Washington D.C. '07

by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
August 31, 2007

Once a year, I visit my friends in the Washington, D.C. area. The capital has a weird effect on me; I always say that I can smell politics in the air, which is probably why I left D.C. to come to New York after my first year in college. But on the other hand, I like going back there because D.C. is home to some of my favorite landmarks, including the Washington Monument and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, and it’s also home to some of my dearest friends.

My priority on these visits is to spend time with these friends, and of course, good friends enjoy good meals together, home cooked or dining out, so these trips are always especially rewarding for me.

This year, Maureen suggested Komi but thought I might pass on it since I had just finished up an entire feature on Greek cuisine. Luckily, I never tire of good food and was intrigued by her mention of Komi’s chef-owner Johnny Monis’ philosophy and art of cooking, so I jumped at the chance to have dinner there. How fortuitous because this turned out to be my favorite meal in 2007 so far!

Another close friend, Julia, has been working on a guidebook series for D.C. called UR Here and has been telling me about Julia’s Empanadas (no relation) for years, so I finally made it there after lunch on Saturday, tried one, then picked up eight more the following day to bring back to New York.

Julia’s also been urging me to experience Maryland blue crabs during crab season, so we made it out to Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn in Annapolis. Cantler’s is a big tourist spot, but it was just too much fun learning to eat crabs the right way and devouring them one by one!

So for the end of summer 2007, I hope you’ll enjoy this short piece on my weekend in D.C.

Washington D.C. '07

by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
August 31, 2007

1509 17th St, NW
Washington, D.C. 20036

I was sold on Komi as soon as I visited the website and downloaded the menu. The homepage is simply a pristine black and white photo of chef-owner Johnny Monis at work in the kitchen. I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the photo itself gave me the sense that Komi was going to be exceptional. Then, the menu sold me for two reasons: first, it was handwritten, and second, the food made my eyes drool. In the photo, the cuisine looked modern, but on the menu, it seemed rustic — that’s always a good sign because it means that the focus is not only on the pure goodness of the ingredients, but also in the artistry of composition and presentation.

Komi offers two different types of prix-fixe menus. The dinner menu includes seven to eight chef’s selections of mezzethakia (small appetizers), and a three-course (appetizer, entrée and dessert) choice from the daily menu. The degustazione menu includes twelve mezzathakia, the three-course selection and wine pairing. It is requested that the entire table choose the same menu so that the kitchen can properly pace the meal.

On this particular Saturday evening, we had eight mezzethakia: fresh olives with sea salt and olive oil; halved radish with fish roe and fresh whipped butter; mascarpone-stuffed date with Greek yogurt; Muscat gazpacho with Padrón peppers; octopus with avocado and quail egg; oxtail gyro; watermelon with feta fritter, heirloom cherry tomato and corn vinaigrette; and lastly, three types of homemade crackers: asiago cheese with thyme flour dough, sesame with wheat dough, and smoked paprika with corn dough. Wow! What a line up. And these were all pre-appetizer courses. Everything was fantastic! All the delicate pairings of flavors for these tiny dishes worked so well, I could hardly suppress all the “mmm’s” coming out of my mouth. Particularly remarkable were the sweetness of the gazpacho countered by the slightly bitter and sometimes spicy Padrón peppers and the refreshing taste of watermelon and heirloom tomato with a lightly breaded and frittered feta in corn vinaigrette. Delicious!

For appetizers, we shared the local corn ravioli with summer truffle and langoustine, and the tagliatelle with local blueberries and guanciale. Both were very good except I found the guanciale too salty, overpowering any sweetness from the blueberries. For main, the suckling pig was prepared three ways: suckling pig confit, black truffle moussaka and a trotter croquette. It was amazing! The turbot alla plancha with panzanella was actually the most disappointing dish as it was lackluster and forgettable.

For dessert, the four of us shared a coconut panna cotta with apricot sorbet, honey-dipped Greek doughnuts with chocolate, flourless chocolate cake with olive oil ice cream, and yuzu cream with blueberries and pistachio. All were good but not the highlight of the evening.

After the meal, I learned that Johnny Monis was voted one of 2007’s seven Xi Yan, in Hong Kong, my dinner at Komi will be an unforgettable memory that I will continue to relive and cherish.

