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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Grill Room

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Georgetown

The Setup


With tickets to the ballet at the Kennedy Center, we needed a quick meal within shooting distance. Enter The Grill Room.

The Vibe


Let's be honest. Like what seems to be the theme for many a restaurant in that part of town - especially hotel restaurants - The Grill Room might otherwise be a shruggable stop, the kind of place that is perfectly fine for out-of-town guests but not worth a regular thought for DC regulars... if not for the recent relocation of Chef Frank Ruta - late of the Cleveland Park beaut Palena. Still, Chef Ruta isn't re-doing the interior; that remains the same, and is what could be expected: a white-tablecloth dining room that could be swapped for any number of expense account restaurants, a small space in blacks and whites differentiated perhaps only by a thin patio of outdoor seating along the Georgetown Canal.

A small bar sits in a separate room, populated mostly by guests of the hotel.

The Food

With a limited budget on time and a number of things to try, we end up splitting up portions of three dishes: two appetizer-sized pastas and an entree. First up is the potato and nettle gnocchi, which The Grill Room pre-splits for us (always a nice touch). Lightly dressed in a fondue-like sauce, it's bits of pillowy heaven sprinkled between fava beans and shimjei mushrooms. It's a springtime dish that reflects the freshness of the season, with housemade pasta that shines.

The pappardelle has similar positive qualities in terms of its pasta, with fresh sweet and deep flavors in its ragout sauce. Beef cheeks and guanciale make up the proteins, though they are much more fleeting than the other pasta. Generally, there's just something a little bit less exciting about this dish against the others. The dreaded "fine" feeling.

The real star of the evening is the halibut, a filet that sits among a bed of razor clams, bok choy, and morel mushrooms. It's beautiful, lemony and buttery and incredibly light. This is something that would be welcome on any menu on D.C., a perfectly composed bite that stays perfectly in season and in character.

The Verdict


Chef Ruta brings the cooking that made Palena so transcendent, and makes The Grill Room a revitalized destination.

Food Rating: *** 1/2 
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Business
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
Vibe:
Calm
Cost:
$$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)

The Grill Room on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

DCWD Travels: Emporio, Pittsburgh

Neighborhood: Pittsburgh

The Setup


The second stop (though first chronologically) is to Emporio. On this trip is Official Friends of DCWD Rajistan and Chill, and Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas.

The Vibe
Emporio is the bottom floor of a three part concept called Sienna Mercato (think what MBK was trying to do in DC). The bottom floor is the typical rustic bar space: exposed brick, dark booths surrounding a large bar area in the back. Several TVs abound in this space, while more traditional seating sits upfront.

The Food


Emporio's concept is meatballs. That's it: pick one of four meatballs, one of nine sauces, and the method of meatball delivery - sliders, panini, grinder, or just in a pile. In some ways, this is refreshing: a bar that knows its target audience and just gives them comfort food, rather than trying to gussy it up needlessly.

And you know what? They nail it. We all go sliders, and the fist-sized hunks of meat - or in Texas's case, mushrooms, white beans, and cauliflower - are delicious, Pork bolognese and arrabiatta sauces offer a hint of spice, while a spinach-almond pesto is a delicate counterpoint to the parmesan and herbs in the turkey meatball. And don't sleep on the government cheese: all the satisfying parts of Kraft, but a whole lot better.

The Verdict


Pretty good bar food.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
Party in the USA
Vibe:
Energetic
Cost:
$
 (out of 5) (less than $25 for two)


Emporio: A Meatball Joint on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 7, 2015

DCWD Travels: Avenue B, Pittsburgh

Neighborhood: Pittsburgh

The Setup


Ostensibly, Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas and I were off to Pittsburgh to visit Official Friends of DCWD Rajistan and Chill for a nice couples' weekend. In some reality, we were there to visit them and also vacuum up all of the food that the city had to offer. On this stop, a dinner at Avenue B.

