Five Dishes to Die For on the Hill

The Burger at Sonoma. An indulgence in a menu filled with the freshest fish and light, summer pastas, Sonoma’s burger is nothing short of perfection.

I have fallen in love on the Hill. Twice. It’s where I met my husband Jason and some of our best friends. Many of my most passionate affairs, however, have been with the wonderful foods in this DC neighborhood. Like a mother picking favorites among her children, this is an impossible task, but here are five local restaurant dishes that I can never have enough of.

 

 

Pastis Mussels at Montmartre

My first spring in DC, a date and I stumbled into Montmartre (www.montmartredc.com, 327 7th St. SE) for a late dinner. We shared their country pâté, a flawlessly dressed green salad, and a large pot of mussels. My romance with the mussels long outlasted the other brief affair. 

Well established, Montmartre remains one of the Hill’s best restaurants. Their mussels, amongst a strong pool of competitors, are the best I’ve eaten in DC. They offer three preparations, but I am true to my first love. Named Pastis for the anise-flavored, French aperitif they are steamed in, the preparation includes basil, shallots and white wine. The anise liqueur and basil deliver delicate licorice flavors that balance perfectly with the sweet shellfish.

Jason and I have a grand vision of enjoying an inexpensive evening on Montmarte’s tree-shaded patio, enjoying a bottle of wine and a pot of Pastis mussels. Soaking the drinkable broth in crusty slices of baguette would be more than filling. Montmartre’s kitchen, however, has conspired against us, and we always end up ordering three courses each - a delicious failure each and every time.

 

Tortilla Soup at Las Placitas

Of all the foods I love, the world’s chicken soups hold a special place in my heart, and stomach. That love has turned finicky with experience, and I’ve become particular about what constitutes a great steaming bowl of Thai Tom Yum, Greek Avgolemono, or Mexican Tortilla soup. Despite years of attempts in my home kitchen, I have yet to top the Tortilla soup at Las Placitas (www.lasplacitasdc.com, 517 8th St. SE).

First, a point of clarification: I inadvertently incited a heated debate on Facebook recently over whether Tortilla soup should be brothy or thick and cheesy. My preference, like the soup at Las Placitas is a bowl of rich broth, thickened only by a base of roasted tomatoes and chiles.

Las Placitas begins with a rich, roasted homemade chicken stock. A purée of roasted tomatoes and dried ancho, pasilla and guajillo chiles both thicken and add sweetness, depth and a little heat. Chicken breast is poached in the stock and shredded. Placed in a large bowl it is topped with sweet zucchini and carrots, rich, creamy slices of avocado, fresh cilantro and crisp corn tortillas, which add a distinct flavor of Masa corn flour.

While I don’t want my soup thick with cheese, I love the sharp flavor of melted Cheddar and Monterrey at the bottom of the bowl. Like the mussels at Montmartre, Las Placitas giant, steaming bowl of Tortilla soup could easily be a meal itself, but I can never seem to resist a plate of their Salvadoran Puerco al Horno or sizzling skillets of fajitas.

 

The Burger at Sonoma

Jason and I had been going out for three months before we went to Sonoma (www.sonomadc.com, 223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE), a magic night of fresh fish and brightly sauced summer pasta. Two years later, we played hooky on one absolutely flawless, Capitol Hill spring day, walking to Sonoma for a bottle of Prosecco and a late lunch. Jason ordered the burger, grumbling about the $16 price tag, until permanently silenced by his first bite.

What makes an outstanding burger? It begins with great beef. Newly appointed, executive chef Josh Hutter tells me that Sonoma grinds chuck, brisket and short ribs including the perfect amount of fat for flavor and moisture. Their housemade rolls, buttered and grilled, are soft, but not insipid. 

When it comes to toppings, every starkly exposed item needs to be the best. Shaved red onion and a blend of Dijon and grain mustard add a sharp bite, balanced by sweet and sour housemade pickles and fresh, bright arugula. Jason always adds cheese, usually Vermont cheddar. A fried egg is a treat on special occasions -- or after a particularly big night of drinking.

Hand-cut fries are double blanched to insure crispness, and served with parsley, salt and malt vinegar, my favorite way to eat them. Fortunately, Jason shares.

 

Lomo and Lonza at Red Apron Butchery

Americans have worked so hard to cut fat from their diets. However, I’ve recently become addicted to it. 

Our friend Mikey arrived for dinner one night bearing gifts, including paper thin slices of Italian-style Lonza, from Red Apron Butchery (www.redapronbutchery.com) at Union Market (www.unionmarketdc, 1309 5th St. NE). The pork loin, brined in salt, sugar, cinnamon, fennel, rosemary and other spices, then cured for 2-4 months, has an intentionally thick layer of fat across the top. The flavor and mouthfeel of that fat is silky and decadent. Sensually, this is better than the best massage you’ve ever received, akin to rubbing the furry belly of a kitten. 

As you might guess, this is an awkward addiction, leading one to obsessively describe the sensuality of pork fat to your friends. It gets worse.

Red Apron’s owner, Nathan Anda, also brines and cures Berkshire pork in a Spanish style for his Lomo charcuterie. The same cut of meat is similarly brined, then rinsed and rubbed with Sherry vinegar and pimentón, a smoky Spanish paprika. 

Lest the fat get all the glory, let me talk about the rich, and richly-seasoned, meat. I asked Nathan why he chose Berkshire pigs over other heritage breeds. “It’s my commitment to using the whole animal,” he said. “In the two years before opening my first brick and mortar location here at Union Market, I was able to try a lot of different pork. While some pigs produce exceptional bacon or great hams, Berkshires have an even distribution of fat and muscle.” I can attest that the testing was well worth the results.

 

Baltimore Bomb at Dangerously Delicious Pies

After a night of Asian dining on H Street for a Hill Rag article last fall, our friend Sam cajoled us into a visit to Dangerously Delicious Pies (www.dangerouslydeliciouspiesdc.com, 1339 H St NE). Upon recommendation we ordered a slice of the Baltimore Bomb. No, I can’t stop going back. 

Of course, you can’t call your pies dangerously delicious without a great crust. Their vegan, vegetable shortening crust is perfectly flakey. In fact, we bought an entire Baltimore Bomb pie last week (this is becoming a problem) and observed the crust flaking off in layers as we dug into it with forks. With due deference to the crust, Baltimore Bomb is all about the filling.

The pie starts with Berger cookies. Made in Baltimore since the early 1800’s, Berger cookies top a vanilla wafer with a thick layer of fudge. Inside the pie, these melt and swirl into the custardy, vanilla chess filling. While decadent, the pie is not cloying. The vanilla custard is rich and eggy, letting the cookies provide the hit of sugar. The pie is best served heated, the soft, warm filling balanced by the crisp crust.

Apparently I am not the only one who thinks this pie is amazing. Baltimore Bomb has been Dangerously Delicious pies #1 seller since they opened.

Jonathan Bardzik is a storyteller, demo chef and food writer in Washington, DC. You can find him outside at Eastern Market, each Saturday morning, cooking with local, fresh produce. Find out what Jonathan is cooking by reading his blog www.whatihaventcookedyet.com or his Facebook page of the same name.