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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Zaytinya, Part Deux

This Part Deux is a revisit to favorite Zaytinya, in the post-Mike-Isabella era, with Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas.

The Food


The first dish to come out was seared haloumi cheese topped with a pomegranate rosewater, tomato, and sumac. I can still taste this one in my mind, the beautiful sear giving the cheese a slight char flavor and locking in all that delicious salt. Haloumi already has a wonderfully rich flavor and texture, and Zaytinya did it the favor of getting out of its way, dressing it in some light and refreshing complimentary ingredients which mellowed out the heavier cheese.


Second were the kolokithokeftedes: zucchini and cheese patties in a caper-yogurt sauce. I thought I had eaten these on a previous trip only to be surprised when they came out. All the same, it was fairly light with a hint of acid, which combined with the breading, was the only thing keeping it from being a more solid form of tzatziki. In the overall order of the night, this probably ended up being the most lost.


Next up was the almond trout topped with a combination of preserved lemon-kalamata olive tapenade, a roasted garlic yogurt, and parsley oil. The overall effect of the dish was one of "nice, but welp..." The trout was well cooked, and I freaking love almonds with fish. But the dish left me pretty "whelmed." It was good enough to escape notice, but not good enough to merit any re-return. Moreover, it didn't differ drastically from a dinner I had made a few weeks beforehand.

On the other hand was the kibbeh nayeh, a beef tartare with bulgur wheat, radish, mint, and pita chips that I've ordered many a time at Zaytinya. Tartare is a tricky thing: sometimes it gets too dry, sometimes it gets mealy, sometimes it's just really flavorless. This suffered from none of those things, instead providing a fairly light but still sumptuous bite that tasted every bit like a fresh bite of Mediterranean goodness.

Next was one dish that was surprisingly good, and came off the specials menu: crispy oysters in chickpea breading with ouzo creamed spinach. Unlike other fried oysters I've had, this wasn't overly heavy or briny, instead melting in my mouth with a hint of dill. It compared favorably to the liquid spanakopita at Komi, except with the added benefit of oysters. Hope they integrate this into the everyday menu.

The last two dishes were Texas's choice. First, the mercimek koftesi: seared red lentil patties presented on lettuce leaves, topped with pomegranate seeds and paired with lemon yogurt. To me, this was a little bland with the lentils particularly granular and dry. It was okay, but there just wasn't enough extra on the dish to make it a standout.

Last was the garides saganaki: a light stew of sauteed shrimp, tomatoes, green onions, kefalograviera cheese, and ouzo. The shrimp was okay with a decent amount of heat, but a little overcooked for my tastes. It also was sort of the misfit in the meal in terms of profile, though it did mirror some other things I've enjoyed. The heavy helping of cheese, however, put it in Texas's top spot. For me, it was just a little off.

The Verdict


Still good, sometimes great.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Palena, Part Deux

 This Part Deux revisits one of my favorite spots in DC, Palena, with Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas.

The Vibe

Normally, we wouldn't talk about the vibe in a Part Deux, but it's not often a place renovates in between our two visits. The old space remains, but the restaurant has overtaken the storefront next to us, creating an expanded Palena Cafe. The space is packed with tables and a little busy, which combined with the music overhead (Rilo Kiley), causes a little bit of noise. A slight open kitchen is in the back of a slightly raised part of the dining area, where half booths and Pier One style furniture makes up the seating.

The Food

The restaurant was nice enough to split each dish into two portions so we made our own sort of tasting menu. First up was a ceviche of striped bass, topped with radish, pickled kumquats, and almond. This dish was fantastic, with lovely contrast between the soft and subtle bass and the pinch of the sweet-sour kumquat. Part of the reason it worked so well was because the almond flavor mellowed out the whole dish; only the radish stood out as maybe a bit unnecessary, a little raw and sharp for my tastes. All the same, it was a beautiful start.

Second was potato gnocchi with sweet potatoes, shimeji and shitake mushrooms, creamy and crumbled goat cheese, and aged balsamic. Normally I'm sort of dubious of gnocchi, as it can quickly fall into doughy and heavy territory. But this was wonderful, light bites that were reminiscent of the "pillows from heaven" at The Inn, and meshed well with the creamy and luscious flavors of the different sides. Overall, I personally wanted just one more dimension (a protein?), but it was otherwise very good.

