The meal began in a rush of tiny tastes. A chocolate truffle oozed foie gras. New-wave bar snacks—pork rinds in maple syrup, sweet lotus chips in star-anise dust—gave way, in a spray-bottle spritz of mojito, to an endless procession of astonishing bites. What were those specks on pineapple slices that crackled at the back of the mouth?Pop Rocks?Riceless sushi rolls were filled with blue cheese and apple. Cantaloupe juice, treated before us in a chemical bath, became semisolid miniature fruit bombs. Zucchini seeds had the texture of caviar. There were flavored airs, savory jellies, warm foams, hot and cold in the same little cup. "Guacamole" was avocado-enshrouded tomato sorbet. Lobster came next, a plump hunk pierced on a liquid-filled pod ("bite down and squeeze," the menu specified), followed three courses later by "Philly cheesesteak"—a slim two-inch-long hoagie with white-truffle slices and rare Kobe beef.
After three hours and some 35 courses the final creations arrived: saffron-scented gummies, cocoa-dusted corn nuts, and a mentholated cough drop transformed into a wafer-thin after-dinner mint. And the most amazing thing about this dinner?It can be ordered most nights of the week on a once-sketchy block in downtown Washington, D.C.
Spanish chef José Andrés, Washington's answer to Willy Wonka, has built an empire on the once-underestimated promise of the capital palate. His wildly experimental Minibar, where I consumed this cutting-edge feast—six sushi-bar seats at the heart of Café Atlantico, a high-volume restaurant—is but a couture test run for a much more ambitious stand-alone place to open in the near future. And Andrés, of course, is only one chef.
All of a sudden, it seems, our nation's old-boys' meat-and-potatoes club has become one of the most exciting restaurant cities on the Eastern Seaboard. Actually, Washington today is reaping the benefits of a gastronomic coming-of-age that began in the early years of the Clinton White House, when a new generation of chefs began to imbue fine dining with the city's own local character (I cooked at the time as an apprentice chef at then newcomer Citronelle). You'll still find cigar-munching political lifers working back-room deals in dining rooms as entrenched as Ted Kennedy's seat in the Senate, but Washington restaurants, like the politics of this town, are not what they once were.
If there can be said to have been a food revolution in Washington in the last decade, Jeffrey Buben and Robert Kinkead are the two local chefs who began it all. At Buben's Vidalia and Kinkead's namesake restaurant, their hugely popular long-running flagships, the chefs forged for the first time what could truly be called "D.C. cuisine." With the exception of Senate bean soup, the city has few classic specialties to call its own. Buben and Kinkead, starting in the early nineties, looked just beyond the Beltway for ingredients (Maryland seafood, Virginia ham) and inspiration, cobbling together their own sophisticated regional repertoire. They paved the way for a new generation to begin tinkering with local flavors.
Taking up the mantle were chefs like Todd Gray at Equinox (818 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/ 331-8118; www.equinoxrestaurant.com; dinner for two $120), a modestly appointed restaurant one block from the White House. Gray had worked under Roberto Donna, for many years the city's top Italian toque, but embraced more eclectic regional flavors when he set out on his own. The restaurant underwhelms at first glance—the dining room, packed midday with blue-blazered bureaucrats, has all the appeal of a dentist's waiting room (plastic ivy on plastic vines?). But Gray's robust, flavorful food rises above its dated surroundings. Dishes like pan-roasted Chesapeake oysters in a buttery caper-and-pineapple meunière or mustard-sauced bay scallops with grilled frisée are the sort that beg to be sopped up with crusty bread.
Elsewhere, the Buben-Kinkead influence extends to more than just food, inspiring the mixing of homeyness and high-level cuisine. At Palena (3529 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/537-9250; www.palenarestaurant.com; dinner for two $130), a five-year-old spot north of the National Zoo, the very low-key vibe masks some of the city's most heartwarming food. Palena is actually two restaurants in one: in the boisterous front room, house-made hot dogs and a much-lauded burger are the principal draw, while at the hushed tables in back, far more refined globe-trotting creations get the reverence they merit. The duo in the kitchen met while cooking at the Reagan White House, which might explain their versatility. There are detours through Italy (house-cured salumi, pillowy wild boar–dressed gnocchi) and side trips to France (foie gras–squab boudin blanc). One main course featuring pork three ways deliciously combines tastes of Germany (smoked loin), Argentina (chimichurri sauce), and Italy (cotechino sausage) on the same plate.