Letter from the Editor: Keeping it Classic in D.C. Vol: 115

October 2014

The nation’s capital is a city obsessed with tradition and technique. And its kitchens have embraced hospitality like few markets do, cooking wholeheartedly for the diners who keep their front of house humming: law makers, lobbyists, diplomats, and a cadre of political movers and shakers, who are often more conservative in their dining habits than the blue-leaning city might let on. Chefs are serving the city just what it wants, taking familiar foods and making the best possible versions of them. On our travels this summer, we saw enough pasta, crab cakes, and heirloom tomato salads. But chefs in D.C. are taking on familiar forms, making them distinct, and knocking it out of Nationals’ park on execution. From Peter McCall’s crab cakes at the Omni Shoreham to Haidar Karoum’s Spanish tortillas at Estadio, we ate wildly delicious classics that leaned on textbook-worthy technique to make them shine.

Dining in D.C. is like coming home to all your favorite things. At Red Hen, the hip D.C. diner’s new favorite joint, Mike Friedman is single-handedly making it cool to have grilled chicken on your menu again. His wood-grilled bird with fra diavolo and preserved lemon is his candid love song to Sicily. We also ate at least three renditions of time-tested carbonara: with Matt Kuhn, who used squid ink spaghetti, José Adorno, who threw in wasabi peas for a good kick, and Victor Albisu, who added in luxurious smoked caviar and uni. Baked Alaska is usually the bastion of staid, continental dining, but at 2941, Caitlin Dysart makes a chocolate-peanut butter version that walloped us with old-school goodness. And Osteria Morini’s Alex Levin packed a powerful punch in a straightforward Gianduja mousse. Every chance they got, D.C. chefs showed us how good it can be to keep things simple.

At the other end of the spectrum, a small group of chefs also captivated us with stunning artistry and unabashed creativity. 2006 StarChefs.com Rising Star Pastry Chef Rick Billings, took everything we love about chocolate and ginger to the next level. His shaved chocolate hay with toffee, freeze dried ginger, candied ciabatta bread, olive oil, Maldon salt, and coriander blossoms is the ultimate culmination of his experiments with frozen textures inspired by Taiwanese shaved ice. Over on Capitol Hill, Rose’s Luxury is heralding the makeover of a neighborhood while churning out some of the funkiest food on the East Coast. With whacked-out imagination in tow, Aaron Silverman throws strawberries into pasta sauce and makes a salad of lychees, pork sausage, and whipped coconut milk. Over at RANGE, Mattie McGhee is finishing his creamy tequila, avocado, and jalapeño soup (believe it!) with the ultimate local favorite—the Chesapeake blue crab—for an extra crunch.

The D.C. food community fed us well. But it was the mass of impeccably executed classics, the seeming sleepers that define the market—and reminded us that simplicity is the mark of a mature, sophisticated kitchen. 

Antoinette Bruno