Thursday, April 29, 2010

$12 Close-to-Gourmet Lunch at Zola

Zola Wine & Kitchen, the wine shop and cooking school, which is located behind the original Zola restaurant and adjacent to the Spy Museum, has recently started doing lunch. It offers a $12 dollar lunch deal, prepared by its own chief, which includes your choice of salad or soup and a hot or cold sandwich or entree. You can also order a la carte.
Lunch is served up between 11:30am - 2:30pm , and the open kitchen is a flurry of activity with between 3 -5 cooks bustling around. I've now been twice; and although the food on my latest visit could have used a tad more seasoning and spice, this is a creative and unique weekday lunch option if you are in the Gallery Place area.
The vibe is great; the staff acts genuinely happy to see you--a rarity at many DC lunch spots. The shared seating is relatively plentiful for the area. And above all else the food options are varied, showcase fresh ingredients, and are prepared to order (with the exception of the special of the day).

On first trip, I started with the mixed green salad. This half plate sized portion arrived tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette with seasonable greens, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers,and radishes. For my main course, I opted for the house-cured salami and sharp provolone sandwich--salty cured meats were offset by the crunch of the seeded semolina baguette. A fellow diner ended up ordering it herself after seeing this beautiful sandwich.

On the latest trip, I had an indulgent cream of broccoli soup, and the daily special: shrimp tacos with red cabbage and avocado. The tacos needed some spice; maybe a salsa. While the shrimp were the perfect consistency and the guacamole was tasty, the tortilla was somewhat bland and there was nothing to bring the flavors together.

Some friends have had luck with the quiche and the grilled cheese, but suggest staying away from the mini burgers.

Zola Kitchen also offers a handful of dessert options, including a red velvet whoopie pie for $2.50. This is on my short list for next time.

All and all this is a great bet for lunch. On rainy days, there is virtually no line; on all other days, get there right at 11:30 or after 1:30 to avoid a wait.

Zola Wine & Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ray's the Steaks Revisited

Just in case you think my Ray's reviews--while voluminous--are dated, we have been pretty consistent in our biweekly visits. But don't judge! We genuinely love the place, and while the neighborhood feel may be evaporating with the reservation policy, it is like home for us.

In the last couple of weeks, they have actually cleared a few tables to make a lounge and waiting space. So the number of tables has actually thinned out overall; I'm not sure whether business has declined somewhat to allow for less tables? Weird.

On the food side, the macaroni and cheese --which we first tried a few weeks ago--we had again tonight. Love it. Rich, creamy, with just the right amount of saltiness. Highly recommend this $6 addition to your meal.

Also on our last visit, a favorite waiter who recently left Ray's to head to Las Vegas recommended the Brazilian cut. This delicious and juicy cut is paired with a spicy house-made piranha sauce. I never thought I would diverge from the fillet, but I have been quite happy with this change. And the price can't be beat -- $19.99 for this cut as opposed to closer to $30 for the fillet or the strip.

Service is still quick but friendly, the same spicy cashews start the meal off right, and the dark chocolate mousse and coconut cream pie are as over-the-top decadent as they always have been. And of course, the wine selection is budget-friendly, unique, and diverse--tonight we tried a new reasonable Californian petite syrah that was quite nice.

Hence, Ray's remains my number 1 DC-area dining destination overall.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wagshals: Good Sandwiches...If You Eat!

Wagshals, the famed and cramped delicatessen in Northwest DC, serves up some excellent sandwiches. The sub rolls are chewy on the inside and crackly on the outside; the meats are high quality and stacked high. For about $7 you get one of the best deli sandwiches in the area. While B is actually able to take a weekday lunch break here, I only get to sample the fare on weekends.

We headed up there today, and considering the wait -- we were number 55 and they were calling 21! -- it moved relatively quickly. My Italian cold cut sandwich was excellent with tangy peppers and hard salami with cracked peppercorns pulling the whole thing together. B definitely enjoyed his turkey with cole slaw and Russian dressing.

