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Thursday, June 28, 2012

First Look: The Pig

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: 14th Street/Logan Circle

The Setup

With Official Friend of DCWD Hannah eager to both have another DCWD meal and to meet Official Girlfriend/Co-Writer of DCWD Texas, we selected a brand new addition to the EatWellDC family: The Pig.

The Vibe

Like the other restaurants in its restaurant group (Commissary, The Heights, Grillfish among them), The Pig sets itself up as an open casual but modern urban restaurant. What do I mean by all those adjectives? For one, the feeling is that of a restaurant in a post-industrial setting, with exposed ceilings and concrete floors; light fixtures are repurposed or vintage; and the floor plan is open with a seamless flow between the rows of booths on either side, the line of four tops in the middle and the bar section in the back. But overlaying all of it is a veneer of modern touches: an unfinished butcher's block bar, and a sleek grey and birch-brown color scheme, evident in the walls and wood accents, with large pictures of liquor tax stamps to decorate them.

The space is lively with sound flooding in multiple directions, and as both a new restaurant and one in a very nice stretch of 14th Street, one that seems constantly busy. For now, the crowd is varied: adventurous-eating hipsters from Logan Circle, urban partyers on their way to U Street, tourists that wandered a little farther north than expected. They also don't take reservations between 6 and 9:30 (a smart move), so this mix of people tend to congregate around the bar. And on this crowded Thursday night, that's where we ended up taking a perch.

The Food

Let's just get this out of the way: a restaurant that is serving weird parts of the pig? I was already coming into this meal with high expectations and excitement. To wit: my first order of the crispy pig ears salad, a bed of arugala with caramelized onions, seared tomatoes, and a marrow vinaigrette. I was expecting giant flat pieces of ear, but instead they presented more like tiny cracklings. This was a perfectly good dish, but in many ways, didn't meet the lofty wants I had for it: the ears were delicious but only when you got a piece big enough to have any meat to it; the marrow vinaigrette felt a little lost.

Along with the salad, we ordered three more cuts of pig that Hannah hadn't eaten before. First up, a braised cheek in a bed of stone grits topped with spanish sofrito. If the salad missed its expectations, the cheek far exceeded them, making it one of the favorite dishes of the night. The cheek was braised perfectly, meaty and falling apart in lovely shreds. The grits were creamy and soft whereas the sofrito provided a nice crunch to the dish. The three of us ended up fighting most over who would get the last bite.

My pick was the porchetta, a rolled terrine-like mix of roast stuffed belly, brains, hazelnuts, and greens slathered in hog gravy. Despite the Halloween quality of the ingredients, the dish tasted positively like a hearty sausage, with a herb-forward rich flavor. It wasn't crazy good, but it was definitely a dish that fell in line with the restaurant's tagline: handmade food and drink.

The last of the first round small plates was a piece of charred belly, with a celery root puree, watermelon jam, and pickled rind. At least that's what the menu said: the watermelon jam was lost among the other strong flavors, and its sweet counterpoint would have been a nice touch. That being said, the belly was charred beautifully and the puree was just as creamy and smooth as the grits on the dish before.

Still, the best dishes of the night were actually the two sides (therefore, also making them the two big surprises of the night). First was the boar spoonbread: a soft baked cornbread dish with boar chunks, truffles, and mushrooms. Like a beautiful bread pudding, it was gooey with beautiful luscious chunks of boar and the to-die-for flavor of truffles all throughout. If I could have this over and over again, I absolutely would.

Similarly, the truffled mac and cheese was so good, we actually did eat it a second time. With a rich sharp cheese (gruyere perhaps?), it stood up to the much more expensive but just as delicious mac and cheese around the city.

To finish, we split the lard-berry shortcake, a shortcake made with lard, topped with a berry compote, fresh berries, and a ginger whipped cream. A perfectly good shortcake, but nothing to really call home about.

The Verdict

One of the most promising new restaurants, and already the best in its restaurant group.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Party in the USA
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
: Head next door to the newly opened Buffalo Exchange for cool vintage secondhand clothes and accessories.

