travel: american cool…
Realizing that I’ve traveled far more this year than time has allowed me to record and report, I’ve decided to set aside chronology and just write. After a poor posting record in the first half of this year, I’m picking my blog back up with my latest trip: Washington, D.C.
Two weeks ago, I was at the International Biscuit Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee (an event about which I hope to write soon) talking with Joe Yonan, the food editor of the Washington Post (and author of “Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook“). I told him I was heading to D.C. and shared with him my frustration that most of the restaurants I wanted to visit don’t take reservations. To that point, Yonan noted, Tom Sietsema, the restaurant critic for the Washington Post, was publishing an article the very next day addressing that trend. (It appeared in the Washington Post online edition on May 15, 2014 entitled “No reservations? This restaurant trend has become harder to swallow.”)
I agree with Sietsema that the no-reservation policy is fairly one-sided, heavily pro-restaurant. Not having to commit your tables is a huge win for restaurateurs. It ensures that fewer seats sit empty due to no-call, no-shows. It also enables a restaurant to accommodate more diners, since tables can turn as soon as they become available, a point that restaurants claim is a win-win for both restaurant and customer.
Restaurants are also quick to claim that the no-reservation policy is customer-friendly because it levels the playing field for diners – first-come, first-serve regardless of rank or class. But I find the argument for egalitarianism to be misleading and convenient. Sietsema notes that no-reservation policies deter certain segments of society from dining out: the elderly, for example.
Proponents of the no-reservation policy also fetishize the fact that it favors neighborhood diners, who are less-burdened by potential wait-times, and are generally more flexible due to proximity. As a resident of Capitol Hill, where his restaurant is located, this point is particularly important to Aaron Silverman, chef of Rose’s Luxury, one of the restaurants that Sietsma mentions in his article. As Silverman explained to me, not taking reservations prevents out-of-towers, or even people from other neighborhoods, from reserving tables that would otherwise go to the people in the restaurant’s immediate community. I applaud the neighborly spirit. But, what about bringing dollars from outside of your community into your community? And what about out-of-towners? That’s another slice of potential business that goes in the bin.
To a member of the dining public like me, who happens to do most of my eating as an out-of-towner, the no-reservation policy is an unfriendly policy. I already make considerable concessions to accommodate my eating habits, which are admittedly abnormal and extreme. And I do so willingly, because I value the experience of eating out more than other pleasures. But even I have my limits. I want to be able to plan my day. I want a sure bet, especially when I’m traveling.
Upon discovering that I was in D.C., Silverman reached out to me, asking if I was going to make it to Rose’s Luxury on this visit. If I was interested, he also offered to provide “advice” on how to get in (which I found both flattering and mildly insulting). I thanked him for his offer and told him that I would try my luck as a walk-in. This is, after all, an egalitarian policy, no?
Despite Silverman’s suggestion that I arrive by 17.00 to be assured relatively quick seating, I didn’t get to Rose’s Luxury until closer to 18.00. I was on vacation with my brother, who rarely gets to travel. We wanted to see the sites, and squeeze every moment out of our day. (If you haven’t been to the Newseum, I highly recommend it, especially for the Pulitzer Prize-winning photography section and the 9/11 exhibit, both of which had my heart in my throat. It was so engrossing, the amount of information there so overwhelming, that we stayed right up until the museum closed.) And quite frankly, we weren’t hungry at 17.00.
But I really did want to eat at Rose’s Luxury, which came highly recommended by many. So, we made the effort and got to the restaurant closer to 18.00 on that Saturday night. By then, the reservationist was estimating a two-and-half-hour wait. That was far longer than I wanted to bar hop in the neighborhood (which, by the way, has gentrified considerably since I lived there in the late nineties, just four blocks away on 4th Street, N.W. between D and E Streets.). And the thought of going all the way back to our hotel to have a moment of rest before having to head back to the restaurant seemed even less appealing. Besides, we had an early morning flight.
Having anticipated this scenario, I had a plenty of contingency plans.
We left Rose’s Luxury and headed in the general direction of our hotel and landed at Etto, a restaurant near Logan Circle that Nate Appleman had recommended to me a few weeks earlier. Etto doesn’t take reservations either. But luckily, at 19.00 on that Saturday night, there were a few empty tables and we were seated immediately. Soon thereafter, the restaurant filled up and a short line began to form.
The salads we had at Etto were great. One focused on the crisp and crunch of celery and super-fresh walnuts. Another brought shaved porcini and Pecorino together with cress; an unexpectedly delicious meeting of beefy, nutty, bitter. Both salads were coated in velvety olive oil and stung by the high, bright acidity of lemon.
