It's slaw season: Washington chefs put their own spin on the summer staple

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

While mapping out menus during a week-long lake retreat many summers ago, a chef friend and I had no trouble keeping things amicable until the subject of slaw preparation came up. I liked it creamy; she was all about the vinegar and hold the mayo, thank you very much.

After some heated discussion, I gave in and admitted later that her version -- shredded red cabbage and carrots dressed with rice wine vinegar, cilantro, jalapeƱo pepper, scallions and sesame oil -- was quite tasty. I have since changed camps.

That scene came to mind a couple of months ago when someone suggested I try the Singapore Slaw at chef Susur Lee's Zentan restaurant on Thomas Circle.

"It's got 19 ingredients in it," the server gushed, promising that my companion and I would love it. I found the price offputting: $16 for a starter. But we got the slaw anyway, intending to eat just a few bites because we had ordered so much other food.

Out came a wide bowl piled high with ingredients. In the dimly lighted room, it was hard to make out what they all were. I noticed micro greens, colorful flowers, fried rice noodles and what looked like shards of fried onions; shallots, in fact.

After the server poured salted-plum dressing over the stack, we identified cucumbers, carrots, jicama, daikon radish, ginger and toasted sesame seeds; matchsticks of fried taro root were less obvious. Toasted hazelnuts, something I ordinarily dislike, were prominent and strangely pleasant. The crunch, the sweetness and saltiness, the tart ting of the dressing and the sheer mass could have added up to overkill, but instead they blended into blissful harmony. Each bite yielded a different flavor combination, leading me to continue eating the dish long after I wanted to stop, until none remained.

There was no cabbage, the one ingredient most Americans associate with slaw. But a slaw is nothing more than a salad. The word coleslaw is derived from the Dutch "koolsla," meaning cabbage salad. Presumably, Dutch settlers introduced coleslaw to America in the 18th century.

The slaw at Zentan, so extraordinary that it reigns as Lee's signature dish, got me thinking about all the other creative renditions in Washington area restaurants. Inspired chefs are not content just to throw together some mayonnaise, celery seed and slaw mix from a plastic bag; they recognize an opportunity to upgrade burgers, crab cakes and fried chicken by pairing them with side dishes that have depth and pizazz.

Among this season's standouts:

Chef Jeff Tunks's blue cheese coleslaw at Acadiana is mayo-based, with Maytag cheese and green peppers. It is served as an accompaniment to fried catfish and smoked tomato tartare.

Pitmaster Steve Adelson's North Carolina-style coleslaw is zesty, flavored with ketchup, brown sugar and crushed red pepper flakes. "It has a clean taste and no mayonnaise, so that makes it healthier," says Adelson, who serves the slaw alongside the North Carolina-style barbecue he sells on weekends at farmers markets in Kensington and Bethesda.

Chef Steve Mannino's asparagus and carrot slaw at Rustico in Alexandria has peelings of asparagus stalks and carrot dressed with lemon-infused olive oil and lemon juice. He uses the slaw as a bed for fried oysters wrapped with sushi-grade tuna and drizzled with a lemon aioli.

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