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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cava Mezze

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2014 Top 100, Washingtonian 2013 Top 100, Washingtonian 2012 Top 100
Neighborhood: Three locations: Clarendon, Capitol Hill, Rockville

The Setup


With a drink together long overdue, Official Friend of DCWD Greg and I met halfway between our respective homes at Cava Mezze.

The Vibe

All of the Cava joints share the same aesthetic, one that in this day and age is fairly ubiquitous: the orange and brown and black dim-lit dining room, with polished wood tables and an amber glow. The dining room is at-once boxy and serpentine: the former from the sizable chest-high partitions that separate the bar from the seating and that create Tetris-like booths throughout, the latter from a curve in the restaurant that uses the bar area as its spine. Even on this Tuesday night, the place is buzzy and tables feel squelched together; I feel like we're practically on top of the two-tops on either side. It's cool but crowded.

The Food


In many ways, Cava is a nice rival to Zaytinya, the Jose Andres Greek/Mediterranean spot formerly helmed by Mike Isabella. Both concentrate on mezze, the Balkan/Middle Eastern version of small plates. Both feature uniquely Greek ingredients, like Old Fashioneds or Manhattans spiked with ouzo.  And both feature crisp flavors and clean presentations. Our favorite for the night is the cava mac and cheese which is actually ribbons of papardelle mixed with olive oil, Greek cheeses, and arugala. It's simple and slick and light like housemade pasta should be.

The other dishes we sample are at a similar level. Greg's introduction to pork belly comes at this dinner, with crispy pork belly glazed in honey and dusted with thyme. They're wonderfully balanced, fatty on one end and crispy on the other, with flavors that show a certain level of welcome restraint. Each tiny bite lets the natural deliciousness of the belly come out while only hinting at sweet, which is incredibly pleasant.

We also try the special of the day: braised Greek-style meatballs the size of billiard balls atop a mound of pureed potatoes and covered in a sherry-based red sauce. I never grew up with meatballs, but these are how I always imagined homemade meatballs might taste like: chunky but crumbly, flavorful but not overwhelming.

We finish out the night with Cava's take on poutine - fries covered in beef, feta, and an interesting tomato sauce (which the menu attributes to cinnamon and burgundy). I like the way that the meat falls apart here and the fries exhibit a great crispiness; the only drawback here is that the whole thing strikes me as fairly dry.

The Verdict

Very, very good Mediterranean mezze. If you can handle a bit of the crowd and noise, then it's a great spot (plus there's a dish they set on fire tableside).

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
  Suits Scene
Vibe:
Noisy
Cost:
$$
(out of 5) ($20-$50 for two)
Pairing
: A day of shopping at the Market Common in Clarendon.

Cava Mezze Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

First Look: The Partisan

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Chinatown/Penn Quarter

The Setup


Needing a dinner after the latest Muppets movie, Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas and I ended up at the newest Neighborhood Restaurant Group spot: The Partisan.

The Vibe


The Partisan is the restaurant half of another location of Red Apron Butchery, NRG's meat market that debuted at Union Market (with an additional site in Merrifield). The butchery is similar to the Union Market version with its sleek white subway tile on one side, industrial light fixtures hanging above, and deli cases set next to repurposed wood (though in the case of Union Market, it's paneling on the wall, not countertops). Then again, the striking exposed brick wall that dominates the space makes it very different from Union Market.

Meanwhile, the restaurant space itself feels like the vibe of Churchkey mixed with a healthy dose of restaurant trends: exposed brick and ceilings, more repurposed wood, bold fonts and richly patterned wallpaper. When you walk in, you're greeted with a long thing dining room with two rows: one of full-booths, the other of half-booths set into the wall. The former lines the side of the room abutting the butchery, partitioned by a set of shelves that house jams and San Pellegrino sodas and chips; the latter has a row of display cases filled with hanging salamis atop it. It's pretty dark on the inside, and even more dark once you pass the open kitchen in the center of the restaurant into the back bar, an expansive room that plays even bigger. A large backlit bar lies to the left, while bar-level half-booths run the length of the right wall. I can't help but feel that it's a space that exudes cool and hip and chill all at the same time.

The only other remark is our service, which is warm and friendly but forgetful; an order of sausage never shows up at all, and it takes more than a few passes of the server before we can get her attention to order some wine. Still, it's early yet, so the mistakes are passable.

The Food


Short the sausage, we order a mix of dishes with Texas opting into the flex part of her flexitarianism due to the local sourcing of Red Apron Butchery. I'm most excited for the cooking by Chef Ed Witt, the recent chef nomad whose last major stop was 701 (where he wowed me last time).

Dishes here some to come in two varieties - appetizer sized portions that suggest sharing, and colossal two-to-many-person entrees that require it. To wit, the menu - separated by animal - lists in its pork section a list of three $6-10 dishes, and three $50+ designed-for-multiple eaters plates, including a whole pig's head. Hoping to try more than one thing, we opt for the smaller plates starting off with a roasted foie gras for me, and a roasted mushroom and kale salad for her. My foie is sublime, seared and soaking in a verjus gastrique. Small peeled muscat grapes offer familiar sweet counternotes and a baguette is there for levity, but it's a wonderfully fatty melt-in-your-mouth bite. For her part, we love the salad as well, with its charred kale and bits of what seem like oyster mushrooms dancing amidst salsify and shallots atop a hidden pillow of goat cheese and drizzled with a Pedro Ximenez vinaigrette. About the only complaint is that the salad is a skooch heavy on the salt.

The next round bring heavier dishes: housemade ribbons of pasta topped with a guanciale and heart ragout bolognese, and slices of seared tri-tip steak atop a turnip puree seasoned with sesame and thai chili and a light pear jam. The steak is clean and cooked very well, but gets lost a little bit, especially when compared to the sweetness of the turnip puree and the pear. It becomes perhaps the least memorable dish. The pasta ends up with a better fate: that fullness that only housemade pasta can provide and a rich sauce that only falters in its quantity.

To round out the evening, we get a half-serving of the rotissi-fried chicken which is glazed in a honey sauce before its half-fried and half-roasted. The chicken comes in pieces - a drumstick, a thigh, and some breast pieces - and is sadly, a bit forgettable. Some bits are dry, some bits are not, but overall everything again is just a bit heavy on the salt.

The Verdict


The very next day at dinner, a friend asked us if we'd eaten anywhere good recently. I said, "The Partisan was good" before Texas refined the statement. "It was a bit salty, and it'll be pretty good very soon. I'd just give it some time." That's a pretty good synopsis.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Suits Scene
Vibe:
Noisy
Cost:
$$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
 

The Partisan on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 21, 2014

Table

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Shaw

The Setup


Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas and I have a standing dinner date, a monthly celebration of our wedding anniversary. Last month, we headed to Iron Gate. This week, we indulged ourselves at Table.

The Vibe

Sitting on the corner of 9th and N, there's no better word for Table than cool. The facade is green-gray painted brick, a short-squat building with a garage door window and the name of the restaurant boldly painted in stark white lowercase serifed font. The outside matches the inside, a sort of post-post-industrial. The reclaimed garage setting is encased in beige, with a long open kitchen to one side that bustles and bubbles all night. As for seating, a few tables dot the space in front of the garage door and one or two high-tops sit right next to the open kitchen, but the majority of seating is a line of half-booth tables opposite the kitchen. These aren't your typical half-booths though; they're hardwood benches with matching hutch-style tables and white plastic chairs. If this sounds like a kindergarten class, it fits. Perhaps the strangest part about the restaurant is that this dining room doesn't fit the white-table style food it's serving you. It feels short like sitting in a kids' furniture chair.

The space is dominated by straight lines - the aforementioned hutch tables, the wooden slats that line the kitchen counter and hang from the ceiling, interrupted only by a few lantern style metal cage lights. There's upstairs seating as well, but that remains a mystery to us on this trip. The one last thing to note is the temperature: while Table has fashioned a curtain that wraps around its front door, it does little to abate the blasts of wind that come every time someone steps in. In the summertime, the garage setting probably makes for a beautiful warm space; in the winter, it means you should dress warmly.

The Food

Seasonality is the name of the game here - even the menus are handwritten to facilitate these changes, though they are being phased out. So what awaits us is a bevy of winter ingredients. The first course brings a beautifully-plated squid portions stuffed with swiss chard and layered with prosciutto and a piperade sauce. Texas and I are split on our opinion on this one - I think that it's well-cooked and well-balanced, and she thinks the squid is a bit squishy and chewy for her. Then again, with her distaste for meats, she doesn't get the balancing salt of the prosciutto. Still, I get her point; this is a dish straight out of an Italian cookbook; if you're not looking for it, it's a bit forward. Our other first course is the roasted quail with a poached apple bowl filled with lentils and lightly brushed with a hazelnut coffee emulsion. For me, this is a wonderful bite, with warm consistently mellow notes. It's sad that the quail is so fleeting.

We continue to share our courses with Texas's choice of grilled steelhead trout filets next to stacked sticks of poached carrots and parsnips, salsa verde, and pearl onions; and my choice of the orange-braised venison osso buco atop a bed of pureed parsnip and spaetzel. The former is a bit boring, a skin-on presentation that tastes like a flatter arctic char, and is one of those "fine" dishes - perfectly reasonable in the moment and utterly forgettable upon leaving. The osso buco is a bit of the same, cooked well and falling off the bone, but a tad bit underseasoned for our tastes with the only strong flavors coming from the mild bitterness of the parsnip.



For dessert we split the brown butter chess pie topped with a dollop of praline ice cream, and a graham cracker financier with blood orange sorbet atop a plate of cheese cake mousseline. Both can be characterized similarly: a bit dry but with a subtlety to their sweetness that is appreciated. Our vote goes to the financier by a nose.


The Verdict

The results are straightforward and clean and pleasant, but it's missing that little bit to knock it up into the next level. Otherwise, the kind of restaurant that you could eat at over and over, but one that just lacks that wow factor.

Food Rating: *** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Smart Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Calm
Cost:
$$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)

Table on Urbanspoon