D.C. din­ing done right

Na­tion’s cap­i­tal de­servedly earns rep­u­ta­tion for world-class cui­sine

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL - By Patti Nickell

WASHINGTON — There is one unim­peach­able fact re­gard­ing our na­tion’s cap­i­tal: It has de­vel­oped quite the rep­u­ta­tion for world-class cui­sine.

From siz­zling steaks to spicy Afghan ke­bobs, Washington has it cov­ered. I found out for my­self on a re­cent visit ded­i­cated to eat­ing (with a few sight­see­ing jaunts to work off the calo­ries).

Mak­ing my base the newly re­fur­bished Dupont Cir­cle Ho­tel, I found it ide­ally sit­u­ated for ex­plor­ing all the cap­i­tal has to of­fer. The ren­o­va­tion has given the ho­tel a touch of class be­fit­ting its lo­ca­tion in the Em­bassy Row area.

In ad­di­tion to a stun­ning lobby and well-de­signed guest rooms, it has a fine din­ing res­tau­rant, The Pem­broke, de­scribed as “cut from a dif­fer­ent cloth” by Washington Post food critic Tom Si­et­sema. I don’t know what kind of cloth he was re­fer­ring to, but my din­ner of red snap­per with for­bid­den rice, red curry and co­conut velouté ac­com­pa­nied by whole Bos­ton let­tuce with Di­jon vinai­grette and grilled as­para­gus with lemon chili ex­em­pli­fied chef Harper McClure’s farm-to-ta­ble fare tinged with global in­flu­ences.

While I liked the res­tau­rant, I was en­chanted by the bar, a throw­back to the clas­sic cock­tail lounge of the 1940s and

’50s with dim light­ing, dis­creet seat­ing and soft mu­sic that pro­vides a back­drop for con­ver­sa­tion rather than drown­ing it out with ear-shat­ter­ing mu­sic as so many of to­day’s bars do. With at­mos­phere to spare plus clas­sic cock­tails (you can even sign up for a mixol­ogy class with the bar­tenders), it’s no won­der The Pem­broke has be­come a sort of club­house for the Dupont Cir­cle set.

Washington is no stranger to a cock­tail cul­ture. After all, it was Ken­tuck­ian Henry Clay who in­tro­duced the mint julep to the bar­keep at the ven­er­a­ble Wil­lard Ho­tel two cen­turies ago (they still use his recipe to­day), but it was an­other ho­tel that pro­vided me with a unique ex­pe­ri­ence. The Water­gate in Foggy Bot­tom is in­fa­mous for be­ing the site of the scan­dal that led to the res­ig­na­tion (be­fore he could be im­peached) of Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon. If no one is oc­cu­py­ing Room 214 — aka the Scan­dal Room — cu­ri­ous vis­i­tors can get a peek at where G. Gor­don Liddy and E. Howard Hunt or­ches­trated the break-in at Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee head­quar­ters, then lo­cated next door to the ho­tel.

There’s noth­ing scan­dalous about the craft cock­tails ex­pertly pre­sented by head mixol­o­gist Kal Lemma in the ho­tel’s King­bird bar. Kal, a na­tive of Ethiopia, is noth­ing short of an al­chemist when it comes to turn­ing un­usual in­gre­di­ents into a per­fectly mixed cock­tail and then pair­ing it with dishes from the kitchen.

It’s ro­man­tic to think of the cor­ri­dors of power be­ing dark, dingy back rooms in shad­owy build­ings, but in truth, per­haps more of the na­tion’s business is con­ducted in trendy restau­rants than in Se­nate and House cham­bers.

The place for a power lunch in D.C. is Char­lie Palmer Steak on Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue. With its prox­im­ity to the Capi­tol, it’s known as “Congress’ din­ing room.” Leg­is­la­tors sit around the cen­tral foun­tain and nosh on jumbo shrimp cock­tails, Jerusalem ar­ti­choke bisque, grilled Span­ish oc­to­pus with avo­cado puree, and of course, the sig­na­ture steak cuts. If their ex­pense ac­counts are suf­fi­ciently large, there’s the 44 Farms Bone-on Rib­eye ($66) with a choice of five sauces.

An­other power din­ing spot is the Lafayette Res­tau­rant at the Hay-Adams Ho­tel, where se­lect ta­bles of­fer a framed view of the White House from the win­dows.

Sub­dued and el­e­gant in decor, the menu per­fectly com­ple­ments the set­ting. Known for their Sun­day brunch, I found it lived up to the hype. Over a glass of chilled Tait­tinger brut cham­pagne, I pon­dered a menu that fea­tured dishes such as Lob­ster Omelet with White Beech and Shi­itake Mush­rooms; Crab Cake Bene­dict with Tar­ragon Hol­landaise and Ri­cotta Pan­cakes with Lemon Mas­car­pone, Toasted Al­monds and Fresh Berries. In the end, the pan­cakes won, and they were so fill­ing that to my dis­ap­point­ment, I wasn’t able to in­dulge in the very in­dul­gent dessert cart.

