A tasting tour of Washington, D.C., shows that the capital’s cuisine is trending up

06/04/2014 3:49 PM

06/07/2014 10:05 AM

Washington D.C. in recent years has seen its food reputation rise as big-name chefs like José Andrés and emerging operators with creative visions stake out new territory and contribute to what feels like an urban renaissance.

A recent excursion, my first trip to the District in 18 years, certainly expanded my palate.

Here are notes on a few Washington places, an eater’s guide to reliable and lively dining if you’re heading to the nation’s capital.

My partner and I took the Metro from Reagan National Airport, and while rolling our bags out of Union Station, we came to a halt. A kiosk offered lobster rolls and we were hungry. Luke’s Lobster is a small chain in the northeast and this little outpost hit the spot. Hotdog buns, quickly toasted on the griddle, were filled with a huge amount of fresh Maine lobster chunks, then topped with a butter drizzle and a little shake of seasoning. No celery, no mayo, no filler, that is: just lobster. We carried them to our hotel and pronounced them good. A great start to a vacation on the Eastern Seaboard. Luke’s Lobster, Union Station (kiosk), 624 E St. NW, 1211 Potomac Ave. (Georgetown); lukeslobster.com.

After an early evening walk by the Capitol and part of the National Mall, we found ourselves near Seventh Street, and within a few blocks of Jaleo, Andrés’ high-energy and attractively casual tapas operation. Andrés is known for a long string of high-end joints on both coasts, but Washington Post food writer Tim Carman steered me here, Andrés’ first D.C. restaurant, I suspect because of the way the place reflects the chef’s culinary heritage and invention without breaking the bank.

The tastes of Spain were abundant, fresh and invigorating. We started with one of Andrés’ signature molecular tricks, the “liquid olive” — an ovoid, gelatinized emulsion of seaweed encases a burst of Spanish olive oil; you let it gently explode in your mouth and thus experience a rare bit of fun blended with the sunny essential taste of the Mediterranean. After a few other dishes, we ordered two more liquid olives as a mid-meal picker-upper. But along the way, we were also lured by Iberico ham, a goat cheese with fig jam, fried green tomatoes, a beautifully tender rabbit confit and an odd but convincing Malaga salad of greens, orange sections, olives and mint. Throughout it all a bottle of Ameztoi Txakolina, a Basque region rosé, served us refreshingly well. Jaleo, 487 Seventh St. NW and other locations; jaleo.com/dc.

We walked back to our hotel (the comfortable and attractive Hotel George), decided on a nightcap at the bar and, it is true, dessert. The hotel’s Bistro Bis slants French in a big way, and we were floored by the pastry chef’s rhubarb savarin. It was a puck of cake soaked in a slightly sweet syrup and layered with whipped cream and chunks and swoops of rhubarb. Elegant and dreamy. Bistro Bis, at the Hotel George, 15 E St. NW; bistrobis.com.

A business meeting took me to the Monocle, an old school Capitol Hill eatery with solidly professional wait staff and classic surf and turf menu. I can only vouch for the lunchtime steak salad, with blue cheese and balsamic vinaigrette, which came with some of the most tender and flavorful beef (char-grilled tenderloin) I’ve ever had over greens. The Monocle, 107 D St. NE; themonocle.com.

During a chat at the nightly wine reception at our hotel, a local couple recommended two or three restaurants not far away. After checking out online menus, I decided that Boundary Road was the place for us. With its old brick walls, narrow footprint and emphasis on creative cocktails and charcuterie, it reminded me a lot of 715 in Lawrence. Those cocktails: I opted for a Rye Rover, which was a take on a Sazerac, complete with absinthe accent; the ever-popular She Who Is Not Easily Pleased had a precocious salad of a cocktail, combining Green Hat Seasonal Gin, Aperol, Dolin dry vermouth, Lillet Blanc and a muddle of radish and cucumber.

