courtesy of Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie
If you ask me, 2011 pretty much knocked it out of the park on the food scene. A plethora of new restaurants and bars opened, old restaurants expanded, chefs stirred up controversy and did good deeds, and in the end our fair city took home two James Beard Awards among others we were honored with. DC showed we’ve got the chops when it comes to food and it’s only up from here.
So fellow food writer Tricia and I took a look back at the year in food and rounded up all our favorites from the year. Find our Best of 2011 list after the jump and have a happy new year!
courtesy of Plantains & Kimchi
Best Dish of 2011
Marissa: Suffice to say that in doing food coverage for We Love DC and my own blog, Bon Appetit Foodie, I ate a lot in 2011. And this category, along with best new restaurant, was the toughest call to make. But I’m giving my best dish of the year to a classic: the roasted chicken at Palena. I’m rarely moved to order chicken at a restaurant (child please, I can cook that all the time at home just the way I want it!), but with Palena the simple roasted chicken is done to perfection. It’s juicy on the inside and the skin is crispy on the outside. If you were eating this in the privacy of your own home, you might just pick it up to clean off the bones. There’s no overthinking on this dish, no wacky spin with some trendy ingredient: just roasted, delicious, unadulterated chicken. And for that, I’d say it was one of the best things I ate in 2011.
Tricia: What a tough choice. I just ate so many good dishes this year. I had veal cheeks at Michel, sea shell pasta in a light broccoli sauce at Acqua Al 2, a great lamb sandwich from Zest, killer mussels from Watershed, and much more. Still, my best dish of the year goes to Robert Wiedmaier’s roasted merguez sausage from Brasserie Beck. I actually stole it from my friend when we went (not that my steak-frites weren’t wonderful as well) and had to go back twice afterwards to have it again and again. My runner-ups include the scallop risotto from Cava Mezze on Capitol Hill and scallops with roasted cauliflower from Estadio in Logan Circle. Can you tell I like scallops and tapas?
Best New Restaurant of 2011
Tricia: So many restaurants opened in 2011, you can see some of them here and here. We had the endlessly talked about Rogue 24, Toki Underground and Shake Shack, and the quieter openings like…wait, I can’t remember. My favorite new restaurant is one that I’ve recommended countless times to friends and whose bar and tables are constantly packed: Graffiato. I was absolutely in heaven while eating Chef Mike Isabella’s sweet corn agnolotti. Was the restaurant’s initial success due to Isabella’s name? Absolutely. But its continuing dominance is due to Isabella’s dedication (the man works around the clock) and cooking prowess.
My runner-up in this category is Chef Fabio Trabocchi’s Italian restaurant, Fiola.
Marissa: If I were picking my favorite new spot for a cocktail, it’d be Jack Rose, hands down. But judging by food and food alone, I’m also going with Graffiato as well. 2011 rang in Pearl Dive, Fiola, Toki Underground, The Hamilton and other heavy-hitters. But Graffiato lived up to all of the hype and most importantly, it has remained consistent since it opened. If we’re all still talking about that sweet corn agnolotti, the pepperoni sauce or that gnocchi with truffles months and months later, I’d say we’ve got ourselves a best new restaurant.
Best Dessert of 2011
Marissa: For all intents and purposes, I am not a huge fan of cheesecake. I’ll nibble at it, but it’s never my first choice for dessert. But there were two that won me over this year and I’m calling a tie for this category. First off is the manchego cheesecake with pistachio granola at Estadio. The smooth texture of the cheesecake with the sweet crunch of the granola is outstanding. And the usage of manchego adds a different twist to the dessert. Second is Tiffany MacIsaac’s peanut butter cheesecake with celery ice cream and raisins (rum-soaked, if I remember correctly) at Birch & Barley. Tiffany’s spin on the classic Girl Scout treat, ants on a log, was playful and creative. The celery ice cream and the saltiness from the peanut butter adds a little hint of savory to this sweet dish.
Tricia: Elisir has only been open one month, otherwise I would have been inclined to put it in my favorite restaurant of 2011 list. While that might be too high of an honor to give a place I have only been to twice, Elisir’s Study of Chocolate dessert was definitely the dessert highlight of this year. The dessert is (surprise) for the chocolate lover: chocolate cake with mascarpone cream, milk chocolate semifreddo, white chocolate gelato, sour cream caramel sauce, cocoa nibs. The Study of Chocolate comes to us from Pastry Chef Elisabeth Barbato, who has worked with Michelin star chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud. Glad to have her here with Chef Enzo Fargione!
