Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Day Special: D.C. Food

It's a pretty neat day in the good old USA. Even if you were not an Obama supporter during the election cycle, you have to admit, it's a pretty momentous day in our history to see an African-American take the oath of the highest elected office of the land. Sorta makes the times when people have said this was possible seem like those people knew what they were talking about. The Secret Fork wishes the best of luck to our new President, his cabinet, Congress, and all the rest of our elected officials. They are going to need it.

Meanwhile, back to the food. And, in honor of the inauguration of a new President and the peaceful exchange of power, let's talk about places to eat and drink inside the Beltway.

Washington D.C. is a wonderful town. It is probably the smallest "World City" we have here in the United States. No kidding. The place just is not that big. Granted, you probably don't want to try to actually walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol- which would be about like walking from the Sioux Falls Regional Airport to, say, Hy Vee at 37th Street. Nevertheless, it's a relatively small place, especially if you are relying on shoe leather and a Metro pass,both of which can get you all over. Really. I mean, where else can you stand in front of buildings pictured on the money in your pocket while on your way to a museum to see the aircraft flown by the Wright Brothers or the only Leonardo DaVinci painting in the United States?

D.C. is a damned good food town. Think about it. Anyplace where major hob-nobbing takes place, there has to be really good food and drink served to people who are not concerned with cost. You'll figure this concept out by the time you make a hotel reservation. Cheap this town is not.

Anyway, there are great places to eat and drink in D.C. Let's start with drinking and this has a lot to do with art. One of the greatest museums to visit in D.C. is the National Portrait Gallery. It's near Chinatown- more like China block- but right there. The building is the Old Patent Office. The art in this museum is PHENOMENAL. You can see old Trumbull paintings of Washington- those are on the front of the money. You can view furniture that the Keno brothers would kill each other to appraise and you can see other magnificent paintings and sculpture and all sorts of pieces that will just make the hours you spend in the place melt away. Forget the International Spy Museum across the street- you can see most of that on a Discovery Channel special. Best thing about the National Portrait Gallery: it's like going into a national museum pre-9/11. No kidding. No lines. No metal detectors. Let the people who want to see the Spirit of St. Louis and the extremely faded original Declaration of Independence stand in line with all the 8th graders from the State of Alabama. Other hint- the lines at the National Art Gallery, part of the Smithsonian, are not too bad, either, and there is a ton of cool stuff to see there, too.

So, after you spend several hours in the National Portrait Gallery, if you are anything like me, you are going to be very thirsty. Granted, chain joints are not the Fork's thing, but the closest watering hole to the museum is a Gordon Biersch brewery right across 9th Street. Have a couple of those ice cold babies. Sit at the bar and visit with people. It's a blast. They always have some sort of special, seasonal beer on tap and I have never had a bad beer there. Heck, one time when I was there, they were having a keg tapping party for the newest seasonal beer. That was pretty fun.

Here's a bonus tip. There are at least another 2 cool venues within stumbling distance of Gordon Biersch: (1) Fado Irish Pub is at something like 7th and H- not too shabby for a pint and (2) Capital City Brewing Company- New York and 11th- good beer.

Near Capital City is a steak house called Bobby Van's Grill at 12th and New York. I was there for a group dinner once. It was okay and that's about the most I can say for it. The place was so loud, you could barely hear yourself think and the steaks were nothing to write home about. The stand-out dish was the side order of hash browned potatoes that came in their own little cast iron skillet. Almost enough to make you want to dine vegetarian in the place, but not quite.

Back to Irish pubs for a minute. One of the coolest ones is located about a block from Union Station on Capitol Hill- the Dubliner. Very authentic looking place. (Remember the dissertation on McNally's? Think dive bar with really dark wood.) The Dubliner has the absolutely greasiest fish and chips you can probably find. You can probably cure a hangover sitting outside in front of the Dubliner with an order of fish and chips and a few pints of Guinness. Actually, I think I did.

As far as the Fork is concerned, if there is any mandatory stop in D.C., it is a visit to Old Ebbit's Grill at about 15th and G. This is supposedly one of the oldest restaurants in D.C and is has clearly hosted many a power lunch or dinner. The mahogany wood and white marble decor certainly gives that impression. The fact it's adjacent to the Willard Hotel helps, too. The food is all good at this place, and not terribly expensive, but the star attraction is that appetizer menu. One word. Oysters.