For the main course was the real reason I had brought Texas to Palena: the chicken. I've written about it before, but the chicken at Palena is superlative, Asian spices with meat that just melts in your mouth. The perfect balance between fatty and lean, with a lovely unctuous flavor. Again, superlative.

The Verdict


Great, just great food, no matter which side you sit in.

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

Monday, March 26, 2012

Monday Munchies: Shophouse

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Dupont Circle

The Vibe

Unlike most things, Shophouse is actually exclusive to DC; Chipotle chose our fair city for their new restaurant, taking their approach to burritos and grafting it onto Asian food. The space is a long room with a square C shape, wooden floors and wooden-slatted walls and wooden tables. Like its neighbor BGR, there's a booth in the window and the food counter in the back.

The Food


Unlike Chipotle's five options, Shophouse has two: noodles and banh mi. But the process is the same: pick a preparation, pick a meat, pick what you put on top of it, mix it all together. On this trip, I got a banh mi with pork and chicken meatballs, topped with papaya slaw, peanuts, and an herb salad. Yes, I've criticized other banh mi for using meat that's untraditional, but innovation can be forgiven if everything is done well. In this case, the meatballs were pretty good and the the papaya slaw was nice and bright, with a sweet citrus tang to it. The whole thing was actually a pretty decent bite for a grab-and-go sort of place, and lightyears beyond other grab-and-go banh mis. The bread could've been a little more crusty, but otherwise good.

The Verdict


A little heat to some things, but otherwise a good quick bite.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Chatty
Cost:
$
(out of 5) (less than $25 for two)


ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Brasserie Beck, Part Deux

This part deux features Official Friends of DCWD Glory Sunshine and Punkin, who were in town for Punkin’s birthday. So Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas, Official Friend of DCWD Rajistan, and I decided to take them out to a place we know he’d love: Brasserie Beck.

The Food


The main draws of Brasserie Beck was the Belgian beer and the mussels. So the first thing he ordered there was a large order of the wild mushroom mussels, with bacon and truffle cream; Rajistan ordered a small pot. Here's a tip: the small order of mussels isn't that dramatically smaller than the large, so if you don't care about fries, the small order is probably the better value. Myself, I had the white wine version (roasted garlic, parsley, cream), while Texas had the red Thai curry. Sunshine was the only one to skip the mussels altogether, and went with steak frites.

The mussels were all good, hitting all sorts of great notes, from the heat of the curry, to the creaminess of the white wine, to the flavor contrasts of the wild mushroom. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: it's the little things about Brasserie Beck that make it cool: the fact they refill your bread so you can soak it in the broth, the flavored mayos they bring with the frites. All in all, a great time.

The new part for us was the dessert, which I honestly can't recall: I had a bread pudding, and Texas and Punkin definitely had something that had wanton use of the word chocolate. In any event, I do remember liking the desserts.

The Verdict


Solid mussels.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Elisir

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Downtown, Penn Quarter

The Setup


Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I were in the area and were searching for a dinner spot before meeting up with friends later. So with the four-month old Elisir right in the center of that zone, we had to try it out.

The Vibe

Elisir is Enzo Fargione's return to cooking, after his sudden and surprising ouster at Teatro Goldoni. On all levels, my good meal there was totally a credit to Chef Fargione's bubbles; the restaurant's disastrous and sudden downfall into its current silly trendy Teatro state is entirely due to his eviction. Luckily, this gave him an opportunity to restart, and what a lovely place it is. A theme of bubbles abounds, from the windows to the walls. The first part is a small bar with a few high bar tables, then two dining rooms, a small side one at first to the right full of fours which is lower lit and more brown; and the main one which is bright in red and orange (save of course, for the giant wall of bubble wallpaper). The seating in this section consists of a half booth row; otherwise it's basically all fours. The really cool part of the room is the flat screen TVs that are mounted every so often; they depict a live feed from a camera over top of the counter of the open kitchen, specifically the section where chef finishes the dishes before placing them on the counter. This is not only a cool part to watch, but it also serves as an early warning system for when your dishes are on their way. They are interesting yet unobtrusive.

