly on top. Sprinkle the peas over the mussels, then top each with the shredded Swiss cheese. Warm in the oven at 325 degrees for 15 minutes.
Remove the mussel dishes from the oven. Immediately before serving, place the puff pastry on top of each dish. Bon appétit.