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Thursday, July 28, 2016

DCWD Travels: The Bubble Room at J, Northern California

Neighborhood: Sonoma, Northern California

Sometimes the best tips we can give are where to find great view in unexpected places; sometimes the best tips we can give are what to pick in a sea of choices. This one's an intersection of the two: the Bubble Room at J Vineyards and Winery. A mix of champagnes, sparkling roses, and other fun bright wines paired with six courses of clear and bright food, and impeccable service.







Food Rating: 4 Forks 
(out of 5)

Monday, July 25, 2016

DCWD Travels: Avanti, Denver

Neighborhood: Denver, CO



Here's the first of an extensive series of entries from a grand trip through Colorado and California. First stop: Avanti in Denver. The best way to describe it is some combination of food truck stop-off meets test kitchen meets food court. The two-level post-industrial building features seven food court style statins areas that rotate on a semi-permanent basis and feature a diverse set of cuisines and styles. To wit, on our visit, there's a pizza place; a shawarma stop; an Asian noodle bar; a taqueria; an arepas place; a tapas bar; and a shop dedicated to local farmed goods. True to food court form, you're advised to grab what you want and find your own seat, anywhere from long central picnic tables to a bar area and lounge where a whole slate of local beers are available on tap.

If you're a vegetarian, this is probably your heaven. On this meal alone, we nosh on a delicious truffle and mushroom pizza; a bright salad of beets, goat cheese, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, greens, and citrus; a seasonal salad of carrots, greens, and chickpeas topped by a fried egg; some truly gigantic and delectable arepas; and a carrot latke and some excellent falafel. But for the meat eaters in us, my run-in with the porchetta at Poco Torteria was truly spectacular; one of only twenty made per day, the sandwich of salsa verde stuffed pork loin, tomato, arugula, and garlic mojo is a delight.

This is the modern food hall living its best life: low-key, diverse, fun.

Food Rating: 5 Forks

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Pineapple and Pearls

Plaudits: None (yet...)
Neighborhood: Eastern Market

I was 23 the first time I went to minibar. It was 2009, back when minibar was still six seats in the second floor of Cafe Atlantico - which in true restaurant time, has itself already undergone three additional restaurant concepts. It was a particularly weird time for me; I was fresh off a breakup, caught up in the now-risible post-college ennui, and the then-$120 tasting menu price tag (imagine!) was a significant chunk of my early career salary. But, in spite and probably because of those circumstances, that meal is still a treasured memory: one of the first times that I saw that food could be fun and whimsical and ineffably joyous, or that a meal service could be gracious and intimate. In many ways, I've been chasing that experience ever since.

I mention all this because dinner at Pineapple and Pearls very neatly and precisely conjured up those exact same feelings.

If you've been to Rose's Luxury, you've already seen a glimpse of what P&P offers; the same vision that created the lauded pork sausage-lychee salad is what fuels the energies of the new endeavor: strange combinations of comforting flavors. But if Rose's invites you into someone's well-appointed dining room, then P&P takes it the logical step further: just bringing you right back into the test kitchen.

That doesn't mean the same decorative charms of the former didn't make their way next door. Much like its neighbor, the restaurant comes in stages: a coffee bar front, a traditional square bar midsection, and a traditional main dining room topped off with an open kitchen - and therefore requisite kitchen bar seating. The back space is impeccably bright, the consequence of clean design, a pleasant color scheme of mostly white with bits of robin's egg blue and black, and minimal flourishes. These comforts-of-home stylings are complemented by pleasant and unfussy service.

But, mostly, there's the food. What I liked about that first minibar visit was the commitment to both playfulness and food memories: that is taking something familiar, distill it to its core flavors, add a little whizbang, dazzle, repeat. I think too often, tasting menus like the since-relocated version and countless others around town have relied too much on the theatricality of it all to impress, which makes the whole experience seem too performative at best or standoffish at worst.

This is not the case at P&P. The service is genuine and familiar, efficient but still friendly; it doesn't hurt that two welcome cocktails - which are eagerly refilled if you wait even a skooch empty - await you: on this summer night, a lemon and honey bourbon drink, and a kir royale. And the dishes here are similarly approachable. There is a decided lack of fuss here.

Then again, maybe my definition of fuss is different than others, that a bonbon of absinthe and fennel that looks almost like a gumball perched on an absinthe spoon over an elixir that hints at sunchoke and celery is perhaps more quotidian to me than the average Joe. What I'll say is that it bursts like a refreshing kiss of summer, the way that a Hendricks and tonic perks you up after a day of dead heat.

I can't emphasize enough how much the magic here comes from flavor profiles that are familiar but fancified. Japanese tempura and ponzu has vegetables replaced by - what else - ramps. The taste of chips and green salsa comes in the form of a triangular pizza-roll like bite. Soba noodles topped with uni and snap peas come served an ice bowl that refreshes the broth. Egg drop soup gets an infusion of garlic, replacing Chinese flavors with the more North American palate of garbanzos, parmesan, wild onion and mint. All of them are somewhere between great and superlative. Maybe the only dish on the night that doesn't work completely is a grain porridge with mushroom broth and slices of dried scallop and porcini - it's fairly pedestrian.

The true superlatives though follow that pattern as well. Even the most hardened caviar dislikers among us are dazzled by a potato ice cream that pairs the loving pile of ossetra that accompanies it. It's rich and salty and creamy, and frankly I can still taste it in my mind. A play of dover sole veronique sees a perfectly cooked fluke filet sitting in an onion soubise with grapes and hints of chamomile is somehow both supple and light at the same time. A grilled and wrapped white asparagus - a play on Japanese okonomiyaki - manages to turn a simple stalk into something meaty and as good as anything you'll have at a DC izakaya. Any my personal favorite - a mole smoked beef rib paired with cactus and grits - is complex, tender, diverse, and lasting. I said it then, and I'll say it now: this is something I would eat every night.

Desserts are also on point. The essence of Italian food comes across in a lighter form with a pecorino pound cake lightly dusted with pine nuts and some hazelnut ice cream. A chocolate souffle with honeycomb ice cream and crispy buckwheat feels like something you'd get at a country farm. But the sheer winner - and frankly something I enjoyed nearly as much as the beef rib - was a coffee version of Japanese kakigori, where a shaved ice dessert comes swirled with flavors of chicory and condensed milk. As someone Vietnamese who loves these flavors together, this was the Platonic ideal of a dessert. The only one that was a shrugger: a set of donuts flavored with Italian liqueurs like grappa and campari. Too bitter.


If all of this wasn't enough, they sent us home with a charming bottle of cold brew and two delicious rosemary shortbread cookies. What a class act.



The Verdict

Definitely in the running for the best meal we've ever had in DC.

Food Rating: *****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
 Smart Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Chatty
Cost:
$$$$$
(out of 5) (more than $100 for two)

Pineapple And Pearls Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato