Wednesday, December 08, 2010

a peak into the chesapeake

Butternut squash-cauliflower puree sounds a little bit like you threw open the refrigerator door, yanked the crisper out to within an inch of its life, and mused, "Huh. Squash and cauliflower. I guess those things would blend up together."

Well, skeptic, they do, and how, the sweetness of the squash playing off the bitter/vegetal nature of the cauliflower beautifully. The first bite results in a "Hmmm ... mmm," the second in turning to your dining companion with, "You've got to taste this," and by the third, it's all parrying* the incoming fork: "Hey, the rest is mine!"

Chesapeake Room is the neighborhood newcomer that has continued to step up its game on each visit -- they're small steps, incremental, but I'm glad to see that they're maintaining upward trend. Tonight's meal was enough to make me want to return in much shorter order than I have before (and I hope they'll still have that puree).

*And this was even before the Catoctin Creek tasting. No, really.

Friday, September 10, 2010

un bon bistro la bonne

I have to agree with some comments I’ve seen that the small Bistro La Bonne on U Street is sort of rocking an "under the radar" vibe -- the whole space is easy to pass by, and dining outside -- even in lovely weather -- is really more of an "enjoy traffic" experience than anything else. That's not meant as an indictment, though, as last night’s lovely pre-fall weather made sitting outside a treat regarless of the traffic situation. (Not to the liquor store across the street: must you persist in blasting some nameless thumping horror that invades your brain and demands attention? Urgh.)

Nothing was knock-your-socks-off outstanding, but there's a lot of solid execution going on here and that's nice to see. Frankly, I'm kind of old school in certain ways; if a French bistro really wants to go that route, I'm going to look not for innovation but for top-notch delivery of standards. For the most part, I have to say that a meal here is soul-satisfying, and also reassures me that they are at least striving for the same thing I'm looking for. Pissaladiere, crispy puff pastry topped with caramelized onions, olives and marinated anchovy ($9.95) may not be an entirely authentic version, given the puff pastry, but man are those anchovies and onions good. I may be a sucker for both those ingredients, but these were really nice, and particularly when shared, a nice way to start an evening. The paté de campagne ($6.95) is nothing revelatory -- although, according to their website, mentioned in the WaPo's Going Out Guide -- but the nicely (perhaps slightly over)dressed greens make up for it, and it's definitely got nice flavor and texture.

I'm kind of incapable of not ordering  duck when I see it on a menu -- when it's good it's great, and when it's bad, well, caveat emptor -- so my dining companion and I split the Magret de Canard au Cinq Epices et Son Confit de Caingnard, roasted 5 spices duck breast, leg duck confit with a sweet potato and potatoe {sic} gratin, ratatouille & port wine sauce ($20.95). I could tell a story here about my French family and a summer week spent eating the best, freshest ratatouille on earth, but it's immaterial, because this dish was not elegant but was totally a satiating dish for the soul. The potatoes were creamy and earthy, the elements of the ratatouille retaining their bite, and the duck delicious (I would have preferred a few more slices of the duck breast, but the ones we had were perfectly cooked to the desired medium-rare, and well-seasoned). This dish was like a lighter version of cassoulet (also on their menu): homey, earthy, tasty, and completely satisfying.

I have no idea who the people are who are running this place, but after a few interactions our waiter (host? GM? he was everywhere out front, in snazzy orange-and-green suspenders) realized we spoke French and lapsed into it with us. I don't live close enough to U Street to make this place a regular stop, but I have a feeling that were I able to do so, I'd find myself speaking French with the staff and feeling like I'm back in Lyon or Limoges ... and oh could I go for that right now. A decidedly pleasant evening, one I hope to repeat when the siren song (or is that just sirens?) of U Street call.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

oooh honey honey (cake)

To ring in 5771, I will be partaking of homemade honey cake while on my evening conference call.

L'shana tovah tikatevu!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

cityzen of the world

The diner's koan: When every bite is transcendent, are any of them, truly?
Last night's dinner at the bar at Cityzen was, in fact, a transcendent experience. The three-course prix fixe lives up to its accolade as the best deal in town: $50 gets you three courses that a mere few feet away would cost you $30 more, plus an amuse and even a gratis aperitif. 

Sadly, the online menus are not up to date and I can't recall everything perfectly, but I can at least attempt a brief rundown (I'd give the highlights but they were all highlights).

Terrine of lamb with mint pesto, beet jam, and watercress tasted wonderfully and purely of lamb, with a hint of gaminess that instead of being off-putting served as a lovely reminder that, yes, this really was a lamb terrine, and not anything else. A grenache blanc had a hint of smoky oak to it that paired perfectly with the lamb. Sweet corn chowder with crispy veal sweetbreads gave off the essence of that corn, bought at the farmers market that morning, but the just-crisp-enough sweetbreads sent this over the top, lending an earthiness that underscored the rich creaminess of the soup. 

Sesame-crusted salmon with cucumber and kohlrabi salad and cucumber jus was so perfectly cooked that I was reminded why I so rarely order salmon out -- it's usually dry and tasteless, and I can do better at home; this, on the other hand, was tender and full of flavor, with the perfect amount of crispy, salty sesame to offset the creamy, sweet fish. The crunch of the kohlrabi and slightly softer cucumber gave the dish even more lightness and freshness; overall, this was a feast of summery flavor, balanced by a light Willamette valley pinot noir that came alive with the sesame in particular. Braised veal breast with crispy shallots and sautéed greens was similarly revelatory, the meltingly tender meat both more delicate and more flavorful than I can remember veal being, and yet not overly heavy or beefy despite the long-cooked preparation. The bites of fried shallot were perfect little onion rings (there was possibly a small scuffle over who got the last one, I can't lie). An easy-drinking Côtes du Ventoux grenache-syrah rounded out the course.

