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Is there any better indicator of the District’s enduring artisanal-take-on-comfort-food craze than truffle-laden popcorn? That simple cinema snack drizzled with decadence is currently served in at least three D.C. venues, including The Reef, Commissary and Chef Geoff’s Downtown. I recently set out to determine whose truffle pop is tops.
Chef Geoff’s Downtown was my first target. The wait staff was nice enough to me as I arrived a few minutes after the start of happy hour and ordered my fancy bar snack—discounted from the usual $5.95 to $3.95—with a coke. The popcorn was served up like steak frites in a kind of glorified votive-holder with a paper cone artfully stuck inside. The popcorn itself was a mound of tight little kernels, wet in the center and topped with a generous amount of parmesan and chopped parsley.
“[The] popcorn is made in the time-honored way that JiffyPop is,” says Chef Geoff’s executive chef David Pow. After popping in hot canola oil, they plate it up then garnish with white truffle oil, then the cheese and the herb. Overall the dish was satisfying. I detected an earthy essence. But some of the kernels were burnt, and the uneven distribution of truffle oil made for an equally unbalanced taste and texture. The parmesan was a nice touch, as was the requisite truffle oil which fills your entire mouth when you bite into an oil-infused kernel.
The pimped-out popcorn has been on the menu at Chef Geoff’s for six months to a year, according to Pow. And while some people do order it in the dining room, it’s mostly popular “when we’re elbow to elbow [at the bar,]” he says.
Next, I trekked to The Reef in Adams Morgan, where the pan-popped corn is the priciest of the bunch: $7. It’s a sort of surreal order in a bar that feels like the bottom of a drained pool. The Reef’s take on the dish was downright decadent and soaked to the gills with buttery, garlicky goodness. Executive chef Dwayne Hickman said he uses a compound butter, which includes fines herbs, garlic and shallots in a heavy milk-fat butter, whisked with white truffle oil to coat the popcorn. The garlic is soft and a bit sour on top, which I found a welcome flavor. That being said, the whole thing screamed of garlic and it was difficult to detect the truffle.
It was so salty and wet and rich that I longed for a cold beer and some pals as accompaniment, instead of the ice water I ordered and late-afternoon-solo-sobriety I came with. Hickman acknowledges the popcorn’s richness: “you need something to cut that,” he says, suggesting a roasted malt lager.
Hickman says the venue has been serving the popcorn for four or five years, and his personal addition was adding more herbs, garlic and shallots to the butter. That makes sense, because those flavors stood out the most. He says it’s most popular at the bar as a shared appetizer: “it can be one of those ice-breakers at The Reef.”
The finale of my truffle pop odyssey came at Commissary during happy hour, when the dish is at an awesomely low price of $2.95 (regularly $4.50). One of the best parts about this version is how big and fluffy the kernels are. They’re light when you crunch them, and hardly any were partially popped. It comes dusted in smoked paprika and tastes like movie-theater popcorn done right: super salty (almost too salty) but also just plain good. Oh, and the truffle: it’s very subtle—so subtle that I wasn’t sure there was any until several bites in. It seemed that roughly 20 percent of the dish tasted of truffle, which can be seen as understated. Or not.
Commissary chef de cuisine Dylyn Coolidge told me that they pop and dress the corn in batches, tossing the hot corn with salt, white pepper and truffle oil while it’s still hot. As it’s ordered, more truffle oil is added, then the paprika is dusted. It comes out to you dry and at room temperature, which is nice because it doesn’t place a time limit on the popcorn’s enjoyment. It’s the only vegan version of all three truffle pops that I tried.
It’s a tough decision to pick a winner. But my editor demands it! Ultimately, I have to go with…Chef Geoff’s. The reason: its truffle flavor was the most distinctive of the bunch and it had an extra cheesiness to boot.
What’s your favorite truffle pop in town?