Crispy pork shank with boar and mushroom spoonbread and greens at The Pig.
Thu, Sep 6, 2012
Best of Fall Dining
Our favorite new spots around town pay homage to pork.
If you want to fix what’s broken in Washington, all you need to do is replace politicos with foodies. We don’t require polls to identify prevailing trends (farm-to-table, small plates, cool cocktails, concrete floors, retro chandeliers), we have no problem bringing parties together (it’s called a communal table), and we make it our life’s work to get the pork out of government and put it where it belongs: on charcuterie platters.
Savvy restaurateur David Winer knows how to interpret trends and give them staying power, whether it’s the down-with-meat craze (Grillfish), the American bistro theme (Logan Tavern, The Heights) or the Wi-Fi coffeehouse (Commissary). His latest endeavor, The Pig (1320 14th St., NW; 202/290-2821; thepigdc.com; $70 per person, all inclusive), cashes in on the porco-mania, nose-to-tail, farm-to-table and small-plate concepts all at once.
The 70-seat space and 15-seat bar in a charming Logan Circle row house feels like country-urban-bistro, with pine paneling and subway tiles, tufted leatherette booths and bare wooden tables. Other elements that fall in line with the prevailing design-geist include an open kitchen, concrete floors, ceiling fans, dangling factory-style pendant lights and a bathroom adorned with decoupage. Still, everything here feels right instead of corny.
The food, overseen by chefs Billy McCormick and Garret Fleming (pictured), is, as advertised, pork-centric. (Yes, they have some non-pork items, but you’re not going there for the beet salad.) The server informs you a whole pig is brought in daily from a Virginia farm. Every bit of the animal is used. So, for example, parts of the pig’s brains find their way into the porchetta stuffing, and ears serve as a starter—delicious to some, off-putting to others.
The “Big Pig,” an array of charcuterie (Surryano ham, Iowa coppa, Edward’s smoked ham, Calabrese, a terrine), pickled vegetables and cheese, is a great way to start while enjoying a refreshing “handcrafted” (let’s just retire that word) cocktail or a glass of on-tap (another smart idea) grüner veltliner.
Of the pork dishes I sample, those that don’t involve a grinder fare best: A juicy, pink pork chop rests on dreamy, creamy truffled corn; crispy, lush pork shank gets gilded with fat-spiked greens and addictive boar spoon bread; boar ragu with pappardelle rivals some of the Italian versions in town; charred pork belly delivers richness that blends into its accompanying celery root puree.
A generous slice of crepe cake layered with pastry cream is lovely way to round out the meal and leaves The Pig on solid ground.
When a fire closed Georgetown’s Hook restaurant, owners Jonathan and Bethany Umbel wondered what to do with the space. Enter “Top Chef” alum and local golden-boy chef Mike Isabella, who was looking for the right spot to add a Mexican-themed eatery to the empire he started building a year ago, when he opened smash-hit Graffiato in Penn Quarter.
And so Bandolero (3241 M St., NW; 202/625-4488; bandolerodc.com; $60 per person, all inclusive) was born, an instant destination for those who wish to tap into the cocktail, small-plate craze. If the tourists who line up at nearby Georgetown Cupcake were smart (but who queues up for a cupcake?), they’d leave one friend in line and head to Bandolero for tequila cocktails or habanero-infused margaritas and a bowl of guacamole made with peeled, roasted jalapeños and served with tortilla chips, cruncherific pork rinds and a smashing roasted tomato and chipotle salsa.
The décor relies heavily on a Day of the Dead theme, featuring black walls, exposed brick, cemetery gates and wall art consisting of bleached animal skulls. Lighting is dim, with red and amber light bulbs enhancing the underground, after-hours feel of the surroundings.
The food is definitely a draw; Isabella and chef de cuisine Tony Starr bring upscale refinements to the table. Taquitos with tuna, ginger and sweet potatoes or blue crab, coconut and red chili stand elegantly upright and pack a lot of flavor. Thick mahi mahi batons (I call them Señora Paul’s) crusted with corn tortilla and wrapped in flour tortillas with chipotle mayo and avocado are upgrades to the wan, mushy fish tacos found elsewhere.
Anything with pork is a winner, including suckling pig or pork belly tacos, and
albondigas: spicy pork meatballs with sofrito.
Everyone raves about the queso fundido, a manchego béchamel sauce with shredded duck confit, maitake mushrooms and sunny-side-up egg, but I am more partial to the mole dishes, such as braised short ribs with potatoes in mole negro or nicely moist chicken enchilada awash in cascabel chili and Mexican chocolate reduction and topped with Oaxaca cheese.
Restaurateur and business maven Hakan Ilhan, owner of, among many other ventures, the Pizza Autentica chain, didn’t let a good thing slip through his fingers, even if we Washingtonians did. When star chef Roberto Donna moved to Arizona last year, Ilhan lured him back to these parts and gave him free rein at Al Dente in Sutton Place (3201 New Mexico Ave., NW; 202/244-2223; aldentedc.com; $72 per person, all inclusive).