The desserts, a chocolate ganache with apricot sorbet and poached apricots, and the "Cake and Shake" black-almond milkshake and peach polenta cake, were both delicious. I would have gone for a cheese plate had one been offered, since I have less of a sweet tooth than some, but the polenta cake and the apricots were not overly sweet, capping the meal quite nicely (and I cannot recall what the dessert wine was).

Our foursome had the bar to ourselves, so we had a lovely conversation with the eminently gracious Sal, who mixed us some fantastic cocktails to start and introduced my friend Darrell to Fernet Branca at the end of the night. Great company to match great food ... transcendent, indeed.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

urban(a) boho chic

A dollar an oyster during happy hour? Um, yes please!

Rotating selection and quite good -- this deal might be unbeatable (and even not at happy hour, it's only $16/dozen) at Urbana on P Street. Tonight they had lovely, briny malpeques from PEI, something ginormous and flavorful from Long Island, and vaguely tasteless mid-size bivalves from Virginia. Still, this is kind of a killer deal, particularly given its proximity to my office.

The lamb meatballs over polenta were tasty, with a shard of parmigiano each and served over a good deal of nice grits (labeled polenta but with more bite and texture). The brandade-stuffed piquillos leaned on the potato but still had some good flavor. Both of the above would probably read as undersalted to most palates; I'm rather salt sensitive and have had more than my fair share in the past two days, so I appreciated a slight undersalination to allow me to taste the lamb flavor and the well-prepared peppers, although I can see that the brandade could play as primarily potato to some (I got some good cod flavor, but there was also a chunk of cod that hadn't made it through the puree filter, and that helped). The falafels were tiny but delicious, sweet and savory, over some tahini and with pickled onions to offset the creaminess -- I totally want these again. All the small plates are $5, and the portions are great for sharing -- or for wolfing down with some similarly-priced happy hour drink specials.

The margherita pizza had some good chew to the crust, an even-handed application of cheese, and was to my eye downright large for $8 (a full dinner plate diameter). I honestly got out of there totally stuffed, with solicitous service and only a bit of techno in the background as the lights dimmed.

Props to my friend Todd for the notification of the oyster deal, which will draw me back  -- and would have done had the small plates not been even passable-to-good and instead totally sucked. I mean, come on, a buck an oyster? Months with 'r's be damned.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

i think those new droids are gonna work out just fine

Recipe for a successful* Sunday:
1) Take shoes ordered online back to DSW.
  • 1a) Spend a long time finding other shoes instead of just returning ill-fitting pairs ordered online.
2) Feel pleased how "little" final bill is, wilfully ignoring you already paid a certain amount and are just exchanging, more or less
3) Head over to Bed Bath and Beyond for new mattress pad. 
  • 3a) Acquire two new pillows as well. Splurge on what is essentially a ShamWow to dry the dog (because you're tired of sacrificing real towels), and a cast-iron grill pan to replace warped nonstick grill pan you've had for years. 
4) Once again, feel inordinately pleased with yourself for, really, just spending a lot of money. 
5) Lug large bags of stuff home and immediately fill ginormous plastic BB&B bags with trash and recycling.
  • 5a) Feel suddenly bad about consumerism. Soothe soul by washing dirty sheets for remaking bed with new mattress pad. Refuse to admit this is nonsensical.
6) Spend way too much time finding recipe to use friend's homemade Argentine chorizo. Settle on "shrimp and chorizo pizza with escarole and manchego" because you like all those ingredients, even though you have no pizza stone and no longer have time to make dough. 
  • 6a) Buy all other ingredients at store, including dough. Assume you will magically figure out how to bake it.
  • 6b) You're right.

My pizza totally 
looked exactly like 
this one. 
Except for how 
it didn't.
7) Consume dinner. Get stupidly full; actually save last piece of pizza for leftovers. Begin plotting when to make pizza again with other two chorizo links.
8) Throw in a disc of Star Trek: The Next Generation and finish your wine.
9) Put new mattress pad on bed. Remake bed. Consider climbing into bed. Decide to postpone until at least 9 p.m. for appearance's sake.
10) Seriously contemplate eating the leftover pizza. 
  • 10a) Resist. 
11) More TNG. More wine. Feel inordinately pleased with (self-described) witty blog post.


*"successful": "resulting or terminating in success"; incredibly boring to the entire rest of the world.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


When was the last time I went out for sushi or Japanese izakaya? For the first, I've lost track and for the second, um, that would be never. Oops! Luckily, the situation was easily remedied by heading over to Mt. Vernon Square and trying Kushi tonight.

Word on the street is that the kushiyaki and robata items from Kushi are excellent, but the draw is sushi, and the best of that is whatever's fresh on the menu for the day. We stuck to the specials tonight and were so not disappointed. The snapper (so good as nigiri we got an extra order as sashimi), chu-toro sashimi special, and maguro temaki were good enough that I would go back knowing I could get them (a toss-up given that two of the three were specials). However, due to a bit of a service snafu we didn't get our seared beef and scallion temaki in time, so we got a free pork belly and watercress temaki. These were dueling hand rolls and almost stunningly flavorful, with the pork having a slight edge over the beef; the rice was good, neither too vinegared nor with an edge of formed-in-advance staleness; and I honestly want to eat both of them again, right now, despite the fact that -- as much as I am a bottomless pit when it comes to awesome sushi -- I am so stuffed.

