Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Food Field Trip: Neptune Oyster is Truly the Boston Seafood God

Without a doubt, one of my favorite foods is lobster and one of the best preparations of it is Neptune Oyster's hot buttered lobster roll. This intimate bistro in Boston's North End specializes in the full range of seafood, including raw bar items as well as inventive fish dishes.

The tiny (30 seats including the bar) dining room is reminiscent of a Parisian bistro with marbled floors, tables, bar, mirrored walls, and large ice buckets teeming with bottles of champagne. Service is always pleasant and the food is fantastic. It is basically perfect except for one thing: they do not take reservations. I am a planner, so this wrinkle drives me crazy (last time we showed up we were quoted a two hour wait), but it is worth the try. This past Saturday B and I had perfect timing and got the last two seats in the restaurant within 5 minutes of arriving.

And December was a great time to start dinner by sampling some local oysters. We opted for three types of Massachusetts oysters and glasses of prosecco.

We settled in, soaking up the European ambiance, in addition to the conversations on either side of us. The dining room is quite cramped, so we got to hear all about an upcoming wedding to the left and, on to the right, watch a family squirm as the parents were delighted to share the seafood with their adult son and girlfriend, who both opted for burgers.

Back to us. First came the oversized homemade oyster crackers. These are much denser than the prepackaged variety and far less salty. They were a nice compliment to the oysters.

I am a relatively new convert to the raw oyster craze, but I now believe that you cannot beat the subtle contrast of taste, salinity, and texture between different varietals.

The homemade mignonette sauce had more shallots than most and the cocktail sauce had a great kick thanks to ample horseradish. These succulent and salty bivalves ranged between 2.50 - 2.70 a piece.

And then after time to digest our appetizer (service is well paced), it was time for the lobster roll, a $25 dollar plate of goodness comprised of an entire hot buttered lobster--and only lobster, i.e. no fillers, lettuce, or mayonnaise--served on a housemade brioche bun with an ample helping of crispy skin-on french fries.

As you can see, Neptune does not skimp on the lobster. It was cooked to perfection, succulent and delicious with plenty of butter to soften the roll. The fries are actually some of the best, darker in color than most; several diners asked if they were made from sweet potatoes (they aren't). The fries are salty, with a crispy outside and soft hot inside.

While the other seafood dishes looked great, we both opted for the lobster roll with a glass of white wine, putting us in a state of food euphoria.

Neptune Oyster does not serve dessert, and for good reasons. Not only does it keep tables turning, but there are ample places to grab a traditional Italian-American dessert item just around the corner. On this night, we were too full to room grab a cannoli at one of the many traditional neighboring bakeries. However, after dinner we did snag some last minute tickets for a laugh.

The bill with tax and tip came to $130 with two glasses of champagne, two glass of white wine, six oysters, and two lobster rolls.

And I leave you with a Hemingway quote etched in the restaurant's bathroom mirror:
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

Neptune Oyster on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 28, 2009

Food Field Trip: An Ode to Boston Tidbits and Treats

We spent the weekend after Christmas with one of my best friends: the city of Boston. Boston to me is like New York is to Carrie Bradshaw. I seem to just fit in Beantown. I never tire of the old cobblestone streets, the Beacon Hill brownstones, the sense of history and timelessness, its provincialism, and of course, the food. The weather is another story entirely!

Boston is quaint and walkable, with intimate small dining spaces that exude charm and warmth, and is home to some notable chefs. While I do like living in Washington, DC, it's big, loud, home to many who take themselves--and their work--far, far too seriously, and much of the city and its environs (albeit with some exceptions) is newer. So I enjoy savoring the sounds, sights, and flavors of Boston when I am able to get up there.

Here are some of the spots, old and new, that we were able to hit up this weekend:

First off, one of my favorite everyday lunches can be had for the bargain price of $5.50 ($7.00 with the addition of a Diet Coke). I discovered Anna's Taqueria about twelve year's ago thanks to a friend who was attending B.U., and I have not found a better burrito or anything close since. It has to do with the quality of the cheese and the way it is steamed into a thin tortilla, the skill in which it is wrapped, the savory rice, and of course the fillings.

I am slightly obsessed with this local chain, which now boasts five locations in and around Boston, all around college campuses. I think Anna's sustained me through graduate school and even now, I cannot imagine a better lunch. I actually prefer the vegetarian burrito, which includes fresh chopped grilled vegetables--carrots, three types of peppers, eggplant, zucchini, squash, and corn. Couple this with the rice, a mix of black and pinto beans, searing hot sauce and hot peppers, and finally sour cream and guacamole and you have achieved burrito nirvana. The quesadillas are also quite good and B really enjoys the chicken and carnitas burritos.

