When chef Michael Landrum began offering a second menu inspired by flavors from across the former Soviet Union and the Silk Road inside his Arlington, VA restaurant Ray’s Hell Burger, he encountered some harsh criticism, but not from the usual sources. “I’ve had several Russian women of a certain generation tell me in the kindest, most genial ways that I have not, nor could I possibly ever, do anything right,” says Landrum with a bemused smile.
If you’re nostalgic for dishes you’ve eaten in Moscow, Tashkent, or Tbilisi and are hoping to recreate that experience at The Tasty Dug-Out (the name Landrum has given to his restaurant-within-a-restaurant), you’ll walk away disappointed. “This is food inspired by flavors I’ve enjoyed in that part of the world,” Landrum explains. The sub-head on the menu reads “Modern Zemblan Cuisine,” an homage to the imaginary setting of Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire (the title of which is itself a reference to a line of Shakespeare’s that is often interpreted as a metaphor for creativity and inspiration).
The “dug-out” refers to Landrum’s take on Ajaran khachapuri (the shape of which resembles a dug-out canoe). He offers a classic version (gussied up with browned butter infused with ground marigold petals and garnished with a dollop of spicy adjika pepper paste) and several add-ons, including steak tartare, wild mushrooms, smoked salmon and salmon caviar. In what I consider to be a stroke of genius, he recognized the affinity between Ajaran khachapuri (a bread bowl filled with molten cheese in which an egg is poached) with the Middle Eastern/North African dish shakshuka (eggs poached in a spicy sauce of tomatoes, peppers, and onions, often scooped up with bread). His addictive “katch-a-shookah” marries the two concepts, with a cheese-stuffed crust holding a caldera of cumin-scented tomato sauce, olives, marigold butter, and green harissa (Moroccan chili sauce).
“With burgers and steaks, if you just do what you’re supposed to do, they’re going to come out great,” says Landrum. “This menu is my opportunity to play around and be a little more creative.” In addition to khachapuri, the menu includes a few Mediterranean and Slavic snacks to start your meal, grilled meat entrees served with fries and salad, and a small selection of sweets to round things out.
The concept is certainly a departure for Landrum, whose other DC-area restaurants (Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington, VA; Ray’s the Classics in Silver Spring, MD; and two locations of Ray’s Hell Burger, one in DC and one in Arlington) feature more standard American fare, albeit with some unusual variations available. His ventures have earned wide popular acclaim, not to mention the presidential thumbs-up: President Obama and VP Joe Biden visited Ray’s Hell Burger in 2009 and Obama took Russia’s then-president Dmitri Medvedev there when Medvedev visited the US in 2010.
Another quirk of the Tasty Dug-Out’s menu is its wide-ranging tea selection, which takes pride of place at the top of the page before the alcohol. It may seem out of place to some on a menu dominated by savory dishes, but it evokes the spirit of the chaikhana, or Central Asian teahouse, where people go to let the cares of the day melt away as they sip tea, nibble snacks, catch up with friends, and maybe even indulge in a postprandial snooze. (Do try not to fall asleep in your chair at the restaurant, though.) The blooming teas are visually stunning: watch the flowers that scent the tea slowly open and “bloom” inside the glass teapot.
While you’re doing things a little differently, go ahead and save your vodka for dessert. My dining partner and I were particularly taken with the Cathead honeysuckle vodka from Mississippi, which goes down real smooth. We sipped it while devouring a slice of dense honey-sweetened cake, layered with cream and topped with berry jam.
The Tasty Dugout is open inside Ray’s Hell Burger (1650 Wilson, Blvd., Arlington, VA) from 5:30 pm to close on Tuesdays-Fridays and from noon to close on Saturdays and Sundays.