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Like bell bottom jeans or Pokémon, what’s old often has a chance to feel new again. Area restaurants are serving classic comfort food dishes that were en vogue well before small plates or sous vide cocktails were a thing. But are they doing them justice? We pitted one classic dish against another to ultimately determine where you should spend your dollars next time you crave an elevated taste of home.
Chicken and Dumplings
122 Blagden Alley NW
Like all food at The Dabney, the chicken and dumplings ($18) is distinctively Mid-Atlantic. The recipe is unique to the Delmarva Peninsula and includes dense, square dumplings, chicken, turnips and radishes (for a bit of bite), fresh pea shoots (for some snap), and a dollop of sour cream that cuts through the rich broth that takes days to make. Every bite is savory and satisfying with a bit of funk and tang, making the homestyle dish worthy of being served at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Tavern at Rare
1595 I St. NW
The Hudson Valley chicken and large pillowy potato dumplings ($22) at the Tavern at Rare is an enormous portion of comfort food that sticks with you for the rest of the day. Some diners have balked at the chicken being on the bone, but what’s the big deal if the tender meat falls onto your fork with minimal force? Everything about the dish is oversized including the dumplings and slices of onion, carrot, and celery. For best results accept your server’s offer of freshly ground black pepper for a hit of heat.
Winner: The Dabney
1207 9th St. NW
The Sriracha-glazed meatloaf ($22) at Chef David Deshaies’ Unconventional Diner is emerging as one of the new restaurant’s signature dishes. It arrives at the table swimming in morel mushroom gravy and is accompanied by a pile of mashed potatoes big enough to share with your dining companions. When you bring a forkful of the mixture of veal, beef, and pork to your mouth, thin strings of cheese extend from the loaf. The addition of Gruyère keeps the dish especially moist and flavorful, as do the minced vegetables tucked into the loaf.
1731 New Hampshire Ave. NW
The Riggsby’s Wagyu meatloaf “Rossini” ($38) consists of three pucks of ground meat on top of a smear of Robuchon potatoes with scattered Brussels sprout leaves. One of the three mounds of prime beef wears a tophat of rich foie gras, but the other advertised luxe ingredient—black truffles—seems to be omitted from the dish. It’s difficult to discern the high quality of the meat since it’s aggressively cooked through and stuffed with too many shards of undercooked carrots. The fact that there is no sticky, sweet glaze to speak of makes it hard to even call this dish a meatloaf.
Winner: Unconventional Diner
650 K St. NW
The traditional recipe calls for pasta twirled with shrimp and a simple garlic, white wine, and butter sauce so RPM Italian’s bright red bowl ($21) can raise eyebrows. But the swanky Italian dining room’s take, which gets its color from tomato sauce and heat from Calabrian chilies, is an upgrade. It’s still garlicky enough to ward off vampires or sloppy kisses and is fun to eat because of the way the shrimp bodies are twisted sans shells. A touch of basil adds freshness.
901 F St. NW
The Smith also takes liberties with its grilled shrimp scampi ($28). Instead of pasta, a row of tail-on shrimp are nestled on top of jalapeño cheddar grits, making the dish look and taste more like Southern shrimp and grits than shrimp scampi. The mound of flavorless grits is surrounded by a moat of butter that looks a little unappetizing and the scrappy pieces of tomatoes don’t add much. A shot of acid, like a squeeze of fresh lemon, would help bring the dish to life.
Winner: RPM Italian