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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Central Michel Richard

Plaudits: Washingtonian Top 100 2013, 2012, 2011 #10, 2010 #13, 2009 #13, Washington Post 2012 Fall Dining Guide
Neighborhood: Downtown

The Setup


For our Valentine’s Day dinner, Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas and I headed to one of the few places that would let us have a 10pm reservation: Central Michel Richard.

The Vibe

Central’s dining room is the picture of class and brightness. There’s the marble bar which runs alongside the restaurant’s entire right side braced by some small bar tables and square leather-topped bar stools. On the other side of a small divider is the main dining area, a row of four-tops and some lone two-tops sandwiched between two aisles of half booths on either side. Everything, from the furniture to the walls is awash in a light birch finish accented by beige, which has the effect of brightening up the room, even at this late juncture. Giant tube like light fixtures in beige and soft crimson are above, while a peek of the kitchen can be seen through some wall length wine shelving. The key word here is clean: everything is easy on the eyes, straight-lined and functional.

The Food


To start, we split a pork belly starter, with four sizable pieces of fatty belly atop a bed of stewed lentils. For me, using pork belly in a dish is like fishing with dynamite: the only way you could screw it up is by blowing it up entirely. Still, this dish exceeded my expectations with meaty chunks that were beautifully unctuous, blending wonderfully with the mild bean mash below it. The whole dish was so imbued with flavor that it was hard to stop eating.

For my main course, I had the trout almondine plated atop a bed of salsify and sunchokes. I supposed it doesn’t get more French classic than something like this, but it was executed perfectly. Beware that they’re not kidding on the almondine part: there probably were just as much almonds as trout, and at points the nut slivers overtook the dish itself. In point of fact, the most enjoyable part of this dish was the salsify/sunchoke combo, which brought a subtle brightness to everything.

For all of the traditional French flavors we had eaten before this, Texas went instead with her secret indulgence: fried chicken with mashed potato. Central’s fried chicken is well-known, mostly for the fact that you can have it in a KFC-style bucket to go, but also because of its taste. A little bit crispy, a little bit high class, and a lot of classic French flavors that blend the whole thing together.

For dessert, we split Michel’s chocolate bar, a homemade version of a Kit Kat. Texas and I fall on two very different ends of the chocolate spectrum: I like mine light and subtle, she likes hers heavy and dark. This was more on my end, with bits of wafer providing some nice crunch to go along with some familiar sweetness.

The Verdict


Classic French, good fun.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Business
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Pairing
: Stop by the Old Post Office before it turns into a Trump Hotel, and catch a view of the city from th old clock tower.

Central Michel Richard on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 27, 2013

Monday Munchies: Jetties

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Three locations: Bethesda, Glover Park/Palisades, and Foggy Bottom/K Street

The Setup


This entry describes two different visits to the two of the different Jetties locations, both for quick grab-and-go lunches.

The Vibe

Both locations share similar vibes, that of a cleaned up surf shack but adapted to their surroundings: the Palisades location, tucked away in the sleepy suburbs, has a definite family bent, looking much like a sandy restaurant in a Jersey shore beach town; while the Foggy Bottom location, a former Juice Zone next to a Baja Fresh is more suited to the office lunch crowd, with the polish of a Santa Monica walk-in. Still, the look is the same: some nice use of honey-colored wood, chalkboard menus, a sandwich shop counter set-up.

The Food


On trip one, I had the Smith Point, a roast beef and havarti sandwich with red onion, tomato, and horseradish sour cream on pumpernickel. The sandwich had a lot to live up to: I love basically every ingredient in this sandwich, and I long ago realized how delicious roast beef and horseradish are, from my own days working in a deli. Still, the sandwich lived up well to those expectations, a solid bite, though one that could have used a bit more horseradish and havarti in my estimation.

On trip two, I switched it up with the Surfside, a roast turkey and havarti sandwich with bacon, avocado, and whole grain mustard on sourdough. Much like the Smith Point, the emphasis here is on the meat, with gargantuan amounts of meat compared to all of the other accoutrements. The bacon darts up from time to time, as bacon is wont to do, but you get way more of the mild slick turkey than you do of anything else.

The Verdict


Solid sandwiches that at the least, hit you with quantity, and decent bang-for-your-buck.

Food Rating: ** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Calm
Cost:
$
(out of 5) (less than $25 for two)
Pairing
: Those bikes are heavy as hell, but grab some Capital Bikeshare and ride along the Capital Crescent Trail, the scenic tour along the banks of the Potomac.

Jetties on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 23, 2013

First Look: Taqueria Nacional

Plaudits: Young and Hungry 2009 Top 50 Restaurants
Neighborhood: 14th Street/U Street

The Setu
p

We needed to grab a quick breakfast for myself, Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas, and Official Friends of DCWD Sam and Shawn. Having just returned from California, breakfast burritos seemed like a great idea, so we headed to the newly re-opened Taqueria Nacional.

The Vibe

I have no idea what the old Taqueria Nacional looked like, but I have to imagine it was less designed than this version. Carved along with Bakehouse inside the historic Post Office on T Street, there are intentional holdovers from the old space: a counter with a post office sign, some original railing, and the general facade. Everything has a fresh coat of beige paint or upscale vintage chic decor applied on top of it: crystal chandeliers, repurposed wood and aluminum signing, curlicue-framed mirrors acting as a hard-to-read menu. Make it around the Chipotle-style ordering line and you'll find a smattering of tables. Perhaps more than most spaces, this place has clearly seen a decorator's touch.

However, unlike some of the other new locations we've visited on 14th St recently, the service is shaky and uneven, something probably that much more apparent with the open counter kitchen. My order is nearly lost, and as it is, comes after Texas has already finished hers. Nothing that can't be polished in the coming months, but certainly a fair warning for regulars, as the line was already backing up on this slow Saturday morning.

The Food


For breakfast, we ordered what we thought of as the three basics: tacos, quesadillas, and huevos rancheros. Each could probably be painted with the same brush: fine, but for the price point, something you could make at home, and probably not worth it. Of the three, the quesadillas were probably the best: Shawn and I both got ours with chorizo, and the blend of eggs, jalapeno, and cheese was quite pleasant, especially when combined with the housemade sour crema. Again, at $7.50, maybe not the best quesadilla I've ever had, but decent. Similarly, the tacos weren't much different, though their size - about the size of snack spring roll - made them not as great a value at $2.50-$2.75, given their content.

The huevos rancheros were probably the biggest disappointment. When we placed our order, the cook in front of us opened up a steam tray to uncover pre-cooked eggs on crispy taco shells. Unfortunately, when you leave crispy taco shells in a steam table, they stop becoming crispy. So what we had was a little bit of a mushy mess, and as much as I hate to harp on it, definitely not worth the price tag.

The Verdict


If improvements happen, maybe a contender for a neighborhood taco place. If not, not worth the hype.

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

Taqueria Nacional on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 20, 2013

First Look: B Too

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: 14th Street

The Setup


Somehow we're going to try and get to as many of the influx of 14th Street restaurants as possible (given that it's our neighborhood right now). Our first attempt starts with the new 14th Street offering from Top Chef contestant Chef Bart Vandaele, B Too with Official Friend of DCWD HR Intern.

The Vibe

In many ways, B Too is like a lighter, brighter version of Chef Bart's first restaurant Belga Cafe. The same color scheme composed of beiges and tans and browns, with dark wood tables surrounded by leather-upholstered casual plastic chairs. A large 16-seat chocolate brown-wood paneled bar takes up the front of the house, while an assortment of four-tops, two-tops, and rounds are in the back in an L-shape around the open kitchen. There are a few differences from Belga, like the large animal-skins on stretched frames on the walls, and a downstairs dining area. All in all, it's a charming scene, one that fits in well with the new and improved 14th Street, and one that is bustling and vibrant.