The other part to note was the amazing service. I'll be honest: Elisir was a last minute decision and it being a Friday, we were in jeans casual. Still, despite our homely appearance, from the get-go, our server was attentive and explanatory. The sommelier matched us up with a perfect Pinot Noir; while it was on the higher end of our price range it wasn't exorbitant, and it was sort of a nice compliment that he thought enough of us to recommend something that expensive. We can't change that we're young (at least not any faster than anybody else), but all the same I've dealt with a lot of eye-rolling service at high-end white-cloth restaurants from servers who assumed we'd order cheaply; it's nice to be at a restaurant that will treat you nicely regardless.

The Food


The tenor of the meal was set with the chef's proclivity for free add-ons, exemplified by the delivery of not one, but two amuses: the first a rolotini of bolognese sauce topped with parmesan cheese, the second of thin vermicelli-like wheat noodles topped with roe. Combined with the lovely olive oil and salt sampler that we ordered, these were a nice start to the meal.

To start, I ordered the green pea "cappuccino," a preparation of pureed green peas layered atop bruleed goose liver custard topped with crispy leeks and a porcini froth, paired with a fontina cheese strudel. Here's my first reaction: ZOMG. Here's my second reaction: #%!#@! Okay, here's my third more discerning reaction: this was one of the best dishes I've ever eaten in my life (a judgment shared by Texas, who I convinced to have a bite, given its Hudson Valley provenance). It was creamy and deep, like the best green pea soup you've ever had. Luscious notes of the rich foie fat blended with the peas and mushrooms froth to make a delicious cold-weather spoonful, while the leeks provided a great textural counterpoint. It's hard to combine high-end tastes and still make it feel like a better version of a dish you had as a kid, and yet this dish successfully merges those two ideals.

Compared to that, Texas's appetizer was almost pedestrian: tempura lobster and scallops with smoked baby spinach leaves and poached white asparagus in a shallot dressing. There were good parts and bad parts for this dish: the lobster was decent with some suitable crunch, and the vegetables were pretty good. The downside though was the ample amount of salmon caviar spread all over the dish, which in theory was there to provide a salt counterpoint. Instead, they just overpowered all the other good things about the dish. Still, fairly enjoyable.

For my main course, I went with the veal duo: roasted filet and pan seared sweetbreads sitting in a creamy orange and mascarpone cheese sauce with cipollini onions and sauteed mushrooms. This was a great dish for a number of reasons. For one, the cooking was on point: a perfect sear on both cuts of meat, the veal wonderfully tender. The sauce was an interesting addition, but everything else was pretty standard. This is not really a complaint, just an admission that it was a dish that might appear anywhere else.

For her part, Texas ordered the black squid ink and saffron pasta sheets with a ragu of lobster, cherry tomato confit, oregano, and basil. Both of us were pretty "whelmed" by this one, the pasta well-cooked but lacking any of the punchy flavors promised by the words "squid ink" and "saffron." The lobster was good, but sparse, leading you to declare victory anytime you found one in your fork. It still was a solid dish, acting very much like a cleaned up, better pasta in tomato sauce. But it could have been so much more.

As a parting touch, the kitchen sent out some mignardises: a chocolate panna cotta with cherry gelee and pistachios, a praline/caramel bar, and a little cinnamon bite. Of the three, the panna cotta was the clear winner, as the most interesting of the bunch.

The Verdict


As I read over what I wrote, it seems pretty critical even though when I revisit the meal, it's entirely a positive memory (especially of that foie pea dish). Perhaps it's because I'm holding the restaurant to fairly high standards. Either way, impeccable service combined with good and sometimes superlative food.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
Vibe:
Calm to chatty
Cost:
$$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Pairing
: I love E Street Cinema, and the current lineup is a good one. Head down the street for one of the theater's many midnight showings.

Elisir on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 19, 2012

Cafe Nola

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Frederick, Maryland

The Setup

To wrap up a solid weekend in Frederick, Official Friends of DCWD Chill, Rajistan, Sam of Capital Cooking, and her boyfriend Shawn joined me and Official Girlfriend/Co-Writer of DCWD Texas for brunch at Cafe Nola, marking Part Four of our series in Maryland.

The Vibe

Sometimes when restaurants try to do too much, they struggle to do anything at all. Cafe Nola somehow manages to be an exception to this rule. Part coffeehouse, part restaurant, part bar, and part music venue, the space is divided as such: a row of high perches in the window next to the java and espresso section of the bar; a small eight seat bar behind that; the central dining area with a few two-seat and four-seat booths sandwiching two-tops in combination; and a set of stairs that one figures leads to the live music.

