Meal Ticket: Saluting Congress, Pleasing Taste Buds
Spend a significant amount of time watching C-SPAN and you’ll soon discover that lawmakers aren’t shy about cementing their legacies, brazenly slapping their names on dusty back roads, desolate post offices or byway-connecting bridges.
Then there are those rare occasions when admirers show some initiative and pay homage to those solons that have personally inspired them.
Here is just a sampling of hospitality industry tributes to revered Congressional figures, both past and present, that we’ve encountered around town.
1. Southern-style mint julep — Round Robin & Scotch Bar at the Willard InterContinental (1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW)
“Where I’m standing, we’re going back to Jefferson’s time,” veteran Round Robin bartender Jim Hewes said of the politically sacred ground he routinely inhabits. “People walk in here and they want to touch history, they want to touch Washington.”
While the hotel and bar have played host to U.S. presidents since the 1850s, the Round Robin’s claim to fame flows from a different fount of power: Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser.
Hewes hailed the Kentuckian, who spent the better part of five decades in the House and Senate, for championing sour mash whiskey during his first term in Congress; that’s when Clay approached the venerable hotel about whipping up a certain bourbon-based beverage.
“He brought the legacy of the Southern-style mint julep,” Hewes said.
According to Hewes, the term julep means “sweetened water” in Arabic. And there are plenty of historical derivations forged from any number of alcoholic agents (wine, rum, cognac). But Clay’s version, Hewes insisted, remains the pinnacle of potent potables.
“It’s a fitting showcase for the purely American invention,” he said of the libation.
Hewes estimated that he makes “thousands” of from-scratch mint juleps a year, each one constructed per Clay’s original instructions.
Each glass incorporates mountains of crushed ice, long pours of Makers Mark bourbon, freshly muddled mint leaves, granulated sugar and zesty lemon peel. The drink is like every polished politician: staggeringly strong, intermittently sweet and eventually dizzying.
2. Butifarra casera con mongetes
“Daniel Patrick Moynihan” — Jaleo
(480 Seventh St. NW)
Talk about your almost-too-good-to-be-true anecdotes. When he was still starting out, renowned chef and restaurateur José Andrés would spend his weekends shooting the breeze with a highly opinionated patron.
“When Jaleo first opened, we had a regular, an older gentleman with white hair, who would come in on Sundays, eat at the bar and talk about world affairs with me. I had no idea who he was, but I enjoyed our conversations,” Andrés shared with the Washington Post in a personal essay about being a Washingtonian. “I later learned he was Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan! Only in Washington would a legendary Senator spend his Sundays talking to a cook about politics.”
The New York Democrat so impressed the bound-for-culinary-stardom Spaniard that he’s been immortalized on Andrés’ menus ever since.
The signature dish — featured at every Jaleo and subsequently exported to Andrés’ Los Angeles outpost, the Bazaar — is pork and beans for educated palates. At the heart of each portion lies a thick, grilled pork sausage — produced to Andrés’ specifications by local artisan sausage-maker Stanley Feder — surrounded by sauteed white beans. The gourmet link bears striking grill marks and flavorful juices dribble out from the flame-licked casing when pierced. The accompanying beans fall into two equally delicious camps: The majority remain creamy and light from slow cooking, while the underlying few sport a crunch-inducing scorch.
3. The Southern Senator — Cedar
(822 E St. NW)
Bartenders know how to keep regulars happy.
That’s why when Cedar standby Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) — “Cedar is near Sen. Corker’s apartment, so he goes fairly often,” a Corker aide confirmed — returned last year from a trip home to Chattanooga with fond memories of a spicy cocktail etched into his brain, Cedar bar manager Matt Perkins pounced on the challenge of concocting a reasonable facsimile.
“All we really had to go on was bourbon and ginger,” Perkins said of the nebulous marching orders, noting, “[Corker] was normally a wine drinker.”
Perkins set about to striking just the right balance, burning through about a half-dozen iterations before finally settling on the version recently added to the regular menu. (It had previously been a “by request only” offering.)
The resulting beverage is surprisingly bare-bones: a simple syrup made of pureed and boiled ginger root married with seasonal honey (faithfully supplied by relatives in West Virginia; Perkins admitted to favoring the wildflower variety best), Makers Mark and fresh lemon juice.
There is nothing particularly Southern about ginger-based drinks. But we definitely appreciated the exotic bite relayed by the famous root, as well as the mellowing flavor of the local honey. “I’ve got a couple guys who come in and enjoy them,” Perkins said of the drink’s cult status.
4. Capitol Hill sandwich — Whole Foods Fair Lakes (4501 Market Commons Drive, Fairfax, Va.)
The Austin, Texas-based organic grocery chain is no stranger to political controversy. Its co-founder and CEO, John Mackey, has, at various times, come under fire for his views on union labor, global warming and President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
But we were still somewhat surprised to discover an edible paean to the center of the political universe being slapped together at the far end of the Northern Virginia suburbs. Granted, the store’s custom deli operation does tout a number of other regionally inspired repasts — the “Arizona Grill” combines chicken, pepper jack cheese, roasted red peppers, grilled onions and chipotle mayo; the “French Quarter” folds together country ham, arugula, roasted red pepper, grilled portobello and honey mustard; the “Santa Fe Sunrise” reveals pepper jack, avocado, red onion, tomato and chipotle mayo layered on multigrain bread — but it was still rather shocking to believe anyone would want the taste of Capitol Hill in their mouths after battling the traffic on Interstate 66.
That is, until we tried it.
The sandwich is really good; like, worth-sitting-through-a-filibuster good. We were floored by the crispiness and tang of the grilled onions and the lingering crunch of the seeded semolina bread. Shaved roast beef is lean but abundant, the chilled meat folded over into itself in a stack of rare-pink deliciousness. A smattering of horseradish mayo pleases in flashes but could certainly have been more aggressive.