Famous chefs and great cooking can lure diners into restaurants, but just as often, it’s the seemingly small stuff that keeps customers coming back for more. Here’s a Valentine to a few of the many personalities and places that make Washington such a sweet spot for those of us who live to eat.
Belly up to the bar (menu)
Every week is Restaurant Week at the sleek Corduroy (1122 Ninth St. NW; 202-589-0699), at least in the upstairs lounge, where the three-course, $30 bar menu remains something of an insider secret four years after being introduced.
Chef Tom Power is a master with soups, evinced by one night’s pumpkin puree enriched with foie gras and prosciutto: liquid gold in every spoon. Entrees range from crackling-skinned duck confit on garlic mashed potatoes to crisp salmon poised on a cake of sushi rice topped with seaweed and pickled lotus. Desserts force tough choices, too. Pistachio bread pudding or chocolate tart with bruleed bananas? Let’s hope there are two of you at the bar, and you’re willing to share.
An under-the-radar chef with a sharp eye and a refined palate, Power launched his meal deal both as a way to fill the bar’s 22 seats and to encourage neighbors to try his stylish cooking for less. (In the beginning, to drum up business, he and his staff tucked postcards under nearby windshield wipers and on doorsteps, a promotional trick the chef picked up from go-go bars.) At the same time, Power says he didn’t want to “cannibalize” his formal restaurant downstairs. Don’t look for an online bar menu, then; you have to show up to read, and enjoy, his cheap thrills.
A case for cloning
No local restaurateur is as much of a presence in his dining rooms as Ashok Bajaj, whose collection of eight restaurants ( Ardeo + Bardeo, Bibiana , Bombay Club , Oval Room, Nopa Kitchen + Bar, Rasika and Rasika West End , 701 ) includes some of the toughest reservations in Washington.
“I go where I’m needed,” says Bajaj, who might drop by the modern Indian Rasika West End to chat up former secretary of state Madeleine Albright or the supper-clubby 701 in Penn Quarter to visit with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
Saying hello to regulars is one thing. Bajaj, who drives himself on his rounds and lives in a suit and tie, makes a point of remembering what many of his guests ate, whom they dined with and the occasion that brought them in. “People appreciate being recognized,” says Bajaj, who typically starts his day checking e-mail at home at 8 a.m. and rarely returns before 10 p.m.
Does this master of ceremonies have a favorite among his hot spots? “I’m happy with all of them,” the diplomat says.
Where less is more
I could easily make a habit out of the grilled trout with green beans and tomato vinaigrette as prepared by the Westend Bistro in the Ritz-Carlton (1190 22nd St. NW; 202-974-4900). The fish, seasoned with espelette pepper, is cooked just the way you ask; the crisp green beans benefit from roasted shallots, balsamic vinegar and a touch of honey; and the vinaigrette, sharpened with tomato paste, ties the deliciousness together.
What makes this frequent diner extra-grateful is the entree’s calorie count, a mere 375. The trout ($27) is a feature of the hotel’s Bistro Light menu; no surprise to takers, the dish is among the top three sellers at lunch, says chef Devin Bozkaya, who works with Ritz-Carlton executive chef Yves Samake, a former spa chef, to come up with the mindful menus.
Their rules for the Bistro Light selections: no butter and no sugar.
That includes dessert. Cheesecake picks up sweetness from orange juice, which is used in both the vanilla-laced ricotta filling and the crust, a combination of crushed walnuts and graham crackers. Even more decadent is the chocolate mousse, fashioned from nonfat yogurt and dark Valrhona Guanaja chocolate. The latter is presented in a glass sphere and what appears to be gold leaf but is in reality a tuile made with dehydrated apricot puree. Who knew 180 calories could look so elegant and taste so wicked?
Pillsbury, move over
At a time when bread baskets are going the way of BlackBerrys, Woodward Table (1426 H St. NW; 202-347-5353) woos guests with Parker House-style rolls that come to the table not just warm, but also brushed with butter and sprinkled with coarse sea salt.
When Woodward Table was still a gleam in Jeff Buben’s eye, he figured the American restaurant needed something iconic to welcome diners. “One bread,” he instructed his team, “but do it well.”
As with the classic recipe, his, taught to him at the Culinary Institute of America, uses egg, butter and milk; unlike the original, these rolls aren’t dipped in butter or folded over in the pan. Still, the result is feather-light, fragrant with yeast — and irresistible.
As with the breads at Buben’s other establishments, the Southern-themed Vidalia and the French-accented Bistro Bis, the Parker House-style rolls are thoughtfully served “one per person, plus one for the table.” Woodward Table bakes its signature twice a day, serving between 500 to 1,000 rolls in that time.
“You want to make me happy?” asks Buben. “Put hot bread on the table.”
That makes a million of us.
The staff at the Inn at Little Washington (309 Middle St., Washington, Va.; 540-675-3800) prides itself on turning the mundane into the magical. Hence the garden tours offered to guests who show interest and the menus personalized with the name of the celebrants.
Even the water service at chef Patrick O’Connell’s four-star dining destination is distinguished: Glasses are filled simultaneously. “It’s a bonus,” the director of dining service, Neil O’Heir, says of the synchronized ballet, which was instituted about a decade ago. “The key to it all: It doesn’t looked practiced.”
Fast food with flair
As everyone who has sunk their teeth into the hamburger or fried chicken at Central Michel Richard (1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-626-0015) can attest, few chefs glam up the basics as memorably as Michel Richard. Even his chopped salad, bright with fresh basil, is leagues better than the same-old.
On a recent visit to the downtown bistro, I was tickled to spot a hot dog in the mix. At $14, it’s clearly not what you’d find on the street. But the “Roosevelt Island” hot dog exudes a master’s touch. The house-made beef sausage snaps; the house-baked bun fits the link like a glove. There’s chow-chow instead of neon-green relish, fine squiggles of Dijon mustard on the sausage and french fries — cut by hand — to the side.
The bonus: a linen napkin to wipe up any ketchup stains.
Coming in the Food section Feb. 12:
The staff writes love letters to carbs, butter, an old refrigerator and more.