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Thursday, May 26, 2011

DCWD Travels: Zambia, Part Deux

editor's note: Some more travel and food stories from the few non-work moments of my last trip to Zambia. Regular reviews resume next week.

There seems to be two types of non-African people that fly the transatlantic route to Africa: older couples going on their first vacation to Cape Town, or missionaries in their twenties. Every single time I believe something may be different, they either pull out a brochure for Kruger National Park or a goldleaf King James bible the size of a cinder block. There’s a certain comfort in this consistency.

Invariably, these people are also much friendlier than I am, a phenomenon I will never understand. Admittedly, there’s something nice about having a companion in the shared trauma of an 18-hour flight. But it amazes me how people can instantly strike up conversation with a complete stranger on the basis of a book or a magazine, especially given that this person will probably be invading your personal space for the better part of a day.

On this trip, I’m taking the direct flight from DC to Johannesburg, which does a land and disembark in Dakar. I’ve passed on the Ambien once again, based on the probably apocryphal story that if you’re not awake to claim your carry-on luggage when the plane lands in Dakar, they’ll throw it out. Nothing frightens me more than the prospect of losing company property, and so I’m back to imagining alternate ways to fall asleep. Sleep by beer is once again not an option based on the judgy face the flight attendant gives me when I ask for a second Castle, the sort of face reserved for Lindsey Lohan’s judges and dogs who’ve peed the carpet.

Instead, in what is quickly becoming my favorite airplane pastime, I sit back and watch three movies: Tron: Legacy (predictably corny), How Do You Know (unpredictably decent), and The Blind Side (just plain predictable, but I mean, it’s a true story).

I might be in the minority here, but I don’t actually mind airplane food. Specifically, I don’t mind South African Airways food. People say that if you travel it often enough, they start repeating each other, but on three legs, I didn’t come across anything twice. Some fish, some chicken, some lamb. It was actually not that bad. Then again, as a friend told me, no matter how long the flight is, South African will try to feed you. It's like they have a surplus of bread rolls to get rid of or the plane won't be able to land.

***

One of the best steaks I've had: the pepper steak at African chain Rhapsody's. True story. Weird but true.

***

It might be my own neuroses talking but I always have a momentary panic when the baggage carousel starts running and my luggage isn’t the first one out of the gate. Then again, the “oh god, what am I going to do if they lost my luggage?” line of thought only makes sense if this had already happened to me once, but there’s always a creeping suspicion that because it hasn't, I’m due. All the same, what usually ends up happening is more Murphy’s Law than misfortune: since I’m the first one to the carousel, my bag will be the last one to appear.

***

Of the non-hotel meals that I’ve eaten in Zambia so far (of which there are very few), the list includes: empanadas and lemonade, burgers, and pizza. The first came from a Saturday craft market, while the latter came from a restaurant called Portico, tucked away in the “Italian Circle” in Lusaka. Africa is sometimes a study in contrasts, which this restaurant very much symbolizes. Imagine if somebody painstakingly recreated Vapiano’s lounge area and that’s what Portico is, replete with the red, white, and black color scheme, the cushioned sofas, and the Peroni at the bar. About the only differences are the red and white linens draped from the ceiling like a bigtop, and the small fact that if you step outside, you probably won’t be on 18th St. It’s funny that you can travel so far away from home and find the exact same things.

In fact, that seems to be the running theme. The next weekend I find myself at the Arcades strip mall, which has a smaller more upscale portion next door. In this plaza are three restaurants that vaguely resemble other D.C. locales: a Thai restaurant that screams Thaitanic, a wine bar named Plates that's basically like Veritas, and a salad and sandwiches place named Mint, which is basically a mashup of Sweetgreen's food and color scheme with Oya's decor.

Plates is so hip that it doesn't just have a chalkboard menu, it has a whole chalkboard wall. And the menu is decidedly Western: for this dinner, I had a curried cauliflower soup with potatoes and currants, and ribbon tagliatelle with braised lamb Bolognese. And honestly, both were pretty freaking good.

On the flip side is Mint, which is both well-coifed but casual. The kind of place where you can order something called a freezo (which as far as I can tell is the midway point between an Icee and a milkshake). Bookending a steak and mustard sandwich, it was actually real pleasant.

Honestly, maybe this is the reason why, in three weeks, I didn't have a single Zambian meal.

***

Work trip = eating more omelettes in three weeks than I have in the past three years.