The pizzas were pretty good too. Morels starred in the pizza special of the day. On the “Alla Romana,” milky mozzarella buffered the saltiness of anchovies and olives. The fillings on both pizzas were evenly spread across a field of tangy tomato sauce and ringed by knobby, blistered crust. The dough was nice and elastic, perhaps a bit more wet in the center than I like, but certainly not as soupy as traditional, neapolitan-style pizza.
I think the peach crostata had spent a little too much time in the oven - the crust was a little dark, and the filling had become more jammy than juicy.
The far more interesting dessert was the scoop of San Daniele prosciutto ice cream with candied pistachios that I ordered out of curiosity. It was undeniably hammy, and surprisingly good. Perhaps a drizzle of fruity olive oil might have made it even better.
The servers were all very friendly and upbeat, although the young lady who was assigned to our table was rather forgetful. I had to ask twice for the condiments she offered. And my coffee never arrived.
Shingled in skateboards and lined with graffiti, the inside of Toki Underground, a “Taiwanese ramen and dumpling house,” reads more like a page out of the grunge culture of Austin, Texas than Washington, D.C. Then again, I’m not quite sure what a restaurant on this “resurgent” stretch of H Street, N.E. – a narrow corridor dubbed the “Atlas District” – might look like anyway since I never visited this part of town in the three years I lived in the city.
You might miss the restaurant entirely from the outside if you’re not paying attention to street numbers. Nothing that I saw indicated that the second floor of this narrow row house was a restaurant.
Although neither of my parents – both of whom are “Mainlanders” by heritage but raised in Taiwan – would likely consider the food at Toki Underground to be authentically Taiwanese, they would surely appreciate it as a colorful expression of the unique commingling of the Chinese and Japanese cultures that resulted from fifty years of Japanese imperial occupation of the island in the first half of the 20th Century.
The menu is simple: gyoza (which we were told couldn’t be pan-fried at lunch, only steamed – that was a slight buzzkill), steamed buns (with nuggets of saucy, spicy fried chicken and really great pickles), a salad or two (the chilled tofu salad – a hiyayakko of sorts – was pretty good), and a half-dozen or so different ramen bowls. The food was fresh, flavorful, and well-made.
Toki Underground is exclusively counter seating, and the space is quite small. The restaurant, which serves both lunch and dinner, doesn’t take reservations, and I’ve heard the wait can be quite long. We arrived around 13.00 on a weekday and found the place half-empty.
I worked for a U.S. Senator on Capitol Hill both pre-9/11, when the general public could walk off the streets of D.C., through a metal detector, and straight into the rotunda; and post-9/11, when a rapidly increasing number of restrictions were placed on both the public and staff members. I worked through the anthrax scare, when all of the mail came pre-radiated and pre-snipped. And I lived through the D.C. sniper stint, when every other car suddenly seemed to be a creepy, unmarked white van.
I remember driving past the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. And I remember when they closed that entire block to street traffic.
I saw a lot of changes to D.C. when I lived there. But in the decade-plus since I left, I’m amazed by how much more the city has changed.
Ten years ago, the restaurant scene in D.C., especially at the high end, was just starting to move. Over the course of two trips to the city since – I took a short trip there in 2010, and made an even shorter, one-day pop-in in 2012 for lunch – I watched it expand at an exponential rate, mostly from afar.
I couldn’t afford to eat at Maestro when I lived in D.C. That was Fabio Trabocchi’s fancy Italian restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, where he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic in 2006. Then he moved to New York to take over Fiamma, where he earned a Michelin star. But before I could get there, he headed uptown to take over the kitchen at the storied Four Seasons restaurant. I dallied, he sprinted. Within three months of starting at Four Seasons, he was gone. I had missed him once again.
So, after a decade of chasing Trabocchi, on a beautiful, breezy day, I finally landed at a table on the patio of Fiola, the restaurant he opened in Penn Quarter after returning to D.C. in 2012.
We ordered three pastas, all made in house. They were great, especially the bowl of smoked potato and nettle gnocchi, peas, and favas bound together by a creamy sauce that seemed to be equal parts butter and Caciocavallo cheese. Thick slices of lamb leg roulade were tender and juicy, served on a bed of grilled radicchio. We finished our meal with an immensely fragrant scoop of opal basil gelato over which were spooned a syrupy stew of roasted strawberries, still warm. I’d go back just for that, and the swagger of our European servers, whose deadpan confidence was both refreshing and entertaining.
The pastas at Bryan Voltaggio’s Aggio were also the highlight of that meal. His ragu pomodoro was sweeter and more tart than I expected. But with the meatballs – a finely ground mix of veal and mortadella – it seemed strangely right. A twirl of inky spaghetti came with a squid bolognese that was every bit as lusty and hearty as its meatier origins. More straightforward was the cacio e pepe, which was simple, but terrific: the right amount of cheese, the right amount of butter, and the right amount of pepper.