I've heard others who talked about mushrooms earlier, but I have to say that the grilled maitake and eringi, with an extra dish of the grilled Japanese eggplant, were outstanding tonight, and a fantastic value for the money -- these were huge as small plates go, and personally I could eat mushrooms every meal of my life and be happy, so it was a win-win. The maitake might have been my favorite: woodsy without being woody, earthy without tasting dirty, and enhanced by a brief dip in soy, they were both comforting and exciting. The grilled squid was also actually a massive plate of food, but the squid had both a lovely char and a great marinade. This dish is honestly too much squid at a time, even if you're sharing it, but the flavor and technique are there, so it's not a bad option, particularly if you're hungry.

I tried a cucumber "saketini" that I asked to be made on the not-sweet side. Most of the summer cocktails include a distinct sugar component, which is just not my thing -- I want my drink to have a bite and not be a dessert in itself. The bar obligingly made this sans sugar and it was so nice with the sushi parts of the meal. I forgot to specify gin instead of vodka so it wasn't entirely what I wanted, but still, it more than held up.

(The women sitting next to us were discussing the menu and one of them told her companion, "Well, you know I don't eat fish." Honestly, not that I would try to convert an anti-fish-eater via raw fish, but -- really? Then again, someone didn't snatch the chu-toro special out from under me, so I guess I'm thankful for small favors.)

Oh -- I should note that I did this with the LivingSocial coupon ($25 for $50 of food and drink). I'd paid my $25 long ago so that was a sunk cost, and I tipped on the full bill plus the comped temaki that was totally unnecessary -- I expect things that are being run among a sushi bar, robata grill, and kushiyaki station to come at different times -- but even so, the full price was actually more than reasonable for the sheer amount of food. The staff were completely gracious about the coupon. If this is what Kushi is putting out on a Saturday night (they were packed to the gills [pun intended] by the time we left a little past 9), then I wish them all the good will in the world, and intend to go back if possible for a maki or two and some grilled eggplant at the very least.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

in media(s) res at J&G

I was lucky to get to attend a media dinner last night at J&G Steakhouse. Chef Philippe Reininger was debuting his new summer menu, and newly installed GM Steve Uhr (who came from Blue Duck Tavern) served as the gracious host.

Everything we sampled is on the regular menu, but this was of course a special event, so my noting that the service and execution were flawless has to be taken with a grain (or a sizeable pinch?) of salt. Also flawless? The weather on the patio -- thank goodness. And the patio is nice; surprisingly, it's a  quiet corner, probably because driving down 15th can be such a hassle, given that one has to do backflips to skirt the White House.

photo courtesy of fingerprint dc
Anyway, rather than focus too much on the details of an experience that isn't likely to be recreated on an average night -- I mean, how often does one find oneself seated next to Phil Suarez, aka Jean-Georges Vongerichten's business partner? -- I would like to highlight both Chef Reininger and Mr. Uhr.

Fairly often with "star chef" outposts, it's easy to focus on the name on the marquee and ascribe success or failure to that person and his/her participation (or lack thereof) in the restaurant. Sometimes that's warranted, but in this case, there is someone worth noticing in the kitchen. Chef Reininger is soft-spoken and appears to prefer to stay happily ensconced mostly behind the scenes, but his passion and commitment come through in his food. When he visited the table, it soon became apparent that he cares deeply about his craft; he opened up and was visibly more relaxed and gregarious when we engaged him in a conversation about the provenance of the yellow watermelon and the lamb he served. I hadn't had the chance to get to J&G before last night, but I very much want to return and see if, as was my impression last night, he's consistently putting out elegant, classic-with-hints-of-modern-twists food.

For his introduction as J&G's general manager, Mr. Uhr served as host and sommelier last night -- I believe he actually did the wine pairings with the dinner -- and was knowledgeable, gracious, friendly, and so completely on top of everything and in control that it was hard to believe he'd only been there a short time. The patio was fairly full last night, and it was amazing to watch him give the same level of attention to the customers scattered about as to our large party. A strong GM can contribute a lot to making a dining experience cross the line from good to great -- not that chefs and servers and the rest of the staff don't contribute, but a good GM, like a good stage manager, is the one responsible for the show, the one who makes sure the gears and cogs in the clock turn smoothly and with precision. 
Steve Uhr did an impressive job last night, and if this match lasts, it bodes well for J&G to continue to be a dining spot for people who care about service as much as food. 

For the curious, the menu was as follows:

  • Watermelon and Goat Cheese, Cracked White Pepper, Olive Oil with a 2009 Boxwood Cabernet Franc rosé
  • Tuna Tartare, Ginger Dressing, Fresh Radish (this is on the online summer menu as salmon tartare) with a 2008 Viñedos de Ithaca 'Odysseus' Pedro Ximenez
  • Maine Lobster, Basil Butter, Corn and Potatoes with a 2008 Rochioli Sauvignon Blanc  
  • Rack of Lamb, Green Chili and Mint, Sweet Pea Puree with a 2006 Duckhorn 'Goldeneye' Pinot Noir  
  • Strawberries, Mint, Lime and Meringue, Sour Cream-Poppy Seed Sorbet with a nonvintage Lucien Albrect Brut Crémant d'Alsace rosé
photo courtesy of fingerprint dc

All our courses were full-size, with the exception of the lobster (half instead of whole) and lamb (two chops instead of three). To that end,although the lobster and the lamb are the most expensive dishes on the menu, I can absolutely recommend the lamb (Australian, if you're wondering), cooked perfectly medium rare with a vibrant green chili and mint panko crust. The chops came out tender and flavorful without any gaminess, and the herbal, piquant crust hit all the right complementary and contrasting notes. The tartare was also lovely, with nice heat from the ginger and radish; I felt the lobster could have benefited from a more even application of the basil butter, and I would have liked more of the pea puree with the lamb, too. The Rochioli sauvignon blanc was one of my favorite pairings of the night, contrasting the butter on the lobster, and the butteriness of the lobster, with a nice acidity and minerality, but the pinot noir was definitely the wine of the evening, earthy (even mushroomy) without being tannic and harsh. I guess I like French rosés better than Virginian ones, though, because the Boxwood really didn't impress me much, and the goat cheese in the salad overwhelmed it.

