What’s old has become new again at various local restaurants this year, as enterprising chefs have latched on to a humble dish that has sustained people the world over for centuries: eggs simmered in sauce.
Tony Chittum, now executive chef at Mediterranean-influenced Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, fondly remembers the comforting food he prepared more than 20 years ago at one of his first cooking jobs. At since-shuttered Lucky Luciano, an old-school Italian restaurant that once inhabited Crofton, Md., the then-aspiring hospitality professional prepared vats of bubbling tomato sauce crowned with freshly cracked eggs.
These days, Chittum says the easily adaptable dish — which can take the form of “eggs in purgatory” in parts of Europe, or manifest as shakshuka at a Turkish breakfast table — has cropped up on brunch menus at popular restaurants throughout the District, Maryland and Virginia. That’s no surprise, given that Instagram-friendly runny eggs awash in spices and acid naturally fulfills a number of culinary desires. “Who wouldn’t like dippy eggs with tomato sauce and chilies?” Chittum says.
Kitchens across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East all turn out similarly arranged stews; food historians now say the cooking technique most likely originated during the Ottoman Empire. Chorizo and paprika lend heat to the dish in Spain and Morocco, while other versions rely on cumin or crushed red pepper for added bite. North African- and Middle Eastern-inspired recipes often call for the inclusion of the fiery chili pepper paste harissa. Diced onions, peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, and eggplant are just some of the vegetables that typically share the stage with the featured eggs and tomatoes. Some chefs opt to crumble feta, mozzarella or parmesan cheese on top of their finished creations.
Here are a few variations on the familiar meal that local diners can try throughout the area.
Middle Eastern/North African Flavors
Harissa figures prominently in shakshuka dishes modeled after Middle Eastern or North African cuisines. Top Chef alum Mike Isabella’s latest restaurant, Arroz, whisks diners to Spain, Portugal and Morocco with its deep blue hues and intricately painted pottery. The menu remains as faithful to these regions as the décor, proudly showcasing smoked Merguez sausage with baked eggs, grilled leeks, and zesty tomatoes.
Shakshuka is one of the star attractions on Compass Rose’s globe-spanning brunch list, producing poached eggs blended with tomato, piquillo pepper, yogurt and feta. Just down the road in Logan Circle, chef Michael Bonk’s poultry-obsessed The Bird adds baked duck egg, peppers and spinach to its dish.
Folks traveling to Baltimore for weekend brunch should explore Mount Washington’s British-themed The Corner Pantry, where yogurt and mint accompany the harissa and eggs.
Iron Gate offers baked hen eggs with spiced tomato sauce and gigante beans, topped with scallions, smoked mozzarella and sourdough toast. The gigante beans are stewed in tomato sauce with cinnamon and allspice.
At Baltimore’s critically acclaimed Woodberry Kitchen, chef and owner Spike Gjerde — who is expected to open his first D.C. restaurant, A Rake’s Progress, in the languishing Line Hotel project — serves eggs in tomato sauce with skillet potatoes. It’s then topped with Tomae, an aged, semi-hard Italian cheese from Shepherds Manor Creamery in Carroll County, Md.
At Hazel, chef Rob Rubba puts a Szechuan-style spin on things, preparing Mapo eggs cooked in spicy lamb sauce made with tomatoes, ginger, ginger, red pepper, Szechuan pepper, cumin, and mushrooms. It’s garnished with scallions, cilantro and fried garlic.
Shakshuka gets an appropriately Indian twist at Rasika West End. The spinach egg masala incorporates ginger and green chilies into the tomato masala, which is tossed with spinach.
No Meat, No Matter
Vegetarians should visit Turkish spot Ankara in Dupont Circle. Its shakshuka forgoes eggs in favor of sautéed eggplant, which is mixed with tomato, roasted peppers, garlic, red pepper paste and parsley.
Up the highway in Baltimore’s Federal Hill, neighborhood restaurant SoBo Café can substitute tofu for eggs.