Washington, D.C.’s vibrant restaurant scene has been growing at a dizzying pace for the past few years — and it shows no signs of slowing down, as big-name chefs and promising up-and-comers alike have unveiled a flurry of high-profile projects this spring. Here are eight notable new spots to check out in and around the nation’s capital.
1. Peter Chang
After being chased for years by chowhounds from restaurant to restaurant, and then opening eateries in southern Virginia and Atlanta, Peter Chang finally sets up shop in the D.C. area. Diners can feast on the specialties that made the once-elusive Szechuan chef a celebrated figure in contemporary Chinese cooking. Puffy scallion bubble pancakes, dry fried eggplant, mapo tofu and steamed pork buns all make an appearance. The dishes are often spicy, if not volcanic. So heed the chili-pepper icons on the menu, because the chef – thankfully! – doesn’t downgrade intense flavors for American palates. Chang fans have more to look forward to in the coming months, as he is set to open another casual restaurant in Rockville, Maryland, later this year, and there is also talk of a fine-dining restaurant in D.C.’s Navy Yard. 2503 N. Harrison St., Arlington, VA; peterchangarlington.com
What It Is: Perhaps the most decadent and unconventional affogato of all time. The ice cream mimics the flavor of buttery movie-style popcorn, while the silky, froth-topped coffee component combines reduced espresso, cream, milk, and caramelized foie gras accented with fresh thyme, allspice, mace, and nutmeg. “You have to find a delicate balance between the ingredients,” says executive chef Will Artley. “You want to taste the foie and have the mouthfeel from it, but it can’t be overwhelming. If it lingers on your palate, it’s not great, especially since you’re not following it with another course.”
Tom Wellings brushes rectangles of pizza dough with olive oil. On the other side of the counter, his wife, Camila Arango, pipes cream between layers of pastry for the classic French dessert Paris-Brest. The air is rich with butter, yeast and just-baked croissants. Trays of pistachio and gianduja macarons and glistening kouign-amann the color of maple syrup fill racks, ready to be shuttled downstairs.
At a pop-up space called Prequel, the pastry chefs are doing a test run of Bluebird Bakery, a boulangerie-patisserie they hope to open late this summer or in early fall. Almost everything is in order. They’ve put down a letter of intent for a first-floor space in the Holm apartment building in Logan Circle, on the corner of 11th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW, which is still under construction. During more than a decade, they’ve honed their techniques while working for high-profile establishments in the city — she for Alain Ducasse’s now-shuttered Adour and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, he for Restaurant Eve, Fabio Trabocchi’s various enterprises and Equinox. The recipes have been developed.
It took me years to work up the courage to tackle one of my grandmother’s most memorable and well-loved creations: fastnachts. Every year, the night before Shrove Tuesday—also known as Fat Tuesday—she would stay up late prepping big batches of the potato-based doughnuts. The next morning, she would rise before dawn to fry the puffy orbs to a deep mahogany, then shower them in confectioners’ sugar while they were still hot.
I made a point of getting up early those days, too, so I could gorge myself on the yeasty treats. By the time my parents joined us, splashes of sugar spotted my pajamas and my fingers were sticky.
Where to Get It: Thip Khao; 3462 14th St. NW; (202) 387-5426; thipkhao.com
What It Is: “I call it Laos caviar,” says chef Seng Luangrath. The white pill-shaped pods don’t come from the sea though. Known as kai mod daeng in Laotian, they’re actually tree ant eggs. A commonly eaten protein in the Southeast Asian country and neighboring Thailand, the ova are hand-harvested from nests often built on the leaves of mango trees. One method of obtaining them is to shake the nests over a bucket of water. The eggs sink to the bottom, while the insects either drown or crawl out. It’s tough work, because the fierce bugs will bite. Though Luangrath remembers painfully procuring the eggs as a child, she now imports frozen eggs when they’re available from January through March. You may not find them on the menu every day.
There’s no sign outside Matchbox restaurant’s test kitchen. It’s tucked away in a stretch of personality-free warehouses in Silver Spring. The compact room features everything you’d find in the full-scale kitchens of the popular D.C.-based chain best known for its pizzas and mini burgers. There’s a brick pizza oven, glass door refrigerator, deep-fryer, flattop stove, grill, range, a pair of counters and a sink. A window on the far end looks into the Matchbox man cave — well, conference room — outfitted with a small artificial-turf putting green and an impressive flat-screen TV mounted on a wall of reclaimed barn wood.
Stephen Lyons, vice president of culinary operations for Matchbox Food Group, is moving around the tight kitchen space with a quick, studied efficiency. He’s preparing a selection of new dishes for a tasting, but he has more than Washington on his mind. Matchbox Food Group is about to launch a national expansion.
My son was just an hour old and I had just become a proud first-time father. Guess what I was doing. Cradling him, while singing him his first lullaby? Nope. Showing him off to gathered relatives? Try again. Triumphantly posting a picture to Facebook? Sorry, wrong.
Actually, I was in line at Shake Shack. I was waiting to get the Shack Burger and cheese-sauce-covered fries my wife, Indira, had been craving for nearly 10 months. As a patient of Wisdom Midwifery at George Washington University Hospital, she had been on a strict diet. No undercooked meats, no processed foods and no sugar. (Being an empathetic fellow, I made sure to eat at least twice as much of those banned substances while she was pregnant.)
Amble into Washington, D.C.’s Slipstream during the morning hours and you’ll be met with a small army of baristas lined up behind the dark wood bar, ready to pull an espresso or fire up the Seraphin automatic pour-over machine. The menu features a few surprises—a house-made soda flavored with dried coffee cherries and an espresso tonic—but the place offers everything you’d expect from a craft coffeehouse. That is, until you notice the shelving behind the countertop. Instead of neatly arrayed bags of MadCap beans, there are rows of liquor bottles—a not-so-subtle clue that the coffee shop enjoys something of a double life.
Slipstream is one of a growing number of hybrid coffee-cocktail bars across the country—from the Octane micro-chain in Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama to Phoenix’s Lux Central and NYC’s The Randolph at Broome—where you can do shots of espresso at breakfast and come back for a Manhattan during happy hour.
The duality of concepts leads to an unusual mixture of customers. “We’ll have a room full of high schoolers in study groups and adults by the fireplace drinking cocktails,” says Lori Chandler, owner of Take Five Coffee + Bar in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park. “From a social aspect, this has been going on forever in Europe. I’m surprised it didn’t happen over here sooner.”