It’s hard to believe that the same country that invented tiramisu also produced the cannoli
Tip for first-daters hoping to live up to their profile pics: Buck’s has the best golden-hour lighting in the DC area
My kids can marry anyone they want except for people who back into parking spaces
DC has the lowest Jews-to-Jewish-delis ratio in the free world
Cake doughnuts > raised doughnuts
Stephen Starr has gotta be using oompa loompas
The best thing at Popeye’s is the red beans & rice
Note to restaurateurs: dehydrating food and turning it into a powder is only a good idea if you’re catering lunch for the space shuttle
Labneh knows you’re going for the hummus and the baba ganoush but shows up anyway; it’s the rom-com best friend of the mezze platter
You have a better chance at winning Powerball than evenly cooking bowtie pasta
Social Safeway is an oxymoron
Bonus dad joke: a wedge of Parmesan cheese is great but pre-shredded is grated
Buck’s Fishing & Camping, 5031 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC (Chevy Chase-DC)
Buck’s is a kind of clubhouse for people who wouldn’t think of joining an actual club. I’m mostly talking about residents of Upper NW/lower MoCo like me who are of a certain age, political leaning, and religious affiliation (let’s just say if you came from an oneg at Adas where you were recounting CBS’s terrible treatment of the Smothers Brothers over their position on the Vietnam War, you’re in). Buck’s is a safe space where we can feel comfortable talking about things that matter, like whether to order another bottle of Whispering Angel or just a piece of chocolate cake after dinner — spoiler alert: we’ll have both…and four forks, please — and whether the popcorn at the Avalon needs more salt.
The menu at Buck’s rarely changes and ranges from good to very good. To start, I always — always — get the iceberg wedge with blue cheese, bacon, and horseradish dressing. After that, I’m playing with house money and can go in any direction, especially since I know I can grab a few fries from Sonia’s flat-iron steak. Other good orders include the NY Strip, the carrot dip with flatbread, the fried oysters, the fish & chips, and the 1/2 chicken. And it’s not on the menu right now, but in case it comes back, I really liked the bangers & mash made with duck and bacon sausage. Finally, if you’re thinking of dessert, the chocolate cake with lightly-whipped cream is worth the calories, even if you’re single-forking it.
Wedge Salad with Point Reyes Blue Cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and horseradish dressing
Duck and Bacon Bangers & Mash
Bar Spero, 250 Massacusetts Ave NW, Washington DC (Capitol Crossing)
Bon Appetit named Bar Spero one of the country’s best new restaurants of 2023 and you won’t get any pushback from me. Chef Johnny Spero has a winner here. Although I do wonder about Bon Appetit’s description of Bar Spero as a “brassy grill-focused ode to Basque nightlife.” First, it’s actually more minimalist than brassy. Second, I’m not sure how many people would glean any meaning from an “ode to Basque nightlife.” It’s like someone who says they do an impressions of Grover Cleveland. Maybe you nailed it, I have no idea.
What I do know is that there’s some really good dishes coming out of the Bar Spero kitchen, often seafood- and veggie-forward and cooked over an open fire. We liked everything we tried — the hearth-grilled bread from Manifest Bakery (supplemented with the chicken liver mousse), grilled oysters, beef tartare, burger, baked potato with smoked egg, Jonah Crab Rice, Beef Rib, and Burnt Cheesecake ice cream. I need to get back to try the other half of the menu but I’d say order with abandon.
Jonah Crab Rice with Carolina gold rice and crab fat custard
Russet potato dusted with smoked egg
Burnt Cheesecake Ice Cream
Causa, 920 Blagden Alley NW, Washington DC (Convention Center)
There’s a lot to like about Causa, Chef Carlos Delgado’s small, upscale Peruvian restaurant in Blagden Alley. There’s the fresh, vibrant flavors of Peru that seem both exotic and familiar. There’s the care and thought that goes into sourcing and cooking. And there’s the excellent service — knowledgeable and friendly without being cloying or over-staying their welcome. And because the restaurant only holds 20-odd seats, Chef Delgado himself will likely present some of the dishes and explain the story behind them. So when Causa received its first Michelin star, I wasn’t surprised.
