2 Amys, Cathedral Heights

(For the Apr 25, 2011 Review, click here.)

There are three people in the DC area whose lack of James Beard Awards show what a travesty the entire process is. One of them is Cathal Armstrong, whose time may now have come-and-gone, but who should have absolutely won the award sometime during the past six or seven years for Restaurant Eve.

Another, perhaps even more egregious oversight, is the great Peter Pastan, chef of what was easily one of the Top 3 restaurants in Washington, DC back in the 1990s: Obelisk – ahead of its time, and with *Frank Ruta* as its Sous Chef. Perhaps even more importantly, he opened 2 Amys, arguably the most important restaurant in the history of Washington, DC. Between these two restaurants, Peter Pastan deserved to have won Best Chef – Mid-Atlantic, if not the National Award for Outstanding Chef. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the pantheon of DC-area chefs, and our young demographic has forgotten what an influential trailblazer he was (and continues to be) – he was perhaps the very first chef in the area to truly care about deeply regional Italian cooking.

It had been too long since I’d been to 2 Amys, and while driving up Nebraska Avenue yesterday, I gave a brief glance down New Mexico Avenue, thought momentarily about Al Dente, and then continued driving towards 2 Amys. I found a great parking space on Macomb Street, walked in, and grabbed a seat at the bar, where the always reliable Debbie Johnson was, just as she seemingly always is.

2 Amys is a wine restaurant, but I really wanted to refresh myself with a beer, so I started with a draft of Reissdorf Kölsch ($7), brewed by Brauerei Heinrich Reissdorf in Köln, and it was exactly what I wanted – low in alcohol, high in taste, cold, and refreshing. I finished it before taking a single bite of any food, then getting a 1/4-liter carafe of the 2 Amys House Rosé ($11), currently from the 2012 vintage, and made from 100% Sangiovese grapes – it’s not quite a rosé so much as it is a “bled red” (only a wine geek would chuckle at that), but it went perfectly with every single course I ordered, and I ordered with gusto – the fascinating items on their menu made sure of that. Look at this awesome selection of small plates!

In no particular order, because they were all served within minutes of each other, and I nibbled and picked at each, all of which, by the way, were served at room temperature and assembled before my very eyes. This is the strategy of dining at 2 Amys’ bar: Look things over, point at what looks good, and ask questions. You’ll be as happy and as amazed as I was:

Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart ($7) – I saw, in front of me, a rectangular tart, perhaps 15 inches long, 5 inches wide, and 3 inches high – uncut – and knew I had to have it. It was flaky pasty crust, filled with goat cheese which hadn’t been whipped into air, and topped with slices of heirloom tomato. This was primarily a goat-cheese dish, as that comprised probably 75% of the tart, and it was a healthy slice – perhaps about 1/5th of the entire tart, so it was very rich (as quality goat cheese generally is). Considering the powerful, unctuous nature of my other three dishes, this served not only as a wonderful vegetarian plate, but also as a much-needed palate refresher between bites of the other three dishes, which were even richer and more filling.

“What is that with sage on it?” I asked Debbie. It was noisy, so I didn’t hear every word of her answer, but she said it was fennel (I thought sure it was yellow pepper, but sure enough, it was fennel), and when she added, “It’s actually a lobster dish,” she had me. Lobster Salad with Fennel Braised in Orange and Saffron ($10) was the food-lover’s dish of the night – it was awesome, the barely cooked (if cooked at all) lobster accented with vanilla, and added to the yellow-pepper-looking fennel just before serving. I’d never seen this dish before, and come to think of it, I’d never seen any of the four dishes I had last night before. How does someone come up with this? Is it in some obscure cookbook? Does Chef Pastan just think of these things? My goodness, it was … amazing.

These final two dishes are where things got over-the-top rich, as they were finished with really good olive oil, but were also extremely rich to begin with. This is my fault for being an overzealous food maggot, but there’s no way I wasn’t going to order them, so sue me:

Romanesco Cauliflower with Capers, Olives, Pine Nuts, Spicy Bread Crumbs, and Tuna Spuma ($7) was just downright evil, and was most likely illegal in several states. It was *so* rich, and along with the three slices of delicious, homemade bread I received, could have easily been a meal by itself, especially a lunch. It was all-over decadence, and hard to believe that the only meat in it was tuna in the spuma. Quality ingredient followed quality ingredient, all mounded together into a large pile on the plate, and it was just so rich that I struggled mightily to finish, but finish I did.

And finally, Oven-Roasted Swordfish Belly with Lemon, Bay Leaf, and Green Sauce ($9), the green sauce resembling something of a *very rich* pesto, the slice of swordfish belly – perhaps a 3-inch by 2-inch rectangle which didn’t look like much, but it was – sitting innocently on top, with two lemon slices beneath. The richness of this dish forced me to pretty much wave the white flag of surrender, and only eat the fish, just barely dabbing it into the green sauce. The last time I had swordfish belly even resembling this, it was at Woodberry Kitchen, but even there, it was grilled.

These four dishes came to a *total* of $33, and was more food than I could finish. How much is Restaurant Week again? If you’re a Restaurant Week pigeon, you owe it to yourself to read this post over, and over, and over again, until it finally hits you that you can get a meal that is better than 99.99% of Restaurant Week dinners, in terms of quality – absolutely – but also in terms of *quantity*. I had not eaten a thing all day when I arrived, had exercised earlier in the day, and could not finish my meal. I only ate one piece of bread, and while I finished the “big ticket” items such as the swordfish belly and lobster, there was just no chance of me being able to swab up all the rich sauces – something which I *always* do. No chance – this was just too much rich food.

As my mom always used to tell me, “Donald, your eyes are bigger than your stomach,” and boy did that hold true in this case. You know, lately, I’ve been saying that Oenotri in Napa, California, where I’ve now been at least four times, is “like 2 Amys, but a little better.” But that’s not true; it’s “like 2 Amys, but a little less rustic.” Another restaurant I recently went to that reminds me of 2 Amys is Pizzeria Bianco (for the second time) in Phoenix. And I have no doubt that Chef Pastan is flattered by these two comparisons; one thing that surprises me is that, although I’ve seen Johnny Monis here in the past, I’ve never seen Frank Ruta here, and this is exactly the type of food that Frank Ruta respects and enjoys.

2 Amys is one of our city’s great treasures, and is arguably (not definitively, but absolutely in the conversation), arguably the greatest and most important restaurant in the history of Washington, DC. And if you don’t think so, think again, keep educating yourself, and keep coming here. The stroller crowd is pacified, yes, but the toughest of culinary critics are, too. Thank God for Peter Pastan.

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