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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

First Look: Mockingbird Hill


Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: U Street/Shaw

This short First Look finds us at Derek Brown’s new Shaw bar: Mockingbird Hill.
Mr. Brown’s formula at this point is clear: take a townhouse, convert it with some simple touches, turn down the lights and turn up the drink flavors, creativity, and innovation. In that way, Mockingbird Hill is much like his Passenger or Hogo: a dimly lit frill-free bar with a simple chalkboard menu and exposed brick, featuring a bit of seating up front and in back, but mostly bar space in between. The touch points that make Mockingbird Hill different, however, are notable: its location on a rapidly developing spot just off the U Street Corridor (a block from the Howard Theater); its charcuterie prep station which stars in a divider bar that separates the main drinking area from the back seating; and its focus on a single spirit, rather than cocktails: racks of sherry bottles sit above the bar.

Sherry is a love-it-or-hate-it wine, but Mockingbird Hill makes the sip at the experience worth having by everyone. The drinks are fun and imaginative: a bartender’s choice yields sherry drinks matched to our requested tastes, ranging from sweet to fiery and deep. Like its Derek Brown contemporaries, the food choices are limited but fun, featuring charcuterie choices that sing and dazzle, like cured hams, and a manchego to be dipped in honey and rolled in cocoa-covered corn nuts.

The Verdict

A fun addition to the U Street scene, with a certain charm. Time will tell if it’s a concept that brings back regulars.

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


Mockingbird Hill on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Smith Commons

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: H Street NE

The Setup

Before a night of smashing it on H Street, a group of us featuring Official Friends of DCWD MM, HR Intern, and The Suit needed a quick dinner. We settled on meeting at Smith Commons.

The Vibe
Smith Commons’s décor is all the décor you’ve seen before, essentially the stylings that are in precisely because they fit the upscale casual feel: exposed brick walls; globe light fixtures; chalkboard menus; a buzzy bar area on its first floor, with communal tables up front and a long bar and booths in the back; and a second floor dining area with a patio out back. The light is low and the mood is lively; even by the full window-paned doors, the noise level is sizable. Handsome and chic, if not typical of this age.

The Food

Only a few of us grabbed dinner, but if every dish was like mine, then those who didn’t missed out. I ordered the sous vide chicken breast and braised ox tongue duo, which came stacked on one another atop a cooked slaw of savoy cabbage and shitake with a confit potato stuffed with spinach alongside it, all in a port wine jus. Tongue, when done right, is an unbelievably tender bite, and this version was no exception: flavorful, sharp, pleasantly melting on my own tongue. In fact, its softness was matched only by the sumptuous bites of chicken that it sat on, the sous vide cooking style creating an incredibly juicy bite that went toe-to-toe with some of the best chicken dishes I’ve had in this city. The accompaniments were also wonderful, with the savoy cabbage the leader, providing some mild bitter and a slick counterpoint to the meats. Perhaps the only extraneous feature was the potato, which was a little mealy for my tastes, especially compared with its platemates.

The Verdict

If everything is as good as this dish, then Smith Commons is one of the best restaurants on the revitalized H Street.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Party in the USA
Vibe:
Energetic to Noisy
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing:
Three words: Little Miss Whiskey's.

Smith Commons on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Glen's Garden Market

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Dupont Circle

The Setu
p

On the walk back from the Dupont Circle Farmers’ Market, Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas and I were handed a coupon for a free coffee at the month-old Glen’s Garden Market. Figuring that we never say no to a free cup of joe, we swung by.

The Vibe

It might seem weird to review a supermarket, but this one had a bar and a Sunday brunch. Carved into the former “secret Safeway” space at 20th and S Streets, the market strives to fill its aisles with locally sourced goods, from Capital Kombucha to Route 11 Chips, among the recognizable brands. In many ways, it is the logical obsession from Yes! for this food-obsessed city: a market that stocks not only organic foods, but local foods, a sort-of brick-and-mortar, all-week farmers’ market. Still, one can imagine how much this limits a market, especially one in a high-rent, low-supermarket section like that part of North Dupont. In response, a small “illicit” section has opened in the back, carrying organic, albeit non-local foods (your typical Annie’s mac-and-cheese, and EVOO). Otherwise, the market is dominated by a large deli counter and kitchen in the rear, and a small bar/café set-up to the front-left.

