Words by Ruben Gzirian, Photos by Anna Kathryn Stevens
In the world of food, curation and exploration seemingly always go hand-in-hand. While some of us would like to pretend that we’re “adventurous” eaters, the reality is that when it comes down to it most of us have no problem ignoring Andrew Zimmern-like inclinations as we stare at the menu. To counter our own inhibitions, and promote their own curated creativity and distinction in a saturated market, many D.C. restaurants are turning to the fixed-course menu. Locally renowned spots like Little Serow, Rose’s Luxury, Pineapple & Pearls, Masseria, and Bad Saint all offer a Willy Wonka tour of their offerings, effectively not allowing you to hinder yourself. Recently, for one night only, Mount Vernon’s Altra Strada attempted to take the wheel through a Greek-inspired menu takeover that forced me to sit back and trust those who know best: the chefs.
Fixed-course menus really only work if they give you a guided overview of the strengths and ideas pushing a restaurant forward. Of the restaurants I’ve revisited time-and-time again, Little Serow stands out in this way; without fail, the fixed-course menu at Little Serow always reminds me why I come back and why I’ll come back within a few months. Our evening at Altra Strada was a one-off, but the display of cooking styles and interpretations of flavors from the four-course meal created by Dimitri Moshovitis, Chef and Co-owner of Cava Mezze Group, and Brendan Pelley, Chef de Cuisine at Boston’s highly-rated Doretta, was at times surprising and tame.
Familiar flavors like the wellfleet oyster with its playful village salad granita were re-invented to elevate sweet acidic notes reminiscent of pacified vinegar, and the bay scallops marinators showed that pistachios and green olive puree combine to create something distinct and new. These dishes, along with a few other standouts, such as the foie gras dolma (best dish of the night by far), showcased the beauty of abiding by a fixed-course menu; imagination guided by direction, realized through execution.
Unfortunately, other dishes were simply footnotes. Fixed-course menus function like a chain reaction, taking you from flavor to flavor, finishing with a crescendo of heavier flavors near the end. One of the best meals I’ve ever had (and one of the most expensive) was Masseria’s La Cucina Menu that offers six courses for each guest. Each dish built on the one before it, making for an experience where single dishes were indistinguishable. Creating a fluid experience in a fixed-course menu is difficult, and dishes like the beet horiatiki or the sautéed shrimp fragmented the experience at Alta Strada. Other dishes came and went, without making much noise, which only served to remind me that I was consuming more food and more wine than I had any right to on a Thursday night.
The Greek fixed-course menu at Alta Strada wasn’t mind-blowing. Nor was it one of the best I’ve had in D.C., but it did serve as a reminder as to why we seek out these experiences. In 2018, we are beset by restaurants all looking to take our hard-earned money we would/should be saving; fixed-course menus remove that pressure and simplify what eating out should be. Over the course of the meal, I never questioned or thought about what I was about to eat; I never once asked myself if the dish in front of me was something I’d regret ordering. I was free to eat, to drink, and to converse without overthinking any of it.
In that most important sense, Chef Moshovitis and Chef Pelley defined my evening, and delivered a culinary experience sprinkled with new ideas and familiar cues without a single input from me.