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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

First Look: The Partisan

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Chinatown/Penn Quarter

The Setup


Needing a dinner after the latest Muppets movie, Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas and I ended up at the newest Neighborhood Restaurant Group spot: The Partisan.

The Vibe


The Partisan is the restaurant half of another location of Red Apron Butchery, NRG's meat market that debuted at Union Market (with an additional site in Merrifield). The butchery is similar to the Union Market version with its sleek white subway tile on one side, industrial light fixtures hanging above, and deli cases set next to repurposed wood (though in the case of Union Market, it's paneling on the wall, not countertops). Then again, the striking exposed brick wall that dominates the space makes it very different from Union Market.

Meanwhile, the restaurant space itself feels like the vibe of Churchkey mixed with a healthy dose of restaurant trends: exposed brick and ceilings, more repurposed wood, bold fonts and richly patterned wallpaper. When you walk in, you're greeted with a long thing dining room with two rows: one of full-booths, the other of half-booths set into the wall. The former lines the side of the room abutting the butchery, partitioned by a set of shelves that house jams and San Pellegrino sodas and chips; the latter has a row of display cases filled with hanging salamis atop it. It's pretty dark on the inside, and even more dark once you pass the open kitchen in the center of the restaurant into the back bar, an expansive room that plays even bigger. A large backlit bar lies to the left, while bar-level half-booths run the length of the right wall. I can't help but feel that it's a space that exudes cool and hip and chill all at the same time.

The only other remark is our service, which is warm and friendly but forgetful; an order of sausage never shows up at all, and it takes more than a few passes of the server before we can get her attention to order some wine. Still, it's early yet, so the mistakes are passable.

The Food


Short the sausage, we order a mix of dishes with Texas opting into the flex part of her flexitarianism due to the local sourcing of Red Apron Butchery. I'm most excited for the cooking by Chef Ed Witt, the recent chef nomad whose last major stop was 701 (where he wowed me last time).

Dishes here some to come in two varieties - appetizer sized portions that suggest sharing, and colossal two-to-many-person entrees that require it. To wit, the menu - separated by animal - lists in its pork section a list of three $6-10 dishes, and three $50+ designed-for-multiple eaters plates, including a whole pig's head. Hoping to try more than one thing, we opt for the smaller plates starting off with a roasted foie gras for me, and a roasted mushroom and kale salad for her. My foie is sublime, seared and soaking in a verjus gastrique. Small peeled muscat grapes offer familiar sweet counternotes and a baguette is there for levity, but it's a wonderfully fatty melt-in-your-mouth bite. For her part, we love the salad as well, with its charred kale and bits of what seem like oyster mushrooms dancing amidst salsify and shallots atop a hidden pillow of goat cheese and drizzled with a Pedro Ximenez vinaigrette. About the only complaint is that the salad is a skooch heavy on the salt.

The next round bring heavier dishes: housemade ribbons of pasta topped with a guanciale and heart ragout bolognese, and slices of seared tri-tip steak atop a turnip puree seasoned with sesame and thai chili and a light pear jam. The steak is clean and cooked very well, but gets lost a little bit, especially when compared to the sweetness of the turnip puree and the pear. It becomes perhaps the least memorable dish. The pasta ends up with a better fate: that fullness that only housemade pasta can provide and a rich sauce that only falters in its quantity.

To round out the evening, we get a half-serving of the rotissi-fried chicken which is glazed in a honey sauce before its half-fried and half-roasted. The chicken comes in pieces - a drumstick, a thigh, and some breast pieces - and is sadly, a bit forgettable. Some bits are dry, some bits are not, but overall everything again is just a bit heavy on the salt.

The Verdict


The very next day at dinner, a friend asked us if we'd eaten anywhere good recently. I said, "The Partisan was good" before Texas refined the statement. "It was a bit salty, and it'll be pretty good very soon. I'd just give it some time." That's a pretty good synopsis.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Suits Scene
Vibe:
Noisy
Cost:
$$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
 

The Partisan on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 21, 2014

Table

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Shaw

The Setup


Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas and I have a standing dinner date, a monthly celebration of our wedding anniversary. Last month, we headed to Iron Gate. This week, we indulged ourselves at Table.

