Photo Gallery:
Blue Duck Tavern

Circle Bistro
Butterfield 9
Poste Moderne Brasserie

Letter From the Editor Vol.5

Modern American in Washington DC

October 2006

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 seasonality alone.

BDT Steak Fries at Blue Duck Tavern on StarChefs.comWith 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 twists.

Halibut with Fresh Corn Polenta at Circle Bistro on StarChefs.comChef 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.

Herb Crusted Skate Wing from Chef Tracy O'Grady on StarChefs.comChef Robert Weland at Poste Moderne Brasserie on StarChefs.comAt Willow, 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.

Feta Water Noodles from Chef Katsuya Fukushima on StarChefs.comWhile 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.


Antoinette Bruno




^ Top of page