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.