All the same, it seems to finesse all of its myriad identities into one: someplace cool to hang out. Take for instance the bar, an impressive line-up of beers and housemade concoctions in spigoted jars; below them, a chalkboard surface listing the names of the brews above them. Sometimes it's hard to quantify just why a place is cool; in Cafe Nola's case, there is just something extraordinarily awesome about the rainbow of innovative liquor blends that are soaking behind the bartender, refracting the light shining in from the large windows in the middle of the day.

The Food

Almost immediately upon entering the restaurant, Chill was struck by the omnipresence of mashed potatoes, which we found out was one of three options with almost every entree along with garlic potatoes or fruit. "They're giving me mashed potatoes for breakfast?" We definitely need to eat here.

To start, we ordered a round of drinks. Eschewing my normal Irish coffee, I ordered a bloody mary, partially because our DD Texas wanted one sip to compare it with the one she had sipped the morning before at Volt. It's unlikely the one at Volt had basil peppercorn infused vodka, but this one did, adding a little bit of mellowness to an otherwise sharp drink. Though in its defense, it wasn't nearly as piquant as Sam's version, which featured a jalapeno and garlic infused vodka that livened up the palate with each sip.

All the same, the winners were far and away Texas and Shawn. Texas, playing the DD and therefore perusing the coffee and tea menu, decided to lay up with a rose infused black tea latte. I like lattes just fine, but this one should have been illegal. Layers upon layers of flavor with an amazing depth from the milk, it was the best part about coffees without any of the bitterness; just sweet warm notes. Shawn, on the other hand, ordered a chai mixed with fig bourbon, one of the house made infusions. One of the main draws to Cafe Nola was Shawn's tasting of a honey whiskey the day before, a drink he was trying to share with all of us; when that ran out just shortly before we arrived, the restaurant owner suggested we try the bourbon/chai mix instead... and oh, what a great suggestion it was. As always, the chai provided a warm spicy base to the sweet fruit hints of the fig peeking out ever so often, all topped with the quick punch of bourbon. This is a drink I wish I could have forever and always.

As for our actual meal, most of us ordered a variation on eggs (it being brunch and all). Texas had huevos rancheros, presented in two taco bowls: one filled with eggs, and the other a mix of diced tomatoes, avocado, cheese, and sour cream. This dish was one ingredient away from being very good; my enjoyment of this dish is probably tied to its meatlessness, which is to say that the addition of a meat - or frankly even black beans - would have added so much to it. All the same, the dish was fine.
My dish was the Anything But Ordinary: steak, a poached egg, and arugula on an english muffin topped with parmesan cheese. I don't know about the "anything but ordinary" part (it seemed like a pretty normal sandwich), but all I can say about the dish is that most dangerous and least descriptive of adjectives: fine. Which is to say that it did the job, but there were enough things that made it... well, ordinary for brunch. The steak was a little too cooked-through and a weird cut (some flattened undercut instead of the flank I was expecting), and the cheese seemed like overkill. Thank god the mashed potatoes were good though.

Our two other couple friends each split dishes, though their one overlap was the french toast with strawberries and a berry puree. This was probably the best dish of the meal, with all of the sweetness and fond memories that french toast entails. There was nothing crazy about it, but at least it was solidly done.

Part two of Chill and Rajistan's dish was the portabella benedict: roasted caps stuffed with spinach and mozzarella, topped with two poached eggs and hollandaise. This was at least the most interesting dish of the bunch, though it didn't necessarily meet the wild expectations I had placed on it based on its description. The key was the hollandaise, the only way to add big flavor in an dish otherwise composed of plain or starchy tastes. Still, the hollandaise was a bit acidy, if not overall plain, lacking any creaminess or heat or anything that might distinguish it otherwise.

For Sam and Shawn, their second dish was a smoked salmon and goat cheese omelet, which turned out to be pretty good itself. At least I'm guessing it was; they gobbled it up before I could get a bite in edgewise.

The Verdict

When it comes to drinks, second to none. When they keep things traditional, they are good. When they go outside the box, it becomes okay. Still, I'd go back time and time again for that fig bourbon.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Hipster Hangout
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$$
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)
Pairing
: Patrick Street is a lovely strip with antique shops and plenty of mod furniture stores. A walk up and down after brunch is in order.



