Sunday, February 28, 2010

Trying Ris

(Photo: Washington Post)
It feels like ages since we've gone out and enjoyed a new restaurant. Honest! This is not for lack of places springing up all over DC, but rather our time and general tendency to gravitate to old standbys. But Saturday we broke from this pattern and tried Ris. The brainchild and namesake of former 1789 chef Ris Lacoste, the place garnered appetizing initial reviews and has reportedly been in the works since 2005.

It was worth the wait! The food was fantastic, the pacing not rushed, and the service was solid.

After a long Saturday spent working, we had a 7pm reservation, but the presence of the generally 60+ aged crowd made it feel earlier. The restaurant is located at 2275 L St., on an obscure block in the District's West End. The space is quite nice inside: candle-lit, warm, with dark brown and off-white leather furnishings, lots of booths, and a rich maroon wall paper accented by gold flowers.

The service from the start was attentive but not obtrusive, and while our waiter was stumped by the origin of the scallops and dessert wine selections, he quickly got the answers, and proposed that we sample one of the wines before opting for the glass.

We decided to start with a glass of champagne. B went for a prosecco, while I opted for a brut rose. These were the perfect elixirs to a stressful weekend, and well priced at $10 and $12. The wine list by the glass was quite good, and we both enjoyed excellent, full-bodied selections of an Italian syrah and a California petite sirah later on in the evening.

The menu offers about ten choices for starters and entrees, with a handful of nightly specials. To start, we both went with a soup, the perfect medicine for this cold DC winter. I opted one of the specials: New England Chowder. The chowder was traditional style, but adding to the richness of the cream-based soup, was a pad of butter served atop. The broth was rich and probably did not need the extra butter. But the clams were tender and succulent and their flavor tinged the celery and potatoes commingling in the broth. B went with the French onion soup, which was jam-packed with what else, but onions. It was a wonderful and authentic starter that reminded us of the soup we enjoyed at Le Nord in Lyon this past fall.

We continued to on with rich food choices when we moved to our entrees. I had the lamb shank pictured above. Until this dish, I did not think that Central's lamb shank could be topped. This succulent piece of meat changed that; the generous portion of lamb is perfectly caramelized on the outside and fork tender and juicy under the skin. Served atop chick peas, its richness is offset by mint, yogurt, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds; the latter adds color and a literal burst of flavor. B had the cider glazed pork chop with collard greens, apple-cornbread pudding, shell-beans with bacon and bourbon sauce. The pork was tender and had a perfect sear which sealed in the juices. The sides on their own were also flavorful and well executed. This dish did not come together like the lamb, but was nonetheless, a good bet for a cold evening.

We ended the meal with a unique creation: German chocolate mousse cake with roasted banana sauce. While the dessert was dense, it was a fantastic mix of flavor and textures.

I really like this restaurant. In a city with few regaled female chefs, Ris gives the boys a run for their money. I look forward to heading back. Dinner for two with multiple glasses of wine, two starters, two entrees, a shared dessert, tax and tip was $175.

Ris on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Does the 1000 Block of North Fillmore Have Promise?

For the past four years this block in the center of Clarendon wavered between luxury condo and luxury apartment construction. But two years ago, the tanking housing market 'converted' condo high rises into luxury apartments, finally open now. Thanks to the zoning system in North Arlington, the ground floor of these buildings is reserved for retail, which is filling up with some interesting eating and drinking options.

I am most excited that Artisan Confections opened its new location in this spot. This small-batch chocolate shop opened a few years ago on Lee Highway. Unlike its original location, which was adjacent to an Indian grocer, in its new home location all you can smell is the chocolate. And trust me, this is a much better smell. There's also a large viewing window so you can see the chocolates being freshly made before your very eyes.

Their chocolates are both beautiful and fantastic tasting. Combinations include bourbon, salted caramel, and champagne. The quality of the cacao is top-notch, the presentation is gorgeous, and the price matches at about $2 per piece. They are worth it though and make a great gift.
Artisan Confections on Urbanspoon

Located a few doors down is another confection incubator, Bakeshop. While this shop seems like it could have potential, my initial impressions raise some troubling questions. When we walked in today at 1:30pm, the only thing that was available other than coffee was about a dozen lemon poppy seed cookies. The cupcakes would not be ready for a few hours. Seriously? A cupcake shop without cupcakes? Why even open? Since they are close I will likely swing by in a few weeks and give it another try. But in talking to the owner it sounds like he needs to get his stuff together. I can't imagine the rent is all that cheap; I am by no means an expert at food retail but my MBA-student sense tells me that opening a store with not much to sell does not make much marketing sense to me.

This block also offers the savory; Screwtop is a wine bar/retail shop that opened a few weeks ago. The initial reviews are not overly promising; the space layout reportedly leaves much to be desired, and scoring a table on a crowded night is apparently an experience straight out of The Lord of the Flies. As a side note, this is also the approach EatBar takes, a gastropub a few blocks up the street. Having to fight for a table amid hungry and like Type-A Washingtonians saps away a great deal if not all of the relaxation out of my dining experience, even if the food is out of this world. When I stopped in Screwtop today just to check out their retail area, I thought the wine selection was unique if kind of pricey; however, they were offering free tastings in real glasses! They also have a selection of artisan cheeses, meats, and craft beer. But if the cost of, say, the Abita Purple Haze ($11.99 for a six pack!) is any indication of value, I'd rather skip this and go with Mark Slater's trusty selections from Ray's retail. And, seriously, don't insult my intelligence as a consumer, