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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).