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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Zaytinya

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2010 #16, Washingtonian 2009 #37, Washingtonian 2008 #28, Washington City Paper's Young and Hungry's Top 50 Restaurants, Washington Post's Top 50 Restaurants, 2010 RAMMY Nominee - Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year, Rising Culinary Star of the Year - Mike Isabella, 2009 RAMMY Nominee - Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year, Rising Culinary Star of the Year - Mike Isabella
Neighborhood:
Gallery Place

The Setup


With Official Parents of DCWD MV and DV coming down to DC for the weekend of MV's birthday, I decided to take them out to dinner. While pretending I could get off the Komi waitlist on short notice, I set up a reservation at a restaurant of MV's choosing, since they had taken me there for my college graduation: Zaytinya.

The Vibe


Zaytinya is a pretty modern and spacious dining area, with large motifs of white, dark blue, and powder blue, something it shares with many Greek/Mediterranean restaurants. Seating is available in every imaginable combination, from two-tops by the window, to large cushioned booths, to round six-tops, to long tables for shared meals. What's more, there's a pretty sizable patio area outside, and one of the best bar scenes in town in a vibrant, energetic space (though seats are always at a premium).

The dining area is accented by modern circle-shaped chandeliers, and long curtains. Most of the furniture is chocolate brown with beige tops, which is a nice combination with the blue interior; in the daytime, light comes in the large-full length windows and brightens the whole space, while at night the restaurant has a warm glow that accentuates the space's straight modern lines. Best, from our periwinkle booth, we had a view of the large roasting spit in the kitchen.

The Food


DV ordered Magic Hat #9, me a Mythos beer, and MV a Pom Fili - white wine, vodka, triple sec, and pomegranate juice, a surprisingly refreshing drink.

Zaytinya, like all of Jose Andres' restaurants (see our reviews of Oyamel, minibar, and Bazaar) is small plates, in this instance mezze. Because of that, we ordered nine dishes for the three of us, with all of the selections coming from MV, it being her birthday and all. The first one to arrive was a cerkez tavugu, a salad of shredded chicken in walnut-cilantro sauce. Considering how both she and my grandma both make a similar chicken salad, I was surprised by her choice, but it was very good, the cilantro accentuating the lightness of the whole salad.

Next came the kolokithokeftedes, zucchini and cheese patties served on a caper-yogurt sauce. These arrived as I left the table to arrange a birthday surprise, and by the time I had returned, both DV and MV had forgotten about the blog rules (which incidentally aren't very stringent anyway) and started chowing down. After biting into it, I could see why: crispy but still flavorful, and altogether pleasing.

Third was the spiced quail couscous, mixed with apricot, zucchini, mint, and topped with a poached quail egg. Frankly, it could be just because the three of us love quail, or because adding a poached egg to any dish will capture my attention, but we all thought this dish was fantastic, light but savory, and really accentuating the gaminess of the quail.

I wasn't particularly looking forward to our next dish, roasted portabella mushrooms served with lemon, cumin, and coriander on top of a corn-yogurt puree. But this dish was a prime example of how plating and creativity in a dish can enhance. The portabella was cooked and served as if they were slices of meat, and the puree was a brilliant surprise. Together, this was clearly a vegetarian dish even I could love.

Concurrent with that dish was a pure meat dish: kibbeh nayeh, a Lebanese beef tartare, with bulgar wheat, radish, and mint. Nothing too crazy from the tartare, but it was crisp and bitter from the onions served with it, and wonderfully savory without being too heavy.

Next up was the olive oil salmon. You can read about it, or better yet just ogle it. Always perfectly poached, it just melts in your mouth. I think I've said everything I need to say about this wonderful dish.

The last set of dishes started with shish taouk, grilled chicken with sumac, onions, tomatoes, and garlic tuom. Again, this wasn't a dish I was too excited about when MV ordered it; I don't tend to order chicken at restaurants unless it's advertised as out-of-this-world. In this case, the chicken was actually better than expected, cooked fairly tenderly, though still not the best chicken I've ever had in DC.

Second to last was lamb kleftico, spit roasted lamb baked in phyllo and served with dill yogurt and feta. This was absolutely fantastic, a perfect combination of all the flavors of Greek cuisine (save olives) that I love. Maybe it was the spit in plain view that I had been staring at all meal, or that it was baked in phyllo, or my love of dill, but in any event, my taste buds were very excited about this special.

Last was barbounia skordalia, beer battered black cod with orange and potato-garlic puree. This could have been a lot better for me, especially given my history with black cod in the past. That being said, it was fairly decent.

