On the hunt for cooking classes, Official Girlfriend/Co-Writer of DCWD Texas happened upon Chef Cathal Armstrong's newest addition, Society Fair. We convinced Official Friends of DCWD Sam and Shawn to head with us for a dinner at the restaurant's Test Kitchen.
Society Fair is probably not best described as a restuarant, since almost half of its space is actually a marketspace. In truth, Society Fair is described as both a "boutique emporium of epicurean delight" and a "lifestyle food market" on its website. Mostly, it's a natural outgrowth of Chef Armstrong's commitment to local sourcing and seasonal foods; its closest contemporary is Shaw's Seasonal Pantry.
The space is similar in type to Dean and Deluca's, but with more classic nods to the open air European plazas that are its inspiration. To wit, the metal tiled ceilings, and the black and white micro-tiled floors. Still, the space does have its whimsical quirks: the typography used in the signage, the types of merchandise available around the store. There's a little bit of everything on the market side: a bakery, a sandwich shop, a case for ready-made foods, even a cocktail gear station.
The restaurant side is more traditional, in the frame of a brasserie or a wine bar. A few twos and a few half-booths are set up in cafe seating around the 16-seat bar, ten of which are reserved for the Test Kitchen at night. The space in question is compact, with a white granite bar separating you from Chef Trey Massey and his set-up: a six-burner range, a wood-topped island, a butcher's block table on wheels. The presentation is top-notch and the service is phenomenal; about the only thing nit we can pick is the noise level, which makes it hard to hear at the end points of the bar (and frankly, even that's not that bad).
To start, we all had one of Todd Thrasher's wine cocktails, the boys ordering the Whiskey and Wine (a Sauterne with cardamom, star anise, cloves, orange peel, whiskey, bourbon, and orange bitters), and the girls drinking the 172 Degree (chardonnay, Licor 43, spiced rum, vanilla, lemon peels, and "tiki" bitters). Both were nice, the former tasting like a really clear and smooth whiskey, the latter like a pleasantly warm banana.
Society Fair's Test Kitchen is an ever-rotating lineup of three-course menus; the only constant is the days' categories. It being a Wednesday, the menu was "Chef's Choice" which started with a dish described as pickled rockfish, white sauce, and ramps ("Don't worry," Chef assured, "it's way better than it sounds.")
The main dish of the night was lamb shank, white beans, and asparagus. The takeaway of this dish was the amount of butter that is sometimes necessary, as Chef Massey added in a whole chunk to start the shank and neck pieces in a dutch oven along with salt and bayleaf. After a few moments, he added in leeks, celery, carrots, garlic, and even more butter, before topping with demiglace and herbs and setting it in the oven for 2 1/2 hours. Meanwhile, Chef pureed some blanched white beans with shallots, garlic, bay leaf, and olive oil, and sauteed some asparagus. Plating involved placing the sliced up shank on the bean puree with asparagus, and topping with the braising liquid. The result was one of the best, if not the best lamb dish I've ever had. Rich while tender, all while evoking warmth and depth, this was absolutely perfect.
The dessert course was an almond torte. I'd be lying to say that I paid as much attention to how this was composed, since at this point, we were well into enjoying ourselves. I know that there was some blending of almonds and simple syrup, and Grand Marnier was poured over top of it. What I do remember was that this was wonderful, soft and fluffy with a beautifully pure almond taste.
The reason we lost track by this point was because sommelier John Wabeck's pairings were not only well-done, but quite generous. Moreover, the four of us ordered the four dessert coffees offered: the Irish (Irish whiskey), the Jamaican (spiced rum), the Spanish (Spanish brandy), and the Royal (armagnac). All of the drinks we enjoyed that evening were fantastic; even the ice was really cool.
As a dinner, this was top-notch. But as an experience, it was even better. At $45 a head for dinner, and $30 for pairings, this is quite simply one of the best values and best meals in the DC area.
Food Rating: ***** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Classy Crowd
Cost: $$$$ (out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Pairing: The Test Kitchen itself is an experience in itself.