Sunday, December 04, 2011

and it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end

I had brunch/lunch today with my aunt and uncle at Seasons in the Four Seasons Georgetown. This has become something of a tradition for us; they're usually in town the first weekend in December, and I meet them that Sunday morning. In the past, however, we've met early, for breakfast. Now, I love hotel breakfast, particularly at a hotel with good restaurants like the Four Seasons (they make an excellent Eggs Florentine that I always order). But we're always there while the restaurant sets up its incredibly elaborate brunch, and I'm always a little curious about the extensive offerings.

This year, my aunt told me she'd made a reservation for noon. Score! I thought. Brunch!

That said, I'm not the average DC (or NYC, or LA) bruncher. Brunch in these towns seems to occur at 1, 2, even 3 p.m., but that just doesn't work for my body because I just can't comfortably sleep late; unless I'm ill, 9 a.m. never sees me still in bed, and even 8 a.m. has started to feel decadent. And I'm also a breakfast-eater (one of my favorite meals, any time of day) who can't wait five or six hours after awakening to have something.

But, no matter. Brunch, lunch, schmunch -- it was just a midday meal that would be a treat. I had my normal small breakfast this morning, and hit the gym, looking forward to sampling a bit of everything at lunchtime.

And sample I did, having small servings of the Dill-Marinated Salmon; the Korean Grilled Octopus with Green Onion Salad; the Fried Okra Salad with Marinated Tomatoes, Onions and BaconArugula with Duck Confit, Dried Cherries, Spiced Pecans and Maple Vinaigrette (I cannot pass up duck confit, ever); and a few Smoked Crimini Mushrooms.


The cured salmon was buttery and full of flavor, while the octopus was nicely spicy and not at all overcooked (chewy, not rubbery). Bites of crisp-fried okra played nicely off the smoky bacon and vinegary tomatoes, while the lightly-dressed arugula salad had peppery crunch and sweetness to marry the duck's meaty richness. And I'm a sucker for a mushroom, and these had a nice full flavor to round things out.

My aunt and uncle delved even further, with a made-to-order omelet, some crab cakes, more smoked salmon and other items from the extensive raw bar (oysters, ceviche, shrimp, crab claws, crab salad), cheese from the cheese and charcuterie station ... I think the only place we didn't get to was the dessert table, probably because who could eat dessert after all that?

I'm not usually a fan of a buffet, but Seasons really has this one down pat, refreshing the salads and prepared dishes almost continually, and cooking many items to order. The layout in the room also facilitates movement, so it was never crowded or distracting. The entire meal was quite lovely -- company, of course, included.

The hotel is always decorated for the holidays with trees designed by local artists for charities, and the festive air is just part of the package, because I have looked forward every year to getting to spend a nice morning with my aunt and uncle as my start of the holiday season. And for the last DC rendezvous we'll have, well, we went out on a hight note.

Monday, November 21, 2011

big flavors, little serow

I have never dined at Komi.

I'm stating that up front because it's known far and wide to be one of the best restaurants (or perhaps "dining experiences") in DC. Johnny Monis has received national accolades for his Mediterranean tasting menu; add a fantastic wine list and exquisite service, and it's no wonder it's one of the first places the Obamas went for a special occasion night out after moving here.

In the past few years, though, I've not had reason or inclination to go all-in for the multi-course Komi adventure. It's not that I doubt I'd enjoy it; it just never quite made it onto my must-do list.

And then.

Two weeks ago, the Komi team opened the doors on a new project: Little Serow. Serving a set menu of northern Thai (Isaan) dishes family-style, the tiny underground space with no signage doesn't take reservations; Tuesday through Saturday, you just have to show up and take a chance -- or wait for a text message telling you your table is ready if you don't get in on the first seating when they open the doors. The wine and beer menu, curated by Komi sommelier Kat Bangs, doesn't provide suggested pairings, but the staff  guide you through your tastings with matches if you so choose. The early buzz, all positive, had my mouth watering. I wasn't about to leave DC without trying it out.

Ed and I met there at 5:30 on Friday night. Over the next ninety-plus minutes, we sampled the following:

jeow dtap bpet  crispy pork / duck liver / shrimp paste
yaam het   pet mushroom / cured egg / lime
laap pla   duk catfish / shallots / chiles
khao tod   fermented cabbage / lime leaf / peanuts
sai oua   pork sausage / kaffir / basil
jin tup   beef / charred & hammered
kaeng hung lay   pork rib / tamarind / ginger

The first dish was like Thai chips and dip -- house-made pork rinds dipped in addictively spicy pate. Along with it came a dish full of herbs and cooling raw vegetables, and a basket of sticky rice, from which we were encouraged to scoop with our fingers for picking up items from the next three dishes. These salads played with spice and texture; the mushrooms were earthy while the house-cured egg shavings added crunch, as did the the crispy shallots over the spicy minced catfish. Our favorite was the fermented cabbage dish, an umami-rich interplay of sour and spice.

Slices of pork sausage, redolant of herbs, came with a huge sprig of basil, the leaves of which served as utensiles and wrappers for each bite. The last two dishes -- fantastically charred beef with a piquant dipping sauce, and just-shy-of-falling-off-the-bone pork ribs with a curry gravy -- cried out for more of the sticky rice to help sop up every fragrant, satisfying  morsel. Two small squares of mint-coconut sticky rice finished off the meal perfectly, just a little hit of sweetness after the layers of herbs, spices, and heat.

Thai is not usually my favorite of the readily-available Asian cuisines; I gravitate more toward Japanese and Vietnamese -- the latter because of its focus on sour, salt, and spice as much as sweet. The food at Little Serow played into this kind of profile, abandoning sweet or coconut-milk-laden oversaucing in lieu of fresh and herbaceous spiciness.

