Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tapas Treats at Zaytinya and Zengo

(Chicken empanadas at Zengo)

I was fortunate to have two great tapas meals with friends on a single, gluttonous day. Both meals made me reassess two restaurants in a more positive light. Maybe it was that tapas is the perfect antidote to a humid DC summer day, or I was fortunate enough to order the right things, but my experiences last week at Zaytinya and Zengo, located about two blocks from one another in Gallery Place proved fabulous.

In the past I found Zaytinya over-rated, and Zola downright disappointing. But not this time!

At Zaytinya I was dining with a vegetarian which is always a good excuse for my meat loving self to try something I wouldn't ordinarily order. Anyone who has been to Zaytinya, with its Mediterranean-inspired menu of small plates, knows that the puffy, hot pita sets a great tone for the meal. And this time, our choices were fresh, vibrant, and easily devoured. The spanakopita was hot and crispy, the stuffed grape leaves were zesty, the citrus salad tart, and the hummus an apt compliment to it all. Lunch for two with four shared tapas, tax, and tip was $22 a person. They also have a four course four tapas option fro $22 a person exclusive of tax and gratuity if you happen to be really hungry!

Zaytinya on Urbanspoon

And after a few hours to digest, it was time for dinner. My first trip to Zengo was a bust at lunch, but dinner proved surprisingly different. The atmosphere was pleasant and the tapas were unique and flavorful. My friend and I opted to share four, which strangely enough included the best soft shell crab preparation I have ever eaten--lightly fried, topped by guacamole, and paired with pickled red cabbage and corn tortillas. The chicken empanadas (pictured above) were well balanced with a spicy filling wrapped in a hot, fried pocket with a cooling pineapple topper. Duck tacos were served with dakon radish for wrapping, and spicy beef noodles got a crunch from the inclusion of asparagus.

And the perfect compliment to these flavors, were potent fresh squeezed cocktails. At $11, they are not cheap, but are well-mixed and potent. If you are there between 5 - 7pm they are also available for $5 in the bar during happy hour. Dinner with four shared tapas, a cocktail each, tax, and tip was $43 a person. Oh, and I have to mention this; the bathrooms are just cool. Be sure to check them out if you go.

Zengo on Urbanspoon

I will be back to both soon.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Nice Slice: Pete's A Pizza

When I first moved to DC, we often lamented the dearth of decent pizza choices. Over the past five years, though, the landscape has changed a bit. Originally, the Italian Store stood alone in offering a decent pie, but now places like Matchbox offer fabulous designer pizza (and sliders) and while Two Amy's struggles with consistency, their Neapolitan individual pizza is worth the trip. But there was still a lack of a lot of great sit-down establishments, that is until Pete's A Pizza opened in Columbia Heights (with a more recent opening in between Tenleytown and Friendship Heights).

Pete's bills itself as New Haven style. I have to admit, I have no idea what that means, but I can report that the pizza is almost like NYC style with a thin, charred crust, and flavorful cheese and toppings; the best I have experienced in DC.

After several Kona brews at Chief Ike's (for the record, I think this bar is entirely too dirty, but I like that they have Kona on tap and B loves it), we strolled up to Columbia Heights for a pizza dinner. Pete's is counter service; your meal is brought out to your table when ready. The pizzas are huge and would easily feed four. There being only two of us, we opted to go with several of the by the slice options. And after ordering, we spied our neighbors' fantastic-looking salad, so we added one of those too.

The pizza was chewy, nicely charred, with flavorful fresh toppings. Their signature clam pizza with white sauce sounds slightly off-putting, but it was the star of the night, followed closely by a spicy sausage and pepper red sauce slice. The salad was also a stand out with grilled artichokes, crisp lettuce, and plump polenta croutons.

The food runners were friendly and the experience exceeded our expectations. Plus, this place is affordable: $25 for four slices of pizza and a huge salad. They also offer a variety of microbrews on tap, but given the aforementioned Kona, we were beered-out.

Pete's New Haven Style Apizza on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Lunch Break: Ping Pong Dim Sum

Ping Pong Dim Sum opened mostly to jeers from the critics, so I was hesitant to try it even though it is right across the street from where I work most days. With its recent introduction of a new $15 executive lunch (including a choice of tea) of several courses guaranteed in a half hour, a colleague and I decided to give it a whirl.

And it was fun! The tea was the star of the show. A loose leaf jasmine varietal served in large mugs that was wonderfully fragrant and flavorful and a real treat no doubt on a winter day. But even with the heat (thanks to DC over air conditioning) a hot beverage was a great compliment to the food.

The food itself though was just okay. The variety made it bearable. Plus there is something about eating with chopsticks that takes at least some of the stress out of the day for me.

My favorite dish were the fried, flaky BBQ chicken buns topped with candied pineapple. They were buttery and seemed to almost melt in your mouth. However, the accompanying dumpling's fillings of seafood and vegetables lacked any discernible flavor.

The service until up until the end was attentive. We opted to also share a dessert (as a TGIF reward) and got the chocolate buns. These took forever to arrive--frustrating for a business lunch, particularly given their time guarantee; and when these did arrive, I wasn't a huge fan. To me they tasted like white bread had been soaked in water, wrung out, and balled up. The chocolate center was decadent, but it could not save the texture of this dessert.

The total with the addition of dessert and tip was $23. I'm still undecided on my recommendation; if anyone tries this, let me know what you think.

Also of note, I hit up happy hour there a few weeks ago with another colleague and the $5 kumquat mojito is worth the trip between 5 and 7pm!

Ping Pong Dim Sum on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 21, 2010

Shaking like a Brit at Commonwealth

I am not so culturally insensitive to assume that the Irish, much less the British, serve up a Guinness shake-float. But if they don't, they should. Commonwealth, Jamie Leeds' British-themed gastropub in Columbia Heights offers this concoction on their dessert menu.

For $7 a delicious adult treat awaits. As the dark chocolate chunk ice cream melts, it neutralizes the bitterness of the stout, making for a tasty, thick summer treat with a kick. Plus, as a reward for finishing, you get to spoon up all those stout-soaked chocolate chunks.

B and I have dined at Commonwealth several times, and while I highly recommend it for the shake, the atmosphere, and the beer, the food is just decent and the service is hit or miss. I definitely prefer Hank's to this Leeds offering, but the new take on pub classics like fish and chips are good, and the array of beers--including the cask-conditioned selections--are interesting. Plus the bar tables double as chess and checker boards. And in writing this post I just learned they are offering an all night happy hour on Tuesday night. I think you may find me there soon on a Tuesday!

Commonwealth on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Not Haute But Hot: Grillfish DC

One of my favorite year-round libations, but even more so on these 90+ degree days, is the Stoli Doli martini at Grillfish. Also available at Grillfish's sister restaurants in the Eat Well group, this delicious, house-infused pineapple vodka martini is half off at happy hour between 5 and 7pm, and at $8.50 all other times is a must for those that like their booze with just a touch of sweetness. Yes, this foodie is also a cliche in terms of her girlie drink choices, but don't knock it until you try it.

But wait, there's more. In addition to drink specials, Grillfish also has half priced appetizers and attentive bar service during happy hour. Plus the bar is spacious and comfortable for dining. It is a huge, stone slab backed by a mural of naked frolicking people and huge drip candles -- maybe Gay Gothic? My description does not do it justice, but it is a wonderful spot in an otherwise uninspiring section of the city adjacent to Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.

And as far as food goes, Grillfish is hot. And I mean this literally, their buffalo shrimp available as an appetizer or over pasta is one of my favorite dishes in the city. This is a distinctly American creation, and probably something that Michelin would thumb their nose at, but just taste it. Jumbo shrimp with a crispy outside and tender inside bathing in buffalo sauce which according to our favorite bartender is a secret combination of Tabasco, cream, garlic, and blue cheese.

