Plaudits: Washingtonian 2011 Top 100 Restaurants, 2011 RAMMY Nominee - Neighborhood Gathering Place of the Year, Rising Culinary Star - Justin Bittner
Neighborhood: 14th Street, U Street
Looking to have a future roommate bonding dinner somewhere on U Street where we had just seen a potential apartment, Official Friends of DCWD Talia and Raj and I were in search of a place to eat. Somehow we scored three seats at the always-crowded Bar Pilar.
I feel like if I owned a bar, it would look like this. Bar Pilar is something out of the 1920s, and definitely has a speakeasy sort of vibe. Built into a townhouse, the dining area is long and thin with the floor-to-ceiling Victorian-style bar central to it all. A motley selection of standing counters and two and four-tops dot the space, with some higher bar-tables in the room in the back, where we sat. You seat yourself at Bar Pilar, so a table is real hard to come by, but it feels like a real victory when you do.
The decor echoes the era it's going for: painted art deco posters, old maps of Europe, movie posters from the decade on the faded orange and brown walls. Light is provided by chandeliers both classic and modern (the one above us was made of wine bottles), but the whole place is predictably dim and as a bar, noisy.
Food at Bar Pilar is small plates so we ordered quite a lot. First and foremost, Raj and I focused in on the special: pho (though our waitress called it "pork soup" ::shudder::). Instead of the traditional Vietnamese beef, it went with duck breast instead (a switch I was totally okay with). I have very strong feelings on pho, obviously, but this one was actually not that bad; the anise flavoring was on point and it was a decently strong broth. In fact, it was a bowl that got better and better with each bite.
The first dish to actually come was a plate of green beans and shallots for our resident vegetarian/pescetarian Talia. For a simple dish, it did the job, with good salt to it. Nothing we couldn't have made ourselves, but definitely nice.
Next out was the all day roasted pork shoulder with a garlic trencher (which from what I can tell is a piece of sourdough bread underneath it). This was unbelievably good. The all day roasting gave the meat a melt-in-your-mouth quality, falling apart in brilliantly stringy and juicy pieces. What's more, the sourdough soaked up all of the juice and was itself a great mix of chewy and crunchy. I seriously cannot even describe how great this dish was.
On the other hand came the least favorite dish of the night: grilled Spanish mackerel with polenta and olive oil. The polenta was great, but the mackerel was just so fishy. Everyone at the table has had mackerel before, and none of us had ever had it taste so... well, fishy. Nothing inedible, just sort of unappetizing.
Luckily for us, the meal rebounded quickly from that. First up came the veal sweetbreads with polenta in a caper sauce. I was tempted by the sweetbreads when I saw them on the menu but decided that maybe I'd had too many sweetbreads. Fortunately, the couple next to us recommended the sweetbreads, so we decided to give it a go. These were perhaps the best sweetbreads I've ever had, between the flavor and textural balances between the savory and creamy sweetbread to the differently savory and differently creamy polenta. Amazing.
The next dish up was a crispy pork terrine with tartar sauce. The shredded pork was smooth and definitely tasty, especially with the tartar, and the bread crumb coating was a nice textural contrast with the meaty interior. Still, there was nothing terribly memorable about the dish, represented by the conversation I had with the couple next to us:
"How was it?" "Um, it was good... ...yea, it was good."
When I run out of words, it's generally not the greatest sign.
The final dish to come was a Spanish tortilla with goat cheese (read: tortilla espanola). Bigger than most tortillas that I've had, and with the goat cheese addition, an amazing creamy and luscious end to a great meal.
Only one major hiccup in a meal that was otherwise fantastic. When we move up there, I can see me being there all the time.
Food Rating: **** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Hipster Hangout
Cost: $$ (out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)
Pairing: As the three of us are now new renters in the area, what we'll definitely need is to shop together for home goods. And no place is cuter for people on a date to pick out salt shakers than Home Rule, down the street.