Friday, October 22, 2010

Eating Around DC's Dream Food Field Trip

Fall is my favorite season: a slight chill in the air, vibrant colors, and ethereal light, make it the perfect time to travel.  Last year's fall food field trip took B and me to France, discovering an array of food finds in Paris, Beaune, and Lyon.  This year, B and I are staying domestic (lucky thing we didn't head to France this year) and are headed on Saturday to Monterey, Sunday Big Sur, and finally, Napa Valley next week for some over-the-top culinary adventures.

All of this will culminate with a dinner at French Laundry, which proved to be every bit as much of the hard-won, nail-biter of a reservation it is cracked up to be; this score required hundreds of redial attempts, and on the third day of trying two months to the day, luck struck. This trip is definitely going to be a bit over-the-top, but in the best way, with dinners already planned at Ad Hoc, Bottega, and Seirra Mar, and visits to several wineries (many via bike to work off those dinners).

We adore Napa and have been lucky enough to visit two times before, but have never done it like this .  This foodie is excited!  

So, Eating Around DC will be uncharacteristically quiet next week, far too busy eating and drinking to type. A detailed Northern California Food Field Trip Report will follow.  In the meantime, anyone have can't miss winery recommendations?  Do tell!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ray's Expands the Steaks

Readers know that B and I eat at Ray's the Steaks far more than we would even admit to.  And recently, with the addition of dry-aged, bone-on options on weekends, we have found ourselves drawn back To Ray's even more frequently.

The house-cut steaks range from filets to porterhouses to something called the "long bone," which looks like a cut that would have made Fred Flinstone happy.  While the prices are about $7-8 more than the traditional cuts, the flavors are intense and the meat is tender and moist.

And perhaps soon (fingers crossed!) we will have some new wine options to pair with these cuts, as butcher paper has finally gone up on the windows of the space next door, hopefully signally a soon-to-be-open Ray's the Glass.  A tentative cheers to that!

Ray's the Steaks on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fall Dining Guide Leads to Eating Around DC's First Bite of BGR

I always look forward to the Washington Post's Fall Dining Guide with a bit of trepidation because I fear that the new "it" place(s) will soon be overrun.  My type-A personality even carries over to dining guides (sad, but true).  So while I pride myself on knowing the ins and outs of DC dining, I am always overwhelmed by the newcomers I have yet to try, and some classic establishments (including Obelisk), that I still have not made it to. 

So with Tom's guide in hand via the Saturday early edition of Sunday's Post, I made quick use of it by trying BGR: The Burger Joint within hours of my initial read. With five locations, B and I opted for the closest one on Lee Highway, next to the always bustling Italian Store

BGR does a brisk Saturday lunch business, which allowed us some time to decide on our strategy to navigate the many menu options. We were a bit overwhelmed with the burger selections--should we go for the classic hamburger (with hormone free, grain fed beef), the Greek lamb burger, or the lobster one?--all of which are cooked to order.  We both opted for the classic burgers, me with the works including a spicy Mojo sauce and B with bacon and blue cheese.  The burgers were well seasoned, the fresh-made brioche bun was delicious and soaked in the juices, and there was nothing to complain about the toppings (caramelized onions, tomatoes, lettuce).  My only minor complaint is that the exterior of my burger (full disclosure: ordered medium well) was a bit too charred.

And while we enjoyed the burgers, the best part of this lunch was not the meat but the sides.  The thick cut, ridicoulously over-sized onion rings were almost sweet, and by far the best I have had in the area if not anywhere.  The double-fried yukon gold French Fries don't look like much, but their flavor and crunch combination worked perfectly.

What really seems to make BGR stand out is the quality of each and every ingredient.  It is the complete burger-joint package.  BGR soars well above Five Guys, and the sides trump Ray's Hellburger.  But as for the burgers themselves, I prefer Desperados (on U) and B is a Ray's Hellburger fanatic. 

BGR also offers milkshakes, which will no doubt draw me back.  That and an order of onion rings sounds like a pretty swell combination.

Quality does not come cheap; two burgers, one side of fires, one side of onion rings, and a diet coke, totaled $28!

One Dining Guide destination down, many, many more to go!

BGR: The Burger Joint on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 15, 2010

Casa Nonna

Casa Nonna, the Italian-American family style eatery from the BLT group, is a vast improvement over this Dupont location's former occupant, the California Pizza Kitchen...though I must admit that such an accomplishment could not be easier to attain.

Unlike BLT Steak, the prices here don't require an expense account, but the food is in no way the same caliber.  The standouts included the garlic bread (served gratis) and a lasagna with meat sauce, which contained sweet pillows of cheese filling enrobed in a rich sauce.  But there are some misses too.  The chicken parmigiana was thicker than the traditional Italian-American preparation and described by a friend as "chewy".  One of our dining companions remarked that some of the dishes were not "piping hot," likely indicating an unduly lag time on the warmer.

