DC Restaurant Week just wrapped and oh joy, am I glad I got to dibble and dabble in one specific element of the week’s delicious festivities. In the 20 plus years I’ve been here, I’ve admittedly never taken advantage of the plethora of specially designed menus by the cities best restaurants. It’s an inexplicable truth, less the seven years I was in Atlanta, where I did hop around as much as I could. An equal admission is that but not for the Australian Lamb “chops” competition here, I probably wouldn’t have set wheel in the city. Food and car traffic is insane and the parking nazis are a quick deterrent to getting anywhere on time. But the theme of the exclusive challenge was enough of a reason to battle the onslaught of inquisitive diners, begging for reservations. It’s been 10 months since I took a culinary excursion to Australia and now was the perfect time to recall some of the lovely dinners I enjoyed there, which I’ve yet to share. These tastings are a wonderful prelude.
Chefs around the city were invited to create a dish using Australian lamb for a chance to win the Restaurant Week Winter Wonderlamb competition and a trip to Chicago for the National Restaurant Association Show. Of the 6 finalists, 2 in each of 3 categories — small plates, main entrée for lunch, and main entrée for dinner — I was invited to taste any 3 of my liking. Though all 6 looked divine and anything I’d ordinarily order off the regular menu, the three I chose stood out in ways I hope I can adequately describe in lieu of you enjoying foodie nirvana.
I started at Willow, a noshery in Arlington, VA I’ve actually been wanting to visit for a while. Chef Tracy, who used to head up Kincaid‘s before opening up the French-y spot, came up with a most beautiful three-tiered cassoulet. If you ever wondered what lamb bacon tastes like, I’d bet my street cred it’s as good and even more refined that pork bacon. Yup. Spectacular. House-made from nothing but the lamb’s belly and cured for a week in a fanciful of everyday French herbs, the crispy slices complemented the braised lamb shank like my leopard print shoes pair with my fishnet stockings. Sexy. Oh, and then yes, the house-made lamb sausage (with lamb casing — a very key point for me) nestled itself nicely into the terra cotta dish. The meat was perfectly topped with an herbed panko crust. A conservative portion of fennel purée and buttery savoy cabbage did a nice job of balancing out an extremely robust main dish.
I couldn’t finish my experience without browsing her Shiraz selections. I passed on sipping, but knew immediately the 2009 Stone Dwellers was the perfect accompaniment to the plate. I took one sip and enjoyed its smoothness and nutty flavor. Sublime. All of it.
Of really important, unrelated note: I took a bit of my friend’s garbanzo and quinoa salad and lost all kinds of table sense. I’ll have to tell you about that later.
For the small plates finalists, I went with La Tasca, a beautiful Spanish tapas spot in Chinatown. You can guess why…having just been in Spain last July and not really having much luck in the tapas culture, though there 9 full days, I was excited to see what a much raved about taperia had to offer with lamb.
I started with a few traditional platicos like fried Manchego with mango preserves and a ridiculously, insanely delicious mushroom and fried egg mash up.
But the dish, a cordero al chilindron stew with braised leg of Australian Lamb, roasted garlic, paprika, peppers, and potato, as glorious as it sounds, didn’t meet my expectations. I was so sad. It was really good, but not over the top as I anticipated and really wanted it to be. I wanted it to wow me. Perhaps because it was very similar to our carne con papa, which I cook with my eyes closed and I was looking for something creative; something I don’t make or usually enjoy. It was robust and very flavorful, countered with chunks of potatoes, but that was it. It was lacking creativity and uniqueness. Presentation was on par with what you’d see anywhere in Spain, but so was the rest of the restaurant, which was a reliable redeeming factor. I thoroughly enjoyed the wall art and noticed the dancing sangria list, which I have to go back for. Because you know… a rightful Spanish dinner isn’t the the most authentic without an adequate glass of vino tinto.
Don’t wonder though, my brother and I gleefully enjoyed both offerings to the last drop of the sauce. And I love anything and everything Española, so due visit is in place.
(Cordero at La Tasca. Pic via iPhone)
I finished an intense week of eating at Indique, a fine Indian restaurant in Cleveland Park. Chef Vinod was the most unsuspecting chef/owner I think I’ve met in DC. Joined by my brother, who has a discerning palate and fun approach to dining, for this experience, chef Vinod was excited to introduce us to his genius Australian lamb Kerala Shepard’s pie. Yes, an Indian version of a very classic American dish. Pretty out of the box for a guy who serves up the most authentic Indian dishes on his menu. Then again, I did catch a glimpse of mango flan on his dessert menu!
But his lamb entry was all that and some more. I think I’ve established my poor heat tolerance, making my full appreciation of superbly creative dish to be diminished. But the by the starch white plate my foodie brother left behind, I can attest to its goodness.
The tasting with Chef Vinod was more then examining his entry; it was very much about learning about the different foods yielding from the many regions and culture in India, a country I’m dying to visit. He dined with us the entire night and ensured we understood how he created his dish. The supple and buttery potatoes were seasoned with expected seasons like cardamom and ginger but the fine shallot touch separated them from the standard American version.
Thank goodness for me and my soon diminishing appetite, I had a tamarind sauce to offset the heat. Even the predictable mint sauce offered relief. And then the dish sang to me.
I’d eat this again and again, heat withstanding.
(Other bites I enjoyed as sides: Kale salad with chickpeas, bleu cheese, and quinoa at Willow; Cauliflower purée and Romano Pecorino cheese-stuffed Nann at Indique; Fried eggplant with creamy bleu cheese dip at La Tasca. Pics via iPhone)
As of today, the winner hasn’t been announced, but I’m such a lucky gal, I get to go back to the the winner’s kitchen and spend some time with them and get a more intimate look at how their winning Australian Lamb dish came to life. It’s certain I’ll have to go back to each one again, with more time, to enjoy a proper meal without focusing on one particular item, knowing someone was in and 5 were out. Because truthfully, the three I had were excellent, but if up to me, the cassoulet gets it for refinement and the Kerala pie for uniqueness and bold flavor.
Other finalists I didn’t get to enjoy:
Australian Lamb Rack with preserved lemon, root vegetables and poblano sauce
Delirium beer-braised BBQ lamb sandwich
Australian “LBLT” with Australian Lamb breast, sundried tomato pesto and herbed aioli on rosemary focaccia
Any of these appeal to you? If you’re in DC, did you enjoy eating out? Where to and what was your favorite? If you didn’t, use this as inspiration to enjoy your own cities restaurant week and most definitely DC’s in the Spring!
See some of the other fine foods I ate last week on my Instagram feed!