D.C. Food Scene
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D.C. Food Scene

David Nicolas "Il Mosaico," a crudo of ahi tuna and Hawaiian nairagi, at Maestro at the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner, outside the city David Nicolas
Where do D.C. heavyweights head to seal the deal?From Capitol Hill to the Penn Quarter—and just beyond the Beltway— Washington's dining scene has come of age.

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.

THE LOCALS

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.


THE ICON

Some 28 years ago Frenchman Yannick Cam gave
Reaganites the glamour they craved. At Le
Pavillon, the city's introduction to nouvelle cuisine, Cam
sent out diminutive, painterly portions that became all the
rage. After the restaurant closed, in 1990, the eccentric
Cam bounced between kitchens before vanishing from the
scene altogether. In 2004, the city's most iconic
French chef made his splashy return just steps from the
Mall. Le Paradou (678 Indiana Ave. NW; 202/347-6780;
www.leparadou.net; dinner for two $110
), his
big-deal new place, has the sort of starched-shirt
formality that's gone out of vogue of late. The spare,
spacious dining room is among the city's most attractive,
swaddled in pale blond wood and featuring a Robert
Custer glass sculpture. Beneath a ceiling sparkling
with tiny faux stars, beautiful dishes emphasize
old-fashioned French flavors using a modern, light touch.
One oversize plate frames a checkerboard of dramatically
sauced girolle mushrooms under garlic-infused
escargot; on another, scallops and sea bass dance
round a spattered puddle of bouillabaisse-channeling bright
yellow sauce.

THE OLD-TIMER

Citronelle (3000 M St. NW; 202/625-2150;
www.citronelledc.com; dinner for two $170
) is by
now an institution, a restaurant mentioned in the same
breath as many of the country's finest. A few years after
opening it in Georgetown as an outlying appendage of
his Los Angeles–based Cal-French empire, chef Michel
Richard ditched the West Coast to stay in D.C.
full-time. The dining room, with its woozy
color-shifting glass wall, is unrecognizable from my days
there searing fish. But the high-wattage clientele is still
the same (evidenced by the Secret Service entourage
spied in the driveway). The waiters, in black suits and
crisp white shirts, are as properly stiff as any at
JFK's favorite French spots, but Citronelle is not your
grandfather's French restaurant. Richard's food is as
vivacious as ever: bracing creations like cuttlefish
fashioned into "fettuccine" and showered in trout eggs and
beets, or his Technicolor "oyster shooter"
amusebouche—a narrow glass layered red
(aspic-encased tomato confit) to white (oysters in
brine) to green (cucumber gelée) to black
(caviar)—are dazzling both to
look at and to consume.

THE RENEGADE

Neither Richard nor Andrés has a lock on
creativity here. At Maestro (1700 Tysons Blvd., McLean,
Va.; 703/821-1515; www.ritzcarlton.com; dinner for two
$200
), in the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner,
in the Virginia suburbs, 32-year-old Fabio Trabocchi filters his exquisite Italian food through a
Felliniesque lens. Despite the steepest dinner
prices in the Washington area—and its far-flung
locale about 20 minutes outside the city—the
restaurant is consistently packed. As if the food weren't
erotic enough, the dining room's Versace opulence (along
with the possibility of a room for the night) makes
it ideal for a nostalgic Clintonesque
dalliance. Trabocchi is a spike-haired perfectionist,
equally comfortable working in a traditional idiom
(superb risotto) or creating something brand-new (Kobe beef
carpaccio rolled around tofu). Five- or seven-course meals
can be mixed and matched from among his classical dishes
("La Tradizione") and his most outlandish ("L'Evoluzione").
Or the truly adventurous can put their entire evening in
this young wizard's capable hands. Raw fish might come
first, a gorgeous mosaic of caviar-slathered tuna,
hamachi, salmon, and conch, with vitello tonnato expressed as a sauce. There might be lobster plumped into a
pasta pouch, tortellini filled with duck
confit, or loin of Virginia lamb photogenically shrouded in
goat cheese mousse and pistachio crumbs.

THE EMPEROR

Minibar (405 Eighth St. NW; 202/393-0812;
www.cafeatlantico.com; dinner for two $170
)
auteur José Andrés is a force
of nature, launching, it sometimes seems, a new place every
week. His burgeoning empire began, naturally enough, with
the small-plate food of his native Spain. In 1993 he
reimagined tapas at the original Jaleo (there are now
three), a restaurant gamble in a
neighborhood—abutting Chinatown—that had seen
better days. Since then a new sports arena and a shopping
mall have replaced the pawnshops and check-cashing stores.
Officially known as the Penn Quarter, the spiffed-up area
might easily be billed "Andrés-town." Within
a single block the chef runs three of the city's most
popular restaurants: along with Jaleo, there's the Latin
American–influenced Café Atlantico, which
houses the three-year-old Minibar; just up the
block is Zaytinya, a high-ceilinged
showpiece devoted to the flavorful mezes of Turkey, Greece,
and the Middle East.


