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.