The large round tables, with built-in lazy susans, are great for sharing the family-style portions, which worked well with our party of six. One major issue with the dining room is the noise and the lack of any sort of sound absorption. The restaurant--even only 3/4 full--is extremely loud and nearly impossible to hear someone across the large table.

One anomaly--while everything from salads to entrees is meant to be shared, desserts (our tiramisu was delicious) are dainty.  While the presentation is creative, the individually-sized portion seemed incongruent to the concept. 

The service was attentive, but the up-selling attempts were overly transparent. This is certainly not the best Italian in DC, but by far better than the relatively new DC outpost of the infamous NYC originated Carmine's, of whose atmosphere and food I am highly skeptical of based on a recent happy hour experience, which emphasized quantity over quality.

I would recommend Casa Nonna as a fun option for groups as it provides choices to please pretty much everyone at prices that won't scare those who aren't accustomed to dining out in DC.  Casa Nonna also offers a carafe of decent house red wine (reminiscent of Ida's in Boston's North End) for $25, great for sharing.  Pastas which serve 2-3 hover around $20 and the shared entrees start at $28.

Casa Nonna on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Westend Bistro: Good but not the Best in the 'Hood

Eric Ripert's Westend Bistro is one of those places that has been on my must-try list for quite some time, but with such, delicious and varied options in the neighborhood (like Ris and Grillfish), B and I did not try it out until just this past weekend.

On a whim, rare for two type A planners that are notorious for making restaurant reservations weeks ahead of time, we called a half-hour in advance (following some potent and retro-priced martinis at Martins in Georgetown), and were able to secure an outdoor table on an unseasonably warm October evening.   We appreciated the last minute table on the patio, a pleasant, candle-lit space.  But, once seated, we discovered that 22nd Street is a highly trafficked roadway complete with semi trucks and tour buses.  Couple that with the adjacent fire station, and you have a veritable traffic symphony -- so next time inside!

The food overall was good to great. Bottom line, you can find better for the price in the immediate neighborhood (see above).  While the chef is known for his shortribs, the standouts were of the crustacean variety. If you do go, you will not be disappointed with the escargot and mushroom casserole appetizer, which brings out the earthiness of both, in a tender, buttery preparation perfect for a fall evening.

The shrimp and grits were bathed in a spicy tomato sauce with house-made chorizo.  The flavors gave this low country classic the feel of a paella.

The aforementioned shortribs were fork-tender, served over truffled mashed potatoes with root vegetables, but the depth of their flavor in no way compared to Central's take served over papardelle.

The wine list, is brief, but offers both reasonable options and splurge-worthy bottles.  We opted for a mid-priced Pinot Noir.  

The service was attentive and knowledgeable, including  the hostess catching B and I before we left one of our shopping bags at the table (must have been those martinis and that Pinot!)  Our dinner with two appetizers, two entrees, and a bottle of Pinot Noir, tax, and tip was $185.

Westend Bistro on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cuba Libre DC: A Cacophony of Cuban Cuisine

Cuba Libre's DC outpost opened this past week to much hype, marketing "preview" prices in an attempt to lure skeptical Washingtonians (like B and me). All food menu items are 50% through Thursday and then a 25% discount from the 8th - 13th.

Good thing we didn't have to pay full fare for the food.  The descriptors that immediately come to mind: loud, beyond over-the-top themed (crossing way over the line into tacky); mediocre, overpriced food;  excellent mojitos.

Let me start with the decor.  They say the restaurant is designed to look like Havana in the 1950s with fake Spanish-style balcony facades along the wall and indoor street lamp replicas. Not being alive in the 50s coupled with never (sadly) having been to Cuba due to ridiculous US restrictions, I cannot speak to the authenticity of the design.  But the whole setup did bring to mind Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean ride--I kept expecting anamatronic figures pop out of the windows above.  If that weren't itself over the top,  blasting Cuban music muddles with the dining room noise to such an extent that you have to yell across the table to converse.  Some of the kitsch is OK--soap in the restrooms dispensed from rum bottles and the check arriving in a cigar box--but, good God, most of the rest is headache-inducing. 

While the restaurant gets kudos for a well-trained, efficient staff, our waiter was easily the most annoying waiter we have ever had in DC.  Sadly, we are no stranger to his antics, we remembered his verbosity at an experience at an otherwise good restaurant (and will thus remain nameless) a few years ago.  He has been in the city a while, and half way through his six (!) minute recitation of the wonders of each and every appetizers, certain signature phrases reminded me of him and his aforementioned antics.  This guy did not stop.  The entree overview was closer to seven minutes, followed by the dessert introduction which I could not even bring myself to listen to.  With eyes glazed over, B and I shuddered every time he said he would be back, because we knew what was in store.  A for effort--someone payed attention in server training--and A+ for annoying!

I will say that the mojitos were extraordinary--the sugarcane is scraped in-house--and would be the only thing that would pull me back into this establishment. 