The Pig on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Equinox at 918 F Street

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Downtown/Metro Center/Gallery Place

The Setup

With a LivingSocial event at 918 F Street advertising a four course Todd Gray seafood menu, we just had to go. On this meal, Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas, and Official Friends of DCWD Baboon and G, accompanied me to LivingSocial's event headquarters.

The Vibe

Walking into 918 F Street feels like walking into some secret club. Or at the least, one of the newer DC museums. Nested inside an old office/rowhome in the middle of the city, the building opens on a lobby, a swank room with a lounge area, and a concierge desk with several bright LCD screens behind the receptionist. She passes you off to an escort who either takes you to the second floor waiting area (which is reminiscent of a less antique-y smoking lounge) if you’re early, or directly to the elevator, an old school gate and crank number.

The event space is on the top floor and its hard to discern what was unique to this dinner versus others, but a few thoughts about it: 1) the exposed brick and wooden floors and exposed ceiling are quite lovely; 2) they blended in well with the theme of this dinner: local farmhouse spring dinner, which 3) combined with the stringed tea lights, the brown butcher paper coverings over long farm tables, and sunflower centerpieces, made for an all-around pretty space. A projector splashes photos to one side wall, and a band cranks out live music to the other.

After dinner, you’re encouraged to head down via spiral staircase to the basement speakeasy, which seemed quite cool. Though on this occasion, a little too much of a nightcap for us.

The Food

The event’s theme was the Mid-Atlantic seafood trio (oysters, soft shell crab, rockfish), and with Chef Todd Gray’s commitment to local sourcing, we could be sure of a  To start, a bread course of fresh baked cornbread with something that resembled green goddess sauce. Delicious and light and totally crave-worthy.

For our first course, we were treated to a Rappahannock oyster duo: baked oysters with pancetta and gruyere, and crispy breaded oysters with truffle mayonnaise. The former was a complete bite, something that brought forth the wondrous texture of oyster and combined it with equally punchy flavors to meld together perfectly. The latter provided a nice crunch to balance out the viscous taste that oysters leave you with, and served as the perfect vehicle for the important part: the truffle mayo. Oh I could eat this the rest of my life.

Still, the meal was just getting started. Second was an Eastern shore soft shell crab sandwich with pickled ramps on a brioche bun, and housemade spiced potato chips. Just like the soft shell crab I've had at Equinox before, this was just pitch perfect, with everything you could ever ask for in a sandwich: crunch and a mellowed crab flavor, sweet from the bun balanced by the acid on the ramps, and an overall taste of early summer.

As much as I enjoyed the sandwich, the real winner of the night for everyone was the main course: pan roasted rockfish with blue crab and asparagus in a pecan butter sauce. The fillet was a beautiful and soft piece of fish, melting in your mouth in elegant buttery chunks. The slight hint of nuttiness from the pecans was wonderfully Mid-Atlantic in taste, and the whole dish wonderfully balanced being filling and being light.

To end the night, a take on strawberries and cream with the fruit from Blue Ridge and a mix of white chocolate cream and cornflake streusel. Sweet, light, and a perfect farmhouse ending for the farmhouse meal.

The Verdict

Two separate verdicts I guess. Once again, Chef Todd Gray proves he is one of the preeminent chefs in the Mid-Atlantic and masters those flavor profiles. And the space at 918 F Street is pretty effing cool, whether its a wine and painting class or a classy dinner.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd

Monday, June 25, 2012

DCWD at the 2012 RAMMYs

Last night, Official Boyfriend/Co-Writer of DCWD Kim and I were lucky enough to attend the 2012 RAMMYs, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington's awards gala. Some of our own favorite date places were nominees and winners, including our neighborhood's own Cork. The gala itself was a smashing success, with DC's restaurant elite really taking the Hats Off To Restaurants theme to heart. For the awards themselves, there were a few big surprises with Bourbon Steak overtaking some heated competition for Fine Dining; Mitsitam becoming the first museum cafe to win a RAMMY (over what we considered heavy favorites in Bar Pilar and Hank's Oyster Bar); and Jeff Black railing against the blogger community (he'd later amend his statement). All the same, another year, another great ceremony and some very deserving winners.