***

I am, by nature, a pessimist in part. Mostly when it comes to myself. This manifests itself in a number of interesting ways, most notably my fear of falling. Not heights, but literally falling, stemming from my neurotic belief that I’m way clumsier than I actually am. So standing on the edge of Victoria Falls Bridge, about a million thoughts are running through my head: oh god, what if I slip and careen to my death? Why does this bridge keep shaking every time a 1995 Toyota Camry crosses it? Why have I willingly signed up to leap 350 feet below with nothing more than a glorified rubber band holding me?

And why is that South African man bungee jumping naked? Talk about chafing. And please keep that harness away from me.

Still, there's something about that moment of freeness. Something that can't be duplicated here in the U.S.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

DCWD Travels: Blue Moon Cafe, Zambia

editor's note: This review is from my trip to Zambia. Regular DC reviews will resume next week.

Three weeks isn’t an overwhelmingly long time, but it’s definitely extended enough to cause you to start hankering for familiar things (or at least to leave the hotel). That’s what brought me to Blue Moon Café, a small sandwich and coffee shop that sits in a Pick and Pay strip mall in the Woodlands neighborhood of Lusaka.

It’s something of a familiar sight; with the live acoustic guitar music, chalkboard menus, and overall décor, it’s like a tornado picked up a coffee shop off of U Street or C.Heights and sat it down right here in Zambia. And in point of fact, that’s what Blue Moon aims to be: an unabashedly American cafe experience, but one that supports local Zambian growers and producers.

Run by expats, the café is neatly decorated: framed African photos on cobalt walls, chalkboard menus hanging over the lunch counter, leather sofas and high tables within. With the doors open on this brisk night, the music and food attracted a crowd, a healthy mix of expats and locals enjoying Friday night and what must have been the 15th straight night of 60 degree perfect weather.

Thinking this my dinner time, I ordered the Chipololo Club, a sandwich of honey-glazed ham, roast beef, chicken, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and mustard. With sides of spicy tomato chips and homemade coleslaw. All of this is washed down with an Oreo blizzard, a concoction so unmistakably American that you wonder how they figured out how to make it out here (and keep it tasting so good nonetheless). All-in-all, a refreshing and delicious recall of the U.S. in a place which reminds you how cosmopolitan the environment around you is.

People always say to themselves that they’ll come to Africa and try all the local foods. But then sometimes all you really want is a freaking bagel. And now, I’m happy to say, I’ve found the place I can get a good one.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Monday Munchies: Front Page

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Dupont Circle

The Setup


We wanted greasy food and cheap beer. Official Friend of DCWD Rajistan and I found ourselves at Dupont's The Front Page.

The Vibe

Front Page always seems crowded and alive with people, and that's probably due in part to the its set-up (that and Taco Thursdays). Both entrances are bars, which sandwich the dining portion of the restaurant, and become fairly raucous at nights (or at the least, like a bar). The notable portion of Front Page is the large patio which sits on New Hampshire, a pleasant place to catch a lunch or brunch in the summertime. While the inside is white-painted brick covered by framed old newspapers, the outside is a simple grouping of basketweave furniture and umbrellas.

The Food


Greasy food was the mandate, so greasy food was the order. Rajistan got some hot wings and tots, and I ordered the Boss burger, topped with onion rings, cheddar, jalapeno jack, and "Boss sauce" (ketchup, mayo, relish). Both left just a little bit to be desired; the wings should have been "wetter" (more sauce means actual heat) and the burger probably could have been more flavorful given all the inputs.

The Verdict


Greasy food and beer, but at least in this dinner, just that.

Food Rating: **
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Party in the USA
Vibe:
Energetic to Noisy
Cost:
$$
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)

Front Page on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Grillfish

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: West End

The Setup


Now that the three of us were all back in the city (at least for two days), Official Friends of DCWD Talia and Rajistan met up with me for a Future Roommate Dinner. Not wanting to go far from our office/homes, we ended up at newly-reopened Grillfish.

The Vibe

Grillfish closed down for two months to undergo renovations, though it looks basically the same as it always did (though it juts out a little more into the sidewalk than before). Central to the decor is a piece that is best described on Grillfish's website: "The restaurant is dominated by its “signature” oversized, floor-to-ceiling, erotic mural extending the entire wall behind the large stone bar." Otherwise, the dining room, which seems smaller and longer than before, is a few small tables and leather chairs alongside the bar, and the small patio in front with basket-weave chairs. Decor is pale green walls with a tile floor with chalkboard menus and faux-candle chandeliers, the typical "old charm to provide a warm atmosphere" mix.

