Spring at last – not the in-your-face summer torture we had last week when temps reached 95 degrees and eggs were frying on the sidewalks of DC – spring with lilacs, violets, dogwood and daffodils – and while you’re at it asparagus, ramps, artichokes, morels, and strawberries. Oh, and don’t forget shad roe, soft shell crabs and spring lamb prepared ever so gently, if you don’t mind.
I prefer to eat around the seasons. It’s earthier or fishier, as the case may be, and most assuredly worth the wait. Chefs, newly transplanted from other climes to helm kitchens in our region. You’re not in Kansas anymore, kitchen wizards! Please take note of our early on-again-off-again spring and know what local farmers and purveyors will be hawking at this time of year. While the frost is still on the pumpkin, savvy chefs worth their sea salt have already asked growers to plant what they’ll want for the upcoming year. Sadly some chefs will never see a local farm, visit an oyster hatchery or visit one of our ubiquitous farmers markets and can still be found serving up winter fare in April and May while we are already basking in the sunshine at outdoor cafés.
Below I take note of three local chefs who incorporate these ephemeral delicacies into their dishes so that we may indulge in their glories at the peak of perfection.
Executive Chef Christopher Ferrier has hit all the seasonal high notes at 2100 Prime at The Fairfax at Embassy Row. He would easily nail it in a spring mystery basket challenge on Food Network’s Chopped if it contained asparagus, shallots and morels as he makes a smooth bisque from that line up. Pan seared halibut, with artichokes, tomato and fine herbes is already gracing the menu along with a right-on-target spring pea and lemon risotto. Locally caught rockfish in a bouillabaisse, and newly available to East Coast chefs, sustainably-raised Skuna Bay salmon out of Vancouver, British Columbia. Perrier treats it with a light hand on the grill and serves it with mustard chive butter.
At the gorgeously renovated oh-so-chic Melrose Hotel in Georgetown is Nate Lindsay, Executive Chef in its stunning redesigned restaurant, Jardenea. Before coming here in October, Lindsay, a graduate of the Culinary Institute in Connecticut sharpened his knives at Azurea the Melrose’s One Ocean Resort & Spa in Atlantic Beach, Florida. Lindsay has taken to the farm-to-fork philosophy to inform his menu like a duck to a pan of cherries, using ingredients as organic, local and seasonal as possible from over thirty different farms in the Chesapeake region. A recent dinner there checked all the boxes for food, service, cocktails, ambiance and wines. That puts it in memorable status in my playbook.
Here’s a chapter from Lindsay’s script for spring. Maryland crab soup, crisp-skinned duck breast with cherry tomatoes from Hummingbird Farms, MD, melted soft, sweet and juicy alongside fiddlehead ferns and braised red cabbage with apples and macerated cherries in pomegranate juice; chicken roulade filled with artichoke confit, local spinach and feta; porcini orzo and ramps; veal loin with asparagus; grilled wild Atlantic salmon mignon poached in a golden tomato nage and served with local zucchini and yellow squash from Parker Farms in Oak Grove, VA.
The under-30 chef credits his farm connections with keeping him abreast of what’s popping out of the soil. One purveyor operating a “mobile market” truck appears at his kitchen door with specialty produce from beets to morels and fiddleheads to hydroponic garnishes and lettuces. Often the farmers will ride along to meet the chef.
Meanwhile in the bar and lounge, bar chefs are using fresh ingredients like jalapenos, pear and kiwi to concoct fruit consommé infusions. The “Il Pero” with its pear-infused vodka, elderflower liqueur, fresh hand squeezed lemon juice and parmesan garnish has already gotten such a buzz they can’t take it off the menu.
The restaurant’s manager, William Rabil, who is one of the rarest of the rare, an exceptionally gracious host who could write the book on attentiveness and genuine concern, has an extensive knowledge of wines and spirits. While there I ordered a drink absent from the cocktail menu – a mint julep to accompany the mild weather. No worries, he said. It popped up in a thrice, a perfectly balanced blend of bourbon, fresh mint and simple syrup served over crushed ice. The Kentucky Derby is next weekend. We’ll have our next one on the patio where music will accompany warm evenings.
At Al Tiramisu, an upscale, cozy-as-a-ravioli Italian-centric bistro near Dupont Circle, Chef Luigi Diotaiuti has embraced the season wholeheartedly. A few of these items will be available as specials as market availability allows. Call first to be sure your favorite is on the day’s menu. Local Maryland goat stew with baby carrots, onions and new potatoes, part of the “Beauty of Basilica” menu the chef created for his James Beard House menu earlier this year, is a indeed a winner as is lamb ragu papardelle over first-of-the-crop spinach.
