Thursday, January 28, 2010

Not the Cake Lady, but a Heck of a Boston Cream Pie

You might have guessed from earlier posts that I am an unabashed Bostonophile. When we got married four years ago we opted for a huge Boston Cream Pie in lieu of the traditional white wedding cake. Being the reluctant baker that I am, the spring-form pan that was on our registry has stayed pristine, complete with packaging until a few weeks ago.

Some very good friends gave me the New Boston Globe Cookbook for Christmas and I have been baking more lately, mainly because it is a stress relief from work and school. We were having a dinner party, and needed a new dessert, so I went for it. Though B baked his signature chocolate chip cookies just in case it did not turn out well.

I approached the Boston Cream Pie recipe with trepidation. The traditional recipe is quite unlike the bastardizations you see in supermarkets, and is basically a vanilla cake with a small amount of homemade custard in the middle, and is topped with a chocolate ganache. It is a three step process that involves tempering an egg; up until attempting this recipe my only exposure to this technique was seeing it on The Food Network.

Full disclosure: I am the daughter of Holden's famed 'Cake Lady'. My Mom is a phenomenally talented baker and used to do hundreds of amazingly elaborate cakes for her clients. When I was in high school, I somehow broiled a cake in home economics, and I think my Mom questioned where she went wrong with me. Fortunately, I have gotten a bit better at baking since then. And my Mom--probably given her profession--is very good at talking through the steps of cake baking and her advice for this recipe was no exception.

This recipe turned out to be not as difficult as I imagined--if time consuming--and yielded a fantastically moist cake. And if you'd like to--as someone would say--"turn the volume up" on this recipe, use a luxurious unsweetened chocolate (all you need is one ounce or so) for the icing.

And after making a huge cake two weeks in a row, B found a 4.5 inch spring-form pan so we (we=he) can enjoy this treat even when we aren't entertaining.

Thanks Mom.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Homemade Bread

I like nothing more than a carb-laden treat and what is more the essence of such than fresh baked bread? Not much. So when B discovered this New York Times recipe for no-knead bread that went viral last year (we are a bit behind the curve), I was thrilled.

For this bread, all you need is yeast, flour, water, dutch oven, and--most importantly--time. No pesky kneading and then kneading again… you get the idea.

When B first made the dough, I was skeptical. It looks like a gloppy, sticky, white alien blob. And the scariest part, this blob doubles in size over the course of about 14 hours. At that point, you simply remove it from the bowl, fold it in a ball upon itself, and let it rise for another 20 minutes. Then into the dutch oven it goes.

The end result speaks for itself:

We discovered that King Arthur flour makes for a superior dough and finished product. And how did we get so smart? From the no-knead bread exemplar on B’s other new obsession: Garden Fork TV. He loves it; I think it is annoying. But we both agree that this doughy on the inside, crusty on the outside bread is great.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Lunch Break: Zengo DC

I am starting a new blog segment: Lunch Break. My idea is to profile downtown restaurants that offer weekday lunch specials or other sit-down spots that are a good option for a weekday break. I spend about half my week in the Gallery Place/Metro Center section of DC, and am intrigued by the number of lunch deals ranging from Proof to Zola.

Now I can't promise this feature will be published on a regular basis; I account for every minute of each billable hour, which often really means I either have no time for a regular lunch break or would rather not have to make up the time later in the day or month. But maybe by starting this feature, I will force myself to get out more, decompress, and hopefully try some great food at the same time.

First up: Zengo. This fusion Latin-Asian restaurant is located adjacent to the Gallery Place Chinatown Metro exit and is offering several weekday lunch specials including: $10 rice bowls, $13 roll boxes, and $14 hot boxes.

I popped in for a quick solo lunch at the bar. The restaurant lobby and a decent-size lounge are street level, but the dining room and main bar area are on the second floor. The restaurant is a warm space with deep tangerine and plum colors.

I was seated promptly, and the service overall was very good. My water was never less than half full. Of course, neither was the restaurant. This was at noon and there were less than 20 people total in the entire space.

I opted for the fried rice bowl, which had duck, shrimp, and pork. I am not entirely sure what comprised the fusion element, maybe the pulled pork? I definitely got the Asian influence, but wasn't getting much of a Latin vibe. The meats were all fork-tender, but lacked any interesting depth of flavor. The rice itself was beyond salty (and I like salty things), perhaps to mask the lack of flavor in the meats. It did have scallions, diced carrots, and sprouts--all of which added texture, but it lacked the promised snow peas listed on the menu.

