Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Food Field Trip: Cape Cod Classics

So you may have noticed that Eating Around DC was somewhat quiet last week, but while the blogging was in short supply, the eating was not! I am back with Food Field Trip reports this week detailing my favorite summer beach spot: Cape Cod.

B and I were on our annual PILGRIMage (har, har); appropriately named because we always stay in Provincetown, the pilgrims' first landing spot and one of my favorite places in the world. And despite--or perhaps because of--an inordinate amount of rain in the form of the rare August Nor'easter, I have some great food finds to share and one to avoid.

So let's start with the Cape Cod classics: Lobster and Ice Cream.

For a traditional, but likely the biggest, lobster roll you have ever seen, the Raw Bar, was our first stop as we meandered up the Cape. The original location is in Mashpee, with a second location added this summer further up in Hyannis.

Yes, this lobster roll really is this big, bursting with tender tail and claw meat of what must be 2-3 lobster in just a slight smattering of mayonnaise.

My half (B and I split) pictured above was delectable, perfectly cooked and filling. I can't speak for the roll, since I could hardly make it through the lobster Do note that if you choose to share, you may be ribbed by some well-meaning regulars who seem to have an uncanny ability to consume massive amounts of lobster.  I think maybe I need to spend more time on the Cape to train my stomach.

Raw Bar on Urbanspoon

Next it was onto Sundae School for what I believe is ice cream Sundae perfection. I have never tasted a better version, as this one is made up of all homemade ingredients from the numerous and ever-changing small-batch ice cream flavors, to the rich hot fudge and homemade whipped cream.

Served in the original location in a classic dish with a fresh cherry, this dessert is rich, creamy, and picture perfect. The fudge slowly melts the ice cream and results in a delightful mix of hot and ice cold. Pictured above is a sundae with my favorite flavor: coffee oreo. I recommend the original location in Dennisport for the old-time feel, complete with 100 year old soda fountain, and player piano, but the ice cream is equally as tasty at the other locations (we made a stop at the East Orleans outpost on our way home).

Sundae School Ice Cream on Urbanspoon

As with most things on the Cape, such simple classics don't come cheap. The lobster roll is $25 and the classic ice cream Sunday is $5.99. Service at both counter-service establishments is friendly and efficient.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Go for the Beer and the Bread: Birch and Barley

Birch and Barley is a unique addition to not only DC's, but as reported recently, the country's culinary beer scene -- and I am not being dramatic.  The emphasis on beer and food pairings is unparalleled.

We first tried this restaurant back in early January and were impressed.  We were back again on a recent Friday, taking advantage of a cool by-this-summer's-standards evening and dining on the patio.  It being mid-August, we were able to walk in without a reservation -- my favorite part of August in DC!  While we waited about twenty minutes, we enjoyed summer beers in the upstairs bar: Harpoon and Sierra Nevada.  The latter was a surprise standout.

Unlike our first visit we ordered a la carte and took advantage of the 4 ounce taster option available for all 50+ tap beers.  We left the beer choices in our waitress's hands.  I was quite happy to see Greg Engert approaching with two of the nights choices.  The fact that even after being the first beer-guy named to Food And Wine's top 100 sommeliers he is still so hands on is a testament to how unique this place is, as well as how much care goes into both the beer choices and the food options.

Like on our first visit, Greg's knowledge and passion shines through and when he speaks about the beer, from its origins to its flavors, you cannot help but sit on the edge of your seat eagerly engaged and ready to conquer this wonderful world of beer that he so aptly describes.  A nice touch was when discussing one of our favorite beers from the last visit, an Italian beer brewed in an African-style with myrrh (tasty!), Greg returned to our table with samples of a beer currently offered with similar notes.

The food is very good, but not good enough yet to garner a place on my top five list -- though it is getting there.  If everything was as delicious as the bread board that starts the meal -- this time consisting of pretzels, olive rolls, and cornbread -- then it would surely be one of my go-tos.

An appetizer of head-on jumbo shrimp over tomatoes, feat, olives, and saganaki had a nice, salty bite.

The fig and prosciutto pizza was  good, rich, doughy, and such an ample portion that it was easily two meals.  In fact, it was even better the next day as leftovers, after the blue cheese and fig flavors intensified and merged overnight in the fridge.

And dessert, a peanut butter tart, with a mini-whiskey milkshake, and malted milk sorbet was delicious and would have been exceptional had not been for a heavy hand with the cinnamon.

Birch and Barley is not inexpensive, but it is a good value.  An appetizer, two entrees, dessert, six four ounce pours, tax, and tip was $98.00.  The upstairs bar, Church Key, has a different food menu with some mighty fine looking cheese fries, but it is first come first served and we have yet to find a seat up a there -- our next beer conquest!

Birch & Barley on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bibiana's Piatti Piccoli, Bravo

Bibiana has been on my short-list of must-try DC restaurants for almost six months now, so I was excited to finally taste the Tom-approved Italian cooking a few Fridays ago. My expectations were high; Bibiana is under the same umbrella as Rasika.  And having been there before for drinks and dessert, I knew I already adored the dimly lit interior, with its larger than life black and white prints of  Italian scenes, and rich dark wood and orange tones offset by modern, large stainless steel chandeliers.

We were not disappointed. Bibiana is a fantastic addition to the DC Italian dining scene, with a fairly extensive Italian wine list, attentive, but not hovering service, and a varied menu focused on seasonal ingredients. But--and this is a big but--I did not think it was quite at the level of Tosca, especially the pasta dishes.

Where Bibiana really shines is in their Piatti Piccoli.  The fried pumpkin blossoms were so delicate and light with a touch of sea salt that the flavor of the blossom was elegantly showcased and while fried, tasted lighter than air.  The chicken liver was rich and smooth, but what really set it apart was the pickled red onion and grilled bread which made for an extremely flavorful and well-balanced bite.

The split burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made with mozzarella and cream, pictured below was paired with heirloom tomatoes and basil.  It was decadent and creamy.

The pasta entrees are where some seams started to show.  The veal ravioli in a brown butter and sage sauce topped with shaved pecorino was a good flavor combination, but the pasta encasing the filling was too thick and muted the veal flavor.

The Maryland crab over black spaghetti was a better balance, but a bit muted in flavor as well and not overly memorable.  Next time, I think my strategy will be to try the meat/fish entrees vice the pasta. 

Dessert, an apricot semifreddo was as delicious as it is pretty; pure over-the-top apricot goodness: apricot-soaked cake, apricot gelato, and candied apricots.  It sounds like overload, but the varied textures and delicate preparations contrasted nicely.

Dinner with a bottle of excellent Primitivo, two appetizers, salad, two entrees, dessert, tax and tip was $165. 

Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Heavy on the Testosterone, but Good Beer and Great Wings

Thirsty Bernie’s is a gastropub located in a nondescript strip mall in Arlington on Lee Highway. So right away you are probably thinking, why would you go there? That makes two of us, but read on.

The answer this past Wednesday was that B wanted bar food and beer in big mugs, a request he does not make often, so we headed to this man enclave for happy hour with minor protests from me.

Having been there before for lunch, I originally found the food--full well knowing that they craft their own sausages and breads, to be the heart-attack on a plate variety and not all that spectacular. But B has been several times since and insistent that it was worth a return visit. And in thinking about it, who could not use a 23 ounce mug of craft beer on a Wednesday?!

In entering Thirsty Bernie’s it took all I had not to turn right around and leave. It was filled with some of the worst of suburbia: beer-gutted middle-aged men talking too loudly and already slurring their words at 6:30. Nice. I rolled my eyes several times, questioned B as to why it was that we were here again, and reluctantly sat down.

The beer selections are heavy on European varietals, but include rotating specials which this past week including Kona’s Longboard Lager and New York's Hennepin. The aforementioned mugs are $2 off during happy hour from 4 - 7pm  ($5 and $7 respectively) and the beer is served at an appropriate temperature.

Before I get to the food, two comments on atmosphere and service:
  1. If you are going to be a man-cave bar with dark wood, lots of beer, flat-screen sports-showing TVs, and blown-up pictures of football players on the walls, you need to think of your music choices. Taylor Swift’s "Romeo and Juliet" as the backdrop to the crowd I mentioned above was just plain bizarre, smirk-worthy.
  2. The waitstaff appears to be hired exclusively from some local high school football team alumni association. Our waiter, while sweet and efficient, provided the most humorous moment of the night when we asked about Spaten, a brew from Munich. He shyly responded that while he was pretty sure it was Italian (a name like Spaten just has that Italian ring?!), but then came clean and said since that he was only 20 he really had no idea.

