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United States Senate Dining Room - Famous For Senate Bean Soup


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Let me begin by saying that I realize that this is not a restaurant generally open to the public, sort of like the Tower Club or the City Club. You have to be invited by a Senator during the prime hours, or by a staffer beginning around 1:30pm. And thus it was as I was seated around 1:45 with my host.

Let's start with ambiance. This place is beautiful, start to finish, top to bottom, with original art on the walls and history all over the place. VIP sightings abound, and the service is probably close to Michelin 3-star. The Oval Room would have a hard time comparing to this restaurant.

On to the food, and the singular purpose of my visit was contained in a bowl of bean soup, Washington's 'national dish.' It did not disappoint, and it was heavenly. Perfect texture and flavor, even a mere hint of clove on the ham chunks, this was heaven in a bowl. It was so good I wanted to dab some all over me and pour some down the front of my shirt. It was damn-damn-damn good.

On to the main course, and my comparison to the Tower Club and the City Club was not unintended. You see, these members-only places with chefs from the "B List" have their ups and downs. They nail the atmosphere part with an A+, but the food creations have various failings that magnify on the plate. I ordered the 'Cuban sandwich sliders' which were three little sandwiches that had the requisite cheese, ham, pork, pickles and mustardy sauce, only the menu attracted my eye by replacing the "pork" with slow-braised pork belly. Hmmmm....must have....! After I placed the order, the waiter came back and told me that instead of the pork belly, today they were offering pulled pork on the Cubans. I decided to proceed, but the result was not pleasant. The sliders tasted too smoky, the rest of the ingredients were overwhelmed, and I added yet another failed attempt at a Cuban sandwich to my long list of Washington DC failed attempts at Cuban sandwiches.

On the other hand, and true to the Tower Club and City Club analogy, the salads that I saw coming out of the kitchen were towering compositions of protein on top of greens and vegetables that looked about as good as any I've seen anywhere in a long time.

But back to that bean soup....it was truly incredible. It's now in my top-ever-favorite-soups/stews ever. In any order, the Senate bean soup, Lampeter (PA) Fire Hall Chicken Corn Soup at the annual September festival, No Name Restaurant (Boston) fish chowdah, Cioppino at Scoma's on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, and just about anything on the menu at Pho 75. Give me my death row meal from any or all of these five, and I'll go out without a whimper....

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I have had the same soup, or a very similar soup, as a mere mortal in various of the myriad underground eating establishments within the confines of the various congressional office buildings adjacent to the Capitol.

It was good.

The environment was far from rarified.

The only reason I surmise that it was the same soup is that our government does stuff like that.

I wonder if I am right.

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The Bean Soup has been the Senate Dining Room's signature dish for as long as I can remember. My old man would inevitably take me there in the late 50s/early 60s on our visits to DC when I was a sprout. He'd always have the soup and insist that it was "the best in the world."

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Looking at the recipe, I'm thinking HUH? Is it the the soup or the setting that is remarkable?

If "that's all there is", I was thinking the secret must be either (1) beans worthy of Jack and the Giant fairy tales, or (2) from ham hocks treated with CIA-worthy methods.
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Looking at the recipe, I'm thinking HUH? Is it the the soup or the setting that is remarkable?

Maybe it's the setting, but I'm not sure the recipe does the dish justice. First of all, that "ham hock" was probably not what you get at the local Safeway. There was something different and special about the chunks of ham, like the aforementioned hint of clove. Then there was the texture. Creamy and chunky, almost perfect, influenced by maybe a dip of the immersion bender. Everything -- flavor, texture, aroma, presentation -- was in perfect harmony. I can take that recipe and make a perfectly respectable Senate bean soup at home, but it probably won't be what was in my bowl yesterday.
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I worked in the Senate and had the bean soup that is served to staff in the mess. It's not great. It's fine and satisfying if you need some fiber and are too tired to chew but it's bland bean soup like the recipe might make you suspect. Now maybe if I was eying Senators splash soup on their TV ties as I slurped it myself, it might be better...

I LOVE bean soups in general and make some mean ones. So maybe I have spoiled myself.

Also, i've not dinned in the Senator's dining room so now feel like all that time served was worth NOTHING! kidding... a little.

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I had the House side version (same recipe as the Senate side, they're just not going to call it Senate bean soup 'cause they're funny like that) for lunch yesterday. If I'd had to guess at the recipe based on what I ate, I would have gone with a stock base instead of water and guessed it had at least half again as much ham. There's a LOT of ham in it, not that this is a bad thing.

Whoever makes it in Longworth also has a pretty heavy hand with the pepper and garlic, so it's not bland, either - good for a cold day. The mashed potato is an interesting twist; I assumed the texture was from squashed/blended beans, but that's a much quicker way of getting the desired texture without having to cook the beans into mush.

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The recipe on the Senate website reads like crap. No soup made from that recipe could possibly be worth eating. I also find it odd that the little story that precedes the recipe doesn't mention Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (the elder, not his grandson, who was Nixon's running mate in 1960 and later our proconsul in South Vietnam), to whom I've usually seen the Senate dining-room tradition attributed. You can see a recipe with his name attached to it here. That looks a little better. (And by the way, weren't ordinary, un-invited mortals allowed in the Senate dining room in the distant past? I have a vague recollection of having lunch there when I was a little boy, and my family certainly didn't have any insider links to the Senate.)

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The recipe on the Senate website reads like crap. No soup made from that recipe could possibly be worth eating. I also find it odd that the little story that precedes the recipe doesn't mention Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (the elder, not his grandson, who was Nixon's running mate in 1960 and later our proconsul in South Vietnam), to whom I've usually seen the Senate dining-room tradition attributed. You can see a recipe with his name attached to it here. That looks a little better. (And by the way, weren't ordinary, un-invited mortals allowed in the Senate dining room in the distant past? I have a vague recollection of having lunch there when I was a little boy, and my family certainly didn't have any insider links to the Senate.)

My edition of Joy of cooking as a "U.S. Senate Bean Soup" recipe that is very close to the one that you posted, but it does not have tomato as an ingredient. FWIW, it also states that it has been on the menu since 1901.

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I have kind of gotten cross-eyed reading these posts, so forgive me if this was mentioned upthread, but I thought that the Senate Bean Soup was also sold online.

Uh....yuk! The ingredients:

Chicken Broth, Navy Beans, Celery, Carrots, Dehydrated Potatoes, Soybean Oil, Bacon (Cured With Water, Salt, Sodium Phosphate, Sugar, Sodium Erythorbate, Sodium Nitrate), Dehydrated Onion, Salt, Smoked Pork Flavor (Hydrolyzed Corn Gluten, Wheat Gluten and Soy Protein, Maltodextrin, Disodium Inosinate, Smoked Pork Fat), Natural Flavor, Spices.

But I also note that customers who bought this also bought the Looney Tunes Golden Collection...!

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Uh....yuk! The ingredients:

Chicken Broth, Navy Beans, Celery, Carrots, Dehydrated Potatoes, Soybean Oil, Bacon (Cured With Water, Salt, Sodium Phosphate, Sugar, Sodium Erythorbate, Sodium Nitrate), Dehydrated Onion, Salt, Smoked Pork Flavor (Hydrolyzed Corn Gluten, Wheat Gluten and Soy Protein, Maltodextrin, Disodium Inosinate, Smoked Pork Fat), Natural Flavor, Spices.

But I also note that customers who bought this also bought the Looney Tunes Golden Collection...!

Makes me sad that a Looney Tunes fan also bought that soup.

Makes me wonder if this soup would garner the accolades if it wasn't from the U.S. Senate. No matter the ingredients I would much rather have any Tom Power soup.

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Recipe for five gallons of soup makes no sense at all. "Clean the beans, then cook them dry." Wha? What does that mean?

I envision placing dried beans in a soup pot and cooking them, dry. I shudder. The horror!

We might debate over overnight soaking, hot soaking, quick soaking, but I think we can agree that we do not cook dry beans without water.

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I had the House side version (same recipe as the Senate side, they're just not going to call it Senate bean soup 'cause they're funny like that) for lunch yesterday. If I'd had to guess at the recipe based on what I ate, I would have gone with a stock base instead of water and guessed it had at least half again as much ham. There's a LOT of ham in it, not that this is a bad thing.

Whoever makes it in Longworth also has a pretty heavy hand with the pepper and garlic, so it's not bland, either - good for a cold day. The mashed potato is an interesting twist; I assumed the texture was from squashed/blended beans, but that's a much quicker way of getting the desired texture without having to cook the beans into mush.

The taters seem to be from a separate recipe, if I'm reading that page right. I'm not quite sure what they're getting at there.

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Recipe for five gallons of soup makes no sense at all. "Clean the beans, then cook them dry." Wha? What does that mean?

I envision placing dried beans in a soup pot and cooking them, dry. I shudder. The horror!

We might debate over overnight soaking, hot soaking, quick soaking, but I think we can agree that we do not cook dry beans without water.

I believe that means to cook them until there's no water left in the pot.

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I believe that means to cook them until there's no water left in the pot.

Here's the recipe. See if you can make heads or tails out of it.

Bean Soup Recipe (for five gallons)

3 pounds dried navy beans

2 pounds of ham and a ham bone

1 quart mashed potatoes

5 onions, chopped

2 stalks of celery, chopped

four cloves garlic, chopped

half a bunch of parsley, chopped

Clean the beans, then cook them dry. Add ham, bone and water and bring to a boil. Add potatoes and mix thoroughly. Add chopped vegetables and bring to a boil. Simmer for one hour before serving.

http://www.senate.gov/reference/reference_item/bean_soup.htm

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Here's the recipe. See if you can make heads or tails out of it.

Bean Soup Recipe (for five gallons)

3 pounds dried navy beans

2 pounds of ham and a ham bone

1 quart mashed potatoes

5 onions, chopped

2 stalks of celery, chopped

four cloves garlic, chopped

half a bunch of parsley, chopped

Clean the beans, then cook them dry. Add ham, bone and water and bring to a boil. Add potatoes and mix thoroughly. Add chopped vegetables and bring to a boil. Simmer for one hour before serving.

http://www.senate.gov/reference/reference_item/bean_soup.htm

I don't see any way three pounds of beans would cook in an hour unless they have been pre-boiled. I'm sure I've seen the expression "to cook dry" before, but I don't recall where. I thought it meant to cook all the water off, though, which would make sense in this context. First you cook the beans in a lot of water until they're getting tender, and then you cook them through with the other ingredients.
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I greatly enjoyed the Senate Bean Soup today. There's something about this rendition that pushes it to a level of great warmth and satisfaction. Maybe it's the beans, about half of which are mashed and the other half whole, creating a creaminess mixed with mouthfeel that is both delicate and substantial at the same time. Maybe it's the ham hocks with the right combination of smoky flavor and hints of spice. Or maybe it's one of the most beautiful dining rooms in our area, or easily the most gracious and accommodating waitstaff in the DC metropolitan area. Probably it's the combination of all of these. It simply is an incredibly enjoyable dish.

Oh yeah, the club sandwich isn't bad, but not nearly as memorable.

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John McCain sighting today....he looks good for someone who spent five years being beaten and tortured in Vietnam.

Senate Bean Soup was spot-on. The waitress was of hispanic descent, and brought Tabasco to the table....I hadn't tried that before, but just a few splashes gave it a touch of spice and flavor that really gave it a lift.

I followed with the Chicken Salad with Seasonal Fruits, apparently appealing to the wider-set Senators. Nice bits of fruit, but the chicken dices were a bit dry and bland. A bit of celery or apple or nuts would have added to the mouthfeel.

(I tend to view the House side of the Capitol as a raucous college campus, and the Senate side as a five diamond resort. Just saying...)

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I went with the Poached Salmon Salad Nicoise today, mostly because my low-carb diet limited my options. Have to say, I wasn't especting much, but it wasn't bad. I pushed aside the potatoes, but the salmon was cooked nicely, the bibb lettuce was fresh and clean, green beans were cooked to nice crunch and two different kinds of olives were a pleasant surprise.

One of my colleagues had the bean soup, and to his unsophisticated palate, he said it tasted like any old pea soup....

One of the things I like about this place is its overwhelming-ness. To get there, you basically traverse an entire museum of American history and governance, not to mention a few Senator sightings along with either an entourage or a news crew....plus an architecture and art tour unlike any other restaurant I know of....

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I went with the Poached Salmon Salad Nicoise today, mostly because my low-carb diet limited my options. Have to say, I wasn't especting much, but it wasn't bad. I pushed aside the potatoes, but the salmon was cooked nicely, the bibb lettuce was fresh and clean, green beans were cooked to nice crunch and two different kinds of olives were a pleasant surprise.

One of my colleagues had the bean soup, and to his unsophisticated palate, he said it tasted like any old pea soup....

One of the things I like about this place is its overwhelming-ness. To get there, you basically traverse an entire museum of American history and governance, not to mention a few Senator sightings along with either an entourage or a news crew....plus an architecture and art tour unlike any other restaurant I know of....

KN:  I notice you've been there several times over the years.  Nobody else from this forum has acknowledged a visit.   Could it be a professional courtesy?   After all you are the MAYOR of Springfield Dining.  Mayors are big time.  Think Mayor Daley, Mayor Giuliani, and Mayor for Life Marion Barry.  You are in good company.  I would think the Senators would want YOUR autograph.  Mayors have a lot of power, significantly more than Senators who are 1 in a hundred.  Mayors are Numero Uno.

Just kidding.  I enjoy your descriptions and posts on the visits.  Sounds like an impressive place to dine.

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Well, yesterday I had to pay a call on Sen McCain and tell him that I actually don't mind the fact that he was captured, and I actually do consider him a hero!

Actually, anyone who knows a Senate staff member can go during non-prime hours, after 1:30pm. I happen to have a colleague in the Senate Sergeant at Arms office, who hosts the occasional lunch. If you live in the Washington DC area, you probably know someone who knows someone who can host a lunch. But heck, we all know Don Rockwell, who will someday be elected a Senator, or maybe even President....

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