Nine years to the month after opening her own restaurant in the middle of Adams Morgan’s lively multicultural neighborhood, Ann Cashion hit the culinary jackpot when the James Beard Foundation named her the best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region.
PATRICK G. RYAN
The award is one of 18 different categories — I’m surprised they don’t have one for best customer from Bethesda — sponsored by various corporations ranging from All-Clad Bakeware to Smithfield Foods. It was announced at the James Beard Foundation’s annual awards gala in New York on May 10.
Cashion’s award, sponsored by American Express, gives her bragging rights for the coming year over four other finalists, including local celebrity chefs Todd Gray of Equinox, Gerard Pangaud of Gerard’s Place and Peter Panstan of Obelisk, as well as Marc Vetri of Vetri in Philadelphia.
(Two other D.C. individuals also were honored, including Robert Egger, founder of D.C. Central Kitchen, who was named humanitarian of the year, and Ben and Virginia Ali of Ben’s Chili Bowl along U Street N.W., named one of four of Gallo of Sonoma America’s Classics Restaurants — I’ll have to eat there sometime. The only other local chef recognized by the foundation was Fabio Trabocchi at Maestro at the Ritz-Carlton in McLean, a runner-up in Gallo’s Rising Star Chef of the Year.)
I hadn’t eaten here recently, so I hiked myself up to Columbia Road on a Sunday night, and even found a parking space nearby. Although I didn’t have a reservation, the restaurant passed my first test, which Andre Soltner, former chef-owner of New York City’s famed Lutece, stated in his 1998 book, Dining Out: Secrets from America’s Leading Critics, Chefs and Restaurateurs. “If you walk into a restaurant and are not greeted well, it’s already over.”
The hostess, a charming young Asian-American, asked me if I wanted to sit near the front sidewalk patio or in the rear, with a view of the bar and open kitchen. I chose the latter, and was seated between a pair of couples loudly celebrating a birthday and another couple quietly marking another occasion with champagne. Thankfully, the loud music was turned down several notches after 7 p.m., even if the loud customers weren’t.
But that’s part of the charm of this unique restaurant, which seats about 75 inside and an additional 25 on the patio. “One reason people love to come here is they get a serious meal in an informal setting,” said Cashion, who honed her culinary skills in Italy, France and San Francisco before moving to Washington in 1987 to open the Austin Grill.
There are no tablecloths on the marble tables, she noted. “It’s just different — warm and relaxing,” like an Italian or French country restaurant.
Cashion had taken the weekend off, but the menu, which is changed daily, reflects her cooking style, which she described as “radically seasonal American cuisine, but with a strong European influence and a real bias toward traditional and classical preparation, not haute cuisine.”
I perused the handwritten menu, with starters that included New Zealand greenlip mussels, a charcuterie plate with pork rillettes and Catalonia rabbit terrine, spinach and ricotta ravioli with Tuscan meat sauce and a New Orleans file gumbo. I chose the mixed lettuce salad with roasted beets, walnuts and goat cheese ($9.50).
The beets were not the usual dainty slices but formidable chunks, while the goat cheese was the size of a hockey puck. But it was a satisfying dish with a piquant olive oil and vinegar dressing, and I put the hockey puck to good use by spreading it on my French bread, which lacked the usual crusty texture.
Cashion’s Eat Place
1819 Columbia Road N.W.
Hours: Closed Mon.; 5:30-10 p.m. Tues.; 5:30-11 p.m., Wed.-Sat.; 5:30-10 p.m. Sun.; Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Valet parking, $5.
Prices: Expensive. Three- course dinner with glass of wine, tax and tip, $65-$75 per person.
Rating: 4 Domes
|Food: 8 ||Ambiance: 6 |
|Service: 9 ||Price/Value: 7 |
While my noisy neighbors prattled on about past trips to Palm Springs, Paris, London, New York and Bellagio, Italy, I concentrated on a second appetizer, a ragout of shiitake, cremini and oyster mushrooms, served with a corn cake ($9.50). I’m a sucker for mushrooms of any kind, and these were superb, although I was underwhelmed by the bland corn cake.
When I asked my waiter to recommend a glass of red wine to accompany my main course, herb-marinated rack of lamb served in a garlic sauce with potato gratin and locally grown spinach ($30), he brought me a hearty Rosso Picino from Italy’s Montepulciano region. The three rib chops were cooked just as I asked, medium rare, and the potato gratin was luxuriously rich. It was a dish good enough to make Todd Gray, Gerard Pangaud and Peter Panstan envious.
The wine list here is worth mentioning. Put together by Fulchino, it offers a good selection of little-known and moderately-priced vintages from Europe and America, including a goodly number of half-bottles and wines by the glass. There’s an enticing dessert menu, which I bypassed to reduce the risk of having to endure another heart bypass.
The restaurant has the slightly industrial look of the hardware store it once was, with exposed ceiling pipes painted maroon and a step-up bar area. But it doesn’t feel crowded, even with a full house. This is a place where you can relax while enjoying food that has now been officially recognized as among the best in Washington.
Ann Cashion: ‘Nobody can mess with me now’
What does it mean to be named the best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region by the James Beard Foundation?
For Ann Cashion, executive chef and co-owner of Cashion’s Eat Place, it means a lot, on both a personal and a professional level.
“Personally, it means nobody can mess with me now,” she said playfully.
On a serious note, she added, “Any time you get an award primarily decided by your colleagues, it has special meaning. Let me put it this way: The people who have won over the past 14 years are a pretty amazing group of professionals, and to be included is actually more thrilling than I ever expected. It’s really affirming.”
As for the award’s impact on her business, the Jackson, Miss., native and Harvard graduate said it has already brought an influx of diners.
“However, in the long run, I think it probably will bring more out-of-town business,” she said. “We’re really not an out-of-towners location, either for tourists or business travelers, but I think the people who keep up with the James Beard Awards will seek us out.”
Cashion, who was a James Beard finalist the previous three years, said she has no plans to open another restaurant — she and co-owner John Fulchino opened a second restaurant specializing in seafood, Johnny’s Half Shell, in Dupont Circle in 1999.
But she said she might be interested in opening “something connected to what we do, like a really good butcher shop. The relationship of people to their food is changing and improving, and this would be a way of making the ingredients we use available to a broader audience.”