Finally free of dealing with the business end of things, Donna (left) looks reborn and invigorated and is paying full attention to what he does best: cooking trattoria-style food reminiscent of the fare he made at the much-beloved I Matti years ago.
Karen Shannon, Donna’s longtime gatekeeper, offers a bright welcome to Al Dente when you walk in the front door. You can spy Donna in the open kitchen upon arrival and even take a seat at a counter there to watch him work his magic. If you prefer to be in the center of the buzz, grab a seat at the counter outlining the wood-burning pizza oven in the middle of the spacious dining room. Bright orange chairs, black chandeliers and white stucco walls signal a casual, mod ambience. Large windows put the peaceful outdoor patio on display, a perfect dining spot in early fall.
Those who love pork will be particularly pleased at Al Dente, where Donna makes his own luganega pork sausage, veal and pork sausage and duck sausage, all offered en brochette.
The fact that Donna’s charcuterie platter is served with sticks of fried pizza dough would make it surpass most others in town even if the selections on it didn’t already do so: finocchiona salami, cacciatorino, wild boar prosciutto and mortadella make a nice assortment. These are rounded out with rich Italian cheeses: creamy La Tur, zingy assasciato and pecorino Toscano aged to refinement.
Donna is known for his pastas, and for good reason. Agnolotti gobbi filled with veal, pork and beef and served in sage-kissed butter and pasta pillows filled with spinach, ricotta and mascarpone manage to be rich and delicate at the same time. Donna’s lasagna Bolognese is slathered with béchamel and imbued with a meat sauce whose main ingredients are time and care.
Start with the mortadella and ricotta spreads, but be warned about starters and sides: Some, like the sybaritic pork belly with sautéed apples and eggplant parmigiana contorno, are huge and could qualify as an entrée.
That doesn’t mean you should pass up the veal steak with prosciutto, fontina and white wine or a special of the day; if soft-shell crabs with stracciatella and capers are on the menu, get them.
I haven’t even touched upon the pizzas here, nor Donna’s famous risottos or the
dessert bomboloni with hot chocolate sauce and house-made gelati. As if any further enticements were necessary, Al Dente has free parking on weekends and evenings. And isn’t it nice to start a meal with a smile instead of a transaction?
It’s hard to imagine that a place with poured concrete floors and tabletops could be described as charming, but Clarendon’s Green Pig Bistro (1025 N. Fillmore St., Arlington, Va.; 703/888-1920; greenpigbistro.com; $70 per person, all inclusive) earns the description.
Affable service, brightly colored enamelware serving vessels, magazine recipes on the walls and pressed-tin ceiling panels all contribute to the warmth of owner and pastry chef Scot Harlan’s 110-seat eatery. So do glass closets filled with fascinating cookbooks and a well-positioned communal table that allows enough room for separate parties to talk about each other without being overheard.
Harlan is clearly visible, either touring the dining room to see how the guests are faring or expediting progress in the open kitchen, where chef Will Sullivan oversees the cooking duties.
Despite the restaurant’s name, pork is not necessarily the order of the day here, but do match your pre-dinner cocktails (the Pimm’s punch is especially exhilarating) with crispy pork and avocado tacos topped with crunchy pig ear strips. And jack them up with some molten fried pimento cheese balls or a Sriracha-spiked rock shrimp roll.
For appetizers, a mountain of buffalo-style pork ribs is large enough to share if you don’t mind the mess. Smoked duck cavatelli with peas gets enriched with a poached egg, giving the dish a carbonara profile. It is delightful.
The rabbit cake (think of a salmon cake, but with pulled rabbit subbing for the fish) is fast becoming a Green Pig signature dish, but its allure is lost on me. It would make more sense at brunch with a poached egg and red-eye gravy on top of it.
The bacon cheeseburger has bacon ground in with the beef, thus bordering on hedonism, which this observer considers a positive attribute. The pork shank/belly duo for two crosses that border lavishly. It’s a great dish to order when dining with friends, giving everyone the chance to sample other items, such as the rockfish with succotash or Cornish hen with cornbread stuffing.
That cornbread is available as a side dish and is a must-have. A skillet of it, large enough for six to share, comes to the table hot out of the oven and slathered with maple butter.
An intriguing menu feature is a comfort-food plat du jour served on a three-compartment TV-dinner plate. The Friday night special is spaghetti and meatballs with Caesar salad and garlic bread (overly sodden). Other examples of weekly plats include Salisbury steak (Saturday) and cottage pie (Sunday).
Desserts here are extra fun, not surprising given that Harlan is a pastry chef. Banana cream cake with peanut butter ice cream is dandy, but the go-to confection is a good old-fashioned root beer float.