Like what you see? Follow DC Wrapped Dates on Twitter for last-minute date ideas and other food news. @dcwrappeddates

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sakuramen

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Adams-Morgan

The Setup


With happy hour quickly dwindling down, the group of us declared a definite need for dinner. Like a bullet, I shouted out the one place we had been bandying about for weeks: Sakuramen. So off we went, myself, Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas, and Official Friends of DCWD Chill, Sam, Shawn, and Gerard.

The Vibe

Sakuramen sits in an unassuming spot, in an English basement amid the many myriad bars on 18th St. One would be forgiven for missing entirely with it sitting so low eyeline-wise. Its' inside is much like you would expect for a ramen shop: Japanese embellishments like tiny square paper window walls or Edo-period style red-and-black paintings of samurai that match the restaurant's decor.

Seating is also unassuming: a few two-tops line one wall, combined at times. Otherwise, seating consists of a 30 seat square bar that wraps itself around two columns. Again, fairly normal for a ramen place, but you could very well be seated at seats opposite one another at the bar, with a thin stone-filled divider between you and potentially next to another couple (the one seated next to us on this night was in the midst of a fight).

The Food


The menu is simple: six choices for ramen, and a few choices for a starter. In this case, Texas decided to split vegetarian shroom buns, with marinated portabellas subbing in for bulgogi or chashu. I think the key for me was to leave my meat hangup at the door; the portabella was never going to be the same for me as bulgogi, so concentrate on the other parts. The bun was wonderfully fluffy, the toppings were solid, and the mushroom for its part, was actually marinated very well. Solid.

Texas ordered the namesake Sakuramen: a vegetarian broth filled with corn, green onion, mushrooms, nori, and menma (bamboo shoots). For her part, she thought the ramen was also very solid. Preferring to eat them crunchy if at all, she also appreciated the offering of a vegetarian dish (heck, the namesake after all). Upon my taste, I was impressed with its thoughtfulness as well.

I ordered the Gojiramen, shoyu ramen with chashu (roasted pork belly), menma, scallions, nori and bean sprouts. I liked Texas's fine, but the roasted pork belly was just absolutely divine, smoky with a hint of burnt and with enough fat to make it super flavorful. The whole bowl was warming and delicious.

The Verdict


If this is the future of Adams-Morgan post-bar food, count me in.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5) 
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Chatty
Cost:
$$
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)
Pairing
: I mean it's Adams-Morgan. Pop over to any number of non-douchey bars (The Reef? Toledo? Madam's Organ? Something else?) for a nightcap.

Sakuramen on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 13, 2012

We Made It From the Market: Lamb Burgers

Originally posted at Borderstan

It’s a little bit of a ritual, honestly. For some, it’s jumping out of bed at single digit hours on Sunday to combat the hordes at Dupont Circle for the best of the batch. For us, it’s the thrill of removing decision making out of Saturday breakfast, rolling into the 14th and U Farmer’s Market to see what’s left over, and try to come up with something to do with it.

Sometimes though, that decision making is hard. Exhibit A: two Saturdays ago when our quest for chicken breast was left wanting, and our eyes were instead drawn toward the lamb meat at Daniel Shirk’s Pecan Meadow Farm booth. Our imaginations were racing: maybe a Greek mix with feta and mint, or a stew with plums or figs. Unfortunately, they had just run out. “We do have some ground sheep though. It’s a little gamier, but it’s also good. Maybe some burgers?” That’s brilliant we thought, and we snapped it up.

The problem, however, is that ideas usually are really good in theory and harder to execute in practice. What do you put on a sheep burger? If it’s even gamier than lamb, can we really even put Kraft singles on it? Getting the sheep meat was like going to the rental car place to find they’ve upgraded you to a Mustang… except finding out it’s a stick shift; so many possibilities, but not one we knew how to do anything about.

Our salvation came in an otherwise innocuous sign at Whole Foods for black apricots, the one that ended “great with lamb.” That easily missable phrase sparked exactly what we needed to come up with something delicious. We paired it with the kale chips at right. Recipe shared below:

Sheep Burgers with Black Apricots and Goat Cheese (makes 4)

Ingredients
  • ½ lb ground sheep
  • ½ cup diced onions
  • ¼ cup minced garlic
  • black pepper, salt
  • 2 black apricots
  • ½ cup soft goat cheese (we used Monocacy Silver from Cherry Glen at 14 and U Farmers Market )
  • hamburger bun (we used potato bread buns, which were delicious)
Preparation
  1. Caramelize the onions and garlic in some light olive oil.
  2. Mix into ground sheep meat with black pepper and salt, and form four small patties.
  3. Cook to desired doneness.
  4. Wash and peel apricots, and cut them into eighths. Lightly grill apricots for 10 to 20 seconds, and then place atop burgers with goat cheese.