Overall verdict: SKIP. Way too salty and will have you gulping water for the rest of your day.

I should note though that there were large bowls of citrus, sugar, and mint leaves at the bar. While I would love to say I tried a mojito, this being a workday lunch there was no chance to do so, but I would consider coming back to the bar for a drink.

Zengo on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Just Okay, but Always Drawn Back: Faccia Luna

If you asked me whether you should head to Faccia Luna, part of a microchain in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, I would have to say: "probably not." Yet why do I continue to eat there when I have Monday nights free? Let me explain. On Mondays, for 24.24 you get:
  • Two glasses of house wine (not swill, but not something I would normally drink),
  • Two salads (these are decent with lots of shredded mozzarella, tomatoes, mushrooms, romaine, and creamy, zesty parmesan peppercorn dressing), and
  • A pizza with two toppings (the quality here varies wildly, from classic old school pizza to completely undercooked as they are trying to rush pizzas out of the kitchen).
This is the type of place where you find yourself saying things like: “the service is actually good tonight” or “the pizza is actually cooked.” So be forewarned that it could very well suck. And other than the bartender who is friendly and keeps a great rotating selection of beers on tap, the service is most always ambivalent and sometimes non-existent.

Why go? Obviously the price is appealing, especially on the first day of the work week. The food can be really good – never great, but what do you expect for $25 for two. The space is warm, and it is great to unwind after a long day.

I think I like the routine of the whole thing, not having to worry about cooking on Monday nights. However, I have been in an MBA program that meets on Monday nights for the past four years, so when we do go it feels like a bonus to not be sitting in class eating Subway (I won’t even talk to that).

So if you need a cheap date, and can keep expectations in check, this is the place for you on Monday night. Otherwise, you can do better.

Faccia Luna Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Saturday Morning Sanity: Brooklyn Bagel Bakery

Since 2010 started, my life has been a whirlwind. There's lots and lots more of my day job--which is seems at about 150% right now--and at the same time I am finally finishing my MBA with an intensive project. Add to that the daily retinue of sleeping, commuting, and exercising.

So I figured that given the revved up daily grind lately, it would be apropos to mention one of my favorite local places that has been a relaxing Saturday morning tradition for us since we moved to Arlington in 2005: The Brooklyn Bagel Bakery.

This neighborhood bagel shop in Courthouse Arlington is the best bagel around. They are boiled in-house and then baked or vice versa, and come out perfectly chewy on the inside and crusty on the outside. The group that runs the business are always friendly and super efficient, serving the hoards of Arlingtonians that come in every weekend.

I also love watching the bagels being made from scratch in the back of this storefront cafe. It reminds me of my favorite TV segment as a kid, when Mister Rogers would show you how things were made. I get my weekly adult dose of this lesson by watching the bakers step-by-step bagel process. There is also ample seating inside as well a half dozen tables out front for the warmer months.

So even when my life gets crazier than normal, I can always count on a Saturday morning spent munching on half (the bagels are huge) of a chocolate chip bagel with light (to make me somehow feel better about the chocolate part) cream cheese. I highly recommend a trip if you are in the neighborhood. I am just realizing now that over the past four years, I have literally had hundreds of bagels. Not sure what that says about me.

A bagel with cream cheese is about $2 and goes up from there depending on the toppings.
Brooklyn Bagel Bakery on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Restaurant Week Pass

So it is restaurant week here in DC, and this foodie has no reservations, mostly by design. I have soured on restaurant week over the years for a few reasons. At most of the restaurants that participate, $35 for an appetizer, entrée, and dessert is either: 1) not a deal or 2) the portions are so big that no single person would ever order both an appetizer and dessert, so we end up spending more than we would have had we gone there on an ordinary night.

And the vast majority of restaurants (though there are exceptions) try to either rush patrons in and out or waitstaffs are indifferent. And this might be for good reason; according to restaurant staff I know, many of the people who never eat out except for this week are not used to tipping, and leave a pittance so skimpy as to be insulting.

We discovered a couple of years ago that some of the best restaurants participating have pre-theatre deals throughout the year, that yield better service in a lot less chaotic circumstances.