Jim got to eat lunch at J&G not long after it opened when he was interviewing for summer jobs, and I was distinctly jealous (I'm pretty sure I brown-bagged leftover salad that day). Well, now we're even, so the next step will be to go back on our own dime, and find out if it holds up.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


After pulling a twelve-hour day at the office on Monday and then coming home, making dinner, and suddenly having to handle a work emergency, I decided that Tuesday was going to go like this:

1. Punch out at 5.
2. Meet a friend to catch up.
3. Have a nice dinner out with Jim.

And lo! That's exactly what happened.

Despite it being located right at the top of Penn, Jim had never eaten at Sonoma Wine Bar (I'd been to the bar once for a happy hour), so since that's where I was meeting my friend, I figured we'd snag a table. The original plan was just to wing it, but when I arrived at 5:45, the bar was mobbed with Hill-types (at least two Representatives and their assorted staffers), so as I waited, I used OpenTable on the iPhone to confirm a two-top at 7. (And people say smartphones are ruining society. Bah.)

Enough friends have reported back on Sonoma that I wasn't expecting anything revelatory; just something solid that didn't require me to turn on the stove. Quite honestly, Sonoma outperformed my expectations, at least a bit.

We started with the house-made burrata, chive, tomato jam, fried bread ($11). This is the one dish I'd tasted before, in fact, and it was better last night than the first time I had it, with one exception -- the burrata was served too cold. I would prefer my burrata be cool, of course, but as though it had been in les caves, rather than bearing a level of chill that brings to mind the refrigerator (even if it's never seen the inside of one). However, despite its temp, the burrata was delicious, flecked with chive, creamy and spreadable. Being just a bit warmer would have allowed it almost to melt into the crispy bread, but each bite, topped with a bit of the sweet/sour tomato jam, was still a lovely contrast of tastes and textures.

We also had the grilled calamari, paprika, red pea salad ($11). This was outstanding, my dish of the night. The calamari were charred just enough to impart a great smoky flavor, and retained just enough chew (but weren't chewy) to set off the tender peas. The peas themselves were infused with a different, but complementary, kind of smokiness from the paprika; eaten on their own, they were good, but taken together with the squid, the flavors dovetailed in unexpected ways. 

Jim got the small portion of the pappardelle pork bolognese ($13), the noodles made in-house. I didn't try any, but it was a perfect size, sauced not too heavily but not too sparsely, and he finished every bite. I had the roasted rainbow trout, zucchini purée, zucchini, aleppo aioli, squash blossoms ($20) -- I seem to be on a trout kick. This presentation came as a lovely piece of skin-crisped fish, the flesh juicy and flavorful, next to a dollop of aioli, three lightly-fried squash blossoms, some sautéed zucchini coins (should have had a few more of these), and a bed of the purée. The last item had an odd bitterness to it when tasted by itself, but that flavor disappeared when paired with the sweetness of the fish and the buttery zucchini. 

With a glass of the belle glos “oeil de perdrix” 08 pinot noir blanc (rosé) ($14) and Jim's rye old fashioned ($8), the meal was complete, and quite a nice treat on a steamy summer Tuesday.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

one conference call, two conference calls, 3 bar and grill

Clarendon is three stops from Foggy Bottom. Which means that so is, among other good places, 3 Bar and Grill.

Bleu Cheese Chips, Point Reyes Bleu, House-Cured Bacon ($9) are messy as sin and a true guilty pleasure: hand-cut, house-fried potato chips with scads of melty, tangy cheese and crispy chunks (not bits) of smoky bacon. They're like everything you want nachos to be, but so rarely are.

The Smothered Trout, Pan Seared, Shrimp, Mussels, Tomato, Asiago Grits ($18) was quite good, the skin very crispy and the flaky fish set off nicely by the acid of the tomatoes and onions. The two head-on shrimp and the mussels were flavorful and cooked properly, and the grits were outstanding, creamy and very cheesy without being overwhelmed by salt. An overly-heavy hand with an overly-buttery sauce provided the one off-note; luckily, the grits could be used to make a nice little barrier to prevent the sauce from drowning the rest of the dish.

After conference calls til nearly 8 p.m., it was just what the doctors* ordered.

It wasn't until the bar emptied out completely around 10 p.m. that we realized how loud it had been. It was a bit like eating with Dr. Kakofanous A. Dischord and the DYNNE. That said, it wouldn't stop me from coming back. 

 *No, really. Many of the doctors I work with would totally have ordered this, I swear -- "heart-healthy" be damned.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

that is one hungry mother ....

The last night in Cambridge was with my dear, dear friend Sam at Hungry Mother. Sam has lived with me a few times in the past, and is an up-and-coming young home cook and learning about drinks and food, too -- let's say a burgeoning foodie of sorts. He had gone to this restaurant recently and loved it so much he said we had to go when in town -- it's Southern comfort food done with an incredibly refined sensibiilty, and in Boston that's even rarer than it is here -- and so we checked it out.

And hoo boy, was Sam right.

Sam told me beforehand that their cocktails were fantastic, so I was looking forward to it. They number the drinks instead of naming them, but that reflects an overarching element of humor and (somehow inoffensive) cleverness to the menu (food as well as drinks; more on this to come). After the weekend I'd had -- and seeing that they recommended it as a pairing on the dessert menu -- I ordered a Sazerac ($9), which was slightly less fantastic than what I had at Temple Bar, but still made spot-on and quite delicious. Sam had the No. 43, Old Overholt Rye, 10 yr Ferreira Tawny Port, maple syrup, bitters ($9.50), but he vastly preferred the No. 2, Maker's Mark, sorghum syrup, Luxardo Amaretto, boiled peanut ($9), which Jim started with. It was perfectly balanced and possessed a great depth of flavor that was, truly, awesome.

The drinks menu also includes the No. 99, Bartender's Choice ($10). This is essentially the speakeasy element; you get as vague or as specific as you like, and the bar sends you something. Jim asked for "smoky, I like whiskey, with some citrus" and got a drink comprising mezcal, green chartreuse, Rittenhouse rye, and orange curacao -- and it was exactly what he asked for and more. The only downside is that the time it took made our second round arrive in the middle of our entrees ... but honestly, it was worth the wait.

We started with the "To Tide You Over..." order of Spicy Pimiento Cheese ($4), which was an amuse just the right size for three people. Perfectly spreadable, with a kick, it was a traditionally Southern presentation and absolutely went with the first cocktails. Next we shared the Local Lettuces, cucumbers, radishes, cherry tomatoes, mint, cornbread croutons ($9) and the Pork Plate ($10), which that night was housemade bratwurst cooked in beer, served with homemade stone-ground mustard and a beer shot. All the pork items are made in-house and they are amazing; if you did nothing but eat the pork products (guanciale, ham, bacon) I think you would walk out incredibly happy.

For our main courses, I had the Carolina Rainbow Trout, hakurei turnips & greens, sea island peas, bacon ($24). It was outstanding, with the accompaniments absolutely spot-on to add all the flavor elements (the bitter greens, the umami long-cooked peas, and the salty, crispy bacon). The fish was so perfectly cooked that I didn't want to share it, but the Veal Blanquette, carrots, potatoes, toasted bread ($23) was also so delicious that I had to keep trading bites for pieces of wonderfully tender veal in an incredibly flavorful gravy. The Cornmeal Catfish dirty rice, mustard brown butter, chow chow ($18) arrived masterfully done, crispy and flaky and seasoned with an assured hand to avoid the trap of under-flavored or over-salted fish that so often happens with catfish, in my experience.

Amazingly, we had room to try dessert. I only tasted my own, the Rhubarb Cobbler, black pepper ice cream ($8), but the reason I didn't try the others is because mine was so good -- not overly sweet, which I dislike, but allowing the pure tart rhubarb to shine through, with a traditional cobbler topping and the mild spice hit of the black pepper ice cream -- that I refused to share. I have it on good authority that the other desserts are quite good, although one of the cakes erred on the side of a bit dry, for which the housemade mint ice cream more than compensated, and the Taza Chocolate Sundae, sorghum marshmallow, black walnuts, cherry on top ($8) was raised to an ethereal level by the bruléed sorghum marshmallow ... heavenly.

This was the big blowout dinner, the "I haven't seen you in ages and we are going to tear. it. up." night on the town. We ended up back at Sam's place playing board games and drinking Kraken on the rocks after our multi-hour feast in a space that really feels like you're in the house of someone who just wants to feed you well: whitewashed brick walls, wooden floors and rustic tables, a staff who clearly cares what's going on, a kitchen bent on putting out incredible food (even on a Sunday night, which after reunion and Commencement weekend couldn't have been the biggest or most important night for them). I honestly wanted to go sit at the bar for the next three hours and just find out everything about this group, this place, that is doing what no one was doing in Cambridge when I left (except maybe Tony Maws, and funnily enough his new space is right around the corner). I am so impressed with this place .... I can't wait to go back.

Monday, May 31, 2010

temple bar the doors

I found myself starting the evening off at Temple Bar on Friday and again on Saturday. I used to love it here when I lived down the street; for the past year or so, under the leadership of Michael Scelfo, the quality and creativity have increased to the point that I'm legitimately disappointed I can't actually get here again before I leave.

The first drink I tried, A Little Taste of Cambridge Grey Goose Pears, Canton Ginger, Fresh Lemon ($10), was perfect at the end of a hot, humid day -- it had enough of the ginger kick to offset the sweetness of the drink overall. It went wonderfully with the Sesame Tuna Tartare, Togarashi Aioli, Avocado, Wakame Seaweed Salad, & House Kettle Chips ($13), nothing innovative but rather a well-executed rendition of the classic, with cubes of ruby-red tuna and silky avocado piled on the seaweed, and the chips adding a nice starchy crunch. Even better were the Espresso & Fig-Glazed "St. Louis" Ribs, Smoky Espresso Syrup, Creamy Slaw ($9), which came with five meaty ribs, the meat all but falling off the bones, and the glaze nicely balanced between bitter and sweet. The bartender recommended this dish and I was glad he did; he also made me what is thus far the best Sazerac ($8) I've ever had to accompany the dish.

We stuck to the bar and appetizer menu both nights, and the dish of the night the second night had to be the Red Wine Braised Colorado Lamb Shoulder, Crispy Fried Olives, Crostini ($9) from the appetizers. This was fantastically flavorful and, in fact, a large portion over a smoky, chunky tomato sauce, with the fried black and green olives giving a salty punch and crunch to play off the tender meat. The Blue Hill Bay Mussels, House Made Merquez Sausage, Herbed Tomato Broth, Grilled Bread ($10) showed up as a huge bowl of plump, not-too-large mussels, but the merguez was the star, seasoned forcefully but not with an overly heavy hand, and not so spicy or smoky that it overwhelmed the mussels.

I used to come to this place for a casual night out just down the street; my standbys were the calamari, the burger, the Caesar salad, and the fondue. Happily, all of these things are still on the menu, but tweaked. Having sampled the new items the chef has brought to the restaurant, I bet these are even better than they were before, and I wish I still lived close enough that I could drop in on a lazy Tuesday night when I don't feel like cooking.

