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Fabio Trabocchi has long impressed critics through his innovative cooking—smoking meats and fish over smoldering thatches of hay, for instance, or infusing his lasagna with offal.
But at Fiola, Trabocchi’s latest Italian eatery in Penn Quarter, nothing impressed me more than the simple bombolini: golf-ball-sized puffy pillows of aromatic freshly fried dough, stuffed with ricotta and glistening with granules of sugar. In other words: doughnuts.
Forgive the fancy Tuscan nomenclature, which lends more than a mere sense of Old World authenticity. In Italian, the term also means “bombs,” as in explosives, a rather apropos descriptor for a dessert that obliterated even my fresh memories of the savory smoked gnocchi entrée that preceded it.
During my first visit, the $10 sweets were served in a shallow wooden box like sushi. On return trips, they came wrapped in a paper cone as if they were pommes frites. Either way, they command top billing among the restaurant’s dessert offerings.
They ought to command top billing on the entire menu. The five other patrons I quizzed echoed my sentiments about the fare in Trabocchi’s modish new dining room: The pasta, palatable; the doughnuts, wondrous. The only debate was about which dipping sauce proved more complementary: the fruity marmalade (sometimes apricot, sometimes raspberry), or the luscious crème fraiche.
You’ve got to hand it to pastry chef Jason Gehring, formerly of Baltimore’s venerable Charleston restaurant, for boldly upstaging his Michelin-starred boss.
Ours is the age of artisinal comfort food, as a recession-scarred populace takes solace in white-tablecloth evocations of childhood’s grilled cheese sandwiches and tater tots. And Fiola isn’t the only place that has its own highfalutin’ spin on carnival-fare fried dough.
Policy, the boozy eatery on 14th Street NW, also markets an après-dinner ricotta doughnut under a fancy-pants Italian name. The fried zeppoles, priced at $7, arrive in a size and shape quite similar to Gehring’s bombolini. The major differences are coating (powdered as opposed to granulated sugar), presentation (delivered in a steamy brown paper bag) and the accompanying condiment (a rum-infused crème anglaise with ample enough dry bite to please the venue’s absinthe-minded crowd.)
Elsewhere—often at more understated venues than Fiola—the modern doughnut has been creeping in as a component of the main course. Consider the “jelly belly,” chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s sweet and salty sandwich of grilled pork slapped between slices of homemade glazed doughnut, recently unveiled to some fanfare at U Street Music Hall.
Then there’s the enduring “Luther” phenomenon at Logan Circle’s ChurchKey: a local twist on late crooner Luther Vandross’ legendary favorite cheeseburger-doughnut hybrid, involving buttermilk fried chicken in place of the beef patty, topped with applewood smoked bacon and served on a large brioche doughnut glazed in maple-chicken jus and dusted with candied pecans.
The monstrous cholesterol bomb has never been listed on the restaurant’s menu. “It’s only available on Sundays and you have to ask for it,” says pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac.
But its popularity is nonetheless problematic. “We fried so many doughnuts one day, the fryer broke,” MacIssac says. Now, for the sheer sake of equipment upkeep, the Sunday heart-attack special is limited to only 30 orders each weekend, she says.
MacIsaac describes the sandwich as a somewhat grotesque outgrowth of her ambitious doughnut program during weekend brunches at the restaurant, where a sampling of her various doughnuts and doughnut holes runs $6. MacIsaac uses a rich and buttery brioche dough, lending her confections a more “bready” complexion than your average Krispy Kreme.
On any given Sunday, she says, the kitchen cranks out around 300 to 400 yeast-risen delights, ranging in flavor from the bright and acidic lemon poppy seed to the salty and sugary toffee-coated doughnut sprinkled with crumbled bacon bits. Lately, she’s been experimenting with a kind inspired by the Samoa Girl Scout cookie, drizzled with caramel and chocolate and topped with coconut and shortbread cookie crumbs, which she expects will soon make it into the rotation.
“There’s so much you can do with them,” MacIsaac says. “You can fill them, you can top them with all sorts of things. It’s a great basic vessel to put any flavor on.”
MacIssac might be the most outspoken proponent for fried dough and its endless possibilities in the District. “I keep telling [owner] Michael Babin, ‘Donuts could be the next cupcake,’” she says, referring to D.C.’s proliferation of boutique bakeries. “So give me a donut shop.”
Babin, she says, could be swayed: “We just have to figure out how to do it.”
MacIsaac points to New York’s Doughnut Plant as a model of what can be done. Owner Mark Isreal’s boutique bakery, now with two locations in Manhattan, hawks some pretty eclectic creations at equally eclectic prices, including a blowtorched crème brulee variety that costs $3 a pop.
In interviews, Isreal has repeatedly stated his desire to open a similar shop in D.C. MacIsaac aims to beat him to it.
But where well-dressed cupcakes have proved a gold mine, stand-alone upscale doughnut shops have had a harder time. The Fractured Prune, an Ocean City-based chain slinging hand-dipped doughnuts with some unusual flavors, ranging from creamsicle to trail mix, had a brief lifespan on P Street NW before shuttering in 2007. Its Silver Spring location closed last fall after barely a year in business. Instead of following the Georgetown Cupcake model, the treats have proliferated at formal establishments that sell plenty of other food, too.
One reason for this: Fire codes. You can make even the most expensive cupcake in a plain old kitchen. But try to install a deep fryer to make doughnuts and you’ll find yourself in a deep bureaucratic thicket. The presence of a fryer generally obliges shop owners to install and maintain proper venting, which can be prohibitively costly, especially for a one-trick specialty shop. For that reason, Cake Love owner Warren Brown told me, “We’re not going to be frying anything.”
“It’s expensive as all shit,” says David Guas, proprietor of Bayou Bakery in Arlington. “You’re talking about $50,000 per floor to run a hood system to the roof. That’s what they say. And I’ve got six floors [above the shop].”
Opening a Louisiana-themed bakery without the ability to fry up beignets—which he calls “the doughnuts of New Orleans,” and serves under a pile of powdered sugar at $3 per plate—seemed like blasphemy to Guas. “I would have passed up the space,” he says. So Guas sought out a ventless fryer with its own built-in ventilation system. The contraption saved Guas some considerable, um, dough, compared to the standard hood system. But it’s by no means cheap. “The filters are crazy expensive,” he says.
Given the steep price tag, Guas reserves the fancy machinery exclusively for preparing the beignets—hence no fried shrimp or oyster po’boys on the menu.
Less impassioned fried-dough aficionados might forgo the entire hassle. For Guas, it’s a source of pride—not to mention massive clean-up. “On Saturdays, we sell around 150 orders,” he says. “Powdered sugar everywhere. It’s all over the floor. It’s all over the banquets. All we can do is take a wet cloth to the tables. We don’t worry about the floor until the end of the day.”
Fiola, 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 628-2888
Policy, 1904 14th Street NW, (202) 387-7654
U Street Music Hall, 1115A U St. NW, (202) 588-1880
ChurchKey, 1337 14th St. NW, (202) 567-2576
Bayou Bakery, 1515 North Courthouse Rd., Arlington, (703) 243-2410
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery