- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2011

The District has been a one half-smoke town for more than 50 years, but on Sunday a Dupont Circle restaurant found itself holding the trophy for its unique take on the city’s culinary claim to fame.

Firefly restaurant executive chef Daniel Bortnick’s fennel sausage and half-smoke bacon chili was the winner of the Domaso’s Top Dog Half-Smoke Challenge, beating out 10 area chefs to take the title.

Firefly even got the OK from Rob Rollins, one of four judges of the event and whose family owns Ben’s Chili Bowl in Northwest.

A Washington monument in its own right, Ben’s has been the obvious choice for locals and visitors looking for a half-smoke fix since 1958. The U Street establishment is renowned from Hollywood to the White House for it’s half-pork, half-beef sausages smothered in onions, mustard and chili.

“It’s actually an honor people want to try and replicate or duplicate Ben’s and what we do,” Mr. Rollins said. “By no means is it a threat. To me it’s a compliment to me and my family. They’re sure trying to have fun with it.”

One of the other judges was chef Mike Isabella, a finalist on the popular reality TV series “Top Chef.”

“We wanted the [half-smoke] to pop,” said Mr. Isabella, who is opening a neighborhood-style Italian restaurant, Graffiato, in Penn Quarter. “We also looked at the amount of meat compared to the amount of bread.”

Despite the light drizzle that started Sunday afternoon, hundreds of half-smoke enthusiasts milled about on Domaso’s fourth floor terrace in Rosslyn, which overlooks the Potomac River and Georgetown. Smoke from fresh meat slow-cooking wafted above the umbrellas, tinging the air with a spicy aroma.

Paul Healey, executive chef of Domaso, said the event had originally started as a way to get diners to the hidden restaurant, but soon the idea blossomed into a friendly competition with money made going to a good cause.

“The general kind of attitude was, ‘who has the second best half-smoke in D.C.,’ ” Mr. Healey said. “It ended up everyone was talking about separating themselves” from Ben’s legacy and highlighting their own spins on the local favorite.

“It appears to me, the trend in food in general is on local experience and things that are unique to them,” he said.

Domaso’s chefs went with a pork-and-beef shank with pickled onions and smoked tomato sauce, while other local chef’s used sausage patties, links smothered in chili, homemade buns, a variety of pickled vegetables and a wide range of presentations.

Red Apron Butchery, which makes its own sausages, stacked three versions of its meat onto a toothpick so as to create a multilayer bite accompanied by a smear of mustard.

Arlington-based Lyon Hall used braised short ribs and a mustard made with beer from a local brewer.

“We’re just making good food,” Lyon Hall executive chef Liam LaCivita said. “We want to make good, creative food that’s accessible to everybody.”

The convenience and wide range of condiments that can accompany a half-smoke is what District resident Walt Weatherington said was likely the reason the food has become a symbol of Washington dining.

“There are a lot of different varieties,” he said.

Proceeds from the event will go to Brainfood, a D.C. charity that uses cooking to teach life lessons to high school students.

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