Taste Test: 4 Forks (out of 5)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Mintwood Place

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Adams-Morgan

The Setup


Needing to catch up, Official Co-Writer of DCWD CC and I decided to hit up one of DC's newer restaurants, Mintwood Place.

The Vibe

If taken from the outside, you'd be hardpressed to think Mintwood Place was anything but a modern-decorated restaurant. A fairly large patio of fire engine red tables and chairs sit out front, their straight lines mimicking the large modern windows and austere black and white logo of the restaurant; the outside facade looks like the inside of Art and Soul.

This however belies the interior decor, which would easily be confused with an upscale country western bar; indeed a steady stream of Punch Brothers style folk music plays overhead. The dominant color is that of maple syrup, garnered from the steady finished and unfinished plank wood that abounds, accented by chocolate brown leather booths. The feel of things is old and rustic, with intentionally cracked beige paint on the walls, worn down wood paneling, and flaking mirror edges, interrupted by the occasional cog wheel or old piece of machinery.

A row of central booths splits the main dining area from the bar section, the former a row of fours, then a section of twos in the back, with a line of half booths lining the far right wall. The latter is a saloon style bar, with a few high top tables in the bar area leading to the kitchen counter in the back; with its slight opening, you can't help but get hit with perhaps one of the more striking, welcoming aromas of delicious food that we've ever experienced in the city.

The Food

Intent on trying just about everything, we started each with a drink. Mine, a Colonel Bartlett Rickey (gin, pear wine, cucumber, lime), fell a little flat and mild, whereas CC's Farmer Pimm (Pimm's no 1, Art in the Age snap liqueur, spicy ginger ale, cucumber, lemon) was a beautiful sharp mix of a drink. Soft enough for the summertime but with enough punch to make you take notice, the Farmer Pimm had a pleasant taste like molasses or gingersnap with a kick from the carbonation.

On this trip, I felt particularly hungry and the aroma was indeed intoxicating, so we probably overordered. The first three dishes to come out all fell within a similar spectrum. First, the maple pork cracklins were good, but lacked the advertised maple flavoring. Their remoulade was a good dash of piquant, and as a snack, they were decent. As a whole appetizer, they seemed too one-note. Had they more strongly delivered on their promise of maple, it might have well been different.

The much ballyhooed escargot hush puppies featured a similar issue, namely that they were solid, but nothing noteworthy. Delivered with a house remoulade sauce, I regret to say that they weren't phenomenal, but rather tasted like very good, more bitter regular hush puppies; had the snail been more present in the dish (either through smaller hush puppies or more than one snail per piece), the truly fun combination of flavors would have been more ever-present. Instead, the delightfully chewy and substantially flavored snail was more like a surprise wonder than the centerpiece of the dish.

Yet, the arrival of the frogs legs with romesco seemed to signal the forthcoming change in the meal. The dish itself was good-though-not-great, with the frog favorably comparable to a stringier and more interesting chicken. Served atop small sauce discs of black bean and polenta, the frog legs were a good mild vehicle for the three sauces, mixing to form an interesting flavor profile.

The next three courses though absolutely blew us out of the water. First was the goat cheese and beet mountain pie, which was basically a tartlet-sized, elegantly constructed sandwich. Discs of goat cheese sat astride of layered beets and butter lettuce pinched between two wonderfully crusted pieces of bread. It seems strange to rave about it, given that the combinations were pretty straightforward and widely available. Instead, it was the textural contrasts and the delicateness with which the whole dish was put together that made it shine. This wasn't just a beet and goat cheese salad in the sandwich form; it was a rustic, composed, and interesting bite.

The lamb tongue moussaka was also a revelation. Beef tongue, when done right, can be brilliant: tender, luscious, delicate. The lamb followed a similar pattern, with a flavor similar to a silkier, juicier liver, but with a texture that was softer, chewier, and less mealy. But what kicked it into second gear was the moussaka, a deeply flavorful and hearty mix of eggplant mash and ground beef that provided each bite with substance, umami, and salt. Each bite was a beautiful play of unctuousness pierced by spice; I would absolutely eat this over and over again.

