all words: Laura Allen, all photos: Brandon Weight
Imagine an endless line of Washington’s most sought-after restaurants winding around a den full of lions, a pit of cheetahs (with only a glass separator between you and the giant carnivores), and wandering reptiles on the shoulders of the zoos most knowledgeable (and brave) staff. This was the scene at Zoofari, the national zoo’s annual conservation fundraising event that features more than 100 restaurants, wine vendors from around the country, and chefs including Todd Gray and Mike Isabella.
Around every corner, a surprise, from rocking musical acts and generous wine tastings to free rides on the zoo carousel (a giant merry-go-round with 58 different intricately crafted species including giant pandas and Komodo dragons, all of which were made in Mansfield, Ohio) and a pastry contest where master chefs carefully sculpted fondant elephants and wildlife landscapes made of icing. A perfect, rainless evening allowed for ample sampling of dishes such as Circle Bistro’s salmon tartar with avocado mousse and sesame seeds, St. Arnolds’ mussels paired with Belgian waffles, and a succulent, tender beef brisket from Hill Country.
One of this year’s themes was eating local, or learning to become a “locavore”. Those in favor of buying local say that it strengthens the economy, keeps money in local communities, and helps create jobs. Many of the restaurants in attendance said they consider local first.
Below you will find a delectable overview of my evening:
Circle Bistro, a foggy bottom establishment located at One Washington Circle Hotel, offered a multi-layer salmon tartar. The first layer, an avocado mousse, was an excellent base for the salmon followed by a radish and cucumber salad, and topped with bread crumbs and sesame seeds. There were also two mystery ingredients that the chef wouldn’t share (but offered a free dinner to anyone who could guess them both). Newly added to their menu, the dish’s different levels of flavor complemented each other well, providing a delicious mixture of savory and crunch.
The National Press Club restaurant created a beat-cured salmon, preserved with horseradish and beats, on top of a cracker and drizzled with harisssa, a spicy Moroccan sauce and pickled vegetables. The salmon was rich and flaky; the harissa gave the dish a spicy kick and complemented the fish well. Executive Chef Susan Delbert mentioned that a lot of folks don’t know the Press Club restaurant is open to the public. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, they offer a three course dinner for $30, with main dishes such as rack of lamb, she said. She also mentioned that this dish will be a new appetizer on their menu
Ping Pong Dim Sum offered hungry guests a jumbo shrimp, snow crab, and scallop wonton wrapper, topped with tobiko. Although it is not currently on their menu, the restaurant served the dish at Zoofari last year. The wonton seemed to melt away as the infusion of seafood filled my mouth. This dish was flavorful and petite, a perfect finger food.
Cleveland Park’s St. Arnolds Mussel Bar offered mussels paired with a Belgian waffle (a short of chicken and waffle variation for seafood lovers) with cream broth, a recipe Alex Herrgott, one of the owners, explained was 2,000 years old. He told me the story of St. Arnold, the patron saint of beer (listen up kids, it’s story time). In 1012, St. Arnold started making this mussels and waffles recipe and served it to the residents in a small town on the border of Belgium and France. Along with serving this fine dish, as the story goes, he pasteurized beer at the height of the plague, saving thousands of people from contracting the disease. The restaurant boasts about offering 20 different kinds of mussels and 30 beers on draft. They select their beer from small family-owned breweries in Belgium, Alex explained. They also have other Belgian favorites on their menu, and make a waffle burger (yes, a burger sandwiched in waffles) for brunch. Alex also mentioned how to perfectly match mussels with beer. “It all depends on the flavor,” he said. “If you are going to get a ‘mussels St. Arnold’ with duck fat reduction, you might want [a beer] that is a little hoppier, with a fuller body. If you get mussels that are spicy, you might want a “weiss” beer, a wheat beer. A hefeweizen,” Alex explained. “And we walk you through the menu. We don’t just put the menu down and say good luck.”
Café Deluxe lured zoofari guests with a spiced deviled egg with local Maryland crab in addition to endive filled with Maryland crab and blue cheese. The crab tasted incredibly fresh in both dishes, and the endive was a crunchy, well-suited companion. Gregory Webb, Executive Chef, who invited me into his “kitchen” behind the serving table, said he wanted to “show themes and flavors that are representative of what we serve in the restaurant.” With six locations in and around Washington, Greg explained that they strive to create “good food in a casual setting.” Greg, who gained inspiration for his career from his mother’s southern cooking, started as a chef in Washington and has worked in various kitchens in Mexico City, Wisconsin, Boston, and New York City.
Located in Old Town Alexandria, The Majestic offered a she-crab soup. Chef and Owner Shannon Overmiller, whose nickname is “Red”, explained that the recipe called for a pound of female roe and 10 pounds of crab meat for 5 gallon batch, along with a little sherry and cream. A recipe that has been handed down in her family, Red has been making this dish since she was 13. The soup was creamy and spicy, a great mixture to accompany the crab.
As soon as I saw the Hill Country table (which happened to be directly across the street from the Great Ape House), my mouth started to water. This Texas-inspired barbeque and market offered guests some of their most popular dishes, a pit-smoked beef brisket, lean and moist, and pecan bars. The brisket was smoky and buttery. As each bite dissolved in my mouth, a rush of flavors poured out of the succulent meat. If you visit this Penn Quarter favorite, don’t miss karaoke at the basement bar.
Taverna Del Alabardero, located in Downtown Washington, served up two seafood paella dishes, one with shrimp, vegetables, and rice and the other a black calamari paella made with ink from the squid. Both dishes were full of flavor, but the black paella had a rich, salty seafood flavor and the calamari was perfectly chewy.
An orange white chocolate mousse, with Oreo cookie and finished with a dollop of orange sherbet, was prepared by Nick’s Riverside Grill located on Georgetown’s waterfront. Darrin Hendry, Head Chef, explained that although the restaurant was closed for a period of time due to flooding in the region, Nick’s is now open and serving daily. Darrin came up with the idea for this dessert by experimenting with his favorite sweets. He started cooking in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he was born, and continued to pursue his passion after moving to the U.S. He’s been working as a chef for 25 years.