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restaurants in DC, courtesty of the Baltimore Sun


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restaurants in DC, courtesty of the Baltimore Sun

baltoellen | Mar 9, 2005 02:01 PM

while contents of this article won't come as news to the 'hounds who frequent this board, I thought I'd post it anyway, to let you know what's written about the food a bit south of us on I-95:


Capital cuisine
Once the bastion of the steak-and-potato dinner, D.C. is giving fermented yuca, sea urchins and goat meat a try.

By Ellen Gamerman
Sun Staff

March 9, 2005

WASHINGTON - Congress is in session, it's late and official Washington is ready for dinners of red meat and raw politics. But in a darkened room not far from the Capitol, several dozen people are absorbed not in the city's power plays, but in its food.

Beyond the open kitchen at CityZen, the acclaimed new res- taurant in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, diners seem oblivious to lobbying agendas and business deals taking place in other D.C. dining rooms. They are too busy tasting the vibrant orange sea urchin atop a potato souffle or savoring the lobster poached in sweet butter or getting charmed by the teeny pancakes that arrive with freshly grated maple sugar as a warm-up before dessert.

Politics may rule the capital, but in this room, the food is in charge.

In new kitchens like the one at CityZen, as well as long-established restaurants that have dominated fine dining in Washington for years, chefs are trying to reverse this city's reputation for conservative cuisine - pushing the steakhouse crowd to hunger for something more while attempting to give the capital a new reputation as a food town.

"It's very interesting what an evolution that town has gone through, particularly in the last five years," says Tanya Steel, who writes the Restaurant Reporter column for Bon Appetit.

"Before, there wouldn't have been an audience in D.C. willing to try anything - even if it seemed kind of crazy and whimsical - but I think Washington has really awoken from this steakhouse and haute French milieu that was going on for so many years. Chefs saw there was an opportunity, and so many have taken that and run with it."

While the monuments have always drawn visitors, the city is trying to lure new interest with its restaurants - not easy, given the tall shadow cast by food meccas like New York and San Francisco.

The D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp. recently singled out four chefs under 40 - Eric Ziebold of CityZen, Morou Ouattara of Signatures, Fabio Trabocchi of Maestro and pastry chef David Guas of Ceiba - and sent them to New York to promote Washington-area cuisine before an audience of national magazine editors.

It's a mark of the pride the D.C. chefs take in their mission that some, while happy to join in the effort, wondered why New York couldn't have come to them instead.

"My point was let's do it here. It's nice to bring four chefs to New York, but I moved back to Washington because I wanted to be in Washington," says Ziebold, 33, a veteran of the D.C. restaurant Vidalia who recently returned to the city after eight years at the French Laundry, the legendary restaurant in California's Napa Valley. "We have some of the best ethnic food. There are pockets of culture and interest confined to Washington that aren't everywhere and make the city special."

Around Washington, chefs are responding to the thriving immigrant culture, taking cues from Malaysian and Afghan cooking, as well as the formidable Vietnamese kitchens in northern Virginia. Ziebold, who shops for ingredients from more than 40 vendors - a number the chef plans to double by next year - is searching for ethnic influences and new ingredients (while still cultivating seedlings from the French Laundry's garden).

Award winners

The culinary community is noticing such efforts. In recent years, the city's restaurateurs have swept the James Beard Foundation awards for the Mid-Atlantic, outpacing Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Last year, four of five nominees were based here (Ann Cashion, of Cashion's Eat Place in D.C., won the prize). Again in 2003, all but one nominee came from Washington; Jose Andres, the chef at several D.C. restaurants including Jaleo, took the top honors. (New York City competes in its own category.)

While some local chefs have been boldly creative for years - Michel Richard of Citronelle has a cult following well beyond Washington for inventions like his faux linguine made entirely out of cuttlefish - many of the new arrivals are receiving attention now.

Ouattara, since 2002 the chef at the downtown restaurant Signatures, uses influences from his mother's kitchen on the Ivory Coast of Africa. He is trying to bring his clientele along by pairing the unusual with the familiar - fermented yuca, for instance, with salmon. The meats are out there, too. "I try goat," he says. "People love the goat!"

