All photos by Scott Suchman
Steamed mussels with Dijon mustard and herbes de Provence at Chez Billy.
Tue, Nov 27, 2012
Stocking Stuffers: Holiday Restaurants in DC
Looking for a new place to dine with friends or family for the holiday. Check our list, even twice.
The tricky negotiation we undergo to decide which restaurants to hit always becomes a little more stressful when the holidays roll around. We’re pulled in all directions—showing out-of-town visitors a good time, keeping up with the latest eateries, getting away from it all when the party-going gets tough. So, I’ve pulled some gems from my bag of goodies—and thrown in some stocking stuffers for good measure.
For the Francophile
The Hilton brothers know a thing or two about the value of opening up-to-date cocktail bars and restaurants in underserved neighborhoods. They helped create a hipness factor in the U Street corridor with Marvin and The Gibson, and then guaranteed its proliferation with the likes of Blackbyrd, American Ice Company and Lost Society. Now they’ve cleverly taken on the Petworth neighborhood with
Chez Billy (3815 Georgia Ave., NW; 202/506-2080; chezbilly.com; $79 per person, all inclusive), a French bistro designed in today’s ever-popular turn-of the-century American saloon look. Twentieth century, that is: exposed brick, dark wood paneling, pressed tin ceiling, ornate brass chandelier, Victorian globe sconces, bentwood bistro chairs, lighting that strains the dimmers.
On two occasions, I couldn’t get into the cramped downstairs dining room and wound up in the much preferable second floor bar, whose two-story ceiling gives a nice feeling of space, thanks to a mezzanine balcony that looks down onto the bar scene. The picture-window tables that overlook Georgia Avenue are optimal, and the service has always been energetic, responsive and helpful. They make an ice-cold Hendrick’s martini and offer a nice selection of reasonably priced French table wines, like a Nicolas pinot noir for $7 or Chateau de la Chaize gamay, $16 for a half-bottle.
Magnificently named chef Brendan L’Etoile (right), who, as his name implies, is on his way to stardom, heads the kitchen. Right now, I’d say he’s more a supernova, delivering solid renditions of French favorites, such as a gooey soupe à l’oignon gratinée; steamed mussels enhanced with Dijon mustard, anise-y pastis and herbes de Provence; steak frites; and my favorite of all salads—frisée with bacon lardons and a poached egg.
The charcuterie plate, so overworked around town, is a winner here: pâté de champagne, duck prosciutto and provencale salumi, nice pickled vegetables, crusty country bread. Rabbit liver mousse with pickled peaches is another offering, ultra-rich and worth the guilt.
Beef cheeks braised in red wine with picholine olives and orange zest is a winter pleaser, as is duck leg braised in its own fat and seared to crispiness. If I have a complaint at Chez Billy, it is that the food often doesn’t come hot enough.
Tepid food, be it the roasted potatoes with the duck or the onion soup’s broth, is an instant palate killer.
Dessert isn’t a strong point here, so I’d go French all the way and opt for a cheese plate with walnut raisin toast and wildflower honey. Or, if you’re on a date, move to one of the high-top nooks built for two and order another round of martinis.
For the Driver
Between his high-end restaurant, Volt, and his fast-food soup-and-sandwich concept, Lunchbox, chef Bryan Voltaggio had already provided diners with two inducements to make the hour-long drive from Washington to Frederick, Md. With the “Top Chef” star’s current concept, a thoughtful interpretation of home-style classics, the argument becomes even more compelling.
Family Meal (880 N. East St., Frederick, Md.; 301/378-2895; voltfamilymeal.com; $54 per person, all inclusive) is a former Toyota dealership cleverly converted into a vast, square, 85-seat eatery with a bustling open-kitchen and a 14-seat lunch counter. Concrete floors, molded plastic chairs, wooden booths and floor-to-ceiling picture windows create the feel of a modernized, just-off-the-highway Howard Johnson. Reinforcing that notion are menu items such as milkshakes, macaroni and cheese, and chicken potpie delightfully fashioned into creamy croquettes—they whisk you back to your childhood.
It’s all meant to be ironic and, thanks to the quality of the food, the conceit comes off splendidly, even if some of the gimmicks, such as frumpy housewife aprons and check presenters mimicking parking tickets, are unnecessary.
Glazed, mottled green Steelite stoneware spattered with brown specks serve as tableware and sets off Voltaggio’s food to stunning effect. Altered southern favorites figure prominently here. Be on the lookout for deviled eggs, BBQ pork and a tour de force fried chicken with buttermilk biscuits and hot sauce, a bargain at $11.99. Fluffy pimento cheese, gussied up with bacon sorghum jam, andouille sausage and ultra-thin, crispy cracker triangles, is outstanding.
