On rare occasions, a dish transcends the tides of time, the trifles of trends, and sometimes even its inventor to become icons in their own right. Each of these nine signature dishes is a must-order if you’re lucky enough to dine at the restaurant where it was created.
Apple Pie, Blue Duck Tavern, Washington, D.C.
The recipe for this all-American dessert has remained unchanged since chef Brian McBride debuted it in 2006 even though he ultimately left the restaurant. Granny Smith apples sweetened with plenty of brown sugar and cinnamon spiced are enclosed in a butter-rich crust. The big-enough-for-two puck-shaped pie is baked in the wood-burning oven, giving its exterior a golden glow. The flavors evoke autumn, but the spot-on finale is good at any time of year. Make a reservation at Blue Duck Tavern.
Chicken for Two, The NoMad, New York, New York
James Beard Award-winning chef Daniel Humm always found roasting chickens a conundrum because white meat and dark meat cook at different rates. To get the dark meat of the legs to the right level of doneness, you have to overcook the white breast meat. So he came up with a clever solution. After guests are presented with the whole roast bird – a bouquet of herbs nestled next to its legs and a beyond decadent foie gras and black truffle brioche stuffing piped under its crackly golden skin – it’s taken back into the kitchen. There the legs are sautéed separately with mushrooms and shallots for just a couple minutes more to ensure they’re done correctly. All the attention to detail adds up to a perfectly cooked dish. Make a reservation at The NoMad.
Lamb Carpaccio, The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Virginia
There are a number of dishes on chef Patrick O’Connell’s menu that could be considered classics at this award-winning gourmand’s redoubt in the Virginia countryside – from the Tin of Sin starter to his clever re-imagination of a butter pecan ice cream sandwich. However, his carpaccio of herb-crusted baby lamb loin served with half scoops of Caesar salad ice cream and brioche croutons may be his most quintessential. Sweet, savory, earthy, and elegant, it’s absolutely unforgettable. Make a reservation at The Inn at Little Washington.
Unicorn, Pao by Paul Qui, Miami Beach, Florida
Paul Qui’s cuisine takes its cues from the Philippines, Japan, Spain and beyond at his luxe Miami gastro destination, which debuted earlier this year. However, the Top Chef winner’s standout dish, which has already garnered enough raves to make it an icon, takes an equal amount of inspiration from the $6 million gold-leafed unicorn sculpture by Damien Hirst on display in the dining room. The cleverly conceived Unicorn features tongues of uni on grilled sweet corn pudding (get the name now?) along with touches of sake aioli and arbol chile. Its showstopping presentation in an upside down spiny sea urchin makes it infinitely Instagrammable – if you can stop yourself from immediately taking a bite. Make a reservation at Pao by Paul Qui.
Roasted Pig Face, Girl & the Goat, Chicago, Illinois
This well-loved dish from the Stefanie Izard – winner of a James Beard Award and Top Chef – is exactly what it says it is, and yet its flavors are much more complex than the name implies. A pig head is cut up, its meat seasoned with cilantro, lime zest, coriander, salt, and pepper. Rolled up into a log, it’s braised until nearly gelatinous. Two rounds baked to order in the wood fired oven are used to sandwich a thicket of crispy potato sticks. A sunny-side up egg goes on top and there are crisscrossing drizzles of sweet maple gastrique, perky cilantro oil, and tangy tamarind vinaigrette to deepen the flavors. Make a reservation at Girl & the Goat.
Foie Gras Profiteroles, Le Pigeon, Portland, Oregon
We are hard pressed to name a dessert more decadent than this creation by Gabriel Rucker, who earned the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest in 2013. A trio of profiteroles is split open and stuffed with scoops of foie gras ice cream. As if that wasn’t enough, the golden orbs are zigzagged with foie-fortified caramel sauce and speckled with sea salt and bittersweet chocolate shavings. Make a reservation at Le Pigeon.
Palak Chaat, Rasika, Washington, D.C.
This dish from James Beard Award-winner Vikram Sunderam may heavily feature fried spinach, but it’s far from heavy. The dark green wisps are light as feathers, ultra crunchy, and dissolve on your tongue like snowflakes. They’re mixed with tangy date-tamarind chutney, tongue-tingling powdered red chilies, cumin, chopped red onions and tomatoes, and just enough sweet yogurt. Taken as a whole, the dish hits every point on the palate. Make a reservation at Rasika.
Pollo al Forno, Barbuto, New York, New York
Otherwise known as Roasted JW Chicken, super-celebrated chef Jonathan Waxman originally created the pollo al forno as a way of melding rusticism and sophistication. A half chicken simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon juice is roasted on the bone in the wood-burning oven and frequently basted with olive oil. When the skin is tawny brown, it’s pulled out and lavished with salsa verde. It’s served with a mess of deep-fried potatoes enlivened by fresh rosemary. Make a reservation at Barbuto.
Butterscotch Budino, Pizzeria Mozza, Los Angeles, California
There are four levels to this simple yet soulfully satisfying, sweet, which has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 2007. It all begins with a deep well of creamy butterscotch budino pudding. A layer of warm caramel seals it in the glass. It’s finished with a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt and a dollop of freshly whipped cream that gets a touch of tang from crème frâiche. The marquee star dessert is served with a petite pair of rosemary pine nut cookies, which you can either dip or nibble on their own. Make a reservation at Pizzeria Mozza.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.
Photo credits: Daniel Krieger (The NoMad); Le Pigeon (Carly Diaz); Juan Fernando Ayora (Pao by Paul Qui); Kelly Campbell (Pizzeria Mozza); Jeffrey Prehn (Barbuto); Nevin Martell (Rasika).