The Vibe

This is a small restaurant. There can't be more than 12 or 15 tables in the whole spot, none of which sits any larger than four without being pushed together. It's also very straightforward: a trim spartan dining room of exposed brick and dark green and crimson, dimly lit and decorated basically only with two large chalkboards opposite one another, which list the day's specials (more on this below).

The Food


Here's Avenue B's interesting conceit: the specials outnumber by double the offerings on the regular menu, which is dubbed, in a sort of strange twist, the "seasonal menu" (since these dishes also rotate seasonally). The net result is that the vast majority of the menu shifts not just month-to-month, but practically also day-by-day. It's fun, and while the restaurant itself doesn't trumpet this, does manage to make the prospect of eating often at this neighborhood restaurant a regularly intriguing idea.

Still, the thought of jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none did cross our minds; even the menu's leanings and influences are varied, from Asian to French to new American. Luckily, as hungry as we all are, we decide to play this one family style. First up, the raw deal: a three piece appetizer that on this day offers three sets of sushi (like I said, varied influences) - salmon sashimi sprinkled with jalapeno, a tuna and avocado maki roll topped with shrimp tempura, and eel nigiri. For a place that is clearly not a sushi restaurant, these aren't that bad. Fresh fish, good flavor combinations, a nice quick bite to start the meal.

Still, the dishes continue on a steadily improving trend. A fried artichoke and fava bean risotto is subtle other than the bursts of bright citrus from its lemon aioli sauce, but gets pulled together by the texture and salt shifts between bold crispy prosciutto and fried artichoke and a much mellower risotto. Another solid bite.

The grilled octopus - something that seemingly appeared on every menu everywhere overnight - is a deep salad bound together by the combined forces of romesco, parsley pesto, and saffron aioli. The real treat is the small bites of fried bread that punctuate the odd bite.

The standout of the appetizers however is the mussels, a last minute addition from the "seasonal" menu audibled with our server's comment, "the best mussels I have ever tasted." This description, though hyperbolic, is pretty understandable. With an overwhelming taste of smoked paprika, these are wonderful bursts; though they stop short of "best ever" status - the mussels don't soak up the sauce as well as others we've tasted before - the necessity of mopping-up of the sauce is apparent to everyone at the table. The grilled bread stacked on top of the shells goes quickly.

Our three part entree round starts with a bowl of dayboat scallops and shrimp, which come on a bed of red lentils and pickled cauliflower and topped with a raisin relish. There can be no complaints with these: seared well, fresh, flavorful, an interesting set of flavors.

However, the best dish of the night, is the pan-seared butterfish, a solid filet chunk sitting on a heap of black quinoa and assorted baby bok choy, soaked in a coconut bisque and a small spread of crab and cashew butter. This was mindblowingly good - an absolute piece of melt-in-your-mouth perfection in the fish, complemented incredibly by the sweet flavors of coconut that populate each fragrant bite of hefty quinoa. This is perhaps the only downside of a constantly changing menu: that dishes as remarkable as this are fleeting.

The rest of the meal is a study in solid kitchen offerings. A side of truffled cauliflower gratin satisfies with char and cream alongside the entrees. Two desserts provide similar levels of restrained sweet and salt: a leaning tower of caramel blonde tortes with apples and pretzel buttercream, and grilled fingers of short cake.

The Verdict

Exemplary if ephemeral.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 2 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
N/A
Vibe:
Chatty
Cost:
$$$
(out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)


Avenue B on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 4, 2015

First Look: Provision No. 14

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: 14th Street/U Street

The Setup


Today's entry takes a first look at the newest addition to the 14th Street restaurant corridor, Provision No. 14. At this meal, we have myself, Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas, and Official Friends of DCWD Rae and BS.


