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Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: The Year in DCWD

Homemade duck pho
Long-time readers of the blogs (or even just Official Friends) will know that I am nothing if not a fan of ranking things. And lists. And metrics. So just like last year, we're going to try and measure the best and worst of what we've had this year. Not like last year, we're going to do this more paragraph-style.

Included in this best-of-worst-of are meals that we both had this year (so, minibar, Rasika, I still love you, just not here), and that we posted about this year (thus the mad rush this week). We're also using a similar formula to measure Hype as last year (though, this time we're only using Washingtonian rankings). And yes, I fully admit that most of these metrics are completely arbitrary.

Anyway, it being that time of year after all, the Official DCWD 2011 Best and Worst Lists:

Drinks at The Cajun Experience
The Worst:

Let's just get this over with. Being bad is one thing, lots of places suffer from the disease of meh. We had some terrible service at Urbana (though they later shaped up) and not-so-good food at Vento (man, shape up P Street!). We had restaurants that came nowhere near their past performance (Bibiana), or their lofty Washingtonian hype (Cafe du Parc)

But the winner (or loser, I guess) by far is Montmartre. Awful service, mushy food, but with the added burden of expectations; you wouldn't know it, but the place has been in the Top 100 four years running now.

The Best:

Dessert at Cafe Boulud
First, some minor awards. Buzz Bakery wins this year's Little Cafe/Bakery That Could Award (last year's winner, also a NoVa product, Northside Social). Owing to its relative low cost, it killed the competition in best bang for your buck and produced a range of quality baked goods that is just missing in the district. We need more of you in the district, Buzz Bakery; I don't just want cupcakes all the time.

Honorable mention goes to Bar Pilar, but by far our favorite cheap but awesome date was Comet Ping Pong. Sit aside, 2 Amy's, there's a new best pizza in town. Comet also wins points for also being the most fun waiting-for-your-table experience: grabbing a beer, and playing some ping pong before dinner = freaking awesome.

Now for the also-rans. This year, we went to plenty of places that gave us great times but also nearly broke the hype meter: the two devastatingly cool 14th Street relative newcomers with delicious food but no space at the bar on a Tuesday night in Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Estadio. And the granddaddy of hype: the up-and-down flavors but definitely fun-with-food experience that was Rogue 24. Both were great, but not enough to break into the Top 7.

Radish carpaccio at Obelisk
2011 was also filled with checking off restaurants from the uppermost echelon of D.C. cuisine, and most of them met their lofty hype, but also left a large dent in our wallet. So while Marcel's, CityZen, Obelisk, Sushi Taro, and The Inn at Little Washington all provided some great meals, they all were just not as competitive in our quality-to-hype, or quality-to-cost metrics. Sorry, guys.

So without further adieu then, the Top 7 for 2011 (Best Food Dates in the D.C. Area):

Comet Ping Pong
7) Comet Ping Pong - We've already said above why Comet Ping Pong is such a cool place for a date: low-key setting, a fun atmosphere, in-house entertainment before and after your meal in the form of friendly ping pong competition. That pizza that good should also live there is just unfair.

6) Posto - Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas, for obvious reasons, has most often been my dinner companion for the second half of the year, and she would literally slap me across the face if I didn't include Posto on this list. Sure, you can have a slightly more white-cloth experience at its big brother Tosca. But our service there was legendarily good. Thoughtful, friendly, and made the fresh pasta that much better.

5) Trummer's on Main - It's sad that some of the most beautiful dining rooms in the area are out in the middle of nowhere, Virginia. This is especially the case for Trummer's, a gorgeous roadside inn with three levels of handsome modernized-country-decor space. Throw in a kitchen that knows how to work its flavors, and a selection of local wine that's actually delicious, and it's well worth the Zipcar reservation.

Beer sampler at Lyon Hall
4) Tallula - To think, we almost left the restaurant, after getting stuck on the Metro and no-showed with a supposed 30 minute wait. But we stuck it out, and I'm glad we did: fried oysters that were alternately silky and crunchy, an inspired pork belly and clams noodle dish, and some of the best duck I've ever had. The best moderate value this year.

3) Fiola - In any other year, Pearl Dive would have run away with the Best Opening of 2011. This was no ordinary year. Fiola is an instant Top 10 challenger, and marks Fabio Trabocchi's grand return to D.C. A cute dining area with a fairly large bar area, an excellent drink program, and the best overall pasta this year.

2) Komi - There isn't much to say. It's a little more expensive than your average meal. It's a decently hard reservation to get. It has the burden of three straight #1's in the Washingtonian Top 100. And yet, it's also the best meal in D.C., with the coolest sommelier on the planet, and food that just literally blows your mind.

Amuse bouche at Eola
1) Eola - Of the restaurants on this list, Eola comes in second a lot. Komi has better food (though Eola has recently switched to only-tasting-menu). Trummer's has a better dining room. Tallula offers more bang for your buck. Fiola is trendier. Posto had slightly better service. Comet's more fun. But when you factor in everything, pound-for-pound, there is nowhere better than Eola. A charming but beautiful dining room that's small enough that the service can be personal. Dishes that are both imaginative but true to their ingredients' flavor. A special occasion restaurant that's less expensive than its culinary contemporaries. Eola is a relatively unknown treasure hidden in plain sight, and 2011's Best Food Date.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Inn at Little Washington

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2011 #2, Washingtonian 2010 #11, Washingtonian 2009 #8, Washingtonian 2008 #6
Neighborhood: Washington, Virginia

The Setup

Both Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I were planning a surprise for one another, her for my birthday, me for the holidays. I was at her house when I noticed on her laptop the Washingtonian Top 100. Worried that we might be planning the same thing, we agreed to say where we had gotten a reservation on the count of 3: “1…2… The Inn at Little Washington!”


