This is the first post in the new series about my recent trip to Washington DC right on Julia Child's 100th birthday: Series overview: Happy Birthday Julia Child.
The last place I would have thought to look for D.C.'s best Chinese food would be at a restaurant inside a museum with Wolfgang Puck's name slapped on it.
I mean, I'd had Wolfgang Puck's food before. Nothing super fancy, of course, but I'd tried Spago Cafe in Vegas and his casual Wolfgang Puck Bistro in Los Angeles (underwhelmed both times). I knew he was the inventor of the creative California-style pizzas (like the barbecue chicken pizza) and was the brains behind his flagship Beverly Hills restaurant, Spago.
But Chinese food? Like, really, really good Chinese food?
I was seriously taken aback by the meal we enjoyed at The Source, Wolfgang Puck's first restaurant on the East Coast. I had not expected such incredible dumplings to come out of what seemed like a trendy, vibe-y modern American restaurant.
No joke. I don't think I've had dim sum dumplings this good since I was in Hong Kong.
The Source is Wolfgang Puck's first restaurant on the East Coast located right on the National Mall adjacent to the Newseum. The restaurant is divided into two different sections. The bottom floor serves more casual small plates and drinks, sort of in a Japanese izakaya style. The upper floor is more like a fine dining establishment, with dishes that derive influences from various parts of Asia, including Japan, China, and Thailand.
Meet Chef Scott Drewno, the executive chef behind The Source (don't you love his shirt? ha ha ha). When Wolfgang Puck decided to open his first restaurant on the east coast, he tapped Drewno, who used to work for Puck in Vegas, to be executive chef. He gives Drewno tons of freedom over the menu. According to Puck "Scott has the liberty to put new things on the menu, which I think keeps him interested." [source]
Drewno has a huge passion for Chinese food and has been trying to continually learn more and more about it. He went to China a couple summers ago, exploring various eats and even taking a cooking class from a Chinese grandmother. Most recently, he's been dabbling in making his own Sriracha sauce, soy sauce, and tofu.
One of his signature dishes, and one of my favorite bites of the evening, were these Miso Tuile Cones with Tuna. Imagine a candied sesame cone infused with the savory umami of miso. OK, now take that cone and fill it with fresh raw tuna pieces, dried bonito fish flakes, and tobiko.
It was so addictively good. I would have loved a second one.
We then tried Chef Drewno's homemade tofu, which was great. The cold and refreshing tofu came with a mix of chili sauces, including his homemade Sriracha.
Boiled Beef Dumpling - fermented chili bean sauce
Then the dumplings began to arrive. The texture of the skin on the boiled beef dumpling was wonderfully dense and chewy (clearly homemade!), and the fragrant chili bean paste was intense and flavorful.
Next we tried his original dumpling - the Kurobuta Pork Belly Potsticker, which was served with black vinegar and chili oil. The handmade skins were (again) beautifully a dente but for some reason I didn't love the flavor of the filling. The Crystal Chive Dumplings, on the other hand, were fantastic. They are filled with Kurobuta pork and king crab (not a bad combination!). The dish came with a bold flavorful sauce that had elements of spicy, sweet, soy, and tons of umami. In some ways, it reminded me of a more complex, more elevated version of the suan la chow shou sauce that they serve with the dumplings at Mary Chung in Cambridge (a dish I've always liked). We also tried a few bites from The Lounge, which is the name of the more casual "izakaya" downstairs. Both "sandwiches" (the chicken sandwich and the pork bun), come from the lower level menu.
Everyone loved the Tempura Chicken Sandwich, which came with heirloom tomatoes and avocado chili aioli. The chicken was fried perfectly with a hefty crunch, and the combination of flavors from the different components made this a very satisfying sandwich to eat.
Beautiful cross section, no? We weren't sure what to do with the pickles on top so we just took them off and ate them separarately. It does provide for a dramatic presentation, though.
Pork Belly Buns are all the rage now, and Chef Drewno has his own version too. All the components in this bun were executed well (nice soft bun, crispy pork belly). However, I found the accompanying sauce to be too sweet, and thought the overall flavors were only OK. I've had better pork buns.
Back to the upstairs menu, the Lacquered Chinese Duckling is one of the most popular items on the menu. It is clearly inspired by a the traditional Peking duck, and is served over lo mein noodles with a star anise-Stanley plum compote. Chef Drewno did a fantastic job on the crispy skin, something that is still elusive to me. I'm not the biggest fan of duck, so I'll never love it as much as, say, my husband. I would not have minded if the duck had been a bit more moist. Overall, however, it was pretty good.
I did love the chowfoon-like rice noodles over which the duck was served. The deep fried Thai basil provided fantastic, crunchy fragrant "pops", and the slightly sweet and savory noodles had a lovely black pepper zing. Seriously, I couldn't stop eating these fresh noodles.
Finally, we tried his newest dumpling (perhaps still experimental?) which came with lobster and (I believe) pork. It had some game-y distinctive taste I that I didn't like, sort of like lamb or something. The presentation here was a bit "deconstructed", with the lobster tails and scallions on the outside of the dumpling. Again, it was served with his homemade sriracha.
Dessert was exquisitely presented, though hardly Asian at all. We started with the Peaches & Cream, which was served with caramelized peaches, almond gateaux, peach gelato, a red miso tuile, and peach jus.
I really liked the Vanilla Bean Custard (though it's not hard to get me to like anything made with vanilla). The custard was accompanied by a ginger-orange madeleine, pineapple sauce, super thin an delicate dehydrated ginger chips.
The final dessert, Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate, was really really good. They did a great job of creating desserts that really had a deep, strong chocolate flavor. The three components are: Chocolate Soufflé, Chocolate Sorbet, and 10–Year Chocolate Sauce.
I was really impressed with the food at The Source. I loved how all the different dumplings here are really crafted with care. Scott Drewno clearly has a passion for Chinese food, and he puts a lot of thought into each dumpling. I absolutely loved the fresh, homemade skins on these dumplings, where were really dense and satisfying chewy. Scott likes to plays around with interesting ingredients and sauces, which always makes the food more interesting. I think it would be super fun to come on a Saturday during brunchtime to try the Dim Sum Tasting Menu.
The prices at The Lounge are pretty reasonable, with most small plates hovering around $9-10. For an even better value, get the three-course lunch for $22, or come during Happy Hour (4-6pm), when you can get three small plates for $20.
Upstairs, the food is much more exquisite and the prices are much higher as well. A 7-course tasting costs $135, or $200 with wine pairing. At the time of this post publication date, you could also enjoy their family style "Banquet" menu (family style) for $55 a person. Personally, for the best "bang for buck", I would just sit at the bar at The Lounge, order a few plates of Scott's excellent dumplings (maybe with a drink during Happy Hour), and continue sightseeing.
Newseum - old, old newspapers covering key events in history
For tourists, the restaurant is located conveniently right on the National Mall inside the Newseum. The Newseum itself is a worth a visit, though (unlike most of the other museums on the Mall), it actually costs money (a little over $20 a ticket!). I particularly enjoyed their collection of really, really old newspapers reporting key events in history, really interesting (and often poignant) photos from the official White House photographer through the years, their 9/11 memorial display, as well as a massive chunk of the Berlin Wall.
Of course, the Mall has tons of great free museums you can visit too. In any event, there's a high likelihood you'll be in this general area if you're visiting D.C. It's great that The Source is located in such a convenient location for all those weary tourists (and anyone else who happens to be hanging out at the Mall!).
This trip was part of a media tour of Washington DC paid for by Destination DC, a non-profit organization that supports the DC travel and tourism sector. All opinions are my own.
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