The Food


For a round of drinks, we all ordered the Allagash Shandy, a mix of Allagash White and ginger ale. Apparently shandies are a thing (mixing beer and soda), but this was my first shandy... and oh my god this was amazing. A mix of two of my favorite drinks with a bit of lemon? Perfect summer drink.

Talia ordered a salad and some sides, while Rajistan and I kicked with some entrees. I had the seafood Sicilian - linguine with creamy white wine sauce and clams, mussels, shrimp, and calamari. Rajistan ordered the mixed grill, two kabobs of grilled swordfish, salmon, scallops, shrimp, and mahi mahi with sides of jasmine rice and a coconut red curry sauce. Both were essentially the same: a perfectly adequate seafood dish with some good flavors but nothing that I remembered too well the next morning.

The Verdict


In sum, a perfectly decent seafood place given a certain price range, but definitely better places out there and in the surrounding neighborhood.

Food Rating: **
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Quiet Drinks
Vibe:
Chatty
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing
: Head over to the Francis Swimming Pool to take a dip as the weather gets warmer.

Grillfish - D.C. on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Urbana

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Dupont Circle

The Setup


With me heading out of town before they moved out of the city, Official Friends of DCWD Chi and Wills and I arranged a goodbye brunch at a restaurant that had come highly recommended for brunch: Urbana.

The Vibe

Urbana is down a set of stairs underneath the Hotel Palomar, and is therefore very similar in terms of trendiness to its home hotel. The bar side where we sat is jam-packed with seating, from lounge couches to one side, a long wooden bar to the other, leading to some high bar tables and more couches in the back. The walls are tile (including a set of large copper tiles that depict Rome), and the floors are marble-like. Decorations serve the wine bar theme, like wine bottles with U labels. The restaurant side is a little more white cloth, with half circle booths and modern furniture and a little brighter than the dim lounge side.

I don't have super high expectations for brunch, but this experience was awful. Our server was indifferent to us, and we weren't even the worst treated party; that dubious distinction went to a group in the back couches that actually got so tired of waiting for the waiter to come to them, that they got up to ask about the orange juice. And it wasn't that the lounge was swamped; the server just seem more interested in catering to the table indulging in the bottomless bellinis and two single girls at the end of the bar. One of the most disappointing, slow services in my life.

The Food

We kept it fairly simple for brunch. I ordered steak and eggs, which in Urbana's case, comes augmented by roasted red peppers, basil, goat cheese, and some potatoes. I liked the idea of it: poached eggs are always a favorite, and the extra ingredients were some of my favorite flavors. This should have been easy. Unfortunately, the eggs were overcooked, the yolk solid at points, which sort of defeats the purpose of poaching them. The steak, which I'd asked for medium rare, came almost well done, except for one end piece that came slightly red. If not for the tiny bursts of basil, it would have been utterly disappointing. Normally, I'd chalk it all up to the poor service leaving it under the heat lamps for too long, but then the server had also come up to us to tell us our food was coming soon, which says to me they hadn't fired it yet. Either way, the food was overcooked and came slow.

The same went for Chi's blueberry pancakes with bananas. I think it's a universal feeling that you order pancakes for two reasons: 1) you don't want to go through the trouble of making them yourself, and 2) for whatever reason, pancakes are just that much fluffier than you could ever hope to achieve when restaurants make them (also known as the IHOP Law). This was not the case for Chi's pancakes, which were chewy and had sort of the consistency you have when you reheat frozen Eggos. Unfortunate, and again, overcooked.

Wills probably had the best dish but that's because his was the simplest: two overeasy eggs with sausage. Except that the server forgot to ask him what breakfast meat he wanted, so Wills had to track him down to tell him.

The Verdict


I've had nice times at Urbana, and I'm sure someone will get me to come there for boozy brunch at some point. But based on this experience, I probably wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

Food Rating: **
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd to Suits Scene
Vibe:
Chatty
Cost:
$$
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)
Pairing
: It might be a little late to participate in Passport DC's verison, but do your own embassy tour with all of the fun buildings in the area.

Urbana on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday Night Flights: 1987 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux

This week's Friday Night Flight comes from Lavinia wine shop in Paris, one of the largest wine shops in the city. It continually has around 15 wines for tasting, from 10 euro bottles all the way up to this week's pick, a 430 euro first growth Bordeaux. Having told myself I would try at least one first growth while in France if I could, I couldn't pass up this opportunity.