Seven courses and several drinks (very nicely matched cider and a Thai beer for Ed; a sparkling Gruner Veltliner and then a Willamette pinot noir for me; and we each got a taste of a brandy-fortified wine from the Willamette valley as well, which went nicely with the salads) later, finished eating but not even close to finished discussing the interesting presentations and compositions of flavors and textures of the meal, we made our way into the chillier-than-anticipated DC night. I may still not have gotten to Komi, but I am a big fan of Little Serow.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

serendipity at the conscious table

I admit it. I'm a planner. Even if I end up entirely breaking the plans, I tend not to be happy if I haven't put something on the schedule.

However, sometimes the best things happen when you just don't schedule them in.

Yesterday, we had planned to go see an early evening movie before a nice dinner at a restaurant we like near the theatre. Unfortunately, the movie theatre neglected to update its schedule; the movie we had planned to see was sharing a screen with another film, and we (not alone among people in the lobby, it turned out) had missed the only showing. We considered seeing another movie, but one in which we were only mildly interested had already started and was nearly full, while another would have required we go to dinner pretty much immediately and then return -- and between having just had coffee (so not being hungry) and my not even knowing if I wanted to see the later film, it didn't seem worth it.

   "We could go buy groceries and go to the restaurant tomorrow instead," I suggested.
   "Sure," he agreed.

Bzzzt -- the restaurant is closed on Sundays.

   "Well, how about we go to the wine store, then sit and read at the coffee shop?"
   A pause, then a considered nod. "Well ... I guess that's why we brought the iPads."

A half-case deal later, we began to chat with the friendly, helpful clerk as she rang up our purchases. A comment about the 2010 Bordeaux led to a joke about my friend the sommelier ... and that's when our luck began to change.

   "Oh, who's the somm?" asked the clerk.
   "Ah, not out here -- back in DC," I replied. "Although, boy, I wish I could get him out here. The Springs would be just the kind of place he could open the sort of spot he'd like."
   She half-laughed. "I moved here from San Diego and L.A. ... our food scene here is not all that."
   Ed and I exchanged looks.
   "Oh, I don't know," I said. "He thought that too before he moved back, but we've found some things to change his mind."
   She stopped putting our bottles into the bag. "Well, if you want to support good, local food, and chefs doing interesting things--"
   Another look between us. Did she just read our minds? Yes, please!
   "--Go down to Kiowa, and turn left off Tejon. You can't in a car, because it's one way. And there's a little place, just opened, doesn't even have a sign. The Conscious Table. Three young chefs doing local and sustainable, farm-to-table stuff. I helped them do their wine list -- I'm a wholesale rep, just work in the shop one day a week for fun -- they are doing awesome, creative stuff. Only open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays ... you have to check it out."
   Our eyes got wide. "I think that description used every buzzword that generally indicates a restaurant the two of us would love," Ed finally replied.
   "Great!" she smiled. "Tell them Stacy sent you. It's fantastic. Enjoy!"

After putting the wine in the car, we headed for the restaurant. Sure, locavore and farm-to-table have become marketing speak that might make the jaded gourmand roll his or her eyes, but the actual practices lend themselves to the kind of cooking we both seek out and savor. If that's really what they were doing, we absolutely had to check it out.

And there, in a mostly-unmarked storefront, sat an adorable space with exposed brick walls, a working fireplace, and the menu of the night on a huge chalkboard. Country paté? Xocolatl yardbird? Red curry shrimp pho? Too many choices! While we tried to decide, an amuse of pickled beets atop a slice of lemon cucumber from an heirloom garden of a neighbor gave us the first indication that we were in for a treat.

A plate of dense-crumbed fennel-studded bread with excellent salted butter and olive oil helped get us through the decision process. The (yes, actually) well-priced wine list yielded a nicely drinkable Côtes du Rhone that went wonderfully with the Butternut squash tarte tatin we shared to start. The tatin was amazing, with caramelized pineapple bringing out the natural sweetness of the squash, and the puff-pastry crust adding flaky, buttery crunch to each bite. We also had a small Sencha saladmixed greens, candied walnuts, apples, goat cheese -- a perfect fall combination, and one of the best vinaigrettes I've had in ages (and I wish I knew what it was).

For his main course, Ed chose the Lamb bolognese, mashed potatoes, a slow-cooked dish of rich, deeply-flavored comfort if ever there was one. And I had to go with the Seared scallops, sweet potato purée, arugula, and beet molasses: four perfectly cooked giant scallops, caramelized on the outside but tender inside, over wilted greens, with little hits of sweetness from the root vegetable elements -- everything I could want in each lovely bite.

By this point, we knew this had to be the best meal we'd had in Colorado Springs, and on the list of the best meals we'd shared anywhere. The kind of place we want to bring people, just to see their eyes widen when they take their first bite and realize the talent that went into creating their food. The kind of place we want everyone to go, so the place succeeds beyond its wildest dreams.

We opted to bring home leftovers in favor of trying the Cranberry chocolate frangipane for dessert ... and asked the waitress if the restaurant would consider doing a semi-private event in mid-January.

"Sure!" she said brightly. "Here, I'll go get Chef."

And so, mid-bite of the excellent dessert -- tart cranberries mitigating what might otherwise have been a sugar-bomb of chocolate and almond paste -- Chef Brent Beavers pulled up a chair to chat with us.

And, full disclosure -- that "sencha" in the salad was a clue. Ed had already begun to notice the staff looked familiar; several of them hail from a restaurant of that name, now closed, that he used to visit and quite liked. It's like when your favorite actors show up in an indie movie you hadn't even planned on seeing ... just a little extra treat.

The restaurant is already offering chef's tables with multiple courses and pairings, so we talked to Chef Beavers about doing an event there, which seemed to be right up his alley. He seemed as excited as we were to plan a mid-winter celebration, and I can't wait to go back and taste what he's got in store.

Sure, the movie would have been fun. But stumbling into a restaurant that could have been created with us in mind? Plans, shmans: I'll take that any day.

And another one of those squash tarts. Oh, yes, please.

Friday, September 09, 2011

holy cow, whole foods

The proximity of the new Whole Foods Foggy Bottom store to my commute is truly dangerous to my financial well-being. I already live above a very good Harris Teeter; to have a really awesome Whole Foods at the other end of my Metro ride is gilding the lily.