Don’t pre­sume you need a coat and tie (and a Se­cret Ser­vice agent) to fully ex­pe­ri­ence some of D.C.’s best eat­ing. There’s plenty of lip-smack­ingly good spots that cater to John Q. Public. One of the best is The Salt Line right on the Po­tomac river­front, within walk­ing dis­tance of Na­tion­als Park, home of the 2019 World Se­ries champs.

The ex­pe­ri­ence here is that of a New England seafood house in­flu­enced by the bounty of the Ch­e­sa­peake. That means hearty clam chow­der; cod­dies (salt cod and Yukon gold pota­toes with yel­low mus­tard and crack­ers); Johnny Cake (honey but­ter, smoked white­fish salad and mar­i­nated salmon roe), and for the re­ally hun­gry, a Water­man’s Plat­ter fea­tur­ing fried fish, oys­ters, shrimp and scal­lops ac­com­pa­nied by fries, onion rings and cole slaw.

The raw bar is epic, with seafood tow­ers con­structed from oys­ters, clams, lob­ster, crab, shrimp and a seafood char­cu­terie of the chef ’s daily spe­cial­ties. If there are two of you, the Kraken, priced at $100, should suf­fice. If there are more, you’ll have to shell out $155 for the Le­viathan.

For a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence, make your way to the Adams Mor­gan Dis­trict for lunch at Lapis Afghani Res­tau­rant. Al­ways packed with lively lo­cals look­ing for a rea­son­ably priced eth­nic meal, you might have to wait for a ta­ble and it might be tightly squeezed into a cor­ner when you do get one, but be­lieve me, it’s worth it.

Some may find the decor a bit kitschy, but I found it charm­ing with col­or­ful Ori­en­tal rugs and brass fix­tures. It feels as if you’re in a mod­est home, which in a sense you are. The own­ers were forced to flee Afghanista­n four decades ago after the Soviet in­va­sion, leav­ing be­hind all their pos­ses­sions. Lapis feels like their Amer­i­can home.

I started with Aushak, Afghan dumplings stuffed with leeks and topped with ground beef, yel­low split peas and strained gar­lic yo­gurt. From their dessert menu — clev­erly la­beled Sweet­is­tan — I chose the pan­cakes with rose­wa­ter, car­damom and pis­ta­chios and driz­zled with warm rose­wa­ter syrup. This was so good that — had I been in town an­other day — I likely would have gone back.

Fi­nally, if you’re look­ing for the per­fect spot for a night­cap (and maybe some tasty treats to go with it), check out the bar at Bour­bon Steak in the Four Sea­sons Ho­tel in Ge­orge­town. With its stylish decor, 24 dif­fer­ent cuts of prime beef and celebrity din­ers (it was a fa­vorite of the Oba­mas), it’s no won­der this is a cov­eted ticket to come by — as well as an ex­pen­sive one. As the name would sug­gest, one thing that’s sure to ap­peal is its im­pres­sive list of bour­bons.

While you could fill up an en­tire weekend in Washington treat­ing your taste buds, if you want to get a lit­tle cul­ture in the bar­gain, check out the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture. Opened in 2016 as the new­est mem­ber of the Smith­so­nian, it’s the only na­tional mu­seum de­voted ex­clu­sively to doc­u­ment­ing African Amer­i­can life, his­tory and cul­ture.

Also worth a visit is the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Mu­seum. The ex­hibit “Women: A Cen­tury of Change” (run­ning through spring of 2020) dis­plays stun­ning pho­to­graphs of women in ev­ery part of the world by (mostly) fe­male pho­tog­ra­phers. And the Phillips Col­lec­tion is just a short walk from the Dupont Cir­cle Ho­tel. The mu­seum oc­cu­pies a beau­ti­ful Vic­to­rian-style build­ing and of­fers a mod­ern art col­lec­tion in an in­ti­mate set­ting. On se­lect Sun­days, the mu­seum hosts clas­si­cal mu­sic con­certs in one of the gal­leries.

DUPONT CIR­CLE HO­TEL/TNS

Bar­tenders Do­minik Lenikowski, left, and An­dre Bas­tine mix it up at the newly re­fur­bished Dupont Cir­cle Ho­tel.

HAY-ADAMS HO­TEL/TNS

Topped off with el­e­gant desserts, Sun­day brunch at the Hay-Adams Ho­tel is a Washington tra­di­tion.

THE WATER­GATE HO­TEL/TNS

Head bar­tender Kal Lemma at King­bird in The Water­gate Ho­tel whips up one of his spe­cialty drinks.

THE SALT LINE/TNS

Oys­ters at The Salt Line, a res­tau­rant with a New England at­mos­phere on the Po­tomac.

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