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Published: Tuesday, 9/25/2012

Capital is country's culinary epicenter

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

WASHINGTON -- The question on most people's lips was not "Doesn't it seem unusually warm to you?" or even "How about those Reds?" It was "Where did you go to eat?"

This was, after all, a meeting of the Association of Food Journalists, a group of people who, on the whole, spend more time cooking food, eating food, and thinking about food than is probably good for them.

Fortunately, this year's conference was in Washington, the most international city in America, and one of the most food-crazed. Members of just about every ethnic group you can think of live there, and most of them have opened one sort of restaurant or another.

We met at a hotel near Dupont Circle, which has an extraordinary vibrancy manifested most clearly by its stunning selection of restaurants.

One block over from the hotel, for example, are three pizza places. Or, if you prefer seafood, Italian food, or Greek food, you can find restaurants for each in the same block, too.

Or Thai food, Chinese, continental, a delicatessen, two Japanese places, a kabob house, an empanada joint, soft-serve ice cream or Lebanese food -- all in that same block.

So many restaurants. So little time.

For lunch the first day, we decided to hit the Thai restaurant. It was in a basement, which is always a good sign for Asian restaurants, and while it wasn't the best Thai food I've ever had, they served a lovely red mango curry with chicken that I found quite satisfying.

Later that afternoon, I ran into Joe Yonan, food editor at the Washington Post, who was serving as the conference's de facto host. "Where did you go to eat?" he said, and when I told him he wrinkled his nose in distaste. He recommended instead a hopping little place that specializes in food from the northeastern part of Thailand, near the Laotian border. Not only is the cuisine remarkably localized, but apparently, part of the experience is the service dictated entirely by the restaurant's convenience.

We didn't get to that restaurant, but we did go to another place recommended by Mr. Yonan, an Indian restaurant called Rasika. It might have been the best Indian food of my life.

We started with palak chaat, lightly fried puffs of baby spinach that shimmered effervescently on the tongue for an instant before disappearing. Served with a drizzle of tamarind sauce and a bit of yogurt, it was spectacular. That was followed by chicken kolhapuri, which featured an extraordinary sauce scented with cinnamon and coriander seeds. A naan topped with onion and sage was not earth-shattering, but the night's dessert, date and toffee pudding with cinnamon caramel sauce, was. Oh, was it ever.

A couple of other meals were less memorable, with the standout being foie brats -- miniature sausages made from foie gras -- served, of all places, at the hotel bar. And then came the last day.

We knew we were going to our favorite restaurant in Richmond with friends later that evening, but it proved impossible to limit what we ate during the day. A luncheon at the Swedish ambassador's residence -- oddly, it's in a Mexican hacienda style -- began with delicate little appetizers of gravadlax, moved to baked cod with Swedish shrimp and quail eggs served in a sabayon, followed by lightly smoked elk loin (frankly, it could have used less smoke), and topped with a dessert of almond pudding and rosemary ice cream.

I'm leaving out a few dishes, but you get the picture. That was lunch. The long-awaited dinner was still coming, but first there was a reception at the State Department. The reception has already been described in these pages, but it entailed copious amounts of food cooked by some of the country's top chefs.

About two hours later and still fairly stuffed, we were just outside of Richmond when our friends called. The restaurant we wanted to go to, the one we had been dreaming about for weeks, was closed for vacation.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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