Like most sensible Americans, we stay as far away from government business as possible. But it’s been a while since our last Rising Stars in DC, and the capital city continues to evolve its culinary scene. This year’s Rising Stars Award Winners are shining proof that more than scandal keeps the Capital City a sizzle. In fact, we were so blown away by the ever-expanding culinary scene that we ventured into Maryland and Virginia to make this year’s Rising Stars a Washington DC Area Rising Stars. From farm-to-table, sustainable, and organic restaurants like Restaurant Nora to reinvented oldies but goodies like 1789, to a whole slew of thriving craft cocktail bars, to innovative counterculture in shifting neighborhoods, DC is a city of passionate foodies (even among the most dour politicians). And nearby Virginia and Maryland has its own reason to boast—a whole smattering of world-class destination restaurants beckons not just to Washingtonians anymore, but to diners from around the country.
In a restaurant world that has seen a lot of recent newcomers, a few standard-setters have withstood a rocky year of recession rough-and-tumble and are still flourishing. Organic may be a buzz word now, but when DC’s first organic restaurant Restaurant Nora opened, that wasn’t the case. Chef-Owner Nora Pouillon keeps organic and farm-to-table alive in DC, overseeing a constantly changing menu crafted and executed by Rising Star Chef Benjamin Lambert. 1789 has long been a haunt for special occasion diners but in order to keep the dining scene vibrant and a new stream of customers coming through the door, Chef Dan Giusti and Pastry Chef Travis Olson made a bold move to revive the menu and ditch the jacket requirement. With slashed entrée and dessert pricing and a smaller appetizer menu, they keep food cost manageable by also featuring off-cuts and whole animals from local farms. At established restaurant BLT Steak, Chef Victor Albisu does some reinventing of his own with Basque, Spanish and Mediterranean influences all coloring the modern American steakhouse in dishes like Pata Negra Pork Chop, Garlic Vinaigrette, and Blood Sausage Whipped Potatoes.
DC neighborhoods have changed a lot since our last trip and brave pioneers into the world of counterculture restaurants are taking full advantage. At beer temple Birch & Barley Chef Kyle Bailey uses his ingenuity to craft a small food budget into inventive dishes that manage to both complement the rotating craft beers and stay modern. His cuisine straddles comfort food and innovation, with inexpensive off-cuts and fish in the mix, like Skate Stuffed with Grilled Radicchio, Ham Hock-Parmesan Broth, and Brown Butter. And the restaurant’s standard-setting beer program sets up the meal for dead serious sudsy bliss.
With its growing landscape full of new destination restaurants and a wine industry that is fast gathering accolades and fans alike, Virginia’s culinary scene screamed (with country charm, of course) for attention. At award-winning Barboursville Vineyard’s Italian restaurant Palladio, Chef Melissa Close Hart tailors hearty dishes influenced by annual trips to Italy—like Housemade Pappardelle, Local Braised Rabbits, Porcini Mushrooms, and Blackberries—to the vineyard’s own wines, overseen by Luca Paschina from Piemonte.
The outskirts of DC had their fare share of stand-out restaurants too. Chef Liam LaCivita’s Italian roots shine through at upscale casual, seasonal American restaurant Liberty Tavern. At this Arlington hotspot, LaCivita creatively works in local produce from regional farms, and keeps meat lovers porkily-pleased with his house-made salumi.
Over in Old Town Alexandria, Chef Shannon Overmiller serves up piled-high plates of bountiful, rustic American dishes at The Majestic. Old Town may seem like an odd place for an on-trend speakeasy with house-made syrups and tinctures, but at 2006 DC Rising Star Todd Thrasher’s PX Lounge Mixologist Clinton Terry whips up quirkily named craft cocktails in this tiny hidden gem. If only the colonials could have sampled any of this upscale mixology.
In DC, of course, (where drinking is practically a professional requirement) the mixology scene has blossomed. Jon Harris of The Gibson shows his mixology chops, serving up each drink with a side of history. Custom-made gelato flavors from Dolcezza make boozed-up ice cream floats worth a second look. Harris’s mentor Mixologist Derek Brown sets the bar high for classic cocktails, and shows us what they should really taste like in the zen-like retreat of The Columbia Room, complete with jarred spices and hand-sawed ice. Mixologist Adam Bernbach at Proof shows DC diners that wine isn’t the only reason to come to by-the-glass wine central. This well-informed mixologist is one of the growing number of major players in the DC scene. With its ivy-covered walls and historic feel Tabard Inn boasts the ever-humble Mixologist Chantal Tseng mixes both historically accurate cocktails and original inventions—she makes a Pimm’s Cup like no other!
We’re headed to Chicago next to scout for next year’s Rising Stars, and Houston, and Portland are on the horizon for 2011, too. Don’t forget to submit your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists.
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