Sunday, November 21, 2010

HFF On The Road: Washington, DC

From a food standpoint, Washington and Los Angeles are very similar. Both cities benefit from and are restricted by a customer base that is affluent but also incurious and unadventurous. They are cities where fine dining restaurants rely upon expense account lunches and show-off dinners to support their bottom lines.

As a result, you have a collection of very good restaurants serving predictable food: steakhouses, trattorias, bistros and brasseries. You have a slew of high-end chain restaurants as well, places like Fogo do Chao and Morton's. They're destination restaurants where a clientele coming from all over the world can be indulged comfortably and not be challenged--you'll spend a lot of money but it'll be on a New York strip and a bottle of Cakebread, so it's okay. It's one of the main reasons, in my opinion, that Los Angeles lags behind cities like San Francisco, Chicago--even Portland--in being an innovative dining environment. Too much of the dining-out money wants to dine at boring, predictable places. I mean Morton's is simply TERRIBLE and how many of those are there in LA--and the DC area, for that matter?

(Five and five, respectively.)

But DC, like Los Angeles, has fantastic diversity and a lot of young professionals and there are neighborhood haunts to be found that are worthwhile. Some highlights from my recent trip to DC:

Meridian Pint: A very fun gastropub in the transition Columbia Heights neighborhood. Referred there by a friend, at first glance Meridian Pint looks much like a straightforward sports bar, loaded with flatscreen TVs. The menu, however, revealed a more adventurous culinary spirit with a mix of updates on sports bar classics (nachos topped with braised brisket) and modern New American entrees (grilled trout with fried polenta). If you come in without a reservation you can dine in the downstairs lounge which offers the full menu in a more casual seat-yourself bar environment. GREAT beer selection, focusing primarily on mid-Atlantic and New England microbrews.

Liberty Tavern: Across the river in downtown Arlington is Liberty Tavern, another New American gastropub. We went for brunch and opted for the buffet so I can't speak to the quality of the a la carte menu, but it's populated with an interesting array of New American dishes and wood oven pizzas. The Sunday brunch buffet was one of the best I've had in recent memory. The chafing dishes were being perpetually replaced and everything was quite fresh. Highlights were the fresh carved roast pork loin (one of at least a half-dozen pork dishes), baked trout, potato gratin, and fresh biscuits, ham and gravy. Come hungry and its an excellent value at under $20. The only thing lacking was my Bloody Mary, which was mixed in advance and very heavy on the cheap vodka and lacking in flavor beyond that.

Spider Kelly's: Okay, so apparently we only ate at gastropubs. Sorry. The World Series was on. Located in Arlington, a door or two down from Liberty Tavern, Spider Kelly's was heavier on the "pub" and lighter on the "gastro," offering more straightforward pub grub with a few gourmet twists. I was looking forward to having a crab cake sandwich--I ordered that 99.99% of the time when I visited Virginia and Maryland as a kid. Spider Kelly's version surprised me as it consisted basically of a pile of lump crab on a bun--which was great in a way but I kinda missed the slutty mix of crab and breadcrumbs that makes for a good cheap crab cake sandwich. The food here was nothing worth returning for, but it was solid inexpensive bar food in a good environment to watch the game.

I hope to get back to DC soon and when I have more time I intend to visit some of the city's flagship restaurants. I'm particularly curious about Jose Andres' projects in DC as well as Wolfgang Puck's The Source.

Any current or ex-DC area readers have other recommendations in the capital?

1 comment:

marcus said...

Palena was absolutely amazing, the food was lights out and a small wine list had stellar choices. 10Pen has very good food and a first class wine list. When visiting we stumbled into Jaleo and were blown away at the diversity of tapas style menu items and then thrilled at how well executed they were.