By Amanda Grace Johnson - 03/05/09 06:28 PM EST
It also can refuse to settle for anything less than well above average after 10 p.m., meaning draft beers and wings are as out of the question as a bacon cheeseburger and french fries.
Luckily, Washington’s most esteemed chefs are still up and preparing dishes that put everything else to shame.
Wolfgang Puck is among those chefs, with the lounge at his restaurant, The Source, staying open until midnight on weekends. Executive Chef Scott Drewno churns out Asian-inspired fare at what is perhaps the sleekest, sexiest restaurant bar the city has seen since Zola opened. The kitchen’s blazing wood-fired oven creates a warm backdrop to a milky bar-top littered with small white candles and refined dishes and drinks: pear-drop martinis made with fresh fruit and Kobe beef sliders with onion marmalade, to name a few.
The tiny burgers’ flavor pops in savory bursts — first come nutty black sesame seeds, followed by a zing of pickle and buttery onions. And then, of course, the meat — just pink in the middle, lightly seasoned to allow natural juices to run the show. It’s a shame there are only four on the elegant, rectangular white plate; I could eat 40 of them.
It might be hard to imagine a situation in which one would pass up a cheeseburger for a dumpling, but it might happen here (and even then it’s a tough call). Tender dough easily gives way to succulent pork-belly filling, and the zesty pool of Chinese black vinegar dip makes the traditional side of soy sauce seem like kindergarten paste. It just may be the best dumpling in the District.
Rich, melt-in-your-mouth crab cakes are equally impressive and quite meaty — just make sure to order a side of fries, if only to try the fluffy béarnaise that comes with. The Source Lounge’s kitchen stayed open till 11:30 on a recent visit, but it stops serving food at different times depending on how busy the bar remains.
If it’s not quite 10:30 when the hunger pangs strike, the bar area at Michel Richard’s Citronelle is still offering items from its lounge menu. Sommelier and bar manager Mark Slater steals the limelight with artful spirits like the bubbly martini, which arrives in a stemless glass cradled by a bulb of ice. At $16, it is delightfully extravagant; the coupling of strong champagne and vodka quickly takes you into another world, and the side of plump brandy-and-chambord-soaked cherries only serves to further that effort.
But don’t have too much to drink — the food deserves rapt attention. I was skeptical about how good fried chicken could be until I tried it here. Moist, hot round nuggets appear to be made from a blend of white and dark meats, with a petite side of velvety Dijon. A light layer of garlicky sauce draped across a pillow of crust makes the bed for flatbread-style escargot. Sweet lobster tops a soft bun generously smeared with a smooth remoulade, and the dressing on the goat cheese Caesar salad is almost impossibly creamy. And speaking of creamy — eating Richard’s luscious créme brulée, topped with fresh fruit, is like biting into a cloud. Skipping dessert here would be a crime.
If stomachs are still grumbling after dessert at Citronelle, Penn Quarter’s Proof serves a comparably rich late-night menu. Food is given as much attention as wine in this Gallery Place oenophile haven that boasts a novella-sized wine list and some of the most consistently satisfying cuisine in the city.
Creative twists on comfort-food favorites decorate the establishment’s offering of late-night gems. Perfectly cooked spicy meatballs and goat cheese agnolotti cuddle on a nest of tomato fondue, and they’re both so exceptional that it’s hard to decide which to save for last. A peppery kick to the crimson sauce hits the back of the tongue like a lightning bolt, and thin ribbons of fresh bright basil create a harmony of both colors and flavors. It’s all I can do to keep from licking the plate.
Hold on to the leftover sauce, because it pairs well with the drunken grilled cheese, which, true to its name, blends up to 16 different types of cheese with white wine and garlic on crusty grilled ciabatta. Chef/owner Haidar Karoum uses the trimmings from his daily preparation to create the mix, which means it usually has a little bit of every cheese on the menu — a must-order for a connoisseur.
If you’re looking for a sandwich that includes meat, the Bavarian stands out with Gruyere cheese, sauerkraut, Black Forest ham and mustard on an Italian-style country sub. Tangy sauerkraut stands up well to salty-and-sugary ham. The lightly dressed Asian mix served alongside is probably the classiest garnish-style salad around, with understated and subtle flavors, daikon radish sliced paper-thin and the tiniest red onions this reviewer has ever seen.
These places, certainly on the swankier side of D.C. dining, all could save the day after a late arrival at Reagan, an afternoon nap that went late or a movie date that’s just not ready to end. Though after-hours eating doesn’t always call for such decadence — there will always be the options of Bistro Francais, Kramerbooks and Georgetown Café — it’s nice to know there is always a sophisticated surprise in store.