New England has a long-standing love affair with maple syrup, but below the Mason-Dixon Line, it’s all about sorghum syrup. Made by boiling down the juice from sorghum cane stalks, the golden liquid has a sweet, earthy flavor that’s been described as molasses without the bite. Chefs and mixologists are fans because sorghum can sweeten the savory, add depth to desserts or bring a twist to a cocktail. No matter how it’s used, sorghum puts a spotlight on Dixieland cuisine. “The South is shining right now,” says Sou’Wester chef de cuisine Eddie Moran. “It has really great food made with these amazing ingredients that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Before Moran was a Washingtonian, he did a culinary tour of duty through the Southern states. During a sojourn in Little Rock, Ark., he was introduced to sorghum when somebody poured it onto a bowl of hot grits. “It reminded me of growing up in California,” he says, “except we used maple syrup on cereal instead.” When Moran moved to D.C., he decided to play around with the amber liquid to see how he could put a spin on it. The result is a duck breast glazed with a gastrique of sorghum, cabernet vinegar, star anise, clove and peach pieces. The dish, above, is topped with a small salad of fresh local peaches, making it an ode to both the season and the South.
Mandarin Oriental, 1330 Maryland Ave. SW; 202-787-6140. (Smithsonian)
When head bartender Alex Strange serves his “Basil” cocktail ($12), he frequently gets asked about the mystery flavor mixed into the high-end aperitif. Discriminating tipplers zero in on the sorghum syrup, which is mixed with muddled cinnamon basil, Smooth Ambler Yearling Bourbon and fiery Fever-Tree ginger beer. “The sorghum imparts a savory element,” Strange says. “It gives the drink a bigger flavor.” The mixologist often has his own question for guests after he’s explained the drink: “Would you like another one?” Yes, please!
Shab Row, 221B N. East St., Frederick, Md.; 301-631-8102.
Joe Palma is obsessed with sorghum. The Westend Bistro’s chef de cuisine is currently putting it to work in dishes both sweet and savory. “I use it any time we need a darker, heavier sugar component,” he says. Diners can get a taste of the syrup in the chef’s barbecued peanuts, below, which are served with the Virginia Ham and Cheese dish ($15, available at the bar only). Palma starts by making a spice mix of black garlic, ancho chilies and guajillo peppers. After the peanuts are coated, he drizzles them in sorghum and pops them in the oven to caramelize. He has also created a sorghum-laced ice cream, which accompanies the big-enough-for-two strawberry and rhubarb cobbler ($10).
Westend Bistro, 1190 22nd St. NW; 202-974-4900.
Opera Ultra Lounge
Sometimes inspiration strikes in the strangest places. Opera’s managing partner, John Alexiades, was at his grandmother’s house developing cocktails for the luxury lounge when he had a “Eureka!” moment. He was looking for maple syrup to offset the bite of the Maker’s Mark bourbon in his test cocktail, but his grandmother had only a bottle of sorghum. “I had no idea what it was,” he admits. “But I immediately liked it because it’s not as bitter as molasses and it has a nice sweetness to it.” Within minutes, Alexiades had developed the Curtain Call ($12), an on-the-rocks stroke of genius that combines sorghum, bourbon, Thatcher’s apple spice ginger liqueur and muddled fresh cherries. Try the sweet and spiced mixture at the venue’s official grand opening, set for Sept. 8.
Opera Ultra Lounge, 1400 I St. NW; 202-289-1400. (McPherson Square)