2015 was a year of lines. Lines for kolaches. Lines for Filipino food. Lines for crack pie. And lines, still, for Rose’s Luxury. Make all the lemming wisecracks you want, but the willingness to wait just demonstrates D.C.’s growing obsession with food.
Fortunately, there were plenty of new restaurants worth obsessing over this year. Long-delayed Maketto finally opened its doors on H Street NE with some of the best fried chicken in the city, while Shaw’s Convivial proved “medium plates” could be a thing. The beer and booze scenes continued to grow, and D.C. got two bean-to-bar chocolate producers, plus a cheesemaking operation. Even vending machines have gone gourmet, thanks to Guerilla Vending.
Unfortunately, not every dining experience has lived up to expectations. Momofuku Milk Bar fell short of the hype, while Fig & Olive sickened diners with salmonella. And for some reason, people are still opening “speakeasies” and steakhouses. To rehash the best and worst of it all, Young & Hungry brings you The Hungries, this column’s year-end awards.
Most Overhyped Restaurant: Momofuku Milk Bar
The New York sweets shop opened in CityCenterDC to breathless enthusiasm. But the truth is, it’s just not that great. The treats are more sugary than an overstuffed Halloween bag. There’s no complexity or balance. Rather, Milk Bar banks on the flavors of nostalgia with cereal-milk soft serve and birthday cake. You have to regress to being a sugar-crazed ten-year-old to truly enjoy it.
Deserves More Hype: Baan Thai
Southeast Asian food is definitely an “it” cuisine at the moment, with most of the attention going to Little Serow, Doi Moi, Maketto, and Thip Khao. But Baan Thai is just as good as—if not often better than—these buzzier restaurants. Despite raves from a couple of food writers and a prime location on 14th Street NW, the masses haven’t quite caught on yet. Skip the sushi, a remnant from the restaurant’s days as Tsunami Sushi, and go straight for the funky, spicy, and sour Thai dishes. A personal favorite is the Thai vermicelli in a chili peanut sauce made of ground pork and shrimp. And best of all, there’s never a wait for a table.
Trend That Won’t Die But Should: Speakeasies
Aren’t we all a little tired of dark rooms with overpriced cocktails and “hidden” entrances? Never mind that most actual Prohibition-era speakeasies were unglamorous watering holes serving renatured industrial alcohol—bar owners refuse to give up their faux-nostalgia. The most recent example is Cloak & Dagger, a “speakeasy-themed” nightclub and lounge on U Street NW where female bartenders wear little more than bras and tight skirts. And then there was The Speak, a subterranean “speakeasy” that operated behind a mirror door on K Street until the liquor board shut it down for not having a valid liquor license. Turns out it was a real speakeasy! Meanwhile, The Sheppard, the Dupont spot with a no-photo policy and Playboys in the bathroom, closed this summer. Owners Spike Mendelsohn and Vinoda Basnayake are now planning a new spin-off cocktail bar in Shaw called Morris. They claim they want to avoid gimmicks this time—and yet their crowdfunding campaign still calls the place a “speakeasy.”
Trend That D.C. Needs: Poke
During a trip to Hawaii this year, I became kind of obsessed with poke. The raw, marinated fish dish, often served over rice, is so ubiquitous there that entire grocery store and deli counters are devoted to the stuff. Poke has taken off in other cities, too—namely Los Angeles. “There is no denying that a poke craze is sweeping through L.A. right now, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since food trucks were a thing,” Eater LA wrote in May. In D.C., however, there are zero poke shops. Recently opened Hula Girl in Shirlington serves it, but it’s not the Hawaiian restaurant’s main focus. So here’s my plea to any restaurateurs looking for a cool new concept: Poke please?
Scam of the Year: Dîner en Blanc
The masterminds behind Dîner en Blanc deserve some credit. After all, it’s quite a feat to convince thousands of people to pay for a dinner that doesn’t include dinner (or even a chair to sit in). The French-inspired flash mob phenomenon requires attendees to don all white and haul their own picnic—including their own tables, white tablecloths, fine china, and other white-only accoutrement—to a secret location. A ticket and “membership fee” cost a total of $45, for which revelers get nothing more than a bunch of rules and directions. (“Originality is encouraged as long as it stays stylish and denotes taste.”) A publicist for the event claimed the waitlist for this year’s D.C. Dîner en Blanc was 13,000 people long. I wish that were a typo.
