The Search For America’s Best Food Cities: Washington, D.C.

Ahead of his time

The chef credited with having put a fusty Washington on the food map, Jean-Louis Palladin, died too young at age 55 in 2001. He’d left France in 1979 — the youngest chef ever to win two Michelin stars — to helm a restaurant in the Watergate hotel. Right from the start, the rangy Gascon native had observers on the edge of their seats.

In a novel move at the time, when the chef of Jean-Louis couldn’t find ingredients he liked, he introduced himself to conscientious farmers and growers, going on to sing their praises to his peers and having servers announce them as the sources of his delicacies. A Frenchman was swooning over American lamb and scallops! (Among Palladin’s underlings was a 20-something cook named Eric Ripert, who went on to open what may be the most acclaimed seafood restaurant in the country, Le Bernardin in New York.)

“He made my career,” says another institution, Phyllis C. Richman, who covered the dining landscape as food critic for The Washington Post for nearly 24 years, from the nouvelle cuisine era to the dawn of the locavore movement. “He put me on a different playing field.” In a 1985 review of the establishment, she praised the restaurant thus: “If Jean-Louis were in Paris, New York or Tokyo, its star would shine no less brightly.” During the Reagan administration, word had it that the White House sent out for the restaurant’s passionfruit sorbet.

Veteran Washington baker Mark Furstenberg recalls “a freshness to the menu” at Jean-Louis at the Watergate: ingredient-based food and high-style arrangements before those notions were popular. “He loved life so much,” says Furstenberg. “And he gave other people a lot of fun.” Another of Palladin’s talents was bringing together colleagues, young and old, from across the spectrum. “He created a fraternity of chefs,” remembers Ann Brody, an excutive tastemaker at the late Sutton Place Gourmet. “He wasn’t competitive with them.”

After his Washington jewel closed, in 1996, Palladin blazed yet another trail when he opened Napa in the Rio Suite Hotel in Las Vegas — the first world-class chef to see potential amid casinos in the desert.

The master’s influence lives on at the James Beard Foundation, which offers grants in his name to help working chefs learn about ingredients at their source.

‘We punch above our weight class’

Washington loves its liquids, no surprise for a city stocked with nearly 200 foreign embassies, a penchant for home entertaining and “a high-stress environment,” says restaurateur Todd Thrasher, who notes that his audience tends to change, as administrations can, every four years. A fluids pioneer best known for introducing the speak-easy PX in Alexandria almost a decade ago, he’s poised to open a contemporary tiki bar and rum distillery on the redeveloping Southwest waterfront in 2017.

When it comes to wine, drinkers don’t have far to go to sip some local prizes. In less than 45 minutes, Washingtonians can find themselves in some of the best vineyards in the country, in Virginia — “closer than San Francisco to Napa or Sonoma,” teases chef Andrés. In an email from across the pond, Robinson, the wine authority, writes, “I love that the Virginia wine industry enjoys such enthusiastic local government support and find it difficult to think of a parallel anywhere — other than the Chinese province of Ningxia!”

We knock back the hard stuff with gusto, too. The data miners at Yelp, the online review site, report a 76 percent increase in the number of cocktail bars in Washington, based on consumer and business posts, in just the past two years. (On a recent Wednesday night, reports Thrasher, his 30-seat PX shook and stirred a record-breaking $6,000 worth of drinks.) Three of the city’s more personal watering holes are block mates in Shaw owned by Derek Brown, a leader in the classic cocktail movement: Mockingbird Hill, a slip of a sherry-and-ham retreat; Eat the Rich, emphasizing seafood; and Southern Efficiency, touting whiskey and lunch-counter fare. “My brain, my stomach, my heart,” says Brown, distinguishing the trio. Compared with bar scenes in other cities, he says, “we punch above our weight class.”

That dripping noise? It’s probably coming from one of Washington’s top-quality roasters, including Qualia in Petworth and Vigilante in Hyattsville, plus shops and baristas whose wares and skills would look at home on the West Coast.

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