Modern American in Washington DC
Chefs don’t like labels; that said, it’s
impossible to navigate the restaurant scene of the nation’s
capital without coming across one label in particular: Modern American.
A burgeoning restaurant city with energetic young chefs, moneyed
young diners, and a broad professional clientele, Washington DC
is a veritable case study of the development of American cuisine.
Chefs must stay inventive and fresh while catering to the somewhat
conservative tastes of the DC dining elite, and Modern American
is the common solution. So what does that mean?
At Madrid Fusion in January 2006, Ferran
Adrià told us that what most impressed him about American cuisine
was its lack of boundaries. Our cuisine is one of diversity; chefs
are not bound by the dogma of one historical culinary identity,
but draw from many in the pursuit of a distinctly American menu.
A vast bounty of seasonal ingredients – from Chesapeake softshells
to Oregon truffles – are fused with various international
influences, and the sum total is creative and culturally distinct.
These days, using the best, freshest, local (whenever possible)
ingredients is commonly cited as a fine dining standard, but is
certainly not an end in itself. The challenge lies in creative,
individual execution, and in our tastings we were impressed by not
only the number of chefs serving high quality ingredients, but the
number of chefs highlighting them in different ways. While redundancy
is an inevitable byproduct (think wild mushrooms, sweetbreads and
boutique apples on every menu), it is also a benefit, as it challenges
chefs to keep it interesting by preventing them from relying on
a strictly seasonal menu dedicated to its purveyors, Blue
Duck Tavern is a restaurant with a poignant philosophy.
Chef de cuisine Mark Hellyar works exclusively with American products,
but throws a wide variety of influences into the mix, setting himself
apart with his bold flavors, attention to detail and technique.
His training at Citronelle and The Fat Duck is
evident in impossibly rich and crisp Steak Fries cooked in duck
fat, and his Atlantic Fluke dish, in which two filets seamlessly
envelop a rich cod sauce with the help of activa. See
Service Notes for more of Blue Duck’s distinguishing
Brendan Cox of Circle
Bistro stresses the rigorous seasonality of his mentor,
Todd Gray, with dishes like his fresh corn polenta. Made with fresh
sweet corn, the creamy, almost-liquid polenta is closer to a corn
pudding, light and imbued with an intense flavor. At Butterfield
9 Chef Michael Harr serves an elegant coffee cup of Fennel
Soup with Lemon Cream Emulsion, in which the fennel's delicate underpinnings
of anise are accentuated by citrus and cream.
Chef Tracy O’Grady blends backgrounds and emerges with a hearty,
seasonal American brasserie menu ranging from a tempura of summer
vegetables with lime ginger vinaigrette to Herb Crusted Skate with
Wild Mushroom Agnolotti. In a similar vein, the menu at Poste
Moderne Brasserie interprets French dishes and techniques
with regional, seasonal products, with a focus on educating diners
and shortening the distance from earth to plate. Chef Robert Weland
draws inspiration from the restaurant’s backyard garden, a
peaceful, brick-lined courtyard filled with tomato plants and herbs
that Weland nourishes with homemade compost and encourages his cooks
to pick liberally.
there is decidedly less experimentation than in Chicago and New
York, DC does have its standard bearers. Under the guidance of José
Andrés, Chef Katsuya Fukushima has been playing with taste,
technique and texture for over three years at Cafe Atlantico
and its small nook of experimental, conceptual cuisine, Minibar.
Minibar is DC’s version of Alinea and WD~50,
but with only six seats it’s a partner in theory rather than
size. And though equally experimental, Fukushima works within spefic
restraints. Freedom to experiment with concepts is not matched by
a freedom of ingredients; he cites sea urchin, for example, as nearly
impossible to sell. Instead he finds success with re-imagined versions
of more familiar ingredients, like his feta water noodles with feta
cream, tomato marmalade and mint. While DC chefs and diners have
made great strides over the past few years, and while the city's
young chefs have found a good fit under the umbrella of Modern American,
our cuisine is still in its nacent stages.