Those who mourn the closing of the longtime and much-loved Vidalia can take comfort in knowing that the space has been taken over by chef Hamilton Johnson, who worked at Vidalia under chef-owner Jeffrey Buben for seven years. You could loosely classify his food at Honeysuckle as a modern take on Southern cuisine, as filtered through his South Carolina upbringing, but the chef says, “I wouldn’t say it’s Nordic. I wouldn’t say it’s Southern. It’s just me — it’s what I want to eat.” He also hopes it makes you feel good. Here are five dishes that made us feel pretty darn good during a recent meal there:
For this dish, Johnson blends chopped Shenandoah lamb loin with smoked mayo, pickled porcini mushrooms and vadouvan, a French version of curry spices. The kitchen infuses the mayonnaise with applewood smoke and uses a house pickling liquid on the mushrooms. He says he likes this dish because you see lamb tartare so much less than beef tartare. “I like taking something a little different and making it comforting and a little easier to approach,” he adds.
This dish — by far our favorite of the night — is every bit as decadent as it sounds, but it actually starts with scallops instead of oysters. The mollusks are caramelized with onion, champagne and heavy cream and reduced before being hit with bacon, leeks and confit potatoes. He then adds shucked Chesapeake oysters, crispy chicken skin and smoked trout roe to really bring the luxury home. “It’s our play on an oyster stew, which is very popular in the South,” he says.
Seared sea scallops
This was another table favorite, due in equal parts to the dish’s beauty, its textures and its successful blend of myriad flavors. Joining the seared scallops on the plate are some tortellini filled with braised pigtail meat and ham hocks blended with herbs and mustard. A nub of demi-glace also goes into the pasta pocket before it’s sealed up, giving it a little pop of flavor when you bite into it. The dish also benefits from a coffee-bacon jam that Johnson says helps cut the sweetness of the scallops and the richness of the pasta, as well as dices of butternut squash and a little Parmesan.
Slow-roasted Icelandic cod
Johnson, who has competed multiple times in Iceland’s Food & Fun Festival — and is headed there again this week, in fact — made this dish for the competition last year. He uses both rutabaga purée and pickled rutabaga, then garnishes the cod with malt caramel, smoked trout roe and malted cod velouté, which is poured tableside. He says the cooking he finds at the festival is inspiring, and he’ll likely change the menu a bit after returning to reflect those influences. “It’s fun to see chefs from all over doing different kinds of stuff,” he says. But in general, he doesn’t plan to change his menu so often that your favorites will be gone the next day. “We’ll change things seasonally every month or so — one thing here and one thing there.”
Warm buckwheat waffle
The desserts here are the work of pastry chef T.C. Lumbar, who apprenticed part-time under one of DC’s favorite pastry mavens, Tiffany MacIsaac. This made-to-order waffle starts with a batter that blends buckwheat and regular flours. Layers of flavor are added in the form of smoked chocolate, a hazelnut praline and a rich brown-butter ice cream. This option, along with the chocolate textures dessert, are the most popular on the sweets menu right now, says Johnson. Although, he favors the latter: “I’m a big chocolate guy. Pretty much anything chocolate, I’m in.”