The Vibe

Sitting on the corner of 9th and N, there's no better word for Table than cool. The facade is green-gray painted brick, a short-squat building with a garage door window and the name of the restaurant boldly painted in stark white lowercase serifed font. The outside matches the inside, a sort of post-post-industrial. The reclaimed garage setting is encased in beige, with a long open kitchen to one side that bustles and bubbles all night. As for seating, a few tables dot the space in front of the garage door and one or two high-tops sit right next to the open kitchen, but the majority of seating is a line of half-booth tables opposite the kitchen. These aren't your typical half-booths though; they're hardwood benches with matching hutch-style tables and white plastic chairs. If this sounds like a kindergarten class, it fits. Perhaps the strangest part about the restaurant is that this dining room doesn't fit the white-table style food it's serving you. It feels short like sitting in a kids' furniture chair.

The space is dominated by straight lines - the aforementioned hutch tables, the wooden slats that line the kitchen counter and hang from the ceiling, interrupted only by a few lantern style metal cage lights. There's upstairs seating as well, but that remains a mystery to us on this trip. The one last thing to note is the temperature: while Table has fashioned a curtain that wraps around its front door, it does little to abate the blasts of wind that come every time someone steps in. In the summertime, the garage setting probably makes for a beautiful warm space; in the winter, it means you should dress warmly.

The Food

Seasonality is the name of the game here - even the menus are handwritten to facilitate these changes, though they are being phased out. So what awaits us is a bevy of winter ingredients. The first course brings a beautifully-plated squid portions stuffed with swiss chard and layered with prosciutto and a piperade sauce. Texas and I are split on our opinion on this one - I think that it's well-cooked and well-balanced, and she thinks the squid is a bit squishy and chewy for her. Then again, with her distaste for meats, she doesn't get the balancing salt of the prosciutto. Still, I get her point; this is a dish straight out of an Italian cookbook; if you're not looking for it, it's a bit forward. Our other first course is the roasted quail with a poached apple bowl filled with lentils and lightly brushed with a hazelnut coffee emulsion. For me, this is a wonderful bite, with warm consistently mellow notes. It's sad that the quail is so fleeting.

We continue to share our courses with Texas's choice of grilled steelhead trout filets next to stacked sticks of poached carrots and parsnips, salsa verde, and pearl onions; and my choice of the orange-braised venison osso buco atop a bed of pureed parsnip and spaetzel. The former is a bit boring, a skin-on presentation that tastes like a flatter arctic char, and is one of those "fine" dishes - perfectly reasonable in the moment and utterly forgettable upon leaving. The osso buco is a bit of the same, cooked well and falling off the bone, but a tad bit underseasoned for our tastes with the only strong flavors coming from the mild bitterness of the parsnip.



For dessert we split the brown butter chess pie topped with a dollop of praline ice cream, and a graham cracker financier with blood orange sorbet atop a plate of cheese cake mousseline. Both can be characterized similarly: a bit dry but with a subtlety to their sweetness that is appreciated. Our vote goes to the financier by a nose.


The Verdict

The results are straightforward and clean and pleasant, but it's missing that little bit to knock it up into the next level. Otherwise, the kind of restaurant that you could eat at over and over, but one that just lacks that wow factor.

Food Rating: *** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Smart Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Calm
Cost:
$$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)

Table on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

First Look: Lupo Verde

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: 14th Street/U Street

The Setup


The restaurant in question was Lupo Verde, the newest addition to the now blossoming 14th Street stretch. I was predisposed to dislike the place: the first time an Open Table miscommunication meant I had to move a six-person brunch last minute. Still, I owed Official Friend of DCWD HR Intern some catch up time and with the middle ground falling squarely at 14th and U, Lupo Verde seemed like a decent enough stop. The second strike was the restaurant's strict enforcement of a 5pm open time. Which isn't a complaint - this of course is their prerogative and the rules of the game - just an explanation of my mood having stood outside for 15 minutes in the cold before they let us in. And the third blow was the advertisement of a snow day happy hour special on Eater that never surfaced. Still, here we were.

