Tabard Inn, Dupont Circle

Tabard Inn was packed on a Tuesday night, but somehow managed to fit in a walk-in table for two.

You have to start here with a cocktail, many of which were designed by the immensely talented Chantal Tseng. An Emerson (Var.[iation?]) ($10) is listed as coming from the “Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book” from 1897-1919, 1935. Cool! And a fine drink it was, too: Ransom Old Tom Gin, Italian Vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, and fresh lime juice. Not too sweet, good balancing acidity – not sure if this drink is shaken or not, but tiny little ice crystals are the only thing that could have made it even better.

Tabard Inn also has a good wine list, one of the better lists in the city, and the 2009 CVNE Rioja Blanco “Monopole” ($32) is a very well-chosen wine for this restaurant (primarily because it retails for only about $12 a bottle, but drinks like something much more expensive). Yes, it’s a high markup, but this is not a bad wine to order here (it’s also the third-least expensive white on their list).

Two appetizers of Conch Fritters ($8) with romesco sauce and Maine Trapped Shrimp Tempura ($9) with yuzu koshō dressing were brought out together, and were exactly the opposite, qualitatively, of what I expected.

Whenever I’m in the Caribbean (which isn’t often) or the Florida Keys, I always order conch fritters, and they are always disappointing – essentially fried dough with a few barely discernible rubbery bits inside; not here. These may have been the best conch fritters I’ve ever had, and even though they weren’t stuffed with conch, the frying job on these was masterful. Get these.

Unfortunately, the shrimp were very disappointing. The menu is obviously trying to make it clear that these are wild Maine shrimp (which are tiny little things, with a silken texture and a sweetness to them (think ama ebi)). It seems weird that they’d be done in a tempura, and indeed it was – I don’t know if these were fresh or deep frozen, but it didn’t really matter because the batter was somewhere between traditional tempura and what you’d see in a fish & chips offering, and was unevenly applied. Worse, the dish came out at room temperature, and very few dishes are more time-critical than tempura (the hazards of ordering both appetizers at the same time in a packed restaurant that doesn’t specialize in tempura, I’m afraid). The dipping sauce was really good, however.

I asked our server how the Braised Short Ribs (an expensive $27) were cooked, not wanting to order them if they were made using the sous-vide method.

“They’re slow-cooked for three hours in a pot,” she said. That was enough to get me to order them, but I did take note that three hours isn’t a very long time. They were served with Chincoteague oysters (which was the deciding factor in ordering the dish), baby carrots, and celery root puree, and were the most disappointing short ribs I’ve had in a long time. They arrived in two perfect rectangles, each about the size of a dollar bill, flattened, and halved, so there were four squares total.

Short ribs are (obviously) not cooked à la minute; they’re cooked in advance, and usually refrigerated, and it’s when they’re cooled that they become easy to form (I assume Tabard Inn formed, and perhaps pressed, these after they had cooled, but that’s just a guess). There was not a single fiber of meat sticking out from anywhere which was remarkable. Unfortunately, they were almost surely undercooked because they were so tough that it was a tussle to cut them, both with the grain, and against the grain. Not only were they tough, but they were also relatively flavorless, and the dish was left unfinished.

Although we were still hungry at that point, the tab (with tax and tip) had already run into the three figures, so we decided to move on.

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