Friday, May 28, 2010

mes amies, chez henri

The service in the bar at Chez Henri tonight was really off, which is a massive letdown. Yes, today was Commencement, but unless one has a particularly progressive parental relationship, the bar at Chez Henri is not where one celebrates such an event, so it wasn't due to excessive celebratory crowds. On a Thursday night, though, there's no reason there should have been only one bartender in charge of the bar and the tables, particularly when every seat was filled and they were three-deep at the bar; we waited long enough for someone to take our cards that Godot could have shown up first and we'd have been less surprised. That said, I'm still glad that I dragged my girlfriends there for our first girls' night out of Reunion weekend. They all lived in the Quad but never went to CH in college; I, on the other hand, found every excuse I could to eat in the bar there both during school and after, when I lived right up the street.

And on that front, Chez Henri did not disappoint. The Rhum Cocktail Marilene, 8 Year Old Haitian Rum, Muddled Lime & Angostura Bitters Shaken & Served on Ice (all cocktails $9) is new since I was last there (in...2006? 2007? Eep) and a fantastic way to start the evening (especially since yesterday's CF of a workday and nine-hour drive did not end with a drink). The Periodista, Triple Sec, Apricot Brandy, Rum, Lime Juice, Shaken and Served with a Twist of Lime also stood the test of time. After that, the girls and I moved to a bottle of rosé on special, and were more than well served. (In fact, one of our foursome arrived late, having had to wait for her babysitter (read: husband) to get home, and when her water didn't arrive in a timely fashion, was comped her glass of wine, totally unnecessarily -- it was a grand gesture.)

We also managed to sample the Chicken Empanadas ($7) and Vegetable Pinchos ($8) to start. The pinchos were skewers of grilled okra, red onion, red bell pepper, mushroom, and squash, with a dressing halfway between crema and tzatziki -- and were delicious (thank goodness for the okra, which I love). The empanadas are three small, but perfectly executed, examples to a plate, with a mango-black bean salsa and a salsa fresca to accompany. I had to have my truly beloved Duck Tamale on Spinach Salad, Warm Bacon and Mustard Dressing ($11). This is one of my favorite dishes of all time -- actually the first dish I ate when I last returned from France, because nothing else would bridge the gap from the food in Paris to back home in Portland, ME, at the time. Big chunks of crispy/fatty bacon and a spicy dressing set off the confit of duck packed into the soft masa ... OK, I kind of want to go back and have it again tomorrow. The Grilled Homemade Chorizo over scallion mashed potato ($8) was another star of the evening. I'm kind of just sad we didn't make it to the conch fritters.

Yes, we were crammed into the door corner all night long and the service was ridiculously off-kilter (we easily would have gotten another round if anyone had asked instead of just dropping our check after clearing our plates, and we had to ask several times for forks for our main course rounds after the first ones were cleared with the apps), but I will come back to Chez Henri for their drinks and that freaking amazing duck tamale as long as I'm able to visit Harvard Square ... and I hope that will be for a good, long time.

Friday, May 07, 2010

rusticoh my goodness

I have to admit that I didn't anticipate great things from Rustico last night, given the ups and downs of previous reviews, and the fact that I was going with a party of nine at 10 p.m. on a Friday. I figured, sure, there'd be some beers, some burgers, some pizzas, and everyone would be in a post-Iron Man 2 good mood so it wouldn't really matter if things were kind of meh.

I'm more than happy to say I was wrong. Rustico performed, and performed well.

One of the dishes of the night would have to have been the first special we tried, an asparagus and burrata bruschetta ($12). The young asparagus had just enough of a char on them to highlight the creamy, delicate cheese; other people must have taken a chance on this, too, as we tried to get two orders and instead got only one, the last of the night. We also had two starter pizzas (Roasted Mushroom, mushroom cream, goat cheese, sauteed spinach [$14] and Duck Confit and Cracklins, brie and sautéed onions [$16]) shared amongst the group -- both solid presentations from the pizza oven, with great flavors, and perhaps just a bit too much of a crust-to-topping ratio.

The Grilled Dry-Aged Cheddar Burger, toasted brioche, red wine - shallot aioli, malted fries ($12) is a burger that could have been designed specifically for the birthday boy. Good thing, too, as he had accidentally left his wallet at home and was thus prohibited from trying any of the many beers available (the primary reason he chose the spot, although also it was mere minutes from the theatre). Of course, after the starters, he had to bring half the enormous, juicy, perfectly-cooked sandwich home, along with the pile of excellent fries. Slightly less than half, actually, because hands kept snaking over to steal them when he wasn't looking -- but for once, I was not among the fry purloiners! No; that's because I was one of the three at table who ordered the special, Soft-Shell Crabs, avocado purée, cucumber salad, and shoestring potatoes ($27). At just under twice what I've been paying around town for a single soft-shell as an appetizer, these were two beautiful, meaty specimens, caught at 4 p.m. that day (our server immediately informed us*), perfectly fried with just enough crunch but not too much batter, allowing the flavor of the crabs to shine through. The shoestrings were more like matchsticks, but that was fine with me -- crunchy, salty, and just barely potato-y, they were essentially another element of crispiness to play off the softness of the puree, cucumber bites, and crabmeat.

Another member of the party couldn't resist the Grilled Bone-In Pork Chop, chorizo fried rice, cherry compote ($22). This massive portion (much of which accompanied her home as well) was described by our friend Gennaro as having "no right to be that tender and delicious" and I think he has half a mind to ask how they're brining that chop to keep it that way. The cherry was not too sweet, collaborating with instead of fighting the heat and spice of the other flavors on the plate. Gennaro described his own Half-Chicken Two Ways, creamy fregola & spring pea stew, herb chicken jus ($18) as far exceeding his expectations, a huge (I'm sensing a theme here) half-chicken that was juicy and full of spring-herb flavors -- although none of us could determine what the "two ways" were.