We were about to wrap up the meal, when MV's birthday cake came out, the Turkish coffee chocolate, a chocolate cake on bittersweet chocolate flan with cardamom espuma and espresso syrup. The cardamom really stood out here, which was a good thing, because I absolutely love cardamom. A great ending to an almost perfect meal.

The Verdict


My feelings on small plates' restaurants are well known. But Zaytinya lives up to all the praise and hype that is heaped onto it. A beautiful restaurant with an even better kitchen, and one of the best meals of my year so far.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating:
3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Smart Casual
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd to Suits Scene
Vibe:
EnergeticCost: $$ (out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)
Pairing
: This might elicit a groan from those with a longer memory of the franchise, but swing by the Verizon Center for the Wizards. Fresh off winning the NBA lottery and drafting John Wall, this season's Wizards have to at least be better than last year's moribund, scandal-soaked team. Now if they could just get rid of that awful name...

Zaytinya on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 28, 2010

Monday Munchies: The Search for Banh Mi, Sauca

Part 2 of our Search for Banh Mi series, finds us chasing down one of DC's elusive food trucks: Sauca (we previously reviewed them before).

Sauca's version of Banh Mi transports the sandwich to the truck's signature pita-like bread in wrap form. How does it compare with the real stuff? Well, some of the flavors are there, specifically the pickled carrots and daikon, and cilantro. In addition to that, there were some nice hints of ginger as well. Still, there was something unsettling about it; the pork wasn't like any meat I've ever had in a banh mi. In fact, it reminded me mostly of Korean barbecue.

But aside from that inaccuracy, it was a pretty decent meal with nice flavor combinations. And since the pork wasn't that offputting, it's a good variation on banh mi.

Taste Test: 3 Forks (out of 5)
Perfect for
: Last minute banh mi cravings downtown

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Marrakesh Palace

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood:
Dupont Circle

The Setup


As yet another friend on her way out of town, Official Friend of DCWD Olive decided we needed to have one last meal for the blog. With a Groupon to Marrakesh Palace, she and I went with two of her friends to the Dupont Circle restaurant.

The Vibe


Marrakesh Palace is expansive, more than you would expect from its humble exterior. The dining area is broken into a couple parts. The entrance and the first section is like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, orange walls with lots of paraphernalia like large urns, palm fronds, and a fountain. The feeling is warm, with lots of yellow and orange and red, and extends out to some limited outdoor seating (though with only two tables out there, the question you have to ask is why bother?).

The second section is best described as crazy authentic, a backroom with animal-print furniture couches around the wall, producing a number of half-booths. Blue skylights combine with lighting that looks like torches to provide some dim light to the room. The walls and floor are all tiled, the floor in plain white covered by rugs while the walls have Moorish-style patterns that you would assume are common in the Maghreb. All this while Middle Eastern pop plays in the background.

The Food


I guess everything is about managing expectations. I didn't think it was going to be anything mind-blowing, but still. With a Casablanca beer in hand (unfortunately, just a pretty conventional lager), I tried to order a couple small plates to get an idea of how things were... but they were out of two dishes that I went for. Not an auspicious start.

I eventually settled on two dishes: a chicken pastry of baked filo, chicken, almond, and cinnamon sugar, and some merguez, lamb sausage on a bed of tomatoes, lettuce, onions, lemon vinaigrette. I had high hopes for the chicken pastry, but it was pretty standard, and the merguez was disappointing with only three small pieces.

What I will say was that one of the nice dishes that came out was one of our companion's lamb barkouk tagine, braised lamb with sweet prunes, almonds, and sesame seeds. It was a nice combination of savory and sweet.

The Verdict

I'm not too keen myself on places that try to go way authentic to the point of becoming kitschy. And while there were some good things from the kitchen, there were also some pretty disappointing dishes. Without a coupon, I probably won't go back.

Food Rating: **
(out of 5)
Date Rating:
2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Calm
Cost: $$ (out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)
Pairing
: I love used bookstores, and there are a bunch of them near there, but I'll pick one for this review: Books for America Used Bookstore, on 22nd St south of P St.

Marrakesh Palace Pasha Lounge on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Night Flights: MMM Malted Milk Martini at Co Co Sala

This week's Friday Night Flight is the MMM Malted Milk Martini from chocolate haven Co Co Sala.

Made with Svedka vanilla vodka, Bailey's, and housemade malted chocolate, it's not much of a martini (though their attempt at alliteration is appreciated), but it's a wonderful drink. For anybody who loves having their coffee with Bailey's at brunch, or White Russians, or just milkshakes, this was such a warm creamy delight. Like many of the artisan cocktails there, this was just the right way to set the mood for the meal.

