Dynamic chefs plating bold flavors in unfussy settings helm some of the most-buzzed about restaurants in the nation’s capital. Long known for its classy steakhouses and white-tablecloth dining, the city these days shines a spotlight on diverse talents that earn national acclaim from the highly respected James Beard Foundation.
Bold Flavors Go Mainstream
Known as the “Oscars of the food world,” the James Beard Awards have celebrated Washington, D.C.’s adventurous dining scene for quite some time. Notably in 2013, Rasika Executive Chef Vikram Sunderam was named Best Chef Mid-Atlantic for a modern treatment of Indian flavors that draws a power-packed clientele. The restaurant’s proprietor, Ashok Bajaj—himself a frequent nominee for outstanding restaurateur—explains the public’s tastes have changed. ”Bold flavors are mainstream these days. You don’t hear ‘I don’t eat spicy’ anymore, even from the older generation.”
On the happening Southwest waterfront, Kwame Onwuachi, 2019’s James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year, proves this point with sizzling African and Caribbean tastes that contrast with the cool, airy setting and bustling waterfront views of his Kith and Kin. True to the foundation’s expressed desire to honor the ever-expanding diversity of the culinary community, Onwuachi’s award caused reservations to skyrocket. “People travel to come and eat here,” he notes, confirming the mainstream aspect of diverse dining.
Indeed the James Beard Award program boosts the entire Washington, D.C., dining scene. Rose Previte, co-owner of Maydan, a Best New Restaurant 2018 semi-finalist, reports visitors “purposely schedule conferences or work” in the city so they can dine in restaurants like her Cardozo hotspot, where a gigantic fire pit is the focus of Middle-Eastern and North African cuisine.
Democratization of Fine Dining
Recent James Beard Award recognitions reflect another big change in the food world: “Expanding the definition of fine dining to more casual, approachable and personal venues,” according to co-owner Bill Jensen of Tail Up Goat. The Adams Morgan storefront café was highlighted for semi-finalist Chef Jon Sybert’s menu of artisanal pastas, breads and seasonal dishes.
Indeed, chef and restaurateur Erik Bruner-Yang’s many inventive, non-traditional dining venues focusing on the Asian cuisine he grew up eating (Toki Underground, Maketto, Spoken English, etc.) have earned several Beard nods. In 2019, he was a semi-finalist for Brothers and Sisters, his swanky all-day hangout in Adams Morgan’s trendy The Line Hotel. Aglow with laptops and buzzing with meetings, the dining hall’s moderately priced, eclectic menu also features elegant desserts from four-time James Beard-nominated pastry chef Pichet Ong.
A New Model – Popular Pricing
Fine dining needn’t be pricey. That’s the mantra at Chiko, a 2018 Best New Restaurant semi-finalist. Co-owners and chefs Danny Lee and Scott Drewno bring what Lee calls “bold and impactful, price-accessible” Asian-accented fare to a wide audience at fast-casual settings on Capitol Hill and in Dupont Circle. Indeed, as Best Mid-Atlantic Chef semi-finalist 2018 Cedric Maupillier explains, nowadays restaurants like his Convivial, a French/Mediterranean/American draw in Shaw, dispense with the “imported crystal and elaborate table-settings” to focus on providing a “high-quality, fantastic” meal at a “more popular” price. Diners are looking for “atmosphere, creativity of food and sustainability” he says, qualities epitomized by his full-flavored bouillabaisse and fried chicken.
Chef and restaurateur Nick Pimentel, co-owner of much-lauded casual spots like Bad Saint, a tiny Filipino in Northwest, and Elle, a 2019 James Beard Best New Restaurant semi-finalist, gives the concept of “bold flavors” a new perspective. “On paper,” he says, Elle’s menu looks simply New American. “What doesn’t show are the permutations, the umami flavors.” Look for those tastes in even the simplest dishes, like toast topped with kimchi made from vegetable scraps.
Amy Brandwein, a two-time Best Chef Mid-Atlantic nominee, has a similar take on dynamic tastes. At Centrolina, her fashionable Italian counter and cafe in the luxe CityCenterDC retail complex, she says she tries to “amplify natural flavors” in crafting “a heightened version of the classics.” Likewise, Jeremiah Langhorne, Best Chef Mid-Atlantic 2018, designs the wood-focused cooking at his rustic Shaw hotspot, The Dabney, to “bring out bold flavors,” so that a high-quality local ingredient “makes a statement.”
Langhorne sums up the James Beard Awards’ impact as both reflecting and driving a democratization of fine restaurants: “It’s exciting that the ... foundation is recognizing the diverse, new dining scene,” he says. “There’s a snowball effect moving things forward.”