How do I know it's awesome? I just stopped in on my way home. I wasn't going to, because I was tired and figured it'd be mobbed, but the sunshine put me in a good mood and I figured I'd check it out. I didn't order any sushi or prepared foods, but the touch-screen kiosks for specializing your prepared foods or sushi (provided by Kaz Sushi Bistro*, says the sign) made me think I'm going to be getting a lot of sushi dinners here. The produce, shelves, and meats/seafood are as you'd expect, although the staff, outgoing and friendly and knowledgeable, reminds me more of the staff at my Whole Foods in Colorado Springs than anyone I ever encountered when I used to visit the P Street or Georgetown stores.

The olive bar has my all-time favorite olives** that only Whole Foods carries, and it always has cornichons, which are surprisingly hard to find with any regularity at other places in this town (Trader Joe's has them sometimes, but we all know how our favorite items tend to disappear from Trader Joe's; occasionally my downstair store has them, but one never knows; specialty stores are also weirdly hit or miss for me). Plus, I like the layout: the olives are by the cheeses are by the wine, but in a more navigable flow for me than P Street was. Honestly, they really crammed a lot into a smallish footprint, but if you remove the (inevitable, and given the location, inevitably student-heavy) crowds, it's really not claustrophobic.

The line system is a bit confusing: there are three areas to queue for three banks of checkouts, and there's an automated voice and sign announcing which checkout is ready, but you can go to any of the checkouts from any of the lines, so they have some people directing traffic. This has the potential to be very efficient, but right now it doesn't quite make sense (i.e., you don't go to the left-most bank from the left-most line). I mean, most of the world doesn't understand the right-of-way rules at a four-way stop sign; expecting them to get this right is really asking a lot of the typically crazed post-work grocery shopper. Or maybe that's just me.

*Warning: kind of terrible restaurant website ahead.
**I did not espy the Spanish cocktail mix that is truly, truly addictive. This is probably a good thing. Probably.

Sunday, September 04, 2011


Back-to-back incredible multi-course dinners don't occur routinely for me, so this weekend has been a bit of an indulgence, but for good reason. Last night I finally got to Eola, which I've been wanting to try since it opened. Chef Daniel Singhofen recently transitioned the restaurant to a tasting-menu format from a la carte, although he's got three from which to choose: dinner, vegetarian, and offal, for which he first started earning acclaim in the food world. (Also, one Sunday a month--sadly not today--brunch offers a bacon flight, which is also the buzz of the "Everything's better with bacon!" crowd.)

To kick off a celebratory meal, we started with a couple of glasses of cava as we perused the menu. It went nicely with the "first course," which is a series of small amuses of the chef's choice. Tiny bites included 24-Hour Confit of Pig's Heart with Pesto and Crostini; Tomato Gelee on Cucumber with Basil; Crudo of Lamb with Black Truffle, Brioche, and Cress; Smoked Pork Belly on Steamed Bun with Scallion, Pickled Ginger, and Spicy Mayo; and Sorbet of Cuban Hats with Smoked Ham Froth and Peanuts. The first three achieved different levels of success: the pesto was delicious but overwhelmed the sliver of confit, and the gelee was more texture than flavor; the lamb with truffle was not quite enough of a bite to register the intensity of the flavors that were clearly at work there. But the final two bites hinted at what was to come with the rest of the meal--intensely flavorful pork belly, cut with spice and acid, filled the best pork buns I've ever eaten, and the spicy sorbet both cleansed and awakened the palate.

I began with the Stewed Halibut Cheek, porcini, country sausage, spruce, a tender, delicate piece of fish in a light nage with meaty mushrooms, rich sausage, and an herbal aroma that tied it all together. Ed's Stuffed Napa Cabbage, farro, pine-nuts, raisins, fennel sausage-tomato ragout had one of the deepest and richest tomato sauces I've tasted in DC or indeed anywhere, traditional flavors used to full effect.

Next came Sweet Corn Ravioli, dungeness crab, pickled jalapeno, roasted tomato, basil and Free-Form Lasagna, rabbit bolognese, coarse carrot puree, pasta rounds, parmesan. I recently had a similar corn and crab dish at Palena, but this one blew me away: plump ravioli stuffed with perfectly sweet corn, with just enough heat to amp up the sweetness of the crab and corn together, and the smokiness of the tomato highlighting somehow pulling it together. The bolognese also hit all the right traditional notes, with the sweetness of the carrot giving it just a little twist and making it all work.

The Merguez of Border Springs Farm Lamb hummus, curried heirloom pepper slaw, eggplant, and cumin jus presented a panoply of Mediterranean flavor, the sausage not so overly-spiced as to lose the great lamb flavor. This dish begged for all the elements to go together in each bite: creamy, smoky, spicy, crunchy yielded a complete experience in each mouthful. The Cedarbrook Farm Shoal Loin crowder peas, ratatouille, and a smoky jus also blended flavors masterfully. The chef appears to appreciate smokiness, I realize as I write this, but uses it with enough restraint that it was never overwehlming, and merely enhanced the tender shoat with a cracker-crisp skin and nicely cooked seasonal vegetables.

We decided to share a cheese course after dessert, which consisted of Huckleberry-Pine Nut Tart wild ginger custard, burn sugar, and a red-currant gastrique, and "Peaches and Cream" vanilla-poached peaches with sarsaparilla ice cream and a shortbread cookie. Not overly sweet, relying on the fresh fruit and a talented hand at pastry to be refreshing as well as delicious. The cheeses were local sheep's-milk creations, one a blue and one similar to a manchego, that rounded out the meal nicely. (We brought home some of our mignardises at that point!)

A 2007 Laurus Gigondas carried us through the entire meal beautifully, round enough to have a lushness but not so smooth that it abandoned its character. I'm usually a fan of Gigondas, and our server reassured me that this would be food-friendly, which it was. In fact, service was outstanding all through the evening: knowledgable, friendly without being overbearing, and generally an enhancement to the meal rather than an intrusion on it.