These cheese covered and purportedly homemade potato chips are not on the menu, but somehow B knew to order them.  They were really good, but what kept them from being great was the gratuitous amount of blue cheese on top.  The chips were hearty and thick cut, which made them a natural fit for the amazingly tangy German cheese sauce below and scallions above.  Minus the blue cheese they would be better (and even worse for you) if they added bacon or some house cured pancetta.  Clearly Bernie's food is not meant for weekly consumption for anyone but the men that so disgusted me upon entering.

Since we happened to be there on a Wednesday, when wings are half priced, we decided to try a dozen hot wings and went with a mix of crispy and grilled. These were quite possibly the best wings I have tasted and as a poor graduate student in my past life, I have quite the advanced wing pallet.  The wings had a firey heat, compounded by the sprinkling or red pepper flakes and countered by the chunky and ample homemade blue cheese dressing.  The wings themselves were just the right size -- not too small, but not so large that the sauce to wing ratio was off.  I would venture back into to the 'burbs just for these wings.  The grilled were my favorite, though spicier!

One oddity: Thirsty Bernie's claims to be 95% organic.  I'm not sure what is going on with the other 5%.  The food and beer selection at Thirsty Bernie's is actually worth the trip, and you can tell the owners care and put a lot of heart into the place.  Plus the price is right.  Two 23 ounce mugs, twelve wings, and the cheesy potato chips, tax, and tip were $35.

Thirsty Bernie Sports Bar & Grille on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Thumbs Down: Ted's Bulletin's Pop Tarts

This morning's brunch was an all-out breakfast (7:00, yawn!) owing to B's work schedule.  Fortunately, Ted's Bulletin, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, opens this early, even on Sunday.

So today, I decided to try one of Ted's Bulletin's delicious looking homemade pop parts that I drooled over on my last visit.  While seated in the nostalgic dining room,  I noticed a staff member carrying in a box of Dunkin Donuts for the kitchen staff and I thought: "Why would they be choosing munchkins and donuts over those delicious-looking pop tarts; do they know something I don't?"  Why yes, yes they did, it turns out. 

The pop tart arrived hot, with gooey frosting and whimsical colored sprinkles.  Good start!  I eagerly took a bite and it was dull, dry, and not even up to par with its mass-produced namesake.  Now I understand the donuts!  Though I hate to admit it, as a girl who grew up in New England, I can say those munchkins are quite tasty. 

Our other choice, the beer biscuits and gravy with lightly poached eggs, were once again rich and delicious.  This is a great breakfast bet, but stay away from those pop tarts in the window!

Ted's Bulletin on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 13, 2010

Food Flashback: No Love for Cakelove

Wow – cupcakes are a hot topic in DC this summer! Eating Around DC's news on Georgetown Cupcake's "bouncers"--which got a lot of attention a few days ago--prompted a robust debate over the best and worst cupcakes in DC.  I promise this is my last post on the subject for awhile, but I would like to affirm the overwhelming consensus among commenters on the worst cupcake in DC: Cakelove

When B and I moved here in 2005, we were so excited to try the bakery that we made almost an immediate trip to what was at the time a rather desolate section of U Street.  What was all the world's--including Oprah--fuss about?

We looked in the window of the bakery across the street from the Love Cafe and swooned over the beautiful cakes being decorated in the window.  So far, so good.  And then we tried the cupcake across the street and we were like: "Really?!"  Granted, we went in expecting to love these cupcakes in part because of the story, including Warren Brown's quitting his day-job to follow a dream.  But the cupcake sucked on a variety of levels.

First of all the cupcake was served cold, really cold. Then there was the issue of the frosting consistency which was like a dense block of Crisco. And the cake itself was muted in flavor, dry and too dense. And perhaps the worst part was that we went back several times over the next few months.  In our defense there were a dearth of  bakeries (at least as newcomers) that we knew about at the time.  We even tried one of the over-priced strawberry and cream cakes which while slightly better and more attractive than the cupcakes was still just okay.

Finally I want to add that as readers of this blog know, while I hate the lines at Georgetown Cupcake, I do think both the appearance and the taste of their cupcakes are excellent...though I will only pre-order for the foreseeable future.  And with that, no more cupcake postings here unless there's some breaking news… I am cup-caked out!

