A surprise only to those who haven’t tried it, the finest Indian food in the country seduces with its spices in a city that’s home to just over 650,000 residents — and 2,000 restaurants. Downtown, the most daring example of avant-garde cooking this side of the Atlantic is yours, starting at $250 a head. And a 10-minute cab ride away awaits the spot Bon Appétit called the best new restaurant in the United States — not bad for a place that makes all but the First Family stand in line for a chance at a table.
For some of you, the aromas from all three kitchens linger right under your noses. Rasika, Minibar by José Andrés and Rose’s Luxury, respectively, reside in Washington, the final stop on my national tour to determine the 10 best food cities in America, which I will rank later this month.
When I began the high-calorie survey, starting with Charleston, S.C., in April, I wasn’t sure whether the city I call home would earn a place on the list. Now, having spent a week or more each in San Francisco, Chicago, Portland (Oregon), Philadelphia, New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles and Houston, plus a few other cities that didn’t make the cut, I have no doubt that the nation’s capital deserves to be on the roster. The sentiment springs from neighborhoods that have recently blossomed into food destinations (Petworth, Shaw, H Street NE in the District and the Mosaic District in Fairfax) and, this year alone, a flurry of impressive restaurant launches that have made headlines outside the Beltway.
Turn in your foodie badge if you haven’t heard about the debuts of Convivial, the Dabney, Maketto and Masseria — served to Washingtonians by homegrown talent — or the two fresh suburban Chinese restaurants from cult chef Peter Chang. At the same time, established players are tempting diners with new tastes. After well-considered makeovers, the French-leaning Marcel’s and the Asian-inspired Source, among other top brands, are performing at their peak.
Thrilling eats, at all price points and in all quadrants, are a large part of what makes Washington such an enticing food destination right now. Lucrative, too, with restaurants projected to ring up an astounding $3 billion in sales this year in the District alone. But our treasures aren’t limited to what’s on the plate.
Nowhere else, for instance, is there a José Andrés, hailed three years ago by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people. (Name another chef who makes the country’s best paella, teaches cooking at Harvard and races to trouble spots around the world to feed the vulnerable.) Only Washington has an Ashok Bajaj, the courtly, highly industrious owner of eight good-to-great restaurants, all of which he visits to greet guests every day, setting a sterling example for hosts across the nation. Johnny Monis is the lone chef of my acquaintance to ace both contemporary Greek and northeastern Thai with Komi and Little Serow, respectively. Worlds and price ranges apart, both restaurants enjoy four-star recognition. And in the District’s back yard, no less an authority than British wine maven Jancis Robinson has sipped Virginia wines and dubbed some “thrillingly good,” comparing the output of RdV Vineyards in Delaplane to the nectars of Bordeaux.
I’m including Washington on my list despite its singular disadvantage compared with the other cities I visited: Because I cover the District and its environs on a weekly basis, I’m as familiar with its weaknesses as its strengths. But this exercise has me more convinced than ever that many of those frailties — including our expense-account-steakhouse and “power lunch” obsessions — have more to do with an obsolete reputation and myopic reviews from national media than with reality. Some argue the city has no culinary identity; 15 years ago, the closest thing Washington had to a signature dish, according to The Post Magazine, was a half-smoke, famously featured at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street NW. I counter that Washington, a mighty global metropolis, is a melting pot of well-seasoned ideas, and has been for a long time. (The finest Chinese restaurant ever in this country: arguably Sichuan Garden, the ’80s-era showpiece staffed by Chinese master chefs.)
Washington will forever be linked to power and status, but the days when where you sat was more important than what you ate are blessedly long gone.
The chef credited with having put a fusty Washington on the food map, Jean-Louis Palladin, died too young at age 55 in 2001. He’d left France in 1979 — the youngest chef ever to win two Michelin stars — to helm a restaurant in the Watergate hotel. Right from the start, the rangy Gascon native had observers on the edge of their seats.
In a novel move at the time, when the chef of Jean-Louis couldn’t find ingredients he liked, he introduced himself to conscientious farmers and growers, going on to sing their praises to his peers and having servers announce them as the sources of his delicacies. A Frenchman was swooning over American lamb and scallops! (Among Palladin’s underlings was a 20-something cook named Eric Ripert, who went on to open what may be the most acclaimed seafood restaurant in the country, Le Bernardin in New York.)