Because it's an automatic four-course meal without an a la carte option, the restaurant is certainly a special-occasion go-to spot--one I'd recommend over many restaurants that have long held that status in DC. I'm glad it was our choice for last night, and I hope we can revisit it for special moments in the future. With its focus on deftly-prepared, seasonal (and local) food, with a definitively creative twist, Eola has to be one of my new favorites.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

birch and barley {insert witty play-on-words here; I'm still too full}

A friend recently asked me, "Hey, where's Gennaro? He never posts on our food forum anymore." Well, true, and when I saw him recently for drinks, I good-naturedly teased him about it. But he has a very good reason: he's moved up to working the line at Birch and Barley, and he is there pretty much every single day. Doesn't leave a lot of time for cooking at home, or dining out, I imagine!

I took two work colleagues there a couple of weeks ago (one of the rare occasions Gennaro wasn't working, in fact), and had a fantastic meal. And I'd already planned to return last night with Ed, who used to live a block away before moving out of town -- and who was part of our foursome when Gennaro and I went to Vidalia 24 last year -- so we were both really looking forward to a great night out, with the remote hope we'd get to see our friend in action.

I'd actually texted Gennaro earlier in the day, and he told me they'd moved the skirt steak to the main menu (from the tasting menu, I think), and he recommended the pastas, as usual. Our server, Eli, remembered me from a few weeks ago, and confirmed that the steak was new to the menu but not much else had changed. We decided to go with the following courses:

Half Fig & Prosciutto Flatbread Gorgonzola Cremificato & Caramelized Onions: this has been on the menu since they opened, I think, and given that it's one of my favorite flatbread/pizza topping combos ever, I almost always order it. A great starter, creamy/salty/sweet/chewy all in one.

Panzanella Salad Heirloom Tomatoes, Grilled Baguette, Whipped Burrata, Groundcherries: the burrata here is almost like an airy cheese mousse, and there's a great interplay of textures here as well. This dish relies on the freshness of the ingredients, and last night's were excellent.

Melon & Cucumber Salad Almonds, Herbs: from the "Sides" portion of the menu, this is another dish that is all about showcasing freshness. The cantaloupe in particular was excellent, which made the salad come together. Really refreshing and light.

Then, a surprise: We were treated to tasting portions of both pastas currently on the menu (remember I said Gennaro recommended them...) Well, as I've said elsewhere on this board, I rarely order pasta out, but Kyle and his team are turning out pastas more than worth ordering. In fact, I'm not sure i have superlatives enough to describe them:
  • Hand-Cut Tagliatelle Roasted Kabocha Squash, Okra, Fried Squash Blossom, Bottarga: one bite of this will remind you why fresh pasta is so outrageously good. Silky squash, tiny rounds of crisp-tender okra, and fried squash blossom on top for crunch and beauty.
  • Ricotta Cavatelli Roasted Chicken, Heirloom Tomato Puree, Housemade Mozzarella: I think this was slightly different than on the online menu (braised chicken, breadcrumbs, and crunchy chicken skin), but this may have been the dish of the night. Outrageously rich, these cavatelli are more like gnudi, the sauce deeply flavorful and comforting.

Not that we even needed main courses by this point, necessarily, but oh well!

Honey Glazed Duck Breast Leg Confit, Wild Rice, Brandied Cherries, Radishes: I've probably mentioned before that I'm a sucker for duck, and Eli recommended it. I concur -- this was some perfectly cooked medium-rare duck breast, but the star may be the confit, which is air-dried and then crisped up. I love wild rice as well; sauteed greens (radish greens?) along with the radishes gave this some nice bitterness to offset the richness of the duck.

Skirt Steak (description isn't online) with whipped potatoes, zucchini: arriving a perfect medium rare, this looked gorgeous and apparently tasted it, too. Yes, I could have snagged a bite, but I restrained myself and let my friend enjoy his steak without having to parry an incoming fork.

(Yes, Ed tried several beers over the course of the night, but I don't remember which, so I can't comment here.)

We were absolutely stuffed at this point, but we managed to share the Tasting of house-spun sorbets buttermilk, plum-yuzu, nectarine-ginger, apricot, exotic spice (you do what you have to!). I love yuzu and it pairs so nicely with plum that this was a stand-out to me, but I would also eat a giant dish of the buttermilk, which is tart and tangy and creamy and somehow both light and decadent at the end of a big meal. The ginger flavor is also one I love, as it's not supremely sweet but retains that great ginger spiciness and kick. This was a wonderful way to end the night.

As one would expect, the restaurant was hopping last night, and Eli apologized at one point for the lag between courses, which didn't bother us since we were having a good time regardless. The staff was so gracious and friendly and seemed to have things running smoothly; I think this is one area where B&B has gotten dinged occasionally, but perhaps they had the A team on last night, or perhaps they're just gelling more as a team. (Oh, and Greg had on a spankin' tie.)

I ran back to the kitchen before leaving just to see if I could catch Gennaro and wave, although I expected he'd be busy. Chef pulled him off the line for a minute which was really nice, just so that I could tell him how awesome it was, and to make sure he shared that with Kyle and the rest of the kitchen. It was truly a wonderful meal and a wonderful experience, and again to repeat myself, if I lived closer, I'd be here even more.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

the art of senart's

I've been to Senart's several more times without writing anything, because it sort of seemed like, why should I? Solid oysters on the half-shell at good prices during happy hour, a great hanger steak with the incredible onion rings; a decent wine list, good craft cocktails...Frankly, in my usual way, I don't want to tell everyone about it, because it's really good and consistent and it's my neighborhood place and I don't want it overrun with everyone on the planet.

