Swati Bose

Washington D.C has 15 James Beard Awards restaurant and chef semifinalists this year. A city once known for fancy American steakhouses and power lunch spots for lawyers and bankers is now home to Michelin-starred restaurants like Albi by Palestinian chef Michael Rafidi (semifinalist for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic) and natural wine bars like Swati Bose’s Flight (semifinalist for Outstanding Wine Program). Bose grew up in DC and has seen the city go through all its stages of transformation. But when it comes to her preferred spots, it’s all about the art of hospitality and that seat next to a power plug.

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Washington DC Then and Now

Growing up, DC was a city of expense accounts, known for big restaurant institutions and restaurants people went for power lunches. Mom and pop shops mainly served ethnic cuisines, and there was no middle ground. I moved to New York to study law. I worked for a year when I graduated and faced some health issues, which made Kabir [Amir, Bose’s life and business partner at Flight] and I rethink our lives. The idea of opening a wine bar was a retirement project. We didn’t always know that this was our passion: it was something we accidentally discovered when we were together. Realising how short life is, I decided to return to school (to the French Culinary Institute, now the International Culinary Center) and begin my career in hospitality. We knew that when it was time to open our own place it would be in our hometown, but there was also a sudden interest in this particular market. In the 10 years before we finally moved back, DC was starting to move towards smaller places with local, season food and beverage. Although it was at a much slower rate than in New York, San Francisco, or Chicago, it really caught up in 2011. That’s when we decided to make the move. A culture of small cocktail and wine bars was developing, and another decade in, DC has a little bit of everything, a lot of development in smaller neighbourhoods, and people who are up for trying anything. 

The Aftermath of the Pandemic

Kabir and I made a few assumptions before opening Flight none of them really panned out. We were scouting locations in 2012 and at the time thought that Chinatown would build up a neighbourhood feel since a lot of residential buildings were built and occupied a little up north. But that never happened and Chinatown remained very much a downtown area. We opened Flight in January of 2014 right across the street from the Capital One Arena. We get a lot of event-goers on concert or sports days, but we also built a base of regulars from the area over the years. We relied heavily on people who worked in the offices nearby who visit us early in the evening. Post-pandemic, Chinatown became a ghost town. Almost nobody has returned to the office fulltime, which means that we are still at 50% of our pre-pandemic volumes and Chinatown has unfortunately taken a huge hit.

For the Love of Hospitality

The reason we opened Flight was not only to bring good wine to people. How guests would feel in our space was important to us. I wanted people to come in and immediately feel welcome and happy to be there; to learn about wines they never had access to in a place that wasn’t intimidating; and to create great memories in our space. As we build our lists, we try to find amazing wines from around the world for people to try. At first, it was hard to get guests to order some of the wines by the glass. We ended up drinking some of them after a shift, which was not sustainable so we had to quickly adapt to a better mix of what’s known and unknown. We created wine flights to encourage our guests to try different things in a way that made sense. Now, it’s not even something that we have to think about. Guests are a lot more adventurous and are willing to put themselves in our hands since we had the time to establish our reputation. Our skin-contact flight is a bestseller. It’s fascinating to see people open up their palates and figure out exactly what they like and sometimes break perceptions of what a certain wine is. Even if people aren’t familiar with it, they’re no longer afraid to try it. We’re constantly changing and trying to fit different things in. We’re sourcing more American wines for our bottles list. We like to always have Virginia wines for local representation and look for smaller production, terroir-driven wines. 

How My Dining Categories Are Split Up

You’ll notice from the places I frequent just how important service is to me. My favourite spots in the city are kind of a reflection of my life. Between work and caregiving, my days run from 9am to 2am seven days a week, so my going out is largely taking my parents – who love going out to eat – out for lunch, or stepping out with my laptop somewhere near Flight when I’m not needed on the floor. I get a ton of work done when I’m out by myself. Once every couple of weeks, Kabir and I try to sneak out for a meal or a catch-up with friends. When I venture out, it’s for great food but really more for a break, so the ambiance is important. Supporting our community is also important. Because of our schedule, coffee is of prime importance. La Colombe in Chinatown is where we go almost every day for a pre-shift indulgence. They make the best oat latte in town and are kind enough to serve them in our insulated cups. 