After this completely satisfying lunch, we were walking down Newbury Street on an exceptionally warm December Day, when B swears he catches a glance of someone drinking out of a coffee cup with the Wired Puppy logo. This funky coffee shop was a morning go-to spot in Provincetown, another favorite location of ours. I of course thought B was imagining things, but he was convinced. So we did what all good urban tourists do when they have not yet given into the iPhone craze: we popped into the Apple Store to look it up. And while the Wired Puppy website was not updated to reflect the address of its new location in Boston, Yelp was.

Wired Puppy on Urbanspoon

B was psyched. We headed back to Newbury Street, where the shop occupied the lower level of a brownstone. The interior was nice, with old brick walls and archways with Provincetown-style funk, including some modern interior touches and cool music. Plus there was plenty of seating--a rarity for a coffee shop on this street.

Now while I have never liked the taste of coffee, B goes to extraordinary lengths (and expense) at home and abroad to track down purveyors of the perfect beans and brew. He thought Wired Puppy coffee was the best he had ever drunk in Boston. I did however enjoy a chilled sparkling water for only $2, which is a relative bargain on Newbury St.

Our last stop of the day before dinner (blog entry coming soon) was the Parker House. Full disclosure: we had our wedding reception here, partly because of its history and culinary reputation. Not only was it the birthplace of the Parker House roll and Boston cream pie, but did you know its restaurant once employed some now-notable personalities, including a certain chef, dictator, and activist? The hotel maintains its sense of history and charm to this day, and this is especially true of the Last Hurrah, one of two bars located off the lobby. This dimly lit, comfortable room is staffed by friendly waiters who have been there for ages (thanks Paul), the music is standards, and the views across the street are of King's Chapel and Old City Hall (the latter now houses a Ruth's Chris). The martinis, shaken tableside, are excellent.

B always opts for the classic gin martini up with olives, where as I favor the Big Apple Martini made with an apple liqueur and vodka, and has none of the fluorescent green apple color or pucker. The martinis are shaken table side and served on a silver try along with some delectable warm nuts.

The prices for martinis at the Last Hurrah are between $10-12--up from their $7-9 pricetag when we got married there in 2006, but still a pretty good deal.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays

I hope your holidays are full of festive food finds and delicious drinks, enjoyed with family and friends!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Meal for All Seasons: Chipotle Shrimp

This past summer I was fortunate enough to attend a dinner hosted by Rick Bayless, the man behind Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. I wish I could say this was just an average night for me, but it was an all too rare event to get to hear firsthand what drives one of the best Mexican-inspired chefs in the country.

I also received his cookbook Everyday Mexican that evening, but having never prepared Mexican food at home, and frankly, being quite intimidated by this style cuisine as a home cook, I read it more as a novel than a cookbook. But in looking a bit closer, I realized that many of Bayless's recipes actually seemed manageable, the ingredients for which could be found at non-speciality grocery stores.

This is the backstory to a flavorful, reliable weeknight recipe, Chipotle Shrimp. Please note the recipe available online is slightly different (and a lot less saucy) than the one in the book, but the recipe is easily modified and expanded upon. I add a sprinkling of goat cheese on top and plate over basmati rice with avocados to make a one-dish meal that tastes like it took hours, but is easily prepared in less than 30 minutes. The spice and heat of the chipotles are offset by the sweetness of the tomatoes. The shrimp turn out succulent and tender. This is one of those rare dishes that crosses over seasons and can either warm you up in the winter or deliver a burst of flavor in the summer.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dino: Decent or Delicious?

Dino is one those DC neighborhood staples that we have been meaning to try for a while. The issue is, it is in Cleveland Park, and not necessarily a convenient metro trip or cab ride. So with tickets to Zoolights on Friday, we decided that this would be the perfect time to check out this Florentine Italian restaurant.

We arrived about fifteen minutes before our reservation time and were cold and hungry. We were promptly greeted and seated in the first floor dining room. The space is comfortable, if a bit tight, with windows on two sides and a small bar area when you enter. The ambiance very much feels like a neighborhood spot with the owner walking around chatting up patrons with stories of Tuscany and the origins of menu items.