Cafe Nola on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Volt

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2012 Top 100, Washingtonian 2011 #40, Washingtonian 2010 #29, Washingtonian 2009 #15, 2011 RAMMY Nominee - Best Chef
Neighborhood: Frederick, Maryland

The Setup


Part 3 of our Frederick series features a brunch we scheduled once we knew we were going to be up in Frederick anyway; no trip to the Maryland town would be complete without a trip to Bryan Voltaggio's Volt. That we drove a Chevy Volt to get there was a little bit of serendipity.

This entry describes two trips to Volt: a brunch with Official Friends of DCWD Rajistan and Chill and Official Girlfriend/Co-Writer of DCWD Texas, and a late-night bar dinner with a group of food bloggers including Texas, and Official Friend of DCWD Sam.

The Vibe

Volt is built into a fairly large brick Victorian house on Market Street, one that portends the combination of classic and classy and cool that awaits you inside. The inside is a long wooden hallway with a set of stairs to one side, with a hip bar lounge to one side, and the main dining area and kitchen to the other. The bar is trim, with a few couches forming a square toward the street and a short ten-seat bar with the back. The highlight of the space is a large TV screen which shows a generous angle of the kitchen, so you can watch Chef Voltaggio and crew prepare your food.

The back dining room obviously has a much better view of the open kitchen, including the fabled Table 21, and generally seems more low key. On the other hand, the front dining room is decidedly modern, almost to the point of belying the outside facade. Brilliant white all around, from the walls to the table cloths, with a few accent walls and a brown ceiling, the space is entirely filled with clean lines save for the modern jagged cutout lighting fixtures. A row of white leather half-booths lines one side, and tables are otherwise twos or fours. This space is still modern, but in a much more high-end way than any other part of the restaurant. All the same, there are a few touches that remind you that things are a little cooler here: the Arcade Fire playing overhead, the waiters all rocking Chuck Taylors.

The Food


The two menus are pretty similar but all the same, we'll break down the two separately:

Brunch

To start, both Texas and Rajistan had the burrata served with country ham, kalamata olive, and basil. Unlike the giant hunks of burrata that we've fallen in love with, this was a spherified take on the cheese-filled cheese; much like the mojitos at minibar, they burst instantly and deliciously. Even better, they melded beautifully with the salt of the ham and the other sides to form a solidly Italian bite.

Still, the best was yet to come on the first course: Chill had the ravioli (an ever-changing recipe according to the waiter), this time filled with goat cheese, and topped with black trumpet mushrooms and a parsley root foam. This was near perfect, with a nice tang from the cheese mellowed out by the foam, and an overall feeling of freshness and spring with each and every bite.

On my end, I decided to pay the $10 upcharge for foie gras, served alongside blood orange, and fennel, with a hazelnut brioche toast. I have to admit I didn't even get to the toast because I was so in love with the foie, so beautifully rich and salty and literally melting slowly on the plate. There were faint tastes of the orange and fennel, but mostly it was a "let's stay out of this wonderful flavor's way" approach. And it worked.

For the second course, Texas started with the omelet, which would have been unremarkable if not for its accompaniments: lobster, salsify, and black trumpet mushrooms. Texas said it was perhaps the best lobster she had ever had, and I'm not in a position to disagree with her assessment: soft and buttery to the point of overindulgence. Still, there were some negatives to the dish as well: a little heavy (with the salsify providing some levity), and sans the small and infrequent chunks of lobster, a little plain.

Chill had the rockfish, served with brussel sprouts and butternut squash with farro. The fish was cooked perfectly, light and oily. The surprise of the dish was the butternut squash, soft but flavorful albeit autumnal in profile. The dish was pretty good texturally with buttery fish and squash contrasted with the sprouts and farro. For me, it just lacked the last piece to make it extraordinary, but it was still pretty good.

Rajistan ordered lamb with pearl barley and chimichurri sauce on top of heirloom carrots. The one thing you couldn't say was that Rajistan's dish lacked flavor; this one was hearty and tasted like the woods, in that it was a meal that you would eat in a log cabin. The whole affair was a little gamey, with the lamb overpowering anything else on the dish, including the slightly undercooked carrots. The whole dish can be positively described as heirloom and rustic, but still not my favorite.

