Just a Few Picks for DC Restaurant Week 2017
Winter Restaurant Week is here, and this year there are places to eat that are worth fighting for if you want to get a seat. The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) has set the dates: Monday, Jan. 30 to Sunday, Feb. 5. This year, 50 restaurants have added $22 brunch menus, in addition to $22 lunch menus and $35 dinner menus, plus there’s a new Diner Rewards Program that automatically enters patrons to win exclusive deals on meals when they book reservations through RAMW.
Oh, the Times They Are a Changin'
For a while, Restaurant Week got a bad rap due to unmanageable crowds, unattainable reservations, and often-mediocre food, but the bar has been raised and now everyone, whether they want to or not, has to do better if they want to compete for customers. Chefs are bringing their A-game to the table (pun intended, apologies) and offering intriguing menus that focus on freshness and originality.
A Different Kind of List
Anyone who knows me knows how picky I am about food, restaurant service, and the very definition of a great restaurant, which is why I don't do the restaurant reviews for D.C. You see, I was a French- and Italian-trained chef for 20 years, and I can't step into a restaurant without putting on my industry cap. And, unfortunately for anyone with me who's not in the business, it means the restaurant post-mortem begins before the body is even cold. But I do have favorites to recommend.
Ambar Balkan Cuisine
The food is always good at Ambar but what keeps everyone going back is the friendly and attentive staff. The owners and staff really do make you feel like family and will come to the table to offer samples of an Eastern European fruit brandy called rakia, along with a toast, and they do a fantastic job explaining how a dish is made or its origins.
Although it isn’t offering brunch for Restaurant Week, Casa Luca is consistently at the top of my list — it’s quite a package with a beautiful dining room, superior food, and service supplemented by a well-designed wine list. Mangia, mangia!
The Oval Room
We love, love, love The Oval Room and its brilliant chef, John Melfi, who mentored Brad Deboy. Lunch or dinner, his menus are always choreographed like a gourmet pas de deux that never misses a step. For well-timed, personalized service, The Oval Room is second to none.
Pork-lovers who eat every part of the pig except the squeal need to make a mad dash to The Pig, obviously. Everything from pork rillette to pigs’ ears and trotters are wonderfully made, and the restaurant sources local, seasonal vegetables from its farm in La Plata, Maryland.
Critics, Indian and British expats, and food experts all agree Rasika isn’t just D.C.’s best Indian restaurant — it’s one of the best in the country. The food coming out of its kitchen is always exceptional and gives diners a window in the diversity of an ancient country with regional cuisines as varied as are the people.
The Red Hen
We have a list of chefs you need to know, and Mike Friedman, co-owner, and chef at The Red Hen, is on that list. He has a unique culinary point of view that focuses on Mid-Atlantic ingredients prepared with an Italian accent. He consistently offers seasonal menus that delightfully integrate ingredients, techniques, and traditions from Italy and the East Coast. It’s a bit like playing the lottery to get a reservation, but it’s worth the effort.
The Brunch Thing
Washingtonians, and especially millennials, are obsessed with brunch, which is not a secret. If you must go, go because the food is good and not because watered-down bottomless whatevers are served to accompany pedestrian, overpriced food. As your self-appointed arbiter of what to eat, I have some suggestions of what I prefer to call “Weekend Dishes” that just happen to be part of a brunch menu. At these restaurants, you rarely, if ever, will see or hear the word bottomless mentioned but you will find well-composed menus offering fantastic food that would be delicious at any meal.
A Sneak Peak at Brunch at DBGB Kitchen and Bar
In the interest of research, and a desire to overcome my prejudice against brunch, I took the plunge and sampled the brunch menu offered by DBGB Kitchen and Bar and was pleasantly surprised. If you want to try this tasty addition to the restaurant week roster, I suggest you make a reservation for brunch before it’s too late. So here is what I sampled.
I started my meal with an endless cup of coffee that arrived hot and strong and accompanied by a thoughtful touch; a tiny metal pitcher of milk, served warm, to prevent my coffee from getting cold.
Revived by a healthy dose of caffeine, I was primed for a cocktail and chose the Dubois Fizz. It was served in a retro coupe glass and was reminiscent of a frothy sour from bygone days. The recipe included St. George terroir gin, nux alpina, lemon juice, and whipped egg whites; the flavors of the green walnut liqueur combined with the bright citrus and smooth egg white were just right with my first course. Everyone should pair their croissant with a cocktail.
If brunch isn’t complete for you without a decadent baked treat, then be sure to order the Viennoiserie appetizer. While the tender scone that comes with this course is very good, it’s the croissant that will make you smile. Baked to Parisian standards, it has a crisp, flaky exterior that “shatters” into fine crumbs and tastes of gently browned sweet butter.
As you pull it apart, the soft yeasty interior is tempting enough to make you want to eschew the rest of the meal to savor the taste and memory of a second croissant. But you don’t want to miss the duck confit hash entrée. From the first forkful, it reminded me of all the wonderful meals I have eaten in France and why French cuisine is still the apex of culinary greatness in many chefs’ minds.
As I took my first bite of the earthy, silky, shamelessly rich duck confit hash with crisp potatoes, I knew the sunny-side-up eggs would be cooked to perfection, and they were. Now, before the food police get to you or you run screaming from the room at the thought of eating duck fat, you should know that it’s better than cooking foods in butter, pork fat, or beef fat. No, it’s not the same as olive oil, but the fat in duck contains high levels of unsaturated fats that are beneficial — so why not? It’s better for you than bacon.
For dessert, chocoholics will find the Valrhona Bahibe chocolate mousse, made with Valrhona Dulcey blonde ganache, dense chocolate cake, and blood orange sorbet, satisfies a craving, but the pear ginger sundae is enough for two people to share. It’s just sweet enough and combines classic pear, cassis sorbets with Chantilly whipped cream, and gingersnap cookies.