Cakelove on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Is the Parisian Macaro(o)n rising in DC?

Cacao's Macaroons
With all this talk of cupcakes, I have been trying to scout out the next dessert food trend in DC.  I'm ready for something else.  A few years back I had some excellent chocolate rice pudding at a shop dedicated to the gloppy goodness in NYC, but as much as I had hoped, this innovative approach to a retro classic has not caught on.

What does seem to migrating this way are Parisian style macarons whose spelling adds an "O" for whatever reason when the treat crosses the Atlantic.  A new place in Cleveland Park, Cacao, serves dozens of varieties along with some other divine looking French pastries.

So is this the next big thing?  I am not so sure; I thought these sweet treats were just okay.  The macaroons do actually taste like the flavor descriptions from plain vanilla to pistachio to rose.  And the cookie part is light with a nice crunch and a moist inside giving way to the smooth, sweet cream filling.  But they lacked a certain zip and I don't think I will be back for more.

One thing that really irked me was the $1 upcharge for the plastic box.  Really?!  That seemed tacky.  And at $8 for six--without the box--it was not as if these were inexpensive treats.

My favorite macaroon can be found not in Paris but from Sucre in New Orleans; I've actually mail-ordered them (last year for Mardi Gras, along with their fancy King Cake) and they arrive quite fresh.

 Sucre's Mardi Gras Macaroons
Sucre's macaroons are slightly more expensive but have an ethereal look and taste divine.  So if DC bakeries are going to make this the next trend, they have their work cut out for them!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summer Heat Antidote: Cold Creamy Custard

With temperatures once again forecasted to spike into the upper 90s and (gasp, sigh, whine) the low 100s over the next few days, I think this an opportune occasion to profile one of my favorite summertime DC treats: the Dairy Godmother. This whimsical custard shop in the heart of Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood focuses almost exclusively on custard. They offer vanilla, chocolate, and a rotating flavor of the day. This summer I have already enjoyed the caramel heath paired with chocolate (pictured above) and, my favorite, Bordeaux cherry.

The Dairy Godmother is not metro accessible, but is worth the drive. The custard is rich and provides instant (if temporary) heat relief. Plus it is a low budget summer splurge at $2.75 for the ample-sized small. And unlike other DC originals the line does not extend around the block and moves quickly, so it is much easier and more seasonal than a cupcake fix.

If you are on the hook to bring dessert to a dinner party, they do make custard ice cream sandwiches and custard cakes to go.  And being Del Ray, a dog lover's paradise, they also offer a variety of homemade dog treats.  According to their website they have also branched into homemade popsicles, but I am more of a milk-fat girl myself. 

Dairy Godmother is closed on Tuesday, so plan accordingly to avoid disappointment.

Dairy Godmother on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 9, 2010

DC Brunch Scene Looking Up

The homemade pop tarts in the window of Ted's Bulletin.
Ted's Bulletin is a new creation from the masterminds behind Matchbox. Located on 8th St. in the Barracks Row neighborhood, Ted's gets its name from the owners' father and is themed to the hilt.  It feels like Disney imagineers had a hand in the design.  It is border-line cheesy--totally over the top--but I loved the newspaper menus, old movies playing in black and white, and restrooms fashioned after streetcar station offices.  

B and I made our way to Ted's last Sunday for brunch and though it was only 10:45am, we saw the crowds outside before we saw the restaurant.  But once we entered the bar area and put our name in for what we were told would be a 20 minute (was actually 35), wait, I was so taken with the beauty of both the bar area and the baked goods on display, that it seemed to go by quickly.

And before I get to the food, I have to note that the hostess here, like in so many places, was neither organized or savvy or a had a clue what time management means.  Fortunately, the floor managers stepped in to help.  But it got me thinking that Danielle, the original Ray's hostess--and now a manager at the East River establishment--should consider running a hostess boot camp.  DC could use more Danielles.  But I digress.

We were seated in a booth built for two, which means that coming as a party of two your wait time will be significantly less than the larger groups since these tables cannot be moved to accommodate larger parties.  

We had perused the menu while waiting, and were promptly greeted by our waitress, who did let us know that a new batch of sausage gravy would be ready soon, but would mean a five minute or so delay.  No problem as we were again so taken by the atmosphere, that we hardly noticed the wait.