Once seated we were bombarded with what can only be described as an excess of menus. Not one but three different wine listings which were duplicative, the standard menu, and a separate placard on the seven fishes special (which was also listed in the regular menu). This was way too much paper for a small space and I would recommend some organization and consolidation.

We decided to order a bottle of Chianti (getting rid of three of the menus) and start with the buttermilk soaked, cornmeal crusted calamari with spicy marinara sauce and then decide from there about the rest of our food. Our server abruptly dropped the wine off at our table and said he would be back to open it. He then proceeded to take another table's order before uncorking our wine. This was a bit uncouth, but consonant with the casual vibe on the place. And from then on the service was on-point. The wine was robust and warmed us up instantly. The calamari was okay -- it should have been a bit crisper and certain pieces tended toward the soggy. The spicy marinara that it was served with however was quite good.

We then went for a salad of chicory (a winter green) with a sardine Parmesan dressing. Neither of us had tried chicory before and I won't again, whereas B loved this combination.

I found the chicory to be really bitter and the dressing weighed it down with an overly fishy flavor. B loved this unique combination.

The pasta entrees here were the standouts.

B had the free-form lasagna, which was a creamy plate of really delicate noodles with the flavors of pancetta, several types of cheese, and a light tomato sauce.

I opted for the cannelloni stuffed with duck and veal sausage whose earthy flavor was complimented by what tasted like a hint of orange or lemon zest in the cheese sauce.

When dessert came around I was really happy to see the option of a $5 glass of homemade grappa, limoncello, or muscato. I opted for the latter, B the grappa, and both were excellent and even more enjoyable to sit and linger over since what would become the DC snowpocalpyse had begun.

We also shared a piece of tiramisu. This was prepared in the traditional manner and was good, but not great. It was a bit too soggy and lacked a certain richness.

Dinner for two with a bottle of wine, shared appetizer, shared salad, two pasta entrees, dessert drinks, and a shared dessert including tax and tip was $130.

Would we go back? It depends on whom you ask. I thought it was good, but nothing compared to
Tosca, whereas B is already planning our next trip.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Well, the weather outside is frightful...

...and inside the grocery store is anything but delightful. This was the scene in the Clarendon Whole Foods earlier this morning. I hope you are a better planner than me and went to the store yesterday before the DC-area hoards freaked out and ravaged the stores. But not to fear, we did manage to snag the ingredients for an excellent, cold weather meal perfect for weathering the storm.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Food Flashback: No Name Seafood

We are headed to Massachusetts next week to spend Christmas with my family and a night in Boston on the way back to the airport. A failed attempt to secure a reservation at Barbara Lynch's popular B&G Oysters (it's closed from the holiday through the 27th) reminded me of a total fiasco we experienced in August, when we were last up there. Since that was before I started this blog, I wanted to share as a warning to those looking for seafood in Boston.

We had not made reservations during that trip and planned to head to our favorite seafood spot, a tiny no-reservation restaurant in the North End, Neptune Oyster, where the signature dish is hot buttered lobster on a homemade brioche roll. But the crowds that the North End feast brought to the neighborhood that summer weekend made the wait over two hours. So instead we decided to head to No Name Seafood, a longstanding landmark on the Wharf. We had always said we were going to try this place when we lived there and somehow never got around to it. Which in retrospect we learned was a good thing.

If I had only one word to describe this restaurant, it would be gross. I expected this storied establishment to be New England-style rugged but not to inflict what should be board of health-worthy violations at every turn. We stood in line to wait for a table in a warehouse sized room with 70's furniture and with a mix of Russian tourists (maybe thanks to the plummeting value of the dollar?) and locals. We were seated at a sticky table (more on that in the following paragraph) and curtly greeted by an ancient waiter who could barely walk let alone serve. The poor guy must have been pushing 80, and was also responsible for busing tables.

Which brings me to the core issue. The typical cleaning of a table (which we mercifully took note of only after we ate) consisted of simply pushing shells and the liquid contents of steamed lobsters aside, and dumping the previous party's water pitcher into the new one. This made me want to throw up. Had we seen this before we ate, we would have guzzled our drinks high-tailed it out of there!

If you are still reading at this point, we came for lobster and got the traditional lobster/fried seafood menu item. At $28 a piece this was not cheap and the food was overall mediocre at best; while the lobster was tender and cooked just the way you want it to be, the fried seafood appetizers smelled--and tasted--like they had come out of a second-rate grocery store's freezer case. I should also mention that though they had beer taps, they had long ago stopped working. Draft beer seems like a staple when enjoying (or in this case, surviving) a New England seafood dinner.

