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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Fiola Mare

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2015 #4, Washington Post 2014 Fall Dining Guide
Neighborhood: Georgetown

The Setup

With a celebratory dinner in the works, Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas and I decided to schedule a blowout meal at Fiola Mare.

The Vibe

Fiola Mare sits in the well-known Georgetown office building that hosts a number of other riverside eateries (see: Sequoia). With that fact in mind, you can sense the buildout: a deck around the edge, followed by an inner ring of lounge seating underneath an awning (and on this thunderstormy night, enclosed in plastic sheets) encircling the restaurant space itself. A bar space, composed of a few spare tables and a square 16-seat bar, sits upfront, while the main dining room lies beyond. Here, perhaps the only way to describe it is like a cruise ship's dining room (the restaurant's nautical theme doesn't help): a central series of booths followed by a ring of two and four-tops, then another ring of six-tops along the windows. Tables are on top of one another, and even on this rainy Monday night, the decibel level is noticeable; it's definitely one of the louder rooms we've been in. Everything is bathed in white and blue and light wood (again, sea-themed), even seemingly the white marbled open kitchen that sits opposite the riverview.

We've said multiple times on this blog that we tend not to comment on service unless it's on the extremes; God only knows restaurants of all shapes and sizes are at the mercy of circumstances outside of their control when it comes to getting into the weeds. That being said, when service is noticeably bad, it gets written about. This particular meal made Texas even want to write a whole separate piece about this very trend; maybe we will, maybe we won't.

Here's the gist of it: Texas and I are admittedly on the younger side of a typical high-end diner's age, and yes, certain restaurants in the city exist for certain demographics, but we certainly spend a good deal of our time eating out in places both high and low. What irks us is when we get hand-waved off for our age and given something resembling indifferent service because of it (and to head it off at the pass, I was wearing a sharp suit, and she was a wearing a smart dress). And after a while, the small indignities add up to kill the mood of any dinner. Like when you're trying to close out at the bar when your table is ready and waiting, but the bartender pockets the check request and instead goes to chat with the glitterati on the other side of the bar for another ten minutes. Or when you're seated in a two-top that is crammed into an uncomfortable space between a pillar and another table, while a later-arriving older couple sitting next to you at the bar gets seated in a spacious booth. Or an inattentive server that seems like he's just going through the motions. All of these things make you feel like just another table to turn, another cog in the wheel, as if the whole idea of merely being at "Fiola Mare" should be enough to dazzle you. We've had many a celebratory dinner where the service enhanced our enthusiasm; Iron Gate, Posto, and Crane and Turtle all come immediately to mind. This meal took a couple ready to spend big to enjoy a personal success and just made them miserable by the time the dessert rolled in.

The Food

Bad service can always be dug out by good food, and Fiola Mare at least portended that it might have the goods. On the flip side, you're paying a pretty penny for the opportunity to see if that's true; even by D.C.'s price point standards, these run high - appetizers sit in the 20s, entrees with seafood run in the 40s and 50s, with the pastas perhaps the only solid deal in the mid 30s. Even the cocktails get a hip check up to $15-$18 - in their defense, they are fairly good: one of the better negronis that Texas has tried, and a fun cigar-infused cocktail that delivers all the good parts of a stogie without any of the drawbacks.

To start, we have the burrata, which comes in a bed of spring peas and fava beans with some blood orange and pea leaves in a dressing mix of black truffles and sunchokes. In perhaps the one thoughtful service moment of the night, the dish comes already portioned out into two plates, generous considering the burrata seems like it hasn't been cut into. It's a nice and rich dish, one that hits all sorts of pleasant notes, and is probably the standout of the night.

Texas orders a the gnocchi as her main dish, a decent portion glazed in a warm buttery green garlic sauce, with peas and asparagus and mint alongside of it. We've come to expect much from Fabio Trabocchi's pasta - and Texas's tasting of Casa Luca's version of smoked gnocchi earlier in the month similarly augured good results. Here, the gnocchi is spared a protein and lightened considerably; they're still pillowy but without much heft to push the dish. It's fitting for springtime, I suppose, but leaves one wanting just a little more.

I swing for the fences with the Under the Sea, a dish intended to mimic the ocean floor by placing a menagerie of seafood amid a parmesan dashi broth. Even here, there are winners and losers: branzino and maitake mushrooms shine, both soaking up the broth, and a seared scallop plays well. But a healthy piece of seared foie gras is neutered by the same broth, langoustines remain sort of chewy - and as they always are, difficult to eat politely - mussels are tepid and gummy and lack any of the verve that mussels are typically afforded in D.C. restaurants, and lobster is so fleeting it becomes lost. In some ways, it's perhaps too literal in its interpretation, like an orchestra playing one solitary whole note of salt-forward mushroom broth rather than letting each unique seafood play its own something spectacular part; if we had to do it again, I'd go in on the grilled fish instead. One expects more.