So after that Andy Rooney style rant, I will note that B went to Westend Bistro for lunch on Monday and swears by their tender, melt-in-your-mouth short ribs. Some of the better and more expensive restaurants like Westend and 2941 also only offer restaurant week specials at lunch; I do think that in this case, it is quite the deal. Unfortunately, my hectic 9-5 precludes my participation.

Having said that, I still like at least the concept behind restaurant week. During the slow seasons, people are lured to trying places they otherwise wouldn't try. Unfortunately, the experience very rarely lives up to the promise at most places.

This year, there are some gems. The newly opened and much-hyped Ris (headed by the former 1789 chef) and J&G Steakhouse in the W hotel are both offering lunch and dinner. But both have long been booked; despite claiming to be a great Foodie, I missed the reservation window!

Should you decide you just have to run out and get in on the supposed action, DC Foodies has a great write-up, including menus.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Local Legend and Cheap Eat: El Pollo Rico

Anyone that lives in and around DC knows that around every corner lurks another Peruvian chicken joint. When we first moved down here, we tried a few versions of pollo a la brasa and were not all that impressed. Well we may be late to the party, but we are here now and love El Pollo Rico, which has locations in both Arlington and Wheaton, MD.

This counter service restaurant evokes the appearance of a warehouse. You enter a huge, barebones room with a drop ceiling and are most evenings greeted by a line to the door. Not to worry though; the line moves quickly, propelled by an efficient, almost assembly-line type of service. This restaurant serves only chicken, french fries, coleslaw and a random assortment of a few sodas, juices, and desserts. And what they serve, they do extraordinarily well.

When you get to the counter you will note several fire ovens spinning hundreds of chickens marinated in a secret spice blend. When you order your chicken, available in quarter, half, or whole, it is cleaved into pieces (sorry vegetarians) and served up piping hot.

This chicken is absolutely amazing and makes the perfect weeknight dinner. It is always moist beyond belief with immense flavor owing to the marinade that seeps into the meat and crisps up the skin. The fries are steakhouse style and crispy, as long as they don't mix with the coleslaw served along side, which is a mild counterpoint to the flavorful chicken. The glue that ties the whole meal together (and always my favorite) is the two dipping sauces. Every meal comes with a raging hot green sauce and a cooling yellow mayonnaise-like one. These are best eaten together, mixing to your preferred degree of spicy.

I also love what a melting pot of people this place attracts. You are likely to hear several different languages and see people of all ages, shapes, size, and colors happily devouring that juicy chicken.

B and I usually get ours to go and find this meal best enjoyed with a Spanish Rioja or other full-bodied wine that can stand up the chicken's spicy marinade. El Pollo Rico does not serve alcohol.

And maybe the most appealing part of this treat is the price. A whole chicken meal with two orders of french fries, coleslaw, and hot and mild dipping sauces is about $16 (cash only). You can't beat that!

El Pollo Rico on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Birch and Barley: A Night of Firsts

Last night was a first for us: a tasting menu paired with not wine but beer. We had reservations at the uber-popular Birch and Barley, a newcomer to the Logan Circle neighborhood. Our timing was fortuitous, as last night was the first time the restaurant was offering a beer tasting menu.

While I had been looking forward to sampling some of the 50 beers on tap and tasting the breads and dessert selections profiled in the Post write-up, I did not anticipate this experience. And B thought he was in for a night at a glorified brewpub. I am happy to report he was wrong.

Before I delve into our dinner, a bit about the interior. The gutted and redesigned space feels like a trendy Manhattan restaurant that has somehow managed to strike the right balance of chic and modern without being cliche. The room is a rich brown; a long dining room leads back to an open kitchen, all of which is lit by tiny orbs on the ceiling and glowing candles on the wall. The infamous beer organ divides the kitchen and chef's table area from the main dining space.

I am glad I had made reservation because the place was packed, and that is to say nothing of Churchkey, the bar upstairs, which was bursting at the seams with beautiful people. And no, I am not being vain, as we ate downstairs : ).

B and I were seated right at our reservation time and promptly greeted by a very friendly and knowledgeable beer-guy of a waiter. His knowledge of both the separate food and beer menus was impressive. The former changes nightly, and the latter offers 50 beers plus 5 cask ales in either a 4 ounce tasting pour or a full serving. Alcohol content, size, and the proper glass are all indicated on the menu.