Which it would be, if word got out. I mean, $8/$16 for a half/dozen oysters at happy hour, well-shucked and with a great red-wine mignonette or a solid cocktail sauce, which also accompanies the jumbo shrimp cocktail -- holy moly are these shrimp good, by the way; they must be poached in court bouillon or something wonderful for all the flavor they have even without the cocktail sauce or the horseradish sauce, and I often find super-large shrimp tough and tasteless, but these were lovely and sweet -- that hanger steak, which really has no right to be as good as it is, and the onion rings, which are even better ... I don't want more people to know how solid Senart's is because it's crowded enough with us Hill residents already, and I like being able to get a seat when I show up, even (especially) on a Saturday.

I know 8th Street gets some flack from people for being a row of sell-outs; I know there's some local disappointment with the transformation of the strip into nothing *but* bars and restaurants. I get that, and I don't disagree. But then you get something hitting all the right notes, like Senart's, and you are thankful that you can get things like that a mere stumble from home.

(I write this, by the way, with Frodo caught in Shelob's web on my TV, which normally would block all thought of food from my mind as I cringe in arachnophobic horror at what I know is to come. That is a large fuckin' spider. And I'm still writing. Take that for what you will.)

Friday, July 29, 2011

romesco the stone

I wanted to cook something new and interesting and a little bit special last night, since I've been in something of a rut with my old standbys (good as they are). A little bit of skimming over on Epicurious led me to Chicken Cutlets with Romesco and Serrano Cracklin's, which probably caught my eye because of what appears to be a misplaced apostrophe.*

The dish really appealed to me, though, and I decided I was going to give it a whirl. I even conceded to myself that I would cook exactly from the recipe, which I rarely do -- but romesco has a distinct flavor profile** and, having never experimented with it before, I wanted to do it correctly before I started riffing on it.

I did almost skimp and use pre-made breadcrumbs, but after much deliberation at the grocery store, I caved and bought the baguette. Since the crumbs go into the sauce, dried ones would change the texture, and I realized I couldn't predict exactly how that would turn out. Baguette it was! I even bought new smoked paprika to make sure the old stuff in the cupboard wouldn't deprive the sauce of its depth of flavor.

Sherry vinegar, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found. I don't understand how a well-stocked store that carried several different kinds of high-end, infused, and/or otherwise esoteric vinegars didn't carry a simple basic like sherry vinegar, but oh well; barrel-aged red-wine vinegar stood in nicely. I also had to substitue prosciutto for the serrano, although the recipe itself sanctions that, so I didn't fret too much about it.

So I came home and got out the mini-prep. I whirred, I measured, I toasted, I chopped, I pounded***, I dredged****, I sautéed, and then we ate.

Oh, boy. Oh boy oh boy oh boy.

The fresh breadcrumbs and parsley on the chicken kept it incredibly tender. The smoky, nutty sauce -- enhanced by crisp bits of salty prosciutto -- provided a complex base for the chicken, soft lettuce, and herbal parsley, which sang with brightness. A complete stunner of a dish, and exactly the kind of thing I wanted to make for a just-a-bit-special night in.

I can't wait for this to become one of the old standbys.

*I suppose it's because "cracklin'" in the singular uses an apostrophe to show the missing "g," but putting it into the plural makes it look like a possessive to me. Darn grammatical cognitive dissonance!

**As much as anything can that of course has regional variations all over the place, and about which people argue that only their region's is the "true" version, of course.

***Yes, I could have bought chicken cutlets, but it's so much more fine to buy the regular chicken breasts and whack the hell out of 'em, don't you think?

****I was confused that the recipe didn't recommend dredging in an egg-wash or the like, but although some of the crumb mixture of course fell off, I think the freshness of the bread allowed them to stick better than I expected.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

tomato darn hot

(This title may be the worst play-on-words I've yet attempted.)

When the entire country finds itself strangled by a heat wave, what's a girl to do for lunch?

A giant bowl of gazpacho, that's what.

Now, I don't make gazpacho with bread, which I thought meant I wasn't adhering to tradition. Just now, however, a friend who has been living in Spain for a year told me that, while of course it depends whom you ask and where you are, gazpacho is the vegetable soup, and salmorejo is the bread version. So I guess I'm not as much of a renegade as I thought!

I found some gorgeous (actually, ugly as sin, but beautifully ripe and wonderful) heirloom tomatoes at the market. Grabbed a cucumber and a yellow onion and, after minimal prep, threw it all in the food processor with huge handfuls of cilantro and parsley, plenty of salt and pepper, and a couple small cloves of raw garlic. A squeeze of lemon juice and a few hits of hot sauce, and I had a huge batch of gazpacho for a few lunches.

I topped my bowl with diced avocado from the small half I had leftover, and man, did it fit the bill. Take that, ridiculous heat wave.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

down by ba bay

I can't imagine how different my life would be had ba bay not opened in my neighborhood. Well, I'd cook some more, sure, but I wouldn't have nearly as much fish sauce as I do now; nor would I have a go-to cheer-up spot a mere few blocks from home. And I'd certainly not have as many excellent happy-hour meet-ups on the Hill.

It's hard to believe they've only been there since November. They have refined and revised their menu over the months, to be sure, but it has only led to higher quality and spot-on consistency.

Now, with Khoa Nguyen leaving the front of house (sort of) to take the helm in the kitchen, along with the ever-excellent sous-chef Sara Siegel, the summer menu is veering toward slightly more traditional Vietnamese flavors, but still punched up with vibrant and innovative twists, local ingredients, and the finesse that comes of having highly-trained, passionate people in charge and on board.

I've been waiting for a lazy Sunday when I could toddle up for a late lunch ever since I saw cold vermicelli, grilled pork, green apples, sprouts, pickles, carrots, herbs, fish sauce vinaigrette ($12) added to the brunch/lunch menu. (Well, no; first I begged and pleaded for this to join the dinner menu, but alas, I don't call the shots.) A friend and I made the trip today, and oh, am I glad, because this is one of the best interpretations of bun thit nuong I've ever had -- the apples, the pickled onions! Enough fresh herbs to make a whole salad! I want to tell everyone I know to run right over and get it, except I don't, because then there'll be more for me.