I am not going to refuse these delicious shrimp in either the appetizer or the pasta portions, but I think I prefer the pasta to soak up the extra sauce. This entree is $18 and trust me, you will not be hungry afterwards, but may need another Stoli Doli martini to cut the heat.

Grillfish - D.C. on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pedro and Vinny are worth the wait

This summer, the ubiquitousness of food trucks downtown seems to be surging, with the latest offerings ranging from cupcakes to Banh Mi. On Friday, I jumped on the chance to get out of the office and try out one of the most legendary: Pedro and Vinny's burrito cart at 15th and K.

I spotted the line well before the truck. And while the wait was significant, about 30 minutes, it was not due to inefficiency. The one man show in the cart was working at lightning speed, and had a great disposition, playfully bantering with each customer, seemingly oblivious to the heat.

The options are exclusively vegetarian: beans (black, refried, or both "black and tan"), rice, cheese, and hot sauce; there is a wide variety of designer tortillas (tomato, spinach, wheat, onion garlic); sour cream and guacamole carry a nominal charge.

When I was about three people away from the front, the burrito man requested a water from the cooler of drinks. The woman in front of me obliged, but in handing him the water, knocked over three bottles of hot sauce which promptly shattered and burst all over the sidewalk. I bring this up because the burrito man's reaction was so cool and collected. He diffused her embarrassment, and promptly picked up the glass, and watered down the mess, and then got right back to work.

Now my turn. I opted for everything, medium size in a wheat tortilla. When asked about my heat preference, I went with a 6 out of 10 and was given a combination of their homemade habanero mango hot sauce. I had to trudge back to my desk before trying this creation, and after the long wait was starving. The burrito did not disappoint. It was the best I have had in this city, with immense flavor, heat, and sweetness. That the ingredients were fresh was clear, and the complexity of the heat, sweetness, and coolness of flavors made me forget there was no meat. My one complaint was that it could have been wrapped a bit tighter, but fortunately I had a stockpile of napkins at my desk. Be forewarned though, this is a messy lunch and one best suited to solo dining.

This stand is cash only with an honor box for the money. I think (you do your own math) my medium burrito was $6.50, but I left $8 for the outstanding service.

If you work anywhere near here, this is the best burrito I have had in DC and is most certainly worth the wait.

Pedro and Vinny's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

100 Posts In and Finally a Great Brunch in the DC Area

I often lament the lack of good brunch options in DC. And while, with a few exceptions, my opinion that DC does not have a decent variety of good brunch spots remains unchanged. But if you are willing to venture a little outside the beltway, brunch nirvana in a tranquil setting awaits at Black Market Bistro.

Located in Garrett Park in an old Victorian Post Office building, Black Market Bistro's brunch starts Sundays at 10am, at which time there's a line of people waiting to get in. We discovered it thanks to friends that live nearby. As a quick side note, while I would love for all my good friends to live closer, when they spread out to different neighborhoods, I have found this a great opportunity and excuse to expand my dining radius.

Back to the food. The brunch menu includes fresh squeezed juices, divinely fluffy pancakes, brioche French toast, and new twists on sandwiches such as the Croques Monsieur and Madame. Entrees range from $10 - $15 and the portions are hearty.

We started with the beignets and while Café Du Monde they were not, these hot fried dough balls were the best we have had in the area, and generously dusted with powdered sugar.
But most importantly, I finally found pancakes that I love that I don’t need to go to NYC for. These three huge, fluffy, dense yet airy pancakes were textbook in their texture and flavor. The whipped butter and orange syrup added a nice sweetness and tang. The fresh fruit that accompanied it was nothing special, but the addition of local sage breakfast sausage was delicious.

B’s Croque Madame ventured beyond the French textbook, featuring sourdough bread and poached eggs as well as French ham and gruyere cheese. B was also impressed with the peppery freshness of the mixed greens.

Since we were meeting friends, there was no question that this place was worth the commute. But after experiencing Black's brunch options, whether with friends or dining alone, we will be back.
Total for two with two glasses of grapefruit juice, two entrees, one side, shared appetizer, tax, and tip was $45.