Below, please find a list of nominees (with winners in italics), with links to our reviews of the restaurants.

Chef of the Year
Anthony Chittum - Vermilion
Haidar Karoum - Proof
Tony Conte - The Oval Room
Kaz Okochi - Kaz Sushi Bistro 
Vikram Sunderam - Rasika

Dessert at Adour
Rising Culinary Star
Justin Bittner - Bar Pilar
Logan Cox - Ripple
Claudio Pirollo - Et Voila!
Adam Sobel - Bourbon Steak
Ed Witt - 701 Restaurant

Pastry Chef of the Year
Cicely Austin - The Oval Room 
Fabrice Bendano - Adour
Peter Brett - Blue Duck Tavern
Alison Reed - Ripple
Susan Wallace - BlackSalt

Bar at Fiola
Restaurateur of the Year
Jose Andres and Rob Wilder - ThinkFood Group
Michael Babin - Neighborhood Restaurant Group
Meshelle and Cathal Armstrong - EatGoodFood Group
Ashok Bajaj - Knightsbridge Restaurant Group 
Jeff and Barbara Black - Black Restaurant Group

New Restaurant
Hill Country Barbecue Market
Pearl Dive Oyster Palace

Shrimp and Grits at BlackSalt
Fine Dining Restaurant
The Ashby Inn 
Bourbon Steak
The Oval Room

Upscale Casual Restaurant
Birch and Barley 

Casual Restaurant
Bar Pilar
C.F. Folks
Hank's Oyster Bar 
Mitsitam Native Foods Café (National Museum of the American Indian)
Room 11

Wine flight at Cork
Wine Program
Cork Wine Bar

Beverage/Mixology Program
Birch and Barley/Churchkey
Bourbon Steak
EatGoodFood Group 
Room 11

Neighborhood Gathering Place
Bistrot du Coin 
Cafe Saint-Ex
Et Voila!
The Majestic

Slushitos at Estadio
Power Spot
701 Restaurant
Founding Farmers
The Oval Room
The Source

Hottest Restaurant Bar Scene 
The Hamilton
Hill Country Barbecue Market
Mad Fox Brewing Company

Where Magazine Visitor's Choice Award
1789 Restaurant
The Capital Grille 
McCormick and Schmick's
Occidental Grill and Seafood

Manager of the Year
Anna-Maria Ashe - Smith Commons
Daniel Bortnick - Firefly
Reagan Corbett - Jackson 20
Alex Munoz - Hill Country Barbecue Market
Javier Velazquez - Taberna del Alabardero

Employee of the Year
Julie Albert - Brasserie Beck/Marcel's
Ting Forester - District Commons
Jose Alex Medrano - B. Smith's
Teo Leiva - Fiola
Paris Twyman - Founding Farmers

We Made It From The Market: Stuffed Squash Blossoms

Almost a year ago, we first tried making stuffed squash blossoms for the first time. That time, we tried just goat cheese and mint. This time Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I tried something a little more ambitious: goat cheese, ground pork, and zucchini.

15 squash blossoms
4 oz goat cheese
1/2 pound ground pork (or one large sausage removed from casing)
Zucchini, diced (we used two of the small ones that came with the blossoms; otherwise 1/4 cup)
Celery salt
Egg, whisked

Cook the pork/sausage in a pan, making sure to break it into small chunks. Mix together with the goat cheese, zucchini, and a bit of celery salt.

Rinse the squash blossoms thoroughly, then remove the stems from the blossoms. Stuff each blossom with the cheese/pork/zucchini mixture. Dip each blossom lightly in the egg, and then coat with flour. Heat oil in a deep pan (we used a wok). Fry until golden brown, then drain, pat dry, and sprinkle with a little more celery salt to taste.

