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Friday, December 28, 2012

2012: The Year in DCWD

Welcome to our third edition of the Year in DCWD, where we recap the year that's been, and what excited us, disappointed us, and puzzled us.

My favorite picture of the year: sauteed shrimp at Estadio
I wish that in the year when data and basic math skills made a tremendous comeback (see: Silver, Nate), that we could have rolled out some fancy model that detailed exactly how the year stacked up statistically. Sadly, despite my overuse of the phrase "regression to the mean," we couldn't find a way to prepare some sort of fancy chart or rubric. Instead, we chalked up what, looking back, felt like the best and worst meals we had. Some were repeats from 2010 and 2011. Some were brand new restaurants. All of them stood out in our minds.

Anyway, here are our Best and Worst of 2012:

The Worst

As always, we'll start with the worst. We could start with ourselves, and a mea culpa. As the years go on and we all move onward and upward with our careers and our lives, Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I, as well as oft-contributors CC and AP, find ourselves with less time to regularly update the site. We try where we can, but we apologize for how slow the posts come these days. We'll do better next year.

2012 was a great year for us food-wise, but there were still a few let-downs. District Commons gave us both overcooked and undercooked food, and then stupefied us with the way the host stand seats guests (to the point that we ended up leaving altogether). The Hamilton's food outright bored us. Sei was overpriced and over-the-top. And Crios was a bland and uninspired opening. But the overwhelming least favorite meal of the year by far was Belga Cafe. To this day, we still hold it up as an example of how Restaurant Week can turn even a lauded restaurant bad, how a dinner can go off the rails really quickly, and how certain things should never go together (the words beer, gelee, and rosemary come to mind). It makes every viewing of this season's Top Chef that much more sad, since we both like Chef Bart's personality a lot.

The Best

Potomac Avenue pizza at Seventh Hill
Best Cheap Eats. It was a year where Texas and I needed to stretch a dollar a lot more than normal. To that end, who could forget the nice bang-for-the-buck from Seventh Hill? Or more importantly, $5 Taco Tuesdays at Smoke and Barrel? Solid to great meals for a fraction of others' prices. Slight edge to Smoke and Barrel, but only because of their devastatingly good jalapeno cheddar grits.

Our Favorite Dishes. Sometimes a dish just stands in out in your mind when you look back at a meal. Here are 15 dishes, in no particular order, that dazzled us this year:

Two separate dishes from Equinox from two separate meals that bracket the year made the cut:  a dark chocolate custard topped with absinthe ice cream atop coffee soil and sea salt that kicked off the new year (1); and a stuffed agnolotti of ricotta cheese with caramelized onions and slow cooked cabbage in a white truffle butter and parmesan reggiano sauce (2). The former is notable as the only dessert on the list, the latter so recent I haven't even had a chance to write about it yet.

Boar spoonbread at The Pig
The new year brought with it new restaurants that dazzled, from Little Serow's sweet and spicy si krong muu pork ribs marinated in Mekong whiskey and dill (3), to the can't-get-enough boar spoonbread at The Pig (4), to the duck breast tiled over sauerkraut and hashbrowns in an au poivre sauce at Mintwood Place (5). Then there were the spectacular entries by the sophomores: the tomato gazpacho with stracciatella and lobster at Fiola (6); the green pea "cappucino" of pureed peas and bruleed foie at Elisir (7); or the black quinoa squid ink risotto with spicy crab and lemon at Ripple (8).

Gnocchi at Graffiato
In a year where a Top Chef Seattle chef-testant took the Worst crown, it was also a year of delicious work from Top Chef alum, from the roasted potato gnocchi with summer truffles and wild mushrooms at Graffiato (9) to the venison tartare with horseradish, apple, and green soy foams and crumbles at Volt (10).

Foie gras at Blue Duck Tavern
Rounding out the Top 15? A classic and creamy cauliflower soup with charred octopus, capers, almonds, golden raisins, and a curry froth at Vermilion (11), the lamb and clams at Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Union Market (12), a seared foie gras with mushrooms and a 63 degree egg at the resurgent Blue Duck Tavern (13), and two dishes from a perfect night at Eola: poached halibut sitting in a bed of petite greens, maitake, radishes, and a ramp soubise (14), and a rabbit ballotine, with fiddlehead ferns, petite carrots, kale, and sorrel (15).

