I know this may come off as bluster but I'm going to write it anyway...words are hard to come by when describing our dining experience at The Dabney. Yes, in theory, we knew it was going to be good since it was named one of the best new restaurants in the country by Bon Appetit. But, these kind of ratings are always subjective and you just never know sometimes if you'll like something. Besides that, I was personally excited about how The Dabney uses an open flame to cook mostly everything AND it's not a meat intensive place a la Parts & Labor. Well, let's just say everything they say about this place is true and then some.
The Dabney is smack dab in the middle of Blagdan Alley, a quaint little nook of DC with brick paved roads and a food & beverage paradise. Just in the block around the Alley, there's a bevy of great places like La Colombe, Buttercream, Rogue 24, All Purpose Pizza, Table, Smoked & Stack, and many more that I'm sure I've missed. If you get a chance to take a walk around the alley, it will feel like you've been transported to a quiet Southern downtown far removed from the bustle of the Convention Center and surrounding attractions. This wormhole (geeking out!) feeling really sets the mood for the fantastic eating experience that you're about to start.
When we went, it was one of those oppressively hot DC days leading into an oppressively hot evening, so I wouldn't necessarily say that sitting outside was smart on that day, but, if you can, I would recommend patio eating at The Dabney. Fresh air, string lights, foliage, everything about it brings about a casual, easy paced feel about the restaurant. We had to drop off a friend to catch a plane about four hours after we started dinner and we cut it close enough to worry about traffic holding us up. It sure didn't feel like four hours and I'm not saying you should plan on investing that much time there, it just kind of gets away from you and trust me, you won't mind at all.
Drinks first, of course. I got the stunning looking Gentlemen's Bet. Bourbon, blackberry, scotch with a sumac-taijin rim. It gives off a peppery bloody mary/old bay look on the rim but it tastes strictly like a smoky salty blend of spices. Needless to say, the drink was delicious and strong. The best part of it was that previewed the meal to come. The flavor was great, as expected, but it was (as was the whole meal) visually captivating. I mean, I've seen nicely plated and well composed drinks/dishes in my life. The Dabney, though, seemed to take it one step further in its precision and use of colors. The use of colors, man oh man, those colors were rich, full of life and dazzling in every drink and dish. I could do that whole palette/painting/work of art cliche but I hope you get my drift.
Here's the rundown of the rest of the meal: grilled scallops with carmen red pepper, hoisin, cucumber and greens; summer squash with cherry tomatoes, basil, pea shoots, and a benne-crab butter; ember-roasted beets, smoked & dried scallop, Virginia peanuts, basil, lemongrass, and pickled chili; pork belly with a mustard glaze, peppers, black garlic, cucumber, and dill; the bloody butcher cornbread made with red heirloom corn; Whistle Pig farm aged duck with blackberries and sumac; and angel food cake with whipped cream, raspberries and pickled ground cherries. It's nice to have friends who like food...
Where to begin...the menu changes so much that it's tough to write about a dish when it will be served differently each time you go depending on season, availability of ingredients and probably other factors associated with the sustainability of the food ecosystem. Matter of fact, I just texted back and forth with a friend who went there the other night and there were some completely different dishes on their menu. However, there are some dishes that I will always talk about and if you happen upon them while at The Dabney, I would personally recommend you order these immediately. And it all starts with the beets.
Those beets. Wow.
The color that dish achieves is almost not believable. It's a beautiful pinkish red color that will make you stop and admire it before digging in. There's smoke, crunch, and a whole lot of sweetness in the flavors that keep achieving depth after every bite. This dish will go down as my all-time favorite beet dish, bar none. I just can't imagine anything beeting...um...beating it. Next on the list, the grilled scallops with a hoisin, red pepper sauce that is so beautifully orange that it feels shameful to eat it until you taste it. Beautiful char and great sweetness which was doubly enhanced by the hoisin. Finally, don't sleep on the cornbread. I rarely order cornbread because I always find them dried out and too sweet. This was neither of those. That succulent red color from the heirloom corn made it seem like a Yorkshire pudding but when bitten into, it was this earthy, rich corn taste that had less sweet and more of a hearty punch. It was also versatile enough to stand alone as a dish rather than having to pair with any of the other plates. I'd honestly recommend every single thing we ordered. I'd just put those dishes at the front of the line if you see them on the menu.
It's been a little over a month since we visited The Dabney but it won't be a meal that I will forget anytime soon if ever. It's the rare type of place that you should go to as often as you get a chance (or as often as your bank account will let you go) because you're guaranteed to have a different yet amazing experience every time. The decor, the atmosphere, the philosophy of how they cook are all reasons to go to The Dabney. However, some places fail to live up to the promise of those precursors when it comes to their food, The Dabney does not. The food and the presentation of the food not only back up the expectations from all those elements, they surpass them in every way.
The Dabney, 122 Blagden Alley NW, Washington, DC 20001, 202.450.1015