Guest City: Washington, DC — A Food Lover’s Guide to Washington, DC: Fine Dining

Tuesday March 13, 2012

(This is the third and final article in the DC Food Guide series. Click through for A Food Lover’s Guide to DC: Cheap Lunch. And click here for A Food Lover’s Guide to DC: Mid-Priced Restaurants.)

And here we are at last, the world of fine dining. A girl can really breathe up here.

DC does fine dining very well, which is only fitting in a town where even the college interns are striving to be diplomatic grown ups, in control and in power. The power lunch morphs into the power happy hour followed by the power dinner.

Food, and the ways you enjoy it, is a social determinant in every city, of course. In New York, your measure of cool — your hip equity — is determined by who can come up with the most obscure pizza shop buried somewhere deep in the boroughs. In San Francisco, chefs are local celebrities — you earn points by being able to point out a chef’s resume and last three restaurants, who he’s partnered up with to open his current restaurant, and where he might be hosting a pop up next month.

In DC, your social capital is influenced by which fine dining restaurants you’ve been to, which you want to try, and which really just didn’t do it for you. This is a club that you earn and discuss your way into. Restaurants know this, and they’ve risen to the challenge. The fine dining restaurants in DC are turning out some wonderful food, in beautiful settings, with spotless service. It is all quite dignified.

Here are my picks for fine dining in Washington, DC.

1. Corduroy — $$$$, Convention Center

You should be blown away by a high end restaurant, and Corduroy was a restaurant that blew us away. Service was so professional and deft that we barely even noticed our wine glasses being topped, plates arriving or being whisked away. They were fine dining ninjas. (The night before, we dined at another fancy New American restaurant, where the servers breathlessly explained each and every single thing on the menu, whispered odes to the chef, and then proceeded to deliver our meal at such an intentionally slow pace that we were never really sure when we would ever be allowed to leave the restaurant. I’m not saying fine dining has to be like a folksy get’em-in-get’em-out Outback Steakhouse on a Friday night, but sometimes, restaurants go a bit overboard with the refinement, becoming caricatures of themselves.)

Where were we? Right, Corduroy. Our meal had hints of Japanese ingredients, but they mostly appeared as an interesting highlight woven into a more familiar set of ingredients. When I go out to eat at an expensive restaurant, I expect to experience something new – either a new ingredient or a flavor combination I haven’t had before. This is where Corduroy excels. The chef is thoughtful in his use of unfamiliar ingredients and how he incorporates Japanese flavors and techniques.

Tables are hard to come by, so you have to reserve early.


2. The Source — $$$$, Penn Quarter

This became our go-to restaurant for birthdays and celebrations, mostly because the food was consistently excellent (you don’t want a disappointing birthday dinner!) and it wasn’t too much of a challenge to get reservations. The Source is a Wolfgang Puck Asian fusion restaurant housed in the 2nd floor of the Newseum – a fantastic (not free) museum that you should check out as well.

The décor is pretty fabulous – a jewel box of glass and glitter, with iridescent velvet booths (!) lining the wall to wall windows facing out on the streetlights of Pennsylvania Avenue a couple stories below. Sure, you might feel a little lunky climbing into a booth with a pretty dress on, but…booths!

As for the food, Dave had an addiction problem with the Kobe short ribs (slow cooked with Indian spices) on the menu. I can still taste the scallop and shrimp sui mai with curry lobster-uni emulsion – absolutely light but  still mouth-filling, and delicious. The fusion aspect isn’t as subtle or intellectual as it is at Cordoruy, but you will crave every dish for days.


3. Sushi Taro — $$$$, Dupont Circle

Sushi Taro is so authentically Japanese, that you’ll wonder if you are still in the States. Sushi Taro used to be just another bustling cheap-sushi-box-lunch spot above a CVS, when it abruptly closed up shop. It returned completely reinvented.

