An uncommon taste of Malaysian fare in the area, Makan had been dishing out chicken satay and char kway teow for just a week in March when the novel coronavirus pulled the plug on dining-room service. “My mind went blank,” says chef James Wozniuk, former chef de cuisine at Maketto. “There’s no playbook for this.”
There was, however, already an audience for the Columbia Heights restaurant, myself included. Inspired five years ago by a cookbook and a layover in Kuala Lumpur, a stop so memorable he has returned to Malaysia three times since, the chef seduces customers with a cuisine influenced heavily by China and India. Makan’s tender chicken skewers, seasoned with coriander and cumin, arrive with a roasted peanut sauce that washes turmeric, galangal and chiles over the tongue. And the aforementioned char kway teow brings together sweet Chinese sausage, tiny shrimp, bean sprouts and fresh rice noodles that sponge the flavors of whatever they touch. Stinging with vinegar, pork vindaloo involves a dozen spices, the combined effect of which is sweat on the brow and the desire for more.
Eating this food suggests lots of labor and determined shopping. Fresh pandan leaves and bilimbi, the sour fruit Wozniuk has used for a fish dish, aren’t easy to find, and the chef trekked to New York to find a source for the dried Malaysian anchovies used in garnishes, stocks and curries.
By the time you read this, the question of what containers go together will be solved. In response to customer requests, Wozniuk, who has also cooked at the Asian-themed Spoken English in the Line hotel, says he has written directions for dishes including the lovely vegetarian curry mee. Once you know the carton with the vivid orange stock, lightly creamy with coconut milk and bobbing with tofu, is linked to the one packed with multiple fine noodles and vegetables (fermented greens, cauliflower, zucchini), it’s game on. 3400 11th St. NW. 202-730-2295. makanrestaurantdc.com. Open for takeout 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Delivery via DoorDash and Uber Eats. Entrees $16 to $18.
When the Kennedy Center went dark in March, one of its early victims was Campono, the nearby Italian restaurant run by chef couple Tracy O’Grady and Brian Wolken. The sliver of a silver lining in the cloud: O’Grady ended up being hired by Green Pig Bistro in Arlington, a market she knew well, having co-owned the late Willow restaurant there. She says the chance to return to Northern Virginia, where she also lives, and “be part of a community” at an independent restaurant was “my passion.”
Her background, including at the much-missed Kinkead’s in Washington, didn’t prepare her for carryout. “I’ve never done that in my career,” she says. Her introductory menu is a blend of lighter dishes for summer and what she calls “place holders” to see her through her first season. So far, so very good. Her soups have included such pleasures as shredded chicken, coconut milk and lime zest, each spoonful bold with sambal, while her salads have embraced a Cobb tweaked with thin tortilla strips, black beans and a cumin vinaigrette. Daily specials (Monday means fried chicken, Saturday stars tacos) are portioned for one or as dinner for four. Friday is better when it concludes with crab cakes formed with Maryland crab and surrounded by caraway-seasoned coleslaw and french fries that originate in-house.
Given the restaurant’s name, O’Grady retained her employer’s signature meaty pork ribs, their flavor and presentation a shout-out to Buffalo chicken wings. “I love pork,” says the chef, who once promoted the other white meat for the pork industry. Fans of Willow can cool off with white gazpacho, a hit at O’Grady’s former roost. And you’ll probably want more than one salted chocolate chip toffee cookie.
The chef isn’t exactly easing into her latest job. Green Pig Bistro recently introduced patio dining and brunch, to be followed by lunch.
Harper McClure, a breath of fresh air at Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan, says he’s interested in serving food that “makes people feel good rather than chef-ego-driven cuisine.” Makes sense. If you want a true taste of his résumé, though, do yourself a favor and ask for a crab cake. Bright with herbs and light with panko, it’s a sight to behold. Batons of tart green apple crisscross the surface. Celery root remoulade makes for a nice nest. Longtime observers of the Washington dining scene are apt to smile in recognition. The city’s most elegant crab cake used to grace the plates at the dearly departed Vidalia downtown, where McClure worked for five years.
When it comes to takeout, I’m inclined to get something I probably wouldn’t make at home. A recent dinner started with chopped chicken liver, kissed with madeira and rich with butter, slathered across a raft of toasted bread and all but hidden by a carpet of sharp sliced onion. The appetizer could easily have been my meal. But sharing the bag, and competing for my appetite, were several other dishes to admire. If you think of cassoulet as something best eaten in cold months, McClure’s vivid composition proves otherwise. The chef arranges sliced, chive-freckled pork loin over a gathering of green beans, cherry tomatoes and rice beans. Inside the carton is a little cup of red wine and pork jus flavored with scraps, a rustic nod to Bordelaise sauce.
The least expensive main course — a strapping vegetarian napoleon splayed across nutty wild rice, fluffy farro and green lentils ($18) — stretched to become lunch the next day. Sliced grilled eggplant clung to a layer of meaty mushrooms with the help of roasted garlic puree. Common as beet salads are, it was nice to experience the crimson root vegetable in the company of pickled rhubarb, sweet oranges and creamy buttermilk dressing.
McClure takes into consideration the way a lot of people prefer to eat. His top-selling $60 dinner package, designed for two, lets customers order an appetizer and dessert to share and two of any entree — steak and seafood included. He has also turned lunch into a pop-up whose themed menu will change every three weeks. Up first is a fried chicken basket, followed by Jewish deli (pastrami made in-house!) and Irish pub selections: three good excuses for neighbors to take a break from the (home) office, the restaurant figures.
What McClure says he misses most right now is the instant gratification of seeing customers react to his food in the dining room. I’m here to say I pretty much grinned through my pickup — a true pick-me-up. 1813 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-234-6732. mintwoodplace.com. Open for takeout for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; for dinner 5 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday. Delivery via Caviar or in-house (for an $8 fee with a minimum order of $50 within approximately three miles). Dinner entrees $18 to $28.
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