The Vibe

The Inn, the celebrated and historic restaurant, sits an hour and a half outside the city proper, so it takes a little effort to get out there. But when you do, what a treat. Washington, VA is a charming two street town full of old colonial homes and friendly people. At the northern end of the town is the Inn, a mammoth building that on its exterior, fits in really well with the rest of the town.

The inside though is like some magic wonderland of opulence. This is the very picture of what I imagine high-end French dining rooms were like in the Escoffier era. Tables are generally far from what another (though the two-tops in the Garden Room are basically on top of one another), and each has a fringed red lamp hanging over top of it. The room is kept dimly lit but there are plenty of open windows to the garden outside. Everything is patterned with Louis XIV style curlicues or rococo stylings, and everything is luxurious and the very epitome of “eating up,” “hospitality” and “feeling pampered.” And if you want a real treat, ask for a tour of the “most beautiful kitchen in the country.” Words can’t understate how captivating the surroundings are in terms of “this is what luxury feels like.”

The service though started off real bumpy: for one they wrote the wrong name on the personalized menu, which wouldn’t nearly be as upsetting, if not for the curious way they did it (the equivalent would be like if my name were Mary-Kate Smith, and they wrote welcome to the Mary party!). For another, our first course came without its wine pairing, a fact that wasn’t noticed until we had already finished it; of course, that meant the second pairing came 10 minutes before its own dish.

Still, midway through, the service took a 180, leading to amazing touches of warmth and friendliness from the sommelier who told me that she apologized that everyone kept tripping on my foot (which I had lazily been sticking out from underneath the table) and told me she would put a note in that I liked to stretch out; to the maître d’fromage who not only was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful, but also was incredibly charming and told some of the best cheese jokes ever; to the fact that the valet had our car already running and warm when we left the restaurant. Incredibly nice.

The Food


To start the night, were three amuse bouches: first, a beet macaron with salmon mousse replacing the cream, second a bloody mary gelee, and the third a foie gras mousse between chocolate necco wafers. These were fun and inventive, with the foie being our favorite for its combination of savory and sweet.

Under the theory that this was a special occasion, and having this write-up in mind, I convinced Texas to go for the tasting menu with pairing (a decision which gave her substantial sticker shock, but she decided she was game for it, though likely helped by the fish to meat ratio). While she was busy growing increasingly uncomfortable with what she had just agreed to came our first bite: truffled popcorn, light fresh-tasting popcorn which had black truffle shaved tableside onto it. The Inn is nothing if not generous about the amount of black truffle it uses; a good third of what was shaved ended up on the tablecloth. The popcorn was better than your average movie theater bag, which had nothing to do with the truffle (though that certainly made it that much better), but instead resulting in perfect popping and lightness.

If that wasn’t enough, next came the final amuse bouche, what Chef O’Connell calls “liquid autumn”: a shot glass of warm apple-rutabega soup. The taste and look was reminiscent of butternut squash soup, but sweeter and with more substance on the back end. The soup does in fact remind you of a beautiful October day, with its warmth and its lean towards seasonal ingredients; it was rich without becoming overpowering. This soup was so good that the next day we bought the cookbook (though of course, we’d find out the recipe is online).

Continuing the trend of extravagance was our first real course, called "A Tin of Sin": ossetra caviar in a tin on top of a cold crab and cucumber rillette, paired with a Boizel brut champagne (the one that came after the meal). The caviar was refreshing, a characteristic augmented by the crisp, cold, and tasty cream underneath. Even Texas, who self-admits that her palate isn't refined enough for caviar, had to begrudgingly admit that the salt of the caviar was balanced out by the smoothness of the rillette.

Perhaps the dish of the evening (Month? Year?) came next: day boat bay scallops lightly sauteed with shishito peppers, charred onions, and house chorizo. Oh my, where to start? Perhaps with the immaculately seared scallops which left a beautiful char on the outside that provided the perfect crispy, caramelized foil to the tender insides. Or maybe it should be the peppers, which were smooth and slippery and wonderfully soft, like a poached pear. Or the way the whole dish was altogether light and simple, but exceedingly satisfying and complex. Paired with a 2008 Igreco Filu greco bianco, it was by far the best thing I had that night; even the most cynical scallops hater would be converted by this dish. I can still taste the satisfying mix of textures and savory flavors right now.

Next up was a filet of sauteed black cod with shrimp dumplings and micro mushrooms on a lemon vodka sauce (paired with a 2006 Fontaine-Gagnard chassagne-montrachet). This dish probably suffered a bit from being right behind a dish of such magnitude like the scallops. Why do I say that? Well for one, in retrospect the ingredients were all solid. The fish filet, like the scallops, was seared beautifully, with a similar crunch to it. The dumplings were way better than many seafood dumplings I've had before, and the mushrooms were quite lovely. But there was no beautiful symphony here, as the pieces just didn't meld together as much as it did for other dishes before and after.

