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.