Given the current obsession with cooking shows and food blogs, it's hard to believe a restaurant guide first produced by a tyre manufacturer more than a century ago is still so influential. Yet, whenever Michelin announces a dining guide for a new city, the restaurant industry whips itself into a frenzy of anticipation. Clearly, being recognised by Michelin's team of anonymous inspectors is still an awfully big deal.
Last year, Washington DC became only the fourth US city to have its own dedicated guide – a surprise in itself given its dining scene doesn't have the same global notoriety as New York's, San Francisco's or Chicago's. But this is a foodie destination on the up. Last year Bon Appetit magazine named it "Restaurant City of the Year" and Zagat proclaimed it America's "Hottest Food City".Although Michelin didn't award any DC eateries its top accolade of three stars, it found three worthy of two stars (defined as "excellent cooking, worth a detour") and nine deserving of one star ("a very good restaurant in its category").
While the starred restaurants tend to get all the glory, Michelin also bestows a lesser-known Bib Gourmand award on restaurants for "exceptional good food at moderate prices". In monetary terms, this means somewhere you can get two courses and a glass of wine or a dessert for $US40 ($50) or less (excluding tax and tip). Nineteen DC establishments were given this rating, making them a good starting point for exploring the city's dining scene without destroying your credit card.
Spanish chef Jose Andres picked up two stars for his experimental restaurant Minibar, but he also collected Bib Gourmands for each of his four eateries in Penn Quarter. Not sure which one to try? How about all four? His innovative Tour de Jose progressive dining program allows you to sample several signature dishes in each.
We start at Oyamel, a lively Mexican eatery, where the offerings include fresh guacamole (made from scratch at the table), delicate salmon ceviche tostaditas and a delicious pomegranate margarita topped with a creamy salt-infused foam.
Once we finish a staff member sticks a copy of the menu in our "dining passport" and walks us to the next venue, China Chilcano. This colourful restaurant artfully combines Peruvian, Chinese and Japanese cuisine to produce imaginative dishes such as tuna ceviche with soy-cured egg yolk and puffed quinoa. If you only try one thing make it the Hong Kong-style rice noodles, which arrive smothered in a heavenly rich tomato stew.
Next is Jaleo, Andres' ode to his Spanish roots, which is famous for serving the highest grade of jamon iberico. This celebrated Spanish ham comes from free range, acorn-fed black Iberian pigs and is cured in salt for 48 months. Served with a delicious ciabatta-style cristal bread, it's paired with a bone dry Manzanilla sherry.
Finally, we arrive at Zaytinya, a stylish Eastern Mediterranean-themed restaurant, for a decadent coffee chocolate cake with creamy Greek mastiha ice cream and a toe-curlingly strong shot of Turkish coffee.
All in all, it's an entertaining culinary globetrot that works well because all four restaurants are within walking distance of each other downtown. But you can also use the guide to explore more exotic neighbourhoods. In fact, the reason Michelin launched it in the first place was to encourage people to get on the road and wear down their tyres.
The cab ride to Union Market takes us into less familiar territory. Surrounded by warehouses in an insalubrious area known simply as "the north-east", the cavernous indoor market is home to more than 40 artisans, ranging from an oyster bar to a Korean taco grill. We're here to try Bidwell, the only outlet in the complex to have been awarded a Bib Gourmand.
Located in one corner of the market, the high-ceilinged restaurant is light-filled and airy with concrete floors, wooden tables and cosy booths. It's a Sunday morning so I try the corned beef hash, which arrives in a cute cast iron pot topped with two poached eggs, while my girlfriend orders the wild mushroom and goat cheese omelette. Both are OK rather than outstanding and I'd suggest sticking to its more acclaimed stalwarts, such as the award-winning Bidwell burger and the gin and tonic-infused salmon. Whatever you sample, at least some of it will have been sourced from the restaurant's rooftop garden, in line with chef John Mooney's sustainable, local produce focus.
The last Bib Gourmand recipient we check out is Kyirisan, a French/Asian fusion restaurant located in the ever-so-trendy Shaw neighbourhood. Owner and chef Tim Ma trained as an engineer but did a dramatic career U-turn eight years ago to pursue his dream of opening a restaurant. After studying in New York at the International Culinary Centre, he opened several eateries in North Virginia before launching Kyirisan in March last year.
There are only 12 items on the menu and they meander from innovative takes on French classics, such as duck confit with caramelised brussels sprouts, to more Asian-themed offerings, such as sushi grade tuna with pickled watermelon rind. Standout dishes include raw sea bass marinated in pawpaw vinegar (which is every bit as "stupid good" as the waiter describes) and crispy chicken wings smothered in a rich, spicy oyster and chilli sauce.
It's some of the most imaginative cooking I've tasted in a long time and at prices that won't make you faint – starters range from $US11-16, mains from $US18-26 and you can get a decent glass of wine for $US13. It's exactly the sort of affordable neighbourhood eatery Bib Gourmand was designed to recognise and for Ma the accolade clearly means a lot. After receiving the news last year, he proudly told The Washington Post: "To be included in anything Michelin is an honour."
United flies to Washington DC via Los Angeles and San Francisco. See united.com
Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of United, Brand USA, US Travel and the restaurants mentioned.