So No Name should be a No Go if you happen to be in Boston. I'm sure it's in all the tourist guidebooks, but I am floored that it somehow manages to keep its reputation. You can get better and fresher seafood elsewhere in the city as well as sanitary conditions that aren't so unbearable.

As for next week's trip, we are hoping to have better luck at Neptune!

No Name Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 14, 2009

Lofty Expectations, Great Experience: Rasika

I vaguely remember having a conversation with a colleague two years ago about what a wonderful restaurant Rasika is, and how they really transform Indian food into something transcendent. It slipped my mind until October, when Tom Sietsema in the Post's Fall Dining Guide elevated Rasika to a 4 star ranking, putting it--somewhat surprisingly--in the company of Restaurant Eve's Tasting Room, Komi, and the Inn at Little Washington. So on Friday night, I was finally able to see if Rasika would live up to the hype.

I have no good reason for this delay. Rasika is relatively affordable, especially when compared to the other restaurants in the four star category. While you do need to make a reservation about 3 weeks out, there is really no excuse as to why it took us so long to try. But now that we have, we will be back--many times I am sure.


After a frenetic Friday afternoon at work, I ventured out into a quite frigid night for this time of the year, arriving at Rasika tired, cold, and ready to start the weekend. The inside of the restaurant is a warm space, with light caramel woodwork, and is divided into a dining and a bar area, with an open kitchen in back.

I was greeted by a distracted hostess. And me being me, I began to immediately question whether Rasika was going to live up to my lofty expectations. She was a bit frazzled but within five minutes I was seated.

B and I were quickly greeted by our gregarious waitress, who took our drink orders. Again, the night was off to slight hitch, as the waitress mistakenly told me my cocktail was made with tequila instead of rum and could not remember that B ordered his martini with olives verses a twist and brought out both to be sure. I know this sounds incredibly picky, but a 4 star restaurant should not have these glitches. However, the waitress handled it well joking that we were her first table of the night and from there the night was flawless.

My cocktail was some sort of apple-fennel 'smash.' One sip and I knew the weekend had begun. It was refreshing with a slight kick. Though the gin and tonic was in fact invented in India's capital during colonial times, B opted instead for a martini with Bombay gin.

The waitress asked whether 1) this was our first time dining at Rasika and 2)if we needed to leave at a certain time to catch a show. The answer being yes to both, she went over the menu in great detail; as she was going over the menu, she noted that the best appetizer was their fried baby spinach and that while not on the pre-theatre menu, she would gladly substitute it. We were thrilled with this as we had heard great things about this appetizer. This also caught the attention of the table behind us who were being helped by a different server and had already ordered. Our waitress told them not to worry and was able to talk to the kitchen and switch their order as well. She really went out of her way to make their meal and ours a great experience.

We decided to share all our courses, starting with the fried spinach...

...and the clams caldine.

The spinach was simply amazing and I am at a loss of words in describing it -- very lightly battered and friend with phenomenal Indian spices. The clams were succulent and juicy in a flavorful broth studded with sauteed onions.

We ordered Kingfisher beers to pair with our entrees and this time shared a lamb and a chicken dish which wer served with white rice and two kinds of naan. You will note from the picture that I could not wait to try this and sampled the dishes before I remembered to take the picture.

Rasika really does elevate Indian food into something extraordinary. The chicken was tender--like butter--and served in a rich and creamy sauce, which was the best I've ever tasted. The lamb was also incredible, served in a spicier but equally indulgent sauce. This was so good, that we ate way more than we should have and ordered a third--oink, oink--round of naan to soak up the sauce. The beer was a good choice to cut the richness and spice of these dishes.

For dessert we both opted for frozen options, I got a taste, which equated to three huge scoops of sorbet: cherry peppercorn, star anise, and another flavor which I cannot recall. I was so full, but tried them all. The cherry peppercorn was the best of the three--sweet and complex.

B had the cardamon ice cream which he really enjoyed -- rich and complex.

I can't wait to go back. Though next time I would order off the standard menu, skip the dessert, and pace myself on the entrees. All issues with the eater and not the restaurant!

The total with tax and tip, two cocktails, two beers, and the pre-theatre menu for two was $125.