But the most entertaining part of lunch today was not the sandwiches, but the conversation at a table behind us. Wagshals is in a very affluent neighborhood adjacent to American University--Spring Hill is where Tenleytown meets the Palisades. The Mom, Dad, two kids, and grandparents (presumably out-of-town visitors) were agonizing over what to order:

Grandmother to the Mom: "What do you eat?"

40ish Mom (skinny lady in yoga pants): "I don't eat."

Grandmother looks perplexed.

Mom's deadpan reply: "We come here every Saturday. They eat. I don't eat."

One thing is for sure. I may not be a Mom, and I am all for physical fitness, but if I ever become a mother and take my kids to a place every Saturday and my husband and kids eat, I will too; hell, even if they don't I will eat. Especially if it's Wagshals.

So go for the sandwiches; the side of inane conversation is gratis.

Wagshal's Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 23, 2010

Citronelle: Check!

The Washington metro area is home to some incredible fine (i.e. splurge) dining venues. And over the past five years of living here, on celebratory occasions we have been fortunate enough to try the best, including Komi and Restaurant Eve's Tasting Room; however, prior to last night, we had never done Citronelle, which actually predates the others. We have never been disappointed with any of these high-end establishments, and I am happy to report to you, dear readers, that last night was no exception.

Citronelle was nothing short of outstanding. The service is a beautiful yet unobstrusive dance. The food is even more intricate, and playful, but delicate at the same time. The wine list is volumonus, and is dominated by Burgundy vintages. As is the case with Central, Michel Richard has found a way to take the finest local, seasonally appropriate ingredients and reinvent French cuisine in a way that is at once surprising, unique, and supremely flavorful. And while I love writing up all the details of such superior service, I am not going to spoil any surprises here because it is really worth experiencing it. But I loved last night's creative takes on lobster, escargot, veal, and lamb.

We were seated in one of the best tables in the house, where we watched the show that was the extremely disciplined and busy open kitchen. Plus one of B's love-to-hate DC pundits was seated at the table next to us, adding to the drama.

We left the wine selection to newish sommelier, who attentively accounted for our taste preferences, menu choices, and price range. B and I couldn't decide between the two of us whether to go with a Bordeaux or Burgundy, so she brought us the most Bourdeaux-like 1er Cru Burgundy on the list.

We opted to share a cheese course. One of my favorite parts of French dining, this supplement to the regular menu was worth it. We had two French, one Spanish, and one American cheese. The housemade pistachio, almond, raisin dark bread served with the cheese was fantastic.

And it should come as no surprise what my favorite part of the meal was. The picture speaks for itself, but the Chocolate Degustation (above) put me into a euphoric state. And B devoured his towering goodness of "Napoleon Creme Brulee."

This is what I call a rare celebration restaurant, which I think are 100% worth the investment if you value food and enjoy the company of your companion(s). I say investment because there's no such thing as an inexpensive dinner at Citronelle. The three-course prix-fix menu starts at $105 a person, and goes up from there for supplements. We splurged and we enjoyed, and given that we experienced the best of French cuisine--and drink--without the flight, the jet lag, or the exchange rate, in that sense it was a good deal. But last night's experience did rekindle a longing desire to repeat someday our Gallic food field trip of last fall.

Citronelle on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Café Asia: Best and Worst of Americanized Asian Food

The cavernous space that is Café Asia includes a similarly vast selection of Asian specialties ranging from Chinese to Japanese to Thai to Indonesian. The menu is incredibly affordable with appetizers ranging from $4-7 and entrees from $9-14. Both locations--on Eye Street in DC and on Wilson Blvd. in Arlington--have specials until 7:30 every night but Sunday. And with the Virginia smoking ban, the Arlington location is no longer filled with smoke during happy hour, during which a great selection of cheap draft beers, including Ichiban and Sam Seasonal (both $2.50), as well as a appetizers are on discount.

On the other hand, in trying to do all types of Asian food, they do not excel at any one. The sushi, made onsite, is mediocre. The service is hit or miss. The Arlington location tries to become a alterna-hipster (?) club at night, but Not being especially hip, I cannot speak to this last point.