Bar Review: 4 CheersPerfect for: Chocolate lovers, to begin a meal at Co Co Sala, or to end a meal otherwise
Where to find it: Co Co Sala

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Eventide

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2010 #78, Washington City Paper's Young and Hungry's 2009 Top 50 Restaurants, Washington Post's Top 50 Restaurants 2009, 2010 RAMMY Nominee - New Restaurant of the Year
Neighborhood:
Clarendon

The Setup


I'd been wanting to get out to Eventide anyway, but a Groupon made it even easier. And with Official Friend of DCWD Chi getting one as well, we organized a large group of people to head over to the Arlington spot for brunch. Today's roster included Official Friends of DCWD Bricycle, Wills, Chi, and MB at one table, and CC, HR Intern, Runner, and me at the other.

The Vibe


K: Eventide may not look it from the outside, but it is absolutely beautiful and enormous on the inside. The restaurant actually spans three levels, an informal seating and bar area on the first floor, the main dining area on the second floor, and a roof patio. Since we only really experienced the second floor that's what I'll describe here, though if the other two are anything matching that quality then Eventide is in good shape.

Upon exiting the staircase, you are met with a room with a decor very much unlike the host stand you just left. The room is strikingly blue, with floor-to-ceiling dark blue velvet curtains, probably used to separate the space should it be necessary. This fabric is used for the chairs and the couch booths, which themselves are strange since they have little knee height doors to get into them. The blue is continued on the floor, where the carpeting is a paisley cornflower blue pattern. This might be overwhelming, but the exposed bricks, exposed black ceiling and riveted silver columns, along with the light tan wood furniture do a good enough job of breaking up this color palette. The mood is further set by fairly large screen-print style paintings on the walls, while acoustic versions of popular songs play over the overhead. Add that onto individual lights over each table, and large old school chandeliers, and it's actually a beautiful space. The one drawback was the lack of two-tops from what I recall.

The only other thing of note was the service. Our server was pretty sassy but in a good way; on some level, a good server will pick up the vibe of the table and mirror it; so for this early Sunday brunch, lightly poking fun at HR Intern for the Xs still on his hands from the night before and me for ordering a cocktail was right in line for us, and super appropriate. Always nice to see.

CC: While I thought the curtains everywhere were a little heavy, lounge-y and random, there was a nice vibe going on. I wouldn't want to be a private party separated by a curtain though. While the muzak was appropriate for brunch, I always find restaurant music to be a little silly, especially as too many places use the same channels. Hangovers aside, our waitress was a welcome morning personality and had I not needed to rehydrate I would have let me talk me into a breakfast cocktail as well.

The Food

K: I started out with a cocktail, the Oaxacan Pineapple, which I featured on an earlier Friday Night Flight. The only other drink that our table had was a cup of Vienna cinnamon tea for Runner, that was the only thing she ordered for this meal. As I've mentioned before, she's sort of unfun to eat with, but on this instance it was totally worth it to see the amazing presentation of the tea. Beautiful.

I've previously commented before (Ris and Tabard Inn) on how brunch is sort of a fair but unfair way to judge a restaurant. On some level, if a brunch is good you know the kitchen is capable of great things, even with limited resources. But if a brunch is bad, you can't necessarily hold it against a restaurant.

That being said, this was one of the better brunches I've had. I ordered the corned pork belly and potato hash, served with two poached eggs, poblanos, onios, and hot sauce hollandaise. Now high on my list of answers to the "which dish would be your last meal?" question has always been eggs Benedict, so predictably this dish was right up my alley. Rich and creamy with just the right amount of chewiness for texture, this was just like eggs Benedict but with better ingredients, and hashbrowns already there. Wonderful.

For their part, CC and HR Intern got two dishes and split them: the BPLT, a sandwich of plantains and applewood smoked bacon (and obviously lettuce and tomato), with a mustard aioli.

The other dish they got was a Brioche French toast, served with berries, vanilla mascarpone, and a cinnamon maple syrup (which came pre-syruped, much to CC's dismay).

CC: I am always on the hunt for ways to improve upon the classic BLT. I have such fond memories of grilled sourdough dripping in mayonnaise and fresh heirloom tomatoes between crunchy bacon for lunch on Saturdays growing up. In fact, come to think of it, I'm pretty sure they were just BT's--no room for lettuce in my family. Recently I had a pesto BLT with your basic lettuce and bacon accompanied by a fried green tomato and gooey mozzarella. I thought I had met lettered sandwich perfection. That is, until Eventide threw plantains into the mix. When are plantains NOT good? This was an awesome sandwich. I wish I had ordered it on my own and not had to share. I embraced the mess of the broken bread, the drip of the aioli and tomato juice, and loved those sweet sweet plantains. And I don't like savory brunches.