The Food


Let's just say that our trip to Belga Cafe wasn't exactly a home run. So we came into this meal with guarded optimism. And the meal began unevenly: Dressed Gingerly, a cocktail of trippel delirium, Bulleit bourbon, Domaine du Canton, and lemon juice portends a delicious honey-forward deep sip, but instead delivers an overly sweet mixed drink heavy on the Domaine.

Still, our first bite is quite possibly the highlight of the night: a blood sausage waffle to start the meal. Served with a smattering of caramelized apples and a mix of green apple sauce and vincotto cream, it was a little bit of a surprise that the blood sausage came on top of the waffle, as opposed to as part of the waffle. Still, there was a lot to love about the dish. The way the boudoin noir almost acted as a spread on the waffle was pleasant and brought forth some great flavors: meaty, nutty, deep. The fluffiness of the waffle was also self-evident, a brilliantly sweet but subtle bite.

Similarly, the brussels sprouts (as the menu indicated, a 100% Belgian dish) were a treat: a wonderful mix of the rich oiliness that only duck fat can provide. Brussels sprouts and rich, salty meat seems like a pretty ubiquitous European meal, but these were a little better than others. The confit chunks were rich as well, and this was a lovely side dish/starter.

Still, there are some missteps too, not all of them attributable to opening week jitters. A filet van hertenkalf - venison with fresh herbs, raspberry beer, and dark chocolate hints on some bits of couscous and parsnips, is one of those dishes that is perfectly fine but utterly forgettable, all of the sweet flavors listed not coming through nearly as strong. The couscous is probably the best part of the whole dish, which is also disappointingly small: only three quarter-sized chunks of filet are provided for our $26 plate, a theme that seems to run through all of the plates we see leaving the kitchen.

There are some deficits with our frog legs dish too. As most who've had frog legs know (or escargot, for that matter), frog legs are great in so far as they are properly sauced; without a heavy dose of butter or cream, legs are quite flavorless. Therein lies our dish: presented more like drumsticks, our legs can't soak up enough of the creamy tomato and garlic butter sauce to stay unbland. Even hints of the Ricard anise liqueur aren't enough to pick it all up.

The Verdict


On some levels, very much another Belga Cafe in our neighborhood. If you like waffles, that's great news. If not, prepare for some up and down dishes.

Food Rating: ** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Suits Scene
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)

B Too on Urbanspoon>

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

We Made It From the Market: Sweetbreads

Ah, sweetbreads. I’ll admit that the first time I ever ordered them, I had no idea what they were (and let’s just say that those salad days were a little more recent than I’d like to admit). Still, when I took my first bite, I knew I was in love (so much so that Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas knows now that, along with a few other dishes like foie or duck breast, if it’s on a menu, 80 percent of the time, I’ll order it). I will also admit that I am among the luckiest fiancés in the world, a sentiment encapsulated by a random Wednesday when Texas brought home none other than a half-pound sweetbread for me.

Still, the thought of cooking the sweetbread itself was frightening. Where does one even start? Coincidentally, an episode of Top Chef we had watched the week before had Chef Hugh Acheson critiquing cheftestant Brooke Williamson on not cleaning her sweetbreads enough. Holding this slippery viscous chunk in my hands, I thought to myself, what is there even to clean?

Luckily for me, I had impulse purchased a copy of Fergus Henderson’s nose-to-tail cookbook and used its simple sweetbread recipe to cook the gland up right:

Fergus Henderson's Sweetbreads

1 pound lamb sweetbreads
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A pot of water (enough to happily cover the sweetbreads)
A healthy splash of white wine
Cloves of garlic
A bundle of thyme and parsley tied together
Black peppercorns
A splash of olive oil
A knob of unsalted butter


Rinse your sweetbreads thoroughly in cold, gently running water to remove any blood, giving them the occasional gentle shuggle to aid the cleansing process.

