While abroad in Europe last spring, I was fortunate to eat my way through many of the continent’s grand capital cities, which just so happen to be some of the world’s premier gastronomic destinations. Nothing can beat a few tapas and the Prado in Madrid, gelato and the Colosseum in Rome, baguettes and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It’s undeniable: Europe’s capitals know their food.
So, eager to check out how our own nation’s capital compared, I spent some of fall break sampling Washington’s dining scene. With all of the city’s politicians, lobbyists, diplomats, and lawyers, there is no shortage of “power meal” restaurants, where porterhouse steaks and martinis drive discussions of fossil fuel prices. Yet there is one particular dining institution that stands out to locals and visitors alike as Washington’s “premier” restaurant. Even President Obama agrees, as he recommended it to French president Nicolas Sarkozy last spring; I still remember when my Parisian host mom told me how shocked she was that Obama would send the president of France to what she thought was a hot dog place.
Well, it’s not quite a hot dog place, but she was close. President Sarkozy had been sent to Ben’s Chili Bowl, an institution in the heavily African-American U Street neighborhood, far from the city’s famous landmarks. Since 1958, Ben’s has been a D.C. landmark, not only beloved by Bill Cosby, but the instrumental cornerstone in helping the once-thriving U Street neighborhood turn around after drug addicts and violent Civil Rights protests decimated the area in the 60s and 70s.
Ben’s standard chili is thin in texture but above average in flavor, robust and earthy, with a distinct, slightly sweet kick, though it could use a little more beef to make it less sauce-like. The signature dish is the chili half-smoke, in which the chili is served atop a thick browned sausage. The sausage itself may even be better than the chili, and the combination is very enjoyable, though my server lacked the friendliness of the other staff and gave me a pittance of chili atop the half-smoke. Mostly, though, Ben’s diner-like atmosphere feels like a party: a mix of suits and ties, tourists snapping pictures, and locals just plain wanting to eat, all diving into chili at the classic diner counter or in booths.
Two of Washington’s premier chefs have attempted to conquer L.A. after establishing their mini-empires in the Capitol—one a runaway success, the other not so much.
Jose Andres is arguably the hottest chef in the country at the moment, the king of D.C, the toast of L.A., and the darling-to-be of Las Vegas with the opening of a new Chinese-Mexican fusion restaurant. Andres is a disciple of the temple of molecular gastronomy, El Bulli in Rosas, Spain, and his playful, laboratory style of cooking is at its best at the Bazaar in the SLS Hotel, where foie gras accompanies cotton candy and the “Philly Cheesesteak” features air bread topped with raw wagyu beef. Yet his pared-down, original tapas restaurant Jaleo is still at the top of the tapas game. Jaleo is the tapas restaurant every town needs, where a party of four can have dinner once a week for a month and still have dishes left to sample. The paellas here are formidably large, the fried, bacon-wrapped dates definitely one-up the non-fried version at Claremont’s Viva Madrid, and the rich risotto—accompanied by a pool of foie gras cream, duck confit, and thinly sliced duck medallions—sings in its French accoutrements. Andres also creates a perfect side of sautéed cauliflower with dates and olives, in addition to top-notch renditions of tapas standards like the garlic-infused shrimp tapa gambas al ajilo and potato omelettes called “tortillas.” Only one tapa failed to impress during my visit, because the scallops were too rubbery and were accompanied by a weak butternut squash puree.
Michel Richard attempted to expand to L.A. after the rousing success of his flagship Citronelle restaurant in Georgetown. Sadly, L.A. diners did not gravitate to his Citrus at Social on Melrose, which folded early this year. If Richard recreated his new brasserie-sized D.C. bistro Central Michel Richard in L.A., he’d have a rousing success. This is the bistro I never found in Paris, where flawlessly executed French classics coexist happily with spruced-up American standards such as lobster burgers. Here one can have an extravagant meal accompanied by D.C.’s top cocktails, or a simple end-of-season cherry tomato and burrata mozzarella salad, a deliciously simple version of the classic summer starter. Richard’s heavily mustard-flavored, caper-and-onion studded filet mignon tartare is the best I’ve had outside Paris, and his exquisite “Michel’s Chocolate Bar,” sort of a haute hazelnut KitKat, is certainly the Ferrari of candy bars.
Miscommunication and parents’ weekend at the nearby George Washington University led my party of three to wait three and a half hours to dine at Founding Farmers, a new, grand, and very sleek restaurant at the bottom of the International Monetary Fund building. Founding Farmers makes “true” food and drink, as religiously devoted to its ingredients as its witty name suggests. The cooking is comfort food for gourmands with no frills, offering huge portions of soothing dishes at affordable prices. Furious though I was at the restaurant after our wait, wanting nothing but to dislike it, the food was breathtakingly delicious. The impossibly moist fried chicken and waffles put Roscoe’s to shame, the cornbread studded with corn kernels is a masterpiece, and spectacular lobster and crab-filled deviled eggs are worth the heart attacks waiting to happen. I could eat the homey, grilled gruyere-and-white cheddar cheese sandwich on homemade bread with tomato soup every day.
Unfortunately, I’ve never encountered a more hectic, stressed-out host station scene. I was driven to the brink of insanity after each underestimation of the wait time. The two free appetizers as apology were a kind gesture, but for the typical diner, I’m not sure whether the restaurant is worth the wait. But what I do know? There is excellent, locally-sourced food to be had here.
Sadly, Hook, regularly a critic’s darling in Georgetown, is not worth any wait. The host gave me a smile as warm as Alaska, and the servers were no more affable. The seafood-centric menu is far too expensive, especially the usually reasonably priced fish tacos, and I was no more impressed by the heavy use of low-quality fish like tilapia. The barbeque bluefish lost focus amid its marinade, watermelon and jicama salsa, and jalapeno lime drizzle. Pastry chef Heather Chittum was recently eliminated from “Top Chef: Just Desserts,” and I agree with the judge’s decision: she’d certainly be eliminated all over again if they sampled her banal butterscotch pudding topped with meringue or the chalky, indistinguishable chocolate mousse sprinkled with sea salt. The desserts sounded great but the flavors were off, and the autopilot presentations—both desserts were served in identical, pointless tartlet shells—lacked pizzaz.
Luckily, Hook is an anomaly in this restaurant-packed capital. Ben’s Chili Bowl, Jaleo, and Founding Farmers merely whetted my appetite: I wish I had more time to dine here than just three days. Perhaps Washington D.C.’s outstanding restaurant scene can inspire the lawmakers to solve the country’s maladies. All they need is to sit down with a good bowl of chili or share a few tasty tapas.