The Food

Brunch is a rotating affair and a short menu, so our options were limited to cranberry-orange French toast and huevos rancheros, both of which we ordered. On my end, after our mini-debacle with the Taqueria Nacional huevos rancheros, this was a welcome change, a mash of white beans, potatoes, red peppers, and sausage on top of eggs (all of which I augmented with more Eco-Friendly Farms grilled sausage). The huevos rancheros are good, but somehow feel a bit thin, with a soggy tortilla serving as the only distinction between this and hash, and not quite as filling and deep as hash normally would be. As much as I didn’t like the Taqueria Nacional offering, I did like its use of a fried tortilla to add some crunch.

The French toast was also a little run-of-the-mill, certainly not as fruit-forward as I would have liked it, with the only highlight coming from a sweet fresh-tasting whipped cream, which was generously placed on top. There was nothing particularly terrible about it; just that the description augured expectations that did not come through.

The Verdict

An interesting brunch choice to say the least, but it will take some time to see how it settles in.

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) (less than $25 for two)
Pairing: Pick up some groceries there for a picnic/midday lunch/dinner. The sheer variety of local products will make it a fun matching game to see what you can create together.

Glen's Garden Market on Urbanspoon 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

First Look: Ghibellina

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: 14th Street/Logan Circle

The Setup


Trying to get into Le Diplomate with no reservation on a warm summer Thursday night was just as much a fool's errand as might be expected. But the rapidly expanding 14th Street restaurant scene meant dinner plans for Official Friends of DCWD Flo and Burgh, and Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas meant just a walk across the street to Ghibellina.

The Vibe
 

I've never been to Acqua al 2, the Capitol Hill institution that shares owners with Ghibellina. But if it share any strands with the 14th Street newcomer, I can understand its appeal. The décor is handsome: the walls are brick-tiled with shades of grey, with dark brown flooring and exposed ceiling beams on top and below. The space is elongated but remains friendly, starting from the modest patio out front; to the small deck like space that overlooks it from behind an openable garage-door-style window; to the long U-shaped bar with soda shop stools that buzzes upon entry; to the rows of two and four-tops that make up the dining area in the rear; to the peeks and smells emanating from the kitchen counter in the back. Shelves of Chianti bottles, exposed brick, and post-industrial light fixtures bring a clean but warm look to the restaurant. In fact, the only drawback is the dining room’s chairs: black metal-and-plastic contraptions that remind you of lawn furniture, and are as uncomfortable.

The Food


Ghibellina is heavy on the small plates (piatti piccoli) with only a spare few entrée-sized portions (though one of those is a 1.5kg porterhouse for two), so our group of four decides to grab two pizzas and a few of the small plates to fill us up. For the pizzas, we order the simplest and the most complicated: namely the margherita (tomato, basil, buffalo mozzarella), and the Bianca (rapini, mozzarella, garlic, calabrian chilies, fennel seed, pecorino romano). These are fantastic: as our server describes perfectly: they’re hefty enough to New-York-fold each slice, but gooey enough to allow us the mix of chew and crunch and blackened flavor that makes oven-baked pizza great. The Bianca is a winner in my book: pops of heat with a pleasant bitter from the rapini, and an overall depth that makes you forget it’s a vegetarian pizza.

Our small plates are similarly tasty, though to varying degrees of consistency: our salad, the eponymous insalata Ghibellina is an arugala salad with generous chunks of avocado and confit tomatoes, but fleeting portions of emmenthaler cheese and pine nuts, all coated in a pesto-based dressing. The moments we get a mouthful of all the flavors, the salad works incredibly well, with the emmenthaler the true star of the plate. When they’re missing, it becomes rather pedestrian.

This is not the case with the stellar octopus carpaccio, thinly sliced octopus layered with chickpeas, braised arugula, and an oily, smoked paprika cure. There’s no other way to describe this dish than heavenly. It had hints of every flavor you might want: heat, bitter, savory, all soaked up together in the chickpeas, and finished with a clean perfect-amount-of-chew octopus. This was my favorite bite of the night.

We finished up with the pici carrettiera, a housemade pasta coated in tomato, garlic, basil, parsley, and peperoncino. The pasta was well done, but ultimately forgettable, a simple dish that got the job done, but had no big swinging flavors to make you recall it even a few days later. Perhaps it was our fault for not choosing one of the more diverse pastas on the menu, but all I can recall is liking it, but not in an overwhelming way.

The Verdict


The hits are high, and the room is perfect for any number of date scenarios. If it can be said that a new restaurant only improves with age, this spot is going to be real good, real fast. 