My friend and I were lucky enough to taste the new summer cocktail of watermelon juice, lime, and cachaça as well, despite our protestations that late afternoon work beckoned. This drink is wonderful, and probably deadly, because it doesn't taste a bit like it's got a boozy kick. When the front windows are open at the end of a swampy DC day, this will be the perfect thing to sip and watch the staffers traipse by.

If you aren't looking for alcoholic drinks, I can recommend the herbal hibiscus iced tea, which is a gorgeously shocking-pink libation with herbaceous aromatics that linger pleasantly on the palate. My friend said her fresh lemonade was not overly sweet, making it nicely refreshing on a hot day.

I also happen to think Ba Bay should open a little kiosk (think childhood lemonade stand) out front selling their vietnamese coffee milkshake, churro, cinnamon chantilly ($7) to go. You see people wandering down the street with their milkshakes from various places around this part of the hill, but this one, I'm convinced, puts all the others to shame. Oh, how I'd love one of those to sip on the walk home after an excursion to Eastern Market! 

The Barracks Row/Eastern Market/SE Penn Ave area is blossoming with restaurants and bars these days. As a neighborhood girl, I am so, so pleased to have this particular one around: young proprietors expertly infusing tradition with creativity, and getting better at it each day.

Monday, June 13, 2011

publican prowess

When you only have one night to dine in Chicago, the decision can be impossible. Blow-out gastronomical tasting at Alinea? Too intense. Hit the bar at fully-booked Girl and the Goat and hope for space? Too iffy. Take a beer- and pork-afficionado friend to beer-and-pork mecca The Publican? We have a winner.

The restaurant is loud and bustling, with communal tables running the length of it, along with semi-private four-top booths along the windows. Don't let the tables put you off, though; it's not really much different from dining in any restaurant where the tables along the banquette are very close together, and for the most part the close quarters with one's neighbors remain minimally intrusive.

I know I'm in the right place when my server, upon explaining the menu, notes, "We understand not everything cooks at the same rate, so we encourage you to order everything together, and we'll course it out for you." Too often, restaurants that don't follow a traditional service (one appetizer and one main course per person) bring dishes haphazardly. It shows great attention to the dining experience when a restaurant plans to pace the meal despite a nontraditional set-up -- small snacks, appetizers, medium-sized plates one might share or not, and family-style entrees all make an appearance on Publican's menu.

And oh, what a menu. The Publican is known, as mentioned above, for beer and pork, although it goes far beyond that: seafood, including a nicely-sourced raw bar, and vegetables from local farmers all are well represented. In fact, just about everything on the menu lists its provenance; you know what brewery, what farm, what butcher was responsible for everything in your glass or on your plate. One of the things I enjoyed, though, is that the nose-to-tail ethic at work isn't forced upon the diner. Read the blurb, think about it, or don't think about it and just enjoy your food.

My dining companion enjoyed the Monk's Café Flemish Sour Red Ale ($6), which the server accurately described as more sweet-and-sour than traditionally sour. He easily suggested alternatives for someone looking for a less unusual beer, but the Monk's was a welcome change from the expected. The next beer, the Brauerei Heller-Trum ($10), seemed to complement the multiple courses we enjoyed.

(I stuck to a very drinkable Argentinian sustainable pinot noir for $12. So sue me.)

Then, the food. Oh, my. There's a reason I had a salad for lunch before showing up to dinner.

daily pickles ($4): superbly pickled cauliflower, cucumber pickles that were just shy of being sweet enough to register as bread-and-butter, and pickled onions and beets (I think). A couple plates of these with a beer and some oysters in the bar would make a perfect light night out.

spicy pork rinds ($5): a huge cone of ethereally fried bites, coated with a spicy, cheesy dust, these were ridiculously addictive, the heat level building just gradually enough to keep me coming back for more even though I knew I had to pace myself.

serrano; half taste of ham ($14): some of the most flavorful and richest serrano I've ever tasted, with excellent country bread and slightly-too-cold butter.

frites ($5): my only quibble with these is that I wanted them to arrive with the next course; luckily, it came shortly after they did. My desert-island food is excellent French fries, and these fit the bill; double-fried to be crispy but thick enough to retain a creamy, potato-y middle, and salted just enough, with Belgian mayonnaise, I could have eaten the entire cone (and may have had more than my fair share, I'm sure).

spicy steak tartare, radishes, fennel & lovage ($17): the radish and fennel set of the perfectly spiced meat; a few bits of meltingly tender (and yes, raw) beef followed by a couple of crispy frites was perhaps my favorite combination of dishes of the evening.

squidbroccoli, peanuts & apricot-chili vinaigrette ($15): my dining companion doesn't enjoy seafood, so I had this all to myself, and what a dish to get to savor alone! The squid, roasted in an earthenware dish, was tender yet hearty, and incredibly flavorful; the broccoli acquired the nuttiness of the roast, set off deliciously by the peanuts and the sweet-spicy sauce.

country ribsmaitake mushrooms & kohlrabi, half order ($15): grilled to create an exceptional crust and yet not tough inside, with the meatiness of the maitake highlighting just how satisfying at an almost primal level this dish can be, this dish was almost too rich (and definitely too much) at the end of the meal, but well worth the indulgence.

chocolate-banana budino with coffee gelato & cocoa nibs ($7): did we need dessert? No. Was this outstanding? Caramelized bananas with a rich, dark-but-not-too-dark chocolate pudding, set off by the bitter cocoa nibs and the essence of coffee in the creamy gelato? Oh, yes.

Heading out into the light drizzle, I was seriously tempted to turn around, head back to the bar, and nurse a drink while watching what else came of the clearly talented kitchen. Chicago has a vibrant dining scene, and there are many more restaurants I need to get to, but it will be darn hard not to come back here each time, for a small plate, a drink, and, well, maybe just one or two other little tastes ...

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

in the immortal words of homer simpson, {drool}

Sometimes you're at Whole Foods, and you see an item.

An item you know you could make, but you just don't have the time or the inclination.

So you buy this item, all the time thinking to yourself, Well, whatever.