One of the OG Sommeliers of DC

I’m embarrassed to say it, but I don’t go out for wine much because I can’t beat the wines we get at Flight. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and one place I do go to for the wine is Primrose. It’s one of our favourite stops on our way home. We drop by every chance we get. It’s owned and operated by Sebastian Zutant – one of the OG somms of DC. He is an amazing human being who’s really creative so we just put ourselves in his hands. My palate is pretty wide and flexible though I probably lean more towards a natural, funkier profile left to my own. His wine selection never disappoints: we’re going to try something funky that we haven’t tried before. Also, his company just makes me happy. The food is amazing as well. The menu is small and seasonal. I always get the mussels or the steak frites when I can. Sometimes they’ll have a beef bourguignon. The space is beautiful, whimsically designed by his ex-wife, Lauren, and her partner Brian who also designed Flight and a bunch of the cool spaces in the city. 

Some of the Best Food and Wine in DC

Navy Yard has just blown up and there’s a ton of places to go there. Albi is a great one and another wine destination for us. Its wine and cocktail programme is one of the best in the city. William Simons, the wine director, always picks something amazing for us to try. We’ll go for a glass or give him our budget and notes and have him pick a bottle for us. The food also hits the spot every single time. Chef Michael Rafidi has Palestinian roots and makes some of the best food in DC. When we’re with friends, we’ll go for the Sofra – the tasting menu which highlights peak season ingredients with a bit from each of the menu categories. It’s ideal for a table of six and costs $125 per person with an additional $55 or $95 for a beverage pairing. If it’s just Kabir and I, we’ll pick a couple of mezze and a couple of snacks. I generally stay off carbs but I can’t resist the pita here, which comes with the hummus menu. The coal-fired mushroom (with black garlic and egg yolk confit) is probably my favourite. Lamb is another thing I don’t usually eat but I have to ask for the smoked lamb awarma (confit) hummus or the barbecued lamb kebabs. The smoked carrot and the yellowfin tuna kibbeh naya (Lebanese tartare-like dish classically made of raw lamb) are both really good. I love the mujadarra so I always find a way to add it. The grilled octopus is amazing and is served with Palestinian maftool, green harissa red cabbage and dill yoghurt. As for the snacks, the sunchoke arayes (Levantine flatbreads typically stuffed with meat patty) with green shatta labne are really good. The vegetable dishes change depending on the season but are always nicely done. In February it was all root vegetables. 

Right Out Of the Show Cheers

The Eastern is where I go to relax and unwind on a Sunday when Flight is closed. It’s a true neighbourhood wine bar in Capitol Hill – which is where I used to live – and gives me the vibe of the show Cheers. The whole staff is super friendly and the fun part of it all is that it’s run by sommelier Robert Morin, a former employee at Flight. It’s really nice to see him running his own place. I can just be like, “Rob, I need a glass of wine,” and not have to think about anything. 

The Best Korean in Town

Anju is a modern Korean restaurant with some of the best food in DC. Whenever we need a pick-me-up, we head straight there. Phil Anova, the beverage director, is a lovely gentleman. We met him at sister restaurant Mandu, where we used to go with our staff for late-night bites after a shift since it used to open late and at the time we weren’t worried about waking up early. The executive chef, Angel Barreto, cooks a lot of amazing small dishes. I absolutely love the Banchan (small plates of condiments served with rice). There’s a list to choose from which includes kimchi and sweet lotus root. We almost always end up with a whole plate of it. The Dolsot Bibim Bap with tofu and the seared galbi (Ssam Board) are favourites too. The bokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice) is a big indulgence for me; the half fried chicken is great; and the dumplings are good. If we wanted fish that day, we’d get the battered branzino (Saengseon Gui) or the whole fish which is really good. 

Great Laotian Food

For outings with my parents – and regularly Kabir’s mom as well – we have a few regular spots. Laos in Town is one of them. The staff here is kind and accommodating; the space is beautiful, bright and airy; and the food reminds my dad of his time in South East Asia which brings back good memories. It’s great Laotian food in small plates perfect to share. Our order always includes the sundried beef (Seen Hang), chive cake, herby pork sausage, and Lao Tofu – the tofu dishes are amazing. Lunches here are always slow, relaxed and all about building memories.

