the hunger games: café atlántico

Unpaid internships aren’t exactly synonymous with haute cuisine. My encounters with fancy food have almost all been because of lucky invites—either to media events, or exquisite dinner parties. I’m aware of the hot-list haunts in this fair capital, but the closest I can get to most of them is the bar.

Except for this past weekend.

Exhibit A: chimichurri lamb shank, tamarind lentils, poblano chile relleno.

Now that I think about it, I haven’t been so hard done by: Vinoteca spoiled me in January. Dukem‘s affordable spreads have never disappointed. Cheap-eats excursions to Eden Center, Amsterdam Falafal, and Pho 14 have provided enough new sensations to tide me over for weeks. And today, in the leftover afternoon sun of D.C.’s summer in March, authentic Neopolitan pizza on Red Rocks’ backyard-style patio more than satisfied my craving for good pie. Luckily, simple foods do it for me.

But this weekend, the elaborate overshadowed the simple.

Exhibit B: duck confit, parsnip “linguine,” dried cherries, fresh herbs, almonds, horseradish yogurt.

Food reminds me that everyone needs a good spoil from time to time. This morning’s sermon was on the anointing of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. In the passage, Mary Magdelene pours expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair. Judas, judging this an abhorrent display of excess, chastises Mary for wasting what could have been sold and used to benefit the poor. Jesus addresses Judas: “The poor will always be with you, but you will not always have me.” I used to think this pompous, but have learned that sometimes, extravagance wisely directed can herald beauty, worth, significance.

Artful extravagance like Saturday night at Café Atlántico.

Exhibit C: skirt steak, warm fingerling potato salad, queso fresco, grilled persimmons, tamarind, pomegranate dressing.

When I worked in restaurants I got used to being around fancy food. Over the past few years, I had time to create masterpieces out of a fairly limited budget. More recently, though the lack of a paycheck sometimes takes a toll on the self-esteem, I refuse to let it influence my food choices. Through homemade granola, eating mostly vegetarian, and bulk food shopping, I’ve managed to keep food costs down and still derive great pleasure from eating.

This weekend, I was happy to discover that I haven’t lost my taste for the exquisite.

Exhibit D: portobello mushroom, sweet potato-plantain ‘ravioli’, seasonal mushrooms, Chihuahua cheese.

It helps when you have someone to take care of you. I’m grateful for a partner who’s willing to spend his hours enlightening ungrateful undergrads to help me pursue this dream. I’m grateful that this weekend, one of my two loving families travelled so far, just to spend time with me in this adopted city. Families operate under a logic that runs counter to the rest of the world: they remind you that you’re worthy of love simply by being who you are. Living so far away, sometimes I forget what that feels like.

If that feeling had a bouquet, Saturday night’s dinner would be its finish:

Exhibit E. scallops, cocoa butter, cauliflower purée, cauliflower ‘couscous,’ American caviar.

No matter what’s on the plate, sitting around a table with people you love is the most gourmet experience one can know.  I miss Sunday dinners: the regularity of fellowship, the comfort of companions. I’ve tried to recreate that experience since moving here by making time for eating with my church family, my friends, and my housemates.

Even in the face of all the poverty and injustice in this world, the brevity of fellowship seems to justify an artful display or two of abundance.

Exhibit F: pineapple-lime cake, pineapple-lime salsa, caramelized Brazil nuts, black pepper, Mexican sour cream sherbet.

Perhaps this is pompous or even sacrilegious of me, but this meal seemed to follow Mary’s lead of wiping Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. To my brain, Judas’ point seems merited—shouldn’t we have considered the poor? But then I remember: we all have our daily callings to right wrongs, to give, and to serve, but there are times we eat drink and are merry simply because we do not always have each other. That alone seems like a reason to indulge.

Café Atlántico
405 8th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 393-0812

One thought on “the hunger games: café atlántico

  1. Sheri Ward
    March 21, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    If this is what y’all had for dinner the other night, it truly looks spectacular! Wonderfully photographed and described…makes me hungry!