D.C. restaurants have no shortage of high-end tasting menus, from minibar to Pineapple & Pearls. But you don’t have to spend $250 for a memorable evening out. Check out these four spots offering staggeringly affordable, yet amazing, multi-course culinary experiences.
Executive chef Yo Matsuzaki launched the kuidaore menu--whose name translates “to spoil oneself with food”--in the fall of 2015, but it’s falling a bit under-the-radar, with only around fifteen percent of Zentan’s guests opting for it. If you haven’t tried it and are a fan of Japanese cuisine, don’t wait another minute to make a reservation, as it’s a culinary delight. For $65 per person (the restaurant asks that the entire table participate in the kuidaore experience), Matsuzaki brings as many dishes as you care to eat, which vary depending on the whims of the kitchen and availability of ingredients but are often influenced by what he ate growing up on the Japanese island of Shikoku. “I wanted to create a tasting menu that wasn’t so ‘stuffy’,” he explains, “[for] people to just sit back, relax and enjoy true Japanese food in a family-style setting.” Signature dishes include peas & sprouts (crispy Brussels sprouts with fresh chickpeas, shiso-mustard vinaigrette and garlic chips); grilled hangar steak; chicken, salmon and shishito pepper skewers from the robata; and sushi and sashimi. Matsuzaki’s favorites are gindara (saikyo miso-marinated black cod) and yopparai ton toro (drunken pork jowl); everything is great washed down with an ice cold Sapporo on tap, or a flight of lead bartender Matt Allred’s chotto ippai (“let’s have a quick drink”) cocktails. Kuidaore lets diners sample many different flavors and dishes during the span of one meal, Matsuzaki explains “I want them to eat until they can’t eat anymore, for a reasonable price and [in] a relaxed setting.” Win-win.
At the 6-seat bar at his outpost at the MGM National Harbor Fish by José Andrés’, the Spanish chef was inspired to take classic American fried seafood dishes--clams, fish, oysters--and elevate them to a new level. “Fry Bar honors the tempura bars in Japan and the great frying traditions of Spain, along with the best seafood and produce in the Chesapeake Bay and throughout America, to create a one of a kind experience,” he says. Diners can select from two tasting menus of lightly battered bites all fried in canola oil, which change seasonally and also include refreshing salads. José’s Way ($50 per person) includes 11 courses and some of the more adventurous dishes like live sea urchin; The Classics ($40 per person) has 8 courses and highlights local ingredients like Berkshire pork belly and Maryland Lucky Shuck oysters. “We are aiming to celebrate the best of the Chesapeake and beyond,” Andrés’ says. “We find the best seasonal products available in the area, and of course other ingredients that are ideal for frying.” ThinkFoodGroup’s master sommelier Andy Myers has put together a selection of palate-scrubbing, high acid Rieslings (including chef’s favorite, the off-dry Kessler Riesling from Germany) for dishes like crunchy and creamy avocado with smoked sunburst trout roe and seaweed seasoning. So is the Fry Bar substantial enough for an entire meal? Absolutely, declares Andrés. “You get some fried dishes, some salads, other bites, dessert--I promise, you will not be hungry when you leave!”
Both the Capitol Hill and Clarendon locations offer unlimited small plates via the Balkan Experience, but the latter does it for $35 (versus $49 for unlimited dishes and drinks in D.C.--still a great deal, though). Not surprisingly, nearly three quarters of guests go this route. “Having a Balkan Experience as unlimited option gives our guests an opportunity to try something different and to get familiar with our culture,” says manager Snjezana Jaksic. “Every dish has its own story and we all love sharing those with our guests.” Staff members--who may hail from Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and other Balkan countries--all seem to have their own personal tales about how their grandmother or mother prepares a certain dish, adding to the authenticity. Most ordered are the tomato, pepper, cucumber, onion and goat cheese salad, cheese and spinach pie, stuffed sour cabbage and the Balkan kebabs. Find a favorite? Feel free to order it a second--or a third--time. Everything works washed down with rakia, the Balkan traditional brandy that comes in flavors like plum, quince and pear, or food-friendly wines made with hard-to-pronounce-but-easy-to-sip indigenous varietals like Tamianika, Rebula and Prokupac. “With our hospitality, traditional food and indigenous drinks our guests should feel no less than as guests in our homes.,” Jaksic says.
Check in at the adjacent Alta Strada in City Vista, then head next door to a table in Conosci’s intimate, sleek purple-hued dining room, where you can select a tasting menu of 5, 9 or 13 of executive chef George Rodrigues’ inventive dishes for $45, $85 or $135, respectively (the 9-course option is the most popular.) Some dishes come and go daily, most change weekly, and a few favorites have stayed on since the beginning (the tasting menu’s been offered since November). “Some of it is inspired by my travels through Europe, Iceland and South America,” Rodrigues explains, while others are a collaboration with the entire team. Standouts include kampachi (yellowtail) crudo with uni, paddlefish roe and miracle sauce; crab risotto with uni, scallion and togarashi; scallop noodles with habanero tobiko, fermented yucca broth and squid ink tuile; and braised Spanish octopus with nori and shiitake sauce, puffed tapioca and aji amarillo aioli. Rodriguez personally likes to start with a cup of unfiltered sake and the miso-cured Mirada oyster with pears macerated in hibiscus sake and wasabi crema, served over smoking hay which lends a whiff of earthiness. The coming months will usher in new tastes like a foie gras, lobster and cheese dish. “Since we change the menu often, I get excited about all of the dishes, but usually the new [ones] are my favorites since I just finished perfecting them,” Rodrigues says. “I like to have a ‘wow' factor in each dish--I want the guests to feel the food is fun, interactive and most importantly, delicious.”