Overall though this is a great bet for happy hour, takeout, or dinner with big groups of friends, given the array of choices and the budget friendly prices. B & I called in a (free) delivery order on Sunday night, which arrived right on time. $30 (including a tip) bought us two entrees and an appetizer, all of which were hot, flavorful, and filling.

Cafe Asia on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 19, 2010

Food Field Trip: Anna's Taqueria

We spent this weekend on a whirlwind trip through New England, which entailed (in order): a flight into Providence, a night with friends and their beautiful children in the Boston area, a wedding in Cape Cod, and a babyshower on the New Hampshire border. But no trip to--or in the case, merely through--Boston would be complete without a stop at Anna's. And I can't believe we fit it in, but we did just that. Though this did result in a very close call catching our return flight, it was entirely worth it.

This is not the first time I have written about my all-time favorite burrito joint so I won't repeat the basics. What I will say is I have never found a fresher and tastier burrito value anywhere else, ever.


The prices range from $4-7 and the choices include (among other things) flavorful carnitas and a selection of fresh chopped and grilled vegetables such as carrots, corn, red/yellow/green peppers, eggplant, onions zucchini, and squash.

While the burritos are not especially photogenetic, the melding of flavors is perfect. And the more I think about why I like Anna's burritos more than Chipotle, I think the key is both the way they steam the cheese and the tortilla together and the homemade hot sauce. The salsa and pork-fat rice don't hurt either.

For fountain diet coke fanatics in the area, the Porter Square location in Cambridge has in my estimation the best diet coke.

Anna's Taqueria on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Warning: Proceed with Caution

If you read this blog regularly you might wonder: why the dearth of negative reports? Well, as a typical Type-A Washintonian--at least when it comes to dining--I voraciously read reviews, Ask Tom chats, many food blogs, and the most reliable source: word-of-mouth from my foodie friends. So before B & I head out, we have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Of course, this system is not foolproof and this past week, we had three major misses.

1. Spider Kelly's used to be a single store-front low-key restaurant and bar with excellent, cheap fried chicken and delectable mac and cheese. But they closed last fall, tripled the size, and recently re-opened as a pre-game spot for the boys and girls on their way to Clarendon Ballroom next door. We went to Spider's new digs for the first time last weekend, and were blown away, and not in a good way. The crowds are huge, the music is loud for 6:30pm, and there is nothing low-key about the place anymore.

But the fried chicken is quite good, and only $10, and comes with a side of pickled veggies and rich mac and cheese. They also now have a good selection of draft beer (prior to the renovation there were only bottles). While their fried chicken is worth stopping in if there is no wait; the new surroundings make for an long wait with the aforementioned crowds if you stop in as we did on a Friday at 7.

Spider Kelly's on Urbanspoon

2. Quail Creak Farms. In the past I have sung the praises of this local farmer's market staple. But not this weekend. We had the worst dessert I have ever tasted: a raspberry Chambord mousse in a ladyfinger cup with white chocolate savings. Sounds good, right? Wrong! The texture was terrible and spongy; the flavor non-existent. Sucked on all counts. I had one bite and I was done; this is a real rarity for me when it comes to dessert! Our $6 could have been better spent pretty much anywhere else.

3. After running the Cherry Blossom 10 miler this weekend we went to Chef Geoff's Downtown for brunch. Having heard great things, I expected the post-run experience to be both relaxing and filling. Again, I was wrong, and on both counts. The fruit and pastries that come with each brunch entree could best be described as miniature and anemic. The service was the worst we have ever encountered in this city. Asking for more water, ketchup etc. required at least four requests, that is, if we could find our waiter.

Our entrees took over an hour to arrive and then my egg white omelet was made with eggs. Inexcusable. This caused B to march the entree back into the kitchen (since again no waiters were to be found), something neither of us has ever done. Management was apologetic, comped our brunch, and quickly remedied the situation.

