In a show about food that’s more than just food, Signature Dish from public broadcasting station WETA debuts its second season, appropriately enough, from a Potomac boat launch.
During this first scene, congenial producer, host, and D.C. native Seth Tillman hoists himself on a motorboat in morning light in search of locally abundant, soon-to-be-fried catfish — the debut dish on the first episode that’s all about comfort foods.
Playing foil to streaming networks’ high-gloss, classical-soundtracked shows that feature celebri-chefs waxing poetic about buttered sliced radishes and wagyu marbling, Signature Dish is a welcome entree that visits a dizzying, Beltway-crossing 36 restaurants across its 12-episode season, the first hour of which airs at 9 p.m. on Monday, September 25.
Season 2 kicks off with that aforementioned aquatic adventure in tonight’s episode titled “Comfort Food.” Tillman begins by boarding a fishing vessel on the Potomac to follow the journey of how invasive blue catfish are caught and turned into fish and chips at Preserve in Annapolis. He travels south to Takoma Park to visit Cielo Rojo and lap up a warming bowl of pozole verde, a chicken soup loaded with earfuls Mexican heirloom corn. The episode ends in Capitol Hill at Caruso’s Grocery with a chicken parm feast.
Signature Dish takes viewers on an enthusiastic adventure around the D.C. area. Each themed episode visits three restaurants. At each restaurant stop, Tillman tastes one “signature” dish and explores the backstory of the featured restaurant and its chefs, neighborhood, and people behind the food.
WETA has previously produced several food shows before Signature Dish, but “we saw an opportunity to dig in and create a series that would allow us to explore the local food scene in a lot more depth,” says Tillman. In search of spots to feature on season 2, WETA polled viewers for suggestions, many of which made it onto the sophomore season
Signature Dish is about more than just the food on the plate. Each restaurant visit slices into a representative dish and the story behind it — some of which may be unfamiliar even to the seasoned D.C. diner.
In the pizza episode, for example, at La Casina on Capitol Hill, Tillman finds himself charmed by a pinsa pie, a new style of pizza out of Rome made with three types of grain flour that produces a crackly crust. Tillman’s pinsa comes papered in wafer-thin slices of potato and umami-rich cured pork fatback.
When he’s not wielding a blowtorch in a kitchen or getting his feet wet netting invasive species, Tillman says Signature Dish is about getting insight into the featured chefs and restaurateurs and what drives their culinary passion. The show encourages viewers to take an interest in how ingredients get to the plate, whether being pulled from the Potomac or from a family book of recipes.
Later in that pizza episode, he visits Motown Square in Shaw, where he digs into a tibs pizza. Chef-owner Paulos Belay says this pizza is “something I made with my father and uncle, where we combined a traditional Ethiopian dish with the square pizza I grew up on in metro Detroit — I don’t think you can get a Detroit-style tibs pizza anywhere else in the country.”
While the show does venture into far-flung suburbs, it also stops by some well-known city places, too. In the dessert episode, Tillman takes to Georgetown’s Lutece to marvel at the artistry of pastry chef Isabel Coss, just named one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs” this year. He also hams it up with other longtime local stars like Venezuelan-born chef Enrique Limardo of Seven Reasons.
Tillman has produced WETA shows since 2016, including others about food. But Signature Dish is a new category — and his first foray in front of the camera — in which he steps into kitchens and dining rooms to highlight the diversity of food in the region. Each episode might meaningfully meander from a well-known, award-winning restaurant to a first-generation, immigrant family-run spot. Humble and curious, Tillman brings Top Chef alum Padma Lakshmi’s celebratory vibe, paired with a genuine, almost Bourdain-like love for local dining and its myriad of foodways.
“I was not expecting such a spectacular show,” Tillman says in one episode, facing a soaring flame from a stovetop burner.
Signature Dish also encourages viewers to interact with the restaurants beyond the show. A new Restaurant Guide covering Seasons 1 and 2 provides more information about the dishes and the restaurants themselves, including an interactive map. Tillman says that it’s a place for viewers to learn more and plan their eating itinerary.
The first six episodes air Monday nights at 9 p.m. on WETA PBS (8 p.m. on WETA Metro). The second batch of six show airs in late winter 2024.
Monday, September 25: “Comfort Food Favorites”
Monday, October 2: “Pizza Perfection”
Monday, October 9: “Mediterranean Magic”
Monday, October 23: “Crossover Cuisine”
Monday, October 30: “Just Desserts”
Monday, November 7: “Best of Breakfast”