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The District’s powerhouse restaurants won’t need gimmicks. Komi, Michel Richard Citronelle, CityZen, and the rest of the four-star hogs will need only to act like themselves to attract their share of the 2 million (or so) hungry mouths expected to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration.
The rest will, metaphorically speaking, have to hike up their skirts and show a little more leg to stand out. The funny thing is, they all seem to think they have the perfect tourist/diner bait: the president-elect himself, the most popular guy to enter the White House since…well, since the last Democrat who lived there. In one way or another, many of the area’s restaurants are plundering Obama’s background, or his place in history, for inauguration day promotions. It’s not so easy.
Sure, Obama’s Chicago address lends itself to some obvious culinary targets—deep-dish pizza, all-beef dogs (mustard, no ketchup), and Italian beef sandwiches—but turning anything else from the future president’s résumé into a gustatory selling point would require some serious marketing prowess. His Hawaiian years? Hell, millions think “poke” is something you do on Facebook, not a raw-fish appetizer from Hawaii. And what about Indonesia, where Obama lived as a child? Well, the country’s cuisine is so popular that the area’s best Indonesian restaurant, Sabang, closed in 2007.
Such obstacles, however, haven’t stopped local restaurateurs for looking for opportunities. Their inaugural pandering-cum-marketing plans span the gamut, from kitschy promotions tied to Obama’s place in presidential history ($44 bottles of wine, anyone?) to one serious-minded effort at fyve restaurant lounge to create an all-Hawaiian tasting menu. But generally, the promotions fall into one of three categories: wine/cocktails, specialty menus/dishes, and what I’ll call the .44 Magnum category, because all those $44 price tags make me want to shoot myself.
• Spirits of the Moment: Andrew Stover is the sommelier at Oya Restaurant & Lounge and at its new sister restaurant, Sei. Last year, Stover asked diners at Oya to choose between Arizona and Illinois wines in a sort of enological straw poll for the November general election. Lynfred Winery’s seyval blanc was the hands-down winner. It was, no doubt, just a coincidence that the sweet white wine came from Illinois. As a sort of curtain call/marketing hook for the inauguration, Stover is bringing the seyval back to Oya, along with some other bottles from the Obama heartland.
Illinois, Stover says, has a history of winemaking that predates America’s more recognizable grape-growing states. “California was not even heard of back” when Illinois starting making wine in the 18th century, Stover says. The problem is that Illinois winemakers “don’t grow a lot of the grapes that we’re familiar with. Sure, they have chardonnay, but they have a lot of strange grapes,” too, like seyval and Marechal Foch, which actually do better in the harsh Midwestern climate.
Getting your hands on these Corn Belt bottles, however, takes some work. Just ask Ramon Narvaez, the wine director for Alain Ducasse’s new D.C. playground, Adour, inside the St. Regis Washington Hotel at 16th and K Streets NW. Narvaez learned the hard way that his liquor license is shared with the St. Regis, a chain that must adhere to a higher standard than private businesses when bringing new wines into the District. He’s hoping like hell to have his two unusual Illinois wines, an Owl Creek chardonel and an Alto Vineyard chambourcin, at the bar before the inauguration. “I’ll be really bummed if I don’t,” he says.
But at least he’s not trying to bring in wines from Hawaii. “Getting Hawaiian wines into Virginia is like trying to get heroin into the state,” says one anonymous source, citing Virginia’s rigid distribution system.
Which no doubt explains why most bartenders/brew masters are content to make their own Obama-related cocktails and beers for the occasion. Many have names that would make Rod Blagojevich blush. There’s the “Yes We Cran–berry” martini at Teatro Goldoni on K Street NW. There’s the “Americano = Change” (Bluecoat organic gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth foam) at Poste Moderne Brasserie in Penn Quarter. There’s the O’Pama (Absolut Mandarin, Grand Marnier, pomegranate liqueur, and lemon-ginger syrup) at Jackson 20 in Old Town. There’s the Barack Bock at the District Chophouse and Brewery on Seventh Street NW. There’s even a clever twist on the classic Bushwacker cocktail at Restaurant Nage on Scott Circle, which is billing the drink as “the perfect way to bid farewell to the Bush administration.”
