Let 2014 be the year you resolve to be a more thoughtful, discerning and adventurous diner. Some inspiration, if you please:
TRY A NEW CUISINE
Aquavit-fired cocktails. Buttery, made-from-scratch potato dumplings. Almond cake that tastes as if it were just flown in from Sweden. Domku Bar & Cafe (821 Upshur St. NW; 202-722-7475) is a hybrid kitchen that does Scandinavia and Eastern Europe proud. Feeling down? Czech-style pancakes made with cottage cheese and mashed potatoes, then lavished with a forest of cream-swollen mushrooms, will chase away the blues. Chef-owner Kera Carpenter welcomes vegetarians with a hearty casserole of red peppers, eggplant and onions — ratatouille by way of Georgia (the republic) — and there’s no better beef stroganoff playing in town than the mustard-laced version served here in Petworth. Domku is Polish for “little house.” Carpenter’s recently renovated dining room — 45 seats hugged in brick walls and separated from its bar by a white divider with flower cutouts — is one of the coziest of my acquaintance.
TAKE A PAL TO LUNCH
Treat someone who has been good to you or needs cheering up to a meal out, and make it the Bipartisan Lunch at 701 (701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-393-0701) in Penn Quarter. You’ll look like a generous host, seated in the snazzy, blue-and-brown dining room that’s watched over by dapper hosts and sits just steps away from the National Archives. Yet the deal is a steal: three courses for $25, with a trio of choices within each category. Hot cauliflower soup poured over white cheddar foam, golden raisins and cumin oil makes a fine first impression. Miso- and sake-kissed salmon set on pale green bok choy and fresh water chestnuts proves a substantial follow-up, yet the entree is light enough to keep you from falling asleep back at your desk. This time of year, pumpkin mousse on sponge cake with pistachio custard sauce is the finish that calls to me most. In the room and on the plate, 701 radiates style.
CHECK OUT A NEW ’HOOD
Believe it or not, and despite the ongoing buzz, 14th Street NW is not the only good place to eat in the city. The last quarter of the year has been especially good to food lovers on Capitol Hill, home to the creative American cooking of chef Aaron Silverman at Rose’s Luxury (717 Eighth St. SE; 202-580-8889) and the Capitol Riverfront, host to a menu of housemade pastas in a rustic setting at Osteria Morini (301 Water St. SE; 202-484-0660). Shaw has witnessed an uptick in dining adventures, too. Veteran Washington chef Ron Tanaka puts a sublime spin on even comfort food at Thally (1316 Ninth St. NW; 202-733-3849), where one of the most popular dishes is braised rabbit with buttermilk dumplings, a composition lightened with celery leaves.
REVISIT A VETERAN
A lot of restaurant-goers chase
the new at the expense of the old, sometimes for no other reason than bragging rights on Yelp. I was reminded of the folly of that strategy after dropping by New Heights (2317 Calvert St. NW; 202-234-4110) in Woodley Park recently. Twenty-eight years after it set sail, the second-story retreat remains in the gracious hands of owner Umbi Singh and his wife, Kavita. Takeshi Nishikawa, a former sous-chef at Volt in Frederick, is the most recent in a long line of talented chefs at New Heights. His best dishes nod to his Japanese heritage or personalize a classic: roasted prawns with pickled sea beans on soft polenta, and gremolata-charged veal osso bucco. (The tender meat is set on a potato puree using butter fragrant with hickory smoke.) Gingerbread cake with eggnog ice cream captures the holiday season in every bite; a warm goblet of rye-based gin — you read that right — plus apple cider, Aperol and sweet spices sings the praises of bar maven Nicole Hassoun in the ground-floor Gin Joint. Just ask for her “Flume” ($13), named for an electronic music artist.
Show the folks who sweeten our lives some love. Blue Duck Tavern (1201 24th St. NW; 202-419-6755) features a new pastry chef, and Naomi Gallego says she’s drawing on “feelings of nostalgia and familiarity” for inspiration with confections such as milk chocolate s’mores and a root cake sundae that pairs carrot-sweet potato cake with pineapple-ginger compote and caramel foam. I’m saving the best for last. Bowl of Cereal ($9) is a sophisticated twist on just what you think it is. Trembling panna cotta infused with toasted barley plays the role of the milk; clusters of malted milk crisps and actual Cheerios are bonded with caramelized white chocolate from Valrhona; caramel-cinnamon foam smacks of the Cinnamon Life cereal Gallego says she favors. The chef nails the bowl. “I grew up with three brothers,” she says. “We went through a box, a box-and-a-half, of cereal a morning.”
Do as I say, not as I do. As much as this hired mouth loves restaurants, I regret not spending more time with my stove. When you cook for yourself, you get to decide when to eat, how much to eat and, obviously, what goes onto your plate. At home, you retain more control — you can even graze in your sweats if you choose. Need some inspiration? Few cookbooks make me want to cancel a reservation and pick up a knife more than “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook,” (2002, W.W. Norton & Company), named after what I consider to be the quintessential San Francisco restaurant and written by its muse, Judy Rodgers. The chef died just this month, too young at 57, but her intelligent, nurturing voice and unerring sense of taste live on, thanks to the recipes she left behind. Her famous roast chicken with bread salad has been the star of many a dinner party in my home, but there’s also great comfort to be had in Rodgers’s slow-scrambled eggs flavored with bottarga (dried, salted fish roe) and spooned on hot, dry toast.
We’re all plants that need a little watering. If you like your service, tell the waiter (and follow up with a manager). If the food makes you happy, don’t keep it a secret from the chef. An e-mail to a restaurant can make someone’s day; a written note — something that can grace a bulletin board or be passed around at a staff meeting — is sweeter still.
Next week: Eat the Rich in Shaw.
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