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Thursday, June 20, 2013

DCWD Travels: Proof Bakery, LA

Neighborhood: Atwater Village

The Setup


For our last meal before departing L.A., two coincidences lined up: our desire for a good breakfast burrito drawing us up to Atwater Village, and our admiration for the bread used by Sqirl. As it turned out, the bread came from a bakery across the street from our burrito destination: Proof. Official Friend of DCWD Mark, Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas, and I stopped by there for a quick coffee and pastry before heading out.

The Vibe

Like most coffeeshops/bakeries, Proof is simple: an L-shaped marble counter behind plate glass, which holds the day's goods, a mix of muffins and quiches and pastries. Dark gray walls contrast the two and four-tops that make up what seating there is, filled with a mix of writers, job-seekers, and parents with kids on this Tuesday morning. Two quasi-booths sit in the bay windows looking out onto some wire patio furniture out front.

The Food


In theory, there's nothing simpler to use as a marker for any place (much less a bakery) than bread. In this case, Texas ordered a simple latte and a chocolate croissant, which by most metrics (including this blog's) would be insignificant enough to not write this up at all. And yet, this croissant was perfect in every way. It was crusty, crackling with sweetness at each bite, even discounting the chocolate. It made every other croissant I'd eaten before seem mediocre by comparison. Clearly, I loved this.

The Verdict


Oh my, I want this bakery in my city.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Chatty
Cost:
$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
 

Proof Bakery on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

DCWD Travels: Tacos Villa Corona, LA

Neighborhood: Atwater Village

The Setup


On the hunt for a breakfast burrito, LA Weekly sent us to Atwater Village for Tacos Villa Corona.

The Vibe

Sometimes we talk about hole-in-the-wall, but this went beyond a hole-in-the-wall. There's almost nothing to write about the space, since it's a tiny jewelbox of a storefront, nothing more than a few square feet in front of a countertop and kitchen. Two lone chairs sit out front.

The Food


But the burritos, they are amazing. I ordered the chilaquiles breakfast burrito, the traditional fried tortilla dish with green salsa and cheese, augmented by eggs and my selection of chorizo. Nothing reminds me more that we have a dearth of good Mexican food in D.C. than this amazing a breakfast burrito in so humble a setting. The chilaquiles chips provided good crunch, the eggs provided depth, and the chorizo a bit of heat. Everything melded together perfectly into an incredible bite.

The Verdict


Our experience is low, but definitely earns its reputation as one of the best burritos in L.A.

Food Rating: ****
1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 1 Heart (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Calm
Cost:
$
(out of 5) (less than $25 for two)

Tacos Villa Corona on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 13, 2013

DCWD Travels: Guisados, LA

Neighborhood: Two locations, Echo Park and Boyle Heights, Los Angeles

The Setup


We couldn't very well leave Los Angeles without some Mexican food, and Official Friend of DCWD Mark had just the place: best-tacos-in-LA contender Guisados.


The Vibe

As it turns out, we ended up at the second Guisados location, an expansion of the original's shop brought on by the success of its product. The Echo Park location sits along the roadside like a diner, a standalone spot that is set up much the same way: a large kitchen in full view, with no frills decor, behind the ordering counter. A hallway that slinks around to some indoor seating and the patio in the back, where the decor is still setting up; a mural is outlined on the brick behind a fountain. It's as relaxed and clean as can be, while still being a little bit hole-in-the-wall.

The Food


There are full tacos, but I decided to go with the sampler combo: miniature versions of the first six tacos off the menu: two types of steak (one with salsa rojo, one picado), two types of chicken (mole poblano, and tinga de pollo), and two types of pork (chuleta with salsa verde, and a spicy cochinita pibil). There were a lot to love about these little bites. One was the quality of the tortilla; I usually don't love corn tortillas for my tacos, despite how traditional they are, but these were baked with a clear level of care that eschewed the grittiness and lack of flavor that I usually associate with corn tortillas, and replaced it with something much more comforting.

The sampler size was also perfect: just enough to make it a small one or two-bite affair, but without skimping on the filling. A guisado is a stew, and each little stewed meat was incredible, with varying degrees of heat, but all with good punches of flavor. I'd pick a favorite, but all of them melded into a wonderful oh-my-god-so-this-is-what-real-Mexican-tastes-like afternoon.

The Verdict


Incredible tacos.

Food Rating: *** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 1.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Chatty
Cost:
$
(out of 5) (less than $25 for two)


Guisados on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

DCWD Travels: Sqirl, LA

Neighborhood: Silver Lake, LA

The Setup


Next up on our write-up schedule for L.A. is the nondescript Sqirl, with myself, Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas, and Official Friend of DCWD Mark in tow.

The Vibe

To hear Official Friend of DCWD Mark tell it, we were going to something like a curated coffee shop, the newly opened kitchen that mirrored DC's Seasonal Pantry. Apparently, Sqirl started out as one woman's passion for making fruit preserves, which led to farmers' market stints, niche buzz, and eventually this storefront.

