August 5, 2011 by paiday
Underneath the CNN or Fox news coverage, underneath the overt politics and front page faces, Washington D.C. is a city of politics. Not the politics of Boehner and Obama, but the personal politics of values, change, and life in the city.
The new face of D.C. is the young professional. This is a city of youth. They bustle from work, to the metro, to the newest restaurant or upscale boutique in suits and flip flops (responsible work shoes stowed carefully out of sight in messenger bags slung carelessly over one shoulder). They live in the city, they have money, and they have brought about some type of pop culture, or perhaps even pop art movement about buzz.
This phenomenon became the topic of conversation as I sat at Wonderland in the Columbia Heights neighborhood enjoying a Stella Artois on the patio with a vibrant group of local residents. More than once during my time in D.C. conversation moved around what they refer to as the “G-word” – or gentrification. An ugly truth for some as property values skyrocket as the middle class snaps up affordable properties in traditionally low-income neighborhoods.
In a seemingly ironic hand-and-glove correlation, as the houses get facelifts in boundary neighborhoods, the population moves towards unmarked restaurants and clubs which boast the newest and most authentic food or experience. Reservations are a must and the only advertising is word of mouth. The allure is not only in the food but also the experience. You enter through unmarked doors perhaps into someone’s basement or wait in darkened hallways hoping to be allowed entrance. When you finally arrive, it is as if a close friend invited you for dinner. You have made it. The wait was worth it. You are in the heart of the buzz and there is nothing quite so sweet.
The Seasonal Pantry is just such a stop. This farm-to-table supper club only seats twelve and the most recent opening sold out in less than seven hours. One long, wooden table sits in the middle of the tiny store front which sells local produce canned in glass jars with handwritten labels, prepared by the chef, Daniel O’Brien.
O’Brien has an infectious smile and enthusiasm for his food. He seems part fey with a mischevious grin as he skips across the menu which is hinted at in the drawings on the paper placemats but actually exists in his mind. The kitchen shares the tiny space with the huge, family-style table and consists of only a cooler, a small prep station, and cook top. He prepares everything not in front of customers, but amongst them. He stands to the side, unobtrusively moving in the dance of the chef. The servers keep the wine flowing in carafes and conversation flows just as easily amidst the courses.
Dinner started with a smoked, white fish sitting amidst a ladle of burnt garlic soup, prepared with garlic purchased from the birthday girl’s own crop from the Common Good City Farm, an urban garden located in historic Ledroit Park. Also, on menu from Common Good came a panzanella of red and yellow cherry tomatoes. A flash cooking on the tomatoes which were then chilled before adding them to the salad offered a new take on an old favorite. Following this course, O’Brien served a beautifully plated Hamachi sashimi course. Although the browned butter sauce seemed a little heavy for the dish, the fish had a clean, subtleness mixed with a slight fattiness that highlighted the freshness of the fish.
Salmon atop a mix of corn cooked in parmesan water and hen-of-woods mushrooms came as the entrée course. An unexpected mixture, this combination took worked with the sweet corn popping alongside the meaty texture of the mushrooms and the fish.
Desert was a whisky, bread-pudding with raisins that had been soaked in cognac. Before we left O’Brien talked animatedly about his vision for his upcoming menus and sent us off with bags of home-made chocolate chip cookies, which added to the homey feel of the entire experience.
The following day, I was given the opportunity to walk off some of the excess of the night before in a visit along the National Mall to both the Freer and Hirshhorn museums. D.C. in the last week of July is hot and requires walking – a lot of walking. After about three hours we were ready for a break and during an ill-advised trip up to Chinatown we were brought within blocks of Oyamel, which had been recommended as a great stop for happy hour. Oyamel’s is one of the brain babies of chef, Jose Andres and is strikingly whimsical in design. A ceiling of orange artificial flower graces the bar area, as metal butterflies soar above the heads of customers in other areas of the restaurant.
Oyamel serves small plate tapas and tacos. The extensive menu consists of everything from table-side guac preparation to the Oxacala taco – made with grasshoppers (my husband ordered another after inhaling the first). All of the drinks are made with fresh squeezed juice taking the run-of-the-mill margarita to all new levels. The star on the menu was the soft-shelled crab. A tempura battered crab served atop corn and peppers, this dish made me want to try and find the closest blue-crab purveyor to my home or perhaps have some mail-ordered so that I might try my hand at the tempura battered delicacy.
As much as we would have liked to try everything on the menu, we were called on to smaller and more obscure venues. Thai Crossing sits on the border of the reinvigorated neighborhoods of Shaw and Ledroit Park. There is no sign and the only way customers can distinguish the residential townhouse from its neighbors is by the bright blue façade. Upon entering we walked into a miniscule dining area that until recently was the only dining area. A waitress took us up to the second floor where all the tables were full and probably 30-40 customers sat dining on a dizzying array of Thai food. As we had reservations and there were still no open tables, up we walked to the third floor apartment, where the chef lives – his bed hidden behind a screen – to find three other tables set, all of which were sat within minutes of our own sitting.
Everyone brings their own wine, the servers speak a limited amount of English, and the menu is prix-fixe. For $40.00 a person the server continues to bring out course after course until you beg mercy, which is extremely hard to due as this is the best Thai food I have ever had in my entire life.
We started with a soup similar to Tom Yum, a mix of shrimp, button mushrooms, red chili paste, and galangal (similar to ginger), this tom yum also had hints of coconut milk separating it from the expected. After the soup our waiter huffed and puffed after climbing the three flights of stairs to our table with two salads, a green papaya and larb gai – a spicy, ground, chicken salad. There were many times later in the meal that I wished I had shown some restraint at this juncture in the meal, but like any good home cook, the chef didn’t keep giving you food if you didn’t finish your plate, and it was all SO amazing. On the dishes came – acorn squash so soft the skin was edible, served atop salmon all awash in coconut curry, savory ribs, drunken noodles.
Now, by this point in the meal we were all experiencing what Adam Richman from Man vs. Food refers to as food drunk. This is a food induced euphoria where everything is funny and all of your coordination becomes questionable. This is where the waiter decided that we were cut off. Had we had better stamina there was sure to be a whole fish and some mussels which graced other tables, but these had become frightening prospects as we were all experiencing food comas. Still, desert loomed ahead and the forbidden, sticky rice had to be eaten with the juicy ripe papaya. Afterwards we all decided that the only thing left to do was go straight home and sleep it off. Totally worth it!
To finish up the weekend we headed over to Wonderland, a neighborhood hang-out to recap all of the culinary adventures with the locals. Luckily, we decided to forgo dinner and settled with some happy hour bites, as the night turned to dancing and lots of it. We started at the Black Cat where after a rather dramatic game of pool we wandered upstairs to a light stick lit club full of people jumping to the electronic sounds of On & On. From there we moved to the Bohemian Caverns for more dancing to the spins of an electric group of DJs.
The secret to D.C. certainly is knowing the hidden entrances and underground destinations. It is the neighborhood that is alive. Residential areas are the new downtown, and it is a city that caters to the local, because it is the person who lives and moves within the neighborhoods that drives this scene.