Pizza I Grew Up With

I also take my parents to Pizzeria Paradiso. It opened in the early 90s when I was in high school. The first location was in Dupont Circle, and I used to go there with my friends who have continued going for the next 20 years. When I started taking care of my parents, we moved to a tiny neighbourhood 10 minutes our of the city in a town called Cheverly with not much around. At first, we pondered about where we would take the parents to eat out nearby, but it turned out that a Pizzeria Paradiso had just opened eight minutes down the road in Hyattsville, Maryland. We now go there once a week. It’s owned by a restaurateur we admire called Ruth Gresser who does a lot for the community. She runs an arts centre for kids right by the pizza shop and – along with a few other women in the industry – started the DC chapter of HER for female chefs and restaurateurs. Her restaurant in Hyattsville is small but makes the most amazing pizzas. The kitchen staff and servers know my parents by now and greet them every time they walk in. The beer programme is amazing, and my dad is really into beer right now so he’ll explore that. My mom will have a margarita: she loves margaritas so we always have to pick places with a good one. I’ll usually order a bottle of wine for Kabir and me. We always start with the Insalata Romana and an Atomica pizza (we replace the salami with their pepperoni which is a little spicy and delicious). We might get the Paesana and Genovese or the special of the month. This month was a special for Black History Month: Kitchen Jerk Chicken Pizza which we have already had twice.

Great Chinese That’s Easy On the Pocket

I grew up 10 minutes down the road from the A&J in Rockville. It’s been there since and now has a few other locations in Maryland and Virginia. My parents and I still go to that same one. It’s a small, family-run shop with really good Chinese food. It’s easygoing and has amazing dishes that my parents love to snack on: Taiwanese dim sum, thousand-layer pancake (Zhua Bing), Dan Dan noodles, garlic-marinated cucumbers (Ma La Huang Gua) and shredded bean curd (Liang Ban Gan Si). We’ll order a bunch of things and will never walk out with a big bill. 

Where We Go For Tacos and Mezcal

If I’m taking the parents out into the suburbs, I love going to Taqueria Habanero in College Park. It has a shop in DC but we go to the one close to where my school was. Again, it’s a small, family-run shop with great margaritas. Kabir and I love tequila and mezcal, and they have a great selection of both. We’ll get a few to share and sip on with the food – which is amazing.

Tapas and a Work Session

Most of the restaurants I take my work to are near our bar in Chinatown. Boqueria is a Spanish tapas bar that opened its first location in the Flatiron Building in New York. The guy behind it used to be a banker in his former life. I remember going there when I lived in New York, but it has since opened two locations in DC. The second one, Boqueria Penn Quarter, is just down the street from us – I go there a lot. The managers and staff – Kevin, Hillary and Dennis – are just amazing to me. They know which corner table I like. I’ll walk in and they’ve already got it set up. They’ll let me sit there and work for hours. We’ll chat and exchange information. While I’m at it, I get to munch on some tapas and sip on godello or mencía, or work my way through whatever they have on the glass list. Often, they’ll choose something to pour for me which I love because it allows me to try things I might not otherwise. If I’m going to get just one dish, then it’s the bacalao a la plancha – and that’s a great meal. Sometimes, a friend will join after I get a couple of hours of work done. For tapas, I like to indulge in the Tabla de Embutidos. The meats are delicious. They also make wonderful, traditional gambas al ajillo. I like their escalivada as well.

Smoked Food and Burgundy

There’s a hotel Conrad down the street from us with a restaurant called Estuary. The bar is super pretty and has a lounge area around it. The staff is wonderful from the host, Seif, who always makes sure I have somewhere to plug my laptop, to the beverage director, Nial Harris Garcia, who pops by to make sure I’m comfortable. Here, my wine choices are more traditional – usually a white Burgundy or a cabernet franc from the Loire Valley. The chef now is a talented young woman called Ria Montes who’s doing some interesting stuff. She has a Filipino background and grew up with Indian and Chinese influences around Queens. I always start with the smoked fish dip, which is really bright with capers and lemon. The bread is grilled lightly. If I’m on my own I’ll only add the smoked cabbage to that. If Kabir joins me, I’ll convince him to share the Smash Burger. I had the crispy pig ears with my friend Amy last week which were quite addictive. 

Fantastic Wine and Lebanese Food

When I want to indulge I’ll wander out to Navy Yard. Chloe is right across the street from Albi. I love coming here to work at the bar. The wine programme is excellent. Christian Whitehead, the GM, will always make sure I get a seat and a glass of wine. Kabir and I have long been fans of chef Haider Kharoum’s food, which celebrates his Lebanese roots. If I’m alone, I’ll order the smaller dishes. I always start with a plate of pickles. It has pickled garlic, piparra peppers, olives, cornichons and fennel pollen. The garlic is to die for. Another go-to is the Garbanzo Falafel which comes with roasted garlic yoghurt, mint and pickled vegetables. It’s one of the best falafels in the city. The ceviches and tartares are really nicely done and will have a little bit of spice. On the current menu is an ahi tuna tartare with crispy nori tempura, hass avocado and wasabi-soy emulsion. Just last week, I wanted something really filling, so I went for the penne pasta with spicy pork ragout, soffrito, crushed tomato, thyme and pecorino. It goes really well with a glass of red or orange wine. If Kabir or a friend joins, then we’ll order the Crispy Whole Fish. It’s a fried fish with steamed jasmine rice, tomatillo salsa verde and coriander.

