Whenever someone asks for a restaurant recommendation in downtown D.C., I often refer folks to one of José Andrés’ restaurants. Whether it’s Zaytinya, Jaleo or Oyamel, the food is always exceptional. What sets his restaurants apart from the other amazing ones in town is José himself, his convictions and his philanthropic heart. It’s why I was more than happy to pony up the $150 for Dine-n-Dash, a benefit for Andrés’ World Central Kitchen. The nonprofit organization through its chef network has been key in feeding Puerto Ricans as they continue to recover from Hurricane Maria, and more recently the people in Hawaii and Guatemala in the wake of their respective natural disasters.
During this year’s Dine-n-Dash, patrons had access to 30 restaurants concentrated in two D.C. neighborhoods—the 14th Street corridor and Penn Quarter neighborhoods—during a four-hour period. Participating restaurants offered a limited selection of regular menu items, specials, cocktails and wine for diners to sample. The atmosphere at the restaurants felt like a progressive dinner party, with restaurant staff playing the role of happy hosts.
My dinner “date” for the evening was my bestie, Wendy, who enjoys food and dining out as much as I do. We started our night at Barcelona Wine Bar on 14th Street. From there we hit Doi Moi, Lupo Verde, Colada Shop, Ice Cream Jubilee, El Centro, Momofuku, China Chilcano and Jaleo. Among these restaurants, there was a mix of places we’ve eaten and ones we have been longing to try. There were many highlights to this event and at the restaurants we dined at.
Restaurants that closed entirely for the event. I understand how hard the restaurant business can be. With escalating prices for rent, food and taxes—like the tax hike on restaurants in the city of Alexandria that goes into effect next month—many restaurants can’t afford to close even for one night for a charitable event. Still, as a paying participant it was nice to enter an establishment entirely focused on the event and the attendees. Every restaurant that chose to focus its resources on the event made me want to go back and have a proper meal sooner than later. In future years, I recommend that the Dine-n-Dash organizers offer those restaurants unable to close a central venue where they can showcase one or two items at a booth or stand, much like the organizers arranged for the visiting Puerto Rican chefs cooking at the event this year.
The ability to sample the fare from many restaurants. My ex used to say that cruises were good for sampling destinations where you may want to take an extended vacation in the future. The same could be said of Dine-n-Dash. Each restaurant offered a taste of their menu, drinks, ambiance and hospitality. As a result, I have more restaurants to add to my list of places I need to dine at.
Authentic Spanish paella. Our night was bookended by two Spanish restaurants— Barcelona Wine Bar and Jaleo. Both restaurants offered authentic paella—paella Valenciana—that was exceptional in its execution. Contrary to what most people consider paella, traditionally there is no seafood, including shellfish. Instead, paella Valenciana is made of chicken, rabbit, duck and the occasional snails (vaquetes), green beans and butter beans. Barcelona Wine Bar prepared their paella outdoors, another nod to traditional paella making. When I asked the chef, what was featured in his paella, he admitted that duck and chicken were two key ingredients but was cagey on whether there was rabbit as well. I couldn’t taste the rabbit, but the paella was good. The paella at both restaurants was flawless and cooked to perfection. Jaleo, Andrés’ flagship restaurant, also served squid ink fideos (Spanish noodles) with calamari, chorizo, saffron aioli and peas. The dish, which can also be prepared with rice instead of the fideos, uses the squid ink to blacken the fideos or rice. The taste of the squid ink is very mild, like neutral element, allowing for the other ingredients in the dish to shine. You can read more about paella in my post, Paella by Any Other Name.
Nyonya Malaysian Fried Chicken Buns at Doi Moi. Of all the restaurants that Wendy and I dined and dashed at, I had the hardest time finding something to sample at Doi Moi that I thought I would like. This was no fault of the chef or kitchen staff. The restaurant, which serves South Asian-inspired dishes, made heavy use of cilantro in nearly everything they offered that night. The one thing they offered that was cilantro-free was, perhaps, one of my favorite dishes of the night. Nyonya Malaysian Fried Chicken Buns are made of a fried chicken tender, pickles and a soy-mayo dressing stuffed in a mantou— Chinese steamed bread dough. This dish alone would make a great offering from a food truck or a concept for a new fast food restaurant.
Carciofi ala Giudea at Lupo Verde. Carciofi ala Giudea or fried artichokes are a Roman Jewish delicacy that originated back to the days when no one was worried about what deep-fried food did to your body, and it is worth every calorie. The ingredients for this dish are simply breaded artichokes, olive oil, salt and pepper. Just goes to show you that a recipe using minimal ingredients can be incredibly satisfying.
Piña colada at the Colada Shop. So, what’s so surprising about a small restaurant that goes by the Colada Shop having a fine tasting Piña Colada? Well when the restaurant is a Cuban coffee-snack-bar and the “colada” in the name refers to a espresso-based, sugared, coffee drink meant to be shared, well it is rather unexpected. The piña colada is in fact the national drink of Puerto Rico. The Colada Shop’s version is sublimely perfect. I first wrote about the Colada Shop in my post, Social Networking the Way the Cubans Intended.
The Havana Café con Leche Popsicle by Sweet Pudding Gourmet Pops. Sweet
Pudding Gourmet Pops, local producers of artisanal popsicles, partnered with the Colada Shop to make this Cuban coffee-inspired popsicle. Unlike Cuban coffee, which is incredibly strong but cloyingly sweet, Sweet Pudding’s interpretation, which uses the coffee sold at the Colada shop, tastes like a creamier version of café con leche (espresso and hot milk mixed together in equal amounts) but not nearly as sweet as traditional Cuban coffee. Talking to the Sweet Pudding staff that was manning the company truck parked outside the Colada Shop storefront, I learned that the popsicle was not a regular menu item at the Colada Shop. Pity since the popsicle would make a great addition to their summer menu.
Churros at El Centro. The second deep-fried item of the night was a perfect churro that was crispy and practically melted in my mouth. This churro tasted like a sophisticated cousin to boardwalk funnel cakes. Served on a bed of drizzled chocolate and caramel, I wished I had room to finish the churro off. It is worth a return visit to El Centro.
Sangria at Jaleo. While both Barcelona Wine Bar and Jaleo offered sangria, Jaleo’s edged out Barcelona’s. Barcelona’s sangria was fruity but light in flavor. By comparison Jaleo’s sangria was more intense in flavor with out being too sweet. The color of the drink was intense, and the bartender even managed to garnish the drink with orange slices. It was a great drink to end the night on.
The Flan at Jaleo. The sangria may have been the perfect drink to end the night on; the flan at Jaleo was the perfect dessert to end the night with. In fact, Wendy declared it to be the best flan she ever had. I offer that it is the best Spanish flan I ever had, keeping in mind that there are some variations as to how this classic Spanish dessert is prepared throughout the Spanish-speaking world. What makes Jaleo’s flan different from the Cuban flan that my friend taught me to make is it that it is lighter. Maria’s Cuban flan, which was prepared with condensed and evaporated milk was much denser and richer. Jaleo’s flan, which I believe is Andrés’ mother’ recipe is accented with an espuma, or froth, of oranges and Catalan crème (a crème brûlée-like dessert).