Bring your pot of water with its wine, herbs, and spices to a boil. Reduce to a gentle simmer. Slip your sweetbreads into the pot. Poach for 2.5 minutes so they firm up slightly. Think of the finger that pushes the Pillsbury Doughboy’s tummy. Your finger should push the same way.

Remove the sweetbreads from the pot, lay a kitchen towel out on a tray, and scatter the sweetbreads across it to cool and dry off.

Once the sweetbreads are cool enough to handle, peel the membrane off the little glands, a slightly fiddly process but well worth the trouble when it comes to the eating.

Now to the vital part. Get your frying pan hot, but not furiously hot. Add a splash of oil and a knob of butter. As this melts, season the sweetbreads with salt and pepper and then add to the pan. What we are looking for is a steady sizzle, not a frantic singeing, so that the sweetbreads brown to a nutty crispness all over, maintaining a giving interior. At this point they are ready to serve with a chunk of lemon—the nutty nodule, not the burnt offering or the anemic gland.

Once you have achieved the nutty nodule, there are many additions to the pan you can make, for example, a splash of chicken stock, a splash of red wine vinegar, peas, pea shoots, young fava beans, bacon, quarters of Little Gem lettuce, braised endive, mint, capers, young spinach, or watercress. 

Taste Test: **** (out of 5)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Date Ideas: Scratch DC

The working dad whose turn it is to cook but whose time is at a premium. The dater who wants to impress her prospective girlfriend but who can’t peel garlic. The roommates who have already burned through their favorite cookbooks and are yearning for something different. What do these people have in common? They’re the target audience for local start-up Scratch DC.

When it comes to making dinner, everyone, from the culinary neophyte to the gastronomic elite, wants the comfort of a well-made and self-made meal. Unfortunately, this desire occasionally goes hand-in-hand with a temporary lack of creativity, talent, or perhaps most importantly, time. Scratch DC seeks to fill that void by cutting out the most onerous parts of home cooking: decision making, shopping, and prep work. For around $30, Scratch delivers a meal kit for two right to your door. Add-ons include chocolate fondue dessert, and roses and candles; a beer and wine license is also being pursued.

On the day our sample box came, the situation could not have been more perfect for Scratch’s ideal consumer. I had just returned from a two-week long work trip, and my fiancée and I were headed out on a weeklong vacation the next day, leaving our fridge options limited. Around 6pm, our meal arrived: a shoebox-like container with individually packed ingredients. Each component came in its own condiment cup or Ziploc bag, pre-cut and mixed. Also inside was a long recipe card with step-by-step instructions that were straightforward, idiot-proof, and still a little tongue-in-cheek (sample: To the bowl, add your container of cheesy goodness [goat cheese, parmesan, nutmeg, salt, pepper] [marked with smiley]. Mix that sexiness up).

Our meal was a spinach and goat cheese ravioli in a portabella-parmesan wine sauce, an entrée which seemed the right balance between readily accessible and foodie-friendly, with the added bonus of being asked to hand-make the ravioli yourselves (an ideal date situation if we’ve ever seen one). To that end, in place of pasta, Scratch had substituted wonton wrappers, which as the recipe card put it, were “a little foodie secret.”

There was a lot to like about the set-up. For one, Scratch made no assumptions about what our kitchen would be stocked with: the box came with small containers of olive oil and salt and pepper. Its ingredient sourcing was solid, and at the least reflected a conscientiousness about their clientele. The meal also achieved the enviable success of having the final product seem much more impressive relative to the actual skill level and time needed to execute it. For the budget-conscious among us, the portion was more than ample for the two of us, a boon considering its price point. And, again perhaps most importantly, the dish itself was delicious: for cheese hounds like us, the thick more-parmesan-than-not sauce hit all the right spots and the added touch of bacon was a nice blast of salt (but was by no means a necessary ingredient, a plus for pescetarian Official Fiancee of DCWD Texas).