Duck breast at Mintwood Place
Favorite New Restaurant. This one is tough. Do you go with the structured and measured Izakaya Seki, the lauded late addition that dazzles with straightforward but rare Japanese cuisine? Do you go with the Brixton, where hidden gems can be found and a rooftop bar awaits? Do you pick the reconceptualization, the one that hits close to home, and shows as much promise as Hanoi House does? Or do you go with Little Serow, the buzziest, most talked about restaurant debut of the year, the one that also doubles as one of the single greatest value-dinners in the city?

They're all great choices, really. All of them with their own unique claim to fame. But hands down, the best addition to the DC restaurant scene this year belongs to Mintwood Place. Classic, fun, with deep flavors and a consistently high level of flavor and service.

Favorite Date Place. We're biased here, yes. But running a close second in this category is Union Market, which remains one of the bright spots in terms of fun places where you can spend a morning or afternoon. It's beautiful, bright, and has plenty of options to plop down with a significant other and just eat and chat. In first place though, is Society Fair. Maybe they do their demo dinners less frequently, and maybe the chef has changed since we went. But it's still one of the most thoroughly enjoyable experiences we've had, one that was as delicious as it was fun.

Favorite Meals. And now, in reverse order, the seven best meals of 2012:

(7) Palena. An oldie, but a goodie. Frank Ruta's roast chicken still reigns supreme, with some assists by a sharp ceviche and pillowy gnocchi.

Lamb and clams at Rappahannock Oyster Bar
(6) Rappahannock Oyster Bar. The lamb and clams would have been one thing. But add on top of that a delicious chowder, lovely roasted oysters, and a to-die-for halibut, and you've got yourself an amazing debut.

(5) Volt. It may be a bit of a drive, but the trek is totally worth it. Intriguing and adventurous food from a humble and talented chef.

Foie gras at Volt
(4) Fiola. Sure, it benefits from the fact that it was a five course tasting menu. But when generous serving size meets housemade pasta meets indulgent and luxurious flavor combinations, you have yourself a meal that is every bit worth the price of admission.

Poached halibut at Eola
(3) Eola. It seems almost like cheating to include our favorite restaurant on this list year and year. But that would ignore the consistency with which Eola serves food. There's a reason we keep going back: not only one of the best price points in the city, but a creative play on traditional flavors in a wonderfully inviting setting.

(2) Birch and Barley. A consistently excellent meal from start-to-finish. Whether it's a creamy ricotta cavatelli to start, a chef's choice cut of lamb in the middle, or a dessert from best-pastry-chef-in-the-city Tiffany MacIsaac, you really can't find fault in any of the restaurant's seasonal and sustainable plates.

Toki hakata at Toki Underground
(1) Toki Underground. The real reason that no dish from this meal appears in our favorite dishes above is because it seemed hardly fair to pick one over another. Was the glazed pork belly on sweet corn really better than the miso chocolate chip cookies and milk? Was my tonkotsu broth that much more soulful than the one Texas's curry chicken hakata had? How much hyperbole can you really place on one bowl if so many other plates deserve the same exuberance? Each dish was packed with flavor for days, and mixed a down-to-earth goodness with high cuisine. Add onto that the unbelievably low price point and the fun vibe, and you have yourself our favorite restaurant of 2012.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Vermilion, Part Deux

This Part Deux revolves around a conversation I had with an old supervisor of mine, discussing her recent transplant from a prime location on the 14th Street corridor to the outskirts of Alexandria. Among one of my larger points was the remark that while it was sad she left the area right when it experienced a restaurant renaissance, at least she was closer to some pretty great restaurants, "like Vermilion."

"Oh, we just went there," she replied. "It wasn't that good."

Wasn't that good? Vermilion had largely stayed within my stable of recommendations since my last meal there. Had the restaurant slipped since Chef Tony Chittum started exploring other ventures (read: Iron Gate Inn)? Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I invited Official Friends of DCWD Baboon and G to dinner with us to find out.