What began as a three-course dinner (we each ordered an antipasti, pasta, and secondi) Voltaggio turned into a six-course tasting (disclaimer: we only paid for what we ordered).
I was told that Aggio’s chef de cuisine, Johnny Miele, doubles as pastry chef. His level of craftsmanship in this department was unexpectedly good, although the chocolate shell on the “Chocolate-Hazelnut” dessert was too thick, making the dessert more of an architectural curiosity than an edible dessert. Like the plates that preceded them, the desserts were elegantly plated, well-made, flavorful, and help nudge American-Italian cuisine toward a fresher, lighter, and more modern sensibility.
Aggio is located inside Range, Voltaggio’s steakhouse concept inside the Chevy Chase Pavilion, just across the street from the Friendship Heights metro station. The restaurant takes reservations.
A morning in Georgetown nearly ended at my usual, go-to spot: Booeymonger on the corner of Prospect and Potomac. It’s a casual breakfast and lunch sandwich shop that has, since I started eating there in the late nineties, replicated itself in other parts of the district. I always get the “Gatsby Arrow,” which puts roast beef and Brie cheese together in a French baguette. You can order the sandwich cold, or have it warmed so the cheese goes melty.
But, I noticed that a Luke’s Lobster “shack” (the same ownership as the ones in New York City) had popped up on Prospect Street a couple of blocks away. It was sunny, and summery, and I was feeling for a lobster roll. So I got one. We also ordered lobster grilled cheese – two slices of white bread and chunks of lobster meat laminated together with Gruyere – and blueberry soda. It was a quick, convenient, and delicious lunch.
Georgetown was unusually quiet that weekend. So I assumed that the university had already let out for summer vacation, although I did witness a Georgetown coed drop her Amex black at a till in town. These are times in which we live.
The restaurant in D.C. I most wanted to visit was Little Serow, Johnny Monis’s Thai eatery just downstairs of his acclaimed Komi near Dupont Circle, where I had dinner in 2010.
Little Serow doesn’t take reservations. And by all accounts, the wait for a table can stretch into hours. My friend, Balz, who is a regular there, urged me to get there early – like 16.30 early, an hour before the restaurant opens. Thankfully, there wasn’t a wait when we arrived closer to 18.00 on a weekday night. There were a few seats open at the counter, to which we were taken immediately.
Monis doesn’t allow photography inside komi. Thankfully, he allows (no-flash) photography inside Little Serow, which is a surprisingly spartan, but lovely space. Off the hot streets of D.C., the dimly lit interior, with light-turquoise painted-brick walls trimmed with white, enamel-coated fixtures is soothing, an effect that also seems to help temper the spiciness of the food there.
The set menu of seven courses ($45) changes weekly, and is served family-style. My favorite dishes included a cold salad of shaved pork cheek with herbs and fresh noodles in a sweet and spicy dressing. There was also a terrific cold salad of crispy tofu tossed with cilantro, cilantro root and peanuts that our server warned would start of mild, but by the third bite, would set our “faces on fire, just a little bit.” She was right.
The shredded duck meat, mixed with Chinese long beans and basil and topped with a duck egg that spilled its velvety yolk upon entry, was surprisingly tender. The pork ribs at the end, served with mekhong whiskey sauce beneath an avalanche of shaved red onions and dill, were fatty and flavorful, but mild, a mindfully tapering heat for the homestretch. Everything was great, including the service, which was both efficient and friendly. Our server Jill even tipped me off to a wonderful exhibit at my favorite museum in town, the National Portrait Gallery. “American Cool” explores the concept of being “cool,” a specifically American term that, as the curators of this exhibit describe, “carries a social charge of rebellious self-expression, charisma, edge and mystery.” The exhibit displays photograph portraits of the “coolest” Americans in the last century. If you can’t make it to D.C. by the time the exhibit wraps in early September, you’ll find it bound in this book by the same name.
What was a town dominated a decade ago by mediocre, overpriced restaurants fueled by fat cats with expense accounts and no taste, D.C., from what little of it that I’ve experienced in the past few years, is doing much better now. At least a half-dozen restaurants there remain on my bucket list, including Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, José Andrés’s Zaytinya and Oyamel, Izakaya Seki, Rasika, Red Hen, and, of course, Rose’s Luxury.
Here are the restaurants that I visited on this trip to Washington, D.C. Each entry is hyperlinked to the photos of my meal there.
PHOTOS: Colorful row houses in Georgetown; the White House; the wavy skylight-enclosed courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery; pizzas at Etto near Logan Circle; the graffitied interior of Toki Underground; opal basil ice cream with roasted strawberries at Fiola; spaghetti and meatballs at Aggio; the chalkboard menu at Luke’s Lobster in Georgetown; the soothing interior of Little Serow; and the “American Cool” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.