Probably the weakest dish was the Spinach and Ricotta Canelloni, creamy walnut sauce, confit shrimp & herb salad ($18). I didn't taste this, but it was deemed by those who did to be not bad, just underwhelming: filling a bit on the bland side, and the diner who ordered it didn't care for the texture of the shrimp, which also were very gently flavored. Nothing made this dish jump to life, and compared to the others on the table, it just felt lackluster.

I know I'm supposed to talk about the beer now, but honestly, I have no idea what beers people ordered and what they thought of them; for the most part, people were too busy talking about the food -- and other topics, of course, like how all the Louboutins the costumers put on Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie made us dislike her even more than usual** -- to comment too heavily on the libations.

Since this was a birthday celebration, there was dessert: Red Velvet Cheesecake, whipped cream, chocolate covered pretzels ($8). A rich yet light concoction from Buzz across the street, it was exactly right to end the meal, and the evening.

I'm not in that part of Alexandria that often, but I can say with confidence that I'll be back at Rustico, and before Iron Man 3 is out, for sure.

*I was reminded just how much of a neighborhood spot this is by our server's interactions with us -- or maybe it was just his personality. As you might have gathered, this was a table of self-professed sci-fi/comic book geeks, and at one point the topic of the Tauntaun sleeping bag came up. Because he was in earshot, our server dove right into the conversation. It wasn't at all unpleasant, just a bit unanticipated, as was the cartoon cow he drew on the take-out container for the burger (alas, no piggy on the pork chop's box).

**Unabashedly girly geek-out. No shoes or movie stars were harmed in the writing of this review.

Monday, April 26, 2010

layers of the onion

Last Friday, I went to Vidalia 24 with my friends Ed, Kriste, and Gennaro.

It was, in a word, fantastic.

The only words that exist to describe how delicious and interesting the courses we tasted over three hours seem hackneyed and overused. Come up with a rave, and I would agree it applies to one if not many or most of the dishes Chef Cooper set before us tonight. I could have made a meal of the interpretation of caviar, the scallops, the lamb, and the bacon -- oh, and the foie gras -- but as much as I hated it when those dishes were gone, I was thrilled to discover what new masterpiece would take their places.

I've never eaten in Vidalia's dining room -- only the bar. In fact, that was where I took my Air Force friend before, who was so impressed with the bar food that he decided 24 had to be on his "must eat" list before he leaves DC for good. He's recently been to minibar, Komi, and Volt (although not Table 21), so Vidalia 24 came next in the line. Well, halfway through he was contemplating if he could get in again with friends from New Zealand.

Me? I was wondering why I'd not done anything like this before, and glad I was doing it at a place that feels probably too homey after a cruddy day at the office. Getting not only to see, but to participate in, the process of a chef and his staff orchestrating an event like this truly adds to the experience -- but the food was so far beyond what I could have anticipated that I don't even know how to demonstrate that.

I don't think of foam as food; while molecular gastronomy interests me academically, I'll take a burger over a "burger" any day. But 24 wasn't just about showing off; it was a pure synthesis of techniques both classical and creative, pairings both time-tested and innovative, and most tellingly, a joyous exploration on behalf of both those creating and those dining alike.

Part of the fun is that Chef Cooper really wants those seated at the table to let loose and have a blast. Ed Jenks and his seemingly endless perfect pairings definitely help with that, but honestly, the freedom to be as silly and over the top as we might want was a real pleasure. That freakin' bacon & bread dish so good you want to steal some off your friend's plate? Have a spoon war -- no one's judging! Playing with your napkin ring and naming the iron pig Fat Bastard Reuben? (Not that we did that. Ahem.) All part of the experience. Part of being at 24 is creating the synaesthesia most of us don't actually ever experience; laughter and camaraderie woke up the taste buds, and let one -- or, anyway, let me -- experience combinations and depths of flavors I didn't know existed.

So in the vein of creativity, Kriste and I decided to write our responses to the night as abstract but meaningful responses to the menu itself. (But, for those of you who find this utterly ridiculous, never fear -- Gennaro has the more traditional write-up, and our combined pictures).

Without further ado, then, and on behalf of newly-minted auntie K, I give your our impressions of the highlights.

pink piggy / black linen / eat with your eyes first

beef liver jalapeno matsuhisa picked radish / unctuous umami / mmmmm

peas & carrots/ whispering whimsy / shouting of spring

scallop & avocado / smoke and flame / eyes-roll-back good

vegetable ash / "rocks" of potato and egg / earth wanting wind, seeking fire

mirabelle, grüner veltliner, pinot noir / lime, vodka, cucumber / aromatic fantastic

8 mile / 8 ball / bacon powder is the new cocaine

don't need no heaven / lamb, peanut, rye / more, please

pigeon, blood pudding, rhubarb / mineral symphony / 2005 mourvedre domaine du gros' noré

green garlic / oh baby / sturgeon sublime

palate fixer / test tube / mirepoix elixir

fancy chocolate crunchies / oooh melty ice cream / sweets for the sweet

riffing on riffing / want more detail? /
see this post

Friday, April 23, 2010

didn't siroc my world

Last night was a lovely night to sit outside anywhere in Washington. I had thought it might get a bit chilly, but surprisingly, the patio at Siroc (which lacks heaters, as far as I noticed) remained pleasant after the sun went down. Dinner itself, however, was less so.

