|Inside The Hamilton: Credit Bill Rockwell|
On a beginning of the new year visit to Washington, I got to dine in three restaurants that couldn’t be more different from one another, but each gave me an amazing culinary experience. First off, at 600 14th Street NW, The Hamilton.
When I walked into The Hamilton for New Year’s Eve dinner, I couldn’t believe how big the place is. Covering the entire first floor of a city block-wide building, the restaurant is sectioned into eye-catching spaces that lead easily from one to another. Each has its own stylish decor, and every one of them, as well as the bars, is decorated by paintings, murals, prints, photos and sculptures of birds, largely because the owners are avian-philes.
The culinary style is described as contemporary with influences drawn from around the world. Some of the dishes my companion and I tried were Octopus Ceviche, a Beet Salad, the Fire Dragon Sushi (with spicy tuna, eel, avocado, smelt roe and scallion) and a Red Snapper and a
|Fire Dragon Sushi at The Hamilton: Credit Bill Rockwell|
Chile Braised Short Rib that fell apart with the slightest touch of a fork.
After our meal, Michael Kacmar, director of employee training and development, took us on a tour that included a look at the downstairs state-of-the-art showroom that could have been right out of Vegas. Later that evening, Dr. John and The "Queen of Rockabilly," Wanda Jackson, were scheduled to ring in the New Year with a sold-out concert. For a complete schedule of events, visit website www.thehamilton.com.
Kacmar arrived on the Washington food scene from his home in Southwestern Pennsylvania 25 years ago, a time he said when only Georgetown and Adams-Morgan had restaurants worth dining in, plus a couple more comparable eateries downtown. But, as the city neighborhoods started to gentrify, chefs followed them to places like the U Street Corridor, Logan Circle, Chinatown and more.
"Now we have fine restaurants not only downtown, but they also extend out into the suburbs," he said.
One factor that led to the city’s restaurant renaissance was the arrival of celebrity chefs from places like New York. These included big names like Danny Meyer from the Union Square Restaurant Group, Wolfgang Puck, and Jose Andres who established a restaurant group with locations across the U.S. and especially Washington, DC.
Even before 9/11, Kacmar said big name chefs started coming in to DC, but the pace picked up even more after tragic events of early September 2001.
"Maybe because of all the government workers here, we’re kind of recession proof," he said. "Even after 9/11 we recovered rather quickly from the fallout of the aftermath."
|Inside Zengo: Credit Bill Rockwell|
Sandoval, holder of a "Bon Appetite" title Restaurateur of the Year, has a way of creatively blending Latin and Asian cuisine and flavors. It’s a phenomenon I experienced at brunch which features an entire menu of small plates (order as many as you like) and beverages (ditto) that include four mimosas (traditional, passion fruit, guava and pomegranate) - all for $35 per person.
The vibrant, colorful decor is a match for Zengo’s flavorful dishes. At brunch I counted 25 small plate choices on the menu and, between me and my companion, we must have tried two-thirds of them. Starting off with salted edamame, we savored the shrimp ceviche, the angry zengo roll ( tuna, avocado, cucumber and wasabi), a green papaya salad, shrimp and vegetable potstickers and Thai chicken empanadas.
:I liked the small portions because they let us try a lot of different preparations, each one a work of art and culinary creativity. The Peking Duck chilaquiles, for instance, were excellent, but even they took a back seat to the steak and eggs tostados, a melange of black bean puree, sesame, guacamole and pico de gallo underpinning a fried quail egg and a dollop of melt-in-your-mouth Wagyu beef.
|Bok Choy Kinchee at Zengo: Credit Bill Rockwell|
Iricanin arrived in Washington in 2005 and since that time he said he’s seen great changes in Washington’s dining scene.
"When Zengo opened in the 14th Street area in 2009 it was the first chef-driven restaurant in the district," he said. "Now there’s close to 30. New restaurants. bars and coffee shops are also developing in other neighborhoods as well. The competition is intense, but there are enough patrons to support us."
One big asset Washington Restaurateurs have is DC’s proximity to Maryland and Virginia which help make the city a big restaurant scene player on the national level. With all its diversity, there’s a lot of good food and interesting options to choose from.
|Interior at 701: Credit Bill Rockwell|
Owner of nine DC area restaurants, Ashok Bajaj has been involved in the Washington culinary scene for 25 years and was named the city’s 2013 Restaurateur of the Year. His restaurants have received several James Beard Foundation nominations. And in 2012 both his restaurants and chefs have won 12 RAMMY Awards, presented by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
In an August 12, 2013 edition of the New York Times, Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post’s restaurant critic, said: "People look at Washington as an important place to eat in a way that they didn’t even four or five years ago. Ashok has certainly contributed to that."
My first encounter with the Bajaj culinary empire came about nine years ago when I dined at his Bombay Club, an upscale Indian restaurant that’s got to be one of the best serving that savory cuisine in the U.S. Just a few blocks from the White House, the restaurant, (as well as other Bajaj establishments), is noted for serving the nation’s power elite, including Condoleezza Rice during the era of my initial visit and George H.W. Bush even earlier.
Since it opened in 2005, Rasika seems to have eclipsed even the Bombay Club as a presenter of high end Indian-American cuisine. Sietsama has since given Rasika a four star rating and titled it "the best Indian restaurant in the country."
On my last DC visit, I managed to dine in 701, named for its location on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol. Large and spacious, yet intimate enough to evoke the warmth and seductiveness of a private club, 701 serves contemporary American cuisine with global influences, often to the accompaniment of live jazz.
|Sake Glazed Salmon at 701: Credit Bill Rockwell|
Founded in 1976 by Francois Dionot, l’Academie de Cuisine in nearby Gaitherburg, Maryland, has been providing new talented chefs, who have been moving into various city neighborhoods. The influx of chefs from overseas has also had a hand in developing the nation’s culinary reputation.
"Over the years, Washington’s cuisines have gotten extremely diverse," he said. "You can now find almost any world cuisine somewhere in town."
To support the burgeoning restaurant scene, Bajaj said that the combination of locals, government people and tourists have proven to be a successful blend of clientele.
"I feel that every American should visit Washington because of its array of free museums, the Smithsonian, the monuments, the history and now, the cuisine. Washington is more than just taking in the marvelous sights. It’s has become a food destination in and of itself."