As for the french toast--brioche makes everything better. It was big and fluffy and moist, but the berries were too sparse and as Kim mentioned, the plate pre-syruped. What right does any chef have to decide how drenched I want my breakfast breads? This was really horrifying for me (editor's note: she was alone in this outrage), and the vanilla cream couldn't even get me past it (Co Co Sala does a more awesome vanilla white chocolate cream with their brunch). I have a indescribable passion for maple syrup, and felt abused as a customer. Yeah it was a good batch of french toast. But I'm still not over it. Tiny silver pouring cup. That's all I ask for. Please?

The Verdict

K: I, for one, actually really liked this brunch. That combined with my love of the decor will guarantee that I will go back for a regular meal. So I guess it's good they had that Groupon deal after all.

CC: That BPLT is something I keep dreaming about, and I am not even a sandwich lover. My 2 complaints are that there was only one sweet option on the menu (what are sugar fiends like me to do??) and that whole pre-poured syrup incident. I'd like to manage my own sogginess, thanks. But the place was fun, I LOVED the wall of mismatched mirrors downstairs, and I definitely want to try the dinner.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating:
4.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
Vibe: Calm to chatty
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing
: Clarendon itself is a pretty fun place, and one of my favorite places to sit and veg is there. Just a little down Clarendon Blvd is a wonderful shopping center with pretty cliche stores (Williams-Sonoma, Apple, B&N), but also some nice gazebos and benches in open space. Definitely recommended.

Eventide on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hank's Oyster Bar

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2009 #86, Washingtonian 2008 #98, 2009 RAMMY Nominee - Chef of the Year - Jamie Leeds
Neighborhood:
Dupont Circle

The Setup


Official Friend of DCWD Kelly has been a pretty loyal friend of the blog since the beginning, so when she told me she wanted one last dinner before she left DC for the summer, it was a given. After a few texts back and forth, we settled on Dupont Circle hotspot Hank's Oyster Bar.

The Vibe


Hotspot might not be the first word you think of when it comes to Hank's, but I have never walked by the restaurant when it wasn't packed; even on this Tuesday night at 9pm, there was only one free table when we walked in. Hank's in Dupont is the second of two locations (the first is in Old Town), and is located on the first floor of a Dupont townhouse; the dining area is thus long and narrow but with a pretty sizable and busy patio area out front.

Unwilling to wait long for an outside space, and with only an hour until the kitchen closed, we sat inside, which is somewhere at the nexus of a Pottery Barn and what I would describe as warehouse-chic. The front windows are simple, black, and colonial, and topped with white shelving filled with some light kitsch. Painted in warm colors, there is a lone crimson wall, lined with orange couch half-booth seating. The rest of the space is filled with simple light wood tables, in both two and four-tops beneath individual factory lights. Specials and the oysters of the day are listed on blackboards hung on the exposed brick walls, while a steady stream of classic rock (Don't Stop Believing, Killer Queen, I'll Be Watching You) is pumped overhead.

This setup would have been nice in itself, but it was soured a little by the poor service. It took about ten minutes for us to just get our waiter's attention, then another ten to get our order in, and this was at the end of the service. What's more, we got our bread course as we were finishing our meal. Kind of a bummer.

The Food


Along with our drink order, we got a serving of goldfish in a sauce cup, which I thought was a cute little nod to the seafood restaurant. I like little touches like this.

It being an oyster bar and the two of us loving oysters, we had to get plenty of those, so we ordered two of each of the six oysters of the day: Alpine from Nova Scotia, Rappahanock and Chincoteague from VA, and Hama Hama, Snookums, and Totten Bay from Washington State. We ate the oysters in that order moving clockwise around the ice tray, and each successive oyster (with the exception of the slightly subpar Hama Hama) was slightly better than the ones before. That beautiful slimy feeling of a raw oyster is unmatched, and these were of the best quality; paired with Mignonette sauce, it was a wonderful set of bites.

We didn't stop there; on some level I wanted to flaunt my beating of my childhood shellfish allergy (::knocks on wood::). So along with that we ordered Old Bay peel-and-eat shrimp, which were tender and full of flavor, though it revealed my inability to peel shrimp as fast as Kelly.

Lastly, we pulled off the special menu again, and ordered the crispy rock octopus with chickpeas, topped with lemon and parsley and a pimenton emulsion. I'm not the hugest chickpeas fan, but these were amazing, as they had been breaded and fried... oh and the octopus was good too. But seriously, the chickpeas stole the show. I almost preferred them more.

To close the meal, we were brought a sauce cup of dark chocolate chunks. Like I said, it's the little things.

