Saturday, May 29, 2010

Tonic: A Sure Cure For a Hard Week

The weekend that traditionally marks the start of summer, also marks, a short, but much-anticipated season in DC: the time after the colleges have graduated but before their summer programs begin and a window of about two weeks before tourists start their invasion. These few precious weeks provide a window to explore restaurants and bars in areas that are at all other times overrun with summer tourists or students.

In a toast to the long weekend,we decided to check out the happy hour at Quigley's Pharmacy Tonic, which is housed in a 19th century drug store building in he heart of GWU's campus about four blocks from the Foggy Bottom metro.

While this was my first trip to Tonic, B had been here before and knew about the happy hour specials available at the bar and on the large, shaded patio between 4 -7. These included half off all of the 10 or so draft beers including some great American selections like Abita Purple Haze and Hennepin, a strong ale from New York State in the Belgian style. And we discovered that as the building is on GW's campus, no shots are served...damn (though it seemed the lovely individuals at the adjacent table that made this request--which was summarily denied--didn't realize that perhaps they could have just ordered martinis and drank them quickly)! Also, rail drinks are $4 during happy hour, house wine is $5, and there are a selection of speciality cocktails.

And while we enjoyed our drinks on the patio, the second floor dining room is beautiful, with high ceilings, a catwalk over the bar below, and the multi-story mural pictured above. And there is a lounge on the third floor, though with no taps.

But real reason Tonic met the threshold for a blog-nod was the $4 superb tater tots. Tonic's menu is limited, but the happy hour food deals on these fried treats is a deal. Unlike the mushy mess that I remember from my school cafeteria, these were terrific. Served piping hot with a crispy shell and a pair of dipping sauces: a tangy Ranch specked with Dill and a zesty honey mustard made with whole grain mustard.

Paired with a few beers and the thought of an extended weekend, they made for the perfect Friday afternoon snack. Four beers and tater tots with tax and tip was $23.
Tonic at Quigley's Pharmacy on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Central Makes me Happy to Live in DC

(Loaves of crusty French bread stacked high in the window at Central)

After another immensely satisfying experience, I can confidently assert that Central remains one of DC’s best restaurant choices. Like its haute parent, Central boasts creative Americanized twists of French bistro fare. I also really appreciate the reasonable variety of wines available by the glass, from which you can find a suitable pairing for any of the menu items. And the seasonal creative cocktails have never disappointed. If you can get over eating while being watched over by a larger than life, fuchsia portrait of Michel Richard, you are no doubt in for dining that lives up to the accolades.

While scoring a table between September through May usually requires advanced planning, with the summer fast approaching, it is much easier to snag a last minute reservation or even a walk-in table. And of course the odds are better at the beginning of the week as B and I experienced Monday night. When the crowds are thinner, the service is also far less rushed.

To start, we enjoyed a leisurely glass of wine (Chardonnay for B, and a Brut Rose for me) along with a pushing-the-season but sill delicious selection of Wellfleet, Prince Edward Island, and West Coast oysters. Their delightful bread (pictured above), baked fresh by a local wholesaler, is the closest thing you can get to the real French stuff in the Washington metro area.

The one issue of the evening was that while our entrees arrived, our wine selections did not and there was about a five minute delay. This is a pet peeve of mine, and it has happened once before here, which is a shame given the likelihood for diners to pair wines depending on their chosen course from the extensive by-the-glass list. But as soon as my wine arrived I quickly got over it.

The salmon I ate is a menu mainstay, but the sides change by the season. The filet, prepared medium, with an almost-caramelized crust was this time set atop barley in a spring onion and cauliflower cream. The subtle texture and flavor contrast worked well. And it reminded me that we have a long way to go as home cooks, since our salmon never comes close; but this a good excuse to come back soon (like we need one!)

B opted for a new choice, the short ribs over al dente and tasting-like (though not sure) homemade papardelle with spring peas and carrots. The short ribs were plentiful and fork tender in a syrah wine reduction. Again, the flavors and textures here complimented each other and made for a satisfying entrée.

This picture says almost everything you need to know about dessert at Central; all choices are good for sharing and the presentations are not subtle. The execution of the food is absolutely flawless.

And a huge, airy, bowl of mousse does not disappoint with a rich chocolate favor, texture provided by the crunchies atop, and a surprise tartness of raspberry sauce (not pictured) on the bottom.

Dinner for two with a half dozen oysters, two entrees, shared dessert, four glasses of wine (one of which was champagne), and one glass of port, tax and tip, was $155.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Clyde's Brunch: Food Reliably Solid, Service Reliably Sucky

A non-existent waiting area that results in the line spilling over onto M Street in Georgetown; a cramped interior; dated bathrooms. Sounds great, right? Add to that an apathetic wait staff, and what you have is Clyde's of Georgetown.

BUT, don't stop here, because this review is actually not entirely negative. It is the solid, hearty food that has kept B and I coming back to Sunday brunch here at least twice a month for years.

It does require a certain perseverance and sense of humor to deal with the waiters, but the food is always very good and seasonal. Today was no exception. B had the roasted turkey club with a side salad (you can sub salad with any sandwich) and I went with the salmon burger with the fries. The salmon burger was actually a bit of a misnomer as it was more like a massive, fresh, salmon cake over an excellent wasabi aoili.

Two entrees with tax and tip (closer to 15 than 20%) was $26.

And as most Washingtonians know, Clyde's is a micro-chain, but each location has an entirely different feel and, seemingly, standard for service. We have also eaten several times at the Gallery Place location (generally excellent service) and in McLean (wonderful art collection, a fantastic interior, and pretty good service), both of which have the same food offerings; I suppose each establishment's non-food offerings need to judged on their own merits. But overall Clyde's is not exactly cheap but is both a a good value and has a menu that can please a table of foodies, kids, picky eaters, and vegetarians.

Clyde's of Georgetown on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Zoofari 2010

Since finishing my one-class a week, four year long MBA, I have been a bit crazy about weeknight dining; DC provides a lot of opportunities to support some great causes and have fun in the process, in spite of the probable headache the next morning.

This year's Zoofari, billed by the Zoo as the “premier foodie event” turned out to be a really well put together event on a lovely spring evening. While the cocktails and mixologists that were the main attraction of the Taste of the Nation were sadly absent, the food choices were more varied and extensive. And the awesome entertainment included a cake decorating contest judged by Charm City Cake mastermind Duff from Ace of Cakes, several live music troupes, and access to the Zoo's small mammal, reptile and gorilla houses.

And perhaps my favorite part, the useful tray pictured below, which you will note included a drink holder, made walking around and enjoying the many drink offerings much easier -- maybe too easy.

The night’s main food theme seemed to be endless variations of gazpacho; I recall several traditional recipes, as well some sort of watermelon varietal. As would be expected, Michel Richard hit this dish out of Woodley Park with Central's yellow tomato and goat cheese rendition.

A surprise standout was the surf and turf from Mitsitam Cafe, the Smithsonian Native American museum's cafeteria. A rich, juicy fresh ground bison and duck burger was served along side a seared sea scallop with a cherry reduction. If you have not yet tried this museum, it's worth it just for a visit to the ground floor cafeteria; the offerings are affordable and as varied as the cultural exhibits upstairs.
Mitsitam Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wolfgang Puck's Asian Fusion restaurant The Source showcased a succulent, caramelized chicken dumpling.

And below is 1789's oyster with house cured bacon. The intense flavor of this chargrilled oyster made for a perfect bite, and unexpectedly reminded me of a food field trip last fall.

And a far less haute choice, but a surprisingly delicious combination was M and S Grill's pot roast nachos. Though the chef at the Reston location pioneered this item, the chef downtown promised me that he will add it to his menu later this week. Yes, it sounds strange, but the tender pot roast was rich and offset by crispy tortilla chips, fresh roasted corn and bright red peppers.
M & S Grill - Reston on Urbanspoon

And of course, Georgetown Cupcake was there, with animal fondant topped cupcakes. What can I say? I am sucker for these and really enjoyed my lava flow cupcake, a rich chocolate cupcake with vanilla buttercream and a fudge core.

Since there were over 100 restaurants, this is only a small sampling of the best offerings. And the only let down of the night was Morton's sad, filet mignon sandwich that is usually available at their bar's happy hour. I suppose I will cross that one off the to-try list.

This event was a lot of fun; the animal viewings were limited. So while it is a great night out, those who brought children were a bit disappointed. But we did get to spend some quality time--beers in hand--with B's favorite family.