By the time dessert rolls in, we're already in shrug mode, enough that the actual dish fades in the memory. We recall something like a bar of chocolate swimming in something like a mint chocolate or pistachio panna cotta. If I had to guess, it did the job.

The Verdict

On some level, I get it. There are good points and fine dishes. But grading on the immense curve that Chef Trabocchi has set for himself with Fiola, this meal at Fiola Mare gave us the impression that the Georgetown version is at best a lackluster and louder facsimile of his other work, and at worst yet another example of the kind of "power lunch for the elite" restaurant that is quickly becoming less central to the D.C. food scene.

Food Rating: ** 1/2 
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 1.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
(out of 5) (more than $100 for two)

Fiola Mare on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The DCWD Restaurant Power Rankings, April 2015

If you missed it, here's our explanation of the power rankings, and the initial post. Now for the updates:

10 Restaurants We're Excited About 

1. Water and Wall
2. Osteria Morini
3. Bluejacket
4. Unum
5. Thally
6. Et Voila!
7. Restaurant Eve
8. Sona Creamery
9. Thip Khao
10. Macon Bistro and Larder

The DCWD Restaurant Power Rankings

With the New Year comes the opportunity to rethink how these meals lasted the test of time, and the true value proposition - is the cost of a tasting menu of Marcel's worth the price difference relative to a pizza from Ghibellina? Also, removed Garden District, Kramerbooks/Afterwords, Sushi Taro - fell off rankings. Added Crane and Turtle, Maketto, and Mango Tree.

1. Komi 
2. Proof 
3. Toki Underground 
4. Rose's Luxury
5. Red Hen 
6. Rasika
7. Inn at Little Washington
8. Crane and Turtle
9. Birch and Barley
10. Rappahannock Oyster Bar
11. Mintwood Place 
12. Thai X-ing 
13. Iron Gate
14. Blue Duck Tavern
15. Fiola
16. Volt

17. Compass Rose
18. Ghibellina 
19. Society Fair
20. Minibar 
21. Trummer's on Main 
22. Comet Ping Pong
23. Vermilion
24. Bar Pilar
25. Granville Moore's 
26. Maple Ave
27. Southern Efficiency  
28. Estadio 
29. Little Serow
30. Cork
31. Zaytinya
32. Boss Shepherd's
33. Smith Commons

34. The Partisan  
35. Eat the Rich
36. Jaleo
37. 2941 
38. Marcel's
39. The Source 
40. Equinox
41. Posto 

42. Corduroy 
43. Graffiato
44Lyon Hall 
45. Brasserie Beck 
46. Rogue 24 
47. Kapnos
48. Casa Luca
49. ChurchKey
50. Ted's Bulletin 

51. Izakaya Seki
52. Cava Mezze 
53. 701
54. Maketto
55. BLT Steak 
56. Bourbon Steak
57. Etto

58. Big Bear Café
59. DGS
60. Four Sisters
61. Meridian Pint 

62. Seventh Hill Pizza 
63. Bearnaise
64. Ripple
65. The Pig 
66. 2 Amys 
67. Rasika West End
68. Bistro Bis
69. Medium Rare
70. BlackSalt 
71. Central Michel Richard
72. Sushi-Ko 
73. Pearl Dive Oyster Palace 
74. Hill Country
75. Vidalia
76. 1789
77Le Diplomate 
78. Hank's Oyster Bar
79. Oyamel
80. Tabard Inn
81. Obelisk
82. Right Proper Brewing Company 
83. Satellite Room 
84. Oval Room 
85. Art and Soul 
86. Poste
87. Range
88. Doi Moi
89. Table
90. Del Campo
91. Roofers' Union
92. Nava Thai Noodle 
93. Pho 75
94. Café Saint Ex
95. Masala Art 
96. Vinoteca 
97. Smoke and Barrel 
98. Mussel Bar
99. The Brixton

100. Mango Tree

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Mango Tree

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Downtown/Metro Center

The Setup

One particularly lazy evening, Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas and I found ourselves hungry and downtown. Despite groceries waiting for us at home, she and I decided to try new restaurant Mango Tree instead.