While I really wanted a pop-tart and an adult milkshake (next-time!) I decided to go for a bit more nutrition and got the "Walk of Shame" breakfast burrito.  The presentation was great, the hash browns were nostalgic and flavorful with a good crunch.  But the burrito while decent, lacked the promised green chile sauce  and instead was covered in a heavily-oregano tinged sauce.  With a zestier sauce or salsa this dish would be complete.

B's entree of beer batter biscuits and that house made sausage gravy was one of the best brunch entrees we have ever enjoyed.  The biscuits were so moist and had a nice savory sweetness from the beer and the gravy was rich without being cloying.  And the picture is a bit blurry, but this was huge and came with two eggs and a side of hash browns.

Brunch for two with tax, and tip was $28.  And we will be back for pop-tarts and milkshakes.

Ted's Bulletin on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 8, 2010

STOP in the Name of Cupcakes

The line at Georgetown Cupcakes at 2:00 today

If the color of the traffic light in the picture above weren't enough of a symbol, there is overwhelming evidence in this scene to pre-order or avoid Georgetown Cupcake entirely. May I present Exhibit A: The line that stretches far into the annals of Georgetown. Exhibit B: The bouncer now posted outside. Exhibit C (though not visible in this frame): An even more congested traffic scene--both foot and auto--on M Street.

Yes, Reality TV has definitely had an impact. But on the bright side, it has spawned some entrepreneurship with individuals selling bottled water to the masses waiting well over an hour in line on a hot Sunday afternoon.

I think it is time for the next trend!

Georgetown Cupcake on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A DC Summer Evening

Jazz in the Sculpture Garden is a wonderful way to spend a summer Friday evening.  This weekly celebration runs from 5 - 8:30pm in the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden and features talented jazz artists from Washington and around the country.

This free event offers a full bar as well as beer and sangria stations set up all around the fountain.  For $5.50 you get a large tumbler of the on-all-other-occasions too sweet concoction that tastes surprisingly refreshing when combined with the music, late afternoon sun, and fantastic people watching.  If I was having this drink in a bar, I would probably hate it, but when you combine it with the atmosphere it is a summer happy hour must, and provides just the right amount of relaxation in a plastic cup.  Food is also available for purchase, but given the proximity to a half dozen great restaurants, I have never tried it.  It does look decent though, and patrons are also allowed to bring in their own snacks.

This weekly event brings out all types of people, young and old, with toddlers running about, young couples holding hands, and elegant seniors dancing and drawing applause from the crowd.  It is a great way to to ease into the weekend and leave the frenetic stress of the workweek behind.  

This past Friday was my first jazz appearance this year though because of the endless Fridays of 90-100 degree temperatures.  The garden gets sun all evening, which means your enjoyment of this event is inversely proportional to the temperature.

And upon leaving the Garden to meet B for a late dinner downtown (review to come), this site greeted me on Pennsylvania Avenue, where it appeared the city was also relaxing and ready for the weekend.  Sigh...until next Friday.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Food Field Trip: An Outer Banks Landmark

The requisite first food stop after a five hour trek from DC is John's Drive In, the Kitty Hawk institution that serves up fried seafood and decadent milkshakes.  On the grounds of the window-service only shack are a six-car parking lot and several picnic tables.  While John's does not have water views (because of the dunes), it is directly across from the beach and you get to enjoy your food with the sounds of crashing waves in the background.

This year we developed a new John's strategy aimed at maximizing our enjoyment and minimizing the wow-I-ate-way-too-much feeling.  We share a "Dolphin Boat" -- yes, I know, sounds disturbing -- but the huge serving of fresh battered and fried mahi mahi (with french fries) has great crunch, and the fish is juicy and tender.  Be careful these are made to order and steaming hot when they come out.  The fries, while crispier than I remember them from last year, are just okay -- so don't devour too many so you can save room for desert.

The old school milkshakes closely resemble the New England trademark frappes.  Made with hand dipped ice cream, they are thick, rich and creamy.  And the choices of flavor combinations seem endless. My go-to is the chocolate peanut butter.

The line definitely gets long at lunch time, so either be prepared to wait or come before noon.  It is worth leaving the beach and the drive at least once if you happen to be visiting this part of the Outer Banks.  Shakes are about $5 and the dolphin boat which is sharable is $9.50.

John's on Urbanspoon