My friend and I wanted to taste several dishes from the menu, and as noted upthread, Siroc happily does half-portions of pasta, which meant we could do two appetizers and two pastas. For our first course, we had the
Cappelacci filled with Lobster and Roasted Corn with a Sweet Pepper Beurre Blanc and Baby Cilantro and an off-menu special of Soft-Shell Crabwith Crispy Pork Belly and Baby Bok Choi. The latter was absolutely the dish of the night: a big, meaty soft-shell, prepared expertly, with crispy pieces of pork and tender greens, all tied together with just enough of a balsamic-reduction drizzle (which is an ingredient that likely belongs on the trite food list if not already there, but did work in this dish, adding a bit of tang and cutting the richness of the fried crab).

Sadly, the pasta did not work as well. This dish was basically another riff on lobster and butter, but although many dishes succeed with only those two elements, this dish completely failed to pull it off. There was an odd sour-citrus note (from the sweet pepper?) and a bit of a chili oil (hot pepper as a balancing element? I don't know, it was just confusing) that didn't integrate; if there was corn present, it surely wasn't roasted, because none of that flavor came through. The lobster itself was compressed into dense balls at the center of the cappelacci, and so lacking in any forthright lobster flavor that it seems safe to assume it had been frozen. This was likely also the case with the crabmeat in the crabcake amuse over a spot of mango puree, although the mere presence of an amuse was a pleasant surprise, and highlights the very good service we had throughout.

For our second courses, we had another half-portion of pasta, this time the
Hand-made Potato Gnocchi with a Ragu of Muscovy Duck with Caramelized Carrots and Parsnips. For a dish with so many elements that should have exploded with flavor, we wound up instead with a bowl of dumplings under-topped with a sauce at once overly herbaceous and bland. This would have benefited from a brief encounter with a salt-shaker, which might have allowed the flavors of the duck and the root vegetables to emerge and lend some life to the dish; instead, this was just sad. We also had the Quail Marinated in Pomegranate with Fingerling Potatoes baked with Goat Cheese Curd, Green Olives and Crushed Tomatoes, which did at least have flavor; unfortunately, many of them just didn't belong together! One of the odd men out here was the cheese; luckily, to some degree, there was very little of it (I think we each had one small bite that included it). I don't recall actually seeing any olives, and the fingerlings were sad and limp, although properly seasoned. I think I got the one fairly meaty bite of the bird, the skin of which had been lacquered to a sticky-sweet shine by the marinade.

It's disappointing when a meal that seems promising falls this far short of the mark, especially when there are little elements that shine. The plates evinced plenty of good technique: the vegetables in the ragu had been chopped into perfect, tiny dice; the crab was fried with neither too light nor too heavy a hand. Service was unobtrusive and spot-on throughout the night, as well; when we realized that our chosen orders of the Nero d'Avola and Soave wouldn't be exactly right with our first course dishes (particularly the Nero), we added a glass of the Chardonnay, which managed to appear before the appetizer after all, allowing us to pair it with the pasta dish.

I hadn't been to Siroc before and very much wanted to like it, and if invited back I would get the soft-shell crab again in a hot minute and have not a single qualm. But for a small, independent restaurant to fight off the corporate behemoth, it has to be far more consistent -- after all, even this short-ish thread yields a sense that the highs are high and the lows are definitely low -- and send out dishes that don't wind up less than the sum of their parts.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

the world's most boring travel blog post

I have three trips coming up in the next ten months and I'm trying to figure out the best approach to booking travel. Yeah, this is how I spend glorious early spring Sundays. Shut up.

Memorial Day weekend: DC to Boston for my college reunion. (Also: hello, Internet! Now you sort of know how old I am!)
Fourth of July weekend: DC to Ann Arbor for a wedding.
Weekend of November 13th: DC to Sonoma County, CA, for a wedding.

Details: I can take some extra vacation days around the first to see friends and family. The last might also be extended for some vacationing in California wine country. The middle one will be an up-and-back.
Resources: One round trip ticket available via miles on US Air. One 2008 Mazda 3i five-door. Lots of luggage.
Obstacles: Vile and deep-seated loathing for the process of scheduling travel.

I realize that sounds a bit vitriolic, but have you tried to book a flight these days? There is no such thing as the lowest fare, and if you manage to find an airplane leaving your desired airport at a time when normal humans are actually awake and available to travel, then more power to you.

All of my options come up as leaving at dark-thirty in the morning, or with a layover lasting the length of an elephant's gestational period, which at least is somewhat convenient in that you can just sleep in the terminal and give up on booking a nice hotel.

I'm thinking it makes the most sense to use the miles trip for the California journey, as those tickets are the most expensive (and that trip will also require a rental car). Of course, it's also the trip least likely to be available on that particular airline.

Whereas USAir flies to Boston approximately every forty-eight seconds here, so it would be super-easy to use the miles on that trip. Still, the Boston trip is the only one that could conceivably be done via car. If so, then in at least one direction it will be just me, and while I don't mind that drive, I can think of better ways to spend eight hours at a stretch. And the one-way plane fare to get my ride-share up to Boston is almost as expensive as a round-trip (awesome!) in the first place.

The easiest option is just to suck it up, book all three trips, and be done with it, but of course that feels like a cop-out. What if fares go down? What if fares go up? What if we get to keep our shoes on but have to fly naked? Honestly, if we can achieve this, why can't we dematerialize and reconstruct our atoms in a new place?

The fallout of all of this is that I just don't want to travel anymore and my brain is looking for new and creative ways to avoid it. Yes, that's right; instead of just forking over some cash to the airlines, my brain is going, "What if you tried to hitchhike/bike/run across the country for charity instead?" or "Surely you're developing viral encephalitis and won't be able to go." This is a ridiculous statement for many very obvious reasons, not least if which is that travel is one of my few major passions; there's no way I should be so willing to chuck it all and hole up in my house instead. It's just such a pain to try to get it all squared away.

I think it'd be easier to go back for that advanced degree in physics and build the damn transporter.