The Verdict

Despite the service issues, on some level there's something kind of sweet about a messy, hands-on meal (maybe I've watched A Few Good Men too many times). But along with the oyster aphrodisiac, the beautiful decor and patio, and you know the actual quality of the seafood, this is a great date place.

Food Rating: *** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating:
4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Energetic to Noisy
Cost: $$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing
: Grab a basketball and shoot a few hoops, or be a kid again and play on the playground at the Stead Recreation Center, a public park off of P St. It's actually a very nice park and playground by DC standards.

Hank's Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 21, 2010

Monday Munchies: The Search for Banh Mi, Cantina at Eden Center

It's something that's plagued DC residents for years, the perfect banh mi, a sandwich as hard for people to find as it is for some people to pronounce (and oh man, have I heard some bad ones). But it seems every new restaurant is trying their hand at the ubiquitous Vietnamese sandwich (for the record, the pronunciation is beng mee, with up intonation on the first word, down intonation on the second, though I will accept the other dialect's pronunction of bahn mee).

Banh mi, for the uninitiated, is a baguette filled with some form of meat (usually pork), and usually a number of other accompaniments, like pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro, and chili peppers, though really the possibilities are endless. Like many other ethnic things in DC, it has become a culinary touchstone, something often imitated but never truly duplicated, each chef taking their own whack at it and coming out with their own spin on the sandwich.

For me, banh mi was something so critical to being Vietnamese in America, a bridge to keep the old culture going when it's threatened by so much new culture. Growing up, banh mi filled in the spaces that hamburgers or takeout pizza did for others. On long car trips, my parents would stock up with 10 or so of the rolls, and when somebody grumbled in hunger, a few of them would be tossed back from the front seat to be split apart ravenously like chum in the water. Eventually, the car would become a graveyard of wax paper, rubber bands, and little flakes of bread, proof positive that we were satiated and that we'd all fall asleep in food coma soon. And this is definitely not a unique experience to my family; several other Viet friends have relayed similar stories with me.

What I loved about banh mi was the democracy and the diversity of the sandwich. Everyone's banh mi preferences were different, but in the end everyone still loved it; even my vegetarian sister will cave once banh mi is entered into the equation. And it was through banh mi that I learned to eat, and eventually like things like head cheese or pate, foods that I'd like to think broadened my gastronomic horizons and allowed me to become the open-minded epicurean that I consider myself today.

***************************************************

So just like our tour of all the burger shops and pizza places and food trucks in DC, we'll have a continuing series looking at banh mi adaptations and imitations around the District, using our Monday Munchies column when appropriate, or spinning off our regular reviews.

Our first stop brings us right into the heart of the Vietnamese community in the DC Metro Area, Eden Center in Falls Church to the most non-Vietnamese-named banh mi shop, Cantina. I'll admit that I'm a bit biased for this review, as this particular sub shop has always been high on my list. So I guess I'll use this one as the baseline, as the example of a pure traditional banh mi.

On a recent trip with Official Friends of DCWD Chi and Wills, we stopped by Cantina to pick up some banh mi for the road. It's a typical bakery, but a little more upscale than some others in the shopping center, brightly lit and pink with some faux street signs in French. Wills picked up a banh mi pate cha (pate and Vietnamese ham), while I got a banh mi bi and heo nuong (shredded and grilled pork, seen in the picture above). It was delicious, just what I wanted, and represented everything I love about Vietnamese cuisine: light but filling and full of flavor. And at $2.50 to $3 a sandwich, it is one of the best values in the area. If it were next door to my work place, I would have it every day. I would recommend it to anyone.

Taste Test: 4 Forks (out of 5)
Authenticity: The real thing.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Viet Royale

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2008 #91
Neighborhood:
Falls Church

The Setup

I might have mentioned it a few times (okay, like multiple times, here and here and here to name a few) but I'm Vietnamese, so when fellow Viet and Official Friend of DCWD Chi suggested that I take a field trip with her and Official Friend of DCWD Wills to Eden Center one Saturday afternoon, I was more than game. Searching for a lunch spot, we ended up at Viet Royale.

The Vibe

Like all places in Eden Center, Viet Royale is nondescript with a vaguely confusing name, and a bare bones interior. The decor is simple, ecru walls with red bottoms, with paintings of bamboo, the occasional painting of Vietnamese life, and specials handwritten on posterboard bought from a party supplies store (you can tell from the cartoon balloon border). Simple furniture means that the place is nice but in a low key Asian restaurant kind of way. Any one who has ever been to one, knows what I mean.

The Food

To drink, Chi got herself sinh to mang cau (according to a translation, mang cau is a custard-apple... one of those moments where the Vietnamese is just better), a smoothie. I got my standard soda chanh (limeade with soda), and Wills ordered a cafe sua da. You know you're somewhere authentic when they give you the individual coffee strainer (I've been places where they don't, just saying).