The owners must have reduced the number of tables by at least half, and now serve only a Kaiseki menu. This is the Japanese version of haute cuisine – multiple courses, chosen by the chef, at a fixed price. We had the Traditional Kaiseki Tasting and were treated to a seemingly endless stream of courses (we had to keep count, to remember where we were). First, for two people who eat a lot of Japanese food, no course had anything we’d ever eaten before and we rarely even knew what we were eating. We were transported. Do not expect to see tuna, salmon, or even fatty tuna anywhere. Our most memorable course involved a baby squid, which we stared at for a good long while. Three years later, I still remember the taste of baby squid as a unique pop-splash in my mouth.

If you love Japanese food and live in the DC area, Sushi Taro is a must-try. You may not like everything, and everything might be unfamiliar, but it will be a meal you can rarely get outside Japan and an evening you won’t forget.


4. Citronelle — $$$$, Georgetown

No list of fine dining restaurants in DC can exclude Citronelle. It’s the DC darling of the moneyed foodie world. Be warned — it is, at the kids say, hella expensive. Much more expensive than the other restaurants on this list.

Citronelle is the older, more traditional sister wife to our beloved Coi. Chef Michel Richard uses molecular gastronomy to turn/manipulate/conjur ingredients into something that always requires second look. What looks like a hard boiled egg is actually mozzarella with a solidified “yolk” of tomato confit. I love this kind of playfulness, especially in the often too serious realm of fine dining.

The flip side of this, though, is that after ordering, you have very slim to no idea what you’ll be eating. When you order something called, say, lobster Beluga pasta, you have certain expectations in mind. You’ve ordered it because perhaps you know that you like the combination of lobster and ribbons of Italian, yellowish pasta. Instead, you are presented with a Beluga caviar tin, small black glistening orbs staring back at you. This isn’t at all what you ordered. The “caviar” may turn out to be pasta, the rest of the tin may be chockfull of heavy chunks of lobster — more lobster than you’ve ever seen on a plate before. But, I promise that you will squint at every dish put before you, as you figure out what if anything it has to do with the dish you ordered.

Half of our table thought this was delightful. The other half not so much. I should note it was the other half that actually paid for the meal, which may have had something to do with their desire for a cheeky, playful meal.


Honorable Mention

Art and Soul – $$$$, Capitol Hill Chef Art Smith’s Southern-by-way-of-Louisiana restaurant. The art form here isn’t molecular gastronomy and innovation but expertly prepared Southern dishes with excellent ingredients – barbecue shrimp and grits (perfect perfect perfect!) and buttermilk fried chicken.

Proof – $$$$, Penn Quarter A chic restaurant with an excellent wine list, including our local favorites Beaulieu, Arnot-Roberts, Hirsch, Littorai, Dutton Goldfield, and Hanzell. The food is solid New American with surprising turns, but it’s the whole rustic/modern/sultry experience that makes this the ultimate date spot if you’re trying to impress.

Cashion’s Eat Place – $$$$, Adams Morgan This formal, grown-up pocket in the post-collegiate world of Adams Morgan would have made the full list if it was mid-priced. Like Proof, the food is solid and good, except Cashion’s doesn’t manage to exceed expectations or surprise you. That being said, you won’t be disappointed, which is something to be said for DC dining. My friends particularly loved it for the cute mixologist at the bar (I realize this makes us sound like an episode of Portlandia – mixologists, they happen) who would make custom drinks with no fewer than 5 ingredients and involve sprigs of thyme or whatever.

2 Responses to “Guest City: Washington, DC — A Food Lover’s Guide to Washington, DC: Fine Dining”

  1. […] (This is the second article in the DC Food Guide series. Click through for A Food Lover’s Guide to DC: Cheap Edition. And click here for A Food Lover’s Guide to DC: Fine Dining.) […]


    3/13/2012 at 4:07 pm

  2. […] (This is the first article in the DC Food Guide series. Click through for A Food Lover’s Guide to DC: Mid-Priced Restaurants. And click here for A Food Lover’s Guide to DC: Fine Dining.) […]


    3/13/2012 at 4:08 pm