Sqirl is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it enterprise, a plain black building with no real visible markings, surrounded by the area's ubiquitous Spanish-laden stores and warehouses. Its interior is clean and simple: a small nook into a U-shaped kitchen with a register counter and some shelving for products, as well as a patch of food behind some glass. Some spartan street seating sits out front and in a small sidecar patio, its furniture a smattering of built-in benches, overturned crate boxes, and plastic chairs. Still, the whole set-up never strikes you as meager, but rather reserved, a pleasant simplicity.

The Food


In some way, the decor matches the cuisine at Sqirl, in its combination of easiness and elegance. Our meals at the same time not overwhelmingly complicated, while being a little involved. Take my dish: a bowl of rose brown rice layered with kale pesto, preserved meyer lemon, lacto fermented hot sauce, radish, dill, feta, and a poached egg. As Mark noted, at its heart, the dish was a Western farmers' market bibimbap, with its familiar combination of rice and egg with notes of heat and greens. Put simply, this was the best bite I had all day (and this was a day filled with tacos and the venerable Animal). It effortlessly emphasized tart (lemon, feta) will simultaneously mellowing them out with fleshy herb-forward notes (kale, dill). It had the desirable quality of seeming healthy and gluttonous at the same time. And most importantly, it took foods not normally associated with brunch and made them feel just as friendly and light as eggs and toast.

But if toast seemed more apropos, Texas's and Mark's brioche dishes hit the nail on the head. Texas's was topped with kale, a tomatillo puree, lacto fermented hot sauce, and a fried egg, while Mark went the sweet route and had his slathered in chocolate ganache, nut butter, and fleur de sel. Both hit their marks by focusing on pure incredible flavors, Texas's on the freshness of its ingredients and on the blend between earthiness and heat; and Mark's on the unsubtle joy of sweet for breakfast.

The Verdict


Somehow, the best bite of our entire trip to L.A. The kind of place that you wish was in your neighborhood, so you could get coffee there every morning.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(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)
 

Sqirl on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 6, 2013

DCWD Travels: Beer Belly, LA

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Koreatown, Los Angeles

The Setup


We actually weren't heading to Beer Belly. But with both Guisado's and Mexicali's closed on a Sunday evening for dinner, Official Friends of DCWD Mark and Ang decided to take me and Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas to one of their go-to spots: Beer Belly.

The Vibe

Set as it is in Koreatown, Beer Belly is a little bit of a strange egg. The shop was recently featured on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, which should give you an idea of the space: a converted warehouse set in the middle of a busy block. But every other detail about Beer Belly's decor is incredibly fun. The exterior paint job is a vibrant, colorful mural reminiscent of the Beatles' Yellow Submarine. A small patio comfortably seats some 15-20 at bar height seating, while the inside is decked in similar honey brown wood as an accent to elephant gray walls. There's an incredible coolness to it, the sort of place where you just think to yourself: "if I opened a new hip restaurant where my friends and I could hang out, this is what it would look like and be like."

The Food


The belly part of Beer Belly is serious; I'll put it this way: there's a dish on this menu called The Defibrillator. Such is the soul and depth of the restaurant's menu: any meat or any cheese, so long as we can deep fry it somehow.

This made our selections feel like a murderer's row of so-bad-for-you-but-so-good-to-eat bites. Case in point: the Death by Duck, a basket of duck fat fries topped with duck skin cracklins and duck confit. There are times when duck fat fries just feel like an in-name-only endeavor (former DC residents Mark and Ang agreed with me that Bourbon Steak is the perfect example of this). These however oozed duck flavor, crisp but nicely oily. I would have preferred a little more cracklins and shredded confit so that each bite could have a little bit of both instead of the little bit that was drizzled on top. Still, a very solid bite.

On the other end, the pork belly chips were a little disappointing. Dusted with some sweet onion sugar and with a Tabasco aioli dipping sauce, there were things to like about the flavors. And yet, it seemed like a little bit of trying too hard. By crisping the pork belly into chip form, the dish obscured what makes pork belly so great, namely the combination of crunch and fat and oil that comes from just one bite. Instead, this turned out to be a little like a very large bacon bit.

Stuck squarely in the middle as forgettable were the two other deep fried dishes: the buttermilk fried chicken, and the deep fried cheddar. The former came out as crusted strips instead of the legs or thighs one might expect, and came across a little leaner than I guess we would have expected. It was good, certainly, but among all the fried chicken I've eaten in my life, not something memorable. Similarly, the cheese bites, with their jalapeno aioli dipping sauce, were consumed and then immediately moved on from.

Our last two dishes, however, were the kind that you couldn't forget, whether if it was for their portion size or for their decadence. The pizza mac and cheese, for instance, was about twice the size than what we were expecting. A mix of asiago and cheddar cheese dominated, but the eponymous flavor came from a generous helping of pizza sauce, pepperoni, and a little bit of beer. It was a dish that intoned a single question all the more with each consecutive bite, the kind that says, "why can't I stop eating this?" If anything, it hearkened back to all the foods you loved when you were six and there were eighteen birthday parties a year.

