The $20 Diner finds chef-driven restaurants that pass the bar exam


Kung pao sweetbreads at the Green Pig Bistro in Arlington. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 13, 2013

Dining rooms at chef-driven restaurants are for people who want minimal interactions with their server, let alone conversation, as if the diners were monarchs seated at the head of a banquet table rather than paying customers at a two-top. They might even prefer a little bell at their fingertips to ring for prompt attention.

Bars at chef-driven restaurants, by contrast, are for proles, or just the proles at heart — those who want a tiny taste of the high life, but filtered through an extroverted bartender willing to tear down that wall between staff and diner. To say this another way: Bars are often perfect for devout $20 diners looking to sample plates, large or small, from the city’s best chefs and restaurants.

I’m reminded of this fact as I’m staring at a plate of suckling pig croquettes at the bar at Mintwood Place, chef Cedric Maupillier’s juicy little paradox in Adams Morgan: a relaxed bistro with a militant attention to detail. The croquettes are the chef’s vehicle for scrap meats — cheeks, ears, you name it — that some diners might treat like subway vermin if actually identified on the menu. In Maupillier’s hands, however, these four crispy discs are Exhibits A through D, proving again that some of the richest pork flavors do not reside in the loin or shoulder.

The croquettes are paired with corn, fresh and pickled radish and Maupillier’s thin, uncomplicated take on mole (go easy, he’s French), a combination of sweet, salty, sour and savory flavors that trips every pleasure center on the palate. This is fried bar food elevated to haute bistro cuisine. Just as important, it’s only $12, leaving room in the budget for a trio of deviled pickled eggs ($5), these rose-colored ovals piped with a sharp, mustard-laced filling. The eggs are a puckery, pungent, three-chord punk song next to the expansive jam-band musings of the croquettes.

Over at Fiola near Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Fabio Trabocchi serves what one of his bartenders calls an “Italian quesadilla,” which is not a description I would utter in the chef’s presence. Sure enough, Trabocchi’s La Piadina (or “flatbread” in Italian, $16) could pass for something you might see at Uncle Julio’s — well, if Uncle Julio’s served its quesadilla on an elegant wood serving board and each tortilla wedge oozed a small tide pool of creamy stracchino cheese.

The dish is named for the flatbread because the flatbread, despite its flashy fillings of fresh cheese and prosciutto, is the load-bearing foundation wall here; without a quality bread on which to build this gooey snack, the entire dish would collapse on itself, a basic fact often ignored by the Tex-Mex chains with their cheap, cardboardy tortillas. Based on bread from Le Marche, the central Italian region that Trabocchi calls home, the chef’s piadina reminds me more of roti with its tongue-coating richness. When wrapped around its fillings, the flatbread does more than ferry the ingredients; it provides a buttery, crispy, bready counterpoint.

Just the other day, I was trying to explain my affection for kung pao chicken, even the Westernized version with its chunks of wok-seared chicken laced with all kinds of complementary flavors and textures: the friction burn of chili peppers, the fresh green aromatics of scallions, the brooding saltiness of soy sauce and the hard, brittle-like crunch of peanuts. Green Pig Bistro chef and owner Scot Harlan has done the improbable. He’s improved the classic by replacing the protein with veal sweetbreads, these morsels so soft and savory they throw the remaining ingredients into sharp relief, making the heat seem hotter and the crunch crunchier. His kung pao sweetbreads at the cheery Clarendon restaurant may represent the best $14 I’ve spent in months.

Another chef named Scott — this one doubling up on the Ts — is also producing some of my favorite bar snacks. Scott Drewno is author to an ever-evolving izakaya menu for the downstairs lounge at the Source, and I am hopelessly infatuated with his pork belly bao buns. Nestled into a pillowy, slightly sweet steamed bun made by pastry chef Duane Copeland, the pork belly assumes an untamed quality, mostly because it’s braised in a stock built from the bones of three species (chicken, duck, pig) and then lacquered with house-made hoisin sauce. The cooling cucumber, scallion and cilantro garnishes practically serve as animal feed to that slab of belly.

If you pair the pork belly buns ($9 for two) with a serving of tempura green beans ($8), you have (almost) cobbled together dinner without breaking the bank. The battered beans, fried in peanut oil, are no simple side, either: They’re tossed in curry salt and served with pickled-ginger-and-cilantro vinaigrette. Vegetarians take note: The beans are garnished with bonito flakes and finished with a drizzle of eel sauce, an umami booster composed from fish bones.

For value and sheer carnality, however, you need to check out the “steak salad” ($18.99) at Ray’s the Classics in Silver Spring. I put the dish in quotes because if your goal is to eat light at this suburban steakhouse, you’re in for a shock to the system — the digestive system. Ray’s layers on no less than 12 ounces of sliced strip steak over mixed greens. To compound the caloric intake, the salad comes with sauteed mushrooms, grilled red onions, blue cheese crumbles and Parmesan toast points. If you care at this point, the dressing is a balsamic vinaigrette. It’s a salad for people who really want steak.

It’s also a salad served at a bar where no one gives two licks about what you’re eating. Everyone’s too busy knocking back glasses of high-alcohol wine and sharing jokes old enough to make the dead laugh. We laugh anyway because . . . well, refer back to the beginning of this column.

Mintwood Place

1813 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-234-6732.

Dishes: suckling pig croquettes ($12), deviled pickled eggs ($5)

Fiola

601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-628-2888.

Dish: La Piadina ($16)

Green Pig Bistro

1025 N. Fillmore St., Arlington. 703-888-1920.

Dish: kung pao sweetbreads ($14)

The Source

575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-637-6100.

Dishes: pork belly bao bun ($9), tempura green beans ($8)

Ray’s the Classics

8606 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring.
301-588-7297.

Dish: steak salad ($18.99)

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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