The Vibe


Having walked by this building nearly every day for the last five years, I can truly say that the decor has made leaps and bounds. Sure, the jump to Diego from the old decaying carryout spot was already a good step up, but the former was at best, a perfunctory attempt at a restaurant. In its place is a fairly handsome spot, one that makes use of its large indoor space and prominent brickwork. Downstairs, the theme is rustic chic with overwhelming colors of whitewashed beech, perhaps to match the outside's stark ecru and black. A bar area with a few high tables leads to a small dining area in the back.

On this trip, we end up getting pushed upstairs (even on this soft opening night, the host lets us know that they're full up with reservations for downstairs). The upper floor is at once the prettier of the two floors, with a unique coat of royal blue with gold trim offsetting reclaimed antique furniture in the lounge half of the floor; and bar-height couches and tables by the backlit bar on the other end. It's tony and hip, though one could empathize with Rae when she remarked "it looks like the storage closet of a Restoration Hardware." Overhead, a steady stream of all music genres overlaid with the same throbbing techno beat prevails - an annoyance if you attempt going for a one-on-one dinner and end up getting shuffled up to the lounge scene. Texas probably said it best: "it feels like a nicer Lost Society." A "hip place" for "hip people."

The Food

One caveat that has to be stated is this is the first night of a soft opening, so all manner of things need to be taken with a grain - or in some cases, even a whole pinch - of salt. Regardless, the ethos of Provision 14 is sharing. Not exactly a mind blowing proposition, given the small plates explosion, but the concept extends to the handful of entree-sized share plates they offer - all ordered via the dim-sum-esque menu your waiter places on your table - and the large format cocktails that come in French presses; don't sleep on these, since at 40something, they're the best value drink on the menu. We order the Ticket to Ride, a mix of gin, chartreuse, chamomile, honey, pineapple, and grapefruit, which is decent if sweet.

With four people in tow - but with more than a few non-meat-eaters in our ranks - we decide to just order ad hoc. The first thing to come out is the mac n' cheese, which in some ways is representative of the entire meal. It comes topped with roasted maitake mushrooms, which are perhaps the nicest part of the dish; the rest is fairly pedestrian, the sort of shells and soubise one could find in any Italian restaurant in suburbia. It's fine, I suppose.

The scallops are similar. With a smear of fennel puree and blood orange gastrique and some artfully placed beets, this dish at least demonstrates that the kitchen is aiming for something more than bar food. But the sear lacks that caramelized crust that makes scallops so good, and the rest of the accoutrements are lackluster.

Even when the menu goes low, it seems to elicit shrugs: housemade hot pockets full of braised lamb are one note - and if they have a second note, it's one coming from the burnt underside - and the lobster roll's mayonnaise base is reminiscent of KFC coleslaw. At least it comes with fries?

The better parts of the night for me divide the group. I think the pheasant, which plays like a heartier pork tenderloin atop barley risotto with pickled blueberries is pleasant enough. This is not an opinion that's shared among all of us; even I must admit that the risotto is basically a nothingburger - like unflavored oatmeal.  A kale salad that attempts to burnish higher technical skills with its compressed apples and strawberries doesn't disappoint - which is about the only faint praise that we can foist upon it. The rigatoni with veal sausage ragu does its best impression of its cousin at Red Hen, and is probably my high point of the night; it's vodka sauce is decently bright.


Dessert is a slight step up: a croissant bread pudding is pretty fun, and a peach cobbler cheesecake is appealing, if heavy on the molasses.

The Verdict

Adjuicating the execution of the food on a soft opening as the basis for a total review is like watching dress rehearsal for a Broadway musical and panning it. Still, auditing the ideas and the concepts is totally fair game, and this is where I come back to Texas's Lost Society comparison: it's a trendy restaurant, one that will appeal to a certain demographic enthralled by the large format cocktails and sitting on the patio slurping frozen cocktails. But like its close contemporary, this multi-floored eatery, while it aims high and occasionally has fun, is much more sizzle than steak.

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


Provision No. 14 on Urbanspoon