The Vibe
 

Squeezed in the skinny space between Policy and the refurbished post office on T Street, Lupo Verde is two skinny floors that feels like an extended bar on the first floor (the second floor remains unseen on this trip). A six-seat marble bar sits underneath a staircase, while some high-top tables sit opposite, mostly groups of six. Pick a restaurant trend and it exists here: exposed brick, chalkboards, repurposed drafting chairs, industrial style light fixtures. Still, it's got a bit of polish over the whole thing and one major hammer: a small booth-like office that sits at the bar's back corner, to show off the results of the restaurant's cheesemaking, sausage making, and other audience-friendly finishing work.

The Food


Neither of us were particularly hungry and HR Intern was teetotaling for the evening, so we decided to just split a little nosh. On deck for me was a cocktail of rye, fennel, and bitters which was a bit expensive, but every bit of delicious as advertised. For food, we split a pizza topped with mozzarella, stracchino, mortadella, radicchio, pistachio, and honey. The pizza maybe perfectly embodies the personal pan style, coming in its own little . This also means that it's surprisingly small, maybe six or seven inches across. Still, despite how much I might have been inclined to dislike the dish, it's an incredible bite: a crust that is equal parts soft and crispy and sublime; a steady hand with the cheese that balances out all of the presented flavors: the wonderful crisp of the radicchio slaw, the salty flecks of crispy mortadella ham, and the delicate hints of honey sweet.


The Verdict

Maybe not the best bang for your buck, but an incredibly rich bite deserving of merit.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)

Lupo Verde on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 6, 2014

DCWD Travels: Eating Our Way Through Bali

So in case it isn't immediately clear, Official Wife of DCWD Texas and I are now married. So being the world travelers and foodies that we are, here is our chronicle of the major points of eating our way through our honeymoon in Bali (with a little jaunt to Gili Trawangan).

Ibu Oka

Luckily for us, we had enough personal and professional contacts to fill a whole itinerary. First, on the list was Ibu Oka, a suckling pig kitchen that got so much renown after Anthony Bourdain gave it a Bourdain bump, it expanded into three different eateries. Each serves the same combination of pork, stewed vegetables, and sides made daily at the crack of dawn. The pork skin crackles, the meat is juicy and spicy, and the whole thing is delicious when washed down with some Bintang lager. 

Mozaic

Perhaps the meal we were most excited about was Mozaic, one of San Pellegrino's Top 50 Restaurants in Asia. Think minibar, but with Asian flavors, and set on an open air patio. The menus are a series of tasting menus that combine traditional Balinese flavors with molecular gastronomy techniques. What's even better is that Texas's vegetarian tasting menu is just as delectable as mine. My sablefish carpaccio dazzles in a vanilla, macadamia, and vodka creme fraiche coating; hers subs beetroot for the fish. Beautiful, silky confied coral trout swims in a wonderful smoked milk foam while an incredibly buttery seared foie gras soaks in squab consomme with gooey chunks of manchego and gnocchi; just as my dishes are indulgent, Texas's deep brothy mushroom consomme with jackfruit, and linguine with celeriac puree and truffle are equally elegant. The experience hits its apex with my slow roasted lamb, seared to perfection atop a mamey sapote puree, and beautifully tender; Texas has a wonderful vegetable medley.

The meal's denouement is a series of sweet and savory flavors: Sainte Maure cheese with cacao pudding and orange rosemary sorbet, a pink grapefruit with campari emulsion, dark chocolate cake with starfruit sorbet, and a valrhona mousse with a green pepper corn sorbet. All in all, one of the best, if not the best meals in all of Bali.

Seniman Coffee Studio

Of the many things that define Balinese food and culture is coffee, especially in Ubud. One of the better coffee studios is Seniman, a hip loft space with some bar seating, a porch, and one large table with bench seating. The coffee is varied both in terroir, roast style, and brew method - Texas orders a coffee tasting menu that includes a granita and a coffee liqueur. What's more, each coffee comes with a little coconut cake.

A little peckish when we walk in, we also order lunch. Texas orders a stir fry of rice cubes, spinach, bean sprouts, and peanut sauce that comes together in messy but delicious bites. My dish is by far my favorite: soto ayam - a vermicelli and poached chicken soup with bean sprouts, egg, and spring onion. It's like breakfast pho, the way its oiliness perks you up is nothing short of spectacular.


