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The influx of celebrity chefs to D.C. can excite local diners, but it can deflate local chefs, who see these carpetbaggers stealing their customers, their line cooks, maybe even their thunder. Back in 2007, before Eric Ripert or Michael Mina or even Alain Ducasse opened doors here, chef R.J. Cooper at Vidalia was one of the reigning badasses in the kitchen, fresh off his Mid-Atlantic Beard Award, which he split with Frank Ruta at Palena. But if Cooper and/or Vidalia have suffered since these culinary hawks have swooped into town, you wouldn’t know it from eating at this downtown institution. Cooper, in fact, seems to be cooking with a renewed passion since the competition increased. My most recent meal at Vidalia included a number of dishes that blew me away, notably a pigtail croquette with strawberry-rhubarb mostarda and an artistic plate of mix-and-match bites, from raw cubes of hamachi to squares of lime gelee to tiny diced pieces of watermelon to little slivers of jalapeño. Cooper even plated something I had never seen before—a deep-fried blowfish from the lower Chesapeake, commonly known as the “sugar toad.” It tasted a thousand times better than the name would suggest.1990 M St. NW, (202) 659-1990
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