The Vibe

All I really need to say is that Mango Tree is a Richard Sandoval restaurant. That alone should conjure images of the inside decor and the vibe: dark, trendy, see-and-be-seen. Take the multi-floor set up of El Centro, black palette of Masa 14, add the Asian-kitsch-lite of Zengo, and dab a little Toro Toro polish over all of it and you have Mango Tree. A relatively small first floor bar is the only entry way that we can pick out, which makes for a pretty confusing first thirty seconds (where's the host stand, for one?). Only the intervention of a helpful bartender leads us to the stairs; one can imagine on a busier night that helpless diners are stuck thinking the limited bar tables are the entirety of the restaurant.

Should you make it to the second floor, a brief interlude past a host stand and the bathrooms leads to a more traditional dining room, with a dominating bar on the far side, and an incredible mix of booths and seating of all combinations throughout an expansive dining room. Everything is black and a dark red, save for a decidedly varied mix of light fixtures that seem to come like both stalactites and stalagmites in this cavernous space.

The Food

On some level, the appetizers intrigued us more than the entrees, so we ordered two of the former and only one of the latter. The universally well-regarded one is a baby octopus salad, with a few quite large chunks of wonderfully charred pieces floating among a small bowl of cucumber, cherry tomato, celery, and peanuts - which provide a very nice crunch and counterpoint to the savory and refreshing flavors otherwise present. The chili lime dressing is a bit heavy on the pepper, which pulls it a little astray, but the salad is a solid turn.

The pork neck salad - a dish that can come with either the aforementioned meat or with steak - is Little Serow level hot. If you're not into that, then the flat mention of "dried chili" on the menu belies the discomfort you'll have with this dish. If you can make your way past it, there's some interesting bits of shallot and roasted rice in between the well-cooked meat. I couldn't however, and had to wave the white flag on this one early. Perhaps less would have been more here.

For our shared main, we ordered the crispy fried fish - on this night, a branzino - which comes in six or seven unexpectedly small chunks, drenched in a sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce, and bracketed by the fried remains of the fish. Again, the menu underplays the heat, which is once more offputting for me. Plus, I can't quite figure out what one is supposed to do with the fish carcass: there's a couple morsels of meat to be had - fish cheeks are quite enjoyable, to be fair - but it seems more like a distracting, see-we-gave-you-a-whole-fish-it-just-happened-to-be-a-small-fish, arguing point than something meant to be seriously eaten. When you cut through the thick spicy sauce, the fish is decent, but a side of something - which doesn't come automatically - is a necessity.

Maybe the highlight of the evening is a side dish that our hostess mentions in passing as she seats us: the crab fried rice, which is surprisingly light, given the protein, and something that gets better with each bite.

The dinner wraps up with two desserts that are quickly summarized. A Thai tea creme brulee is pretty disappointing, sort of a mess and a tad bit cloying, lacking the depth that draws one to Thai iced tea. The mango sticky rice however is a good bite: subtler than the other dessert, and straightforward.

The Verdict

Decent food - if you can deal with the heat. Expensive though.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Suits Scene
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)

Mango Tree on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 16, 2015

First Look: Maketto

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: H Street NE

The Setup

A beautiful bright spring day, and a still-green restaurant. Count Official Co-Writer of DCWD Texas, Official Friend of DCWD Looshifer, and me in.

The Vibe

Normally, you sort of shrug at the idea that something is truly going to be a "multi-use" space. Even when confronted with the early Fundrise plans for Maketto, I still had my doubts. Then the space actually opened. And frankly, it's awesome. A two story, multi-building space, one walks into a small storefront with a small display case in the middle, and walls lined with clothing store shelves. Further back is a small cafe space, with a bar to the right, and a row of half-booth seating to the left. Upstairs is a carbon copy of the downstairs space, but with a coffee shop - and its respective coffee shop style seating - replacing the bar. The entire space is bathed in a restrained and stylish black and white trim - save for the restored wood floors - all sleek lines and modern decor and furniture.

If that weren't enough, beyond even that, is a handsome courtyard space, with one large communal table stretching alongside a tree, which leads to the restaurant's second building: a sizable open kitchen with a row of bar seating on the opposite wall. Think Toki Underground, but if the balance between kitchen and seating were flipped, and the real estate were that much bigger. The same decorative tastes from the first building apply.

All in all, it's incredibly casual but yet devastatingly cool. Lots of good options for a meal here.

The Food

It being the first look - of what we'll tell you will probably be multiple - the opening day menu is limited to four dishes; of course we order them all. Two of the orders are bao, one a steamed pork bun, the other a pan-fried leek and vermicelli bun. The dishes are familiar to anyone who's gone beyond the ramen menu at Toki, and they're similarly delicious here. That being said, despite the fry, the pork version is much better than its vegetarian cousin, which sort of is shrugworthy. Both come with a spicy hoisin sauce that perks everything up.

