Winter Getaways in a Bowl
EASY TO DRESS UP OR DOWN, soup is the blue blazer of the kitchen. Chefs like soup because it's a great way to use up leftovers: Last night's surplus roast chicken or grilled salmon can easily be transformed into today's chicken noodle soup or seafood chowder.
Diners like soup because -- well, what's not to like? A bowl of steaming soup makes a great companion on a cold day, and the broth and its contents can be pressed into service as a snack or an entire meal. Avoid cream-based offerings, and you'll find that hot soup, which is best sipped slowly and is quick to fill one up, can be a dieter's best friend.
Soup can also open doors to other worlds. That's what I discovered when I set out to find a few good bowls recently. Without ever stepping foot in the airport, I managed to squeeze in seven mini-vacations from workaday Washington.
GOOD FRENCH ONION SOUP requires the cook's patience. The onions must be cooked slowly, preferably in butter, to bring out their sweetness and achieve the right shade of brown. A proper French onion soup is also best made using a salamander, a type of oven whose heat comes from its roof and is easy on delicate toppings such as cheese -- no one wants a carbonized cover over his soup. That's why I save my hankering for the classic for Bistro Bis (15 E St. NW; 202-661-2700) on Capitol Hill. Chef Joe Harran doesn't rush his recipe ($9.75). He makes his own beef stock, using red wine and roasted vegetables, and he caps the liquid with just enough sliced baguette to support not too much Gruyere and (here's his secret touch) a light grating of Swiss cheese.
THE FISH COUNTER that greets visitors to Blacksalt (4883 MacArthur Boulevard; 202-342-9101) gives them an idea of what to expect should they order the restaurant's Provencal-style seafood stew ($15/lunch only): a mouth-watering tour of the day's catch. Not long ago, that translated into bites of rockfish, big-eye tuna, salmon and branzino -- plus the usual shrimp, clams and mussels -- swimming in a big bowl of broth tinged yellow with saffron, enriched with butter and made tangy with tomato and lemon. There's more: slices of grilled baguette slathered with a pernod-laced aioli. General manager and former chef de cuisine Joseph Zumpano says the sumptuous stew has been on the menu since Blacksalt set sail, and "it's probably our top seller" at lunch. Good news for Rockville diners: The same recipe is dished out at Blacksalt's sister restaurant Addie's (11120 Rockville Pike; 301-881-0081).
AFTER A PISCO SOUR, or two, one of my favorite liquids at Costa Verde (946 N. Jackson St., Arlington; 703-522-6976) is found in a bowl of chupe de camarones ($7.95). The Spanish name suggests shrimp is the featured attraction, and it is. But the seafood gets plenty of company. This being a Peruvian restaurant, there are also chunks of potato. Peas add color; cream lends richness; red chili stokes a gentle fire; and a poached egg in the center of the assembly changes the complexion of the dish -- pierce it with a fork, and out flows a sunny river of warm yolk.
VEGETABLE SOUP. On a brisk day, it's as comforting as a quilt around one's shoulders. Famous Luigi's (1132 19th St. NW; 202-331-7574) has been serving the stuff seemingly forever in its vintage Italian American dining room. At $4.75 a bowl, the price is right. And so is the filling: potatoes, carrots, peas, brown beans and tomatoes, everything swimming in a golden chicken broth that tastes as if someone's Italian mama had a hand in it.
I HAVE TWO PROBLEMS with Joe's Noodle House (1488-C Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-881-5518). One is the inevitable wait for a table. The other is having to decide what not to get on the restaurant's epic menu, which runs to dozens of enticements. You can't go wrong with a bowl of soup, in particular the Szechuan-style beef noodle soup ($5.95). The elixir gets its character from meat broth and chili oil that are both made on site, then is enhanced with spinach, cilantro and the brassy tang of sour cabbage. Whether you like the seasoning to be mild or wild, the kitchen can adjust to your whims, promises owner Audrey Jan. Same thing goes for the noodles: Take your pick from wheat, rice or cellophane. While Jan can't guarantee a free table, she's happy to share the dining room's relative calms before the storms: weeknights from 5 to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m.
GOATS, LOTS OF THEM, graze in the mountains of the Peloponnese, which is the source of inspiration for the robust Greek soup ($18.95) served in the yachtlike interior of Mourayo (1732 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-667-2100) in Dupont Circle. "It's not a No. 1 seller, I can tell you," says owner Natalina Koropoulos. But those who like it, love it. Koropoulos says the kitchen staff saves the bones for her to nibble on. The goat meat is purchased fresh from a butcher in Virginia, cut into cubes and cooked with carrots and celery to produce a lovely stock base. The finished dish is pretty glam: chunks of soft meat bobbing in a clear broth made colorful with bites of asparagus and carrot. Dig deep for a little surprise-- rice in the bottom of the bowl. Meanwhile, a drift of tart yogurt on the surface gives the soup a decidedly Greek accent.
LEMONGRASS STALKS have no immediate aroma. Not until you snap or smash the fibrous herbs do they reveal their heady lemon perfume. In Thailand, lemongrass is thought to be a balm for everything from headaches to a lack of appetite. At tiny Ruan Thai (11407 Amherst Ave., Wheaton; 301-942-0075), its distinctive character lends a bright citrusy note and gingery heat to every bowl of shrimp and lemongrass soup, which gets a head start with chicken stock that chef Krisana Suchotinunt makes herself. The concert of flavors and textures -- helped along by earthy cilantro, soft mushrooms, fish sauce, chili paste and shrimp that is just barely cooked -- adds up to a balanced and intriguing score. Graciously, the kitchen doles out the pleasure in three sizes: small ($3.95), medium ($9.95) and large ($12.95), to suit all manner of hunger and budgets.
To chat with Tom Sietsema online, go to washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.