Where José Andrés Kicked Off

Interestingly, José Andrés’s first restaurant Jaleo opened in Chinatown down the street from us. It was still an up and coming neighbourhood and when we wanted a fancy meal when I was in college that where we would go. Thirty years later, it’s a different kind of place, but I still go for the atmosphere, the ease of working and the nice staff. Andrés has a few restaurants in the same six block radius. I stop by Zaytinya at least once a week: I’ll sit at their bar, work and eat the same thing every single time. They don’t even hand me a menu or ask me what I want. They give me a glass of rosé. I start with the fattoush salad which is really refreshing and has a nice pomegranate vinegar dressing, pita croutons, crispy vegetables and onions that I never eat. They wonder why I don’t have them taken out, but they add so much flavour without having to go back to work with onion breath. Then I eat the beef Kofte Kebab. There’s a really nice harissa-based hot sauce that I always ask for. If I’m extra hungry, I’ll end with the Baba Ghannouge. When Kabir is there with me, we also order the grilled octopus which he loves. Everything is made in-house and is super fresh.

Old Timers in the Outskirts of DC

DC has great Ethiopian and Vietnamese food but I often leave the city for it. Eden Center is a nice little market area in Virginia. We park our car and are surrounded by so many shops. If we’re feeling under the weather or need a pick-me-up, we’ll come to Huong Viet, a Vietnamese restaurant with really good food and great pho. I also love Ethiopian food and eat it any chance I get. I usually rely on friends to recommend a spot for me but experimenting with a random one also never goes wrong. We used to go to Dukem a lot, a restaurant on the U Street corridor in DC. For me it’s standard to get the whole vegetarian platter and hopefully have someone to share it with me. Another place I love going for a drive to is a Greek restaurant called Nostos in Tysons in the suburbs in Virginia. It’s got great food and really good Greek wines. I work backwards with the menu. Since we’re usually there for the fish, we’ll figure out which one we want and if we want it whole. Then, we’ll add a couple of small appetisers like the halloumi and the Greek beans with scallions, olive oil and lemon.

My Favourite DC Bakeries

I don’t have a sweet tooth at all, but everyone else in my family does, so I’m always on the look-out for good bakeries. DC has a number of them but the ones I usually like are the small Latin American pastry shops. The Passion Bakery Cafe in Silver Spring Maryland is a favourite. I order from them for all the birthdays and big occasions in my family. I got a delicious mango cake for my mother-in-law’s birthday recently. Everything is always just amazing. You can pick up slices from the daily display too. My mom and dad go to a temple sometimes and want to bring something, and this bakery is right by where they used to live. If I ever craved sweets it was tres leches cakes, and it makes great ones. I’m on the search for something similar where I currently live. Near Flight, is a great sourdough bakery called A Baked Joint where we pick up treats for our staff. We’ve had staff meetings there so they would order whatever they want like small pastries and individual-sized tarts. It opens until early in the evening on some days so it’s nice to pick up a soup or sandwich as well. Equally as good but a little further from us is another bakery called Baked & Wired.

Where I Shop For Produce

Before we started caregiving, we participated in the Freshfarm CSA. Their farmers markets sit in different locations, but their fruit and vegetable subscription program was great because you end up cooking whatever you get. I’ve had many first times cooking vegetables they sent. But once we moved to Cheverly, we found ourselves in a house with a lot of land. We converted the back into our own mini farm. Kabir and my dad garden pretty seriously and grow much of our own produce from spring to fall: arugula, mizuna, carrots, beets, radish, bitter gourd, cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, coriander, sage, chive, peppers of all kinds (serrano, habanero, jalapeno, ghost, etc.), eggplant, and a few other things. During the rest of the year and to supplement we’re pretty basic with where we shop: Aldi or Trader Joe’s. If we’re cooking meat or fish, then we’ll either get it from our restaurant suppliers or make a stop at Whole Foods.

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