If you think you don't like oysters, and by that I mean raw oysters, served on the half shell with minimal accompaniments, you either (1) have never actually had fresh oysters (you Christmas Eve Oyster Stew lovers know who you are) or (2) had them in some joint on or within a block of Bourbon Street and spent half the next morning yakking your guts out. (Which had more to do with the 4 Hurricanes, 9 beers (only 3 three-fers), the sazerac, hand grenade, and shot in a test tube offered by a stripper who looked like she might have been 17, than it did with the oysters. Seriously.) Old Ebbit prides itself on its oyster offerings. I've never been there when they have had less that 6 different types, which are usually a good mix of East Coast and West Coast oysters. We're talking good, cold water oysters here. Come to think of it, I've never seen the warm water Louisiana Gulf Coast oysters on the offering at Old Ebbit. Some of the oysters are very small. Others are huge. Try the mignonette sauce- scallions and red wine vinegar- on those babies, and leave the cocktail sauce in the cup. Well, okay, try a little of the cocktail sauce on one oyster, but make sure you put most of the horseradish sauce in it to get that super wasabi, sinus clearing experience.

When you get there, the place is going to be packed. Can't get a table? Screw it. Go to the bar. No bar stool? Screw it. Stand. Order a dozen oysters and wash them down with at least two Yuengling Lager beers. I once stood for at least an hour and a half after walking all over town and downed a couple dozen oysters and several pints of Yuengling. Sitting would have been nice, but the oysters made up for it. Betcha order at least another half dozen. Phenomenal. You wouldn't dream of having these oysters fried on a Po Boy Sandwich. They are just too good.

Old Ebbitt Grill on Urbanspoon
If you play your cards right, it will be dark when you leave Old Ebbit's. Give a homeless guy right outside the door a couple of bucks and then start walking in a westerly direction. That big building across the street is the Treasury (back of the ten dollar bill). The street running in front of the Treasury is Pennsylvania Avenue. It's blocked to traffic now, so you can stroll down the middle of it and stop and gaze at the White House (back of the twenty dollar bill). Way cool. As an added bonus, the next building to the west is the Old Executive Office Building, which is absolutely beautiful. Blair House is right there, too. If you can stand a few more blocks of walking, go north west up Pennsylvania Avenue and stop to admire the fountains outside the World Bank building.

Back to Chinatown, where there is a Spanish place called LaTasca. Good Sangria. Great sangria actually- order a whole pitcher of the stuff. Sangria is the wine equivalent of fraternity party punch. It's really good. Can't beat that. It goes wonderfully with several orders of tapas- little plates of food. Tapas means "tops" and literally refers to little plates once employed by bars in Spain to sit on top of glasses of sherry or drinks to keep the flies out. Eventually, the bar owners started serving a few bites of food on those little plates. This isn't like making a dinner of appetizers at a TGI Fridays. The food is much better (think a couple deviled eggs topped with blue crab or Serrano ham with a little lavender honey and fresh rosemary) and the portions are much smaller. You'll want to order at least three plates per person and will want to mix up hot and cold choices.

You'll get good sushi in D.C. too. I managed to have myself a $60.00 lunch (just me, thanks) at Sake Club on Connecticut Ave- kind of near Woodley Park and the National Zoo. A Midwesterner has never seen so much sake. Have the sampler- which will include sake fermented with fish. Very nice. Also, have whatever fish is the special, especially if it is the sea urchin. You'll feel like Andrew Zimmern shooting your own episode of Bizarre Foods.

Sake Club on Urbanspoon

There is decent sushi around Dupont Circle, too. Try Uni A Sushi Place on P Street. The Secret Salad Fork and I found this place with the Secret Teaspoon when we were in D.C a few years ago. It's REALLY easy to get yourself a little disoriented when ascending to Dupont Circle from the Metro stop. The escalator itself is about a quarter mile long. We probably walked 2/3 of the way around the circle the wrong way, took a self-guided tour of some of the embassies in the area and then finally asked somebody at the Westin if there was a decent sushi place in the neighborhood and got directed to Uni. You can generally trust recommendations from people in the service industries. It was good.

One of the neat things about Uni is that it is within a stone's throw of the Brickskeller. The Brickskeller is an absolute dive, but they have great onion rings and about 1000 different beers on the menu. No kidding. I have had a bottle of Carib beer in two places on the planet: St. Thomas, USVI and the Brickskeller. (Incidentally, that Carib tasted better on Coki Beach than it did in D.C., but I don't hold that against Brickskeller.) It's a fun place to go and once you're in the place, you can only imagine that every Congressional staffer and intern has been in the place, because they have.)

Back to Dupont Circle, where we went to Heritage India. I think. Been a few years, and like I said earlier, Dupont Circle can be a little disorienting. This is the first place I ever had lamb vindaloo. I was very excited to order it. The waiter, who had a flawless native Indian accent remarked, "Sir, that dish is extremely spicy." I said, "Looking forward to it." Famous last words. Without a doubt, some of the hottest food I have ever voluntarily put in my mouth. No kidding. Heavenly. It was awesome.

D.C. is a great town. Go. See the monuments and take time to read them. Go to Arlington National Cemetery- that's a life changing visit. Walk as much as your feet will allow and then push on to the next Metro stop anyway. Go to art museums. Eat oysters. Drink beer. You'll be glad you did.

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