Best Out-of-Towner to Come to DC in 2011
Tricia: After making myself famous at Good Stuff Eatery in 2010 and eating way too many of Spike Mendelsohn’s then called 5-Napkin Burgers, I just could not participate in the continuing burger craze of 2011. A girl can only eat so many burgers! So, I’m giving the prize to Georgetown’s Serendipity 3. The New York institution is a favorite of tourists, celebrities, and well, most everyone. The restaurant does have food other than ice cream, including salads and pastas, and they even has a great brunch. But I’m giving it this distinction because of the fried Oreo sundae I polished off one Sunday night just 30 minutes after eating an entire Laredo Plate at Lauriol Plaza. Yes, I finished the sundae and have Facebook pictures to prove it.
Marissa: Had Wegmans actually landed within the limits of the District, I’d have easily given this category to them. But until the grocery store after my own heart comes to DC or until Eataly really and truly opens here, I’ll side with Tricia on this one and say Serendipity. Serendipity is a Manhattan classic and a place that I felt much better about welcoming to DC rather than yet another cupcake or burger place (seriously, enough with both of those already and yes, I am aware Serendipity has burgers). I’m probably a little biased having grown up near NYC and having fond memories of ice skating in Manhattan and then running off to Serendipity for a frozen hot chocolate with my college boyfriend at the time in a fit of touristy glee. But it’s a welcome addition to the Georgetown scene and I’m a sucker for a good sundae.
Best Food Post on We Love DC in 2011
Marissa: The post I’m most proud of in 2011 was my recent one on Rappahannock River Oysters, LLC. I went from zero to 60 with oysters in 2011–used to never eat them and now I could challenge you to eat four dozen in one sitting. And so I wanted to write this feature not only because I thought RRO was a cool company and their oysters are consistently fresh, clean and delicious, but also because I was really curious about how oysters were raised and what aquaculture was all about. It was definitely one of the features I learned the most while writing.
Tricia: I have to give this one to my post on Watershed, still another runner up in my Best New Restaurants of 2011 List. The seafood restaurant comes to us from Chef Todd Gray of Equinox and is situated in DC’s NoMa neighborhood, a quiet part of town that is growing. It’s located (some would say unfortunately) on the second floor of the Hilton Garden Inn and the food is incredible. This is my favorite post because I kept wanting to look at it and see the pictures of the hushpuppies, seafood gumbo and BBQ shrimp with grits so that I could relive the meal.
Best Food Scene Controversy of 2011
Tricia: This award goes to Chef RJ Cooper who had the blogs afire as well as some annoyed customers with his two-page dining contract at Rogue 24. He did end up softening the thing, easing up a bit on the restaurant’s cancellation policy. Cell phone pictures or tweets? A no-no, but don’t worry, security won’t kick you out for violating the now called “guest questionnaire.” Maybe I’ll go to Rogue 24 so that I’m forced to to separate my hand from my phone. Controversy aside, all of us at WLDC wish RJ a speedy recovery from heart surgery.
My choice for runner-up is Spike Mendelsohn. He is, after all, a big fish in a small pond.
Marissa: Don’t even get me started on that whole hullabaloo over the Rogue 24 contract. I’d have to say that for me the “best” controversy of 2011 was Spike Mendelsohn’s commentary on “being a big fish in a small pond” and calling DC a “second-tier city.” Not only did the controversy cause a stir, but it was easy (for me at least) to see both sides of the fence on this one, making it all the more interesting. I used to compare New York to DC a lot. And then I grew up and grew out of that phase and realized, “Hey chickadee, this may not be New York City, but it’s not trying to be.” Regardless of what Spike was intending with his comments, having been on the media circuit and on a reality TV show that loves to play up the drama, Spike could have avoided the controversy by being a tad more careful with his words. No hard feelings, Spike, I’ll still come by for that buffalo chicken pie or a milkshake.
My runner-up would be BGR’s Mark Bucher’s continual denial of being involved with Michel Richard’s Meatballs restaurant. If your name is splashed all over public paperwork, why not just own up to being involved with the restaurant and leave it at that? Or is this some brilliant PR move to get more spotlight?
Best Brunch of 2011
Tricia: So I’ll probably get yelled at for making my choice too touristy, but I just love Old Ebbitt Grill. The place is so big you never have to wait for a seat and it has some of the best bloody marys in DC. My favorite items? For starters, I like Colombian empanadas: chicken, potatoes and scallions served with chimichurri and aji, and the beef carnitas: marinated steak, cheese quesadilla, salsa and sour cream. My go-to-entree is the eggs chesapeake: two poached eggs and jumbo lump crab cakes on English muffin with Chesapeake sauce and “LTD” potatoes. It’s amazing.
My runner-up choice would be Masa 14 because unlike other all you can eat menus, this one is actually fanstastic. Plus, who doesn’t love Latin American small plates? Last time I was there, I practically rolled out of the place, not because I had too many unlimited mimosas, but because I had two helpings of the bacon-fried rice.
