The Hungries: The Best—and the Worst—of D.C. Restaurants in 2012
In 2012, Washingtonians finally got a bunch of things that have been on our food and drink wish lists for years. After more than a century, we have a legal gin-producing distillery: New Columbia Distillers. Finally (finally!), there’s a place to eat some decent matzo ball soup and pastrami, thanks to DGS Delicatessen. A great bowl of ramen or pho no longer requires a drive out to the suburbs. And we even have something resembling San Francisco’s Ferry Building in the new Union Market.
Of course, there was also some stuff we probably could have gone without—from the $450 waffles and illegal operations of Groupon-blaming Back Alley Waffles to the bizarre ownership finger-pointing at Meatballs and its ultimate demise. To reflect back on all these happenings and shenanigans, we present the Hungries: the best, worst, and weirdest developments in D.C. food this year.
Weirdest Way to Serve a Dish:
José Andrés has come up with some pretty crazy stuff: liquid olives, foie gras cotton candy, America Eats Tavern. But the most bizarre of all? The resin shoe used to serve chicken croquetas at the revamped Jaleo downtown. The clear Converse-inspired kicks with white laces were created by designer Sami Hayek (brother to actress Salma Hayek). And this isn’t the first time Andrés has had a fetish with food-serving footware. He used real Camper shoes to serve croquetas at the Las Vegas Jaleo, but health inspectors put their foot down when it came to using them in D.C. We’re still not quite sure why Andrés would want to serve fritters in footware. Maybe he just wants to keep us on our toes?
Most Insane Cocktail Ingredient:
Todd Thrasher’s Foraged Pine Cone Syrup
There is officially nothing mixologists won’t put in cocktails. Venison-infused whiskey? Sure! Roasted grasshopper garnish? Why not! At the new Hank’s Oyster Bar on Capitol Hill, the rum-based “Landlubber” came with a smoked banana peel on top. Elisir’s new cocktail menu includes ingredients like toasted Panettone cake syrup and tobacco-smoked cherry. And at Bryan Voltaggio’s new Chevy Chase restaurant Range, you can get “beef ice” made out of clarified veal stock in your scotch and ginger “Vegan Sacrifice” cocktail. But if we had to pick one thing that seems like it came out of a Portlandia skit, it would probably be TNT mixologist Todd Thrasher’s pine cone syrup made with pine cones foraged from his own yard. He uses the syrup, which has a sweet eucalyptus flavor, in a $12 cocktail called “Metal Surrenders When Oak Trees Meet Fenders,” which is based on a lyrics from the Avett Brothers song “In the Curve.”
Worst Business Proposition Ever:
$450 Waffles at Back Alley Waffles
When Back Alley Waffles in Shaw went out of business after three months, owner Craig Nelsen blamed Groupon for not sending the money from its coupon sales fast enough. “Due to the shocking business practices of an obscenity known as ‘Groupon’—contemptible even by the nearly non-existent standards of the modern corporation—I can no longer afford to sell waffles for $8.00,” he wrote on his website. Instead, Nelsen said, he would charge $450—by appointment only. What he didn’t acknowledge until later: Back Alley Waffles was never a legitimate business in the first place. It turned out the waffle shop didn’t have a basic business license or certificate of occupancy, and the health department never inspected the place. But Nelsen refused to let “legal operations” get him down and said he’d like to reopen Back Alley Waffles again someday. “We don’t have the money at this point,” he told Y&H. “Unless you’re looking for an investment.”
Most Overused RestaurantDesign Trend:
Reclaimed Barn Wood
Somewhere, there must be a killing to be made in tearing down barns. At a time when “repurposed” is the new “new,” reclaimed barn wood has become one of the year’s hottest (and most ubiquitous) restaurant design trends. Epic SmokeHouse and Nage Bistro have it on the walls, Luke’s Lobster in Georgetown has it on the floors, and the newly renovated Firefly has tables made out of it. You’ll also find so-called reclaimed/repurposed/recycled barn wood at new restaurants Mintwood Place, Leek American Bistro, The Pig, Family Meal, and bunch of other “rustic chic” eateries. The material is so prevalent that “urban farmhouse” has practically become its own genre. Seasonal, local, house-made, hand-crafted, artisanal cuisine included.