I appreciated their explanation (they were "just slammed, all at once") and attentiveness after we complained, but our experience appeared to be the norm that day as several ravenous tables of runners waited at least an hour for their food. Were there a lot of people? Yes. Were they slammed? Probably. But this race is an annual event that they should have been prepared for--and given their proximity to the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue, there must be many other similar events that cause such surges. I will say their egg whites were incredibly fluffy, but given the lack of service and the quality of the other food items, we will not be back -- at least to the downtown location. (B works near their original location in Tenleytown and had a very pleasant experience there at lunchtime a few months back.)

Also, brunch is not cheap--between $14 - $20 an entree. Good thing we paid in full what this particular brunch was worth--$0.

Chef Geoff's on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation Benefit

I have wanted to attend Share our Strength's Taste of the Nation benefit for the last several years. The problem is that it is always on a Monday night, when I had class, but this year with all that behind me, we were happy to be able to support a worthy cause in a fantastic space playing host to samples served up from the notable area chefs, bartenders, and wine merchants.

In my opinion the best dishes were:

Entree: BLT Steak -- Wagyu Beef on Crostini

Dessert: Georgetown Cupcake (red velvet) tied with Cupcakes Actually (chocolate peanut butter dipped)

Cocktail: Todd Thrasher's Rum and Stuff (pictured below)

Wine: Janisson & Fils Tradition Champagne presented by Margaux & Company Imports

The over-used themes last night were pork belly and ceviche; apparently either the 'it' foods of the moment, or easy to serve up samples in a group setting. About ten restaurants chose to showcase these items.

My only criticism aside from the few less-than-stellar samplings (hot dog from Art & Soul was barely edible), was the crunch in the VIP room (for this distinction you paid more to get in early and exclusive access to a very tight room with only one entry and exit).

Overall though it was a really fun event for a great cause and I was so happy to be a part of it. My head hurts this morning, but it was worth it!

Some more highlights from the evening:

Volt prepares an assortment of tastings. Their rhubarb macaroon with fois gras was a fantastic combination of flavors, textures, and colors.

A Georgetown Cupcake pyramid.

Mad scientist Todd Thrasher heats and cools his rum cocktail using dry ice.

The noteworthy Proof mixologist shakes up a tasty gin and fennel cocktail.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Food Field Trip Hawaii: Chapter 4 (Splasher's with a side of Sea Quest)

Splasher's is a quintessential island beach shack. Adjacent to the sea wall on Ali'i Drive in Kona at the location where the ocean has a tendency to splash up and onto the street when boats pull-in, this locally-owned ten-table, open-air establishment serves up excellent fresh grub and draft beer.

The omnipresent and gregarious owner assures every party entering that they will get a seat--or she will find them one--after ordering at a small counter. You are given a so-called "Hawaiian GPS device" (a rock with a painted number on it) so the servers know whose food to bring to whom. They have three local beers on tap and a bunch by the bottle as well.

Their signature item is the locally caught-the-day-of fish tacos.

You can get them blackened (pictured above) or grilled, and either fries (regular or waffle), onion rings or salad. We made two trips here, and enjoyed the Mahi Mahi at lunch and devoured the Ono at dinner. The Ono is my favorite--hearty, tender, and juicy. The taco shell is a corn tortilla and includes shredded lettuce, spicy homemade salsa, and a hearty portion of cheese. I added guacamole. The dish runs $11.99--not cheap, but reasonable for Hawaii, especially considering the value for fish caught the same day by local fishermen.

Splashers Grill‎ on Urbanspoon

And while you are enjoying this treat, you get to people watch down Ali'i drive in Kona, which is always entertaining, regardless of the time of day:

Look, there is a guy walking nonchalantly with a parrot.

The evening we were there (Tuesday), check out local outrigger canoe teams. They say avoid downtown Kona on Wednesdays, when cruise ships drop off passengers for a daylong stop in the port.