• A Taste of Power: Sushi is the trendy choice for Obama-related foodstuffs in the days leading up to the inauguration. Oya is offering Spam sushi, a slice of the much-maligned meat over seasoned rice, a snack that’s popular in Hawaii (though real Hawaiians apparently don’t vinegar their rice but merely salt it).
Far more sophisticated is the Obama President Roll, stuffed with lobster and avocado, at Asia Nine. The Penn Quarter newcomer even has rolls dedicated to lesser lights on the inaugural orbit, including Joe Biden (the “Biden Vice President Roll” includes jumbo lump crab meat) and the outgoing president (the “Presidential Lame Duck Roll” features roasted duck).
Rustico Executive Chef Frank Morales has turned to Chicago’s hearty (if not heart-stopping at more than 400 calories per slice) deep-dish pizza traditions for inspiration. He’s created a small line of deep-dish pies, including one with housemade Chicago-style sausage. (Never mind that Obama’s favorite pie comes from Italian Fiesta Pizza in Hyde Park, which serves a decidedly thin-crust round.)
Building his own deep-dish pies was not exactly a labor of love for Morales, who prefers the thin, Neapolitan-style pizzas that emphasize dough over toppings. Chicago-style is “sort of the opposite,” he says. “It’s a pizza that’s overly topped.” Nonetheless, the chef invested countless hours in researching Chicago deep-dish—only to realize that he couldn’t really afford to make the real, real thing. True deep-dish pizza can be more than two inches thick and require 45 minutes or more of cooking time; diners just won’t wait that long for pizza at the Alexandria gastropub.
“It takes about 11 minutes to drink a beer in a noisy place and 14 to drink one in a quieter place,” says Morales. “So it would be several rounds” before they got their pie.
You might think that’d be a selling point, but not in this time-crunched market. So Morales has produced smaller pies that still adhere to tradition without making clock-watching Washingtonians wait so long that they start posting angry messages on Yelp.com from their iPhones. The deep-dish pies are available this week.
There are other prole dishes out there, too, the kind of food that would never qualify for a Republican tax break. Nage is hosting Biden Brunches on Sunday, Jan. 18, and Wednesday, Jan. 21; they feature not only a Biden impersonator but also a few specialties from the VP-elect’s home state, like southern Delaware–style chicken in a blanket and northern Delaware–style scrapple and tater tot hash with fried eggs. Maybe you can incorporate your company while you wait?
The EatBar in Arlington, the back lounge at Talulla, has planned a two-day affair, beginning on Monday, Jan. 19, with an “Out With the Old” Texas barbecue party and concluding on Inauguration Day with an “In With the New” blowout, featuring Chicago-style hot dogs and Italian beef sliders. Its sister bakery, Buzz in Alexandria, is cashing in on Obama’s love for sweet potatoes with a Sweet Buzz Boxx, a to-go container stuffed with, among other things, your choice of a sweet-potato cupcake, brownie, or tart as well as Chicago-style popcorn (which, in the true Windy City spirit of piling on, combines caramel and Cheddar cheese). Even Teatro Goldoni, that haute commedia dell’arte theater of modern Italian cooking, has toned down its truffle-heavy menu to include a line of presidential themed pizzas, some less than $10 each.
The most ambitious menu, however, has to be the one at fyve, the restaurant and lounge inside the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City. Guest chef John Zaner, from the Ritz’s location in Kapalua, Hawaii, has collaborated with in-house chef Amy Brandwein to produce the “Taste of Aloha,” featuring an eight-course, all-Hawaiian meal. The menu, available until Jan. 20, includes bites such as a kalua-pork potsticker, macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi, and pineapple carpaccio with lilikoi vinaigrette. Wait, pineapple carpaccio? Isn’t the fruit usually served raw?
• The .44 Magnums: How many restaurants are offering something for $44? For the sake of convenience, and my reporting sanity, let’s just say every one of them. OpenTable.com has a list of local restaurants offering inauguration specials, and by my unofficial count, there are nearly 25 separate eateries doing some sort of $44 promotion. That list will undoubtedly grow as the big day approaches. I can’t tell yet whether these specials represent a real price savings (or a gouging), a lack of imagination, or a sincere attempt to celebrate the new president. I suspect it’s a bit of all three.