These were devastatingly good. We'll be making them again soon!

Taste Test:
5 Forks (out of 5)

Monday, June 18, 2012

DCWD Travels: Sucre, New Orleans

Part two of our New Orleans trip features the small dessert shop Sucre. Some quick thoughts and then some pictures:

  • Definitely try the alcoholic "big kid shakes." We settled on the A Bunch of Nuts (brown butter pecan gelato, Frangelico and praline liquor), but a number of other ones (Life by Chocolate, the Grasshopper) looked absolutely fantastic.
  • Pass on the pastries, go for the macarons. We sampled a strawberry cheesecake that desperately fell flat; it tasted like a load of strawberry jam and thin whipped cream on a sponge cake. In Sucre's defense, the guy at the counter warned us it wasn't his favorite. On the other hand, people were buying macarons by the dozen, so...
  • It's a cute place to sit for a while. We got stuck there during a rainstorm, but even if we hadn't, the upscale ice cream parlor/patisserie decor makes it feel classy and inviting.

Taste Test: 2.5 Forks
(out of 5)

Sucré on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 14, 2012

DCWD Travels: Cochon, New Orleans

Plaudits: James Beard Finalist 2012 - Outstanding Chef, Donald Link; Times-Picayune Top 10 Restaurants

The Setup

In town for a weekend trip, Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I hit up as many New Orleans restaurants as we could stomach. The first stop on our four restaurant cycle: Cochon.

The Vibe

For a restaurant recognized as one of the city's best, Cochon is a decidedly low-key restaurant. For one, seemingly every inch of the restaurant is covered in light-colored slatted wood, from the walls to the furniture. In reality, a few walls remain unforested, relying on a color scheme of a dull vermilion and goldenrod with exposed brick and large windows to the front of the restaurant. In the back is  the open kitchen, along with a six kitchen bar. Seating is otherwise ample, starting with full booths on one side, to a number of four-tops in the center of the space, to a row of half-booth twos on the other end. It's buzzy and light in the atmosphere sense, with even our early brunch experiencing a positive casualness, and a pretty full seating all-in-all.

The Food

To start, Texas and I decided to split two appetizers and an entree. On my end, I ordered the smoked tomato braised pork cheeks with creamy grits and pepper salad. Overall, this dish was definitely emblematic of good but not great; the pork cheeks were tender and good-stringy, the grits were on point and the tomato-based broth was warming. But there was just something missing from it that would have made it more than just a pile of good ingredients.

Texas's choice was a wood-fired oyster roast which was also perfectly fine, but nothing to call home about. Each had a nice smoky flavor to it, and they certainly were pleasant. But considering the other oysters we had on that trip, these were fairly pedestrian.

As the entree, we went with the restaurant namesake: Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage, and cracklins. On the plus side, the cracklins were some of the best pork rinds I've had in a long time. The pork was also cooked pretty well... and yet, there was very little spice or flavor to recall after the first few bites. Yes, it was a good piece of meat, and yes, it definitely felt Southern. But for all the promise of big flavors and New Orleans cuisine, this one fell a bit flat for us.

As a side, we ordered macaroni and cheese casserole, which favorably compared to some other takes of the childhood favorite that we've had here in DC. Good creaminess, a nice baked-in flavor, and a more-than-adequate side.

The Verdict

The problem, I guess, was the hype. If this was a restaurant we had walked into off the street, we would've been real excited. But since this was one we had set aside to try, we were a little disappointed with what we had. Good, but not the great we were led to believe.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Quiet Drinks
Chatty to Energetic
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
: Head a little south to New Orleans' Garden District, a quaint and charming section of town much like Alexandria: cute shops and antique boutiques.

Cochon Butcher on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Medium Rare

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Cleveland Park

The Setup

I had long promised a steak dinner to Official Friend of DCWD Rajistan upon his graduation from medical school; and I'd long promised Official Friend of DCWD Swizzle that we'd one day follow our BLT Steak outing with a visit to the steakhouse in her neighborhood, Medium Rare. So we combined the two, added Official Friend of DCWD EZ, and headed off to Cleveland Park.

