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DC Coast’s double-cut pork chop, as thick as a telephone book, has been brined for 18 hours before the meat ever touches a grill. The chop is served with a dried-fruit chutney and a side of puréed yams spiked with applewood-smoked bacon, caramelized onions, and Steen’s pure-cane syrup shipped in from Louisiana. The entree costs $19 and has been on the menu since DC Coast’s opening in 1998, when Esquire declared it “one of the great dishes of this or any other year.”
If any entree on DC Coast’s seafood-heavy menu betrays executive chef Jeff Tunks’ “meat-and-potatoes” upbringing in Texas, it’s this massive chop, which may be the granddaddy of all upscale comfort foods in the area. But eight years later, with blue-collar plates now standard in white-tablecloth dining rooms, Tunks’ double-wide chop is a rusty trailer—parked in neutral as the hospitality industry zips around, tricking out the foods we used to eat out of a box or in a secluded corner of a fast-food restaurant, guilty and somewhat embarrassed.
You could get all Freudian about stressed white-collar, BlackBerry-addicted workers searching for mama on a plate of still-sizzling miniburgers, neatly served on white china under the intimate lights of a fine-dining restaurant. But that raises troubling questions. After all, if restaurants want to be our surrogate mothers, then clearly some are Donna Reeds—and others are Joan Crawfords.
The Joan Crawford Plates
•Cajun-fried chicken and chicken-fried tenderloin at 21P I certainly felt like beating someone with a wire hanger after eating at this Dupont Circle establishment. The $15 Cajun-fried organic chicken breast is supposed to come with a mac-and-cheese “soufflé,” but the only hot air in this standard side can be found on the dish’s menu description. The thick, oversize breast itself—from the world’s first organic chicken on steroids?—has all the spiciness of tap water. 21P fares no better with its $18 take on chicken-fried steak, which substitutes thin cuts of tenderloin for the traditional tenderized round steak. The pricier meat remains as chewy and flavorless as its cheaper cousin, despite the advertised four-peppercorn velouté. And where is the famous fungus in the side of truffled mashed potatoes? Apparently still being hunted down by pigs.
•Lobster macaroni and cheese at Zola’s You don’t have to wonder where your money’s going with this lunch-menu entree. Large chunks of sweet Maine lobster are neatly tucked into a massive au gratin dish, buried under layers of fontina cheese and soft curls of elbow macaroni. As a crowning touch, the mound is draped with large, blackened spears of grilled asparagus, at once grassy and zesty. The toothsome dish is expertly composed: The mild, melted cheese stands in for drawn butter (well, if you ignore the milk-fat content) without drowning out the taste of the crustacean. So why am I disappointed? Call me a traditionalist, but when I order fresh (not fried) Maine lobster, I want as little interference between my tongue and the meat as possible.
•Foie-gras hush puppies at Indigo Landing Zola’s white-glove treatment of mac and cheese illustrates the dangers of playing with people’s more delicious memories, not to mention their expectations of a fine-dining restaurant. A chef risks not only unfavorable comparisons to the indelible meals of youth but also overselling the upmarket ingredient. Indigo Landing’s $7 foie-gras-hush-puppy appetizer is a perfect example of the latter. These bite-sized balls, both fluffy and crunchy, may be the finest cornmeal fritters north of the Carolinas, but the foie gras is an afterthought, a tiny nubbin of fattened liver lost in a sea of fried batter. You feel like telling the kitchen to ditch the culinary pretensions and just serve the puppies plain.
The Donna Reed Dishes
•Truffled cheeseburger at Palena Café Technically, this $10 sandwich can be broken down into a burger’s standard component parts—ground beef, cheese, bun, and mayo. But the decadently fatty ground chuck comes from an Oregon farm that humanely raises Hereford cattle; the cheese is infused with the inexplicably tasty, dirty-socks flavor of truffles (particularly pungent around the rind); the bun is a toasted, sesame-seed variety made in-house; and the homemade mayo is scented with garlic juice. Your father dreams of making burgers this good.
•Miniburgers at Matchbox Blame Harold and Kumar for all the eateries now trying to exploit stoner culture with their golden-bong interpretations of White Castle sliders. The minis (three for $14) at this Chinatown haunt are the best I’ve sampled—sampled sober, I should add. These high-end burgers favor Angus beef over Hereford and Gouda over truffled cheese. The thick, juicy patties are not like traditional sliders: They can’t be consumed in a bite or two. In fact, they’re more vertical than horizontal, each burger piled high with pickles and fried onions, nestled between two buttery brioche buns. If the burgers don’t compare to Palena’s, it’s only because few do.
•Lobster burger and shake at Daniel O’Connell’s This tiny appetizer only hints at greasy meals past, while simultaneously undermining your expectations of real comfort food. The mini-combo—part of chef Arra Lawson’s $19 sampler “trilogy” at the Old Town restaurant—is really a small piece of fried lobster sandwiched between perfectly round pieces of toasted bread, which are slathered with cumin-spiked crème fraîche. The “shake” is a shot glass brimming with potato-leek soup. If Lawson ever decides to supersize this rich, decadent seafood morsel and its starchy sidekick, I’d eat the dish every damn day, like some junkie willing to sacrifice all other comforts for a fix.—Tim Carman
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