It’s tempting to skip the typical end-of-year hoo-hah and just be grateful for the restaurants that managed to keep their doors open in 2021. But I decided to plow ahead with my own recap. We’re all craving a semblance of normalcy — and a hefty dose of distraction — as we slog into Covid’s terrible twos. More than ever, I want the diversion of a year-end Washington Post list telling me Cousin Greg is in and Bobby Axelrod is out, or to lose myself in speculation over why Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t just return Taylor’s damn scarf. It’s in that spirit of the holidays that I give you the best things I ate in 2021.
Dauphine’s, 1100 15th Street NW, Washington DC
Don’t hesitate to pay the $10 and get the bread service at the New Orleans-themed Dauphine’s. It’s as important to the success of your meal there as the buttermilk biscuits at St. Anselm. Or better yet, get two orders of the bread service and two orders of pommes soufflé (puffed potatoes) and you’ll be playing with house money.
Oyster Oyster, 1440 8th Street NW, Washington DC
Bread and Marigold “Butter”
Veggie-centric Oyster Oyster is a darling of the foodie set (it was named as one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in the country). What I liked most about the parade of courses is that they highlight vegetables on their own terms and not as stand-ins for meat. You can make beets look like a medium-rare steak (or rare tuna for that matter), but once you get past the trompe l’oeil you’re setting the diner up for disappointment. The beets won’t taste like beef (or tuna) and eventually it just feels a bit off, like the voice of Kermit the Frog since Jim Henson passed away.
No such issue with this crusty bread and “butter” concocted from sunflower seeds, vinegar, and marigold flowers. To my point about not trying to duplicate animal products, you can make a “butter” with anything from apples to cashews, so to me the marigold butter felt more like a nut-butter spread than a dairy-butter wannabee.
L’Ardente, 200 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC
Duck Hunt (duck ravioli, foie gras, truffle)
L’Ardente is a new Italian restaurant in the Capitol Crossing development headed by Chef David Deshaies of Unconventional Diner. Deshaies trained under the late-great Michel Richard at Citronelle, so you know whatever he puts out will be well-conceived and well-executed, often with a touch of whimsy. Take this decadent starter of duck ravioli, foie gras, and truffle topped with a froth of duck jus and cream. The ravioli come submerged in four little cups perched on yellow duck feet that puts a smile on everyone’s face — except I’m sure the dishwashers who have to clean them and any visiting zoologists disturbed by the fact that the duck feet are actually chicken feet.
Buck’s Fishing & Camping, 5031 Connecticut Ave, Washington DC
Wedge Salad with Point Reyes Blue Cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and horseradish dressing
If I have a neighborhood restaurant, it’s probably Buck’s. You know, the kind of place you wouldn’t necessarily drive across town for but you gravitate to because of its proximity and the fact that it’s reliably good. Almost every time I go to Buck’s I get this wedge salad. Granted, I’m a sucker for wedge salads but this one is particularly good — the freshness and quality of the key ingredients and the subtle hit of horseradish in the dressing. Salads are often an afterthought, and with advancements in pre-cut, bagged lettuces, it’s tempting to phone them in. Kudos to Buck’s for doing it right. (I was going to make a joke about “bucking” the trend, but as a dad I try to avoid playing to type.)
Frankly…Pizza!, 10417 Armory Ave, Kensington MD
Pepperoni and Mushroom Pie
Still my favorite pizza place in the DC area, and they now take reservations on Resy! The pies are hard to categorize, with some of the billowy-char quality of a Neapolitan but crisper and with less flop. The fact that the place has done so well with a name like Frankly…Pizza! is testament to just how good it is.
L’Ardente, 200 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC
40-Layer Lasagna with short rib sugo, truffle mornay, and sottocenere cheese
When I first saw this 40-layer lasagna on Instagram, I figured it was a gimmick reverse-engineered to maximize postings. By the 50th time I saw it on Instagram, I was sure of it. Well, do I ever have truffle mornay on my face because this lasagna has it all. It tastes as good as it looks. The other pastas must hate it.
Makan, 3400 11th Street NW, Washington DC
Penang Street Noodle with flat rice noodle, Chinese sausage, shrimp, bean sprouts, egg
These Malaysian noodles have excellent wok hei (smoky flavor from proper wok-cooking), plus Chinese sausages that improve everything they touch.