“He made my career,” says another institution, Phyllis C. Richman, who covered the dining landscape as food critic for The Washington Post for nearly 24 years, from the nouvelle cuisine era to the dawn of the locavore movement. “He put me on a different playing field.” In a 1985 review of the establishment, she praised the restaurant thus: “If Jean-Louis were in Paris, New York or Tokyo, its star would shine no less brightly.” During the Reagan administration, word had it that the White House sent out for the restaurant’s passionfruit sorbet.
Veteran Washington baker Mark Furstenberg recalls “a freshness to the menu” at Jean-Louis at the Watergate: ingredient-based food and high-style arrangements before those notions were popular. “He loved life so much,” says Furstenberg. “And he gave other people a lot of fun.” Another of Palladin’s talents was bringing together colleagues, young and old, from across the spectrum. “He created a fraternity of chefs,” remembers Ann Brody, an excutive tastemaker at the late Sutton Place Gourmet. “He wasn’t competitive with them.”
After his Washington jewel closed, in 1996, Palladin blazed yet another trail when he opened Napa in the Rio Suite Hotel in Las Vegas — the first world-class chef to see potential amid casinos in the desert.
The master’s influence lives on at the James Beard Foundation, which offers grants in his name to help working chefs learn about ingredents at their source.
Washington loves its liquids, no surprise for a city stocked with nearly 200 foreign embassies, a penchant for home entertaining and “a high-stress environment,” says restaurateur Todd Thrasher, who notes that his audience tends to change, as administrations can, every four years. A fluids pioneer best known for introducing the speak-easy PX in Alexandria almost a decade ago, he’s poised to open a contemporary tiki bar and rum distillery on the redeveloping Southwest waterfront in 2017.
When it comes to wine, drinkers don’t have far to go to sip some local prizes. In less than 45 minutes, Washingtonians can find themselves in some of the best vineyards in the country, in Virginia — “closer than San Francisco to Napa or Sonoma,” teases chef Andrés. In an email from across the pond, Robinson, the wine authority, writes, “I love that the Virginia wine industry enjoys such enthusiastic local government support and find it difficult to think of a parallel anywhere — other than the Chinese province of Ningxia!”
We knock back the hard stuff with gusto, too. The data miners at Yelp, the online review site, report a 76 percent increase in the number of cocktail bars in Washington, based on consumer and business posts, in just the past two years. (On a recent Wednesday night, reports Thrasher, his 30-seat PX shook and stirred a record-breaking $6,000 worth of drinks.) Three of the city’s more personal watering holes are block mates in Shaw owned by Derek Brown, a leader in the classic cocktail movement: Mockingbird Hill, a slip of a sherry-and-ham retreat; Eat the Rich, emphasizing seafood; and Southern Efficiency, touting whiskey and lunch-counter fare. “My brain, my stomach, my heart,” says Brown, distinguishing the trio. Compared with bar scenes in other cities, he says, “we punch above our weight class.”
That dripping noise? It’s probably coming from one of Washington’s top-quality roasters, including Qualia in Petworth and Vigilante in Hyattsville, plus shops and baristas whose wares and skills would look at home on the West Coast.
No sooner did my annual collection of favorites roll out last year than my counterpart at Washingtonian magazine took me to task, chastising me in an essay for not including more suburban restaurants.
“What’s Missing From the Washington Post Dining Guide?” screamed the headline. “A Lot.”
Todd Kliman was therefore the first person I invited to tag along on a tour of eateries outside the District, specifically Northern Virginia, where some of our mutual interests lie. I met Kliman at Vigilante, near his Maryland home, for a bracing espresso and an update on the immediate area, where neighbors can find a Chipotle-style Indian treat (Spice 6) and Jamaican meat patties that taste of the tropics (Shortcake Bakery). A home-grown roaster known for its careful sourcing of beans, Vigilante is one of several signs of a percolating food pocket just outside the District. Celebrity chef Mike Isabella is planning to extend his Greek-themed brand, Kapnos, to nearby College Park, and pizza guru Ruth Gresser is eyeing a summer 2016 roll-out for another Pizzeria Paradiso, alongside the Arts Work Studio School in Hyattsville.
Kliman and I count ourselves fans of Ethiopian food, a cuisine he knows, having researched it in its homeland, and a style of cooking I’ve been familiar with in this country for decades. (Ethiopians represent the largest African immigrant population in the District; the epicenter for their restaurants has shifted over the decades from Adams Morgan to Shaw and now Silver Spring.) So off we Uber to Enat in Alexandria, its tan interior a shade of injera, the floppy and tangy bread that does double duty as a utensil in Ethiopia.