Washington D.C. '07

by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
August 31, 2007

2452 18th St, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009

1221 Connecticut Ave, NW
Washington, D.C. 20036

1000 Vermont Ave, NW
Washington, D.C. 20005

1410 U Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009

Julia’s Empanadas has been around since the early nineties. At the original store on 18th Street, looking for some guidance, I asked everyone in line his or her favorite flavor, but everyone gave me a different answer. :( I chose the Chilean style beef with ground beef, raisins, hardboiled egg, onion and olive. Perfection! The baked empanada crust was hard but flaky, and the stuffing inside was juicy and flavorful! I wanted another but didn’t want to spoil my appetite for dinner at Komi. So the next day, I picked up eight empanadas from Julia’s to make sure I got to try the different flavors and that I wouldn’t go hungry on my way back to New York. On the train ride home, I realized that the customers in line the day before weren’t kidding me; they were all good! The empanadas are $3 each, and cocktail sized ones 80¢ each (minimum order twenty-five — what a great idea for parties!). One of the men in line told me he’s been coming to Julia’s for ten years, and the empanadas used to be $1.75 a piece, but he still loves them at $3 a pop. I can see why Julia has such a loyal following!

Here’s a list of the empanadas I tried:

with rice and black beans

Chilean Style Beef
ground and chopped beef, raisins, hardboiled egg, onion and ripe olive

spinach, ricotta, muenster and cottage cheese, pine nuts and spices

chicken, potato, green peas, hardboiled egg, green olives and onion

Turkey with Spring Onions
cilantro, onion and jalapeño seasoned with turmeric

Jamaican Style
ground and chopped beef, onion, potato, curry and other spices

A Little Background
Owner Julia Hohman grew up in Santiago, Chile. In 1971 she moved to the U.S., taught herself English and worked as a dishwasher in a D.C. hotel. During that time, she paid attention to the food preparation and worked her way up to chef’s assistant. She then opened a restaurant of her own but realized the workload was too much for her to handle, so she decided that empanadas were the solution! (Praise the lord!) She opened her first store in the early nineties and added an international flair to the conventional dish. Today, Julia’s sells about 5,000 empanadas a day.

Background research on Julia’s Empanadas conducted by Spoolia Design.
Photograph of empanadas by Veronika Lukasova.

Washington D.C. '07

by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
August 31, 2007

458 Forest Beach Rd
Annapolis, MD 21409

I know I am cheating a little since, technically, Annapolis is in Maryland. But it’s a mere forty-five-minute drive from D.C., which means it’s still in the “area,” and, besides, I couldn’t pass up the chance to talk about cracking crabs at a crab shack!

Before going to Cantler’s, my friend Julia sent me instructions on how to eat a crab. But honestly, reading about it just doesn’t make that much sense. It’s something that needs to be learned hands-on. I also didn’t quite understand what dirty business it is to devour crabs, though I had been forewarned to wear clothes I didn’t mind getting dirty. By the end of the day, I was a master at tearing apart these delectable crustaceans and sucking out all the luscious meat, and my stain-ridden shirt was proof of what a messy, albeit totally entertaining, job it was.

Cantler’s has been serving steamed Maryland blue crabs and fresh seafood since 1974. The restaurant is located on the water, overlooking Mill Creek (which empties into the Chesapeake Bay, where the crabs are harvested), so it must be wonderful to sit at the picnic tables on the patio and eat by the water. Unfortunately, on this particular Sunday, it was raining, so we ate indoors.

Eating crabs is really a family or large party affair, as the tables are room-length and everyone sits side by side. Crabs are ordered by the dozen, by size: small, medium, large, extra-large, or jumbo. At Cantler’s the crabs are steamed in a pot with Old Bay Seasoning — a blend of herbs and spices, including celery salt, bay leaf, mustard seed, black and red pepper, cinnamon and ginger — dumped on top. We ordered a dozen large crabs for five people, which, with the sides of onion rings, corn on the cob, and crab dip, turned out to be just the right amount of food. The steamed crabs are served on a large platter just like in the photo above. Butter, vinegar and more Old Bay accompany for your dipping pleasure. But the crabs are so fresh and succulent that you really don’t need any condiment. The meat is so wonderfully juicy and tender — as long as you can get to it — that it stands on its own.

Part of the fun really is learning how to eat a crab. Julia’s better half, Jason, patiently showed me step by step, which claw to snap off first, how to open the key and tear off the top shell, what parts of the crab innards to discard, and how to most easily access the good stuff. It’s all very simple actually, and I loved using the wooden mallet to smash the shell of any part of the crab that I couldn’t tear open with my bare hands. The experience is totally carnal and addictive. And that’s the secret to eating crabs: once you’re hooked on the act, you don’t care if you have crab guts on your shirt and Old Bay Seasoning all over your face — it’s so much fun you just get carried away. Now that I’m talking about it, I’m dying to eat more crabs!

Photograph of Cantler’s crabs by Nick Violi. Click here for this photograph’s specific copyright information.

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