The other sizable dish available on this trip is a bowl of pork soup, which plays basically like pho, with its wide rice noodles and deep meaty broth, and its accoutrements of lime, cilantro, fried shallots, and bean sprouts. If you take it like that, then this is one of the better bowls of pho in the region: a solid real-slurpable broth, generous chunks of grilled pork, really really enjoyable.

As for the dessert, some Chinese doughnuts - the kind that looked like churros familiar to many an Asian person - provide a nice taste memory for those that grew up with them. For those that didn't, prepare for a little more grease than you might expect from a donut, and you'll need to really sop up the soy milk to get a flavor other than, well, fried dough. But then again, I loved these growing up, and I love them here.

The only real niggling point here is the size vs. price point of the coffee: a chai latte that comes in at half a cup goes for $4. Not even a small gratis bite of almond cake can make up for that.

The Verdict

A really promising start for an already beautiful space. If the food is consistently like this, then expect another smash from Chef Bruner-Yang.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Hipster Hangout
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)

Maketto on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 13, 2015

Monday Munchies: Woodward Takeout Food

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Downtown/Metro Center

The Setup

A quick worktime lunch in the post-Thanksgiving air meant a swingby of Woodward Takeout Food.

The Vibe
As the grab-and-go half of the Woodward Table restaurant, this space mirrors what Potenza had done as the previous tenant of the space: it retains a clean bakery/deli look and serves as an ideal quasi-upscale lunch spot for the nearby office drone. Butcher block countertops, white subway tiles, and letter board signs enhance that. Half of the space remains a kitchen area, with a lone six-top high table among it. The rest is a slim series of two-tops inside the building, with two four-tops outside. 

The Food

It being the late throws of autumn going into winter, the most seasonally appropriate of the seasonal sandwiches was the duck reuben, with duck confit mixed among Swiss and gruyere cheeses, a red cabbage sauerkraut, and a light dash of apple cider and rosemary dressing all on attractively grilled rye bread. The sandwich is everything I want it to be: hearty, deep, filling, and wonderfully sweet and savory. The crunch on the bread is delightful, and it hits the right notes.

The Verdict

If you need to break up the tedium of your Cosis or your Potbelly's, head here.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Crane and Turtle

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2015 #32
Neighborhood: Petworth

The Setup

After three months out of the country, I vowed to make my first meal back in the States legendary. Jet lag be damned, just a few hours after stepping off the plane, Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas and I headed up to Crane and Turtle.

The Vibe

I'm just going to be honest here. Like most people even remotely involved in the food world, we've dabbled in the occasional daydream about what it would be like to start our own restaurant (a vision most certainly bolstered by the eventual head chef of said restaurant: my mother). So on some level, the existence of Crane and Turtle saddens me, because it is essentially the platonic ideal of our dream restaurant. A European- (and most notably French-influenced) take on a distinctive Asian cuisine. A small manageable dining room - we counted 24 seats at most. A decor that dances the line between modern elegant and rustic chic, with bright blue and white printed booth seating and wallpaper abutting soft white walls, and handsome dark wood floors. Austere hanging light fixtures and plants accent a glass rack that hangs above the bar seating in front of an open kitchen. Cute is too soft a word for it. This place is gorgeous. The only downside is that some of the two-tops are more than on top of one another; they're basically a communal table.

However, the small space leads to service that is friendly and cheerful - even the kitchen staff at our bar seating is chipper, especially contrasted with our earlier minibar experience.

The Food

By the time this meal rolls around, both of us are pretty hangry. So we basically can be talked into anything, and in a way we are. We end up ordering a series of four small plates, two entrees, and a dessert that trickle their way to us as the night progresses.

First up is a hamachi tataki, four square chunks of lightly seared tuna with a light sprinkling of radish sprouts, garlic chips, and a miso-cured egg yolk sauce. For something we are only mildly considering before the formidable suggestions of our server, this ends up being an incredible surprise. Incredibly flavorful fish that is allowed to do its own thing, accented by the spicy notes of the sauce and fun crunch of the chips. The only downside is that there is so little of it.

Perhaps the only even slightly not superlative dishes comes next: the "tako wasabi," a small salad of thinly sliced octopus and fennel in a bowl of wasabi and orange oil jus, topped with a fried takoyaki ball. The aggressiveness of the wasabi and the general heaviness of the soy base dampens the dish a bit for Texas, but for me, the freshness of the octopus shines through and the bursts of citrus flavor are a refreshing jolt.