The last course was an entree we split; stuck between two choices, our server selected for us the duck breast, sliced and tiled over a bed of sauerkraut and a ruler-sized hashbrown, and topped with an au poivre sauce and grapes. It's hard to even describe how delicious this was. First, the hashbrown (a hashbrown!), a wonderful crunch and salt, like oh-so-many-good tater tots. Next, the sauerkraut, a house brined cabbage that provided just the right amount of sourness. Add the au poivre sauce which provides a creamy peppery element, and the grapes that snap a sweet finish. Finally, take the duck breast, perfectly cooked and tender and an elegant centerpiece protein. Together, they created a beautiful symphony for every taste bud, an absolutely stellar composition that works in ways I still am surprised that someone came up with. Take any piece away from the dish, and it just doesn't work; for instance, each bite without a grape lacked the critical end note that was apparent with each bite that did. Beautiful.

To end the night, another tableside presentation: a baked Alaska flambeed tableside, which I think might be so campy at this point that it becomes underrated once again (I mean, I absolutely loved it). This version was strawberry ice cream inside of a thin cake and meringue, and was actually pretty solid, avoiding saccharine by remaining light. Perfect ending to the meal.

The Verdict


A brilliant addition to the neighborhood, and with luck, the flagbearer of a potential Adams-Morgan revitalization. A few mis-steps, but ones that are far outweighed by the successes.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
Vibe:
Chatty
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing
: While the Olympics are still on, head over to Open City to start or end your date with some pavilion viewing on the patio.

Mintwood Place on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

First Look: Crios

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Dupont Circle

The Setup


This First Look drops by brand new "modern Mexican" restaurant Crios, owned by the same proprietors as next door neighbor Scion and inhabiting the former Vento space.

The Vibe

I made no bones about the fact that I thought Vento was very much a hotel restaurant, in that the decor was the same drab orange and brown that you might find in any number of hotel rooms. While retaining the same fundamental layout, Crios makes some improvements on the interior, coating most of the restaurant in electric blue and pink paint. This includes everything from footprints on the black glazed floor, bright paintings and picnic tables outside, and the staff's t-shirts. Still, the old space peeks through: from the obvious architectural remnants (an exposed ceiling, a layout of square bar/lounge to the right, and diverse seating to the left) to other fungible decorative aspects (a reedy brown straw wallpaper, the same orange and brown lounge furniture).

The Food


Trying to grab a quick bite by myself, I sat at the bar and took the bartender's suggestions on just about everything. It being the first week, the margaritas were still half off and I ordered one which was fine (albeit a bit thin). With a mind to try more rather than less, I decided against the house specialities (all-entree sized) and just asked for my server's suggestions. He pointed out the crab queso fundido (lump crabmeat, peppers, queso blend) and the Dr. Pepper carnitas tacos (braised pork shoulder, arugala, chipotle adobo, queso). Serendipitously, that's what I was eyeing anyway.

The first bad sign was the speed at which the plates came out. Granted, I wasn't ordering anything too crazy, but part of me felt a little disconcerted that they could be finished in under 10 minutes. Now, I know to always give restaurants the benefit of the doubt when they're still brand new; the kitchen after all is still working out its kinks. Still, the two dishes still left something to be desired. The queso had little to no actual crabmeat in it (at least none that I could detect), and a stranger might be forgiven thinking that there was no difference between what I had and regular queso. For all I know they just spritzed some crab juice over it. The accompanying chips were stale, and not in the "oh a few of them are dry" sort of way, but in an aggressively flat way (so much so that I'm positive I bit into something resembling a piece of grit which shocked my molars).

The Dr. Pepper tacos didn't fare much better. The flavor was fine, though again light on anything I would've considered Dr. Peppery. I definitely liked this ahead of the queso, with the arugala being a particularly solid choice for a taco. Still, the taco's oiliness was what was most startling here, with the same quantities as greasy pizza. It got to the point where each bite brought more viscosity than actual content, which took away from whatever the taco was trying to achieve.

The Verdict


Perhaps part of it is opening jitters, but for two of the dishes that were recommended, just not a strong start.

Food Rating: * 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Quiet Drinks
Vibe:
Chatty
Cost:
$$
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)



Crios on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 6, 2012

Monday Munchies: Pleasant Pops

This week we return to Food Truck land to taste Pleasant Pops, the popular popsicle truck that will soon be putting down roots at 18th and Florida.

On our visit, the summer heat wave was in full swing with temperatures reaching triple digits. With Official Friend of DCWD Swizzle, the two of us braved the sweltering humidity for two popsicles: me, a peach mint iced tea, and hers a peach hibiscus.