And another note, I can't believe this blog now has 100 posts, and while I hate to admit it, I only write-up about 30% of our dining experiences. Please don't do the math! But with this centennial post, I'd like to hear from you -- what is your honest opinion? What would you like to see more of? Less of? Write me here -- eatingarounddc@gmail.com .

Black Market Bistro on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Seriously Arlington County...

As an update to yesterday's post, today's Farmers Market joie de vivre was quashed by the Arlington Board of Health who shut down both bread/pastry vendors for not individually wrapping all products. They of course arrived right at 8am, so sales were stopped immediately.

People were not happy, not to mention surprised, since other stores/shops in Arlington do not individually wrap breads, muffins etc. I was looking forward to a black bottom muffin carb fix before my workout, but had to settle for a Luna Bar at home.

Arlington, please, this policy does not make any sense and you ruined many peoples' day, not to mention wasted hundreds of gorgeous pastries and fresh baked breads.


Friday, June 4, 2010

No More Apples and Bananas

While the heat has been here in force since Memorial Day, I am taking solace in the fact, that the fruits of summer are upon us. Westmoreland Berry Farms' produce, especially their berries, are one of my favorite parts of summer in DC.

The berries are out-of-this-world and well worth the fifteen minute line that snakes around the Westmoreland truck--the most popular vendor at Courthouse Farmer's Market from 8:00am - noon each Saturday. But get there early for the best selection and bring lots of cash. Last week's truck included picture-perfect strawberries, cherries, raspberries, and sugar snap peas which average about $5 each. And they taste even better than they look!

The family that sells the farm's produce are always knowledgeable and quite friendly, considering they have been up since 3am and typically have hours more to go of standing in the summer heat by the time I see them each Saturday.

I think I am going to need a bigger box tomorrow and should probably hit up the ATM too.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Carrie and Dino Drop the Ball

This weekend brought a series of disappointments from tried and true friends. First Sex and the City 2 let me and much of its fanbase down more than I ever thought possible--I am still getting over this insulting attempt at a movie-- and second, more relevant to this Blog, Dino was a disaster on Sunday night.

As readers know, my first impressions of Dino were lukewarm, but after a few visits the restaurant's charm, fresh preparations of locally-sourced ingredients of Tuscan and other Italian specialties, together with terrific weeknight specials (including free corkage Monday through Wednesday), made it onto my book of DC go-tos. But today, it is gone from Eating Around's top five list.

Why? Last week, Dino's owner sent emails to its listserve, encouraging reservations for the long holiday weekend, offering all their weeknight specials. So, we decided, why not make the trek from Courthouse to Cleveland Park? Well, the best part about the evening turned out to the wine...which we brought!

We both opted for the higher-priced of two prix fixe options, which for $37 gets you a first, second, and dessert, along with a glass of homemade grappa or moscato with dessert. This is not cheap, but in the past has proven a good value based on the quality of the food. The pastas were just okay; B's mushroom tagliatelle with mushrooms and his duck were both good, if small. My Hawaiian swordfish originally came out having barely touched the grill, and after sending it back, it became obvious that there were much bigger problems than an inattentive chef. The fish was awful and tasted it as if it came out of the deep freeze and right onto the grill with a texture to match. I think another culinary innovation (full disclosure: never tried it) must be better. It was truly disgusting. And I am appalled that Dean Gold would even consider keeping the item on the menu for the night, not least because because the Hawaiian swordfish I ate on a previous visit was nothing less than sublime.

Despite the owner's presence and passion for food, I guess I am now with Tom in his belief that consistency is not Dino's strong suit. When on its game, Dino is a unique and satisfying experience, but I realized on Sunday that I am not willing to take this chance anymore, nor recommend that others do. From now on when I want Tuscan or Northern Italian I will head back to a place that is both phenomenal and 100% consistent: Tosca.

Dino on Urbanspoon