As for our meals, on this trip we went the opposite route from our trip to Four Sisters and went with dishes we couldn't make ourselves (at least that's what I did and suggested for Wills). I got banh xeo tom thit, essentially a giant crepe/pancake made of rice flour and turmeric, filled with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, among other things. Like most things Vietnamese, it's served with a healthy serving of lettuce, Thai basil, cilantro, and lime (though in this case, the serving was more than healthy and bordering on ludicrously generous). Banh xeo is one of the most time intensive dishes, so much so that my mom only made it two or three times a year growing up, thus making it something that I crave and love and have high standards of. This banh xeo met those standards, crispy and light but without being too beany (they're not actually beans, but they feel/taste like beans).

Wills got banh cuon, the other time intensive dish but one that we actually used to drive 45 minutes to get. Banh cuon is rolls of rice paper, filled usually with ground pork and mushrooms. To say that banh cuon, when done well, is beyond delicious is an understatement. These fell apart as you ate them, a product of the fish sauce poured over them. These were actually some of the better banh cuon I've had in my life, so that's something.

For her part, Chi ordered goi du du do bien, green papaya salad with seafood, another time intensive dish solely because of the effort it takes to grate the papaya through a mandoline. The salad was nice and light, and the portions of the seafood (shrimp, scallops, octopus) were generous.

The nice thing about Viet Royale is that at the end of each meal, they give you some che, which is sort of like a Vietnamese porridge, though porridge isn't the right word for it either, because it connotes this whole Goldilocks rice-mush thing. Che is just the generalized word, describing more of the consistency than the content, and this one is a pretty common sweetened bean dessert variety. Trust me, it tastes way better than it looks.

The Verdict

I've admitted my bias towards Vietnamese restaurants, but also my high standards. Perhaps it's because of the long hiatus between my last stop, but this was a great wholly satisfying meal, and highly recommended for some simple Vietnamese pleasures.

Food Rating: *** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating:
1.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating: N/A
Vibe:
Calm
Cost:
$$
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)
Pairing
: Eden Center is sort of a zoo in and of itself, so if you enjoy all things Asian, it would be worth a visit inside the east-side mall where any number of desserts, baked goods, and trinkets can be purchased. Sort of kitschy, sort of ethnic, and for me sort of my childhood.

Viet Royale on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Night Flights: Last of the Oaxacans at Sra. Martinez

Today's Friday Night Flight is a drink that I alluded to on Tuesday in our DCWD Travels: the Last of the Oaxacans (cute, haha). The drink is made with Sombra Mezcal tequila, St. Germain, lime juice, egg whites, and agave. The drink is an interesting mix of all sorts of tastes: the bitter agave and tequila, the sweetness of the elderflower, the sour of the lime, and the texture of frothiness from the egg white foam. A good drink to sip and just relax on a warm summer night.

Bar Review: 3 Cheers
Perfect for: Chillin' out, maxin'
Where to find it
: Sra. Martinez, Miami

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Marvin

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2010 #98, Washingtonian 2009 #100, 2009 RAMMY Nominee - Hottest Restaurant Bar Scene of the Year
Neighborhood: U Street

The Setup

Ever since we started this blog, Official Friend of DCWD Tantan has been clamoring to be a part of it. But she lives up in Manhattan, and so opportunities to share a meal have been few and far between. But she finally came back to visit DC a few weekends ago, and so Official Co-Writer of DCWD CC, Official Friend of DCWD HR Intern, and I took her out to Marvin.

The Vibe

K: Marvin gets its name from R&B legend Marvin Gaye, and finds its theme from the musician's two year stay in Belgium, using this otherwise innocuous biographical anecdote and taking it to its rational conclusion and producing an otherwise irrational combination: a restaurant that serves both Belgian and soul food.

Despite this, the decor favors the European influence, at least on the first floor where the main dining area is (on this occasion we did not venture upstairs onto the roofdeck, which I'm told is very nice). The interior is very much like a pub, simple wooden floors and light yellow walls with dark brown trim. On the left wall are chalkboards that list the specials, and a giant stylized stencil portrait of the restaurant's namesake. On the right wall, there are large mirrors that sit over burgundy half-booths that make up most of the larger tables. The rest of the seating is two-tops in various combinations, the furniture simple and straightforward.

Despite the pub interior, there actually is only a small bar but it's well-traveled and the place was actually fairly packed, and got fairly loud. That, and our slightly discombobulated waiter led to some fairly uneven service, punctuated by some aggressive clearing of our table. Something to think about.