I still think I took the entree round with my chicken and grits with leeks and a brown butter sauce. In general, the component parts were, on their face, meh, but in reality, really great. The chicken, despite being a slightly suboptimal cut of thigh, was very tasty, juicy but with a nice crunch from the breading. The grits were firmer than I usually like them, but still with a wonderful starch and salt to them. Still, if you can believe it, the leeks were the critical component, binding the whole dish together with a nice freshness.

To share, we ordered the maple glazed bacon doughnuts based on name alone. They were fine, though we noted that the bacon was secondary, more a crumble than an overall flavoring. Still, a well-baked doughnut with a sweet glaze.

For dessert, Chill and Rajistan had the play on carrot cake, but with the one root replaced by another, parsnip, topped with walnut and a cream cheese and caramel sauce. It was solid, though probably a little dry (even for carrot-cake-lite). While the cream cheese icing could have done more to mitigate that, it ended up just being more chalky than gooey.

My dessert was an apple, cinnamon, and almond cake with riesling-poached apples and bay leaf ice cream. The cake was a little dry, but still nice, though the real standout was the bay leaf ice cream. While it could have been overpowering, it was instead pretty light with a good dose of flavor, which made for an overall taste that resembled something like deconstructed cider (just in cake form).

But probably the coolest dessert belonged to Texas: a liquid nitrogen chilled light chocolate on top of marshmallow, with a caramel and peanut ice cream. As Texas put it, "it's the ice cream that you want to eat for the rest of your life," with its chunks of cookie dough and peanut butter. The chocolate was pretty cool, with the preparation shaping it into something resembling coral, brittle and aerated to create rich flavor. So, with each mixed bite, Texas became more reluctant to share with any of us.

Throughout this whole brunch, Texas had been nursing one of the spicier bloody marys that we've seen, and I was absolutely loving my hot buttered rum, a creamy concoction of rum mixed with pumpkin rooibos tea, brown sugar, and vanilla. If they made it butterbeer in real life (at least not the overly saccharine version they have at Harry Potter World), this would be it. Fantastic and perfect for any cold day.

Dinner

On our return, Texas and I each started with a drink that was well-suited for us: me a spiced apple fizz, (bourbon, apple, cardamom, lemon), and her the gingered blossom (hangar one mandarin vodka, lemon juice, cranberry, ginger). Mine was surprisingly mellow while hers was surprisingly punchy.

Besides the repeat dishes that we had (the foie and ravioli), we were treated to four other dishes from Volt's tasting menu. First was a dish we almost had at brunch: salsify with shaved country ham, quince, and hazelnuts. Like the burrata, the ham stood out with its saltiness and everything was nice, like a crisp but hearty salad. In the grand scheme of the night though, it sort of got lost among all the dishes we got.

Next up in awesomeness was the beef cheek with chard, potatoes, and gold ball turnips. The cheek was wonderfully tender with the vegetable sides adding some wonderful depth, a beautiful winter dish that was still credibly light. I wanted something extra besides wonderfully cooked meat; maybe a flavor that wasn't so already done. All the same, if any restaurant could nail textures like Chef Voltaggio can, then they are lucky.

Nearing the pinnacle of what we had this weekend was the sweetbreads, dressed with some roasted sunchokes, black kale, and bacon. It being the first sweetbreads that Texas had tried, I was nervous that she might not enjoy them. Luckily their wonderful texture, that combination of sear and fattiness and viscosity that makes sweetbreads so lovable and so delicious won her over like it once won me over. Not like it needed them, but the accompaniments provided an additional layer of flavor.

But the winner of this meal was the venison tartare served with crumbles and foams made of horseradish, apple, and green soy. What catapulted it over the top was its combination of innovation and rich flavor with restraint; where some venison could be gamey and threaten to take over a dish (much like horseradish and green apple), this was tempered by the continuum of tastes in the dish. Moreover, the textural shifts were unbelievable with the tender meat, crumble, and airy foam. Fantastic.

The Verdict


Just as amazing as everyone says it is. With the warmth in service and the cool space, definitely worth the trek out.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Smart Casual
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
Vibe:
Chatty to Energetic
Cost:
$$$$$
(out of 5) (more than $100 for two)
Pairing
: North Market Street is a literal gauntlet of awesome shops, from cute tea shops (Voila!) to family friendly store fronts. The whole town comes alive each First Saturday too, when Market and Patrick streets stay open all night.

