An amusing saying about DC is that "I came there as prime steak, but left as low-grade hamburger". I certainly did not, however, feel ground down by the time I left the city. While the architecture of many of the city's buildings and hotels is pretty drab, there are enough impressive monuments in the Mall and Capitol to leave one feeling pretty inspired, if not awed.
While the grandiosity of, say, the World War II memorial may reek to some of unnecessary supremacism, to take in the triumphalism of the many columns, edifices and statues, all shrines to ideals and the glory of freedom (naive though it may be today), is certainly an experience.
Smith and Wollensky
It was in keeping with such a sense of gradiloquence that we decided our first dinner should be at an expensive steakhouse.
Smith and Wollensky's is a New York institution that takes its meat very seriously, as was readily apparent from some of their decor.
Sadly, however, I was not terribly impressed by the experience. Service was strangely slow, even though the restaurant was not completely full; our meats took around an hour to arrive. The prices were also not cheap, and the sides, though advertised to be enough for two people, certainly did not seem like it (though we could just have been very hungry by then).
The porterhouses were suitably hefty, but rather damningly for a steakhouse, they had either undercooked some of the steaks or had given the wrong people the wrong orders, as some of the steaks were decidedly red, when they should've been medium well.
While my filet mignon was perfectly cooked, I had made the mistake of ordering it au poivre, forgetting that a heavy pepper sauce tends to utterly obliterate enjoyment of a good steak, especially a delicate cut like a filet.
While the creamed spinach and french fries were enjoyable, they couldn't make up for the vague sense we all had of being underwhelmed by our first big meal in the US.
Smith and Wollensky
1112 19th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: (202) 466-1100
If you ever find yourself in Washington DC, and decide to head out to Georgetown for dinner on a Saturday night, it would be a very good idea to make a reservation, because almost every restaurant in Georgetown will be fully booked.
This we discovered to our horror, as we wandered, hungry and increasingly ill-tempered, from door to door.
Finally, we found a small Italian restaurant that miraculously had a table free. Ristorante Piccolo is a credible, if somewhat cliched, Italian eatery, complete with violin player on the weekends.
My linguine alle vongole was extremely enjoyable, though somewhat small, as portions go. I suspect most diners tend to order pastas as starters or first plates; a suspicion that was subsequently confirmed at a later meal in New York.
1068 31st Street, NW
Washington, DC 20007
The fantastic thing about Georgetown is the sheer variety of food available (provided you go early, of course). Not too far from Piccolo was another of our dinner venues: Old Glory, a shining example of an all-American barbecue.
Incidentally, I've always wondered why it's called an 'all-American' barbecue. How often do you come across a 'part-American, part Chinese' barbecue? I suppose it's to differentiate from TexMex, though Old Glory does offer quesadillas and tortillas.
Unfortunately, I had forgotten to bring my camera, which is a shame, because I thought it was one of the best value meals we had in DC - which is not a euphemism for 'the food was not great but it was cheap'. While the prices were very affordable, the food was also remarkably tasty.
The menu is extremely extensive, offering something like a choice of ten starters, fourteen sides and twenty main courses. Best of all, they offer combination deals, for those of us (like me) too indecisive to choose between what looked like two really good main courses.
Served with two free side dishes, my combination of St Louis Ribs and pulled chicken was fabulous: a generous quarter rack of smokey, meaty ribs and a heap of tender chicken meat teased from the bone. All of us were completely full by the end of dinner, and we had a hard time staggering back to our hotel after that.
3139 M Street NW (near the corner of Wisconsin and M Streets)
Washington, DC 20007
Italian cuisine seemed to feature somewhat more prominently on our culinary outings, which is interesting because it seemed (along with French, though we didn't have any) the cuisine that everyone on the team could agree on. Given that we spanned six different nationalities/ethnicities and four different countries, that would make Italian food the most internationally accepted cuisine, within our highly unrepresentative group, at least.
Papa Razzi is an Italian trattoria that, ironically enough, is more formalish than Ristorante Piccolo, though I suspect 'trattoria' is a term that is used these days just to sound sophisticated. The restaurant itself is pretty beautiful, it boasts a large seating capacity (with even a balcony level), ambient lighting and an open-kitchen (which can be a pain if you're sitting next to it).
We had some carpaccio to start, which was served simply but effectively with some grated parmigiano-reggiano, some capers, and a cheesecloth-covered lemon half.
I had the signature 'piccante' pizza, consisting of pepperoni, Italian sausage and mozarella, which was meaty but not as spicy as its name implied.
As with Piccolo, I thought that any number of Italian eateries to be found back home in Singapore could compete fairly comfortably with the two I tried in Washington, and it may be this feature that makes Italian cuisine so internationally appealing - the fact that it doesn't require 20 years to become a great pasta chef, nor does it require three Michelin stars before your talents become recognised.
1066 Wisconsin Avenue, Georgetown
Tel: (202) 298-8000
Charlie Palmer Steak
After we narrowly lost to an opposing team and were thereby eliminated from the competition, we decided we had to salve our wounds by treating ourselves to another edifying steak meal.
Maps can be very deceiving, and we decided to walk the forty blocks from our hotel to the restaurant. About twenty blocks away, we decided we would work up an appetite another way and simply jumped into a cab.
Just looking at the logo, it's easy to tell that Charlie Palmer is going to be an elegant dining experience. We came for lunch, forgetting that a steakhouse in Constitution Avenue at lunchtime is going to be full of suits, and we were rather under-attired for the occasion, but thankfully there did not seem to be a dress code.
White tablecloths, large-paned windows and a wine collection suspended over a pool of beautifully clear water make Charlie Palmer Steak a visually relaxing place to have a business lunch, or perhaps a third date. The restaurant exudes confidence, something made quite clear when the waiter slots your menu, standing upright, into the metal placeholder in front of you.
The restaurant offers a three-course prix fixe lunch menu for US$25, which I think is superb value, and those who ordered it had absolutely no complaints, and clearly enjoyed the Flat Iron steak that served as the main course.
I went for the grilled Angus burger on a poppy seed roll, served with melted cheese and caramelised onions.
We also shared some orders of fries with chipotle aioli, which were some of the best fries I've had: crispy on the outside yet fluffy within, they paired perfectly with the spicy and tangy aioli.
Succulent, perfectly cooked and juicy, the burger was a fantastic way to round off our time in DC, and there was, after all, perhaps some truth in saying I arrived with steak and left with hamburger.
Charlie Palmer Steak
101 Constitution Ave NW
Washington, DC 20001