CC
: BUT if you don't need a table, head upstairs for the rooftop bar. This was actually my first of 3 or 4 visits to Marvin that I spent downstairs. There's always a good after work and weekend crowd up there, and you can still order some, if not all, of the food.

The Food

K: Feeling hungry, we all decided to get three appetizers and then three entrees to split between the four of us. For appetizers, CC and I split the chicken fried oysters with remoulade sauce, Tantan and HR Intern ordered the wild shrimp and cheese grits, and all three of us went in on the goat cheese croquettes in a fig vinaigrette.

All three were pretty good in their own right. The chicken fried oysters were crispy and the remoulade was fairly tangy. The shrimp and grits were better, with the shrimp perfectly cooked and the grits being some of the best I've ever had (just the right of amount of graininess relative to creaminess). And the best for me was the goat cheese croquettes, which just melted in your mouth and oozed (then again, I love goat cheese, so it was already a frontrunner).

CC: Not the best fried oysters I've ever had (gotta see Todd Gray at Equinox for that), but they were delightfully crunchy and the remoulade appropriate. I guess I've come to expect a little more excitement even in fairly basic compositions, but Marvin kept it simple. I'm not complaining, the shrimp and grits were awesome and I don't even hold much affection for grits. They were definitely the surprising win of the night. And how can you go wrong with fried cheese, especially fried goat cheese?? Mmmmm. All of these were great with my glass of rose sparkling wine. Good early summer fare.

K: It being a Belgian/soul food restaurant, our entrees reflected this culinary theme. Between the three of us, Tantan, CC, and I ordered two sets of mussels, the Normandy (bacon, hard cider, blue cheese) and the Dijonnaise (mustard, herbs de provence). Each came with fries, and three dipping sauces (curry mayo, wasabi mayo, and ketchup). I wasn't too crazy about the Dijonnaise; it was nice but nothing crazy. On the other hand, the Normandy was good, rich with such strong flavors that hit you in the face. That along with the Allagash Dubbel that I had, it was a nice satiating meal.

CC: It's funny, because our table was evenly divided in our condiment favoritism. Kim's and my side cleaned up the wasabi mayo while the other two fought for the curry--perfect. I loved digging for the bacon and blue cheese in the Normandy, while the Dijonnaise was nothing really that special for me. Not even really worth soaking bread in. The fries were also less-than-interesting but I'll try not to hold that against them. Moules frites have always been more about the sauce for me.

K: As for the soul food aspect, HR Intern got the chicken and waffles, which came with collard greens and gravy. I've never been someone who craves soul food (other than my stop at Art and Soul), but this was nice, the sweetness of the Belgian waffles and syrup mixing well with the savory chicken (which had a beautiful crisp) and greens. Eaten as one bite, it was fantastic.

CC: If nothing else, this is a fun dish to watch being carried around the room. It's one of those plates that makes people crane their necks from surrounding tables and think "why didn't I order that?" With good reason.

The Verdict


K: It's an interesting mix that you will probably not see anywhere else. And at that, it's pretty well executed. Not the best Belgian I've ever had, nor the best soul food I've ever had. But a nice vibe and some solidly good food make it worth the visit.

CC: The upstairs bar really is worth its own visit too--a lot more of a loud bar scene than its downstairs counterpart, and surprisingly fun in a DC summer rainstorm. You know, the kind I just narrowly escaped from.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating:
3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Hipster Hangout
Vibe:
Energetic to noisy
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing: It's embarrassing to me that I could live so long in this city and not know about Meridian Hill Park, but it took almost three years of being here before I even knew about it. A beautiful park on the daytime, the cascading fountain is one of the best spots in the city. And if you're around on a Sunday afternoon, you can catch a raucous and festive drum circle in the summertime.

Marvin on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

DCWD Travels: Sra. Martinez, Miami

The Setup

This episode of DCWD Travels finds me in Miami, in town for a guys' long Memorial Day weekend. With companions Official Friends of DCWD MM, HR Intern, and Yupster, the five days followed the same formula: lie out on a beach, find some midday quasi-athletic activity, and then stuff our face on some great food. MM got us a reservation at Sra. Martinez, one of Michelle Bernstein's two Miami restaurants.

The Vibe


From the outside, Sra. Martinez looks like a bank or a post office, and certainly does not seem as expansive as the interior actually. Sitting in the middle of Miami's design district, Sra. Martinez's decor fits in well with that, mixing traditional Spanish interior with American Hispanic influences. Dominant tones of red, black, white, and dark brown are abundant, with walls of exposed brick or patterns that recall Moorish Spain. Dark-brown shutters compliment a two-level restaurant, with a food bar and the regular dining area on the ground floor, and a private dining room, more seating, and a bar upstairs (again, surprisingly spacious). Lights are individual gaslight lanterns that hang from the ceiling. It's a really nice interior.