Do go if you are on the Big Island. It is fantastic and unpretentious. And what better time to enjoy--as we did--than after a morning Sea Quest snorkeling adventure? I know this is a food blog, but this is by far the best snorkeling trip we have ever taken so I would be remiss if I did not mention it. Plus, after snorkeling at two beautiful spots it will help you to work up an appetite which you will need given the portions! Ask for Captain Liam.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Food Field Trip Hawaii: Chapter 3 (Merriman's)

My favorite dining experience on Big Island (two years in a row) was not what I would have imagined; it's not a classic eatery on the coast with the sun gently setting, but instead a place located in the gateway to the mountainous (and rainy) side of the island: Merriman’s.

Peter Merriman pioneered the local sustainable food movement on Big Island a few decades ago. Pioneered is the operative word given Merriman’s location in Waimea, the home of the historic Parker Ranch, whose rustic green pastures look like they belong in the Western U.S. Back in 1988 when opening Merriman's, Peter Merriman was described as "a gourmet in cowboy country." Still true today.

Waimea is 10-15 degrees colder than the leeward coast and it rains a lot. But we were lucky enough to follow a rainbow up from the coast, and the pot of gold at the end was worth it! Merriman’s excels not only at the local sourcing of nearly its entire food menu but in ambiance, service, wine selection, and the dishes themselves.

Before you walk in, there's a an adjacent garden containing everything from bananas to tomatoes. The arched room, open kitchen, and indoor herb garden are quite soothing. There is some minimal island flair; petroglyph candles (above) adorn each table, offset by white linens and nice stemware.

The waitstaff are some of the best I have encountered anywhere. Immensely knowledgeable, helpful, enthusiastic, and yet unobtrusive. We began with the mai tai I previously reviewed. After hearing the extensive specials we decided to sample as much as possible and ordered both an appetizer and a salad to share. We also let our server select a white wine to go with the appetizer and a red for the main courses, and she chose well.

These tarot fritters were very good, but not great. They needed more of the promised jalapeno kick, but the accompanying goat cheese, beats, and goat cheese fondue really made the dish click.

Next, we devoured olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressed local tomatoes and Maui onions. This was our first taste of farm-fresh tomatoes since last fall and we savored every bit of this dish (not pictured).

Look at how beautiful this entrée is. This was one of the evening’s specials, a Hawaiian swordfish served over a pea risotto offset with plump clams and fresh tomatoes in a beurre blanc sauce. The fish was moist, tender, and wonderful. I love this particular fish and though I had a great cut at Dino a few months back, this particular preparation was the best I have ever tasted, a notch even above Dino's.

B also opted for the special, but chose to stay on land. He went with the local lamb prepared two ways: an exotic Hungarian style, and classic lamb shoulder in a rich pan sauce. The dish was accompanied by a custard. Together the elements were rich and tender and really, a fitting way to showcase the varied flavors and textures of the lamb. As a side note, a few nights earlier I was disappointed to learn--given the relatively extensive local product available--that the Jean Georges Kauai Grill sources their lamb from Australia!

This picture of dessert is underwhelming, but the taste was anything but. The quality of chocolate in this "Fallen Souffle" was incredible, and the oozing texture and classic vanilla ice cream was classic. Our waitress candidly told us that the souffle is considered 'fallen' so as not to require 30+ minutes of baking time.

This was a great experience, and one which we almost skipped owing to the 25-minute drive from the Kohala coast. If you can get to Merriman's, you will not be disappointed. Reservations are recommended if not essential. Dinner for two with a split mai tai, two glasses of wine each, appetizer, salad, two entrees, dessert, tax, and tip was $195. Merriman's also has locations on Kauai and Maui.

Merriman's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Food Field Trip: Chapter 2 (Tuna in Kauai)

One of my favorite parts of eating in Hawaii is the wide variety of unique, freshly-caught fish, like Ono, Walu, Opakapaka, and Hawaiian Swordfish. And I sure partook in all these options and will share the highlights in another chapter. But above all, I had my share of a myriad of tuna dishes.

Here are a few of the standouts. Mercury aside, they were all fresher than anything I've had comparable on the mainland!