I invite my fellow critic to do the ordering: a vegetable sampler, yebeg wat (bone-in lamb in a cloak of warm spices) and kitfo, a good test of an Ethiopian restaurant. The last dish, chopped beef, is similar to steak tartare but splashed with clarified butter spiced with coriander and mitmita, a rust-colored powder made racy with bird’s-eye chili peppers and warm with cloves. Kliman gives the injera a nod: “I like the laciness” of the edges of the crepe, made partly with the pricey grain called teff. We rip off pieces of the bread and use them as scoops to make a dent in the kaleidoscope of green (collards), gold (lentils) and red (beets) as well as a ruddy, buttery mound of beef, all served on a platter the size of a hubcap.
As we break bread (Washington politics at work!) I ask Kliman how Ethiopian food tastes in Ethiopia. “Chicken is stringier” but also free-range and more flavorful, he says. Some injera packs so much flavor, you could eat it plain on its home turf. And as vivid as the spicing can be in this country, it’s a “string quartet” compared to the “symphonic” notes he experienced overseas, where the fresh spices don’t travel far. Although he’s previously had sharper cooking at Enat, he still gives today’s spread a thumbs up. Enat means “mother” in Amharic. The comforting food lives up to the billing.
Time for something light: Rice Paper, one of dozens of Asian retreats in the Eden Center, the sprawling shopping mall in Falls Church known as “Little Saigon.” “White people have discovered it,” says Kliman, surveying the cheerful dining room, “but there are still lots of Vietnamese here.” It’s just after noon on a Monday, but we still have to wait for a table. Patience pays off in an herby salad of baby clams and pork nestled in a sail of a sesame rice cracker, and a clay pot bubbling with peppery caramel pork. Although the food is the sort that encourages lingering, and our conversation in the snug space prompts a neighbor to ask, “Are you a food critic?,” we peel off for the flavors of another country, Kogiya in nearby Annandale, which we agree makes the region’s best Korean barbecue.
We’re shown to a low table with a built-in grill and drawers containing metal chopsticks. Already waiting for us are a party of gratis salads and other side dishes that all but make the table disappear. Familiar with the menu, we ask for a crisp seafood pancake and crescent-shaped steamed dumplings to start, and kalbi (short ribs) and pork belly to follow. As the meat sputters over the heat, the air is perfumed with garlic and chilies: Seoul in a snapshot.
Kliman is most curious about the status of Saba, a Yemeni outpost in Fairfax that his magazine championed earlier this year as one of the area’s Top 25 cheap eats. He doesn’t even have to taste the haneeth, braised lamb on a bed of rice, to see it’s missing the attention of the chef-owner. Among other disappointments is the rice, each grain of which swelled with the flavor of lamb when the critic first sampled the dish, but which now induces a yawn. Crestfallen, my comrade in eating apologizes to a sympathetic listener (hey, restaurants change), a conversation that leads to a larger question: What does Washington lack?
A clear identity, “a sense of it-ness sometimes,” says my dining companion, who grew up in Greenbelt, Md. Trends and movements don’t start in Washington, Kliman says, and in contrast with, say, New York, San Francisco or even Charleston, “when visitors step off a plane or train in D.C., I don’t think even their second thought is, “Where will I eat?’ ”
A new generation of chefs is determined to answer the question.
Washington basks in fast food done right, evinced by home-grown chains including Beefsteak, Cava Mezze, Five Guys, Sweetgreen and ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, the last an idea from Chipotle’s Steve Ells that was born in the District. All either have spread nationally or are poised to.
Washington revels in personal statements, too, be it Jeremiah Langhorne promoting Mid-Atlantic cuisine at the fledgling Dabney or Eric Zeibold, chef of the late four-star CityZen, rethinking fine dining at soon-to-open Kinship (and later, Métier).
Washington respects the past, sometimes by tweaking it: The Taiwanese chicken piled on a half-baguette at hipster Maketto pays homage to the fried fish heaped on a slice of white bread at the soulful Horace and Dickies on H. Street NE, says chef Erik Bruner-Yang.
“We are not one thing, but so many things at once,” says Andrés.
Kliman has the same thought when he describes our afternoon adventure — and the city’s best asset — by saying, “D.C. is a blend of everything.”
As full as my lunch-easing-into-dinner date and I are, neither of us wants to be the one to cut short the moving feast, so we mentally loosen our belts and forge on to Ravi Kabob in Arlington, where we manage to knock back a few bites of juicy skewered beef and yogurt-marinated chicken, both singed from the grill and served with fragrant rice and naan warm from the tandoor. Then it’s back to my house in Washington, where two like minds do the only sensible thing: divvy up our abundant leftovers, souvenirs from a trip around the world in a day.
Tenth in a monthly series