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Finally!  An entire episode that represents some of the best of the Washington area’s foodshed.  From Maryland blue crabs to organic and humanely raised meats from Ayrshire Farms, this week viewers got a chance to see the kind of local bounty that we enjoy in and around Washington.

No political puns in the challenge, though there may have been a comment or two about getting crabs, because most chefs are just grown-up fifteen year-old boys.  No “official Washington” guest judges: instead, an honest-to-goodness chef from one of the area’s most famous restaurants. And no flags-and-Americana backdrop, though Ayrshire is hardly your average working farm.

If past seasons are precedent, we’ll probably want to enjoy this while it lasts.  Host cities are rarely more than a backdrop for the challenges, and there are too many DC celebrities (Speaker Pelosi! Joe Scarborough! Buzz Aldrin?) yet to appear whose names were leaked in the preseason press release.

After the jump, we’ve got details on who, where and what you saw this episode as well as a suggestion for a great place to get all-you-can-eat blue crabs.

Image from Inn at Little Washington website

Patrick O’Connell

For thirty-two years, the Inn at Little Washington has simultaneously represented a refuge from the stresses of Washington life and the pinnacle of culinary refinement.  Chef O’Connell’s self-taught style, coupled with his commitment to using fresh, local ingredients, made the Inn at Little Washington one of the top-rated restaurants in decades worth of Zagat guides and local critics’ “Best of” lists.

O’Connell is more than just a good chef, though.  He’s also a passionate ambassador for American cuisine…literally.  He also serves as the president of Relais & Chateaux North America, an organization that promotes 475 gourmet restaurants and luxury hotels around the world.  He won the Outstanding American Chef award from the James Beard Foundation in 2001.

The Inn at Little Washington remains a major splurge destination for many Washingtonians year after year despite its distance from the city and the rather substantial price tag that dinner (not to mention a night at the historic Inn) carries.

Maryland Blue Crabs – and where to enjoy them

At its peak in 1993, the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab harvest was valued at roughly $100 million.  Since that time, pollution and predators have led to a decline in the population and the harvest, though there are signs that the crab is on a comeback.  Considering its status as the official “Maryland State Crustacean,” we hope so!

In Washington and Baltimore, blue crabs are considered a summer staple.  They show up in preparations ranging from soft-shelled crabs (like the ones we enjoyed on Tangier Island, where they’re harvested) to crabcakes to full-on crack-them-yourself steamers.  If you’re looking to enjoy crabs in their most basic (and, we think, delicious) form, all you need to do is douse them liberally with Old Bay seasoning and steam them for 30 minutes in a mixture of equal parts water and cider vinegar (or another light vinegar).  Or you could let someone else handle the cooking so you can focus on the task of cracking and eating.

If that’s your preference, check out Quarterdeck Restaurant in Rosslyn, Virginia.  Tucked in behind the Iwo Jima memorial and against the fence of Fort Myer, Quarterdeck is a no-frills crab shack that serves all-you-can-eat Chesapeake Bay crabs throughout the season (which runs from mid-April to mid-October).  These aren’t the Texan or Southeast Asian crabs that make appearances in so many commercial kitchens…these are real-deal local blue crabs.

A word of caution: your entire party must order the all-you-can-eat crabs if you’re going to go for the feast.  Otherwise, you’re welcome to order crabs by the half-dozen and the dozen from the a la carte menu to accommodate others who may not be feeling as ambitious.

Ayrshire Farm

Ayrshire is a farm the way Australia is a country.  From the stately farm house-slash-manor to the collection of antique carriages and the variety of heritage breed livestock, this is many people’s (including Elizabeth’s) pastoral ideal.  We visited the farm last year when it played host to Jim Denevan’s Outstanding in the Field dinner.  Our meal, prepared by Vermilion chef Tony Chittum, was amazing…and the setting only served to enhance it.

Ayrshire Farm is certified organic and humane, and it has further designations as “Virginia’s Finest,” “Heritage Breed” and “Predator Friendly.”  They also grow and sell humanely-raised “rose veal,” which comes from calves that have been allowed to roam and develop their muscles.  As a result, the meat is pinkish-rose instead of milky-white.  As we were told on our visit to the farm, veal is a natural byproduct of the dairy industry as most male calves born to milking cows do not contribute to the milking herd and therefore cannot be kept.

If you’d like to recreate that open-air dining experience you can still get tickets to this year’s Outstanding in the Field dinner on Friday, September 10th.  Chef RJ Cooper will be preparing the meal, and tickets are $220 per person inclusive of cocktail reception, food, wine and good company.  Alternatively, you can enjoy the products of Ayrshire Farm at the Hunter’s Head Tavern in Upperville, VA.  The restaurant is owned by the same folks who own the farm, and it serves meats and produce grown at Ayrshire year-round.

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And now to your suggestions that showed up in this episode:

The Elimination Challenge definitely captured the spirit of Leslie’s suggestion: a local produce challenge at the Inn at Little Washington, judged by Chef Patrick O’Connell.

Patricia Fitzgerald, Christian von Schmidt-Pauli, Eric S., Josh, Allen Brooks, and Chris Carter all referenced crabs in various ways, including a few suggestions to make the blue crab the focus of a Quickfire Challenge.

And there were definitely numerous references to local farms and local produce, though no one actually suggested Ayrshire Farm as the setting.

Thanks for all the great suggestions!  It’s been fun seeing just how many actually show up in various forms throughout the season.

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