Rasika on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Two Dollar Delight


Today I had one of those perfect DC days, Christmas shopping in museum shops on the national mall. It was all made even the more fabulous by the salted caramel hot chocolate treat I had at the Christmas Market outside of the National Portrait Gallery. This two dollar Dixie cup-sized portion was the perfect sip of holiday cheer. (Cheesy post today? You bet!) It had a rich, dark chocolate base, which was complimented by the salty and sweet salt caramel flavor. I have been meaning to try Co Co Sala for quite some time, and I think this hot chocolate may have just push me over the edge. This thick concoction--served hot, but at a drinkable temperature--managed to be both sweet and a bit savory owing to the sea salt.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Good Brunch/Lunch Bet in Clarendon

The Ballston-Rosslyn corridor has more than a few restaurants, and I love living here, but other than Ray's the Steaks and Guajillo, it is pretty unremarkable food-wise. This is especially true when it comes to Sunday brunch, when neither of the aforementioned are open. Many places on Sunday --to say nothing of the bar scene (and much of the weekend evening clientele)--either showcase hangover-relief-pigfest buffets or a brunch menu that is largely crap masquerading as gourmet. So B and I usually end up at our reliable Georgetown brunch spot, having given up on most neighborhood options. But this past Sunday, we decided to give it one more try and headed to Liberty Tavern, which is a block from the Clarendon metro station.

When we walked in the host cheerily asked whether we "had the opportunity to make a reservation?" As the answer was no, and I was fearing we would not have an opportunity to eat, but the host instead pointed us to two spots at the bar area about to open up. The bar space is actually very nice--and the space meal-friendly--and was packed with other diners so we decided to go for it.

The service was excellent. One Jimmy, a friendly, attentive bartender, promptly took our orders, and while I was tempted to go for the house special $4 Bloody Mary with a chaser of Brooklyn Lager, I decided to be good and stuck with water. Maybe next time on the drinks.

While Liberty does offer a large brunch buffet for $18 that sounded quite tempting with the likes of hot mulled apple cider and reverse chocolate chip cookies, we were in the mood for lunch fare and decided to go with the a la carte options. B ordered the club sandwich and me, being a sucker for a good lobster roll, decided to give it a try. Both sandwiches epitomized their respective categories. B declared his club, perfect: roasted turkey, black forest ham, Liberty's bacon, provolone on anadama bread. My lobster roll, on housemade bread with plump and plentiful lobster in a tarragon studded mayonnaise, was terrific. The skin-on fries were crisp, tasty, and gone by the end of the meal.

As I write this I realize while it was a Sunday, this is more of a lunch review than brunch, but I have no doubt the buffet breakfast options may worth a trip back for a special Sunday occasion.

Lunch for two (no drinks) was $35 with tax and tip.

Liberty Tavern on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Food Field Trip: New Orleans Tidbits and Treats

If you’ve OD'ed on beignets (not that I am speaking from experience or anything) and have a sweet tooth (again, as if I would know what this is like) Bacco’s ice cream sandwich dessert is the answer.

The homemade cake (in this case a rich red velvet) surrounds La Divina gelato (this time a cream cheese flavor). This is a huge, sharable, well-executed dessert appropriate in every season. Their pastas are also excellent, but the dessert is always the star of the show.

Bacco on Urbanspoon

I love the Cajun, Creole, and French-inspired plethora of regional cuisines that New Orleans has to offer, but in order to really appreciate those, I need a break in between jambalaya and Etoufee, since it is NOLA, there is no way I would go for a salad. My go-to spot for something different is Juan’s Flying Burrito, which is on a great little stretch of Magazine Street towards Uptown (about a $10 cab ride from the Quarter).

This hipster, Mexican joint offers reasonably priced, flavorful cuisine, especially the chicken verde enchiladas with huge chunks of grilled chicken, homemade green chili sauce, cheese, sour cream and hot peppers. It is spicy and oh-so-flavorful.


The accompanying beans and rice are just okay, but the portions are so big and filling and the margaritas tasty and cheap, that who needs a side anyway? Plus, you are in New Orleans after all which means your next meal can’t be far away.

Juan's Flying Burrito on Urbanspoon

While we went to the Po’ Boy festival Uptown for the famed sandwich (pictured below is the barbecued oyster version from Redfish Grill)…

...I fell in love with the crabmeat-stuffed fried shrimp from Sammy's Deli.

As big as a fist, these succulent Gulf shrimp were stuffed with a bread and crab mixture and served with a spicy dipping sauce flecked with paprika. A wonderful indulgence and for $6 for 2, the price was right.