Less successful was the chicken he made for a recent magazine photo shoot. The bird, which he found at a nearby Asian market, came with white feathers and black skin. The flesh was dark, sweet and tender, he says, and he prepared the dish as a paella with the legs, feet and head still on. The magazine used pictures of seven different dishes - all except for the chicken. That dish, he now concludes, won't be on the Signatures menu.

"In Washington, when you put the head on something," he says, "it's hard to sell."

On a recent afternoon at 19th and M streets in downtown Washington, a corridor so full of steakhouses the smell of grilled meat sometimes wafts onto the sidewalks during lunch, the reaction to haute cuisine is decidedly mixed. Two men in business suits leaving Sam & Harry's steakhouse, toothpicks in mouths, are split over dining as adventure.

Rick Gordon, a 35-year-old security consultant, warms to the idea of culinary exploits in the Signatures kitchen - "I'd definitely take my wife for a meal like that," he says - but alongside him, a fellow power luncher argues that Washington tastes are set for life. "Here, we're not going to eat braised barbecue bison head," says Frank Johnson, a 36-year-old tech specialist. "We're traditionalists. I like to know it comes from a cow."

As for haute cuisine? "I'd try it," he says, "but I wouldn't pay for it."

While steakhouses argue they're up to fine dining, too - The Washington Post singled out Charlie Palmer Steak as one of the city's 52 best restaurants last year - some D.C. chefs say the meat-and-potatoes fare is feeding the city's dull dining mind-set.

"It's very difficult to fight against the steak culture. People order the big red wine, the baked potato and they don't have to read a menu, they don't have to think," says Nora Pouillon, whose Restaurant Nora has led the way for organic cuisine in the city.

She argues chain steakhouses like Charlie Palmer, which moved to the city two years ago, come because D.C. diners are nationally known as tenacious meat eaters. "How difficult is it to eat a piece of meat?" she says. "Everybody knows how to hold a knife and fork."

Still, some chefs say they're slowly cultivating a new audience for fine food. "There's a percentage of people that really appreciate food," says Trabocchi of Maestro in northern Virginia. "They may not necessarily know exactly what they're about to eat or how long it took for the chef to find the particular ingredients he flew over from the other side of the country, but they're pleased by it, they get transported."

Beyond experiments in the kitchen, restaurants like IndeBleu are testing the limits of ambience. The French-Indian nightspot, which opened late last year in the city's Penn Quarter, placed a wooden suspension bridge in the dining room and swinging sofas in the lounge. It even toyed with putting a monkey at the front door for atmosphere, though manager Jay Coldren quickly backed off when the D.C. Health Department balked.

Ultimately, though, Coldren says the restaurant will rise or fall by its food.

"I really believe the international set and the sophisticated people of this city are ready for something different," says Coldren, a former dining and hospitality services director at the Inn at Little Washington.

Before the restaurant opened, Coldren put the staffers through several weeks of training to teach them to move gracefully, place plates on the table in unison and avoid smarmy waiter language that makes patrons feel like they're being worked for big tips. He knows what he wants from IndeBleu: "Old ladies from Paris with their poodles next to hipster couples - totally integrated fine dining."

'More chef-driven'

Increasingly, when a restaurant becomes a success, the chef behind it is taking charge of many kitchens at once. The owners of the busy downtown eatery D.C. Coast placed chef Jeff Tunks at the helm of two other restaurants, Ten Penh and Ceiba. Jose Andres is the chef behind Cafe Atlantico, Zaytinya, Oyamel and two branches of Jaleo.

"The city is getting more chef-driven," says David Wizenberg, an owner of D.C. Coast and the two restaurants that followed. He believes D.C. diners are embracing the idea of star chefs with multiple restaurants. "The chefs are becoming better. As opposed to being interested simply in duplicating things, they're being driven by new ideas."

While certainly competitive, many chefs are urging each other to innovate, figuring that the more restaurants succeed in Washington the better it will be for their own business. On the third Friday of each month they gather for a Washington Chef's Club, where they eat, drink and seek new inspiration long after their own kitchens close.