The Vibe

Medium Rare is a steak frites restaurant from the same people who brought you BGR. The inside draws from an upscale brasserie theme: exposed brick, low ceilings, wooden floors, with granite-topped metal tables filling the sizable space. The lighting shifts with the time; during the daytime, light streams in the large windows, but at night it gets real dim. It's clean and simple, with a little elegant flair in between.

The Food

There is only one option for dinner at Medium Rare: a prix fixe for $20, which varies only in how you'd like your meat cooked. Your orders are marked by china pencil on the butcher paper that covers the table. First up is bread and a mixed green salad with a light vinaigrette. For a plate that's essentially lettuce and tomatoes, this is actually a pretty solid house salad, with buttery greens and a blessedly light hand on the dressing.

The main course is a culotte steak with fries, brought in two portions to keep everything warm. For a one dish restaurant, that one dish better be good. Luckily for Medium Rare, the steaks they serve are in a word, delicious. Juicy slices of steak sing, especially when covered with the restaurant's secret sauce, a wonderful savory combo of mustard and cream notes.

There are a number of desserts to be had, and in this case we all split the carrot cake. Which was necessary because the portion is monstrous. Like the meal before it, a solid bite.

The Verdict

Perhaps not something you would do everyday, but an enjoyable stop for great steak at a great price.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Quiet Drinks
Chatty to Energetic
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)
: With the weather taking a temporary respite from being crazy hot, head down to the National Zoo. Brew in the Zoo is on July 12th for those of you who love beer.

Medium Rare on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 11, 2012

Monday Munchies: Sinplicity Ice Cream Truck

This week's Monday Munchies focuses on a new food truck in town, Sinplicity Ice Cream. Starting as a side product of a catering company, and then a local gelato and ice cream brand, Sinplicity pasteurizes and flavors the ice cream themselves.

On this trip, we sampled almost the full range of Sinplicity's products, from the eponymous ice creams and sorbets, to ice cream sandwich macarons and other sweet baked goods treats, to soft pretzels with wasabi dipping sauce. All were small delightful treats, though a few stood out as winners: for me, a cinnamon roll cookie, for Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas, the chocolate fleur de sel cookie. Among the frozen bites, a fig and goat cheese ice cream flavored with red wine and cinnamon is probably the most creative (battling for that title with a champagne-orange sorbet, and a blackberry/cabernet/lime offering), but even the simple classics sing; Texas's favorite was the 70 percent bittersweet chocolate. My winner is the black and white "Sinwich", an ice cream macaron with blackberry cookies, vanilla bean ice cream, and a berry compote. All the fun of childhood with some lovely adult ingredients.

Overall, a truck equally worth popping by as a midday stopover in the summer heat, or a nightcap to a dinner date.

Taste Test: 3 Forks (out of 5)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Birch and Barley, Part Deux

In this Part Deux, we revisit our brunch favorite Birch and Barley, this time for a family dinner with Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas, and Official Parents of DCWD DV, MV, DZ, MZ, and Official Brother of DCWD Nam.

The Food

With seven people around the table, there was plenty of food to go around. To start, we all shared Birch and Barley's bread course (of which the pretzels were clearly the best), as well as one of the restaurant's flatbreads (fig and prosciutto, gorgonzola, caramelized onions), and the ricotta dumplings with a spinach puree, olives, and pancetta in chive oil. I've long been a fan of the flatbreads at B&B/Churchkey, this one in particular, and this was no exception. The dumplings were tasty, though tiny and probably not ricotta-y enough for my liking.

DV and MV, being related to me and all, ordered two additional starters. One was familiar to me: the ricotta cavatelli with roasted pork, broccoli rabe, toasted pine nuts, and aged provolone. Still creamy, and still fantastic. The starter that really won us over was a special: seared foie gras with poached rhubarb, almond butter, black locust flower and a pepper brioche. I'm a fiend when it comes to hot preparations of foie, especially when paired with sweet fruit, so this was right up my alley. The innovative rhubarb combo, with some creative wildflower flavors, were the finishing touch that pushed it into one of the better foie dishes ever.

For main courses, we'll start with the ones we didn't taste ourselves. MZ ordered the seared alaskan halibut on a bed of orzo, nettles, english peas, sea beans, and hen of the woods mushrooms. DZ had the grilled pork loin with johnny cake spaetzle, and subbed the ramps for yukon gold potatoes. We did sneak quick bites of DV and MV's split of two dishes: the roasted striped bass atop a romanesco sauce with chickpeas, spring garlic, black trumpets, and mizuna, and the honey glazed duck breast and leg confit with wild rice, brandied cherries, radishes, and hazelnuts. The bass was tender and soft, with a healthy almost Italian punch from the sauce, while the duck was nicely gamey with a back home taste punctuated by the fruits and nuts.

Nam ordered the relatively safe vialone nano risotto with wine-poached baby shrimp, celery, pea shoots, and whipped goat cheese. At first, I thought it too safe, but found myself stealing more and more small bites, as the goat cheese melted into an incomparable oozy savory goodness. I never considered myself a risotto person before, but this was enough to want me craving more.

Still, our favorites on the night were our own dishes. For our part, Texas and I both had the spring lamb with black lentils, yukon gold potatoes, granny smith apples, yogurt, and housemade curry. We were drawn in by the server's comment that the lamb had come in from a local farm that week, and Chef Kyle Bailey was excited to serve some of the more off-the-path cuts of meat; the first comment sucked Texas in, the latter was music to my ears. We both got cuts of loin, with me getting leg and kidneys (!), and her getting belly and merguez sausage. The genius of this dish was letting the farm-raised and just-butchered ingredient speak for themselves, and having each cut riff on the others. That, and the skill it takes to prepare kidneys in a way that is enjoyable, which mine was: pleasantly gummy with a soft liver-like taste to it. Otherwise, the gamey taste and the light sear on the loins, the stringy fall-apart richness of the belly, and the bright flavor of the housemade merguez emphasized where Birch and Barley is the best: traditional local and seasonal flavors with back home sensibilities.

Birch and Barley's other touchstone of awesomeness is Chef Tiffany MacIsaac's dessert menu. I loved her Buzz Bakery outputs, so we encouraged the table to take advantage. And oh did we, ordering one of each offering (I've always wanted to do that!). My favorite was MV's order: the olive oil panna cotta, with red and green strawberries, mascarpone ice cream, and pea tendrils. Delicate but still wholly enrapturing, its olive oil flavor was strong enough to give you that faint taste of acid but balanced by the sweet in the fairly firm panna cotta.

Other desserts were more conventional but just as satisfying and creative, from Texas's warm chocolate peanut butter tart with a whole milk sorbet and whiskey milk shake, to my rhubarb shortcake with almond cake and brittle, a rhubarb sorbet, blood orange caramel, and anise. Where one was pleasantly fruity, the other was decadent and oh-so-adult. MV's passion fruit cheesecake with a coconut-curry sorbet, vanilla scented pineapple, and basil seemed almost pedestrian by comparison (even though it also would have been a winner anywhere else).

Even the run-of-the-mill desserts that you would normally dismiss in any other restaurant as "too boring" were sublime. To wit, the housemade cookies and confections: a cashew "snickers bar", a "hostess cupcake", oatmeal cream pie, pudding pop, a "peppermint pattie", a pecan joy, and chef's favorite breakfast cereal sorbet. Or the house sorbets, a dazzling set of options: buttermilk, blood orange, tangerine vanilla, green apple, exotic spice. Just these alone would have made us all very, very happy.

The Verdict

An absolute delight, a neighborhood anchor, and one of the best in the city.