Food Rating: **** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Ghibellina on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 15, 2013

First Look: Bakehouse

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: 14th Street/U Street

The Setup

Needing a quick breakfast before a day on the run, Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas and I jumped into new neighborhood bakery Bakehouse.

The Vibe

In many ways, Bakehouse reminded me of a larger Sqirl from L.A. The facets were there: a clean, white-laden storefront in a post-industrial style space with baked goods sequestered behind glass; chalkboard décor and chalkboard menus featuring coffee, daily baked goods; and a smattering of small dishes; shelves filled with local craft food products, ranging from jams to hand-printed cards. Perhaps the only difference is that the seating, a few two-tops here and there, are inside rather than out on a side patio. It’s cute, if not charming.

The Food

It being breakfast, Texas and I each ordered accordingly: her, a soy latte and a blueberry and walnut oatmeal; me, a chai tea latte and a bacon, egg, gruyere, and honey sandwich. In a sentence, everything met the threshold of fine-but. To wit, Texas’s oatmeal was sweet and filling, but the hot water pour wasn’t thorough enough, with the meal less mushy than her preferred style and leaving a layer of dry oats at the bottom of the container. My sandwich had a foccacia-style bun with a nice crust but at a size that left the gruyere a secondary flavor.

The Verdict

A decent bakery, but enough to become a neighborhood one, like a Sticky Fingers or a Baked and Wired? Probably not.

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

Bakehouse on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Al Dente

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2013 Top 100
Neighborhood: Glover Park

The Setup


Official Co-Writer/Fiance of DCWD Texas came home from work with an inexplicable craving for Italian food. Not only that, but we found ourselves in temporary possession of a friend's car while they were out of town. Those two factors combined into the perfect idea: Al Dente.

The Vibe

Al Dente, the restaurant formerly known as La Forchetta, is the latest stop on the Roberta Donna restaurant tour. For the uninitiated, Chef Donna is primarily known for two things: an incredible knack for developing big Italian flavors, and an unfortunate habit of getting himself into tax trouble or controversy everywhere he lands. The La Forchetta stop returns him to a place where he seems the best-suited: the kitchen, and his stay here has been remarkably free of any noise (other than the aforementioned name change, and the related flap over its similarities to another restaurant's).


There are a few cool things about the design of the Al Dente space, and some really bad things. On the former, the dining room features some nice features, with a square bar around the pizza oven in the center of the room, and another seated bar in front of an open finishing kitchen on the restaurant's right side. But there are some design flaws too: a set of hightops sit on either side of a room divider between the two bars, but the divider itself is an orange wrought iron grate of curlicues, meaning it's a very thin divide between you and the table on the other side of the divider, and no refuge from sound. So while sight lines to the open kitchen are unencumbered, it's a little loud and a little awkward. Service is a little slow and makes some interesting choices: we aren't even seen by a server until 10 minutes into the meal; and when the table over knocks over a glass, clean-up involves picking up the big pieces and placing them next to us at the open kitchen bar, where it stays for the entirety of the meal.

The Food


But could the food make up for these missteps? We decide to split two entrees: a salsiccia e rapini pizza (tomato, smoked mozzarella, pork sausage, broccoli rabe, and garlic) and a bowl of pappardelle in a wild boar ragu. The pizza is a highlight, combining smoky, earthy flavors on a nicely crisp crust. It compares well to other high-end pizzas around the city and is probably the most enjoyable part of our meal.

The pasta is also delicious, housemade as expected, and consequently is silky and light. The sauce, when it appears, is meaty and rich. But the accompaniments are sparse, and by the end of the dish, we are eating very lightly-sauced ribbons. A slightly heavier hand with the ragu might have prevented the beautifully thin pasta from sticking to itself.

In another service error, the drinks we order come well into the entree round, and might have provided some levity with a flavorful Green Hat gin cocktail perked up by pepper flakes. But the last sip brings an unexpected crunch: a small shard of glass has found itself in my drink. Perhaps what was more ignominious than this discovery was the waiter's terse apology.

The Verdict

Good food, but needs to shape up its operations a lot more.

Food Rating: ** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing
: Now that it's been repaired, head over to the National Cathedral to take a quick tour; try to spot the Darth Vader gargoyle.

Al Dente Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 1, 2013

First Look: Bearnaise

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Capitol Hill

The Setup

For this First Look, we visit Chef Spike Mendelsohn’s newest restaurant: the steak frites restaurant Béarnaise, which opens this Wednesday. Along with me for this preview is Official Friend of DCWD Cuda.

