Deviled in the Details
Deviled eggs, like the common hot dog and macaroni and cheese, are one of those classic comfort foods that have lately taken on a sort of contemporary chic—and, in some cases, sheen.
To wit: One recent evening at Boundary Stone in Bloomingdale, a plate of the $3 hors d’oeuvres arrived in the standard fashion—hard-boiled, bisected, and served cold. Except for one glaring element: The yolks were frickin’ pink! What horrible deformity had befallen that poor chicken embryo?
Thankfully, the blushing semi-orbs didn’t taste all that abnormal. They were just slightly sour and a tad tangy. It seemed no genetic mutation was at play here, nor was this some ill-conceived promotion to benefit the Think Pink campaign for breast cancer awareness. “I take some pickled beet juice and add that in with the yolk to make the deviled mixture,” chef Vincent Campaniello later explains.
When I made a return visit a few weeks later, the eggs had changed from bright pink to a sort of greenish gold. They smacked of heavy salt and spice, as well as a more subtle flavor that I couldn’t immediately identify but eventually found out to be dill.
This sort of guessing game has become commonplace at the increasingly hip neighborhood’s newest boîte.
A woman sitting next to me at the bar, who described herself as a “deviled egg snob,” claimed to have previously tried three different colors of eggs at Campaniello’s rustic-looking restaurant on Rhode Island Avenue NW: pink, orange, and purple. Her favorite? The orange—though she added that she had no clue what was in that one.
“My deviled eggs will change nightly depending on what I feel like playing around with and putting in them,” says Campaniello, whose Sunday trips to nearby farmers markets often dictate what sort of creamy egg filling his patrons will be eating for the next week. “I try and give the people something new.”
Despite the mystery, or maybe partly because of it, the bar snacks have become quite popular sellers, according to the chef. “I get a lot of questions sometimes,” he says. “But once [customers] try them, they fly out of here. I get in trouble stocking them. I’ll think I make enough orders and they’ll be gone with plenty of time left in service.”
Campaniello’s eggy experiments underscore a larger trend. At D.C.-area eateries, the summertime picnic staple has become as common an appetizer as fried calamari, yet as varied in preparation as pizza.
Perhaps the local standard-bearer of the genre is 2Amys in Cleveland Park, where deviled eggs have been listed on the menu since the restaurant first opened in 2001. Peter Pastan’s place is best known for its traditional Neapolitan-style pizza, but the eggs are outstanding. They win my vote for best in the entire city. The yolk filling tastes of curry, but not overpoweringly so. And, the accompanying oily green sauce—whipped up with chopped parsley, pickles, anchovy, capers, and mustard seed—piles on the salt.
Prior to the pizzeria’s opening, Pastan, also proprietor of Obelisk in Dupont Circle, had served the dish at local fundraisers. “Either people would get it, and they’d be like, ‘Oh, who doesn’t love deviled eggs?’ or, they’d be like, ‘What? Deviled eggs?’ like it was nothing special,” says 2Amys co-owner Amy Morgan.
Between the deviled delights and other egg-laden recipes, 2Amys generally goes through about five cases of eggs each week, she says. That’s 150 dozen.
In recent years, other venues have tried to elevate the old cold egg in weird ways, with varying degrees of success. At Ray’s to the Third in Arlington, the latest establishment in beef-centric restaurateur Michael Landrum’s empire, the traditional yolk mixture is tossed out entirely. Landrum instead fills his white ovals with steak tartare and smothers them in Hollandaise. The powdery yolks are scattered about the plate as a sort of garnish along with some pickles, capers, and diced onion. Call me old-fashioned, but the yolk is where the payoff is. Relegating it to the side is just plain wrong.
Retro-chic comfort food, like overpriced pet food, seems to cause marketers to break out the puns: At Ray’s, the classic deviled descriptor is altered to “devilishly good” on the menu. At Founding Farmers, the Foggy Bottom church of farm-to-table dining, eggs filled with lobster, crab, and salmon-infused mixtures are labeled “devil-ish.”
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Economics may help explain the ascension of the old-school, albumin-rich dish to prominence on local menus. Eggs are cheap. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average retail price of a dozen grade-A eggs in September was less than $2. Slice each of ’em in half and your profit margin on the main ingredient instantly doubles.
Another financial factor: Prominent local chefs I’ve interviewed give me the distinct sense that they think the cure for our current national economic malaise involves healthy doses of mayonnaise, plus yolk.
“In these times, people are looking for what comforts them,” says Boundary Stone’s Campaniello. “I’ve done the five-star fine dining and everything. People aren’t really looking for the white linen service anymore. They want to come in and just enjoy the simple things that spark a little memory.”
And yet, even some of the city’s finer dining establishments are churning out deviled eggs. Consider Central, where fancy French chef Michel Richard serves what his compatriots calls œufs mimosa, a quartet of creamy egg halves topped with marinated anchovies called boquerones, for $7. They are quite good. The seafood topping is neither too fishy nor too salty.
At Richard’s even fussier Georgetown location Citronelle, a more traditional version of deviled eggs also appear on the menu of a special pre-theatre promotion honoring the Washington Ballet’s upcoming production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic jazz-age novel The Great Gatsby. (The story’s action, you’ll recall, takes place in fictional West Egg.) It seems that what was good for the dapper gents and flapper-clad gals of the roaring ’20s is also perfectly suited to the 21st-century high rollers still raking it in within the Beltway’s yet-unburst bubble.
On the flipside, you find the same style of finger food getting hands sticky inside some of the District’s dingier dives. At DC9, where former Frank Ruta acolyte Amber Bursik now helms the kitchen, deviled eggs help ease the sting of whiskey shots and ear-ringing indie rock.
Bursik infuses her egg filling with pimento cheese. It’s a natural extension of the chef’s go-to morning-after remedy: grilled cheese filled with the pimento spread. “That’s one of my favorite hangover foods,” she says.
Add some paprika and a sliver of real pimento on top and you’ve got one potent bar snack. “It’s got a little bit of a smoky flavor to it, then it’s kind of sweet, a little salty, a little cheesy, and a little eggy,” she says.
Beyond the homey appeal of the dish—“They remind you of your childhood, they’re tasty and they’re kind of a guilty pleasure,” the chef says—Bursik floats another reason why folks flock to local restaurants for their deviled egg fix: “They’re a pain in the ass to make for yourself.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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Boundary Stone, 116 Rhode Island Ave. NW
2Amys, 3715 Macomb St. NW, (202) 885-5700
Founding Farmers, 1924 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 822-8783
Ray’s to the Third, 1650 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
DC9, 1940 9th St. NW, (202) 483-5000