Each year, the release of Washingtonian’s annual 100 Best Restaurants issue is a reminder of just how many worthwhile ways there are to avoid cooking at home in DC.  We’re still in awe of From Komi to Marvin’s attempt to work her way through the entirety of the 2009 list in a year (she’s got until February 8th to finish, and we’re definitely rooting for her). Here at Capital Spice, on the other hand, we tend to measure ourselves against the list over the course of our dining careers – as opposed to one season – and we try to check off a few more of the ‘bests’ each year.

We’ve only been writing here since 2008, but our Washington restaurant experiences go back quite a bit further than that (more than a decade for Mike).  As a result, there are a number of perennial favorites on the list that we haven’t talked about.  We don’t feel comfortable writing about a restaurant we haven’t visited in years; even if we could describe the meal with perfect recall, there are too many things that could have changed since our experience.

But that leaves us with that classic dilemma that every diner faces each time they go out to eat: Do you go back to a place where you had a positive experience, or do you spend your dining dollars trying something new and exciting?

For Elizabeth’s birthday this year, I decided to take her to Corduroy, one of those restaurants that had always stuck with us as a memorable dining experience.  It was a gamble; even though Chef Tom Power* is widely praised for his creativity and his steady hand with updated classics, you just don’t hear enough about it to keep Corduroy at the top of the “must visit” list.  But I had it all planned out – first we’d do dinner on 9th Street, then we’d head over to a show in the Warehouse Theatre and cap off the evening with libations at The Passenger.

And then came SnOMG.  The Snowpocalypse socked us in and kept us from Corduroy (though the intrepid staff actually braved the weather to show up and put on a dinner service for braver souls than us).  The best laid plans…

Once we did get to the restaurant later in the week, Chef Power wasted no time showing us why Corduroy was a very good choice, indeed.When we first visited, Corduroy was tucked away on the second floor of the Sheraton Four Points at 12th and K (over by Brasserie Beck).  We went during Restaurant Week on a tip from DC Foodies, and we were blown away by the quality of the dishes and the level of service we received.  During Restaurant Week. To this day, it’s the Restaurant Week experience against which we measure all others.

Since then, Power and company have moved to a beautifully refurbished townhouse on 9th Street, NW, in the shadow of the Convention Center.  The new digs allowed Corduroy to shed its ho-hum hotel decor in favor of a stylish vibe that reminded us of our experience at Cyrus in Healdsburg (which you might recall from this season’s Top Chef finale).  It’s the perfect setting for the kind of refined dishes that Chef Power turns out.

Unlike most of its high-end competition these days, Corduroy does not offer a tasting menu.  A dozen or so appetizers and eight or nine entrees greet diners.  A quick read through the list shows a menu that reflects the local growing season and a selection of proteins that is ready to satisfy.

If you really want to experience Chef Power’s creativity, don’t skip the appetizers.  The smaller plates really deliver on flavor, and the techniques that go into them play with texture, flavor and appearance to delicious effect.  Elizabeth began with the Crab Custard, a dish that arrived hot in an Asian serving vessel.  The custard’s consistency was similar to that of a creme brulee (minus the crisp shell), and the flavor of the crab was present throughout.  Our server tipped us off that the chef uses crab meat as well as the ‘tomalley’ from the crab.  Anyone who’s ever participated in a crab feast at Quarterdeck can tell you about the earthy, funky taste the ‘mustard’ imparts when you’re cracking your own crabs.  An acquired taste on its own, it adds a rich element to the custard – but it’s still not for those who don’t like their crab dishes especially crabby tasting.

For my appetizer, I took the advice of our server and went with the evening’s special.  When he first described it as a dish using heirloom tomatoes, alarm bells went off.  There we were, in the middle of December, and Chef Power was serving up heirloom tomatoes? As it turns out, he was making a dish he called “Tomato, Tonnato” using preserved diced heirlooms that were put up in August.  The dish played with flavors and expectations by serving up the diced tomatoes along with similar cubed slices of fresh, raw tuna.  Each bite had elements of the cool, firm fish and the bright, acidic tomato in perfect balance with garlic and a few additional spices to result in a dish that positively blew us away.

Entrees were equally well executed, if a bit more traditional in their offerings.  Elizabeth enjoyed a striped bass whose skin was perfectly crisp, served with housemade fettuccine tossed with lump crabmeat.  I opted for the Pennsylvania lamb loin and was rewarded with five medallions of beautiful lamb cooked to a perfect rare-plus.  The loin was served with a garlic crepinette, a traditional sausage made of ground lamb that added a nice savory bite to the dish.

For dessert, Corduroy went to the trouble of decorating a dish with chocolate to spell out “Happy Birthday” to Elizabeth.  The pistachio bread pudding had a great dense consistency but was relatively flat in its flavors.  Everything was decent, but nothing about dessert rose to the level of the rest of the meal.  Next time, we’ll skip the cocktails and the desserts and save room for some more of Chef Power’s great appetizers.

It was a tremendous relief to reunite with Corduroy and find out that, despite all the external changes that have taken place since last we were together, it’s still the same place we fell in love with on the inside.  We’ll make sure it’s not quite as long a wait between visits next time.

Corduroy
1122 9th Street, NW
Corduroy on Urbanspoon

* = How great a name is Tom Power?  It sounds like a superhero’s secret identity, or a billionaire CEO.  Actually, it’s pretty much perfect for a no-joke impressive chef, too.