When Ann Cashion talks about her namesake restaurant, she almost always refers to it as a “project.” It’s one of those tics of operational language that could easily prove insignificant, but the particularities of the “project” seep deeply into Cashion’s Eat Place , a homey neighborhood establishment in Washington, D.C. The same goes for “soul,” another word that comes up often without ever sounding hollow or contrived. As Cashion herself once said in a speech to a gathering at the National Museum for Women in the Arts, “I and the restaurant are two works in progress whose developments are parallel and inextricably linked.”
It wasn’t always so. Before she had any thought of becoming a chef by trade, Cashion found herself working toward a Ph.D. in English literature at Stanford University. She wasn’t much of a cook then, and she didn’t know the restaurant business. What little foodservice experience she had accrued she owed to running a small late-night snack bar in her dorm building as an undergraduate at Harvard. “Somebody who got the munchies because they were really high or had been up late studying—what would they want?” Cashion remembers of the meager menu under her watch.
But food was home in ways of which she was not yet aware as a doctoral student bogged down in 17th-century poetry. While growing up in Jackson, Miss., she learned the humble charms of homespun food at family dinners where commonality reigned.
“It wasn’t a great restaurant market, so everybody cooked at home every night,” Cashion says. “My recollection of how food was then was that there was a repertoire. We had tons of vegetables that were grown within 30 miles of Jackson. And there was a canon: fried chicken, potato salad, ribs, roasts. There weren’t restaurants that were feeding people’s imaginations about what was possible with food. It was a less commercially influenced idea of eating. You just ate what people were eating around you.”
Cashion’s backstory wouldn’t warrant much attention if it didn’t figure so prominently into the ethos of Cashion’s Eat Place. The restaurant was born in 1995, after Cashion had helped open and operate a pair of Tex-Mex eateries and a Spanish tapas restaurant in Washington.
“I was coming off eight years of being in charge of restaurants that were really scripted and themed,” she says. “But in the process I had gotten further away from my basic loves, which were French and Italian cooking. I wanted to open a restaurant where I could learn to cook what I wanted to learn to cook. If anything, the theme would be ‘me.’ ”
PHONE: (202) 797-1819
CUISINE: artisanal local with European accents
PER-PERSON DINNER CHECK AVERAGE WITH BEVERAGES: $50
BEST-SELLING DISH: halibut beurre blanc and sautéed greens
AVERAGE WEEKLY COVERS: 600
CHEF-OWNER: Ann Cashion
PARTNER: John Fulchino
It was with that in mind that Cashion’s Eat Place was conceived as a highly personal, fine-dining destination where comfort and livability would be of highest priority. A far cry from more delicate restaurants where conversation is meted out in hushed tones, Cashion’s Eat Place features weathered pictures of family and friends on the walls and music that toggles between buoyant jazz and the likes of Van Morrison and Percy Sledge.
Such touches owe equally to John Fulchino, who helped open Cashion’s and remains a co-owner in charge of front-of-the-house concerns.
“Cashion’s has a tremendous amount of soul, which can’t be said for a lot of places in such a conservative city,” Fulchino says of a metropolitan base known mostly for political maneuverings. “To do something very heartfelt and soulful was unique for this city.”
The neighborhood that Cashion’s inhabits is Adams Morgan, a perky district suffused with a local charm that Fulchino calls “a snapshot of what America should be.
“There’s a Jewish man who owns a liquor store, a black man who runs a shoe store, an Iranian who opened a bar down the street,” he says. “We’re all out on the sidewalk every day.”
Location also figures heavily into the menu at Cashion’s, where the majority of offerings make use of mindfully produced meats and vegetables from small farms around the region. Buying local is a practice that Cashion picked up in her early days of professional cooking, first as a budding baker in the ’70s in Berkeley, Calif.—home to the revolution in American cooking stoked by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse —and later as an understudy chef at restaurants in Italy and France.