Kafe

Bali, especially Ubud in the post-EatPrayLove era, seems to abound with a certain type of expat: a wavy-haired Yoga-going mid forty something with more than a passing interest in fresh pressed juices. Kafe is perhaps the best representation of this ethos: a lovely shopfront with a wide menu of juices, organic Balinese fare, and some gluten-free desserts to die for - a blueberry cheesecake crumble is perhaps our strongest memory of the times we pop by.

Casa Luna Bali Cooking School

For the uninitiated, like we were, Balinese cuisine is like a mix of Thai and Malaysian and Vietnamese to use a roster that might be more familiar. It has a heavy mix of strong spices, a big herbs and grasses component, but there's a freshness that comes from not being heavily reliant on sauces. A cooking class seemed like an incredible way to familiarize ourselves with everything we had been eating over the week, and our selection of the Casa Luna Bali Cooking School could not have been better. Taught by a vibrant and joking Balinese woman, the four hour evening class took the time to explain all of the various ingredients that we would see on the island - from pandan leaf to four types of ginger to palm sugar - then proceeded to let us chop and mince our way to making sambal goreng (the island's base spice mix) in pursuit of a luxurious meal of smoked duck, long bean laware, and yellow rice. Tres magnifiques.



Fair Warung Bale

I have to be honest, we used TripAdvisor just as much on this trip as recommendations. Which is how we found ourselves in the Fair Warung Bale, a restaurant set up by a Swiss expat that donates most if not all of its proceeds to an attached health facility. That along intrigued us, but so did the reviews. A generous and messy but sumptuous plate of king prawns, and a warm bowl of tofu curry helped cement that feeling, though the real treat was the restaurant's decor; sitting up on a second floor balcony, guests can draw on a small white stone and glue it to a wall of their choosing. We're almost guaranteed now to come back to find ours a decade from now.

Gili T Night Market/Scallywags/Seafood on Jimbaran Bay

About a two hour fastboat ride from Bali are the Gili Islands, a trio of islands that are small - like ride around them on a bike in an hour small. Quaint and relaxing are two of the best words I can use for them; with no motorized vehicles on the island, the whole vibe is of a surfer's or scuba diver's retreat.

Among the many brilliant expat escapee lures here is the fresh seafood. Along the main road of Gili T between the dive shops and the gear rental huts are restaurants, almost all of whom truck out the catch of the day around sundown each afternoon, to be selected, sauced, and grilled to your choosing. Central to that is the Gili T night market, a square that sits empty in the daytime, but that fills with stalls from locals at dusk, offering the same sort of grilled seafood and kabobs - but for generally lower price points.

There may be no greater inexpensive pleasure than picking out a whole barracuda or a barramundi, watch it get slathered with butter and grilled to perfection, and then eating it up greedily with your bare hands for the price of a DC cocktail. Sides are generous too, with nine or ten different vegetable options all coming inclusive with the price. We did many nights of both the market and the beachside eatery, with our favorite restaurant being the venerable Scallywags.

For a similar pleasure on Bali itself, eating seafood on the beach at sunset on Jimbaran Bay is a comparable proposition. 

Chandi

Our second big meal of the trip was Chandi, a restaurant that seemed like Bali's version of Citronelle, to extend the Mozaic as minibar analogy. Here too we indulged in a tasting menu, five courses of duos, which augured incredibly full stomachs - and delivered them too.

Debate still rages between myself and Texas about whether Chandi and Mozaic was better. What's undebatable is that this meal was at least equally transcendent. A seared scallop salad is spiked with hints of pomelo and grapefruit, while a black pepper crab dumpling delightfully plays with green peas and cardamom. Richness comes to a high point when my favorite dish of the night arrives: caramelized butter fish bathed in misodashi broth wtih salmon roe and bits of corn, radish, daikon, and baby potato. It's rich and buttery and outplays what we might have thought would have been even richer: a grilled lobster dabu dabu with bell peppers and tomatoes.

The night transitions to heavier meats with Balinese-style duck wrapped around a sugar cane skewer, a sweet bit made even sweeter by the addition of grated coconut. It's wonderful, especially if you like duck, but it has a hard time measuring up to the beef rendang envelopes it comes with; a pert crispy pocket dipped in a cucumber-cilantro-chili creme fraiche that is both tangy and bright. Next comes a set of beef short ribs with bok choy which comes with it's own familiar citrus-tanged glaze; as well as a crisp pork belly with kailan and pomelo which is incredibly fatty and awesome, especially for the last main course of the night.