With Oyamel (2250B Crystal Dr., Arlington, Va.;
703/413-2288; www.oyamel.com; dinner for two $60
),
Andrés's newest place, he steers the
small-plate concept south to Mexico and abandons the
neighborhood that has served him so well. The chef
got a great deal on an unlikely space, which explains why
his wonderful new restaurant anchors a Virginia strip mall
in the office-park gullies of Crystal City. Vibrant,
authentic flavors Andrés researched in
Mexico are interpreted with his characteristic whimsy, like
a dried fruit–stuffed quail in rose-petal sauce
that's a fragrant homage to Like Water for Chocolate. Other
great nibbles include compulsive
mole-doused french fries, cheesy rice with
huitlacoche—the corn fungus more
gently described as "black
mushrooms"—and tequila-drenched queso fundido with
made-to-order tortillas.

THE ACOLYTE

It was only a matter of time before Thomas Keller's
influence made its way to D.C. Lately the French Laundry
chef's protégés have been shaking things up
from New York to Boulder and points in between. Eric
Ziebold, at the unfortunately named CityZen (1330
Maryland Ave. SW; 202/787-6006;
www.mandarinoriental.com; dinner for two
$150
), in Washington's sparkling Mandarin
Oriental, did his time with Keller in Napa
before landing his very own kitchen. Not since Gray
Kunz brought Lespinasse (now closed) to D.C. was a
restaurant opening so hotly anticipated. CityZen has all
the physical trappings of an instant sensation—an
ambitious wine list, a dark and sultry dining room, a
gleaming open kitchen. But the food falls short of living
up to the space (and the hype). Ziebold's technical skills
are indisputable; unfortunately, his dishes lack the
personality you'd expect from such a pedigreed
chef—focusing not on innovation but on clichéd
luxury crowd-pleasers. The black truffles that show up
everywhere—on beet salad, on duck breast with foie
gras, under the skin of a very rustic pork
sausage—seem to be tossed on more for effect than for
flavor. While Ziebold's food tastes perfectly good, the
most inspiring course is one he didn't cook—the
restaurant's fine cart of melting international
cheeses.

Jay Cheshes has written for Radar, Gourmet, and Departures.


Washington has never seen a turnaround like the Penn
Quarter's rags-to-riches transformation. Almost
overnight, bars, museums, cinemas, theaters, shops,
and galleries, not to mention high-rise condos, have added
newfound appeal to this downtown district's long-neglected
streets. Even when there isn't a sporting event at the MCI
Center, there's so much action on Chinatown's fringe that
new restaurants can't open fast enough to fill the demand.
José
Andrés—among the first to recognize
the neighborhood's potential—has been followed by
a stylish French-Indian lounge (IndeBleu, 707 G St.
NW; 202/333-2538; dinner for two $100) and branches of
popular restaurants both local (Clyde's, Austin Grill) and
out-of-state (New York's Rosa Mexicana), along with a couple
top-rated stand-alone spots (Zola, Matchbox). All that's still missing is a good place to
park.


Chef Vikram Sunderam, formerly of London's Raj-inspired
Bombay Brasserie, has brought upscale Indian to Rasika (633
D St. NW; 202/637-1222; dinner for two $80) in the Penn
Quarter. A few blocks away, Big Easy flavors are on
display at newcomer Acadiana (901 New York Ave. NW; 202/
408-8848; dinner for two $80), the fourth restaurant from
the team behind hot spots TenPenh and Ceiba.
Meanwhile, Michel Richard plans his first expansion in
years, focusing on American classics at his upcoming
Central. And look for solo projects from the chefs
of some of the city's most iconic
restaurants—Ris Lacoste of Georgetown's 1789 is still
on the hunt for a space, while Peter Smith, former
executive chef at Vidalia, has already begun work on his
still unnamed venture. Rumors abound of high-profile chefs
descending on the D.C. area (Nobu?Thomas Keller?). No word
yet on who will be joining last year's arrivals,
Richard Sandoval (who cloned his Denver Asian-Latin spot, Zengo) and
former Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto (who opened a
Tysons Corner outpost of his Pauli Moto's Asian Bistro).

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