There was one small fly in the ointment for me that I wanted to mention. Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of molecular gastronomy or intellectualized cooking. To me, the only question is whether something makes the dish better or not. If it does, it’s in; if it doesn’t, leave it out, no matter how clever it is or how cool it looks. And to me — and I stress this is my own taste and I’m not yucking anyone’s yum — techniques like deconstruction, dehydration, and trompe l’oeil rarely improve a dish (I see what you did there is not improving a dish). Happily, most of Causa’s dishes focus on better ingredients and better technique, like Chef Delgado’s inspired addition of Maryland lump crab to his rendition of locro (pumpkin stew) and his use of whatever cheffy techniques created the stew’s luscious sauce. On the other hand, I found the choclo con queso (corn with cheese) less successful. It was probably the dish I was most looking forward to — what could go wrong with corn and cheese? — but the cheese component was processed into some kind of dehydrated foodstuff that covered the plate like a frigid lunar landscape (see pic below). Again, this kind of thing could be your jam. You’re not alone. Michelin inspectors and other food cognoscenti agree with you. But if you’re a fellow traveler on my side of the ledger, I thought you should know.
Lovely amuse buche
Locro – Maryland Crab, butternut squash, queso fresco, huacatay
Choclo con Queso (corn, chulpi toasted corn, queso fresco, huacatay)
Parihuela Chalaca (seafood soup in a plastic bag)
Chez Billy Sud, 1039 31st St NW, Washington DC (Georgetown)
If DC gets any more French restaurants, we may have to surrender to Arlington. So it’s nice to get back to an old favorite like Chez Billy Sud and see that they haven’t lost a step. This duck confit is one of the best in town (although the skin could be a tad crisper). And the room is the perfect balance between bustle/buzz and not being on top of neighboring tables.
Duck Confit with braised lentils, parsnip, banyuls vinegar sauce
Cielo Rojo, 7211 Carroll Ave, Takoma Park MD
Cielo Rojo just moved to big, beautiful new quarters a stone’s throw down Carroll Avenue from its original location. The husband-and-wife team of David Perez and Carolina McCandless met a decade ago working at an organic Mexican restaurant in San Francisco and moved to the DC area (where Carolina was raised) to open Cielo Rojo in 2019. My go-to order is always pozole, which is one of the best in town. Then I’ll tack on anything involving corn or avocados — CR’s sourcing and processing doesn’t cut any corners — and finish with a piece of tres leches cake.
Guacamole & Tostadas
Tres Leches Cake
Ceibo, 2106 18th Ave NW, Washington DC (Adams Morgan)
Pre-Ceibo, the sum total of my experience with Urugauyan cuisine was a small carry-out in a gas station on 14th Street called Fast Gourmet. They made a terrific chivito, the national sandwich of Uruguay, that contained a hot mess of pounded steak, bacon, ham, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and a ton of mayo. It was unbelievably good, even sober. So imagine my excitement when I heard that the same brothers who ran Fast Gourmet opened a Uruguayan restaurant called Ceibo on 18th Street. (Note: I haven’t been able to confirm that it’s the same two brothers, but I desperately want it to be true.)
Alas, there’s no chivito on the menu at Ceibo. The vibe is more upscale and as you can probably guess, I’m not asking for a deconstructed version. The leek tart was the table favorite, with a flaky crust, delicious leek filling and creamy cheese topping. The green salad with herbs was a hit as well, little nuggets of fruit and fried chickpea puree lurking beneath the surface. The strip steak was well-seasoned and cooked to a perfect medium-rare and the gelato with dark cherries finished the meal off nicely.
Green Salad with Herbs
Strip Loin Steak
The Heights Food Hall, 5406 Wisconsin Ave, Chevy Chase MD
I want the Heights Food Hall to succeed. Badly. I wouldn’t call Friendship Heights a wasteland because at least wastelands produce some decent poetry. Friendship Heights does have Clyde’s, Lia’s, Cheesecake Factory, and The Hunter’s Hound but if you told me they all shared a single kitchen I wouldn’t bat an eye.
Anyway, The Heights opened late last year with successful brands like Yasmine and DC Dosa and sit-down Mexican spot Urbano. Plus, uber-talented Chef Kevin Tien launched a sushi spot called doki doki. I’ve only been to doki so far but Chef Tien’s Red Dragon Roll is already one of my favorite sushi rolls in town. What I’m saying is, we all have to do our part in making The Heights Food Hall such a rousing success that the folks from Harrods fly here to see what in the hell is going on.
Red Dragon Roll (Krab salad, cucumber, avocado, jalapeno, topped with spicy tuna, eel sauce, spicy mayo, crispy rice noodles)
January 2024 is going to be a banner month for DC restaurant openings. The list includes 2Fifty Texas BBQ in Mt Vernon Square, Kevin Tien’s relaunch of Moon Rabbit in Penn Quarter, NYC import Pastis near Union Market, and Raising Canes Chicken (inside Union Station). Each of those could be among the best-in-class in the DC area but you’ll have to tune in next time to find out.