ChiKo, Multiple locations in DC, MD, and VA)
Shrimp & Toast, XO Sauce, Griddled Ciabatta
Speaking of making everything better, longtime readers know I love this dish and that XO Sauce turns me into Snuffles, the treat-loving floating dog from Quick Draw McGraw:
Thamee, 1320 H Street, NE, Washington DC
Burmese Catfish Soup with rice noodles, egg, red onion, lime, and cilantro
Salty, sweet, spicy, acidic, herby, bold, and funky. But enough of my pet names for Sonia. This catfish noodle soup is fantastic.
Bistro Aracosia, 5100 MacArthur Blvd, Washington DC
Veal-and-Mushroom Stew with Yogurt Sauce and Cilantro
Eating this dish, I picture a great feast in which a Russian chef proudly brings out a bowl of beef stroganoff and an Afghan grandma takes one look and says hold my sweater.
Maiz 64, 1324 14th Street NW, Washington DC
Asada Taco — Grilled Hanger Steak with grilled onion, avocado, cilantro, heirloom corn tortilla
Maiz 64, Mexico City Chef Alam Mendez Floria’s take on Mexican classics, may be my favorite DC restaurant to open in 2021. Get any of the tacos, the tamales, the tortilla soup, the grilled fish, the duck, or basically anything with corn. Which, happily, is most things.
La Piquette, 3714 Macomb Street, Washington DC
Steak Frites with red wine-shallot reduction
Steak-frites is my dish of the year. There’s something about the straightforward comfort of steak-frites that makes it incredibly appealing during the pandemic. My guess is it’s also relatively easy for short-staffed kitchens to turn out at a relatively high price point. La Piquette’s version is textbook, with a nice, ropy steak and terrific shoestring fries.
Pro tip: While the fries are best eaten hot, limit your initial take from your spouse’s plate to three fries or fewer. Any more than that is just too risky given the size of the knives involved.
2Fifty Texas BBQ, 4700 Riverdale Rd, Riverdale MD
Prime Brisket, Pork Spare Ribs, and Burnt ends
I haven’t done nearly enough barbecue this year. Happily, the barbecue I had was very good, including this assortment from 2Fifty Texas BBQ. But while I appreciate Texas barbecue and its focus on beef brisket, deep down I’m a pork rib guy. 2Fifty does a good job with ribs as well but someday I’d love to see a real Kansas City or Memphis BBQ joint open around here that does them justice.
McDonald’s, Multiple locations in DC, MD, and VA
Ok, haters have at it. My favorite fast food of the year was the McRib from McDonald’s. It’s freaking delicious. Order it with extra onions and extra pickles and pair it with some OG fries and a shake (preferably Shamrock if it’s March). You’re welcome.
Spanish Diner, 7271 Woodmont Ave, Bethesda MD
Jose Andres’s Mother’s Flan
I have a strict hierarchy of desserts. Caramel and fruit desserts are at the top. Any desserts that combine those two, like tarte tatin, are at the top of the heap. Then comes other homey desserts, including most things chocolate. At the bottom of the pile are the freeze-dried or deconstructed moonscapes that are often foisted on the public at fine dining restaurants. The bottom rung may be really dense flourless chocolate cake. I’d rather have a cheese board.
Jose Andres admits his mother’s flan may not be the smoothest or creamiest, but he says it’s his version of Proust’s madeleines and always brings him back to the Sunday lunches of his childhood. I don’t have quite that connection but it hits the spot and follows the all-important flan rule of not skimping on the caramel sauce.
Queen’s English, 3410 11th Street NW, Washington DC
Sweet Rice Dumpling in Caramel Sauce with Cashews and Black and White Sesame Seeds
The sole dessert at Queen’s English adheres to the caramel protocol, this time with a pleasantly chewy rice dumpling as the delivery vehicle and supporting crunch from the cashews and sesame seeds.
Minnesota State Fair, St. Paul MN
Corn Dog with Yellow Mustard
Of course, no list of the best things I ate in any particular year — 2021 or otherwise — would be complete without a corn dog at the Minnesota State Fair. It’s like a certificate of authenticity to prove that a Rick Eats DC list is genuine. Or, to put it in Jose Andres terms, it’s my mother’s flan.
Happy holidays and thanks as always for reading. Wishing you and yours a safe, healthy, and delicious 2022!