The piece d'resistance however was the Beer Belly grilled cheese, a dish so impressive we ordered it twice. The quad deck sandwich was just that, a 4x4 of bread and cheese, with bits of cheddar, asiago, gruyere, and goat cheese melted together; in fact, the sandwich hosted so much cheese, some was layered on top of it all, necessitating a fork and knife. If that weren't enough, the kitchen saw fit to add in applewood bacon and then drizzle maple syrup all over it. If that sounds incredible, it's because it was. Salt, sweet, savory: this sandwich literally hit every flavor branch on its way down from heaven. If this portended to be the epitome of McGriddles' Theory, it ended up just straight rocking it. Unbelievable.

The Verdict


This is the sort of meal that you feel you need to repent for, that makes you think you should just tattoo glutton on your forehead. But it's also the sort of meal that is incredibly satisfying and perfect for riding out the California sun.

Food Rating: *** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Hipster Hangout to Party in the USA
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$$
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)

Beer Belly on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

DCWD Travels: Animal, LA

Plaudits: Bon Appetit's Most Important Restaurants in America #11, LA Weekly's 99 Essential Restaurants 2013, The Daily Meal's 101 Best Restaurants in America, James Beard Nominee 2013 - Best Chef West
Neighborhood: West Hollywood, LA

The Setup


Our tour book of LA begins with the crown jewel of the trip, Official Co-Writer/Fiancee Texas and me splurging on a meal at the venerable Animal.

The Vibe

Hearing about Animal is one thing; at a certain point, if you're tuned into the culinary world, you can't escape hearing about it or about its twin head chefs, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. While whole animal eating, cooking with offbeat cuts, or using offal may seem firmly entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist, it wasn't that long ago that Animal was blazing a trail for both the local and nose-to-tail (all credit to Fergus Henderson aside). It got to the point where there was a word cloud of adjectives that got to be associated with Animal: essential, important, best.

Finding Animal on the street is another thing altogether. No signwork adorns its modest black storefront, its interior similarly nondescript. White walls, black furniture and a black bar, with some simple tan accents. Seating is three rows of tables, one of two-tops along the left wall, a row of diamond four-tops in the center, and some half-booths along the right wall. In contrast to many of its contemporaries, the restaurant could not be more emphatic in stressing that the ambiance will come from the food, or as the line in the Usual Suspects goes: "in other words, the atmosphere will not be painted on the walls."

The Food


Despite the restaurant's name, there are a few veggie-friendly bites, beginning with our first small plate: a warm salad of baby kale and kohlrabi, dressed with walnuts, local goat cheese, and apple chunks and crisps. There was a nice simplicity to it, though the salad got markedly better when we finally located the kohlrabi at the bottom of the bowl. Each bite was incredibly fresh, and while it wasn't anything worthy of hyperbole, it definitely was solid.

Dish number two was a kampachi tostada, which came dressed with a full salad's worth of herbs, fried shallots, and a fish sauce vinaigrette. This dish was the first time that our meal's decided Asian bent came through: even with the fish and crunch at the bottom, the predominant flavor profile was that of a light Vietnamese salad. I think we'd both have preferred if the balance of tuna and tostada was a little more even than with the shredded iceberg above it, but we were both happy with the amount of shallots, which added some nice crisp and salt.

The punch came in the form of number three: kung pao sweetbreads with English peas, and Szechuan peppercorns. Even now, I'm conflicted about this dish. On the one hand, the sweetbreads were cooked sublimely, tender but still with that trademark sweetbread texture. Still, the flavor profile that accompanied it made its use sort of moot; the sweetbreads could've been subbed out for chicken or pork or soy with somewhat similar effect. More importantly, the use of Szechuan peppercorns made for a blanching spice that numbed your tongue after a few minutes. This was a dish that didn't just call out for a glass water; it signaled for a palate cleanser. Enjoyable, but perhaps not the best dish for the middle of a meal or in a small plates format where other dishes will follow.

Perhaps the best dish of the night was the crispy pig head, a shaped cylinder of pulled meat, topped with short-grain rice, an egg, and something called bulldog sauce. The head meat was more like pork cheek that we've had before, surprisingly tender and stringy-in-a-good-way. With a seaweed rub on the bowl, a distinct taste of soy, and the surrounding rice, it felt at times to be like eating pork sushi. Still, despite that little bit of interesting juxtaposition, it was the most flavor forward and bold of all the dishes we ate.

The last main course small plate was the (of course we got it) poutine, smothered in an oxtail gravy and cheddar. As poutine purists, we were more than a little annoyed that the traditional cheese curds had been replaced by some melted cheese. Texas and I were split on the appropriateness of the fries (I was okay with them, she wanted them a little thinner and crispier). On the other hand, the oxtail chunks in the gravy were incredible and the gravy was the single best part of this dish.

For dessert, we split a simple fruit crumble, with blueberry and a brown butter crumble topped by a generous serving of yogurt. It was all a little tart for us, but with a nice hint of bay leaf, it was a fairly decent sweet finish to the meal.

The Verdict


Like most meals we've had at preeminent American restaurants so far, this wasn't incredibly hyperbole-worthy amazing. But it was a solid, often good, sometimes great, meal that was very interesting through and through.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Quiet Drinks
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)


Animal on Urbanspoon