America is a melting pot – of ideas, peoples, cultures and food. This is especially true of its capital – designed from scratch to be the seat of government for a world power. With representatives from every state and territory, a close connection to the South and the Atlantic coastline on its doorstep, DC does everything when it comes to food. In a brief three day visit I did my best to sample some of the highlights.
Old Ebbit Grill
I am firmly convinced that jet lag, like seasickness, is a state of mind. What better way to distract yourself from the fact that your body clock is totally out of sync than cocktails, seafood and steak.
Opposite the White House and the Treasury, the Old Ebbit Grill is a Washington institution. There’s shot guns on the wall, wood panelling, stuffed pheasants and big comfy leather chairs. The staff are the kind of slick, well drilled hosts that wouldn’t bat an eyelid if Obama walked in. Sat at the enormous bar with a superb cherry mojito (crafted, incidentally, by a Glaswegian) it’s great fun to watch the hustle and bustle of politicians, locals and star struck tourists milling around outside.
Oysters have a very different status in America. Whereas in the UK they’re expensive and exotic, in America they’re a commodity. Readily available in DC, you can walk into any restaurant and order a dozen for a few dollars. But much like on the west coast, quality costs and provenance is everything. I sampled six oysters from three different bays along the East Coast – each with their own distinct shape, texture and flavour – all wonderful.
Next up is the key to my jet lag cure – an enormous hunk of steak. USDA Prime New York Strip (a piece of sirloin, from towards the front of the cow). Americans take their beef very seriously and with good reason. The government grading ensures a consistent quality and the standard is high. Because of the breed and the diet, it tends to be sweeter and softer than British beef, though without the fragrant buttery hit you get from grass finished cattle. This example was beautifully cooked and I liked the charred asparagus – it’s adds that missing grassiness back in.
Dessert was a key lime pie – acidic, sharp and the perfect end to a meal.
After a good feed, the barman suggested I visit the rooftop cocktail bar at the W hotel over the road. With views across the National Mall and the White House, it was an excellent shout.
I also tried another iconic bar just around the corner. The Round Robin bar is just that – round and is where political lobbying in America was born. They have an excellent whisky and beer list – which can only help grease the wheels of the political machine.
There’s no denying that America has access to some incredible ingredients, but there’s also a lot of mass produced and imported products that are guaranteed to disappoint. Organic and ethical restaurants are popping up everywhere and Founding Farmers is one of the first.
Situated in the heart of the business district, around the corner from the IMF and World Bank, it’s everything Pret should be. Top ingredients, carefully sourced and simply prepared, available quickly without any hassle. While I enjoyed a lazy lunch, plenty of people came in for takeaway or a quick drink at the bar (Bacon cocktails before heading back to the office? God Bless America!)
I had an excellent chef salad – half a fresh, crunchy lettuce festooned with cooked meats, creamy sauce and heavenly cornbreads. I popped back for breakfast the next morning and was even more impressed – their pastrami hash was a world away from the plastic McDonalds potato puck.
Bens Chili Bowl
A Washington landmark and cultural touchstone – Ben’s has been serving chilli for fifty years. Their signature is a half-smoke, the DC version of a chili dog. I’m always slightly nervous about eating at such famous places, often they’ve just become tourist traps trading off an iconic name. Thankfully Ben’s lives up to its billing. The sausages are fantastic quality – half beef, half pork and coarsely minced. The chili is superb – true to the American rule, not a kidney bean in sight. There’s no overbearing tomato flavour, just a gentle beefy sweetness and a lovely smokey heat. They also deserve commendation for their lemonade, by far the best I’ve tasted.
Maine Avenue Fish Market
DC shares a border with Maryland and through them has access to some of the best seafood on the East Coast. Maine Avenue Fish Market is where locals go to get their fix. Enormous stalls carry every kind of fish imaginable which they’ll happily grill or steam for you right then and there. I had a plate of frankly enormous clams and a box of superb shrimp. Both fresh, both very tasty.
Dangerously Delicous Pies
Pulled pork has almost become a staple food in the UK, you can buy it in sandwiches at Boots, however I’ve never seen a pulled pork pie. This was heavenly – soft, meaty and with a brilliant spice rub. Too often in the UK we bury the pork in sauce and shred it into oblivion – this had texture and sharp smokey flavour. They also offer a couple of local hot sauces which were the perfect accompaniment.
Museum food in DC is nothing to sing about – bland cafeteria fare and Starbucks. That is unless you go to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Their “Mitsitam Cafe” has won a slew of awards and published a very successful cookbook on the back of their native influenced food. They offer a range of traditional Central and Northern American dishes – I picked a set of three sliders showcasing flavours from the north-east. The turkey was nice, the duck/beef delicious – but the real star was the Elk burger: rich, firm and gamey.
For dessert, corncake with native blueberry compote was lovely – buttery and sharp and very more-ish.
Blue Duck Tavern
We’ve already talked about the importance of provenance in modern American cooking and Blue Duck Tavern have taken that concept to the extreme. Every dish on their menu clearly states the producer and state for the main ingredient. They offer a range of dishes showcasing the best of American food.
I had a delicious wagyu tartare – Americans go crazy for this Japanese style beef. It’s incredibly soft, but doesn’t have that intense beefy taste you get with the best British cattle. A fresh salad and sous vide egg are the perfect accompaniments. Just cooking the yolk is very clever – it not only makes the dish safer, but improves the texture – creating a hot, savoury custard.
For the main I had roast suckling pig – perfectly crisp skin and soft, sweet meat underneath. I also ordered a side of triple cooked chips – these had fantastic flavour, but the texture wasn’t quite right. Either they didn’t dry them properly between cooking stages or the moisture content was off in the original potato.
Dessert was much better – a lovely warm cookie dough, ice cream and toasted marshmallow. It would be a really easy dessert to do at home.
Washington is a great place to spend a few days – it’s got world class museums and galleries, fantastic food at every price point and some of the best tourist sites on the East Coast.