The Food

Among some of the qualities that endeared Vermilion to me in the first place was its effortless blend of traditional classics with inspired creativity. Plus, for "ethical eater" Texas, who eschews meat when she can't vouch for its provenance, the restaurant's focus on the ingredients' terroir was pleasing. Some chefs try seasonal and local, and some chefs succeed at it; Chef Chittum is of the latter variety. All of this exposition can basically be summed up with this lead: when a group starts their discussion about dinner with the game, "Whose Dish is the Best?", you know the meal was fantastic.

The appetizer served as round one of the fight, and was probably the most tightly contested. G and I both ordered the smoked polenta and sausage agnolotti, sitting in a sauce filled with roasted mushrooms, grilled endive, and topped with a sunny-side-up egg. The whole bowl tasted like a wonderful, pillowy bite of breakfast, with perfectly cooked pasta inserting itself delicately into a dish straight out of brunch.

An even more indulgent choice might have been Baboon's pan fried veal sweetbreads, flanked by cipollini onions, toasted pumpkin seeds, and red kuri squash agrodolce. While the sweetbreads were beautifully tender, alternating between soft and milky rich, it was the squash, tender to the point of melting and steeped in sweet and sour, that had us scrambling back to the menu for a name.

Still, even I would have to concede that it was Texas's creamy cauliflower soup, dotted with chunks of charred octopus, capers, almonds, and golden raisins, and topped with a curry froth that edged us all out. Both light and sharp, hints of sweet were punctuated by the lovely blackened octopus. Almonds and golden raisins remain one of my favorite combinations ever, and this was no different, a pleasant but surprising soup that started the meal off with a bang.

The entrees were similarly solid. G and I both ordered the duo of Maryland beef, half braised and half sliced and seared, with a baked crespelle, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and swiss chard in a black truffle jus. The loin side was beautifully seared, the braised version a tender, stringy-in-a-good-way complement. But even with the meat and the truffles, it was the mushrooms that we thought of as the key to holding the whole dish together.

The other entrees were similarly surprising in that while the main components were excellent, it was their sides that were the excellent portions. Texas's goat cheese tortelloni was well-sauced in its toasted walnut froth, but for me it was the roasted baby beets and their greens (very chard-like actually) that rounded out the whole dish. Texas? "If beets were cooked like this all the time, I would eat them every day."

As for Baboon, he had the garlic crusted grouper, perched atop a bed of creamed brussels sprouts, smoked bacon, and chanterelle mushrooms. For me, as with the other dishes, it was the combination of flavors that did it for me: the fleshy oiliness and surprising punch of the grouper; the bitterness of the sprouts; the salt of the bacon; and the mellow earthiness of the mushrooms.

As for the dessert round, as with all Neighborhood Restaurant Group spots, the Tiffany MacIsaac dishes were spot on. A nutella cheesecake with winter citrus, hot fudge, and candied hazelnuts, and an ancho chocolate brulee with crispy churro, cinnamon ice cream, and caramelized banana were both indulgences, deep and rich and warm. On the other hand, the season was also well represented by the mini apple pie with bacon caramel, candied walnuts, raisin puree, and bourbon ice cream, and my dessert, the sweet potato fritters, with ginger ice cream, cranberries, candied pecans, and toasted fluff.

The Verdict

Still as good as ever. Still as delicious.

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Quick Bites: Blue Duck Tavern

"You're gonna pee your pants when you find out." That's what Official Friend of DCWD G said across the dinner table when she found out what my Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas had planned for my birthday. "Like, it's perfect for you."

My mind raced. What could possibly make me that excited? A meet-and-greet with Ryan Zimmerman? A shopping spree at a suit or board game store? Literal urination from the fear brought on by a skydiving package? No, something even more appropriate for my epicurean lifestyle: a food adventure at three of DC's finest restaurants that serve the most interesting offal dishes. And headlining the day? A lunch at the West End's Blue Duck Tavern.