To understand Béarnaise is to understand the process of its birth. At first blush, more cynical commentariat might note that Béarnaise marks another expansion in the burgeoning Chef Spike empire, that of Béarnaise neighbors GoodStuff Eatery and We, The Pizza, and Good Stuff locations in Crystal City and Philly. But Béarnaise’s beginnings are much more humble, inspired by the chef’s early years in Montreal and the steak frites restaurant L’Entrecote St. Jean; along with his later years at New York’s Le Cirque, where he met Executive Chef Brad Race. Serendipitously, the perfect space opened up on Pennsylvania Ave., where Béarnaise moved in.

Inspired by the bistro and brasserie fare of Montreal and Paris, the chefs narrowed the concept, whittling down an original menu of 130 items, and settling on the simple steak frites direction.

The Vibe

Béarnaise self-describes as humble but chic, an apt description for the décor, which recalls a sleeker but still simple version of a French brasserie. The outdoor façade looks like a white and black house from Beauty and the Beast, with X-paned windows, with a small patio out front. On the interior, the thematic elements continue: an alternating black and white tile floor and white walls, with small accents, like vermilion leather half-booths, chocolate brown furniture, and globe streetlight-like light fixtures. Highlighting the walls are a number of portraits and paintings bought by Chef Spike’s sister Micheline in Paris including portraits of French icons Brigitte Bardot, Coco Chanel, and Serge Gainsbourg.

The space is inviting, with two floors of seating and an environment that seems fit to be full and vibrant. Outside, an interior green space envisions a fresh herb garden in collaboration with DC Greenworks, while a twelve-seat bar with space for 35 sits inside.


The Food

For those unfamiliar with the steak frites concept or for those who haven’t yet been to Cleveland Park’s Medium Rare, the menu is decidedly simple: your choice of first course (house salad, French onion soup, or a soup du jour), your choice of cut and doneness (the house flatiron, ribeye, or filet mignon), your choice of sauce (the eponymous béarnaise maison, a spicy béarnaise, au poivre, bordelaise, or the maitre d’hotel butter), and as many French fries as you could eat. Depending on your cut, the dinner will run you $28 to $42.

For those that want to augment their experience, a number of sides are also available: a tartiflette (potatoes au gratin with bacon); roasted bone marrow; crispy Brussels sprouts with béarnaise; roasted portabella mushrooms; and a rotating cheese course. And for the adventure seekers: keep an eye out for petit bouchons, small bites that will be a chance for the chefs to experiment, and will be available as bar food or appetizers.


Cuda and I have the pleasure of trying nearly all of the dishes and can positively report on their quality. A petit bouchon of escargot is generous and buttery and topped with puff pastry, allowing us to really enjoy the meatiness of the snails. The house salad is crisp and light, but the clear choice is the French onion soup, a delectable cupful, with a seemingly half-inch thick layer of cheese which extends around the small bowl its presented in that beckons to be picked off and eaten along with the rich broth.


 
The steak frites are also masterful, a beautiful sear and juicy interior with rich layers of fat veining through our flatirons. The accompanying sauce (we both choose the béarnaise maison) is rich, invoking for me pleasant memories of my childhood, when I coated everything in bearnaise. Our fries, shoestring thin, are crisp and consistent, and the portions keep coming. Perhaps most notable are the sides: the tartiflette is almost decadently rich, soaking in the robuchon cheese cream; the bone marrow and mushrooms are solid versions of classic dishes; and the Brussels sprouts are delicately crispy (and surprisingly one of the best bites of the evening).

A round of desserts follows, offering three of the four options, save the still-working-on-it seasonal tarte: a bowl of profiteroles in vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce; a praline crème brulee, and a layered three chocolate mousse/Chantilly. The profiteroles and mousse are beautifully rich and sweet and perfectly good choices, but for our money, the praline crème brulee is hands down the best: a brilliant mix of sweet and cream that somehow manages to appear decadent but light at the same time. Its hazelnut flavor comes forward pleasantly, and is a wonderful update of a French classic.


Beyond the food is a modest wine program, with the unique quirk of being all priced at $10 for a glass and $40 per bottle (besides a small reserve list), in order to encourage diners to try new bottles and match their tastes; and the promise of craft cocktails and seasonal punches at the bar.

The Verdict

Lots of appeal, and lots of taste. Definitely a brilliant next step for Chef Spike.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
Vibe:
Chatty to Energetic
Cost:
$$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)