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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bar Charley

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Dupont Circle

The Setup


Cards on the table: this one's a brunch review. Needing a brunch with a reservation open last minute on a lazy Sunday morning, we find ourselves at Bar Charley. Among a bunch of other co-brunchers with me is Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas.

The Vibe

Living in the old Cajun Experience space, Bar Charley's a good example of how to take a basement location and make it charming: a trim paint job, some nice rustic pieces like red frame chandeliers and mirrors, lights that play up the exposed brick with a soft glow alongside sage green walls. A long-row of half-booths runs along one brick wall, with some twos and fours in the middle, and a few what-can-only-be-described-as high-top booths on the other wall. The real charming spots are the small bar that sits to one side, and the expansive patio in the back.

The Food


Bar Charley has one of the better bottomless brunch deals in the city, at $24 for an entree and two hours of drinking (not like either of us took advantage of it, since we ordered the two upcharged dishes on the menu). Both are standouts. Chicken and waffles is appropriately sweet on the waffle, and crispy on the bird, and a pleasant overall dish. My pork belly and eggs is sublime, with wonderful fatty belly chunks meshing well with my order of fried eggs; about my only complaint are the limp fries. All in all though, on both dishes, it's the right bit of salt, the right execution on some standard brunch favorites, which just about describes everything that Bar Charley does.

The Verdict

This is sort of cheating, but the verdict and ratings here capture not only brunch but a few late night eats there. It's what takes a solid brunch and makes this review (and subsequent Bar Charley ranking) something more like a hidden neighborhood gem.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Casual
Bar Rating:
 Quiet Drinks
Vibe:
Chatty
Cost:
$$$
 (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)

Bar Charley Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

First Look: The Dabney

Plaudits: None (yet)
Neighborhood: Shaw

The Setup


It's my alive day celebration, and since there was probably no restaurant opening we had been more anxiously awaiting than The Dabney's, we headed straight there. Celebrating with me and Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas on this dinner were Official Friends of DCWD BS and Rae.

The Vibe


It's funny: so many times in this space we write phrases like "exposed brick," "refurbished wood," "open kitchen," and "soft orange glow," as part of an overall description of a spot you've seen before; it's trendy to do these things after all. In some ways, that's what the Dabney is... and yet, in some ways those shorthands sell short how cute and well-appointed the dining room feels. I've long been impressed with what the Dabney's Blagden Alley neighbors have been able to accomplish in decor, so it should be no surprise that this room is also quite pretty. But it's the small touches: the colonial window lightboxes that frame the bar, the colonial style tables and chairs, the wood-burning oven. All of these things sell the restaurant's overall concept of simultaneously hearkening back to 1700s Mid-Atlantic America or a quaint dining room in Charleston, where The Dabney's bones come from.

Two other things stand out: the spacing of the tables is generous; often, especially in hyped restaurants, the tables are on top of one another. You could easily see how they could cram another 6-10 covers into the layout with minimal effort, so it's nice to see a restaurant ease back. On the flip side, even on this Tuesday night, the room is packed and the buzz is significant, so you'll need that extra elbow room to combat the noise, especially near the front of house and bar.

The Food


In many ways, our decisions were made for us: with an already short menu made shorter by a few sold out items, we ordered practically everything available to us, save for a salad and a $90 ribeye for two - tempting as the latter was.

To start, a round of cocktails, which are emblematic of the restaurant's aim to use as many local and seasonal ingredients as possible to depict a truly Mid-Atlantic cuisine - why else put housemade sorghum vinegar in one? Of note, are the Dabney Bramble - a light mix of gin, cherry cordial, lemon, and winter kiwi berry - so good, that the table orders a second round of it, and the Wisdom Above Rubies - a mix of amaro, housemade rhubarb tea, lemon, egg white, and bitters.

In many of the openings we've seen recently - or more generally, in disappointing meals throughout the year - what's missing most of the time is a direction or a viewpoint. Rather, what needs to be sussed out at these spots is a unifying theme or unique perspective on food that makes a meal memorable or conversation-worthy or re-orderable. That is probably the most impressive part about the Dabney in these very early days: that the cohesive taste of Mid-Atlantic, of rustic and autumnal, and of handcrafted - in this case, not even an ::eyeroll:: handcrafted, but rather a personalized, meaningful, and seasoned touch - is all there.

Don't believe me? Try the grilled flowering brassicas, a dish of mustard plants amid mashed potatoes that in lesser hands, would taste as dull as it sounds. But here, some rye malt vinegar and a generous helping of fried shallot along with a careful attention to detail makes this a surprising standout, with a perfect char and salt balance meshing bitter greens with rich buttery potato.

This is a theme that repeats itself ad infinitum. A small Le Creuset of baked egg with oats, creamed celeriac, and a feather-light helping of kimchee blows our minds with how deep and rich it is, given its lack of protein, and eats like a warm soup. A red fife flatbread brings out the sugar in its caramelized onions, baked into fluffy goodness with a balancing touch of herbs. A root vegetable chowder comes across like a vichyssoise but without any of the accompanying potato heaviness, paired perfectly with bits of fennel and bacon and a bit of brioche dunking toast. A side of crispy brussels sprouts too has shallots to help it along, and crisped to perfection, in an almost Asian-style sweet marinade.

