Tuesday, July 24, 2012

If in Washington, DC

In The Table Comes First, Adam Gopnik describes a meal as existing between the moderating forces of alcohol, narrowing our focus to the table, and caffeine, expanding it outward after the meal to the world outside. Last time I wrote here, about a frenzied half day and night in New York City, I think I proved him wrong. In New York City, at least, rhythms such as those Gopnik describes in his book The Table Comes First disappear into themselves and you moderate accordingly: do you need an espresso or a Vieux Carre or, dare I say it, both at once? Routine has only limited traction in Gotham.

Washington DC is different. New York moves at the frenetic, harried pace of finance; DC moves at the crawl of government. For me, the lumbering and reliable routine of a government city is far better suited for bar study than the spontaneity of New York – we’ll save that for after the exam. Anyway, I lived here once so there’s no need to sprint around the Mall visiting the Smithsonian and the monuments (for those interested, the new MLK memorial looks much better in person than in photographs). So, each day begins with consistency; Peregrine Espresso on rapidly gentrifying 14th street for a cappuccino, a pastry, and an addictive cup of lemon yogurt. Then it’s off to the national archives to study.

My study habits are uninteresting. More interesting is Jose Andres’ Oyamel. At Oyamel, Andres, arguably the most famous chef in DC, cooks – insofar as Andres still cooks anywhereat all – Mexican in what is basically a quieter, better designed Joey’s. It’s actually quite good. Cooked salsa with chipotles is rich and bottomless because it’s chips and salsa at an “upscale casual” restaurant, while a tamale with chicken and salsa verde is bright and acid and good. Shrimp with black garlic is jet black with an iodine sweetness, while a chocolate dessert with passion fruit is that rare thing for a chocolate dessert: refreshing.

See, routine – breakfast at the same cafĂ© each day, lunch on the same street, now dinner, further afield at 2 Amys in Cleveland Park for pizza, this, and that. The pies are good – early spring on a puffy crust with asparagus, nettles , and pecorino and, more classically, a margherita. Neither are as good as the soft shell crab, lightly fried with pickles and mayo, or maybe even the small plates like pickled anchovies with non-acidic olives or April on a plate again with grilled eggplant, pine nuts, and ramps. And after, back towards 14th St, for a night cap. Despite the whiff of pretention, The Gibson does a pretty good job with its cocktails. See, Mr. Gopnik, I take your point: espresso to open the day, three square meals, and a good drink to close it. You are on to something.

So let’s try this again, breakfast at Peregrine, lunch on 7th St NW at Hill Country, across the street from Oyamel and metaphorically further north with the heart of Texas on the plate. It’s decent barbeque. Then, put our names in at Little Serow for dinner. Downstairs from Johnny Monis’s Komi, arguably DC’s best restaurant, this dark, no reservations, no accommodations restaurant is Monis’s passion project, a love letter to the Northeast Thailand, where he married his wife. With spare, dark decore and low light and an open kitchen that is almost undifferentiated from the restaurant, it’s perhaps the chicest most stylish (what awful words those are!) restaurant I’ve been to in a long time. It’s also one of the best. $45, tax included, gets you eight courses, rice, and some raw vegetables. Hot, sweet, sour, and pungent there’s searing heat from khao tod (peppers, eggplant, sticky rice) tender pork ribs braised in Thai whiskey, stunning citrus from ma hor (sour fruits and dried shrimp), and a pate of rabbit liver and shrimp paste and more than I can remember or you want to read about. The point is that Little Serow is excellent, as good a restaurant as I’ve been to all year, and this hasn’t been a bad year for eating (note to Toronto chefs: someone do this! Charge me $50 or so in a small, unadorned room, give me a bunch of food and no choice, cook really well, this city will reward you handsomely). Afterwards, to keep with routine, a nightcap at The Gibson.

Fast forward a bit – the routine is the same, only dinner is different, which may be part of the routine at this point – to an early bite at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace. Oysters are good as is shrimp gumbo. The room is a little clean cut for this kind of place. There’s wood, but not reclaimed wood, which puts it either ahead of or behind the trends, I’m not sure. By 7:30 the place is jammed with young DC types enjoying happy hour on the patio. We went for drinks afterwards at whiskey specialist Jack Rose. The gigantic selection is undermined by the bar feeling a little bit like Murray Hill.

The next day, before I go, a secret which I fear has been leaked by the spike-haired guy with the backwards sunglasses. But listen, when I lived here, Oohs and Aahs on U-Street was kind of a secret. Yes, it’s a long wait for slow food and, yes, I’m not sure that the Department of Health is doing their job here, but man, who cares when you’ve got crisp and tart chicken wings, blackened catfish, grilled shrimp with some Cajun-esque spices, greens, mac-n-cheese, and some peach cobbler. Inside there’s not really anywhere to sit, so we take our food across the street to a concrete and tear into it. Imagine the sight: two giddy kids eating out of Styrofoam, faces covered in orange sauce and black spice like grinning jack-o-lanterns. Passersby must have thought us insane. They had no idea what they were missing. If I lived here, this would definitely be part of my routine.

So, Mr. Gopnik, did I do well? A cup of coffee to open, a good drink to close, some study and some food in-between, and a little secret before I left? I listened to you. I made the good things a part of my routine and that made the routine a bit better. Full days, full stomachs, what more could we want?

Posted by Adrian Myers

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