You’re really here for the cooking, a marriage of Greek and Italian flavors that reflects chef Tony Chittum’s interests (his wife is Greek) and relies heavily on wood fires (the kitchen sports two chimneys). One recent afternoon inside, I spooned into a warm cauliflower soup with a gloss of curry oil and the faint crunch of almonds and capers, an elegant rib-sticker followed by juicy cumin-laced lamb keftedes served with spicy-sweet tomato jam. Days later, I was back for dinner on the patio, where the obvious pasta to get was spinach-green tortellini stuffed with cabbage and balanced with sliced apple and pecorino. The combination’s light wash of ham-infused butter signaled an encouraging trend among forward-thinking chefs: meat used as a garnish rather than centerpiece.
1734 N St. NW. 202-524-5202. irongaterestaurantdc.com. Sharing plates $11 to $20.
Washington’s lone Swiss restaurant is good for a lot of things, not the least of which is a back room with a peaked ceiling that basically places diners in a rustic chalet. A nip in the air sends me to Stable for fondue, sales of which double in autumn and winter, says Silvan Kraemer, co-owner of the cozy roost with chef and fellow Swiss native David Fritsche.
There may be no finer melted cheese in the city than the bubbling pot of Vacherin and both young and aged Schlossberger, similar to Gruyere. Wine and garlic add tang and heft to the blend, which is served with house-baked white bread and the options of pickles, potatoes, apples and Brussels sprouts.
Kraemer advises dipping bread in a glass of kirschwasser before sticking the bite in the cheese. “It gives you that extra burst of flavor, and also helps with digestion.” Rather than mop the pot clean with bread, consider letting a crust form on the bottom. Known as la religieuse in French-speaking Switzerland, it’s considered a delicacy. Just lift out the crisp lace, break it apart and share the goodness, if you’re so inclined. Kraemer prefers cracking a few eggs in the pot, and scrambling them with the last bit of cheese.
I’m not stuck on just fondue, for which Stable goes through upward of 120 pounds of cheese per week. (An additional 45 pounds makes its way to the reservation-only raclette experience, for a minimum of four people. ) Plenty else makes me glad to sit on a banquette cushioned with Swiss Army blankets and surrounded by details small and large that evoke a kinder, gentler place. (Reclaimed barn doors make for handsome restrooms.) I’m also a fool for the dense red landjager sausages; blushing venison shored up with red cabbage and squiggly dumplings; charming Swiss wines; and vodka-preserved summer cherries for dessert. Splashed with Grand Marnier and set aflame at the table, they end the night with a lovely light show.
1324 H St. NE. 202-733-4604. stabledc.com. Dinner entrees $20 to $35.
When you serve a single dish, it should be perfect. The likely line of soup lovers trailing from the service counter at this long-tenured Vietnamese storefront signals that the signature dish at Pho 75 is worth however long a diner has to wait for a table.
Not long, it turns out, not even on busy weekends. Pho is fast food made with considerable care: long-simmered, consomme-clear, fragrant-with-star-anise beef noodle soup. Given that the bowl brims with a choice of meat — make mine shaved eye of round, springy meatballs and slippery tendon — and add-ins including fresh herbs and bean sprouts, the regular size pho is plenty for this fan.
Some tips for novices: Eat the soup with chopsticks in one hand, a spoon in the other. Be sure to taste the broth before adding any condiments. (I stick to a squeeze of lime and some torn Thai basil.) Slurping is expected, and when the noodles are gone, lift the bowl to your mouth and knock back the remaining broth: restoration for less than a Hamilton.
Arlington is home to the original no-frills vendor, which has grown over the years to include branches in Falls Church, Herndon, Rockville, Langley Park and even Philly. More pho for more people! Sounds … perfect.
1721 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-525-7355. pho75.restaurantwebexpert.com. Regular bowl $7.95, large bowl $8.95.
Chez Billy Sud
Brendan L’Etoile says his model French onion soup starts with sweet yellow onions, cooked slowly over low heat, with browning coming just toward the end. To retain the texture of the onion, “I don’t caramelize aggressively,” says the chef of Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown.
As for the broth, its depth of flavor comes from roasted chicken and duck bones, along with madeira, fresh thyme and black peppercorns. To finish, a molten cap of Gruyere, which L’Etoile likes for its nutty funk and “stringiness.” After the bowl is plucked from the restaurant’s 600-degree broiler, the soup is allowed to rest, ensuring the crust sets up and the broth goes from blistering to merely hot.
Which is an épique explanation for why you want to order the classic comfort as the meal-in-a-bowl is whipped up here, one of the dreamiest interiors around. There’s linen on the tables, flattering illumination, mint-colored walls and a coffered ceiling. Did I mention the old-fashioned is bold with Armagnac, the skin of the duck confit shatters like glass and the waiters go about their duties with breezy efficiency? Really, the only reason you know you’re not in Paris is because everyone around you is speaking anglais.
1039 31st St. NW. 202-965-2606. chezbillysud.com. Dinner entrees $24 to $38.
Hot Pot Legend
You can’t see inside, because the windows are fogged up. Hot pot has that kind of effect on a place. So it’s not until we’re through the door of Hot Pot Legend, an import from China, that things become clear, so to speak.
The staff strives to make you at home. “Never been?” a manager asks a dining companion. Practically before he can respond, my friend is whisked through a gantlet of food stations. One minute, the manager is whipping up a sauce based on my pal’s preferences (“Sesame oil? Cilantro? Garlic? A touch of sugar?”). The next, my friend is tasked to name a choice of broth (there are eight, including a lip-numbing Sichuan base) and declare meat and seafood preferences. There are nearly two dozen, from marinated beef and shaved lamb to sliced fish and clams.
But wait, there’s more! What looks like the produce aisle of a grocery store displays another two dozen or so possible additions to your hot pot. Picture bins of baby bok choy, shrimp balls, pumpkin slices, sundry noodles and … is that Spam? Sure is. The takeaway: Hot pot is very accepting.
And DIY. Burners on the tabletops let diners adjust the heat of their creations throughout the meal. Any questions? Patrolling servers are happy to advise on cooking times and flavor combinations, fetch another beer and comment on the sight of customers who are so busy cooking and slurping, conversation is put on mute. Looking at two happy campers, our server observed, “A silent meal is a good meal.”
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