Chef Brad Walker’s food was impressive, too, if, at times, a little over-the-top crazy but cool. An appetizer, for example, combined a thick slice of foie gras with toasted bread squares, one side surfaced with a slight slather of peanut butter and jelly, another side spread with a marmalade concoction of grapefruit and, get this, Malört, the acquired-taste, somewhat-sour liqueur that is a staple of the Chicago cocktail underground. The little liver sandwich was an impressively acrobatic show of culinary cleverness, and though it might not please everyone, it certainly worked for me. We were also impressed by a nicely grilled Chesapeake bluefish, a superb farro risotto with ramps and other fresh signs of spring and a boldly flavored dish of grilled veal sweetbreads over slices of sunchoke poached in olive oil, fava bean shoots and a salsa verde. Boundary Road, 414 H St. NE; boundaryrd.com.

After a long tourist walk through museums and monuments, we were ready for an early afternoon break. Tim Carman had told me that a lively food revival was underway along a stretch of 14th Street, including a highly recommended craft beer operation called Birch & Barley; that restaurant didn’t open till later in the day, but its companion bar upstairs, Churchkey, offered at least two pages of brews and an attractive short list of bar food. We settled on a couple of winning beers from Maine: an Allagash White and the Maine Beer Co.’s Old Mean Tom, a stout on the slightly sweet side having been accented with vanilla bean. We shared a small dish of perfectly textured house-made fettucine with fava beans, and then, impulsively, ordered a dessert, a two part invention of lime square with a coconut ice cream mound to the side. Delish. Churchkey, 1337 14th St. NW; churchkeydc.com.

One of the hottest restaurants in D.C. these days is Rose’s Luxury, a classy creative place in a renovated, narrow brick townhouse along the Barracks Row district near Capitol Hill. The chef/owner, Aaron Silverman, worked for David Chang and other A-list chefs in New York and elsewhere, and he has brought that level of deep thinking and intense focus on ingredients to the D.C. foodscape. With its no-reservations policy, the word is get there early.

On a Saturday night we arrived about 5:20 — and the place was already full. No big deal — we walked around the neighborhood for a bit, returned and found a spot at the upstairs bar, where we would finish out our wait of about an hour and a half. We could’ve eaten at the bar, but decided to hold out for a table. Actually, we did both. While sipping our spectacularly interesting cocktails — for her: a potato vodka martini with yellow chartreuse, a drizzle of olive oil and a slap of freshly snipped lemon thyme; for me: a white Manhattan, featuring a base of corn whiskey — we eventually ordered an appetizer of crispy fried squid in a bowl with avocado, cream and slivers of radish. By the time we got our table, about 7, new arrivals were being told the wait would be four hours.

Is it worth the wait? For us, it certainly was. Rose’s Luxury has a very small menu, about a dozen dishes, mostly small plates and two larger dishes served family style. On this night, those large dishes were barbecue: one a brisket, the other baby back ribs. I didn’t feel the need to compare notes on D.C. barbecue versus the K.C. standard, and opted instead on a stream of smaller plates, which ranged from really interesting to outstanding.

A bowl of pork sausage, lychee, creme fraiche and habanero — stir it all together, our server instructed — was a silky and spicy, rave-worthy revelation. A tender piece of darkly seasoned jerk chicken got a globally tropical treatment with a Thai-style green mango salad and cooling, pickled-peach raita. A plate of grilled asparagus also took a sweet-and-sour turn with discs of fried jalapeno and cubes of pineapple, aioli and a drizzle of chive oil. We had ordered a plate of linguettini, but by the time it arrived we were stuffed and donated what looked like a lovely dish to the young couple who had just sat down at the next table. We did opt for dessert, however, a light berry and cream crumble, which came in a classic China tea cup (with matching saucer). Amazing, she said. It left us wanting another serving. But, we’ll have to luxuriate the next time we’re in town. Rose’s Luxury, 717 Eighth St. SE; rosesluxury.com.

Steve Paul, editorial page columnist and occasional restaurant critic: 816-234-4762, paul@kcstar.com; on Twitter: @sbpaul.

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