If there's one thing you can't deny Pleasant Pops, it's that their flavors are creative. And deliciously fresh; my popsicle had honest-to-goodness mint frozen inside of it. I'm not a big peach fan, but even I loved this combination. The peach hibiscus rendered a similar verdict: delightfully sweet, refreshing, a little innovation, and a nice reset to the day.

Taste Test: 3.5 Forks
(out of 5)
Perfect for: The current record-high summer.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Graffiato


Plaudits: Washingtonian 2012 Top 100
Neighborhood: Downtown, Gallery Place/Chinatown

The Setup


After a year of dancing around it and so many close calls, we finally landed at Mike Isabella's first restaurant, Graffiato (heck, we even made it to his second one first). With me on this trip, Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas, and Official Friend of DCWD Swizzle.

The Vibe

The key with Graffiato is that, a year plus after the former Top Chef contestant opened up his first restaurant, the place still remains hip. Which is to say that even on this Monday night, the bar is crowded and the noise is appreciable. The first floor's design aids and abets this atmosphere. A thin 13-seat bar sits on your left as you enter, gradually transitioning into an 11-seat bar that wraps around the central pizza oven. This leaves little standing space in the bar area, so much so that the few tables that do make up the first floor seating area (mostly booths, but importantly, a pair of two-tops), feel squeezed in. Woe to any potential daters that end up there; you might as well pull up a chair for the happy hour patrons who will be basically on top of you.

The second floor is a much more traditional space, with a look that feels almost like a cafeteria. Booths along one wall with four-tops otherwise form the seating, with an open kitchen to the back and big windows to the front. Decor remains consistent throughout the restaurant: a black on white theme, with exposed brick, a high exposed ceiling, and motifs like pizza paddles, garage lights, and painted reeds abound; in two words, hip modernity.

The Food

It being small plates (like his former employers and his new restaurant), we decided to order four dishes and a pizza. Normally we'd have preferred a wide selection, but most of the pastas caught our attention. The lone exception was (of course) burrata, served with heirloom tomatoes, melon, and saba. As burratas go, this wasn't anything particularly special, though taken on its own, it was fairly tasty. The saba was a little lost, and tomatoes were too thickly cut to do anything but provide slight flavoring and color contrast. Still, solid start.

The night would get much better though; each pasta course was delicious in its own right. The fettucini served in pesto sauce, with blue crab, summer squash, and arugala was solid - a good kind of bitter with positive earthy notes of nut and greens and the mush and slight bitter of good, fresh crab. Though it got lost amongst the other pastas, in retrospect, this was a pretty steady composition.

We also tried the "everyone's-talking-about-it" dish from Graffiato: a sweet corn agnolotti with chanterelles and pine nuts. Among my compatriots, I was probably the biggest fan of the plate, with a pleasant sweet-not-saccharine taste that I found amusing and new for pasta. The chanterelles and pine nuts were fine, in that they did ground the dish a little bit, but didn't necessarily add too much to the table for me. Which was perfectly okay, since the centerpiece shone through so much.

But everyone's clear favorite was the roasted potato gnocchi, topped with summer truffles and wild mushrooms. Talk about earthiness and bold flavor; this dish had it in spades. Succulent gnocchi melted together with the truffles, which added this full, creamy feeling to the whole dish. Again, the mushrooms on the dish served to ground the whole endeavor, but also added a good dose of heartiness to the plate. After one bite, we were tempted to order two more servings.

And we probably would have, if not for the pizza we ordered: (what else) the Jersey Shore (fried calamari, tomato, provolone, cherry pepper aioli). It's been said before, but the way the calamari fit with the pizza was quite a surprise, probably because the squid had been crisped very well. The aioli gave a pretty sharp kick to each bite, though more in the zip department than the heat one. By itself, it was a good dish; combined with the pasta, an excellent finisher.

Sadly though, we pushed on toward dessert. The worst-kept-secret zeppoles no longer being offered, we settled on splitting the warm chocolate cake with salted caramel gelato. Tepidly warm, it also suffered from being bland, tasting more like something made out of a box than what we might have expected. Lackluster finish to an otherwise exceptional meal.

The Verdict


Stick with the pastas and a few select pizzas, and the restaurant absolutely sparkles. A few missteps here and there though.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Suits Scene to Party in the USA
Vibe:
Energetic to Noisy
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing
: Ever go to a museum and think, this would be great but I want more mini golf. Problem solved: mini golf in the National Building Museum.

Graffiato on Urbanspoon