The "entree" dishes are also superlative. Somehow, the buttermilk biscuit dish is the worst one - and it still was pretty good! The problem is mostly of construction: a buttermilk biscuit sandwich, essentially, filled with some seared foie gras, country ham, apples, fried egg, and maple, the dish requires you to get every ingredient in one bite to get the full effect, which is a challenge. The foie gras too is a little disappointing, a little less fatty and flavorful than I've had before.

Still the other two plates of the night are delectable. a filet of flounder is seared perfectly, paired perfectly with a turnip, garlic, and country ham jus, and charred cabbage. It melts in your mouth, while delivering a wonderful sweetness alongside of the bitter accompaniments. The grilled pork looks more like a rib, but eats like a strip of belly, with its sizable fat strip. Its sweet barbecue glaze is noteworthy - much like the brussels sprouts, almost Asian in profile - though its accompaniments of amuse bouche sized sweet potato and radish chow-chow are left on the plate.

Two desserts round out the night, and capture the essence of the dinner. An apple crumble is straightforward, though its inclusion of angostura bitters ice cream (which tastes almost like a candy Fireball) and toasted marshmallow, add an inventive spin on a classic. But the dessert that wows us is a peanut butter cake, surprising us with its depth and with how well it works with celery ice cream and a barley crumble.

The Verdict


One of the most confident and intriguing openings in a year chock full of them. For me, an instant top ten - at the least - that is a definite recommendation for all.

Food Rating: *****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
 Smart Casual
Bar Rating:
Suits Scene
Vibe:
Noisy
Cost:
$$$$
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)


The Dabney Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Unum

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2013 Top 100
Neighborhood: Georgetown

The Setup


With a quick meal needed before a Kennedy Center ballet night, Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas and I headed over to Unum on M Street.

The Vibe
I'm going to say something a little mean here: I really don't like this dining room. Like even a little bit. Part of it is a sad fact of the architecture: as the ground level of a townhouse-like object, the only natural light comes in from the scant two windows at the front of the long dining room. Which means that save for the two awkwardly perched tables by the entrance, every other table feels cramped and basement-y, a fact exacerbated by the fact that the two-tops sit basically on top of another. As for the interior decor, which comes straight from the "we're going to set an orange-brown mood lighting in this place," the best I can surmise is that somebody wanted to build an Elks Lodge and stopped halfway: odd faux-stone work leads to stone paneling which just stops halfway and becomes wood. It's like the spiritual opposite of last week's Barcelona review.

The Food


Which is to say, that just as the decor splits from Barcelona's trim and handsome charm, the food coming from this kitchen is surprisingly good compared to the former's disappointingly mediocre offerings. Here, we order two appetizers and two half-portions of pastas to take as a small plates style dinner. And while nothing hits our taste buds out of the park, the menu offers unique and fun seasonal plates that satisfy.

To wit, duck confit tacos take a traditional dish and flip it into two enjoyable bites. A date compote and blackberry bbq sauce add hints of sweet while baby spinach fills out the pleasantly-stringy meat. Similar textures abound in the shortrib pasta, where some lovely braised beef falls apart amongst baby root vegetables and fresh tagliatelle - if there's a complaint here, it's that the red-wine jus could stand to be turned up a notch.

Rosemary gnocchi stands out as a touchstone here, with flavor-packed pasta augmented by the occasional cranberry and truffle butter; brussels sprouts and butternut squash and beech mushrooms are also there to fill out the dish with some heft. The only eyebrow-raising dish is a chorizo stuffed squid, which comes across a bit slick and uneven, a fact magnified by the additional presence of risotto and fried calamari on the plate - which felt like "here's all these things, surely one of them you'll like!" move. Even a chipper honey-lime-chipotle sauce can't save it all.

The Verdict

Some fun things going on here, in an area of town not exactly packed to the gills with interesting eats.

Food Rating: ***
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 1.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Smart Casual
Bar Rating:
Quiet Drinks
Vibe:
Calm
Cost:
$$$
 (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)

Unum Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Barcelona

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: 14th Street/Logan Circle

The Setup


With a quick drink - and maybe some bites - on deck on a Monday night, Official Friend of DCWD Shelby joined me and Official Co-Writer/Wife of DCWD Texas for a meal at Barcelona.

The Vibe
Barcelona is part of the cavalcade of NYC concepts that have migrated their way south (a location made even funnier by the fact that it sits just a few blocks from one of the city's pre-eminent Spanish tapas spots: Estadio). What stands out the most is how slick the space is: a huge outdoor patio that stays well into the wintertime with heater lamps, and squared off wooden tables illuminated by garage lights. Inside, a long white marble bar is flanked by an equally set of four-top bar tables, while more traditional seating lies in the back. Slate grays, deep browns, and wood fill the space, which proves to be one of the prettiest versions of the post-industrial/refurbished materials oeuvre that remains so popular now. If there's a downside, it's the buzz: even on this Monday night, the place is packed and loud - likely the product of half-price wine bottles.

The Food


On the flip side, it's too bad the food can't stand up to the decor. The one saving grace of the night is the bottle of rose champagne the server helpfully picks out for us. But his other suggestions are somewhere between shrugworthy to actively pallid. A ribeye plancha is overcooked, with chewy chunks of meat swimming in an overabundance of oil and conjuring up flavors of bad Chinese stirfry. A similar description can be lavished upon the duck fat potatoes; rather than say something crispy a la patatas bravas, or say, Bourbon Steak's own version, these are greasy and slick, and yet somehow devoid of anything interesting to say.



The Verdict


Slick packaging obscures uninspired cooking.

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

Barcelona Wine Bar 14th Street Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato