Dispatch from DC: Good to the Marrow

Work had me traveling again last week, this time to our nation’s capital for the annual Association of the U.S. Army show. It was exciting, as this was the first big show I was able to attend for my company, and because I had the opportunity to meet lots of fellow communicators from other BAE Systems sites around the country. Of course, I always like to combine some culinary pleasure with my work, and DC presented an opportune locale for this predilection in the form of a spot I had seen on the Cooking Channel show Unique Eats: The Blue Duck Tavern.

The open pastry kitchen greets you as you enter

I conned my good friend Lindsay and her friend Gina into picking me up from Hellish Dulles Airport so that we could venture directly to Blue Duck for an extravagant meal. We were not disappointed. This joint may describe itself as a neighborhood tavern with wholesome American fare, but believe you me, this is sophisticated, exactingly prepared gastronomy. And if Blue Duck were in my neighborhood, my butt would be the size of the broad side of a barn. I was even more delighted when, later in the week, the head of North American communications for my company invited our team to the very same place for a group dinner. At that second supper, I was thrilled to experience a true rite of passage in my life as a food blogger: a tasting menu at chef’s table!!!

I had to try the oven roasted bone marrow as an appetizer at that first dinner. I just had to. I mean, Anthony Bourdain and Gabrielle Hamilton talk about it like it’s crafted by angels distinctly for our pleasure. And I just love angel-made food. I don’t know how to adequately describe this dish without freaking out the more conservative Hungries, though. There’s no getting around the fact that the waitress brought me a fancy, copper pan full of hacked-in-half veal bones roasted gorgeous deep brown, with a head of roasted garlic and crispy charred country bread. All of this was settled on a bed of sea salt, course-ground, for sprinkling on your marrow bruschetta. The taste….think about the best steak you’ve ever had, perfectly savory and fatty…then concentrate that flavor about three-fold and take out the part where you actually have to chew the steak. The texture is a cross between roasted garlic and salad dressing – like an about-to-liquefy solid. With a little sprinkle of salt on top, it was the most decadent thing I have ever eaten. It was like eating fireworks: exciting, a little dangerous, completely amazing.

The Unholy Holy Grail

I also had braised bison that night, while Lindsay had a fantastic braised shot rib entrée and Gina tried the crab cakes. I would give the slight edge to Lindsay’s short ribs, which again were ultimately beefy, fall-apart tender, and big-time savory in a homemade BBQ sauce. My bison was very lean and therefore a little less soft in texture than the ribs, but I preferred the wine sauce in mine, which also seemed to be reinforced with a little marrow, to Lindsay’s BBQ. The crab cake was packed with high-quality, fresh crab, but was lacking a bit of spice for my palate. We also enjoyed thick-cut fries double-done in duck fat (I would have liked them to be a smidge thinner and crispier, although the duck fat did render a delectable exterior crust), roasted, slender carrots with bourbon and maple syrup (fabulous, crisp-tender and savory), and charred cippoline onions that were very much like what you get when you grill onions outside for your weekend cook-out. Every bite was Heaven, but little did I know that nirvana was so nearby.

Carrots, fries, onions

We went full-out for dessert and ordered not only Blue Duck’s famous apple pie (it’s a whole pie, with a top crust and everything, served warm), but also chocolate cake with Maker’s Mark flambé AND peanut butter ice cream, which for me was the piece de resistance. The pie was good, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve had plenty of good apple pie in my day. The chocolate cake was also good, and the texture was incomparable in the now-overrun world of chocolate lava cakes. However, for me, the little glass bucket of house-made peanut butter ice cream stole the show. Served with a wooden spoon and dotted with candied peanuts, this ice cream was intensely flavored of the best roasted peanuts you’ve ever had. Every candied peanut bite was explosive and crunchy, not sullied at all by the sogginess ice cream should impart. This was ice cream to write home about. But I'll just write to you.

En flambé

Then Tuesday night came…I was so excited to be going back to Blue Duck to eat again, I didn’t shut up about it the whole day. Sunday’s meal had been one of those Top Five Meals of Your Life kinds of dinners, with exceptional service, comfortable surroundings, and extraordinary food. Needless to say, my expectations were running high, and when we were led back to chef’s table and presented with the tasting menu, I about jumped out of my seat with joy.

Right away, this experience had all the hallmarks of an epic meal: low lighting, constant wine pouring, explanations of every dish and great company. They started us with a simple charcuterie platter, which in English is sliced chorizo sausage, mortadella (I call it grown-up bologna) and prosciutto. These were house-made delicacies, and each was unique and buttery, salty and porky. Yum.

I love grown up bologna

The first course was octopus confit with papas bravas (potatoes, I presume?) and cabernet aioli, hearts of palm and orange salad with candied onions, and heirloom tomato salad with fresh herbs. All were excellent, and I literally couldn’t stop eating those gorgeous tomatoes, but the octopus was the pleasant surprise here: buttery, tender yet still firm, this wasn’t fishy tasting at all, but simply delicious.

After this dish, I wouldn’t mind living in an octopus’ garden

Gorgeous tomatoes, sweet like candy
Next round: medallions of just-cooked swordfish with olives and eggplant puree, middle neck clams in an artichoke broth, arugula salad with preserved lemon vinaigrette and caramelized sunchokes with romesco sauce (red pepper and almond sauce). I had never had sunchokes before, and really enjoyed these roasted, starchy root vegetables, which were sweet and earthy at the same time. But the star of this course were the clams and that delectable broth, which led me down the primrose path of eating two more slices of charred bread in order to sop up that gorgeous, buttery, winey, bright sauce.

They were ready for their close-up

The next course was a doozy: slow roasted grass-fed strip loin with red wine jus, crispy pork belly with watermelon radish, braised escarole with provolone and figs, mushroom fricassee with caramelized onions, and Yukon gold potato puree with garlic confit. The beef was only OK for me, although the shitake and oyster mushrooms were awesome. Everyone at our table went nuts for the mashed potatoes, which absolutely were the creamiest, silkiest mashies I’ve ever tasted. But of course, I only had eyes for the pork belly, of which I ate two pieces. Pork belly is bacon’s rich, fat uncle from Milan. It tastes like bacon with the texture of pork shoulder, crispy on the outside, unctuous, melty and meaty on the inside. Its equal parts salt, fat and sweetness balance in much the same way the bone marrow does, and I can now confirm this is my favorite food on Earth. This dish should win a Nobel prize, and be used in all international peace talks going forward. Please, if you love food, find a place that serves pork belly and order it. You will thank me in the long run, even if you need a really long run afterwards to work off all those calories.

Heaven on a plate

Last but not least, they brought us a fig and raspberry crumble, devil’s food cake with coffee and caramel and assorted ice creams. I tried a bite of each, but honestly, I was in such a fugue state from all of the delicious savory wonders I had just experienced, plus the not-inconsiderable amount of really good wine I’d consumed, to be much interested in these. Again, the peanut butter ice cream stood out to me the most, but they were all good.

The open kitchen allows you to observe the action

There is no score other than a 10 to give Blue Duck Tavern. It’s an open and shut case, really. Impeccable service that was never stuffy or intrusive but always knowledgeable and attentive, a gorgeous ladies’ room with individual washrooms and sinks for each guest, gorgeous surroundings, great wine, and absolutely to-die-for food. This is where the Obamas had their anniversary dinner, for cripes sakes! During your next visit to DC, put Blue Duck Tavern on your to-do list. Even if you can’t eat at chef’s table, I guarantee you’ll love it. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!

Notes: Las Chicas Taqueria is now open in Owego! I had lunch there Friday, and confirmed it’s better than ever. Flood-ravaged Owego could really use those tourism dollars right now, so take a little trip over there and get some killer tacos!

Blue Duck Tavern on Urbanspoon

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