What Is Good Food?

Insatiable

Sweet and fresh local strawberries return to Dolcezza with three seasonal flavors.

Standing around my kitchen island, eating a late dinner with our fingers, my husband Jason and our friends Nancy and Sam discussed what defines good food. Is it the elegant plating, unusual ingredients, and complex preparations we’ve been enjoying as one new restaurant after another seeks to top the increasing competition in DC? Can well-done comfort food place in this culinary race? It took two delicious and very different dining experiences to answer the question.

Carolina Kitchen Opens in Rhode Island Row

Licking our fingers, finishing off re-heated leftovers from our dinner the night before at Carolina Kitchen’s (thecarolinakitchen.com, 2350 Washington Place NE) new Rhode Island Row location, we decided the question deserved a broader answer. Chef/owner Lance London’s catfish was still crisp and light a full day later. The cornflake coating on the fried chicken remainedlight, crackingly crunchy, and seasoned as perfectly as the tender, juicy meat inside. We fought over the oysters, which had nearly melted inside their coating. As someone who fries miserably and has suffered through too many soggy, greasy plates of wings and fish and chips, I recognized the talent in this flawless execution.

The night before our stand-up feast Jason and Iwere treated to Chef London’s cooking in Carolina Kitchen’s far more elegant, luxurious dining room. We were warmly welcomed into this rich, Sunday-best environment where diners were casually enjoying a weeknight dinner. Before our menus had even arrived, a 5-year-old was treated to a candlelit slice of cake accompanied by singing that rivaled a gospel church on Sunday.

From simple to spectacular, Chef London’s food was exceptional. His collards, sweet and rich with smoked turkey instead of pork, had an unfussy complexity, cooked for hours with 42 different ingredients. His mac and cheese, free from short ribs, truffles, or French cheese, may have actually set the Platonic ideal.

The Creole salmon arrived, recommended independently by every member of the restaurant staff we asked. I have to admit I am lukewarm on salmon. It is the rubber chicken of the ocean, typically dry and a bit fishy. Chef London, however, served it up moist and fresh, topped with shrimp and crab and an unapologetically rich, well-seasoned cream sauce. Our only regret at the end of the meal was that we were too full to taste our way through the home-style barbecue menu which includes something called Mama stew chicken we’ve been assured is well worth a return visit. We needed no convincing, and Sam and Nancy are hoping for another round of leftovers.

nopa Kitchen+Bar Turns One

I’ve come up with a new way of choosing dining locations. Start by attending a reception. Get so wrapped up in conversation that after two drinks you leave, forgetting to close your tab and retrieve your credit card. Three weeks later, after a vacation, a visit from your parents and a business trip, finally return to the restaurant feeling guilty enough by now to make a pre-theatre reservation. Yeah, that’s how we ended up at nopa Kitchen +Bar (nopadc.com, 800 F St. NW).

Admittedly, after scanning the early online reviews I was a little nervous. A sentiment echoed in response to my first Instagram pic of the meal. “I’ve heard mixed reactions,” our friend said. Whatever reservations early reviewers had about the food have certainly been worked out over a year of business. The dining room matches CarolinaKitchen’sbold, rich elegance with perfect reserve. The rich, blood-red, tufted leather banquetsoffera measured pop of color in a comfortable supper club atmosphere.

Our first course offresh spring asparagus was crisply blanched and dressed with sauce gribiche, a cooked-egg mayonnaise with a sharp, horseradish-like bite. It was topped with flakes of clean, bold smoked trout, with all of the salt and richness of imported prosciutto but none of the sweet gaminess of pork. Ancho chile-glazed baby back ribs, with a light red cabbage slaw and bread and butter pickles, delivered the taste of a deconstructed Cuban sandwich, rich and sweet.

Again, as at Carolina Kitchen, I took the advice of literally every member of the staff we asked and ordered the roasted hake with a coconut milk sauce, unmistakably spiced with kaffir lime. It was perfect, crisp skin over clean, sweet fish. Purple Peruvian potatoes, both starchy and light, balanced the sweet coconut milk with the slight bitterness of young chard and earthy broad beans.

Jason, surprising no one, ordered the hanger steak and frites. Conveniently we have tried this on the menu of nearly every restaurant in DC that serves it, providing a reasonable point of comparison. The steak was tender and rich, lightly gamey with a smoked mustard sauce. Bright, peppery, lightly dressed arugula balanced the steak and crisp fries.

Despite our bold refusal, we somehow found ourselves in front of a plate of nopa’s red velvet cheesecake. Paired with devil’sfood cake and raspberries and both fresh and in-house-made ice-cream, it was decadent without being heavy. A perfect share on a plate we nearly licked clean.

Fresh Strawberries Arrive at Dolcezza

Admittedly I am jumping the gun. With this year’s long winter, every farmer I speak with assures me that spring produce is a full month behind. That has only increased Dolcezza (dolcezzagelato.com, 550 Penn St. NE) co-owner Robb Duncan’s eager anticipation for the arrival of fresh strawberries from Virginia’s Westmoreland Berry Farm. “They’re usually ripe in Virginia around Mother’s Day. This year I think we’ll be two to three weeks later than that,” Duncan tells me.

With a menu including strawberry tarragon sorbet and strawberry tequila sorbet, I can’t wait for the first fresh berries to arrive either. “After a winter of eating root vegetables, pears, and apples, when May arrives I’m ready for the sugary sweetness and burst of acidity of strawberries,” Duncan says. When the first strawberries arrive Dolcezza spins out a strawberry sorbet. “We’re dialing into the fruit to see where the flavor is at,” he tells me. Once they hit their stride roasted strawberry gelato hits the menu. “The rich milk fats can cover up the flavor of strawberries,” Duncan says,” so we roast them at around 400 F for 15 minutes or so to concentrate the flavor.”

From the arrival of the first strawberries, these seasonal flavors are only around for five to six weeks. Dolcezza extends the season with a Maryland supplier. “When it’s over, it’s over,” says Duncan. What’s up after that? Opal basil sorbet and blueberries with lemon thyme. It’s going to be a sweet summer.

Farm Fresh

Though late, fresh produce is returning as DC’s farm markets open for the season. With the first sweet, tender, local asparagus of the year spotted last week, the Bloomingdale Farmers’ Market can’t return soon enough. It reopened May 4 for a season of Sundays from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., extending to November 23. If you want to find out if my cooking is as good as my eating, swing by on Sunday, May 11, and check out my live cooking demo, part of the chef’s series happening throughout the year.

Carolina Kitchen’s owner, Chef Lance London, elevates light, crisp frying to a culinary art.
Elegant and rich, the atmosphere in the dining room at Carolina Kitchen’s new location on Rhode Island Avenue is warm, welcoming, and delicious.
The season’s first fresh asparagus at nopa Kitchen+Bar is delicious, topped with egg and clean, smoky flakes of trout.
Recommended by literally everyone on staff, nopa hake arrives crisp-skinned and tender in a delicate coconut milk broth, fragrant with kaffir lime.

Jonathan Bardzik is a cook, storyteller, and author living in Eckington. Known for his weekly live cooking demos at Eastern Market (Saturdays from March to November), Jonathan loves cooking fresh ingredients as much as seeking them out in DC’s growing restaurant scene. His first cookbook, “Simple Summer: A Recipe for Cooking and Entertaining with Ease,” is available now (and would make a wonderful gift!). Grab a copy and find out what Jonathan is cooking atwww.jonathanbardzik.comor his Facebook page, “What I Haven’t Cooked Yet.” Need some foodporn? Follow @JonathanBardzik on Twitter and Instagram.