Biggest Disaster: Fig & Olive
Sending diners to the hospital with fevers, vomiting, and diarrhea is bad enough. But between the non-apologies and increased prices, Fig & Olive’s response to its salmonella outbreak hasn’t been much better. Perhaps more surprising still is how Fig & Olive prepared food in the first place. While the upscale restaurant chain touts local farms and “genuine taste and seasonality” at the top of its menu, a lot of its food—from ratatouille to risotto—was pre-prepared at a central commissary in Long Island City, N.Y. Even epidemiologists investigating the salmonella outbreak expressed surprise that Fig & Olive used Hellmann’s mayo in its truffle olive oil aioli.
The commissary suspended production in the wake of the salmonella outbreak—before U.S. Food & Drug Administration investigators could collect food samples—and Fig & Olive now claims “all of our dishes are prepared in house at each location.” Still, representatives from the restaurant continue to decline my interview requests about its operations. Instead, Fig & Olive president Greg Galy gave an interview to the Washington Post in which he wouldn’t apologize to diners sickened at his restaurants, and instead apologized for “misrepresentation by the media.” OK then.
Pop-Up of the Year: Republic Kolache
Republic Kolache’s “residency” at American Ice Company drew Rose’s Luxury-like lines during its first couple weekends. But you can now easily grab a picnic table on a Saturday morning and enjoy your kolache and a bottle of Topo Chico in peace. In case you haven’t discovered kolaches yet, these beloved Texas pastries of Czech origin consist of pillowy dough with sweet and savory fillings. Until Texas natives Chris Svetlik and Brian Stanford launched Republic Kolache, you’d be hard pressed to find them in D.C. The kolache maker serves flavors like half-smoke, jalapeño, and cheddar as well as cream cheese with toasted pecan. But the must-try is a collaboration with DCity Smokehouse stuffed with brisket, pickled jalapenos, and cheese. You don’t need to be a Texan to approve.
Biggest D.C. Food Milestone: Sona Creamery Makes Cheese
From gin to chocolate, many D.C.-made food products have become available in the past five years. But cheesemaking, one of the city’s biggest milestones yet, hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. After its creamery sat unused for a year and a half, Sona near Eastern Market finally overcame buildout and regulatory hurdles to begin making curds in September. As far as owners Genevieve and Conan O’Sullivan are aware, Sona is the first commercial operation to age and cure cheese in D.C. Local regulators are even exploring a commercial cheesemaking license now. Bring on the gouda.
Best Dishes I Ate This Year
Taiwanese fried chicken at Maketto; Philly waffle at Barmini; egg-topped pork and shrimp Dorado dumplings at China Chilcano; Smokehouse Bomb at Wicked Bloom; hot and sour noodles at A&J Restaurant; romano beans at Nido; poppyseed gougères at Garrison; duck à l’orange at Chez Billy Sud; zucca pasta with butternut squash at The Red Hen; ikura nigiri at Sushi Taro; wonton soup at The Source; vadouvan curry with caramelized banana at Rose’s Luxury; Beatrix at Buredo; ukoy shrimp fritters at Bad Saint; arborio rice-stuffed squash blossoms at Etto; taco trio at Chaia.
Worst Dish I Ate This Year
Local airports deserve a lot of credit for recently bringing in better food options from local chefs. Flying out of Terminal A at Reagan National Airport this summer, I was pretty thrilled to grab one of the coveted spots at Page from chef Carla Hall. Each seat has its own tablet from which you can order food and check your email. The new setup seemed like such a fancy upgrade that I decided to treat myself to a glass of wine and some oysters. To my dismay, those oysters were warm, and after eating a couple, I had to send the rest back. I immediately knew I was going to be sick, and sure enough, the next day I was. Lesson learned: I won’t eat oysters at an airport again.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery unless otherwise credited