I am looking forward to next year; Zoo supporters who double as foodies should definitely consider attending this event.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tutto Bene: Better at Home

Tutto Bene is a family-owned Italian-American restaurant in Ballston that dabbles in Bolivian fare on the weekends. When we first moved to Arlington five years ago we tried this place for dinner a few times, and I recall it being a decent if unremarkable red-sauce Italian joint, nothing on par with the offerings in Boston's North End, which was a short stroll away from our old apartment. And as I remember the wine list was overpriced and the interior was over the top tacky; the location, sandwiched in between the Harris Teeter, Mercedes dealership, and Ballston Mall does not exactly exude urban charm.

Tutto Bene proudly proclaims that "everything is good." While I can't validate the claim, I was quite pleased when we went the lazy route and paid the fee and upcharge to get Dr. Delivery to bring it to our door this past weekend.

Our two entrees, fettuccine alfredo and eggplant parmesan, arrived in about an hour. Both entrees were hot and rather attractive considering their delivery containers. The fettuccine alfredo was great with a pungent kick of parmesan. It was even better with some fresh ground black pepper. The eggplant was magnificent--thinly cut, fried, and then smothered with a tangy red sauce and broiler tinged mozzarella--and came with a side of spaghetti and marinara.

While the meal with delivery charges was not cheap--$50 with tip for two entrees, it was worth it. I was able to appreciate Tutto Bene's food in a more pleasant location with a nice bottle of 2006 Chilean Cabernet from our cellar (read: guest bedroom closet).

Tutto Bene Italian Restaurant & Grill on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lunch Break DC: Proof

My sister was in town this past week, which was a perfect reason to try out a new place for a leisurely lunch special--especially one that includes a glass of wine. Wine with lunch is of course an indulgence that is normally out of the question during the week. But since I was playing host and took the day off, it proved a great choice.

So we gave Proof's $12 lunch special a whirl. While I have been to Proof for dinner (really good, but not great) and more times than I can count for drinks (both the wines by the glass and cocktails are excellent), this was my first lunch trip.

The special, available in the bar area only, consists of one of about a half dozen entrees paired with a glass of either a red or white varietal chosen by Proof staff based on the current wine list. An iced tea is also available should you be on the clock. We both chose a pleasantly crisp white that paired well with our entree choices.

I opted for the much lauded shrimp burger which did not disappoint. The burger was tender and piping hot with a great crunch, but what really set this burger apart was the accompanying pickled slaw that added crunch and heat thanks to thinly shaved jalapenos. And while the bun looks a tad dry in this picture, it was fresh and held up well. It was worth the carbs.

My sister H opted for a hearty dish of gnocchi in a rich wild mushroom sauce offset by whole grilled green onions. The dish was attractive and quite good. The plump gnocchi seemed the perfect antidote to a rainy cold day.

The value of this lunch is indisputable with the wine, but the entrees make it a smart--if not everyday--option during the week even if you are working and can't imbibe.

Proof on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Open Wide for Ray's Hellburger

I'm pretty sure you cannot get a fresher, heartier burger anywhere in the DC area. The problem is--unlike when the place opened last summer--everyone now knows this, thanks to two VIP visitors last summer. Seriously, I mean everyone. Tourists--previously unknown to this unremarkable strip on Wilson Boulevard--now stand in line with maps and guidebooks.

But you can still enjoy without the chaos if you go on a weeknight like we did recently. We arrived on a Monday around 7:30pm, and there were plenty of seats and only a line of about a half dozen people.

As you can see from the picture, the burgers are huge and require two hands, a knife and fork, and plenty of the paper towel roll provided on every table. The options are too numerous to mention, but you can choose from almost any type of cheese or unique and gratuitous toppings like foie gras and bone marrow. Prices vary by topping, but grilled onions, peppers, mushrooms, pickles, roasted garlic and a few other great additions are free.

Because the burgers are cooked to order and completely customizable, there is something for every meat lover. I have never been disappointed with the food; the line is another story.

And as for side items, despite the owner's early diatribe against both, French fries and floats are now available as sides. The fries are mediocre, but are available both in both plain and sweet potato varietals; I've never been so bold as to try the (on-tap) root beer float. Also more recently, Mark Slater has introduced a few bottled beers to the board. I am hopeful that Hellburger will bring back the watermelon and corn that accompanied the burgers, gratis, when the place opened last summer. These light seasonal accouterments were the perfect complement to the burger. Michael, if you ever read this post, please consider bringing these back, and pretty please cease putting tomatoes on any plates in the dead of winter.

The base burger without cheese starts at $6.95 and goes up from there. So go, but do avoid this place like the plague on weekend nights, especially once the hordes descend upon the area once summer is upon us.

Ray's Hell Burger Too on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lyon Hall: Is it Ready for Prime Time?

The creators of Liberty Tavern have been busy recently, rolling out two new endeavors (Northside Social and Lyon Hall) in the last couple months within a block of their original place. While both Liberty and Northside Social are great options for dinner/drinks/happy hour and coffee/tea/pastries/wine, Lyon Hall is not your best choice for, well, really anything in the neighborhood other than a beer or two.

Lyon Hall bills itself as an affordable neighborhood brasserie. And on my first visit, I agreed. B and I were impressed by the selection of Belgian and German beers on tap; we both enjoyed them served the proper glassware and were impressed with the menu choices, but were on our way to a dinner party, so did not get a chance to eat. The bar is long, the space is European in feel which fits with the theme, and the service very attentive--they almost try too hard to please.

This past weekend we went back with three friends, and unfortunately, spending more time here and sampling most of the menu made me question whether Lyon Hall opened too early.

We were seated in the upstairs dining room which lacks the character of the main floor and in fact, feels like a different place entirely. Our table in the back overlooked stacks of cleared dishes sitting out behind a small bar--not the most appealing view.

All the staff were very friendly and professional, but were frenetically trying to handle a large number of tables. Two of the beers on tap--one of them talked up by the waitress--turned out to be tapped out. And our appetizers were delayed a half an hour because they were delivered to the wrong table (though we did receive a quick apology and a free order of mussels). But most significantly, the majority of food was less than impressive. The steak tartare was neither tender, nor flavorful, but the Polyface Farm egg on top was a nice touch. The chicken liver dumplings were dry. And the housemade sausages were just okay. However, it was not all bad. The beers we did have, including a very rare find on tap , were excellent and both the pate and the mussels with lamb sausage were quite delicious.

I wanted to love this place, but I don't, at least not yet. I think I will try the bar again for a beer, but I won't be back to dine anytime soon. Dinner for five including tax and tip was $420, which included four shared appetizers, at least six plates, and a slew of beers.

Lyon Hall on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 7, 2010

Food Field Trip: Crack Pie

The LA Times proclaims Momofuko Milk Bar's Crack Pie, "love at first bite." I concur (I think?).

This sugar, milk, eggs, cream, vanilla, and more sugar concoction lacks chocolate or other exotic sweets, but the simplicity is the beauty of this dessert, which delivers a smooth, sweet bite.

This treat, available at the East Village and Midtown locations, is not cheap, at $44 for a 10 inch pie, but it is unique and should please everyone with a sweet tooth.

Thanks to our (way hipper) Manhattan friends L&C for finding and sharing this uber-hot dessert with us. And if you are taking orders, can we try the Candy Bar Pie next time?!

Momofuku Milk Bar (Midtown) on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Food Field Trip: S'Mac Down in the East Village

Pinch me; I think I must be dreaming. I can’t believe there is actually an entire restaurant devoted to macaroni and cheese. And while, yes, S’Mac has a cheesy (har!) look to it, its infinite variations on such a beautiful singular theme are the real deal.

Just look at this steaming skillet of goodness:

I opted for the (only in America) concoction of chicken, blue cheese, a spicy Buffalo sauce, American and cheddar cheeses. I love spicy foods and the combination of spice coupled with the cheese really made this dish click.
B had the "Alpine Mac" with bacon and Gruyere. He too fell in love.

S'Mac comes in four sizes. I got the smallest, the "Nosh," which is about $7; B had the "Major Munch" for $10. Both offered hearty portions in individual cast iron skillets. But if you are really hungry you can go with the "Mongo" or "Partay" portions

S'Mac offers more choices than you would think possible from a single-food restaurant, including gluten-free pasta, vegan-friendly versions, and even hot dogs. And we discovered while leaving that two storefronts down, S'Mac has a second location dedicated to solely takeout.

S'Mac on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Food Field Trip: Babbo, Bravo!

Mario Batali's tribute to authentic Italian food is almost perfect. Aside from the odious heavy metal and rock music--incongruous to both the setting and fare--the Batali empire's flagship, which occupies a row house in the West Village, rivaled if not topped all of our dining experiences in Italy.

Before I delve into this review, my overall assessment (and I know B agrees), is that this is one of the most unique and authentic Italian restaurants in the world. If you have the chance, go.