So if you find yourself caught in a dinner bind, Scratch DC is highly recommended.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

First Look: GBD

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Dupont Circle

The Setup


It's not always this way, but it seems like it pretty often: when an idea happens, it usually comes in pairs as people race to get to that market first. It's most immediately obvious in movies: Deep Impact and Armageddon, Red Planet and Mission to Mars, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. But sometimes, it happens with restaurants too (see: every Italian restaurant coming on 14th Street). This week's edition focuses on the chicken and doughnuts concept, and the Neighborhood Restaurant Group's Golden Brown and Delicious (GBD).

The Vibe

Even if you didn't know GBD was an NRG property, you could probably figure it out. The hallmarks are there: the exposed brick with repurposed wood highlights, the design-friendly typography, the warm brown and crimson tones, the air of relaxed coolness around you. The shop is long and thing, with a grab-and-go counter up front, and a long rowhouse feel to the rest of it, as a small bar and some tables flow back into the shop's space. The interior atmosphere seems like it's dependent on the sunshine streaming in from the bay window; at around 9pm when we stopped by, the space was dim but still buzzy, but one could easily envision a brighter, faster morning for breakfast service.

The Food


The menu is drawn right from a Southern comfort food playbook: biscuits, fried things, sharp sauces. To that end, Official Friend of DCWD Noah and I split two dishes. The first was the chicken fried steak with garlic roasted smashed potatoes and red eye gravy. Now I don't fancy myself an expert on chicken-fried steak just yet; Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas only introduced me to this feat of Southern cooking just a little over a year ago. Still, in my experience, GBD does an incredible job of keeping the meat moist while keeping the crust crispy.

The second is the former secret menu staple from sister restaurants Birch and Barley/Churchkey: The Luther, a gluttonous sandwich of fried chicken and slab bacon layered between two fried brioche doughnuts glazed in maple-chicken jus and candied pecans (even just typing those words makes side of fries seem irrelevant). If the sandwich sounds like a bit much, you wouldn't be wrong. But you'd be missing out on the incredible combination of sweet and salty and savory that is the Luther. It's like every first McGriddle bite, except if it never got worse. For something so straightforwardly indulgent, it's surprisingly complex (while still being luxuriant). Incredible.

The Verdict


If you know what you're getting yourself into, this place can be awesome.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$
(out of 5) (less than $25 for two)


GBD Fried Chicken and Doughnuts on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 6, 2013

First Look: Del Campo

Neighborhood: Chinatown

The Setup


Newly opened in PS7's old space, Del Campo takes the space, literally breaks down walls, and welcomes you into a South American smoky, sexy place where everything is smoked, even the cocktails. The Pisco Sour even comes branded...

The Vibe

With warm browns and taupes, beautiful wood floors and paneled wood ceilings, Del Campo took the shell of PS7's and knocked down all the walls to create a spacious, bright open floor plan, just like the cow country loft I've always dreamed of. With luxe touches of texture (and a bit of whimsy, let's be honest) in cow hides on the walls and leather saddles tucked in corners, and sparkling chandeliers, I cannot think of a better place to eat everything that's smoky and meaty. It's glamorous, cozy, clean and rugged, all at the same time.

The Food


Surrounded by cured meats, cheeses I couldn't recognize, sizzling platters of grilled short rib cooked just right, not-too-spicy housemade chorizo, and anticucho, some of my favorite bites were, surprisingly, ceviche. Boasting an impressive list, each mixing different fish and textures like corn, sweet potatoes, avocado, and nuts, what I remember most is the charred rapini from the salmon ceviche set. Inexplicably crunchy and smoky, it was in perfect harmony with the softer accompaniments, and illustrative of what Del Campo can do with a grill.

The Verdict


Indulge in South American wine, surprising cocktails, and steamy meats while feeling like you're home on the range. A very clean, chic range.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Cost: $$$
Pairing
: The National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum are just a few blocks away, and open after 5. Check out their programming for docent-led tours, or just wander around, and snap a picture outside by the Vaquero statue before you rustle up some grub at Del Campo.

Del Campo on Urbanspoon