All drinks are made with house cane sugar, and this Pyrat Mojito had such a refreshing taste, that I could forget the manufactured surroundings for a minute.

Appetizers regularly range from $6 - 13 (when they say small, they mean it) and entrees from $18 - 32.  The food itself is decent, but in no way tastes as though it was inspired by a James Beard award winner (as the waiter reminded all of his tables many times) nor is it commensurate with the full-freight prices.  And certain unseasonal accouterments were just perplexing; to wit, the arroz con pollo was topped with tasteless tubes of asparagus.

The best options of our six courses of the night,were the big eye tuna ceviche, with coconut milk and jalapeno...

...and the ropa vieja, which was traditional and tender, served with plantains over white rice, though it could have used a bit more spice.

I should also mention that the toasted Cuban (it was actually closer to French) bread with mango butter was addictive and delicious.  But in my experience, Cuban food, like arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, and the trademark Cuban sandwich are often best enjoyed at local, hole-in-the-wall type restaurants.  While, again the food at Cuba Libre is not bad, the prices are way out of whack.   This horrified B as a Tampa native, since he was used to the massive flavorful $5 sandwiches of Ybor City, which, by the way, are made on bona fide Cuban bread.

Bottom line? Cuba Libre provides a themed dining experience in DC, and I have no doubt that tour buses, bachelorette, and birthday parties will soon descend.  But this not a dining experience I for one want to remember.

Cuba Libre on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Food Field Trip SoCal: Sunsets, Cocktails, and CA Cuisine

Georges at the Cove, a La Jolla landmark eatery, is a destination in and of itself, where bar snacks, patio fare, and fine cuisine are all available in these respective three stories, all of which have tremendous sunset views over the Pacific.  And while the food is reliably good -- even though the selection is a bit limited on the patio -- the cocktails keep us coming back when we are in San Diego. I cannot imagine a better way to end a day and begin the evening than by enjoying a fresh-made cocktail at sundown with the sea lions frolicking below.

Our cocktail choices were a blood orange margarita, whose color matches the sunset, and a classic, oaky, Napa chardonnay. Cocktails and wine hover in the $10 - $12 range. I recommend an early evening reservation to take it all in.

George's California Modern on Urbanspoon

Until this most recent trip, I would also have recommended dinner at Georges if you only had once night to spend in La Jolla, but thanks to a more than memorable dining experience, that recommendation has moved further down the boulevard to Nine Ten.  Here a rising star chef, Jason Knibb, is creating some of what I have found to be the best fine dining in San Diego, and while the street-side dining room lacks the storied views elsewhere on the strip, the food and warm decor will garner no complaints from me.

Standouts from the well executed restaurant week menu (fortunate timing) included a textbook poached egg over crispy brussel sprouts, an outstanding harpoon-caught swordfish fillet (whose seared exterior yielded to a moist, flaky center), and a richly enjoyable half-baked chocolate cake accented with what tasted like a just-made caramel sauce.

Wine pairings were thoughtful, bringing out the flavors of each course.  I was impressed that the server was able to find an as requested red pairing for my fish--a pinot noir, that complimented instead of overwhelmed the delicate preparation.

The kitchen here is on to something, and if you are in the area, and appreciate fresh, locally sourced and inventive food creations, do give this a try.  The restaurant week menu was a steal at $40 for three courses with wine pairings for $15.  Entrees regularly run in the mid-$20s. 

Nine Ten on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 1, 2010

Food Field Trip SoCal: Vintage Venice

The only thing I knew about Venice Beach before visiting last week was that it was the setting for Showtime’s quirky Californication and home to Hank Moody. I didn’t expect to stumble upon some of the best Mexican food I have enjoyed on this side of the border at La Cabana.

La Cabana is not fancy or high-brow, or modern. It is in fact a quirky throwback, and walking through the doors seems like stepping back in time to 1970-something. The dark wood interior is full of once vibrant Baja-style colorful tiling, and a wood-fired tortilla oven is manned by a grand-motherly looking tortilla steward that must have been old at the restaurant’s opening.

The food was hearty, traditional, and textbook vintage Mexican cooking.

My tortilla soup had a moderately spicy broth which was studded with corn, peppers, and queso fresco and topped with crunchy tortilla strips.

The beef in my quesadilla tasted like it had been braising for weeks, and also included outstanding cheese and avocado. The core ingredients came together in a way that elevated it from simple to memorable.

The marinated pork had a subtle heat, was fork tender, and the accompanying refried beans were not the mush that you so often find. The piping-hot homemade tortillas were simply divine.

Prices are also a welcome throwback at $8 - $15 for huge portions, and authentic Mexican home cooking. It is worth the trip to Venice and is located about a mile off the infamous strip. For a complete evening and a real feel of Venice, I recommend starting on the strip with a sunset, pre-dinner beer at Danny’s Venice.

La Cabana on Urbanspoon