We were overwhelmed with the size of the list, but I loved that all beers could be sampled. We decided to take decision out of night though and go with the tasting menu. If you click on the image below, you will see a detailed description of the offerings.

Without a doubt the best part of the whole experience was that the beer director Greg Engert walked us through each pairing. Greg's understanding of the history of each beer varietal was fascinating and we really enjoyed the descriptions of their origins; it seemed that we got a crash-course last night in the history of beer making throughout the world. And I will admit, I was also thinking, wow, what an awesome job to have.

Back to the food. The bread plate has been much lauded. The kitchen is run by a husband and wife team: he focuses on the savory, she on the sweet. The bread was in fact mostly great, all served warm. The Kalamata olive rolls were our favorite, followed by the pretzels. Both were crispy on the outside with a warm, doughy center and just the right amount of salt. The mustard that accompanied the tray was a miss with a bitter taste and a sour finish.

The first course was the best: Island Creek oysters in a green apple mignonette paired with a Japanese beer aged in sake casks. The oysters were exquisite and smooth and the slightly acerbic yet darkish beer paired well.

Next, it was onto a seared sea scallop with Israeli couscous and lemon confit. This flavorful, light starter #2 was paired with a Belgian brew from a tiny producer that literally converted an old garage into the brewery. While I was afraid the wheat beer would overwhelm the scallop, it had a smooth clean finish which worked very well.

The next course, roasted poisson (baby chicken) with spaetzel stuffing was rich and savory. But the drink that went with it, an Italian brew modeled after African beers, was like nothing we had ever tasted. It was musky, with hints of a seasonally appropriate myrrh, complex, and complimented the chicken. We also learned that Birch and Barley was serving this beer on tap for the first time ever in the United States.

Next came an earthy, tender venison loin served with a cranberry, chestnut wild rice stuffing and paired with another, but much darker Belgium. The venison was executed well and the heartiness of the meat was a welcome dish on such a frigid night.

The dessert was an apple beignet with cider sorbet, paired with a domestic beer from Vermont that is made (at least this is what I remember Greg saying) with an amber base, wine grapes are added, and finally champagne yeast rounds out the flavor. It sounds strange, but Greg's enthusiastic description was right on. As for the beignet, I would have preferred less apple and more doughnut, but I am unabashed lover of carb-laden desserts.

As noted earlier, the service throughout this leisurely two hour meal was impressive. And the stories and background on the dishes that Greg provided were such a treat. I also enjoyed having the opportunity to taste such one-of-a-kind beers alongside some thoughtfully prepared dishes. I can't wait to go back and bring friends--and request the tasting bar that abuts the open kitchen--to enjoy this experience again.

I do have one criticism that has nothing to do with the food, drink, or service. That would be the frigid temperature of the bathrooms. A little heat would go a long way.

The five course tasting dinner for two with beer parings, tax, and tip was $185.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year: Thanks Mark Slater!

Well, another year down, and we are nothing if not predictable. We enjoyed our last meal of 2009 at none other than a block away at Ray's the Steaks. I know, I know, you think there's nothing new here. But, we did have an absolutely fantastic wine --a 2006 Seabiscuit Superfecta--as well as a fabulous dessert beer-- a Belgian Kasteel Rouge. Both were the recommendation of Mark Slater, the restaurant's wine guru, who is also a proficient harpsichordist, Europhile, and an all-around delightful person.

Of course the food was excellent (once cooked), and we started with the trusty, lumpy crab bisque. I think crab bisque is maybe one of the only foods where lumpy is good. A tart but sweet (thanks to the whipped cream and graham cracker crust) key lime pie rounded out the meal.

My one issue that seems to recur at Ray's is the cooking of the steak to order. I am a medium-well girl (yes, I know this is sacrilegious to all carnivores), but don't bring me a steak five minutes later and claim it is cooked as such. The first version was rare and the second medium-well. Now I also understand tonight is New Year's Eve a.k.a. amateur night, but, please. The service, as always, was quick to address the problem (I think they'd rather err on the side of undercooked rather than overcooked, given the ease of reheating such good meat), and we continued on our way with a great meal and a fantastic end to an equally fantastic year.

Here's to good eating in 2010!