The kataifi-wrapped fluke is also sort of divisive in that, for all its use of vadouvan and a side serving of what can only be described as a carrot ginger mush (though a quite tasty one at that), it lacks a critical punch that stands up to the rest of the menu's boldness. Still, the fluke is wonderfully cooked and the crunch on the traditionally Greek wrapping is pleasant.

Now the Vietnamese influences on the menu start popping up, and my eyes brighten. The pork pork salad - a mix of braised slices of pork belly, bean sprouts in chili sauce, pork crackling noodles, and shredded green papaya - is so much a touchstone for my upbringing that I don't really mind the heat. It's perfectly salty and textured and light. Lovely.

But our first entree is perhaps even more of a direct line to my Vietnamese soul - banh xeo: a traditional Vietnamese crepe. But where the banh xeo I'm used to leans towards savory, with heavier hands on the turmeric or rice flour, here the chef leans more towards the coconut milk creating a lighter, sweeter, crispier crepe that is also wonderful. And in place of pork and shrimp and bean sprouts, the French influence on the menu is made plain with the use of rapini, mushrooms, almonds, and gruyere (with some roasted cauliflower and romanesco on the side). The result is a much brighter, much Frencher banh xeo, but one that Texas gleefully vacuums up.

On the flip side, it's the dish that starts French and leans Japanese that piques my interest: the olive oil-poached sablefish, resting in a tonkatsu-like broth alongside a heavy helping of napa cabbage, celery root, cashews, and something like corned beef. Words can't describe how buttery and smooth each bite is. This is perfection, a dish I can eat over and over again without fail. The bits of cashew and meat are wonderful accompaniments, and the broth is somehow simultaneously light and rich. Even the cabbage is striking. The cabbage!

After spending our dinner at the bar watching molten chocolate cake after molten chocolate cake being created, we order the same, christened the Mount Fuji, which sits atop a pool of salted caramel. A simple rich bite to end the night.

The Verdict

Most meals, even superlative ones, include a dish or two that elicits a shrug or a "maybe not next time." What's remarkable about this meal, is that there wasn't one here. This meal alone makes us need to re-sort our Top 100 list soon.

Food Rating: *****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
 (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)

Crane and Turtle on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 2, 2015

DCWD Travels: Bodega, St. Petersburg

Neighborhood: St. Petersburg

The Setup

Next up in this month of travel entries is St. Petersburg. While we had many a good meal there, this one covers perhaps the most surprising and noteworthy: Bodega. On this trip, Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas and I are joined by Official Friends of DCWD Charlie and Wobble Rocket.

The Vibe

The best way to describe Bodega's vibe is to say it resembles (really mild spoiler alert) the restaurant at the end of the movie Chef. At least, that's the feel I get from walking up to it with its Cuban sensibilities and music, the unmistakable energy it radiates, and the bright yellow and brown decor. That being said, the totality that is Bodega is really two separate halves. The first is a small streetside stand, with some picnic table seating in the back and four metal two-tops sitting on the sidewalk out front, consisting solely of a walk-up order window; the second is its expanded juice bar next door, a gleaming bright room that could eat its next-door sister whole, decked out in white subway tile, refurbished wood, and the phrase "You Bet Your Sweet Grass" in yellow neon above the bar.

The Food

On two separate trips (spoiler alert, it was that good), we visit both sides of the eatery. On an evening trip, I order the frita, a massive Cuban-style beef and pork burger, topped with the usual accoutrements, most notably spicy mayo, and oh, matchstick fries (!). To say this was incredible is a gigantic understatement. It's wonderful with a fun balance of spice and salt and sweet, and a playful crunch. Even the bun is superlative. I want more of this in my life.

For her part, Texas orders a tempeh cuban, with the patty topped with a sweet and spicy slaw. For as much as she loves the tempeh at Busboys, this was a pretty solid alternative - certainly a brighter fresher flavor.

The following morning brings us back to Bodega for some Cuban coffee and the restaurant's juice bar. Texas orders a greengo - a blend of kale, green apple, cucumber, cilantro, and guarapo - which on this typical Florida day - comes across like a cucumber and gin drink on a hot summer afternoon: refreshing. I order the berry cubano, a mix of berries, almond milk, and chocolate butter, peppered with Cuban coffee dates. This was mindblowingly good - at the very least it makes me remember why I love dates. Rich and creamy, but also sweet and silky. Awesome.

The Verdict

I want this place in D.C. Yesterday.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
(out of 5) (less than $25 for two)

Bodega on Urbanspoon