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

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

First Look: The Grilled Cheese Bar at Ripple

Today's First Look focuses not on a new restaurant, but a new venture; opening up this afternoon at local sustainable hub Ripple in Cleveland Park is The Grilled Cheese Bar. Featuring at least 15 different cheeses, Chef Logan Cox and company offer eight options of the eponymous sandwich, including a make-your own (which itself offers three different breads, six different spreads, and twelve different extra toppings).

We had previously admired the cheeses as part of our charcuterie course on our last meal there, and this outing reaffirmed that admiration. Carefully and meticulously curated, Ripple's cheese selection and what they do with it is a testament to what high-end ingredients can do to an updated childhood classic. Case in point: The Krusty Krab, a sandwich with lump crab, bechamel, and an oozing mt tam cheese, which was buttery and creamy and decadent, like a luscious mac-and-cheese. The Swiss Bank Account, a similarly luxurious indulgence of prosciutto, challerhocker, and truffle butter, also dazzles, as does a chevre ice cream sandwich with oat cookies and a blackberry spread, which perfectly hits the balance between savory and sweet; if only we could have more. The menu also has its experimental moments, like the Stinky Pete, described as having "hideously smelly torta la serena cheese, asparagus, and anchovy," and which both punches you in the mouth, but not as much as you'd expect.

Ranging in price from $7 to $12, the sandwiches are a perfect adult version of your beloved dish. Plus, Ripple knows its core audience; the menu's available at the bar Sunday through Thursday from 5-6:30 and again at 10:30-12. We said before that we wished something like Bryan Voltaggio's Lunchbox would end up in DC. This might be the next best thing.

Taste Test: 4 Forks

Friday, June 1, 2012

First Look: Bandolero

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Georgetown

The Setup

Somehow we got talked into going on opening night. And funnily enough, nobody in our final configuration (myself, Official Girlfriend/Co-Writer of DCWD Texas, and Official Friends of DCWD Sam, Shawn, Mr Magoo, and Danielle) was the original idea-man. But we gamely pressed on to try Mike Isabella's new not-Mexican Mexican restaurant.

The Vibe

It's hard walking into Bandolero without getting the weird impression of, "This is some alternate universe version of Hook." For anyone who had ever visited the restaurant before its 2011 fire, the quirky two-floor layout is the same, but gone are all of the white walls and tablecloths and TV screens of aquariums. In their stead is a series of black and red and more black and Dia de los Muertos skulls. Up front is a small bar section and a long sixteen seat backlit bar. Beyond that is a section portioned off by black metal outdoor fencing, as well as some twos and fours until the open service window. Round the middle, the stairs take you to the quieter upstairs seating where some larger tables reside, like the six we sat at for this meal.

Bandolero has painted over the exposed brick, black with some industrial print and a graphic right upfront of a bandit reminiscent of Calvera from Magnificent Seven. Lighting is provided by some antique-y lanterns and chandeliers, and some red spotlights attached to the walls, but the restaurant remains fairly dim.

This being opening night, the noise level was considerable even during our after-9pm reservation, though one imagines that it could remain this way even months from now. That's because Bandolero fills a considerable hole in the Georgetown restaurant scene: there are high class restaurants for the upper set, and there are plenty of watering holes for the Hoyas, but there are very few eateries of the style that have attracted yuppies and the it crowd, like the approximately 700 or so that now live on 14th Street. One has to think that that's intentional on the part of Georgetown, so it's curious to see how Bandolero lives within its neighbors.

The Food

Lucky for us, there were six relatively hungry people at the table, so it wasn't really hard to get a smattering of tastes. Since they came out fast and consistently, instead of listing by how they came out, we'll go with the Mexican bandit theme and sort them by The Good, the Fine, and the We'll Pass.

The Good

Perhaps the single greatest dish of the night was by far the queso fundido, a dish that even a few days in, has already received praise from the Post. Made of manchego cheese with bits of duck confit and maitake and a sunny side up egg squished in there, this was every bit as surprising since it so greatly stood apart from not only your garden variety nacho cheese, but from any other presentation of queso we've had in the city so far. Still gooey but sharp and fresh rather than commercial, the chunks of meat were delightful to sample with our baked nachos.