“It’s a process that developed as we got more and more into the project,” Cashion says. “In the beginning, we worked with good-quality farms. But over time we got to know people who were really trying to make a living raising animals sustainably. In a way, it’s like Mississippi—there’s a real sense of place.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by John Manolatos, chef de cuisine at Cashion’s. “You get to create real relationships with the people who grow and make the products you work with,” he says, proudly naming the local mill from which he acquires cornmeal. “We love that connection. It’s obviously a challenge, but it makes you concentrate on your menu and your food every single day.”
That concentration figured in early, when Cashion started handwriting her menus every day to communicate visually the care she hoped would be tasted in the food. She stopped writing it out about a year ago, but the sentiment remains.
“One of the hallmarks of Cashion’s is doing a type of cooking that you don’t typically find outside the home,” Cashion says. “We do a lot of long, slow braises. We have a great affection for organ meats. ‘Sophisticated home cooking’ is not a bad way to describe what I do.”
Home away from home
Of course, it’s not every home that shares a great affection for organ meats. And a longtime neighborhood regular named Jody Brown even blames the restaurant for a certain detachment from her own home.
“Cashion’s has not been good for the development of my own cooking skills,” says Brown, a communications executive who sometimes eats there three to four times a week. “They could have a fussy, highfalutin place based on the quality of the food, but instead it’s really inviting. I kind of consider it my dining room.”
That sense of neighborhood familiarity and hominess extends beyond the reaches of Adams Morgan. In the past decade, Cashion’s has become a haunting ground for political operatives—members of the Clinton administration are said to have liked it quite a bit—and media figures like CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour, David Corn from The Nation and Diane Sawyer.
“I’ll never forget when there was a big Van Gogh exhibit in Washington, his entire family came here to eat,” Fulchino says of the master painter’s descendants. “We had been written up in Amsterdam.”
|Veal sweetbreads with porcinis, fresh peas, hop shoots and piquillo pepper sauce $10 Pennsylvania goose egg with Parmesan, asparagus and truffle oil $10.50 Ragoût of exotic mushrooms with a corn cake $9.50|
|Braised leg of young rabbit with tomatoes and white wine, Swiss chard, asparagus, porcini mushrooms and zucchini $22 Pennsylvania-raised baby lamb shoulder blanquette with carrots, fava beans, fresh peas, saffron-basmati rice, basil and lemon $21 Whole boneless quail stuffed with chicken and mortadella, with sweetbreads, foie gras, cabbage and bacon $29 Pan-roasted wild Alaskan halibut with a lemon-artichoke sauce, with broccoli rabe and cherry tomato salad $29 Jamestown soft-shell crabs with cabbage-posole salad, tomatillo sauce and poblano mayonnaise $26|
|Poire belle Hélène with chocolate sauce and chocolate tuile $8 Mint ice cream with hot fudge $8 Cardamom-scented coconut-pistachio rice pudding with coconut Anglaise and nut brittle $8|
One writer who has mused over Cashion’s from a local vantage describes it as a rare Washington success that concentrates on fine dining outside of the normal paths trodden in Georgetown and around Capitol Hill.
“It really succeeds in being an adventurous, high-end restaurant, while also being very convincingly a neighborhood place,” says Brett Anderson, who wrote for the Washington City Paper before assuming his current post as a restaurant critic for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. “Especially in D.C., which doesn’t have a lot of neighborhood institutions, that always stood out for me. Ann is a really good chef, but there’s also something just really soulful about her cooking.”
Anderson parroted that word “soul” without necessarily realizing it, but he also touched on another word that figured into the thinking of Cashion and Fulchino from the start. It’s a word that takes time to take on meaning, and it’s a word that has started being attached to Cashion’s after 12 years on the same block.
As Cashion herself reveals it: “I wanted to make a contribution to my own neighborhood and, maybe it sounds overly idealistic, but it really was conceived as being uncommercial in every way. But I also wanted it to become an ‘institution.’ Because I love traditional food and food tradition, I wanted to open a restaurant that would become beloved and be a place where people remembered going.”