Most Misused Foodie Term:
For the record, there is no such thing as a legally operating speakeasy. But don’t tell D.C. restaurateurs that. Now it seems all you need is a secret password or, heck, just a close-quartered bar with no windows to use the term. Some abusers of the term are more egregious than others: Boveda, a new restaurant in the Westin Georgetown, branded itself as a “Latin speakeasy” when it opened in September. Sorry, but a hotel bar serving pork carnitas is about as far from an illicit Prohibition-era watering hole as it gets. And then there was LivingSocial’s Friday and Saturday “speakeasy” in its 918 F St. NW event space. But it’s hard to take the term seriously when you need to use passwords like “get a wiggle on” and “cat’s pajamas” to get in. In fact, LivingSocial has since abandoned the passwords, making its speakeasy just another dark bar.
Wagamama led us on for four years, promising opening dates that never came, and finally it broke up with us this fall. The London-based noodle shop first sent word that it was coming to Penn Quarter back in 2008. Signs with dates on the windows were replaced by newer and newer signs with dates, a continuous cycle of hope and disappointment. In the end, Wagamama didn’t even give us a good reason for pulling away, saying only that its priority was Boston. It’s not you, it’s me?
The “Grow Some Balls” Award:
Mark Bucher and Michel Richard
It was surprising enough that one of D.C.’s most famous chefs, Michel Richard, was opening a fast-casual meatball shop. But that wasn’t nearly as surprising as the ensuing mystery and drama over who actually owned the restaurant. All the business documents indicated that BGR: The Burger Joint owner Mark Bucher was running the place, but he emphatically denied that he was a partner and tried to avoid public affiliation with the project, saying he was merely advising as a friend. Meanwhile, Richard, the so-called “face” of the establishment, shied away from interviews and began distancing himself as negative reviews rolled in. By the time Meatballs shuttered in June, Richard was claiming that he had only ever been minimally involved and no longer had anything to do with it. We wish one of them had enough balls to own up to the flop.
Best Overall D.C. Food Trend:
It used to be that you had to trek out to Wheaton or Falls Church for a decent bowl of ramen or pho. In D.C. proper, Toki Underground has pretty much ruled the ramen game since it opened. But 2012 produced some worthy competitors with Taan and Sakuramen in Adams Morgan. And that’s not counting the slew of non-Asian restaurants serving ramen like The Pig, Hogo, and The Hamilton. Also coming soon: Daikaya in Chinatown, where former Think Food Group toque Katsuya Fukushima will be cooking up noodle soup next year. It’s been a strong year for pho, too, with the additions of Hanoi House on U Street NW, Sprig & Sprout in Glover Park, and a second Pho 14 in Adams Morgan (with a third coming to Van Ness next year). We’ll take another pho shop over another burger joint or cupcakery any day.
Shill of the Year:
Capitalizing on his Top Chef and Life After Top Chef fame, Good Stuff Eatery’s Spike Mendelsohn went on a whirlwind tour of promotions and self-promotion. This spring, the chef (and sufferer of acid reflux) started endorsing heartburn drug Dexilant. Next was a month-long promotion of sauerkraut for GLK Foods’ “Kraut Rocks” campaign. Lately, he’s been seen hawking and creating recipes for Captain Morgan. And if drinking too much rum causes heartburn, we’re pretty sure he’d be happy to recommend a medication.
Best Dishes I Ate This Year
Udon at Sushi Taro. Ma po tofu at The Source. Pig’s head at Standard. Pork ribs at Little Serow. Fennel and chorizo mussels at Brasserie Beck. Uni toast with butter at Jaleo. Chestnut agnolotti at Graffiato. Fish and chips at Eamonn’s. Mint pea soup at The Oval Room. Plain frozen yogurt at Mr. Yogato. Beef short ribs with Tunisian spices, figs, and spinach at DGS Delicatessen. Bomboloni at Fiola. Bao with pork belly, duck liver, and pickles at Taan.
Worst Dish I Ate This Year
There is a place for deconstructed dishes. It is not at Maddy’s Tap Room. The new “Texican” restaurant has one of the most poorly-conceptualized and executed guacamoles I’ve ever had. The $7 dish consists of two grilled avocado halves “on the half shell” with chopped tomato, onion, and jalapeno thrown on top and a drizzle of a sour cream-like substance. It came with maybe ten chips and an inexplicable bed of lettuce and radish slices on the side. This is not guacamole. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not guacamole.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Graphic by Carey Jordan