Marissa: For me, this one is a slam dunk: Birch & Barley. Chef Kyle Bailey’s chicken and waffles are the best–a spicy kick in the breading and then a sweet finish from the maple jus. The bacon toffee doughnuts, the homemade hashbrowns, the huevos rancheros–I could (and often do) go on and on. Plus, they’ve embraced the concept of brunch and serve it all day long on Sundays so I don’t need to rush myself over there by 11 AM to beat the crowd.
Best Food Trend of 2011
Marissa: Now here’s a trend that I haven’t heard anything about in a few months: pop-up restaurants. I remember earlier in the year it seemed like everywhere I turned there was a pop-up store or a pop-up restaurant yelling in my face, “COME GET ME NOW WHILE I’M HOT CAUSE I WON’T BE HERE FOR LONG, BUCKO.” The pop-up restaurant was great at cultivating a fast flurry of buzz around it and making each concept seem like a hot commodity reserved for only the coolest of cool who could get in before the doors shut for good. I’m not sure that I would say it was the “best” trend to come out of 2011 (“best” might go to our ongoing love affair with pork, but I can’t say precisely if that started in 2011), but it was certainly an interesting one. You were fun and amusing while you lasted, pop-ups.
Tricia: If this is a trend, I would call it the “Rise of the Solo Diner.” I don’t cook, and I’m a foodie, and I tell myself they are not mutually exclusive. If I had to wait for my friends to go out, I would only eat on Fridays and Saturdays. It used to be almost comical going somewhere and hearing, “Are you waiting for someone?”, replying “no” and getting a strange look. Now whether at the bar or at a table, it seems you are welcome and even encouraged (restaurant electronics anyone?). Yes, people can dine alone! Though if I never again hear the pick-up line, “Oh, is that an iPad?” I will die a happy person.
Stay tuned for our predictions on 2012 in a later post.
Best Chef Moment of 2011
Tricia: Earlier this year we heard via a tweet from Washingtonian’s Todd Kliman that Executive Chef Rob Weland was leaving Penn Quarter’s Poste Moderne Brasserie after seven years in the kitchen. Weland didn’t quite tell us his exact plans either. The release from Poste read “Chef Weland has decided to leave Poste to pursue other opportunities, including authoring a book around preserving seasonal flavors and sustainable gardening and cooking.” Less that two months later the low-profile chef turned up at Cork Wine Bar as its new executive chef, replacing Ron Tanaka. According to Washingtonian, Chef Weland is still working on his book and his own restaurant.
Marissa: I’m going to take a bit of a pass here and site the best chef moment of 2011 as the entire Capital Chefs column. Interviewing chefs around DC every weekend or so is a highlight in my life. I’m always impressed by how receptive, gracious and friendly (most) DC chefs are to invite me into their lives and kitchens and answer every question I ask. They’ve inspired me to try new dishes; they’ve taught me a few tricks that are fun to show off at dinner parties; they’ve shown me that at some point in my future, I’m gonna have to ditch corporate and fully immerse myself in the food biz; and some of them have even become dear friends. I’m humbled to learn from this crowd of chefs who are making food in this city better every minute.
Best Restaurant PR Move of 2011
Tricia: So if you write about food you get a lot of press releases. I mean a lot–everything from a new drink, to a new theme, to a new executive chef, etc. An email subject line that caught my eye a couple of months ago read: “Burgers Get Political at the New Burger Board at BLT Steak DC.” Intrigued, I opened and read on. Think political satire at its best. The rotating lunch burgers from executive Chef Victor Albisu include my two favorites: “The Birth Certificate” (8 oz. American kobe burger, grilled SPAM with pineapple) and “The Bi Partisan” (8 oz. American kobe burger, Maine lobster, white cheddar and a black truffle buttermilk dressing).
Marissa: Working in PR during the day, by the time I get home after work the thought of reading another press release occasionally makes me want to dunk my face in a dirty martini and call it a night. So perhaps it’s appropriate that I’m giving this best “PR move” to Little Serow. There’s no sign on the door. There are no tables that seat more than four, nor do they take reservations. There was no press pitch in my inbox. There was no media dinner invite. The website is a whopping three pages (hooray for no obnoxious Flash components that won’t load on my iPhone!). There’s been blog and newspaper coverage on it, but I’d bet that most of the people who aren’t obsessed with food in this city have probably walked by Little Serow a million times already. So kudos to Johnny Monis for opening a concept surrounding a cuisine he’s passionate about and not banging us all over the head with omg-you-have-to-try-this-place-it’s-going-to-change-your-life-more-than-any-other-restaurant-ever. For the record, the food there is quite fantastic (housemade pork sausage when I went was superbly tender).
So there you have our best picks from 2011. What were yours on the food scene?