In our youth, some dishes taste so wrong they prejudice us against all others that come after. It’s a kind of intellectually dishonest scapegoating aimed at an entire class of foods, even though we’ve had bad encounters with only a few. For me, I hate meatloaf, every last one of those pan-formed blocks that I just know will smack of ground beef stretched thin with bottled ketchup, brown sugar and boxed bread crumbs.
I can’t remember that last time I ordered meatloaf. And there it was on the menu at Crimson Diner in Chinatown, its basic description providing no evidence that it was anything other than another insufferable beef cake. I sighed. I confessed to my friend how much I resented its presence. The dish could not be ignored. Not in a diner-themed restaurant. Not by a critic with any conscience. Sometimes I hate my job.
What appeared before me didn’t look like any meatloaf I’ve had before. Loosely formed and bejeweled with inlays of carrot, pepper and other vegetables, this version had an air of French country pâté, though without an ounce of pork or a drop of cognac. Smothered with a sauce coaxed from beef stock and pureed vegetables, the meatloaf did something I thought previously impossible: It shattered a bias. I am free to cultivate an affection for meatloaf.
“Meatloaf is the crudest form of pâté,” says Lawrence DiJoseph, the journeyman chef behind Crimson. “It is a very country-style American pâté.”
DiJoseph is my kind of chef. Born into a family with more than 100 years of food-service wisdom wedged into its psyche, DiJoseph nonetheless decided to attend the Culinary Institute of America and join the ranks of professional pan slingers. He’s cooked at some demanding kitchens, including Kinkead’s, under the Beard Award winner Bob Kinkead in Washington, and Picholine, under the decorated Terrance Brennan in Manhattan. DiJoseph is steeped in French classical cooking.
If a young DiJoseph was trying to put distance between himself and his family’s gastronomic history, the chef, now 49, has come to embrace his past. He speaks fondly of his great aunt, Sissy Cady, who worked as a pastry chef at the White House in the 1920s. She was known for her Charlotte Russe, an elaborate Victorian-era molded dessert. He can rattle off all the elements of his grandfather’s deli in Alexandria even though the place closed before he was born. He has practically memorized the DiJoseph Family Heirloom Cookbook, a prized possession that’s circulated only among the cooks in his clan.
Crimson Diner, tucked into the purposely cramped Pod D.C. hotel (suggested motto: Get Outta Here!), is a distillation of DiJoseph’s many influences, which is why you can slice into an American meatloaf that goes down like French country pâté. The Southern-themed diner is one of several concepts operated by the restaurateur brothers Eric and Ian Hilton inside the Pod; there is also a subterranean whiskey bar and a rooftop oyster bar, all under the watch of DiJoseph and his sizable crew. I suspect they don’t sleep as much as the guests at the hotel.
For my purposes, I focused only on the diner and its adjoining cafe, a 110-seat space that looks like a hotel bar as designed by Edward Gorey. It’s also a place where a few dishes can trace their history back to specific members of DiJoseph’s extended family. Take Pap’s pimento cheese: The recipe comes from the father (Pap himself) of the wife of DiJoseph’s nephew, who happens to be Brendan L’Etoile, chef at Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown. The silky Southern spread works better slathered on a thin housemade potato chip than sandwiched between slices of white bread, all buttered and golden. My grilled pimento cheese sandwich, while slammable enough, was served on a decorative plate spotted with pools of separated cheese spread that had escaped the bread — and continued to flee with each bite.
DiJoseph tucks a love letter to Whitlow’s tavern into his club sandwich. The middle slice of bread in the double-decker sandwich is a toasted wedge of wheat, a nod to the preparation at the original Whitlow’s in downtown Washington for many years. The homage is so subtle I didn’t even notice it until DiJoseph pointed it out. I was too busy appreciating the craftsmanship — the smoky turkey, the firm slices of Swiss, the thin layer of Duke’s mayo — of a sandwich often treated like a reject from another era.
If you see any mention of fried oysters on the menu, order the dish immediately. The oyster po’ boy features a roll overstuffed with bivalves coated in cornmeal and three other flours, each one a crusty little cake that bursts with juices from the sea. The oysters are complemented with a neat row of pickles and a tidewater tartar sauce, a creamy concoction that hides a shock of pepper heat. The same fried oysters grace the bayou eggs Benedict on the breakfast menu, available any time of day. The dish would benefit from more Crystal hot sauce Hollandaise, but you’ll probably have to eat the whole dish — and lick the plate clean — to come to that conclusion.
A kitchen burdened to prepare so many plates is bound to fumble a few. The shrimp and grits, with its creamy mound of stone-ground grains from Wade’s Mill in Virginia, couldn’t rise above the rubbery shellfish sprinkled with blackened shards of Tasso ham. The pickled deviled eggs, each one sporting a pork-rind hood ornament, are too acidic by half, while the mashed Yukon Gold potatoes are a leaden mass.
Sometimes the service can leave a poor taste in your mouth, too, like the waiter who repeatedly called me “boss,” as if he took the relationship between server and tipping customer a little too seriously. Of course, it’s all so easy to bury these irritations in a buttery biscuit, at once crusty and pillowy, or in a fat slice of Dee-Dee’s caramel Bundt cake, a dessert that practically defines old-school comfort.
Would it surprise you to learn that Dee-Dee is DiJoseph’s paternal grandmother, and that her recipe was lifted straight from the family cookbook? I didn’t think so.
627 H St. NW, 202-847-4459, crimson-dc.com.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to midnight Friday; 8 a.m. to midnight Saturday; and 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown, with a short walk to the diner.
Prices: $5 to $16 for breakfast dishes; $9 to $24 for burgers, sandwiches and dinner plates.