Dishes include an appetizer of fried frog leg nuggets with pickled watermelon rind, frisee salad with crispy pig ears, and a refined rockfish on corn puree with fava bean succotash and a small tumbleweed of frizzled collard green threads. One thing I particularly love at Family Meal is the abundant use of in-house pickled vegetables, including okra, green beans and all kinds of cucumbers.
For dessert, the lemon meringue pie is really a refined tart. It’s quite tasty but my expectations had been mismanaged—I expected a southern-style slab with a thick layer of caramelized meringue. Boozy “adult” milkshakes, such as one spiked with root liqueur and an Irish coffee interpretation laced with Jameson’s, will send you out the door with a smile.
For the Hipster
I must say I’m all for the current trend of opening tiny restaurants in revitalizing neighborhoods. Maple (3418 11th St., NW; 202/588-7442; dc-maple.com; $60 per person, all inclusive) is one of many to sprout up on 11th Street in Columbia Heights, along with Kangaroo Boxing Club, El Chucho, Red Rocks Pizzeria and Room 11, so small that some have nicknamed it “Room for 11.” The 20-seat restaurant (plus six counter seats and 12 at the bar, made from a free-form length of tiger maple) is the first foray into the business for architect Eric Gronning and his journalist wife, Lori Robertson (below). Gronning’s uncle, Felix Gonzales, is the Peruvian chef who prepares the smartly curated, Italian-inspired menu.
My server, Robert, a trained classical singer, provided a lot of this information. How refreshing it was to encounter a waiter who was food informed, knew the menu, understood the concept of service and was completely engaging and welcoming.
On Tuesday nights, Maple offers many bottled wines at half price, so a smooth Château l’Eperonierre Anjou rouge can be had for $26. If the old-world feel of the wine list feels vaguely familiar to locals, it might be because the owners of Cork Wine Bar on 14th Street had a hand in it.
A very shareable antipasti plate, with chunky caponata, marinated olives, garlic salami, speck, gorgonzola and tallegio cheeses, razor-thin lengthwise slices of pear sprinkled with toasted walnuts makes a perfect start at Maple.
Puttanesca linguine studded with olives and capers is bright and vibrant; a fine rendition of garlic-and-parsley-touched linguine with clams could have used a goccia of olive oil to remedy its blandness and imbue some richness. Panini offerings include one with short rib, fontina cheese and pickled red onions and a lush version of a BLT made with (of course) pork belly, heirloom tomatoes, arugula and house-made mayonnaise. Though it practically explodes with messy ooziness as you bite into it, satisfaction is guaranteed.
If you’re hosting out-of-town guests for the holidays and are taking in the sights along Pennsylvania Avenue and looking to dine, give Dallas-based Del Frisco’s Grille (1201 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202/450-4686; delfriscosgrille.com/washington-dc; $94 per person, all inclusive) a shot by starting with one—they offer four shots on tap, including the Honey Badger (Tuaca vanilla citrus liqueur and pineapple juice) and The Partisan (tequila, passion fruit and blood orange).
Stenciled above the open kitchen of a 20-seat dining mezzanine are the words: “Do Right and Feed Every Man.” Chef Rob Klink, formerly of Oceanaire, takes that command to heart; thankfully he has brought with him to Del Frisco’s his known ability to make great crab cakes. The ones here are lumpy clumps of crab and a bit of diced red pepper held together with only a touch of seasoned mayo, a hope and a prayer.
The main dining room has a nice, open feel, with a ’60s modern style so popular right now: persimmon-colored upholstery, light stained woods and brick walls, a ceiling network of copper piping from which Edison bulb pendants dangle, modular high-backed tufted booths that offer space and privacy at the same time—especially appealing to lunching lobbyists.
The fare is American in the Daily Grill and Houston’s vein, with a side order of steakhouse. Pimento cheese poppers, Buffalo-style lollipop chicken wings and deviled eggs, therefore, come as no surprise. Flatbreads are particularly good and a wise choice for sharing over cocktails. I especially like the flatbread with wild mushrooms and caramelized onions and the one with blue crab, creamed leeks and provolone garnered raves on my visits.
Not to be missed are the ahi tuna tartare tacos (four of them) with avocado and spicy mayo. The abundant filling leaked out the sides as I ate them, so I pulled the taco shells apart and used pieces of them as crackers, spreading the tartare on top.
For entrees, the egg-battered filet of sole with lump crab, lemony beurre blanc and tomato and arugula salad is a simple and delightful dish. Crunchy chicken schnitzel gets the same lemon butter treatment, but its bland accompaniment of buttered noodles and zucchini ribbons needs a taste-lift.