The fourth dish was a fricasee of Maine lobster, potato gnocchi, peeled green grapes, and curried walnuts. This was another dish where the individual components were just awesome, though with more harmony than the preceding one. The lobster was incredibly done, soft and tender and succulent. In any other dish, the little chunks of lobster would have carried the day. Alas, it shared the spotlight with the potato gnocchi, which were like eating little pillows from heaven. Indeed, even the grapes played a glue role, providing a sweet counterpoint and a third texture to play with in your motuh. Perfectly paired with a 2006 Marc Sorrel hermitage blanc from the Rhone valley, this dish was also one of the high points.

Next up was a play on beef wellington, but with the meat replaced by seared tuna, wrapped in potatoes and served with caponata-filled ravioli and bearnaise sauce (paired with a 2007 Evening Land pinot noir from Willamette). The bearnaise was probably the highlight for both of us; for me a recollection of dinners from my childhood, for her a wonderful new flavor. The tuna was well-cooked, seared evenly on all sides. There was just something missing from this dish though, something that would have taken it from good to great.
 
Last of the entrees was braised veal cheek on top of a risotto milanese and gremolata (paired with a 2007 Montecastro reserva tempranillo). For Texas (the ethical eater), they quickly replaced the veal with short ribs, which made for a similarly authentic experience. For both of us, the texture of the meat was amazing, falling apart at the strands like well-braised meat tends to do; as Texas put it, "it was like they had taken pulled pork and put it together into a single piece." The braise was a little heavy for me, but the risotto was spot-on and the meat was perfect. 

Normally palate cleansers are unremarkable and utilitarian, forgotten as soon as dessert comes around; this was not the case. Instead of the bland stuff normally presented at other restaurants, The Inn provided us a pineapple-lemongrass sorbet with pink peppercorn granita. This was not just useful, but refreshing, with hints of sweet and spice that tasted almost like summertime. At times, it felt like this was actually just a first dessert.

Luckily, The Inn gave us the benefit of an actual dessert, which also might have been one of the highlights: a warm chocolate bread pudding with almond ice cream topped with shaved black truffle (paired with a 1994 Blandy's madeira port). Upon asking her about it, Texas's reaction was immediately, "Oh my god. It was so good." First the base of dark chocolate provided a needed level of balance between savory depth and sweet high notes. Then the tart underneath provided a wonderful crunch which complimented the smooth and warm gooey of the pudding. And then the ice cream, the literal creme de la creme, combining into such a luscious, superlative high point. This was a combination of simple pleasure and hedonistic indulgence, the tastes of almond and truffle combining into a complex but cohesive taste.

The Verdict

Deserving of the pinnacle of "one of the best in the D.C. area." Some missteps here and there, so maybe not the rarified air that the hyperbole might otherwise suggest. But when it's good, it's capable of making the extremely superlative seem commonplace.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 5 Hearts
Dress Code: Business
Bar Rating: Quiet Drinks
Vibe:
Calm
Cost:
$$$$$
(out of 5) (more than $100 for two)
Pairing:
The Inn itself is expensive to stay at, and by the time you finish your meal, you'll need a place to stay (rather than brave the nearly two hour drive back to the city). So make a night of it and book a room at the Gay Street Inn, a bed and breakfast a short walk from The Inn with charming, quaint rooms, and two of the friendliest innkeepers we've ever met.

The Inn at Little Washington on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

CityZen

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2011 #8, Washingtonian 2010 #10, Washingtonian 2009 #4, Nominated 2010 RAMMY, Washington Post’s 2009 Fall Dining Guide Neighborhood: Southwest

The Setup

For my birthday, Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas planned an elaborate day’s adventure for us, culminating in a dinner reservation at one of the last Top 10 restaurants left on my list: CityZen.

The Vibe

CityZen sits to one side of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. To one side as you walk in is a small lounge area of couches, to the other a bar with a few cocktail tables and the main dining area beyond. The room is dim (an understatement at best), with the only light coming from glass votive-holding candelabras above.

The main room is a sea of beige and browns, with a row of marble tiled columns separating the row of two-top half-booths from the rest of the fours in the center. At the far end is the open kitchen, which remains in view for most of the dining area (though sadly, not our seats). It’s a contemporary room, but one with a distinct feel of traditional white-cloth restaurant values: the men in jackets and put-together women over soft candle-lit dinner sort-of-thing.

The service was something to be noted. Overhearing that it was my birthday, they sent over a tiny birthday cupcake and a card signed by the staff. Very nice.

The Food

 
It being my birthday, Texas and I decided on the tasting menus, six courses with pairing. Of note, was that the restaurant had a separate vegetarian tasting menu, which rather than trying to plug eggplants into where meat was on the regular tasting menu, was an entirely separate affair. So for this instance, pescetarian Texas and I went dual routes.

First up for her was a salad of Japanese yam, kohlrabi, orange, and wilted spinach salad, topped with tapioca balls, sesame, and espelette pepper (pairing, 2009 Kurt Darting gewürztraminer from Germany). Despite the seemingly mish-mashed ingredients, things flowed relatively well together, highlighted by textural shifts between the kohlrabi and basically everything else, and a strong note of citrus. Overall though, interesting without being overly memorable.

My starter on the other hand was a little bit more noteworthy: a play on breakfast food with a soft boiled egg and ham flecks with leeks in a ham broth (pairing, a 2006 Marc Sorrel marsanne/roussane from Hermitage, France). This dish was dominated by the ham, and specifically the flavor of salt. The distinct taste of cured prosciutto was amplified by similar notes in the foam/broth, offset by the pure taste of yolky gooeyness from the egg. Fun.

Second for Texas was her favorite dish of the night: a pickled heirloom pepper arepa topped with a poached quail egg in a green tomato coulis (pairing, 2005 Ramey chardonnay from Napa). It’s obvious why this attracted so much attention from her: the flavor profile was patently Tex-Mex, with the coulis tasting much like tomatillo sauce, and the arepa just the right balance between crispy and soft.

On the other side was my least favorite dish of the night: a lobster “cream puff,” made by placing chilled lobster salad in the middle of an oversized gougere and lathered with lobster newburg sauce (paired with the same chardonnay as Texas). I love all these ingredients, but all the positive notes were drowned out by others; the overwhelming sensation was one of “this is too cold,” and the gougere was a flavorless and dry version of an otherwise favorite bite of mine. Where was the gruyere flavor? I feel robbed.

Next up in the vegetarian tasting menu was a pearl barley and butternut squash risotto in a spiced tamarind broth (with 2008 La Follette pinot noir from Sonoma). The risotto was actually a little bit soupy in its consistency, reminding Texas of some sort of tomato bisque. Luckily, she actually likes tomato soup so this worked for her. Perfectly decent, but still a step downwards from the course before.

On my end was a pan-roasted crepinette of turbot, with apples and chanterelles in a red wine and foie gras vinaigrette (pairing, a 2007 Escoda-Sanahuja granache/sumoll blend from Spain). I’ll say this, turbot is not my favorite fish. But the pairing with apples was a great introduction of sweet into the dish, and mixed well with the vinaigrette (even if the foie gras notes were minor). Fourth for Texas was vanilla-braised abalone mushroom, served with fennel tempura, melted leek, and an almond pudding (pairing, 2009 Lella Romana, a fiano di Avellino from Conca de Barbera Spain. Texas appreciated this very much, since the braise on the mushroom reminded her of meat. On my part, I thought it was an interesting mix of flavors, but nothing super memorable.

My dish was a stew of corned veal tongue, green tomato, pickled pepper, and fried okra (pairing, a 2001 Marques de Murrieta tempranillo from Rioja). I’d been chasing good beef tongue since my amazing turn with it at Eataly in NYC (spectrumed by a fairly good version at Sushi Taro, and a horribly chewy attempt in a taco at El Centro D.F.). This surpassed the original, by layering the divinely tender tongue with amazing Southern flavors, adding sharpness and a little bit of piquant. I might have dreams about this dish.

Coming as the penultimate course for Texas was a play on beef borguignonne replete with autumn root vegetables and a red wine sauce, but with the meat replaced with braised cassava (pairing, a 2006 Escoda-Sanabaja cabernet franc/merlot blend from France). Texas knows cassava well, having spent a good amount of time in Southern Africa, where the root vegetable is a staple. Here’s something she knows from that experience: cassava is incredibly difficult to change from a starchy, tough-to-chew tuber to basically anything else. So rather than mimic the traditionally tender beef in the dish, it was just unappetizing. In stark contrast to the rest of vegetarian menu, this was one where the kitchen tried to sub a vegetable into a meat dish (the eggplant-as-meat trend we noted earlier). And sadly, it failed.

But where Texas’s experience was of disappointment, my final entrée was one of delight. Small portions of slow-cooked Wagyu beef sidled next to beef tartare, with heirloom beets and a tomato-horseradish emulsion (pairing, a 2006 Poggio sangiovese). Tender to the point of effortlessly falling apart, it was a great example of just how to sear beef. Despite how full I was getting, the dish compelled me to continue, enticed by the sheer joy of restrained sweetness of beets mixed with oh-so-savory meat.

Capping the night for Texas was a pumpkin soufflé with gingerbread ice cream (pairing, a 2001 Volpaia sangiovese), whereas mine was a pecan pie (paired with a 1999 muscat from Greece). Both were wonderfully autumnal with delightfully subtle sweet notes hiding behind the warmth. The gingerbread and pumpkin combo was my favorite, as it was something both inventive but altogether familiar, but each was a testament to Matthew Peterson's skill with dessert.

The Verdict

Maybe not the superlative of superlatives, but a wonderful meal with few missteps.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Business
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd to Suits Scene
Vibe:
Calm
Cost:
$$$$$
(out of 5) (more than $100 for two)
Pairing:
Just two more weeks left for the Hirshhorn's exhibit "Shadows," a 102 painting series from Andy Warhol, shown all at once for the first time. With the curved wall of the museum, it's a breathtaking display of color and art.

CityZen on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: 14th Street, Logan Circle

The Setup

After literally walking by it hundreds of times, each time with the same, "we totally need to eat there soon," Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I finally set a time to actually attempt getting a seat at 14th Street's new "it" restaurant: Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.

The Vibe

Pearl Dive is immediately visible from the street, as its front window rolls up like a garage door, giving the impression that the bar is literally overflowing onto the sidewalk. This might not be far from the truth: with a prime location in the ongoing 14th St revitalization and with the benefit of Jeff Black’s sterling pedigree, the restaurant seems perpetually packed. This is mitigated somewhat by Blackjack, the twin bar upstairs (though one that is sadly closed on Monday nights, which this was) and the restaurant’s deli counter ticket system for tables. This is perhaps the coolest innovation of the whole restaurant: it’s alternately informative, telling you exactly how many parties stand between you and a seat, and maddening, as it only amps up the haughty “why are you lingering looks” that flow one-directionally from the bar area to the tables. The counter even disaggregates by twos and fours. The space itself also seemingly keeps the wait in control; the small bar area in the restaurant fills up quickly, which actively discourages stand-and-waiters.

The restaurant’s décor wonderfully mimics a seaside warehouse without becoming perhaps too cartoonish (see: Box, Tackle, the original), albeit with one rather large anchor and chain hanging from the ceiling of the bar (I’ll forgive it). White and beech-colored wood and plaster chip to reveal exposed brick, fading the cleaned-up bar area into a sort of distressed post-factory dining area. The space is softly lit, though with more of a beige ambience than the orange captured in the picture at left. The only main obstacle to it being a great date space is the organization of the dining area, with tables organized in the sort of cluttered way that makes you think they just wanted to cram as many seats into the space as possible. Pathways between tables are model-thin, and the two-tops are more on-top-of-each-other than perhaps anywhere else in the city. Strangely too, some tables are given white tablecloths, while others are left bare. If you’re lucky, you’ll get seated at one of the booths that line the two sides, like we did on this night.

The Food

As a matter of course, Texas and I ordered not only a plate of six off-the-board oysters, but also one of Pearl Dive’s many cooked oyster options. Quite impressively, the restaurant offers not only the traditional mignonette, but three other diverse sauce options, of which our server was gracious enough to let us sample all of them. The oysters (Kummo, CA; Skookum, MA; and Chincoteague, VA) were nice and clean, and finished well with the yuzu-mirin sauce (hands down our favorite).

For oysters, part two, we opted for the grilled east coast oysters, topped with garlic, red chile, creamery butter, and gremolata. I’ll say this: if you haven’t ever had an oyster, or you just like the pure slimy and sumptuous simplicity of a plain oyster, then go with the individuals. But if you’re indifferent or looking for adventure, I can’t imagine anything better than these options. Of course, I only had one, but even this relatively easy preparation trumped everything other cooked oyster I’ve ever had (I’m looking at you guys, Marvin, America Eats, Bayou, etc.). Took nothing off the table when it came to the joys of oysters, but gave it a smokiness and piquant that was lovely.

For our main courses, Texas ordered a crawfish etouffee, served with rice and garlic bread. This was a slight down note on the night, as the crawfish flavor sort of dominated everything else, and didn't let the other seafood or rice or even the spice kick through as much as either of us wanted. A little bit more balance and this would have been real good.

On the other hand, I decided to complete my night of oyster overkill by ordering the genuinely interesting braised duck and oyster gumbo. This was awesome for any number of reasons: the savory and rich duck, the surprise every-so-often of a sumptuous oyster, wonderful Southern flavors, and just enough kick to keep it interesting. Unlike the etouffee, this had a wonderful balance, with feelings of warmth and salt and a lovely depth.

The Verdict

Fresh flavors, top notch seafood, delicious food. Worth the wait.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Party in the USA
Vibe:
Noisy
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Pairing:
The BlackJack bar is itself an awesome venue with apparently an amazing kitchen in and of itself, but it's also the perfect place for a pre-dinner drink and to wait out a table.

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 26, 2011

BLT Steak

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2011 Top 100, Washingtonian 2010 #22, Washingtonian 2009 #11, Washingtonian 2008 #39, 2010 RAMMYs - Nominated Power Spot of the Year
Neighborhood: Downtown, K Street

The Setup

With a gift certificate in hand and a friend date long overdue, I invited Official Friend of DCWD Swizzle out to dinner at BLT Steak.

The Vibe

BLT Steak is a white-cloth restaurant posing as a casual restaurant posing as a white-cloth restaurant, if that makes any sense. It’s high-class and it knows it, a boutique steakhouse that shines in sleek modern lines, and browns and beiges and whites.

Yet there are the minor touches here and there that have heralded the revitalization of the trendy middle-class restaurant: a big stick-on board menu and the absence of actual tablecloths among them. But the giveaway is the set-up, which seems designed for power lunches; the two-tops are mostly if not all half-booths around the edge while the center is filled with fours and sixes and larger.

The restaurant is built for this purpose in other ways too: the long bar as you walk in, the dim lighting, the black and white photography and giant floral display in the center of the dining area that make up the décor, the dim lighting. The downside is that the space does not control the ensuing noise, and so by the middle of your meal, you’re practically shouting to your dinner partner.

The Food

I would normally ignore the bread course, but these particular servings was lovely. Yes, servings. First came some chicken liver pate with wonderfully crusty bread. Then, popovers the side of your fist with a lovely buttery, slightly cheesy flavor. What a great start.

Having promised Swizzle a steak dinner to make up for the time passed between dinners, we both ordered a cut of meat with a side. Steaks at BLT can be ordered with one of eight sauces, and they’ve added a whole new category of cooking to the whole rare to well done spectrum: blue (which I assume is basically just raw meat, which sounds both delicious and unappetizing). I had the filet mignon with béarnaise and truffled mashed potatoes, while Swizzle ordered the aged NY strip with creamed spinach.

The steaks were both immaculately well, though the NY strip had a char on it that might be discomforting if you’re not into that kind of thing; for me, since the steak was just a hair overcooked, this was more of a symptom than a problem. Still, the filet was spot on, tender and juicy and fantastic.  The herb butter was well composed and melted together with the meat perfectly. As for the sides, the mashed potatoes were okay, though lacking a little in the amount of truffle flavor that would justify paying the extra for it over other potatoes; the creamed spinach was less sweet than say Boston Market’s (hey, it’s the only comparison point I have, and I love that stuff), but this was a good thing, tasting delicious.


The Verdict

Great, great steaks; some of the best, if not the best I’ve had in DC. Though a little expensive and loud if you’re not in the power lunch set.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Business
Bar Rating:
Suits Scene
Vibe:
Energetic to Noisy
Cost:
$$$$$
(out of 5) (more than $100 for two)
Pairing:
Quick before they go away: head down to the Ellipse and check out the National Christmas Tree, and the individual state trees.

BLT Steak on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 19, 2011

Monday Munchies: Florida Avenue Grill

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: U Street/Columbia Heights

The Setup


Hyped as the best breakfast in DC, Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I headed over to the Florida Avenue Grill.

The Vibe

Growing up in NJ, I have a fondness for diners and greasy spoons that is both inborn and unhealthy. Sadly, diners in DC are both few in number and often misnamed (most notably, the rather upscale Diner in Adams-Morgan). For this reason, one second in Florida Avenue Grill flooded me with the sort of happiness normally reserved for airport reunions. The restaurant is small, spartan, and looks like it was cobbled together from an assortment of spare parts back in the 70s. A row of booths, a diner counter, and a griddle-grill all clamor together in parallel lines creating a weirdly workable space. The space is small enough and the demand large enough that seated patrons seamlessly get replaced with others, a dance that was apparent on this bustling Sunday morning visit.

The Food


Sitting directly across from the griddle, it was hard for Texas and I not to crave the hotcakes, so we ordered up a bunch along with some biscuits and eggs and sausage. The hotcakes are huge, the size of dinner plates, and generously coated in powdered sugar and cinnamon. They are also delicious, moist and sweet and greasy in a good way. The proof is in the pudding in the picture at right; I had devoured half of the plate before remembering I might want to take a picture of it for the blog's sake. Foie gras it's not, but all the more satisfying, recalling both New Jersey diners and late night runs to IHOP. But better.

The Verdict


People who say that it's the best breakfast in DC... well they're not far off.

Food Rating: *** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 1 Heart (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$
(out of 5) (less than $25 for two)


Florida Avenue Grill on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Cooking Adventures: Supper Club #1

On this Cooking Adventure, Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I sought to make a 10-person meal for the first time in our lives, this time from Ferran Adria's new cookbook, The Family Meal.

Amuse bouche (i.e. holy shit, we timed this dinner wrong, we need something to keep guests happy as we cook) - Individual potatoes au gratin
 
First Course - Saffron-mushroom risotto

Top 3 Lessons Learned from risotto:
1) Keep the whole thing submerged under broth as much as possible. The recipe in the cookbook led us to be short on broth; luckily we had an extra box of one on hand, so we avoided the disastrous "dry sticky risotto."
2) This probably would have tasted better with chicken broth over vegetable broth (though we had some vegetarians with us).
3) Saffron is expensive, but surprisingly, more expensive at Giant and Harris Teeter's than at Whole Foods. Same amount cost half as much at the Whole Foods.

Main Course - Catalan-style turkey stew


Texas and I made the mistake of not thinking about thawing when we bought the turkey from the Farmers' Market the morning of the dinner. So we fought against physics and time just to get the damn thing to a workable state. The butterball website was invaluable during this period, letting us know that with 12lb. bird, we'd have to invest at least six hours in a lukewarm water bath to get it thawed.

The recipe actually called for turkey drumsticks, but a) where are you going to find that many turkey drumsticks, and b) everyone loves breast meat better anyway. So we worked to break down a whole turkey into pieces. It being only the second time either of us has ever broken down a bird before, it was... messy. But after 30 minutes, we managed to come up with some good things.

The whole time we'd been soaking prunes and raisins in sherry, which would be added to the stew later on, in addition to tomatoes, onions, and pine nuts. This might've seemed like a very long time (oh, and it was), but it did allow all the fruit to really sop up some sherry flavor; it also softened up the raisins and prunes in a way that made them more stew-friendly.

From here, we seared all the pieces of turkey in a large pan (we used a roasting pan set over two oven burners), getting a crisp on each side (or as best we can anyway). Adding in the mixture of vegetables and broth and sherry, it wa actually a wonderful smell and tasted great. We probably would have been better off getting the turkey earlier and letting the meat defrost naturally, but oh well. 

Dessert - Yogurt foam with strawberries

To buy a foamer or not to buy a foamer? This was the question. I was adamantly against the purchase, since it's a piece of kitchen equipment we'd only use a handful of times. Texas was trying to convince me that it would make it easier. I won.

And then I lost. Because it actually was truly difficult to whip the yogurt-cream mixture fast enough to get it to foam (or even turn into a whipped cream like froth). Lesson learned.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

901

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Downtown, Chinatown

The Setup


(this review provided by Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas)

The Vibe


The first thing to say is that it's hard to tell if 901 is a restaurant or a lounge; at times it's swanky, more like a full bar area than a restaurant/bar area combo. It's dimly lit, the only glow provided by some electric blue lighting, a theme mirrored by backlit menus; the menus have some sort of electric light coming from them, so much so that they have to be recharged. The other light fixtures are from hanging glass orbs. Seating is mostly four tops (which was mostly filled with couples, a nice touch). In general, there's a creepy vibe to the place, something mirrored by our server: our waiter was strangely pushy, the kind of person that pushed the specials or the expensive options, but seemed disappointed with you if you didn't choose them. This happened from the beginning, when he gave us a disapproving cluck when we picked ice water ("so... tap then?").

The Food


Our bread course was probably the most interesting of the night: a jalapeno cornbread with an unexpected kick, a little dry but generally good.

My friend that evening ordered the California Club, a turkey sandwich with avocado, bacon, and a lemon aioli on ciabatta bread. He said it was quite good, though the ketchup that came with it was surprisingly a spicy one. I didn't have it myself, as I'm not a meat-eater, so I can't quite add any additional thoughts.

For my entree, I ordered the seared tuna, which came with a wasabi-cilantro pesto, hazelnut rice, and a black pepper sauce. This was just not a good dish; it came served at an odd temperature, and probably as a direct result was overcooked. On the one hand, the tuna itself had no flavor, with anything interesting coming from the pesto drizzled on top of it or the strange pepper-soy sauce combo on the side. Even then, these sauce flavors were definitely distinct, but didn't combine in any logical way. In all, for what it was, there was too much heat and the tuna honestly could have been any protein. I wish they had actually built depth with the flavors, not just attempted to drizzle them on.

Dessert looked good, but after the interesting food and weird service, we were ready to just get out of there.

The Verdict


Disappointing: some good flavors that I wish had the chance to combine, but nothing to hang its hat on.

Food Rating: **
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
Vibe:
Chatty 
Cost: $$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)

901 Restaurant and Bar  on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 12, 2011

Monday Munchies: Sticky Fingers

This week's Monday Munchies sees me finally jump back into the world of cupcakery with a visit to Sticky Fingers, the wittily named vegan bakeshop that sits in Columbia Heights across from the Giant on Park. For anyone who doesn't know by now, I am not by any means veggie-this or vegan-that, but Sticky Fingers was the closest place to buy a presumably decent celebratory cupcake in the area.

On this trip, I ordered a carrot cake cupcake and a pumpkin cheesecake. I'll be honest; it's entirely possible I already had preconceived notions about the gluten-free desserts. In a habitually re-told story, I once changed my entire mind about the deliciousness of a friend's lasagna when informed of its use of protein crumble. But to me these were a little dry, missing this je ne sais quoi component that keeps cupcakes together (generally known as the cake portion of cupcakes). The pumpkin cheesecake was better, though still with that underlying taste of oatey starch.

Taste Test:
2 Forks (out of 5)
Perfect For: People allergic to gluten

Sticky Fingers Bakery on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Trummer's on Main

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2011 Top 100, Washingtonian 2010 #54, Washington Post's 2009 and 2010 Fall Dining Guide
Neighborhood: Clifton, Virginia

The Setup


Having gone to school in DC, I used to have a strong dislike of all things VA (or as I refer to it to Official Co-Writer of DCWD CC, a "black hole of fun"). But as the years go on, and I get increasingly more 1) domestic, 2) fond of foliage, 3) willing to cross the river to see friends who've moved that way, I find myself eating at more VA restaurants. On this occasion, Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I were meeting with her Aunt, and so we picked one of the classiest places we could find: Trummer's on Main.

The Vibe


Clifton, VA itself is a throwback to the 19th century, the kind of place that makes you feel like you should be driving down the road in a horse-drawn carriage (if not a 1950s Thunderbird). Trummer's itself sits on a rebuilt inn on Main Street. The result is absolutely stunning and one of the most beautiful dining areas I've ever seen.

The first floor is cobbled stone walls, but probably the only nod to a country-inn. An underlit marble bar sits stage left with a beautiful modern wooden wine cooler in the back. Up a set of stairs is the "Winter Garden," the setting for our dinner this night. With a color scheme of cream and red, the room is warm and inviting at night, but is probably gorgeous in the daytime, the product of full-length colonial windows taking up most of the wall space. Overhead is a high vaulted ceiling and those wonderful old fan contraptions, while an old wooden floor sits below. On one side of the room are the four-tops, while the two-tops consist mostly of a row of half-booths on one wall. In the center of it all is one-long community table.

It's hard to describe in any meaningful way just how beautiful the space is, or how wonderful the aura is, other than to just simply say, "wow." It's the sort of place that makes you instantly say, this is

The Food


To start, Texas ordered a yucca soup, topped with pineapple chunks, clams, and a coconut foam (the first of several foams on the menu). This was an unquestioned winner, creamy and succulent with each bite, but never over the top in any one flavor direction. The perfect balance was palpable, even in the face of such difficult ingredients; the saccharine pineapple or the briny clams, the starchy yucca versus the lightness of the foam, all of it melded together into a vichyssoise-like consistency that was altogether sweet but mellowing.

The glutton that I am, I ordered two appetizers, undecided between two equally decent choices. On the one hand was a goat cheese ravioli, plated on top of a tartare of smoked salmon held together by horseradish, all in a horseradish foam. The pasta was a little firm for me, and the goat cheese was a little lost, but the whole dish stood up well to the horseradish, which could otherwise have threatened to overtake its complexity.

For the second dish, I had seared foie gras with cherries and a cappuccino foam. It's been a while since I've had a good seared foie gras, but this was pleasant, a rich and fatty texture that was indicated the piece had been well cooked. The cappucino foam was interesting, as was the choice of cherries as the obligatory sweet fruit pairing, but the plate made me both wish I had not ordered two apps and wish this one wasn't the more expensive of the two (by almost twice as much).

For our main courses, Texas had a swiss chard cannelloni served with a mix of tomatoes and other vegetables, pine nuts, and a foam (which in memory, was unremarkable enough to not remember what it was). The cannelloni itself was good, a better representation of fresh, well-cooked pasta than its ravioli brethren from my appetizer, but for me, the dish was just missing something to balance out the chard.

On the other hand, my butter roasted chicken was just about amazing. Pieces of breast resting on a bed of pickled turnips and green grapes in a dijon mustard-tarragon foam, they were amazingly juicy and full of luscious flavor. The turnips and grapes provided great depth to the whole thing, sweet and earthy counterpoints to the soft and tender meat. A wonderfully and beautifully composed dish.

For dessert, we rounded up three of the desserts, the first a frozen banana mousse, with peanut butter ice cream; the second a duo of pumpkin sherbet and cheesecake ice cream, topped with toasted pumpkin seeds and a molasses cookie; the third a pot du creme. Of the three, the first two were solid: delightfully seasonal, with wonderful notes of sweet to accompany flavors that befitted the weather outside. The pot du creme, on the other hand, was all sorts of bad, bitter and murky and unfinishable.

The Verdict

A few notable missteps, but otherwise a kitchen that regularly creates dishes of magnificent balance and compelling flavors.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Business
Bar Rating:
Quiet Drinks
Vibe:
Chatty
Cost:
$$$$$
(out of 5) (more than $100 for two)
Pairing
: We had a devastatingly good local wine (the label of which I asked to keep... that good), that literally came from down the road. I'm usually not into Virginia wines, but if that bottle came from around there, I can imagine that a tour of the local wineries would be a fun time.

Trummer's on Main on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Heights

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Columbia Heights

The Setup


Searching for a new brunch between our neighborhoods, Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I, along with a companion, headed up to The Heights for brunch.

The Vibe


The Heights benefits from being one of the few independent restaurants in the gentrified (if not corporate) strip of 14th St., which accounts for the line outside its door at 11am on a Sunday. Its decor is best described as rustic Americana, which is to say the spruced-up homey feel that a few other restaurants have tried to create. Sure, it's set in a warehouse-like setting, concrete flooring and exposed ceiling vents. But something about it feels very autumn, maybe the orange and ecru accent walls or the chandeliers trimmed with corn husks. This gap is bridged with a few decorative tweaks: some black and white photography, metal stars, and a large clockface behind the bar.

Seating consists of rows of four-to-six-top booths flanking a central row of four-tops; from my vantage point, I couldn't see a single two-top. The only couple near us sat in a huge booth, which to me at least is a nice positive, providing some amount of quiet in an otherwise buzzy atmosphere

The Food

The Heights, like some of its other EatWellDC brethren, has a make-your-own-bloody-mary menu for brunch. In the spectrum of brunch drinks, bloody marys are a lot like scrambled eggs: when they're good, they're all you ever want to have, but when they're bad, you wonder why anyone ever invented them in the first place. If that holds true, then the choose-your-own-adventure of the Heights' bloody mary menu is like playing Russian Roulette, if the gun was loaded with ingredients like truffled salt, cripsy potato strings, or beef jerky. Somehow, Texas lucked into a free bloody mary, and luckily for all of us, it was delicious, and not the least bit ketchup-y.

Our companion had the huevos motuleños, a bowl of eggs, chicken, plantains, avocado, black beans and salsa. Probably a little drier than other Spanish eggs dishes that we've had, and the chicken was a little flavorless, but at least the plantains were a nice surprise and the eggs were nice.

In a similar vein was the turkey sausage hash, topped with eggs and a cheddar and white wine cream sauce. This was my order, and for me the eggs themselves were a tad overcooked, but the turkey sausage was nicely done and the cream sauce was delicious, leaving the dish decent if you concentrated on the peripherals.

For Texas, she had the Southern fried chicken served with a caramelized onion brown gravy and smashed potatoes. This was a little bit of a disappointment for Texas, the former pescetarian-cum-ethical eater who cowed for this meal based on the local sourcing of The Heights' meat and a sudden desire for fried chicken. A tad dry and not nearly crispy, there was just so much more that we wanted out of the dish that just wasn't delivered, both in terms of flavor and texture. Sad.

The Verdict


Great bloody mary selection. So-so to disappointing brunch food.

Food Rating: ** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Hipster Hangout
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$$
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)
Pairing
: On the way out, grab a few choice items at the Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings at the beautiful open space between Kenyon and Park for ingredients for a late lunch to cook.

Logan @ the Heights on Urbanspoon