Sometimes that item is roasted garlic butter.

Could I make this? Sure.

Did I have the time to do so today? Nope.

Were mushrooms sautéed in it the most goshdarnfreaking delicious thing I've eaten in ages? Oh holy hell yes.

Sure, the seared flank steak marinated in scallions, sage, rosemary, thyme, soy, Worcestershire, and red wine was also amazing. So were the crazygood roasted asparagus. But seriously, roasted garlic butter.


rustica as rustic does

After three trips to Pizzeria Rustica in Old Colorado City, I know that the "ricotta surprise" in the eponymous pizza is that the ricotta is hidden in the crust. Scoop it out and scatter it over the crushed San Marzano tomatoes, homemade mozzarella, paper-thin prosciutto, and peppery arugula, and you have a dish that will rival the best Neapolitan pizze in the D.C. area.

The large antipasto platter is perfect to share, coming with ample amounts of that same prosciutto, a black-pepper salume, bite-sized pieces of polenta cake, marinated olives, roasted and marinated tomatoes, and assorted other vegetable salads (last night, pickled cauliflower with capers and carrots) and cheeses (usually pecorino and something vaguely cheddar-like). The wine list specializes in organically-grown Italian imports, and while a favorite nero d'avola was out last night, there was a nice sangiovese to take its place.

And no, I absolutely did not want the freaking delicious homemade espresso gelato with chocolate chips and biscotti crumbs, and I vastly resent being forced to share that, too. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

la la fiola

Last night I dined with another gastronome at the newly opened Fiola, the restaurant heralding the return to DC of Chef Fabio Trabocchi. This was a bit of blow-out treat, at least for me, but we just had to see what Trabocchi was turning out at this more casual and more rustic attempt at a high-end, traditional Italian spot in downtown DC.

Knowing we were going to run the gamut of vegetables, cheese, pasta, fish, and meat, but considering that we both prefer red wine, I found a very modestly priced 2007 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo on the list that I thought would carry us through -- and it did. The wine list actually has a pleasantly surprising number of bottles in the $30-55 range, particularly if you stick with the Italians (and why wouldn't you here?). It's a nice touch, one too often not considered here in the District, where wine lists often appear to be a second thought, if a thought at all.

We started with the Apulia Buffalo Mozzarella, Roasted Tomatoes, Pesto of Basil Genovese.The mozzarella was wonderful, so fresh and creamy it was almost more like burrata (I could have sworn the server actually said "burrata," which was not on the menu last night, when he set it down, even – and it turns out the online sample menu does call this “La Burrata”). One of the wonderful aspects of the pesto was that it was not overwhelmed with cheese or garlic; the basil shone, highlighting the mild mozzarella, and the roasted tomatoes' sweetness really tied it together. We also had the Salad of Violet Baby Artichokes, Spring Fava Beans, Mint, and English Peas. The delicate flavors of each item melded with the pea puree to create a vegetal representation of spring in a bowl; the ingredients were clearly of high quality and allowed to speak for themselves, and they did.

Next we shared a pasta course, the special of Spaghetti, Sea Urchin, Crab, Chile. The urchin was whipped into a sauce for the al dente pasta, dotted with fresh lump crab and enough red chile flake to cut the unctuousness of the dish and bring it to life. Sweet (from the crab), spicy (from the chile), savory (from the urchin), this dish sang; my friend said he could have licked the plate clean.

We knew going in we were going to overorder so that we could taste a lot of items (hey, that’s what leftovers are for!), so it was two entrees. Playing a little game of traditional dining role reversal, he went for fish and I for meat. The Veal Chop, Wild Mushrooms, Jerusalem Artichokes, Alba Hazelnuts was one of the best pieces of meat I have eaten in a long time. The thick chop was cooked to a perfect medium rare, with what was essentially duxelles tucked under a wrapper of just-crisp-enough prosciutto, so each bite had a medley of texture as well as incredible flavor. The hazelnut/sunchoke puree added a nice depth, the two elements contributing nuttiness in different ways. It was just outstanding.

Amazingly to me, though, the richness of the dish didn't overwhelm the tastes I had of the Branzino, Brodetto of Clams and Tomato, which was once again perfectly cooked, the creamy, dense flesh flaking with a touch of the fork. The fish-stock based broth had a smokiness to it that kicked everything into gear, and the plump, tender clams added a bit of salinity. This is definitely a go-to dish.

The place was jumping; yes, it does get a little loud, but I also think it may depend where you are in the room; away from the brick walls near the kitchen seemed a bit quieter. Our server, a young man who said he'd just relocated from another Italian restaurant downtown, was attentive but unobtrusive, although I got the inkling he thought our constant discussion of food (both what we were eating and just general interest in dining) was somewhat hilarious. He also had fun when he set down our individual plate of petit fours, which included doll-sized versions of chocolate-chip macaron – they should sell bags of these, as it’s easily the best macaron I’ve had in DC thus far – a gianduja cookie topped with a hazelnut tuile, and an apricot shortbread, reminiscent of a Linzer torte, or a jammy dodger, perhaps.

Oh, and dessert! The Fennel Gelato, Blood Orange, Olive Oil Semolina Cake ... creamy but refreshing, this could almost serve as an intermezzo, a twist on the traditional sorbet used for that type of course. So could the Lemon and Basil Granita atop the Zuppa Inglese (basically a strawberry trifle), wonderfully sweet and sour, just what was needed at the end of the meal (and the night). I can imagine that one is going to sell like mad out on the patio during the dog days of summer. Wow. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

RIS-ky business, take two

I almost never dine out for lunch, but when the executive editor of your academic journal is in town, you make exceptions. Or, at least, I do. I was toted along with some colleagues over to RIS, where I've not been in about a year despite its proximity to my office (see above about the frequency of my lunching). I have to say, based on this outing, I should give it more of a chance in future, particularly midday.

