Front Page - Archives - Search 
D.C. Dining
Northwest inn returning to glory
(Published May 29, 2006)

By MARTY PEARL

For a few years in the early part of my 21-year tenure in this area, the Morrison-Clark Inn at 11th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW had pretty close to a lock in the Zagat Guide as the best restaurant around. In more recent times its fame has been eclipsed, and it became merely "very good" as opposed to "exceptional." Now that Executive Chef Craig Hartman has taken over, I think we may again have a contender for that illusive top spot.

I have tried Hartman's food at several charity eats events in the last few months, and you may remember my special mention in last issue's column of his lobster hush puppies as the best dish at Capital Cooks. We finally dined in the restaurant, and while one robin does not a springtime make, this bird is chirping like a whole band.

First, the rooms are as adorable as I remember them -- just dripping with Southern charm. Second, the service was impeccable and the staff could not have done more to make us feel welcome. Third, most of the food was back to the level of exceptional. I have had a lot of asparagus in the last few weeks since the season got into full swing, and the appetizer of asparagus fritters and baby asparagus salad was the best of the lot. The Bourbon shrimp and grits was among the finest interpretation of the dish that I've had. The spring lamb duet of roasted loin and grilled leg was delicious, and the rainbow trout stuffed with lobster and porcinis was as good a fish as I have tried this year. Only the beef tenderloin with braised new carrots, stuffed heirloom potatoes, grilled ramps and syrup of Virginia cabernet franc seemed to be "good hotel fare" but not on the knockout list. Dessert was a lovely chess pie, and the other sweets across the room looked admirable but will have to await our return trip when we have more room.

The wine list was small but admirably chosen, and the prices were remarkably moderate. Menu prices were in the $7-$18 range for starters and salads, and entrees priced at $22-$36 included well-chosen side dishes. Like Ali coming back for his third or fourth try at the championship belt, we have a legitimate contender once again.

***

Heart's Delight brought chefs from a few dozen of America's top restaurants and half a dozen local standouts to feed the crowd at the Shoreham with a great wine tasting and banquet to benefit the American Heart Association. Zoofari offered samples from about 120 of Washington's finest eateries to support FONZ (Friends of the National Zoo), and Taste of the South gave us an amazing buffet of famous dishes by caterers and restaurants from each state in Dixie to support children's charities in the South and Brainfood locally. I am not going to try to list the foods -- even listing only the best from these massive events would be impossible without filling up all my space, but suffice it to say that the combined offerings from these three events would be enough to fill even as jaded an eater as I am with the fondest of memories to last through a cold, hungry winter.

These and other similar charity eats are a wonderful way to try the best of food and drink from our area and from around the country, usually at about the cost of a meal at an expensive restaurant, and support a good cause at the same time. I urge you to read my listings of upcoming events and to pay attention to the schedules available elsewhere. If you like good things in your life, these evenings offer plenty.

***

This issue's featured trade show was an exercise in sophistication. Curtis Jablonka has started a new company called d.c. Wine Wholesale and has begun his marketing efforts on a definite high note. Jablonka presented his line of Te Awa single estate New Zealand wines from the Hawkes Bay region of the North Island at the City Tavern Club. We dined in the very pleasant company of New Zealand's Ambassador, Roy Ferguson, and his wife, several other members of the mission and winery personnel.

The dinner included an excellent seafood salad paired with Te Awa's complex 2004 sauvignon blanc, which carried a solid citrus tone with a crisp finish. Soft shell crab in a tempura batter matched the chardonnay, which presented more fruit and intensity and less oak than our California chards usually show. Duck breast in a dried cherry sauce went well with the warm spicy 2002 Syrah. The lamb course was accompanied by their 2002 merlot which, to my taste, was still a bit too tannic, but should continue to age well. The company's tasting notes suggested that the wine should be consumed now and over the next year or so, but I think a few years more cellaring will develop a much finer and richer wine. I plan to lay down a few bottles to see if I am right. A dessert course of berries and creme Anglaise was presented with a very nice Jean Michel Brut to end the evening on a high note.

Jablonka welcomed his guests with a pair of live wooly New Zealand sheep at the club's M Street entrance and had a photographer record our entrances for posterity. I passed on the picture, as I am not quite sure if I wish to be remembered with sheep that far from the ranch. Overall, subject to my tolerance for cute, I think he is off to a great start with some very good wines and I wish him great luck in this new endeavor.

***

BookExpo America, the nation's largest publishing event, ran last week at the convention center. I decided it is time to expand our interests a bit with coverage of cookbooks. I have been thinking about this all week, as there are many sites online that provide recipes, cooking techniques and hints, and the like. Given all that's available with the push of a couple of buttons, why bother to search the stores and spend the money? I have heard that cookbooks are one of the fastest growing segments of the publishing business, so I guess there is something tied into the visceral feel of holding the real thing and reading the recipes or looking at the pictures. I looked at thousands of examples at the show -- everything from 24-page paperback pamphlets to massive beautiful coffee table works of art selling for hundreds of dollars each.

I think that there are a few reasons that cookery remains so popular in print. First, there are the books that help you with menu planning for a meal or a number of days of eating a specific type of cuisine. For example, you might pick up a book on Chinese food and follow it through in terms of traditional types of dishes, which balance the flavors and temperatures and textures. There are times that I enjoy a cookbook like any other non-fiction: just for the pleasure of reading if it is well written and nicely illustrated. At other times I will use the book as a reference source to check a recipe that I haven't made for a while, or look at a picture to get an idea of what the finished dish should look like.

As much as anything, I enjoy reading old books or newly published histories of cookery to show what used to be served in homes and restaurants. I enjoy the memories of tastes and social settings they bring out when I read about something my mother might have cooked 50 years ago or see a depiction of a dish I tried decades ago at a restaurant that may no longer exist.

For whatever the reason, we keep seeing incredible numbers of new books about my favorite subject, so I may as well do some of the leg work and let you know which ones I think are worth spending our money on. There sure are plenty to choose from.

***

Once again, I invite you to email me your comments or questions about the food scene hereabout. Whoever sends the message that I think is the most interesting will get a dinner for two at Smith Point in Georgetown, courtesy of Executive Chef Nate Bearfield, who will also choose some nice wine to accompany what he cooks for you.

***

Marty Pearl is founder and chef of the D.C. Dining Society. Contact him at ChefMartyDC@aol.com or in care of The Common Denominator at 3609 Georgia Ave. NW, Suite 100, Washington, D.C. 20010. Call him at (202) 265-0477.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator