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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Masa 14, Part Deux

For this Part Deux, Official Friendof DCWD Talia and Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas wanted to start the day off with a birthday brunch (before a night at CityZen, of course). We wandered ourneighborhood, until we settled on the admittedly trendy Masa 14.

The Food

Masa 14 offers a $35 all-you-can-eat-and-drink brunch, which we partook in for this meal. Spoiler alert: if you are part of a group of ladies who brunch, or are looking for a bottomless boozy brunch where you can linger, this is a decent deal. Otherwise, you are stuck playing catch-up, knowing that you have to make it up to at least five dishes/drinks a person just to break even. This factor explains the sheer amount of food that we covered here. On the one hand, it’s nice to see the size of the portions. On the other hand, it means you’re best going a la carte unless you plan to hang around for a bit.

Dishes started arriving fast and furious, which to me says they’re already pre-cranked out, a fact which probably accounts for a variance in dish quality. The first to come out was an arugala salad topped with seared tuna and avocado, and drizzled with wasabi (also normally bacon, but you know, pescetarians). The tuna was nice, but nothing distinguished this from any number of tuna tartares we’ve had at any number of restaurants.

This was a similar issue for the breakfast pizza (egg yolks, gruyere, pico de gallo, and arugala, and also again normally bacon). Compared with other breakfast pizzas, which marry the eggs and arugula and toppings into its thin crust, this seemed perfunctory at best, and boring at worst.

Three egg dishes were next, starting with a veggie benedict, served on toasted challah, with spinach, tomato, and a green chili hollandaise. The second was a smoked salmon omelet, with goat cheese, spinach, and caramelized onions in a tomato jam.

The main crime for both of these dishes was their overcooked eggs, the purest sign of pre-made small plates that morning. You can always tell with eggs, with that glazed-over, rubbery texture, and this was apparent for both. Then they each had their own problems: a blandness and a completely oversized piece of bread for the benedict, a complete loss of the goat cheese for the omelet.

The truly forgettable egg dish was one that threw in its egg as an afterthought: a black bean puree, with a fried egg, both topped with cotija cheese. The beans were nice, but this was nothing more than a side, and one that overall bored at that.

At this point, my meat dishes started appearing. First up, the smoked brisket hash with onions and chilis and yucca with chipotle hollandaise and a poached egg. Successful hashes blend well cooked pieces of meat with soft potatoes and provide some salt and some heat. This did all of those things, though in muted forms. This was one of those good-but-not-great examples: something I didn’t mind finishing, but not something I would recommend.

The sets of three continued with the three Asian-influenced sandwiches. For me, the star was the pho beef sandwich topped with a sriracha-hoisin aioli, Thai basil, bean sprouts, and pickled onion. Maybe it’s my affection for pho, but this did actually match up pretty well with the flavor profile of the traditional Vietnamese soup, and included all of the necessary side ingredients (oh how you woo me, Thai basil). Rich without being super dry, and fun.

Less successful was the banh mi burger – a pork patty with pickled vegetables and citrus aioli. Banh mi interpretations for me range from “thanks for playing” to “well, that wasn’t that bad.” This one was squarely in the “aww, well at least you tried” category. For one, I’ve never had a banh mi in my life with a pork patty. Braised pork belly? Pate? The weird pork baloney beloved to Vietnamese people, cha lua? All yes. But not what vaguely resembled a burger. The aioli was nice, but pickled vegetables and crusty bread a banh mi does not make.

Somewhere in the middle was the Wagyu beef burger, marinated in teriyaki with a chipotle aioli. The meat was nice, but not nearly as tender as the Wagyu descriptor led one to believe. It might be that my memory of the day is slighted by my distaste for the banh mi burger, but this seemed average to me.

Serving as the French fries for this meal was a bowl of grits, spiced with chipotle pepper and green onions, and bound together by Oaxaca cheese. We all like grits, but the heat on these was aggressive, and not in a good way. The grits themselves had a nice texture, but the spiciness was too much for everyone but Texas.

Throughout the meal, my drink of choice was the lemon lager, a blend of Dos Equis, lemon, basil, simple syrup, and St. Germaine. Easy and refreshing, I have to say that I was actually sort of impressed by this. And weighing it against the steady wave of bellinis and fruity drinks that the girls were ordering, I’ll take this one.

Looking to get us over the top, the three of us compromised on the pan dulce, French toast with ancho whipped cream and a roasted pineapple syrup. I can’t remember anything about this dessert, which is probably to say that it was neither cloyingly sweet nor dull. Texas claims it was about the only thing she actually enjoyed, which is to say that it was good, at least. I guess we didn’t hate it.

The Verdict

Everything was interesting, andcertain things were decent but nothing demanded to be eaten more than once. Andcertainly not worth the bottomless brunch price.

Food Rating: ** 1/2
(out of 5)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Monday Munchies: BONMi

Our search for good banh mi variations obviously brought us to new Foggy Bottom lunch place: BONMi, which takes its name from the Anglicized pronunciation of the now ubiquitous Vietnamese sandwich. And in some ways, the banh mi itself is pretty Anglicized.

The menu consists of sandwiches, lettuce wraps, salads, and summer rolls, but the focus is the eponymous banh mi. There are eight or so choices, almost none of which exist in actuality for Vietnamese people. Five spice chicken? Chile garlic tofu? Butternut squash? Where are the Eden Center shops that do anything like this? The variations wouldn't be such a bother if there was a decided lack of the meats that are the most common (pork belly, cha lua, pate). As is my pet peeve, just putting it in a crusty baguette and putting some jalapenos and pickled vegetables and cilantro on it does not make it banh mi; it's the equivalent of putting whipped cream and sprinkles on some pudding, and calling it an ice cream sundae.

As for the sandwich itself, it was pretty bland. I ordered the regular chicken, thinking that if I couldn't have anything I was used to, I'd try something out there. What I got tasted like steamed chicken, like something that came out of a frozen dinner. At its very best, I can't imagine it being any better than the Potbelly's next door, which is perfectly fine for the lunch-hour crowd that frequents that area. Still, I just hope nobody walks in there thinking it's more authentic than it actually is. Which is to say, that it could be way better.

Taste Test: 2 Forks (out of 5)
Perfect for
: Faking it.

BONMi on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bangkok Joe's

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Georgetown

The Setup


Looking for dinner in the area before heading to West End Cinema, Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas chose Bangkok Joe’s, a recommendation from a mutual friend.

The Vibe

Trendy, trendy, trendy. This is not unexpected, sits squarely on the Georgetown waterfront, and has to keep up with the Joneses in Sequoia et al. Not coincidently, the restaurant’s space is designed to fit the maximum amount of people possible, despite the long and thin corridor. Along the window side of the restaurant are the typical seats, four-tops and booths which form two rows along a raised platform. On the other side is the bar area, which runs the length of the restaurant and ends in a cocktail booth-ed lounge that abuts the hostess stand. In between these two sections is the cheekiest part: a row of two-top booths along the divider, which are raised and thin; the feeling is somewhat like being on a Japanese train (though if you were afforded the opportunity to sit). This is where we sat for this meal (though, honestly, with the night crowd, we were just happy to get a table).

The décor is red and orange and creates a decidedly crimson glow over the otherwise dimly lit room. There are touches of Asian-ness here and there, like the patterns on the bar and some of the fixtures; then again, there are just some weird pieces, like the giant framed three-dimensional art piece at the far end of the dining space that looks vaguely like orange cinnamon buns stuck on a red canvas. The sound level gets up there, as is typical for a restaurant of this trendiness, and be prepared for a healthy mix of Georgetown preppies, post-work suits, and students from GW trying to take their parents out someplace nice when Founding Farmers was booked.

The Food


To start, Texas and I split the dumpling sampler, a pair each of shrimp, pork and crab shu mai, winter squash potstickers (butternut, sweet potatoes, onions, egg), mushroom and ginger (featuring water chestnuts), and chicken potstickers (with corn and shitake). The various reactions we had to these dumplings ranged from “feh” (shrimp, chicken) to “I could do this again” (the winter squash). For Texas, who at that point hadn’t had a dumpling since her summer in Shanghai for fear of ruining the memory, this was not necessarily the first set she wanted after she finished, despite the advertisement from friends to the contrary.

For our main dishes, I let Texas pick two to split. So out came an order of tofu panang red curry, and tofu pad thai. The thing to say is that the portions are very generous – like size of your head generous. Otherwise, this is pretty standard Asian food fare, something easily replicated at the other fifteen restaurants within a mile named Thai [insert noun], despite the trendy setting. The tofu was nicely fried, and the whole thing was slick in a good way, but probably not anything deserving of second notice.

The Verdict


Okay, but probably no different from any number of non-trendy Thai places.

Food Rating: ** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Suits Scene to Party in the USA
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Pairing
: On a drive down the Whitehurst Freeway, Texas noticed that the rebuilt Waterfront is not only done, but great looking. Head over there afterwards for a nice post-meal view.

Bangkok Joe's on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

El Chalan

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Foggy Bottom

The Setup


With the typical two hour wait for Founding Farmers, Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I took another couple friend out to Peruvian restaurant El Chalan down the street.

The Vibe

El Chalan sits in a quasi-basement in a converted townhouse; the upper level is a nail salon. Its decor reflects this inauspicious setting. The furnishings are spartan, simple white paint with some South American knickknacks here and there. All in all, though it still feels a little perfunctory, as if the restaurant was put together in a few hours a decade ago, and hasn't been redecorated since.

The tables are basically on top of each other, no matter the size, so there isn't much room for privacy.

The Food


To start, Texas and I split a basic ceviche (fish, shrimp, conch, squid). Unlike other ceviches, this wasn’t so much a mishmash of cubed seafood as much as it was almost like a ceviche sampler: a mussel here, a shrimp there, all on a bed of calamari, like some lemony fish salad. It was fine, and I’m sure authentic, but lacked anything to make it remarkable (Heat? Flavor contrast? Bueller?), other than its reliance on acid (I get it, you have to cook the fish, but maybe lay off the gas a little). The other confusing part was its sides: a chunk of sweet potato, some giant corn, a stray leaf of iceberg. Weird.

For our main course, I ordered the lomo saltado especial (stir-fried steak with fried potato, onion, and tomato, and served with rice). This was an improvement over the last dish, with a nice hint of soy sauce flavor and a strong decision by the kitchen to let the potato wedges soak in with the sauce. It was enjoyable to the extent that a person enjoys salt, meat, and potatoes.

That person not being Texas, she ordered the tilapia, served fried and topped with creamy shrimp sauce. For Texas, the dish was unmemorable, decently cooked but a little on the overboard side with the sauce. Nothing that we would have to come back for anyway.

The Verdict


Perfectly adequate South American food, but nothing crazy.

Food Rating: **
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Quiet Drinks
Vibe:
Calm to chatty
Cost:
$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Pairing
: After some pisco sours, head down to GW's Lisner Auditorium: the Flamenco Festival is back in town.

El Chalan on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 10, 2012

Best Dates for Valentine's Day

Any of my friends will willingly tell you that after Thanksgiving (food AND family), Valentine's Day is my favorite holiday. I'm the kind of person who loves planning elaborate dates, loves writing long cards for all my friends, and as The Format once sang, "I love love. I love being in love. I don't care what it does to me."

So what better way to celebrate than to make a list of my favorite dinner date spots (I'd tell you where I'm going, but I have a feeling Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas will be trawling this to guess at my surprise).

The List

 
Lamb kleftico at Zaytinya
For the Adventurous Eater - Oyamel, Jaleo, Zaytinya. I've advocated this a couple times, but what better way to suit someone with roving taste buds than to restaurant hop? And no maestro provides this better than Jose Andres, with his trio of small plates restaurants within a stone's throw of one another. You can start at Oyamel for margaritas and tacos, move to Jaleo for paella, and finish at Zaytinya with Greek yogurt and ouzo. Or you can do sangria at Jaleo, the olive oil salmon at Zaytinya, and tres leches at Oyamel. The combinations are endless.

For Those Looking To Be Treated Like Kings - Posto: I'll admit, this one is a bit biased, being based on one particular experience we had with an incredible server, an experience that could replicate itself a hundred times over in any number of dining rooms across the city (other notables: sommelier Kat Bangs and the crew at Komi, the staff at Eola). But when it came time to book a reservation for the actual Valentine's Day dinner with Texas, there was no other option but Posto (though, a last-minute work trip scratched those plans).

Chilled tomato soup at Adour
For the Classy Pants - Corduroy or Palena. With apologies to Fiola and Adour, who both bring a gravitas and tidiness that will make your date feel like a class act, my two surprise favorites for an upscale dinner, Corduroy and Palena, combine the same high level of food and beautiful dining room as Fiola and Adour with a quieter and more off-the-beaten path setting (heck, for the non-classy pants, Palena Cafe offers the great food without the jacket).

For the Full Day Experience - Vermilion. The date gauntlet that is King Street offers 800 things to do, starting with the art collective Torpedo Factory to the cobblestone streets to Todd Thrasher's drinks at speakeasy PX to the cute bookstores and shops. And what better way to cap off the night than the beautiful and intimate Vermilion? Heck, even the restaurant is bathed in red.

Wine flight at Cork
For the Cutting Edge - Pearl Dive, Estadio, Cork. Everyone knows the new restaurant corridors: H Street, and 14th Street, with news and rumors that Stephen Starr, and DC's own Mike Isabella, among others, are bringing eateries to the already dust-unsettled street. So what better way to celebrate than a gauntlet run? Oysters at Pearl Dive, dinner at Estadio, and a nightcap at Cork?

For the Cherry On Top - Buzz Bakery, Baked and Wired, Kramerbooks/Afterwords. Dessert dates are underrated. Depending on where you are and what time it is, these are the best places in my opinion to grab a cupcake or pie.

Philly cheesesteak at minibar
For the Budget Conscious - Comet Ping Pong and Granville Moore's. There are plenty of small plates places where you can save a few dollars over the standard sit down dinner. But with apologies to the aforementioned Jose Andres spots, and Kushi, Comet and Granville Moore's both give you the same bang for the buck, but with fuller portions. Also, I really can't say enough about both Comet and Granville's.

For the Baller - minibar. Just kidding. If you scored a res for this weekend, I should be asking you for tips.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

First Look: Zengo's Shanghai-Sao Paulo Menu

The Setup

As part of its Test Kitchen series, where the Richard Sandoval Latin-Asian fusion restaurant experiments off its regular menu, Zengo invited us over to try February's offering: Shanghai-Sao Paulo. Off to taste test was Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas, and Official Friend of DCWD QuesoGrande. So this First Look is written by guest writer Texas.

The Vibe

Some short thoughts about the space: for one, they are going for a theme, and going all-in on it at that. Red and yellow, dim with a warm feel, it tries to mimic some sort of Asian semi-industrial interior. On the other hand, there was some debate between the two of us about the hanging "artwork" (perhaps they are meteorites or dinosaur eggs, though probably just some sort of zen stones), and the curtain of beads to get into the bathroom was a little over done for me.

But there are some nice spots too. It's modern yet warm and somewhat relaxed, and definitely unobtrusive with lots of seating options; there's plenty of two-tops and free standing tables that are easily arrangable for large groups. It's obvious they're keeping that in mind, as they were re-doing the lounge downstairs to accommodate more group seating. Otherwise, there was a somewhat open kitchen which was cool, and in general, the place seemed like a trendy place to meet friends and eat good food without breaking the bank

The Food

Before the sit-down portion came some small bites: an acai berry/vodka drink and some veggie sushi which was nice and light with flavors that melded well.

The first set of dishes to come out were the small plates. Paired with the small plates was a pomegranate kumquat ginger mix, which is memorable for its sourness. Unlike the cocktail before it and the martini after it, which were perfectly balanced, this one attacked the taste buds.

Among the small plates was one of QuesoGrande's favorites: xiaolongbao soup dumplings filed with pork, crab, linguica sausage, green onion, and a jalapeno ginger black vinegar blend. I personally thought they were okay, though a bit salty and more importantly, anything but a true soup dumpling. I think I would have liked it more had I not been expecting a real soup dumpling... I mean there was no soup. Maybe I'm biased having studied in Shanghai for a summer, where it's a staple, but it left me wanting.

Two of the other dishes in this set had the same issue, mainly that they were very heavy on the fried flavor, without any depth to match the one note. The Thai chicken empanadas had too-large chunks of chicken and an underripe mango salsa, and probably could have benefited from more sweet. On the other hand, the spring rolls with chicken and shrimp paired with vegetarian tempura and an acai berry-ginger dipping sauce were flavorful and delicious (one woman at our table even contemplated asking for more), with a little fried crunchiness in for good measure.

Last of the small plates, the coconut crusted salted cod (bacalhau for those that don't have Portuguese-speaking friends). I wasn't a big fan; for me, the dish was just a bunch of punchy flavors with no melding, in particular the mustard, which was very spicy to the point of being overpowering. The dish would have benefited by adding more of the sweet and sour sauce that was served alongside it.

The bacalhau was particularly sad considering the surf-and-turf main dish was executed so well. A duo of NY strip steak and king crab with hot bean paste and a black bean ginger sauce, this dish best exemplified the theme for the night; in my opinion, it was one of the better showing of fusion the whole evening. The grill/char on the steak was very Brazilian, but was balanced by the Asian flavors on the rub and the broccolini underneath the steak, melding together very nicely. It's twin, the king crab, was amazingly well cooked, super buttery with not even a hint of that rubberiness that can so often be associated with poorly-cooked crab. It just fell apart in my mouth: that good.

The other main course was another Brazilian staple: feijoada, a stew of black beans, pork, and beef. Sadly, next to the steak and crab, I almost forgot about the beans, not as any fault of their own, but rather that they quickly got lost on the side. On recall, the meat was well-cooked and the whole dish had a nice, bacon-y flavor without being overly meaty, but again, not as memorable as the main it was paired with.

The main courses were paired with a peppercorn cucumber martini with sake and gin, which especially given its forebear, was decidedly more mellow and delicious. The peppercorn added just the right bite to balance the sweetness of the martini, and I would consider coming back to the bar (once it re-opens in February) purely to sip this light and refreshing drink.

Dessert was a double-up of coconut, but two wildly different experiences. The drink, a coconut caipirinha, was all alcohol, far too overpowering and indelicate for a dessert cocktail. Its opposite was the a coconut tapioca mixed with a mango-kumquat gelee, lychee sorbet, shaved coquito nuts, and micro shiso. Unlike the drink, the dessert was light to the point of daintiness, and the flavors were amazing. So much so that QuesoGrande couldn't leave without getting a to-go order for her tapioca-loving boyfriend. The dessert was possibly the most surprising delight of the evening.

The Verdict

Some misses, but definitely a surprising and satisfying albeit temporary addition to the Zengo menu.

Food Rating: *** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Suits Scene to Party in the USA
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)

Zengo on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

First Look: Black and Orange, Part Deux

This is an entirely fake coding of an entry (how can it be a first look and a part deux, you ask [though you actually probably did not]). This dichotomy is in part because the part un in question was not only a different location, but was so far back that this was pre-name change.

For those of you who aren't up-to-speed with your DC burger history, the restaurant in question is the recently-opened 14th St location of Black and Orange, nee Rogue States. The sister location in Dupont was temporarily shut down by the clearly meat-addled law firm that sat upwind; during its court-mandated months long hiatus, it took the opportunity to rebrand (if not re-decorate), adopting a moniker that essentially just described its color scheme.

The 14th St location is practically a mirror, decor-wise, black and orange (obviously) and gray, with an obvious affection for concrete and simplicity. The menu looks basically the same as well, with a notable exception: the Hair of the Dog, a Bloody Mary-esque burger dedicated to the U Street Community (apparently, the implication being my neighborhood is more drunk or brunchy than Dupont... odd). On this trip, I had a Ciao Down, a burger Italian enough in its flavor profile that that's what it was called on my receipt (Italian). The meat filled with garlic, tomato, and basil, it was a nice burger, though once again it was the flavored mayos that stole the show (the fries incidentally replicate the texture that I like in fry fry-batter, though were a little thick cut for my taste).

The Verdict


About the same as its predecessor. Decent burgers, better mayo.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)

Black and Orange Burger on Urbanspoon