Cherry Blossom Festival Picks

March 18, 2013 // //

The cherry blossom trees on the Tidal Basin have been a longstanding cultural marker in DC, reminding us of DC’s commitment to forging international relationships. Especially the 4-year stint during WWII when the trees were referred to as “Oriental” cherry trees. Yikes. Lucky for us, that time has since long gone, and today, the Japanese cherry trees are very much a part of DC culture. More tangibly for the limited days when it looks like cotton candy and popcorn are K-I-S-S-I-N-G, the trees represent the official arrival of spring.

Unofficially, it’s the girliest festival of the year. For 3 full weeks, the city is awash in all things pink and flowery (if you’re not convinced, just download the official app of the festival, which I’ve mistaken for my Period Tracker app). This year, the orgy of pink that is the National Cherry Blossom Festival starts March 20, 2013 and falls over 4 weekends. Over 1.2 million visitors are expected to take part in the festival, adding about a million extra traffic jams around the Mall, in hotels, and around our favorite watering holes. Waitaminute….

Ninety-nine restaurants (at last count) around the DC area are slated to participate in the Cherry Blossom festivities, serving up specially designed cherry-themed menu items in the form of spirits, savory apps, entrées and sweet desserts. There are far too many options to list individually, but we’re happy to dish out our personal recommendations:

Something to Sip On

After a 3-month post-election renovation, Art and Soul reopened with a sleek new look and updated menu. Still artful, still soulful, it’s got a killer Cherry Blossom Wine Cocktail ($34) for this year’s festival. It’s not your momma’s wine cooler, no way. This one starts with a Chenin Blanc-Viognier wine, then is elevated with a sweet Italian vermouth macerated with cherries and smoked with cherry wood, finished with a splash of lemon lime soda. The $34 price tag gives you 24 ounces of cherry flavored fun–advised to split with a friend (but we won’t judge if you keep it to yourself).

This little neighborhood gem might get missed way up there in Cleveland Park, but Dino is worth a visit–particularly when it’s got a little cocktail called “Apple of my Cherry’s Eye” ($11) that is available during the festival weeks. The cocktail is mixed with a house-infused vodka flavored with black pepper, winesap apple and tart cherry. Dark, sexy, sleek and intriguing, like the Gerard Butler of drinks.

One of our favorite Mount Pleasant bars, Last Exit has outdone itself yet again, and we’re secretly hoping it’s far enough from the Tidal Basin to keep the tourists away. The folks behind the bar have dreamt up the Two Sakuras cocktail ($13), involving a Yamakazi 12-year whisky base mixed with 2 blends of cherry liqueur, fresh squeezed OJ and a dash of bitters.

Cedric Maupillier is a nominee for Food & Wine’s Best New Chef this year, and if my vote counts for anything (which it doesn’t), I’m predicting a big win for our local Frenchie. At Mintwood Place’s bar, we’re inclined to take a sip of the brandy roasted cherry caipirnha ($12) and then order a few dishes to match, like the scottish wood pigeon.

As spring arrives, the patios along the 14th Street restaurant corridor will open. Grab a seat at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace’s open-air front bar and order up the Cherry Blossom Sling ($10): Green Hat gin, Cherry Heering (not to be confused with cherry herring, gross), Cointreau, bitters and lime juice.

Executive Chef Will Artley of Pizzeria Orso is offering seriously tasty (and therefore dangerous) cherry bourbon slushies ($9) that go down way too easily, with cherries, bourbon, and fresh orange juice and lemonade!

Something to Sup On

Hotel dining in Arlington isn’t ever my go-to dinner pick, but wait. Perhaps they guessed I’m a sucker for duck fat, and for really delicious morsels of food that is beautifully plated–in this case, the duck confit tart with caramelized onions, ricotta, winter greens, pickled red onions and dried cherries ($11). I’ll make the pilgrimage out to Amuse at Le Meridien for this appetizer any day.

After hours, you might not believe that the sweat-stained basement you’re dancing in at Cafe Saint-Exhouses one of the Cherry Blossom Festival’s best menu specials. Upstairs, chef Billy Klein serves up a delicious pulled pork, set atop a sweet potato biscuit and layered with shaved fennel and cherries. Smokey, sweet, crunchy, soft, tart and bright, it’s like my tastebuds are doing the Harlem Shake.

There are a number of choices in the Penn Quarter/Chinatown corridor, but make sure to stop in to Cuba Libre for the lomito de puerco ($26). A pork tenderloin confit’d in olive and plancha-seared bay leaf, topped with bitter chocolate and chile molido, pickled cherries, and Virginia sharp cheddar shavings. Does anyone else think these ingredients sound completely crazy together, and yet at the same time totally intriguing?

The most decadent hot dog you’ll find this week is DC-3′s cherry blossom sausage. A house made duck sausage topped with dried cherries and a seasonal blend of herbs and spices, it’s a quick bite to go before heading to the Tidal Basin.

Masa 14 takes the small plates trend, mashes it with Asian-Latin fusion, and throws it in our face–and we love them for it. For something a little lighter (i.e., not confit’d, not of the porcine variety), try the smoked bison carpaccio($13). Served with arugula with a cherry-Dijon vinaigrette, topped with ShaoXing wine-soaked chopped cherries.

If I had anything to do with things, you might see Kumamoto oysters growing on the banks of the Tidal Basin rather than cherry blossoms. Also a Japanese import, the Kumamoto can be identified by its smaller yet deep, fluted shell, and is sweeter than their East Coast counterparts, with a relatively more mild brininess and a creamy finish. At Sea Catch, the Kumamotos ($3) are complemented with a lovely mignonette of crushed cherry ponzu.

Cherries are all growed up at RIS, where chef/owner Ris Lacoste is serving an elegant roasted Texas quail served on white hominy grits and collard greens with Kentucky bourbon cherry sauce.

Something to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth

New Balkan sensation Ambar never ceases to surprise us, and dessert prepared by Serbian-born pastry chef Danilo Bucan is no disappointment. Classic Valerona chocolate cake ($5) is kicked up with cherry espuma and served with micro basil. Perhaps the best five bucks you’ll spend during the festival.

With locations Downtown, in Rockville, and even out in Tysons Corner, Chef Geoff has got our cherry blossom bottoms covered. Post-work crowds are known to flock to the bar at Chef Geoff’s downtown location for the superb Monday Happy Hour, but we can be found in the back corner with the cherry streusel ($7.95) with brandied cherries and pistachio ice cream.

I like to think I belong at Cure Bar & Bistro, that I can be found at any time lounging in their sleek leather chairs and dining in the sprawling restaurant that spans 3 whole floors of the Grand Hyatt. I also like to think that I can eat cured meats and cheeses for every meal, and why not throw in dessert while we’re at it? For the festival, Cure includes a dessert of cherry almond gallette with black pepper ice cream.

The Cherry Blossom Festival arrives at the ever-popular Founding Farmers with a Cherry Almond Buckle ($8), a moist cherry cake with almond brown sugar crumble, served warm with a scoop of house made cherry kirsch ice cream.  It comes in a mini cast iron skillet with a big scoop of ice cream, satisfying everyone’s fantasy to eat out of a skillet (er, is that just mine?).

At The Hamilton, I feel like I’m either dining inside the Natural History Museum (it’s certainly big enough), or at the home of some weird distant wealthy relative. The menu equally recalls a strange sense of familiarity and eclectic approach. For dessert during the festival, the Hamilton features a dangerously delicate sour cherry pavlova ($8) with amaretto sour cherries, pistachio meringue and almond cream.

Also, find tequila and cherry infused popsicles at Farmers Fishers Bakers, a whiskey whipped cream topped Manhattan Sundae at J&G Steakhouse, and cherry lemonade Pop Tarts at Ted’s Bulletin.

Other notable activities include the Cherry Blossom Food Tours hosted daily during the festival, and theTaste of Japan.