Monday, March 12, 2012

First Look: Lunchbox

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Frederick, Maryland

The Setup


Part Two of our Frederick trip was a stop-in at Bryan Voltaggio's new restaurant Lunchbox, where the owner himself gave a group of bloggers (including Official Girlfriend/Co-Writer of DCWD Texas and Official Friend of DCWD Sam) a taste of what the three-month-old eatery has to offer.

The Vibe


One of the more charming parts of Frederick's downtown revitalization efforts is the Carroll Creek Promenade, a beautiful brick walkway on either side of the eponymous waterway. The actual park space is quite handsome, with plenty of benches and shaded areas to take in the gorgeous landscape on a sunny day. But the addition of a few shops as well as the Frederick Public Library alongside this area make it an ideal place for the community to mix. One of these shops is Lunchbox.

The inspiration for Lunchbox is more happenstance than design. Shortly before the Top Chef season that would catapult him into a more national conversation, the elder Chef Voltaggio was scouting locations for Volt, before deciding on its current space on North Market Street; Lunchbox's current spot along with its neighbor (now the Wine Kitchen) was one of the options. When the space reopened up years later, he eagerly bought it for a second space (outside of his forthcoming third and fourth restaurants (Range in Friendship Heights, and The Family Meal in Frederick, respectively).

The issue was that the previous inhabitant was a coffee shop, so the space was utterly devoid of a kitchen. But no matter: bringing in his own experience as a father and wth the library nearby making it an ideal family spot, Chef Voltaggio installed a soup and sandwich concept powered by two gargantuan panini presses that crank out sandwiches in under a minute. The rest of the space's decor is fairly spartan but clean: white walls broken up only by small wooden box shelves with silver lunchboxes; plain white twos and fours and two upscale picnic tables in the middle; a display case with all the day's sandwiches and a glassed-in prep station. The space evokes simplicity but still with an air of lunchshop-friendliness, the restaurant's family-friendly bent best epitomized by the changing table with free diapers in the bathroom.

The Food


The restaurant's lunch-focused menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches focuses on things you know and love, but just done way better. Take the grilled cheese for instance, the sandwich that Chef Voltaggio sent out first as a warmup. Gone is the Kraft of yesteryear, replaced by an aged Vermont cheddar that was wonderfully oozy and melty, with a light herb taste from the bread.

Next up was the Pilgrim, a sandwich that Texas described as "Thanksgiving" in a bite: turkey, sage, orange-cranberry compote, cream cheese. This came out at the same time as the lamb sandwich, topped with eggplant relish, honey aioli, and walnut praline on a hoagie roll. Both of these sandwiches had a similar set-up: an almost overwhelming amount of juicy meat, with the lamb specifically carrying a degree of flavor that nearly overcame everything else it came with. Both were great bites for the winter-cum-spring weather that has characterized the last few weeks.

The winner sandwich for many of us came down between two: first, the savory mom's meatloaf, with tamarind ketchup, gruyere, and onion marmalade on ciabatta bread. I'm not one for meatloaf (my mother never made any when we were kids), but this was delicious, more like high-end meatballs than anything that could be described in loaf form. It simultaneously tasted of freshness, and of home.

The other winner was the dessert sandwich, nicknamed the TCB (takin' care of business): banana and nutella, pressed to perfection on potato bread. Inspired by his son's affection for the sandwich, Chef Voltaggio added this sandwich to the menu, and it was the runaway best for me, Texas, and Sam. It's gooey and sweet and beautiful, and a perfect way to end any day.

But if the sandwiches were good, the soups were amazing. The roasted butternut squash was fine, but it was the shitake soup that will haunt my dreams. Flavored with roasted peanut and opal basil, it was at once creamy but full of depth, with a richness coming from the mushrooms that packed a punch, but wasn't overpowering. I'm not a huge mushroom fan, nor am I a fan of soups sans meat, but this was just fantastic.

The Verdict


If this shop was in DC, we'd be there at least twice a week. As it stands, a beautiful spot to grab a bite to eat.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Calm
Cost:
$
(out of 5) (less than $25 for two)
Pairing
: Walk along the Promenade; on a beautiful day, the brick and the water and the sun are really calming.

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