We first visited Babbo in December of 2006, when we were able to snag a reservation after calling 30 calendar days ahead on three phones the moment the reservation line opened at 10:00am for a half hour straight. On that visit, we opted for the tasting menu with wine pairings and left enamoured and in the rare food-and-wine induced haze not unlike what we experienced last fall after a visit to an iconic Lyon bouchon. Though we didn't opt for the tasting menu on last weekend's visit, the food was equally as fresh, inventive, flavorful, seasonable, and the servers just as knowledgeable and passionate. The experience was flawless from the amuse bouche to the miniature cookies that accompanied the check.

This past weekend, we did not have reservations, and decided stop in later in the evening (on account of our late afternoon snack) and try our luck at scoring seats at the bar or one of the front tables reserved for walk-ins. This whole process for queuing all walk-ins (including to the bar itself) was managed by a very competent host and hostess duo who coordinated effectively with the bartenders (separate lists exist for the bar and bar tables). But it's still a total crapshoot as to how long--or whether--you'll get seated since they do not rush the service here (which is actually a great thing once you are seated).

Our patience paid off, and while we were not seated until close to 10:00, we got two stools at the bar after waiting a mere 30 minutes. The service at the bar was without error. It amazes me how the servers are able to run dishes in a very small place, but they do so with aplomb.

We began by sharing a glass of Lambrusco, a slightly sparkling red wine from Northern Italy. We settled on a $50 red from the Veneto after an extensive review of such a voluminous wine list, which consisted of plenty of splurge wines, but also included a large number of bottles at $50 or under. We munched on the night's amuse bouche, chick peas in a slightly spicy balsamic reduction over a crostini. These were good but nothing compared to what was to come.

DISCLAIMER: I took stealth photos without the flash, so please look past the slight darkness.

BEHOLD: An appetizer selection of melt-in-your-mouth house made pancetta with peppery, salty hard salami served with charred bread in olive oil. This pancetta tasted like the indulgent cured lard (yes, lard) we experienced years ago in Modena and have not had anything similar too until this last weekend.

I ordered a spring green dish to make up for that fat. I actually had no idea that this would be a salad based on the menu description of vegetables, but I was quite pleased. The vegetables were served with a ricotta vinaigrette, spicy micro greens, crisp snap peas, and fresh asparagus. The combination of crisp, smooth, and sweet was perfect.

This time for entrees we opted for pasta dishes. I think we were both in a euphoric state while enjoying these. B chose a linguine with crispy fried polenta, asparagus, and freshly grated sheep's milk cheese. The contrast of flavors and textures made this dish pop.

After experiencing the exquisite papardelle (served simply with butter and mushrooms) I tasted as part of the tasting menu our first trip, I opted once again for this pasta, however this time in a rich bolognese sauce. This was just out of this world. The papardelle folds over itself in what looks like cake batter as it is poured into a pan. The bolognese was meaty and sweet; the parmesan pungent; and the pasta cooked to perfection.

For dessert I opted for a rhubarb tart with orange ice cream. Served warm, the crispy sweet shell paired well with the slightly tart rhubarb.

And for B, a banana/olive oil cake with banana ice cream. The cake was so moist, and despite being bananas three ways, the flavor somehow did not overpower the dish.

So we ended the evening close to midnight, full, happy and vowing to come back again soon. For a meal like this, a three hour train ride seems totally warranted. As an aside, I am one happy and lucky foodie, having dined at Citronelle and Babbo in the span of less than two weeks!

The total for the meal -- two appetizers, two entrees, two desserts, one glass of Lambrusco, a bottle of wine, tax and tip was $200. For this caliber of restaurant I think the prices are quite reasonable.

Babbo on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Food Field Trip: NYC Fry Mecca

The menu at Pomme Frites, a tiny storefront shop in the East Village is not as complicated as it looks: one and one item only--perfectly crisp, hand-cut Belgian style fries--along with an extensive choice of dipping sauces.

Ranging from the small at $4.50 to the double at $7.75, this is the ultimate cheap afternoon snack. A few basic dipping sauces are free, and speciality sauces are $1 each or 3 for $2.50.

The double order of fries (we were hungry after an afternoon on the train from DC) is pictured below. The restaurant is equipped with special tables to hold the fry cones (please note, this tiny shop does not have a bathroom).

On this stop, we opted for a spicy mango chutney, parmesan peppercorn, and cheese sauce. We walked several avenue blocks crosstown for a snack in this East Village single-item eatery!

One of my favorite parts about New York is the fact that you can find restaurants dedicated to one type of food done extremely well. Stay tuned for a post on another single-item menu mecca we also visited last weekend.

Pommes Frites on Urbanspoon