Dessert comes in the form of a dark cocoa fondant with ginger emulsion and crystallized spices, and roasted tamarillos with fresh passion fruit and coconut sorbet. They're actually sort of forgettable except for the chocolate cake, which pours out an almost obscene amount of rich chocolate.


Sea Circus

If a place in Bali could sneak up on you in terms of food, it might be Sea Circus. Certainly the restaurant itself couldn't, a riot of aqua blue paneled by red, orange, and yellow glass window slats. It's a fun space, the kind of seaside shack you might find in any number of California towns - though this one sits a block from the beach itself. In fact, Texas and I remarked to each other that it seems much like the kind of space we would build out ourselves.

The food though is the winner here, like a highspeed collision between light Tex-Mex and Balinese freshness. A quinoa and raisin salad sings brightly with bursts of avocado and carrot and cherry tomato, while a lentil salad is wonderfully tart with bits of feta and preserved lemon mellowed by cucumber. A baked parmesan dip with wild mushrooms, salad, and rocket is a cheesy, gooey mess that we sop up via sourdough, while a veggie quesadilla stuffed with capsicum and pumpkin tastes like the best autumn ever. But the best by far is a trio of grilled fish tacos with mango salsa that is just incredible.

Revolver Coffee

For a coffee studio buried in an alley in a backroom of a store in Seminyak, the one strong memory I have of this place is this: a mango cardamom smoothie.

Metis

Somewhere along this trip we were bound to have a disappointing meal or two. On the last night of our trip, with no restaurant on our docket, we decided to go with what the hotel front desk and the internet told us was the best thing left: Metis, a grand restaurant with an expansive menu founded by a French chef who was one of the original great chefs of Bali.

The menu at least read the part, with a peculiar fascination with trios. To wit, we order two ourselves, me a decadent foie gras trio, her a main course trio of local fish: coral trout, cod, and Tasmanian salmon. Taken by itself, the meal is perfectly good, a treat if it comes on the first night of the trip. But given the freshness, the highs, and the daring that we've eaten on this trip, in places both high-end and hole-in-the-wall, there's a decided mutedness with which the cold foie preparations play out. Relative to the melting coral trout at Mozaic, this one, sitting atop some potatoes and artichokes seem lifeless; all of the things we eat just seem a hint too thin or uninspired. Only a boneless roasted quail, stuffed with mushrooms, is fascinating on the palate. 

La Lucciola

On our last morning in Bali, we grab a prime seat on the patio of La Lucciola - a restaurant described to us as a Bali institution. It being brunch, we indulge in the restaurant's specials of the day which do an incredible job of blending the freshness we've taken to associate with Bali and very traditional Italian cooking. A set of fried and stuffed zucchini flowers ooze nicely and lightly with mozzarella and hints of black olive, tomato, and basil, while a housemade gnocchi in beef ragu eschews what could have been a heavier hand for a feathery approach to its tomato-based sauce. My favorite is a salad of roast duck with shaved apple, watercress, and toasted hazelnut, a perfect blend of savory, sour, bitter, and sweet that dances and crunches in brilliant ways.


Ku De Ta/Potato Head

Still, we're not content to leave Bali without pigging out some more - all the better to board the plane with some excess baggage in our bellies. We hit up a pair of the island's famed beach clubs, the venerable Ku De Ta and the slightly more relaxed Potato Head. Here we take to noshing on appetizer sized portions: a soft shell crab salad of green papaya and beans that hints at chili and lime, but is exactly the kind of food that keeps with the airiness of the beach; and a pizza that feels better suited for autumn (roasted pumpkin, goat cheese, pine nuts, truffled honey, rocket) but fills us all the same. The whole process is finished with a green tea creme brulee that is a touch too sweet and a little too weird, if not for the incredible series of cocktails we've slowly imbibed over the course of a few hours; the cocktail revolution is alive and well in Bali, and these two places - with Potato Head the slight favorite - are a spectacular testament to that.