Probably our second favorite dish as a table was the blue crab taquito (in this instance, the literal tiny taco, not the rolled up version), with coconut, red chili, and purple potato. Surprisingly light and surprisingly (and pleasantly) light on the coconut, it had enough flavor for all of us.

Texas nominated her other favorite as the enchilada verde, filled with wild mushrooms, oaxaca cheese, and a mole verde. I thought the mushrooms were the most forward of all the ingredients, which meant I didn't like it as much as the others.

At the very least, we were all decently into the house El Bandolero margarita: espolon blanco tequila, patron citronage, lime, blood orange. Sweet, on tap, and free-flowing; a little finer than say Alero, but probably in line with other high end margaritas. However, Texas did have one problem with the "on-tap" gimmick, saying, "Doesn't that just mean pre-mixed and not fresh?"

The Fine

The group was otherwise split or ambivalent about a lot of the other dishes. I don't know that anybody else was into them, but my order of suckling pig tacos with an apple relish and habanero mustard was at the very least a smart bite, with a slightly sweet tang that was enjoyable. Coming in pairs, I ended up monopolizing them, though again, no one was really fighting me for them.

My other mild success was the nachos, topped with crispy goat, white beans, goat cheese, and chili de arbol. The goat was interesting and I do love goat cheese, but the joy was short-lived since the toppings were sparse, and frankly then it just became slightly flavored chips. Compared to the insta-joy that was the queso, this was forgettable.

Shawn ordered the flautas, filled with pork cheek in a red chili sauce with queso anejo. The flauta itself was fairly corn forward, with a decent flavor from the pork. Still, as I look back on this dinner, this is the one dish that I struggle to remember the most, outside of a few cursory details. Which is to say it wasn't the best, but it also wasn't terrible.

Texas's order of octopus tacos with adobo and cucumber relish was also met with a lot of, "this is fine." Everything was cooked okay, with the octopus probably a little rubbery, but with a decent char and a fresh taste. Still, it wasn't anything mind-blowing; just a quick few slightly memorable bites.

Our starter platter was also a lot of fine: first, guacamole with salsa roja, masa crisps, and chicharrones; second, sikil pak, a pumpkin seed dip flavored with jalapeno and orange; and third, totopos, fried chips with a ranch-like cream sauce. These weren't bad, they just weren't up to the standards of Bandolero's contemporaries; the guac was good but not Oyamel level, the pumpkin seed dip had a lot of "well, this is very interesting" reactions, and the fried tortillas seemed like a cheeseless chilaquiles, which is to say, quickly soggy and missing the point. 

The We'll Pass

On the things that were suffering opening night jitters, part one was the skirt steak tacos, with refried beans, avocado, salsa, and crispy onions. The overwhelming feeling was that this was very "Taco Bell" like. And as much as we love Taco Bell here at DCWD, this wasn't meant to be a flattering comment. The steak was a little overcooked, and as a whole it fell flat, probably because at $9 a pair, we wanted more than just the #2.

The empanada was also by-and-large not something we enjoyed. Filled with corn, potato, and jack cheese on top of a poblano escabeche, the whole of it tasted inauthentic to the point of being obvious. I understand Mike Isabella's not-Mexican Mexican, and while that succeeded on other dishes, there was something off-putting about this attempt.

My least favorite by far were the wild mushroom tacos, with tomatillo and a chipotle marmalada. This was a perfect example of a dish made for vegetarians by substituting mushrooms or tofu where meat usually goes. The mushrooms were soggy and the flavor profiles just didn't match up for me. Definite pass.

The Verdict

The queso alone is worth a trip back. And the restaurant is one of the first M Street bright spots for a certain crowd. But obviously still working out some of the kinks.

Food Rating: ** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Party in the USA
Energetic to Noisy
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)

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