The Food

Usually it's hard to convince people to go for a tasting menu, especially given that it's a tapas place. But almost because there were so many choices (Yupster captured all of our sentiments: "There are so many great dishes, I'm finding myself just picking the things I don't want"). But the mid-range tasting menu is what we decided on, leaving our decisions in the hands of the chefs.

MM, Yupster, and I all started with drinks from the equally impressive cocktail list. MM went with the Thai Basil Gimlet (Herradura Blanco tequila, Domaine de Canton, basil, lime jalapeno syrup, and lime), Yupster the Buenavista (Hendrick's, Sobieski vodka, St. Germain liqueur, cucumber, mint, and lime juice), and me the Last of the Oaxacans (which we'll feature as this week's FNF). All were fantastic, with Yupster's Buenavista recalling something very similar to Gina Chersevani's cucumber drink at PS7's.

To start, our talkative waiter suggested a combination of three of the small bites, honeycomb, Valdeon blue cheese, and raisin walnut bread. I was personally a little dubious, but I was glad that he mentioned it, because taken together it was a perfect combination of sweet and savory with the honeycomb crunch and the creaminess of the cheese.

Dish number one was something actually off the a la carte menu, a baguette topped with Serrano ham, tomatoes, Manchego cheese, and olive oil. It was a nice and clear start to the menu, though somewhat simplistic for my tastes.

Next came their Greek salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, chickpeas, radish, sweet peppers, and Greek vinaigrette). This was also pretty clean in terms of flavor, and despite the dressing, was pretty light.

Next came pimientas de padron, Spanish Shisito peppers with sea salt. I'm not one for heat, so this was my least favorite dish of the night. But the one I did have was fairly crunchy and the heat was fair without being overpowering.

The fourth dish was crispy eggplant, with honey and sea salt. Honestly, this was something that I thought was excellent simply because when I bit into it, I thought it had tasted reminiscent of fried plantain chips with its touch of sweet and salty. These were easy to snack on, and I might have been happy to just have tons of this.

Next were bacon-wrapped dates, stuffed with more Valdeon blue cheese and Marcona almonds. I was the only one to eat this immediately, and I thought it was pretty good, though again fairly standard. Everyone else decided to wait on it, saying simply "I know once that I eat it, it'll be gone and over." Eventually everyone took their bite, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Our waiter had indicated that he would bring our small plates in groups, and so we moved onto set number two. It was in this set that I thought the kitchen picked up its quality. The next dish was for me the most innovative to me, tiny marinated anchovies in a beautiful sauce. Unfortunately it wasn't on the a la carte menu and I was into a glass of wine when our waiter described it, so I can't remember the specifics, but for an ingredient I don't especially like (anchovies), it provided a really good degree of clarity of flavor.

Then came the uni risotto, calamari and chimichurri sauce on top of a standard risotto. This was an interesting combination of flavors, and I thought the risotto was actually much more flavorful than the calamari, with the chimichurri a solid addition.

The next dish was sauteed kale with garlic chilies, a simple recipe but fairly well executed, though I'm sure I liked it mostly because I love kale.

From here were five straight dishes that I absolutely loved, starting with the last dish of the second round of courses, and the whole third round. The first of these dishes was crispy artichokes with a lemon-coriander dipping sauce. This was fun not least because it took all the work out of eating artichokes. The nice bitter taste with the mild sour of the dipping taste and the crisp was well appreciated.

The protein section of dishes started with galbi pinchos, Korean-style marinated short rib served with a green tomato slaw. The meat was a little slim, but absolutely tender and perfectly seared. I'm not sure of the place of the slaw, but at least it wasn't the focus here.

Second were lamb pinchos, served on top of a romesco sauce with grilled whole scallions. Frequent readers of DCWD will note that the last DCWD Travels featured a confusing pairing with romesco, but this was quite the opposite, a wonderful pairing with the lamb chops. Again, I wasn't too sure about the giant scallions, but they made for an interesting side piece.

Third was a dish that stole the show, choclo con chiles, sweet corn with lime, chiles, and grated cheese. I wasn't expecting much from this, despite my love of corn, but this was actually sublime, the corn the perfect complement to the various meat courses. Just the right amount of sweet and savory.

Last was something that was right up to my high expectations: rabo encendido, tropphie pasta with braised oxtail, mascarpone cheese, and red peppers. The braise on the oxtail was beautiful, falling apart in stringy but delicious pieces. The perfect ending to a great meal.

The verdict on Sra. Martinez? A good tapas place with some truly amazing dishes, and definitely worth a stop by if you're in Miami.

Sra. Martinez   on Urbanspoon