Our hotel's Bar Menu -- Tuna tartare served over avocado topped with radish and floating in a wasabi soy broth. The fish was very tender and the flavors and textures co-mingled well. The dish did a little dance on my tongue.

At the hotel again, but this time the first course of the tasting menu at the recently opened restaurant on the property, Jean Georges' Kauai Grill. This was the best dish of the entire trip. Big-eye Ahi lightly crusted in what? served on what? I cannot recall (must have been one too many mai tais or the nice and reasonably priced Chilean red wines we had with dinner), which saddens me because the dish really was out of this world, in both the quality of the ingredients and their preparation. A note to the St. Regis, if anyone there (i.e. no one) is reading this: please put restaurant menus up online!

Kauai Grill at the St. Regis on Urbanspoon

The final three tuna selections came from Hanalei Dolphin, a delightful, no-reservations sushi and seafood restaurant on the Hanalei River in "downtown" Hanalei.

At lunch, the restaurant's retail shop serves massive sushi rolls. Pictured here is the Dolphin Roll, which was a combination of spicy tuna with snow crab. The tuna was the freshest I've had in sushi, which was contrasted nicely with the sweetness and texture of the snow crab; the wasabi soy dipping sauce was also excellent. I loved eating lunch watching the longboarders roll down the river. B and I shared the roll and paired it with some smoothies from a walk-up stand up the street for a perfect bite on a hot day. What I also found somewhat unbelievable--given all the rumors about the supposed outrageous prices in Hawaii--was that this massive roll was only $9.

We loved the sushi so much at lunch that we came back the next night to the restaurant for dinner. And it did not disappoint. We snagged a table on the porch, ordered a few local beers, and B dug into an tender teriyaki glazed tuna steak, the house special.

I opted to go with the sushi again and adored the spicy tuna roll. Look at the quantity and color of that gorgeous, prepared to order roll served with actual (not the common horseradish-laden manufactured) wasabi.

Hanalei Dolphin Restaurant & Fish Market on Urbanspoon

Tuna fix -- complete!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Food Field Trip Hawaii: Chapter 1 (Cocktails)

Aloha. After a few days back on the mainland, I figured the best place to start with any food field trip report is at the beginning of the menu--cocktails. And after my first day back in the office in two weeks I could really use a drink; if only I could enjoy one of these:

Kauai: St. Regis Princeville -- Pineapple Mojito

The view in the background is Hanalei Bay on the Kauai's Northshore; with the mountains, clouds, and gently setting sun, the setting was truly unreal and my cocktail--the first I drank upon arriving on the island-- was sublime. This take on the classic mojito mixed muddled pineapple, mint leaves, simple sugar, club soda and a splash of freshly squeezed pineapple juice. I was afraid that this combination might be cloyingly sweet, but it was indeed crisp and refreshing with just a hint of the tropical sugar. Just be ready for the $14 price tag, but remember the glass is large and the view is included!

Big Island: Merriman's -- Classic Mai Tai

What's a bigger Hawaiian cliche than Don Ho and leis... the mai tai. But this take on the Aloha's state's official cocktail includes freshly squeezed pineapple juice and Maui rum. Just as with the the food on Merriman's menu, it is locally sourced as well as tasty and potent. The one pictured above is a half portion. Yes, there is an umbrella, but the full portion is even better and is served in a giant tiki jar. This drink was an ideal finish to a day in the equatorial sun and a start to a memorable meal. A full review of Merriman's is forthcoming.

If beer is more your style, the Kona Brewing Company has got you covered. For between $5 - 7 pint, you can enjoy what has come to be one of my favorite craft beers. The beer is fresh, hoppy, and frankly delicious. As evidence of how much we love these beers, our first stop before heading to the hotel was to the Brewery for a pint and a growler to go, and our last stop before a red-eye was for the beers pictured above: the Black Sand Porter and Wailua Wheat. And I have spotted Kona Brewing Company's classics--though brewed on the mainland--at some area bars.

Kona Brewing Company (Kailua Kona) on Urbanspoon

Until the next chapter, Aloha!