As an aside, first growth refers to a classification system created for Bordeaux wines in 1855. Basically, there are 6 chateaux listed as the best of the best, Mouton Rothschild among them.

The wine itself had a very earthy smell, almost musty (probably due to its age.) It was red of course, but not a deep crimson, more like red mixed with a bit of clay. When swirled, sediment was quite visible, a sign of its age. I was surprised by the taste. I expected it to be a bold and very dry bordeaux, but instead what I got was a fruity, sweet, mellow red, with a strong taste of alcohol in the background. It is worth noting that 1987 was not considered a particularly good year in the Bordeaux. With my limited knowledge of wine vintages, however, I could not tell the difference.

I generally like bolder reds than this, but I was surprised at how much the subtle flavor it grew on me. Five minutes after the tasting, I was wishing I had more.

Bar Review
: 4.5 Cheers (out of 5)
Perfect for: Dare I say it, lamb? (French pun very much intended.) In all seriousness though the mellow, fruity flavor would pair well with lamb.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On Food Blogging

Note: We're interrupting our regular review schedule to bring you some longish musings on food blogging. If this doesn't interest you, feel free to skip to next week when the reviews come back. Otherwise, read on.

We sat with a Pizzeria Paradiso pie between us and started with the fairly simple question of "why?" I was fresh off reading a Rachel Hutton piece on anonymous restaurant reviews, and he was merely trying to understand what had driven his friend to take an already-bankrupting hobby and turn it into a time-consuming, money-devouring labor of love.

The activity in question is food blogging, a term already so loaded with baggage it almost needs no further explanation. What's even more important is the framework with which my own particular food blog operates by: a few people's opinions of a city's restaurants and their arbitrary and relative worthiness to them. And in discussing the why question, it made me really think about my purpose. If, as stated, I'm writing for both myself as a food journal but also for others as a guide, how then can I differentiate my own individual experience and make it meaningful for others? Put another way, in an age where anyone with an Internet connection and/or smartphone can suddenly become a "food blogger" (myself included), how does one rise above the cacophony of readily-accessible opinions? Or in consultant-speak, where is each blogger's value added?

Off the bat, I should mention that I have a real distaste for Yelp, et. al. I think the concept in and of itself is fine, but like many things on the Internet, it really only represents the most polemic of opinions. "Reviews" of restaurants on Yelp often fall into two categories: "unqualifyingly negative" or "irrationally hyperbolic." If a meal was just mediocre or conventionally good, will the average diner spend their twenty minutes writing it up as such? Or put another way, as Jon Stewart once opined about politics (and I'm paraphrasing here), "The news cycle is dominated by the two percent of the spectrum who are the loudest and love to hear themselves shout. The other 98 percent are just too busy living our lives."

So then the argument against food bloggers inevitably becomes, if I can't believe the groupthink of Yelp-esque sites, why should I believe an unmoderated and solitary opinion from a person I don't actually know? Or reframed from the blogger's perspective, if someone stumbles on my reviews, what's to make them stay and care and believe?

I've made the argument before that in our post-Twitter world of immediacy and controversy, that there are really only two ways to keep people's attention: put in simple terms you can either break the news, or go against the grain. The first part is fairly easy, and is like every other piece of reporting: if I'm the first person to tell you that Jose Andres is opening a new restaurant that will only serve things that have been spherified (disclaimer: he's not), then that makes me worth reading because then you can get the information first.

The second is a little more nuanced, but not overwhelmingly so: take a fairly widely held position and go against it, often times but not always in a drastic way. "Oh, that three Michelin star restaurant? It was actually effing terrible." This isn't limited to negative turns either; as Jonathan Kauffman wrote (and yes, I've clearly just started reading Best American Food Writing 2010), there's a lot in common between foodies and the hipster stereotype of indie music elitism: "I just had an amazing meal at Eola. It's okay, you've probably never heard of them." I have to admit that I'm fairly guilty of this (in food AND in music). Case in point: my aforementioned raving about Eola, a restaurant that's been in the last two Washingtonian Top 100s, doesn't represent a seismic shift in the "conventional opinion." But do I take a certain amount of self-aggrandizing pride in claiming it belongs among the recognized Washington elite eateries, when the average Washingtonian couldn't even place it on a map? A little bit, yeah. And I don't think is just a feeling I have.

Anyway, that's the argument that I've made before, that the only way to add anything meaningful to the dialogue is to shout something seismic. I guess the reason I'm writing this all now is to argue simultaneously and as strongly for a third successful method, one that I want to excel at (though perhaps my actual quality of writing would suggest otherwise): the elevation of food as something more than sustenance, to an art, to the total experience that food can be, all through great writing.

I realize this thought isn't groundbreaking. Frankly, food blogging, as I've admitted before, is partly a purely masturbatory affair, but one that also simultaneously revels in its exhibitionism (a concept that birthed the loving term "food porn"). To wit, it sometimes seems to me that the only people who read food blogs are people who themselves write food blogs. It's a fact that seems altogether obvious the more you think about; who else would willingly read 5,000 words on someone else's trials and tribulations making the perfect rhubarb pie than someone who themselves would write a thesis on the perfect way to cook an egg? But the multiple connotations of food porn are a noteworthy lesson here: people take enjoyment and put stock into the beauty and complexity of food, its taste, its process of creation, and its visual and epicurean qualities. Why shouldn't then we as food bloggers take them there?

And here is where my thesis differs from the norm, and I make my "go against the grain" statement: put down your SLRs, food bloggers, and invest just as much heart in your writing as your pictures. Do I love beautifully rendered, magazine-quality snapshots of amazingly plated vibrantly colorful food as much as the next guy? Absolutely. Will I probably buy myself a DSLR with whatever spare money I can scrap together if I think it'll help my food blog? Definitely. But do I think too many people cheat themselves and others from the real value of food blogging by relying on pictures? Without a doubt.

Again, I'm all for accompanying photos; it's why I tote my cheap $100 point-and-shoot along with me. "A picture is a worth a thousand words"; "you eat with your eyes first"; platitudes are platitudes for a reason, namely that they're true. But my biggest pet peeve is when a blogger snaps pictures of their courses with one line apiece, saying "The salad was excellent." Yes, I can see that it looks excellent, and I can take your word for it, but why was it excellent? Was it even really excellent or are you just regurgitating what the press release said? And no, making it a funny font (don't even get me started on Comic Sans, Papyrus, et. al) doesn't make it any better. It actually exacerbates uninspiring writing.

In reality, my favorite blogs (in the "those that are written by regular people like you and me who otherwise have jobs that do not include food" category anyway) are the ones that adeptly combine the printed word and the occasional beautiful picture seamlessly. See: I Flip for Food, Bitches who Brunch, Bon Appetit Foodie, to name a few.

The most amazing part about food blogging to me is the ability to impart an otherwise entirely solitary and personal experience to others. Taste is a sense that can tell stories, and when I read food blogs, I want to be told these stories. I don't just want to know that a restaurant's vichyssoise was delicious. I want to know that it was delicious for you because its creaminess was almost silky, that it was simultaneously refreshing but savory, and that it reminded you of this soup that your mom used to make every Saturday night. I want to be drawn into your meal in ways that only words can take me.

Or, put another way, whether a dish was fantastic or terrible, qualify it. Justify your hyperbole for me. Was the service actually heinous, or were you just expecting better because you think you paid too much for a steak? Know what your expectations are going into a meal, and check them against reality. No, you will not be stuffed after a ridiculously expensive meal at minibar, but then again, that's not the point of minibar, is it? But is that detail captured in a picture? Certainly not. Describing the story to me tells me more than a picture ever could, and makes me believe what you're selling.

Are we all guilty of these crimes? Yes, myself included. Heck, I include a summary at the end of each post because of my neurotic need for lists and rankings. Is there an meta-commentary to be read into the fact that I, as a food blogger, am in a sense critiquing myself, as a food blogger? For sure. But, if we have to defend our middle 98% of food blogging, our defensible position is that we're allowing people to understand the complexity of our own personal experience in ways that can't be captured by pictures alone (or for that matter, arbitrary ratings and bulleted fragments either).

Good food blogging to me is not unlike a piece of amazing fiction. It tests your imagination, it pulls you into a story, and it taps into your own memories and sensations. You could read The Great Gatsby, or you could watch the movie version. More than likely, you'll end up enjoying the former just a little bit more (well, unless you're an unflinching Robert Redford fan).

So keep taking those beautiful shots, food blogger friends. But just maybe, take an extra second to tell me the story behind it too.