Here’s where you’ll find soft shell crabs and grilled sardines, crepes filled with spinach and swiss chard, a sweet version of risotto with strawberries and prosecco, and trenette with arugula pesto. Hope to hell they have the light-as-a-feather cantaloupe mousse or go for the yogurt panna cotta with berry coulis.
National Harbor’s 6th Annual Food & Wine Festival Along the Potomac
Spring means it’s time for the National Harbor Food & Wine Festival and I have a particular fondness for this event. It’s where I met and later wrote about two local lads, Heath Hall and Brett Thompson, who were launching their Pork Barrel Barbeque line. The scrappy neophytes later went on to fame and fortune on ABC’s Shark Tank and opened their own eponymously named restaurant in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria where they serve up some of the best barbecue south of the Mason-Dixon line. It was here too where I learned from the Grande Dame of Charleston Cooking, Natalie Dupree, who taught a class in biscuit making (She uses cream cheese and butter!) emboldening me to horn in on my Southern mother-in-law’s domain and offer up a few brave attempts of my own.
This year the star-studded list is long on talent including The Wine Coach – Laurie Forster; Kyle Bailey and Tiffany MacIsaac of ChurchKey, Birch & Barley and GBD; Bryan Voltaggio of Volt Restaurant, Lunchbox and Range; Scott Drewno of The Source by Wolfgang Puck; Salt and Pepper;Rock Harper of Fat Shorty’s; Victor Albisu of Del Campo, BLT Steak and Taco Bamba; Dave Zino of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association; and Mike Isabella of Graffiato and Bandolero. What a line up!
Food from Whoopsie’s Gourmet Whoopie Pies, Eleven Courses Private Chefs, Mojo Magic – Cuban Salsa from Havana Road Café,International Cheeses, Chesapeake Crab Dip by KS Catering,TheAll American Slider and Brooklyn Hot Dog and much, much more is on deck too.
Billing itself as the largest wine festival of its kind in the DC Metro region, the festival has over 150 international wines, spirits and beers to taste or purchase. Tack on a “Cinco De Mayo Pavilion”, a craft beer tasting biergarten, whiskey and bourbon tastings, and two stages of live bands for a full-out blast.
For tickets and information visit www.wineandfoodnh.com or call 800 830-3976.
Bailey and MacIsaac Strike Gold
Speaking of Tiffany MacIsaac and husband/chef Kyle Bailey, the two have dreamt up yet another trendy concept called GBD – an abbreviation for golden, brown and delicious. Housed in an old brownstone, sandwiched between Connecticut Avenue and 18th Street, the restaurant’s fare is doughnuts and fried chicken paired with beer. Now don’t get me wrong, this is optimum eat-to-drink food, but not, I might add, an everyday meal. So I’m just warning my faithful peeps not to get hooked on the Maker’s Mark bourbon butterscotch glazed brioche topped with house made bacon, or the trés leches old-fashioned doughnut with toasted coconut, or any other of the umpteen flavor triggers from pastry chef MacIsaac’s wet dreams. No, no, don’t come crying to me that you have been waiting in line every day for the juicy, crispy, deep fried momma-goodness chicken either. There was a banh mi fried chicken wrap the other day if you want to keep it healthy, otherwise I have no pity. I’m with you all the way.
Greg Engert has a few wet dreams of his own in the form of craft beers. His 7,000 square foot Blue Jacket Brewery is soon to open close to Nationals Park. Ask about the one that uses foraged wild wood sorrel as an ingredient. Brewmistress (sounds a bit kinky) Megan Parisi already has several of their beers ready to sample at GBD and ChurchKey. Just a little aside, my first drinking experience was in Florence, Italy, where I spent a youthful and unorthodox spring break staying in the digs of an Italian count. Our favorite pastime was playing fuzbol while drinking Peroni and eating Italian pastries. Sweets and beer. A winning combination!
Atlanta Loves Our Chefs
The organizers of the newly hatched but already madly popular Atlanta Food & Wine Festival flew into DC last night to brag on our local chefs and wine and beer experts. Hosting a bespoke Southern style picnic on the grounds of the newly restored Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, they snagged Master Wine Sommelier Kathy Morgan, Pastry Chef Tiffany MacIsaac, Chef Kyle Bailey, James Beard Award Winner Karen Nicolas, Chef Aaron Deal, Chef/Restaurateur/Cookbook Author David Guas, Beer Sommelier Greg Engert, and DC Chef Clayton Miller to prepare what they will be serving, demoing and teaching at the upcoming event.
The festival featuring over 250 award-winning chefs, mixologists, sommeliers, distillers and brewmasters, was created to shine a light on the food traditions of the American South, defined by the founders as extending from DC to Texas. Recently, however, event creators Elizabeth Feichter and Dominique Love, have expanded their reach to include the Southern Hemisphere, drawing on “roots” cooking from Mexico, Africa, Chile, Spain and other sunny southern climes. Notwithstanding this broadened base, expect a strong focus on bourbon, pork, barbecue, seafood and farm grown cooking in a white tablecloth setting. The festival runs from May 30th to June 2nd. For details visit www.atlfoodandwinefestival.com
The Lure of the Pizza
I will pretty much trot off to any outpost I’m told has great pizza. I’m an expert, just like you. Not at baking one but at eating them throughout Italy and New York City as a kid and later, as their popularity grew, to just about any place that had a reputation for terrific tomato pies. I’ve found yummy, cheesy, crunchy-crusted pies in low places and others, with fancier ingredients, like clams, arugula or prosciutto di Parma, in higher realms. But always the pizza had to have its own personality to qualify as good. Wood-fired brick ovens are not the only way to make a tasty pizza, but usually, if the pizza man (please let me know of any women pizza makers) has a good sense of timing, an awareness of the hot spots in their oven, top notch ingredients and a long handled wooden paddle, you can expect a pie worth leaving your own kitchen for.
Will Artley is making those pies and other specialty Italian dishes. As a chef of considerable talent in our region for quite some time, he was formerly of Evening Star by way of Butterfield 9, Indebleu, Colvin Run Tavern and Kinkaid’s, he has found his niche at Pizzeria Orso. As an alumnus of DC Central Kitchen’s Capitol Food Fight with Jose Andres and Anthony Bourdain, and contestant on Food Network’s Chopped, Artley has been exploring and experimenting with ingredient combinations and techniques that spell a flavor- forward dynamic. He considers Pizzeria Orso his playground – and a perfect one it is for him. He’s brought his long-time kitchen crew with him and clearly they are all on the same wavelength.
The New Mexico native has been getting a lot of attention for his efforts and I’ve been following him from afar for the past year or so. Last month I found a booth in the sunny yellow Fairfax resto and earnestly got down to sampling his food and drink.
The bar has an impressive collection of beers drawing heavily from the Mid-Atlantic region. Wines cast a wider yet quite affordable net. An Oregon Pinot Noir, a Spanish Rioja and an Argentine Malbec convinced me someone knowledgeable was behind those decisions. But a glance at a whirring slushee machine behind the counter was enough inspiration to get me to order Artley’s version of a frozen cherry bourbon concoction. And glad I did. First Artley sent out some biscuits. The last thing I would have expected from a pizza joint. But, as usual he always has surprises up his tattooed sleeves and they were irresistibly buttery and madly addicting. They show up for Sunday brunch and you wouldn’t want to miss them.
Seven or eight small plates flew by. Here are the ones I’d have all over again. Baby beet and carrot salad with smoked ewe’s cheese and pomegranate molasses was both sweet and smoky, fried arancini with tomato and goat cheese, crispy shaved Brussel sprouts brightened with bacon and treated to a shower of Parmegiano Reggiano, and a plate of meltingly tender grilled octopus with a puree of white beans and artichokes that stole my heart.
Out came the pizzas and as fast as we could wrap our greedy maws around a hot slice another pie was served up. The pies take three minutes to finish in the one thousand degree oven. Made of Italian volcanic rock and clay from Mount Vesuvius by a fourth-generation Neapolitan family, the huge domed oven was imported in one piece to its current spot in full view of diners. And that’s where much of the magic takes place.
Over a dozen options are available – all made from a sourdough starter and 00 Caputo flour. Or tailor yours from four sauces, five cheeses and twenty-one toppings. A professional slicer shaves the prosciutto di Parma so thin you can see through it. Be sure to top at least one of your pies with this delicate ham.
Dessert was out of the question but I noted some I’d come back for. Lemon-glazed doughnut with whipped Nutella mousse or a pistachio cannoli.
Philly Icon, Stephen Starr, Wows DC with Le Diplomate
On the run to another event I stopped into Philadelphia’s best-known restauranteur’s first outpost in DC and what a scene it was. Early on a Wednesday evening the joint was jumping. Diners waited in line, waiters scurried to and fro and bartenders were slammed. Build it and they will come. The place just opened its doors two weeks ago and it’s already a hit.
Not since the long-shuttered and much beloved Les Halles graced Pennsylvania Avenue has DC seen a French bistro so reminiscent of Paris’s La Coupole. High tin ceilings, bentwood and wicker chairs, marble topped counters and antique memorabilia, all shipped over from France. I barely had time for a cheese board. But delicious it was along with the exquisitely crusty breads, made on site, that would give any boulangerie a run for its francs. Well, I regress, euros, naturellement. Any place that has “Fruits de Mer” stamped on its awning has got my reservation. Thanks for the grand entrance, Mr. Starr.