My coughing wouldn’t go away. After three weeks, I was still hacking and wheezing and convulsing.
By the doctor’s reckoning, I could expect another few weeks of struggle: “You’ve got whooping cough.”
This was depressing news. The cough, fine, I could deal with that, especially now that I had confined myself to the couch with a humidifier going at all hours and a coffee table full of meds.
But I mean—the food.
I’d long since tired of the soft-cooked eggs, the buttered toast, the soups, the tea with honey and lemon—all the sick-food staples. I’d even exhausted my taste for the usual carryout options—pizza, burgers, Chinese. I wanted food the way I was used to it: complex and spicy food, elegant and refined food, food of every shape and color and texture. Food that made you take notice of it.
I wanted, in short, my old life back.
I remembered reading somewhere that more than 50 percent of all restaurant meals are not consumed in restaurants. That means that the market for takeout is bigger, and better, than ever. There are, today, more options than ever, as Takeout Taxi and similar companies are proving.
So, armed with a phone and a credit card (and aided by a trusty courier), I set off in search of the best nontakeout takeout in the area—takeout that doesn’t taste like takeout.
Among the wealth of Indian restaurants in the takeout business, Nirvana, the new vegetarian restaurant on K Street NW known for its aggressively spiced curries, seemed a good bet to dispel my culinary blahs. And the curries were spicy, though not a whole lot else beyond that, unfortunately. These were not the subtly complex concoctions I tend to favor—a spinach curry was so laced with cardamom and ginger that I barely registered the spinach; an eggplant curry was sweeter than any other I’d ever tried—but they were, on balance, homey and flavorful.
I thought I’d continue in that stew-based vein, but the two Ethiopian restaurants I’d targeted—Dukem and Sodere—wouldn’t accept credit-card orders over the phone, forcing me to scramble.
Cold foods, I reasoned, were bound to hold up well over the journey, so why not a selection of meze, those lively Middle Eastern snacks? What I craved above all in my housebound, humidified misery were bright, acidic flavors. The Dupont Circle Bacchus came through: lemony white-bean salad, spicy fattoush, verdant tabbouleh, smooth, smoky eggplant dip, garlicky hummus slicked with olive oil. Even in their Styrofoam cartons, they made a pretty, restaurant-worthy presentation, their garnishes just so. The warm dishes held up surprisingly well, too. Kibbe, those miniature footballs stuffed with ground meat and pine nuts, were firm, not soggy, and tasted just fine at room temperature, as did the house-made lamb sausages.
I got bolder as I went. P Street NW’s Al Tiramisu, a lively, warm-hearted trattoria, would seem ill-suited for takeout, but as it turns out, the restaurant accommodates a fair number of requests. An appetizer of grilled sardines proved both durable and tasty—though they only made me pine for the hot, fresh versions I’d had from this same kitchen. The ravioli, with a wonderful crushed-cherry-tomato sauce, were a notch or two above the home-cooked comfort food I’d grown bored with. The veal scallopini was a bit dry—a function, perhaps, of the journey—and initially I regretted not having gone with a piece of fish, but the saltiness of the pressed Parma ham combined with the weediness of the sage was bracing; it was, without a doubt, the most sophisticated thing I’d eaten in weeks.
Was it possible that “takeout” and “sophistication” were not mutually exclusive? I’d never heard of a French restaurant that would consent to provide takeout, but Georgetown’s Bistrot Lepic was one of several I came across in my search. The country pâte suffered not at all from the trip; it was every bit as good and firm as the version on offer in the dining room. A cold asparagus soup with crabmeat was delicious, if inelegant in its plastic container. And an entree of veal cheeks was so luscious that I was happy to be relieved of the constraints that govern eating in public: I devoured it in several rapid bites.
If anything was unlikely to withstand a long car ride in August, it was delicate slivers of raw fish and carefully molded fingers of rice. Yet, emboldened by my success, I went ahead and placed my order with Sushi-Ko, figuring that any restaurant that has built up a decent little side business in doing up trays for Whole Foods would know a thing or two about takeout. I figured right. The rolls, if a little chewy, nonetheless held up better than I’d expected, but the nigiri was terrific—love the sweet shrimp topped by a tiny spoonful of caviar—and the sashimi was nearly as good as it is at the restaurant, from the thick-cut, saltwatery yellowtail to the beautifully marbled fatty tuna to the pearlescent flounder, swaddled around a mound of salmon roe.
I didn’t come close to a complete recovery by the end of the week, but for the first time in a long time I actually felt better, which I attributed as much to the toro and the veal cheeks as to the ’Tussin and the steroids. —Todd Kliman
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