The Washington Post's Tom Sietsema recently teased that Blue Duck had taken a great leap forward with a new chef at the helm, a level of praise that augured a great experience. Perhaps the best part of the restaurant is their commitment to the quality of their purveyors, putting the names of each farm where they get their artisanal foodstuffs right on the menu. The kind of kitchen that cares that much about its relationships with its farmers will get the sort of quality ingredients that make a great dish perfect. And oh, how they made things perfect. On this offal tour, we ordered a triumvirate of offal dishes: wood oven roasted bone marrow, seared foie gras, and glazed sweetbreads.

Each of them presented their own unique combination of amazing flavors and playful textures. The bone marrow was a beautiful blend of viscous, juicy fattiness that spread deliciously over crusty toast. The foie's richness blended seamlessly with mushrooms and a 63 degree egg to create a full-bodied hit of velvety cream that crackled over frisee and truffle butter bread. And the sweetbreads were milky-rich and moist, a rich and dense centerpiece to a veritable painter's palette of flavors:  the mild bitterness of fried cauliflower, the sweet of a red grape confit, the sour of purple mustard. Even our non-offal dish was fantastic: a beautiful chilled lobster salad with frisee, avocado, and blood orange in a honey citrus vinaigrette.

Still a perfect choice for a perfect meal.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Barack's Borderstan: Where the Next Obama Bump Will Happen

Now that President Obama has been re-elected, it's time to bring back this write-up, originally posted at Borderstan.

By now, you know the signs: the unforeseen and seemingly arbitrary road closures; the excited tweets from food bloggers; the ominous white tent outside a restaurant’s front door. It’s clear: the Obamas are out on the town again.

And more exciting for foodies is that, perhaps more than any other sitting president, our First Couple eschews the power lunches and steakhouses in favor of our fair city’s more imaginative culinary hot spots; I mean the Obamas just took their last donors dinner at Adams-Morgan’s Mintwood Place.
It’s pleasant to imagine our Commander-in-Chief as a food nerd, just as obsessed with the Washingtonian Top 100 as the rest of us… or well, at least that he has someone on his staff report out to him on it.

So what new spots, dishes, and drinks in Borderstan are about to get the Obama bump? Here’s the crib sheet:

The donor dinner: Obelisk. The Obamas have already shown they’re fans of restaurants that combine the intimate date night with world class food (see: Komi). Dupont Circle’s own Obelisk meets many of the same criteria. Warm and charming dining room? Check. Prix fixe menu filled with small tasty delights building into complex and wonderful entrees from a James Beard nominee? Check; Chef Peter Pastan’s dishes are some of the most composed and elegant in the city. Ability to close down the entire restaurant for one large group table? What better than a second floor townhouse walk-up tucked away on P Street?

That one must have dish: The si krong muu at Little Serow. Among all of the superlative plates at Johnny Monis’s it restaurant, the one that the Obamas will close off 17th Street to try will most certainly be the pork ribs marinated in Mekong whiskey and dill. Bright, herb-forward, and with heat for days, this tender meat is the definition of a presidential dish.

The burger craving: Shake Shack, BGR, Black and Orange. For all his foodie-friendly restaurant choices, our President seems to consistently love ordering bacon cheeseburgers. Time to expand his burger palate with three of DC’s premier burger palaces, all located within the Borderstan area. For his likely lunchtime pop-by, our bet is he goes for Rogue State’s Square One (sea salt and black pepper).

Date night: Iron Gate Inn or Cork. If you need a table where you can sequester off space but still retain that romantic candlelit night? How about the back room of Cork, with its dim but friendly vibe and extensive wine list? Or if he’s patient enough, perhaps Barack will wait for the impending revitalization of DC legend Iron Gate Inn? Something tells me Chef Tony Chittum, who’s already served the First Couple at Vermilion, can save his best opening night table for a visit from the White House. Plus both restaurants can provide that tucked-away, private backdrop where the Prez can feel free to serenade Michelle with some Al Green along with great food and wine.

The photo op: Florida Avenue Grill. If BO’s stop at Ben’s Chili Bowl tells us anything, it’s that he appreciates DC’s rich history and local businesses (and knows exactly when to stop by for a well-publicized lunch at a small greasy spoon). Bet on Barack to affirm his DC cred by patronizing a diner with 68 years of serving the Washington community, and some of the best hotcakes on the Eastern seaboard.