Spinach Salad fresh goat cheese, sherried beets, candied walnuts and sunflower seeds, honey mustard and sherry vinaigrette ($9) was really nice on this warm Tuesday, although it could have used a bit more of the creamy, mild cheese, and a bit less dressing (then again, I almost always find salads overdressed, and this one only seemed that way toward the end). It was quite substantial, with radicchio strewn among the baby spinach, and a plethora of perfectly-cooked red and yellow beet chunks.

The only danger was eating beets at a work lunch, given my generally klutzy nature, but thank goodness I chose to wear all black.

The quiche looked quite nice, a fluffy rendition filled with spinach and caramelized onions, and baked off as individual servings so everyone gets a healthy portion of crust. The Tuna Niçoise Tartineseared tuna, green bean-potato cake, roasted tomatoes, lemon aioli, egg and capers ($13) -- served open-face as a tartine should be -- looked excellent, with slightly rare tuna and the surprise of the capers having been fried; my colleague said it was lovely.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

duo ... do want

"So, this would be pretty good for DC, yeah?" asked my friend.
"Hell, this would be pretty good -- no, really good -- anywhere," I replied, and I meant it.

If you find yourself in Denver on a Sunday morning and don't have brunch at Duo, you're missing out. This little restaurant with exposed brick walls and funky mismatched napkins focuses on farm-to-table fare, and does it with aplomb and creativity. The sweet sunday poached eggs on grilled sourdough bread + spinach, mushrooms + sweet onion ragout in a whole grain mustard cream sauce, crispy potatoes ($8) came with perfectly poached eggs; the substantial amount of nicely sautéed vegetables had great flavor, the mushrooms earthy and tender, the spinach nicely wilted and without bitterness, and the onion ragout pulling it all together with sweetness. The mustard cream sauce provided an outstanding counterpoint, a bit sharper than a traditional hollandaise (vastly appreciated in this case), and the potatoes, crisped with a bit of smoked paprika, were a great foil for soaking up the runny yolk.

One member of my party chose the pork hash house made pork sausage + kale, carmelized onion, roasted tomato, potatoes + sunnyside up eggs ($9), which he pronounced outstanding (when I could get him to weigh in, as he promptly devoured his meal). Our table also sampled the challah french toast fresh fruit compote + vermont maple syrup ($9) which came as four thick, fluffy slices dusted with powdered sugar and an abundance of fresh blackberries, along with a tiny carafe of good syrup, and the applewood bacon ($4), three strips of crispy, smoky bacon. Excellent coffee in a French press finished off the meal nicely.

With a drink, a glass of juice, and three orders of the bacon (hey, I maintain that there is no such thing as too much bacon, at least at brunch), the total for three people came to $55 before tip. If this is dining in Colorado, sign me up. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

bibiana pollyanna

As friends have mentioned beforeI'm not sure why this place flies so far under the radar. My good friend Carol will go all stabby on me for this, but seriously, Bibiana is incredible, and everyone should go there, now -- or, wait. Let me try that again. No one should go there at all, ever, leaving it all for me.

No one should go to get the phenomenal service or the outrageously good drinks, particularly the Addio al Re, Marcarini Chinato, Etichetta Nera Brandy, Orange Bitters ($12). And the food ... well, don't get the Carciofi alla Giudia that lived up to every bite of the dish I ever had in Rome. And certainly don't follow my lead on the mains, because although I almost never order pasta out, the Ravioli, Ravioli of Braised Lamb, Almonds, Espelette, Mint, Pecorino (full order $18) were out of this world, every bite a perfect compendium of flavor and texture, and if what I got is the half order, I'd like to see the person who can finish the full order.

Seriously, don't go to Bibiana. Please. Because I want to continue to be able to walk in at 7 in the evening and have the place to myself.

Monday, January 03, 2011

ba bay, baby

I've been to Ba Bay three times now and it's improved each time. I am so pleased to have them within walking distance.

I've had to work all weekend, spending today editing madly, to the point that my eyes were burning and watery. I didn't want to do anything fancy -- this is the problem with having one's birthday so closely on the heels of the holidays, as many of my Capricorn compatriots can attest -- I just wanted a nice dinner with some friends. Well, I got it, and then some.

The chili-glazed wings, scallion ($12) are just silly-good. I would happily go to the bar of a weeknight, get these and a vegetable side, and be happy with that as a meal. We also tried the new savory pancake, eggs, rock shrimp, scallion, maggi dipping sauce ($9), which is not a traditional Vietnamese crepe and not a scallion pancake, but the best of both, eggy and savory and sweet (from the rock shrimp) at the same time.

The brussels sprouts, sweet chili butter ($5) have gotten better, and the bok choy, oyster sauce, crispy shallots ($4) continues to be my favorite preparation of this dish I've yet encountered in town. The rockfish, almond milk, rice congee, fermented black bean ($21) was also lovely, although I only got a bite as one of my dining companions scarfed it up, raving about the great flavors and comforting nature of it. She also claimed the roseda farm shaky beef, marinated onions, black pepper, watercress purée ($19) was better than that at the San Francisco restaurant (well-known but I forgot its name already) known for the dish. Two large noodle dishes, the pho, rice noodles, roseda farm rib eye, tendon, tripe, herbs ($13)
and the spicy pork–shrimp broth, thick rice noodles, thai basil, pork loin, shank ($12), were uniformly praised and mostly devoured (seriously, if anyone can actually finish one of these after appetizers and drinks, I'd like to see it.)

The staff graciously and unnecessarily comped both our desserts in honor of my birthday (which I tried to make up in tips, although my editing-addled brain may have failed at the math). I saw a person or two grabbing take-out, and I'm really pleased that Ba Bay is offering their full menu for this. I just know that there will be countless nights that a big bowl of brothy noodles will hit the spot, and it will be just the right temperature by the time I get it home.

They certainly are learning, changing, and growing. Not every dish I've eaten there has been a home run, but tonight, everything hit the mark, and I was pleased to see that the dishes I like the first time have not slipped in quality even as others have improved. I hope more people learn about this spot and help turn it into a Penn Ave SE gem.