"It's wonderful," says Richard, who has presided over the highly praised Citronelle for the last decade. "We come from all over the world. We have a meeting with French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish chefs. And we're always talking food."

For chefs who are new to D.C., there's an adjustment both to the tastes of Washingtonians and the rhythms of the area. CityZen's Ziebold is still getting used to farmers' markets that won't battle Beltway traffic to deliver (unlike Napa Valley, where Ziebold still remembers crates of the best local figs and peaches coming right to the French Laundry's back door). Still, the chef is finding regional suppliers that impress him so far - like the one in Pennsylvania with duck so fresh it sometimes gets away.

"They're having a hard time getting the ducks right now. I should say they're having trouble catching them," he says, noting that the farm is trying to stop the fleeing ducks with BB guns. "With the snow, I guess they have a harder time seeing them."

In CityZen's kitchen, Ziebold plays with texture and temperature, serving dishes like warm bluefin tuna over cool shaved ice. He labors over the details, like shrimp encased in "ravioli" made out of sheer sheets of pineapple or a side dish with ultra-thin strips of beet and apple layered like a pastry and baked.

Diners notice surprising pairings - abalone mushroom with papaya and orange, pork with pomegranate seeds and braised radicchio, a chocolate devil's food cake with a slightly peppery cream filling - and linger for several hours over meals that can reach $200 a person with wine, taxes and tip.

CityZen still looks like Washington - on a recent weeknight diners are dressed more for Capitol Hill testimony than seduction - but even in this mellow room, with its unpretentious staff, there's no missing that serious eating is taking place.

Phyllis Richman, the former Washington Post food critic, samples the tasting menu at one table while at another, one of Ziebold's mentors, Vidalia chef Jeff Buben, raves about the "ethereal" texture of the poached foie gras. After a more than four-hour dinner, Buben predicts he'll be talking about this meal for weeks to come.

"If you don't remember a dish," he says, "then what's the point?"

A dozen with buzz

Cashion's Eat Place: Southern-inspired and ever-changing menus in a romantic dining room that is a lasting local favorite; 1819 Columbia Road N.W., 202-797-1819

Ceiba: A successful D.C. restaurant team delivers contemporary Latin American cuisine with exquisite desserts in a modern setting; 701 14th St. N.W., 202-393-3983

Citronelle: Elegant French cuisine in Georgetown that is a longtime destination for local chefs and serious foodies; Latham Hotel, 3000 M St. N.W., 202-625-2150

CityZen: Innovative dishes and fresh ingredients are the focus of this stylish new restaurant; Mandarin Oriental hotel, 1330 Maryland Ave. S.W., 202-787-6006

IndeBleu: Flavorful French-Indian food is served beyond the DJ booth and sunken cocktail den at this new Penn Quarter eatery; 707 G St. N.W., 202-333-2538

Laboratorio del Galileo: A private room at this gourmet restaurant offers tasting menus that celebrate authentic Italian cooking; 1110 21st St. N.W., 202-331-0880

Maestro: Traditional Italian dishes with modern flair win acclaim in the suburbs; Ritz-Carlton Hotel, 1700 Tysons Blvd., Tysons Corner, McLean, Va., 703-917-5498

Makoto: The restaurant with tough-to-get reservations is known for artful Japanese dishes and superior sushi; 4822 MacArthur Blvd. N.W., 202-298-6866

Nora: Washington's first certified organic restaurant offers sophisticated cuisine in an inviting dining room decorated with quilts; 2132 Florida Ave. N.W., 202-462-5143

Restaurant Eve: A new spot for modern American dining with creative menus that highlight seasonal produce; 110 South Pitt St., Alexandria, Va., 703-706-0450

Signatures: Fine dining with experimental twists along the political route between the Capitol and the White House; 801 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.; 202-628-5900

Zaytinya: Downtown nightspot with Middle-Eastern dishes, splashy cocktails and hipsters under the high ceilings; 701 Ninth St. N.W., 202-638-0800

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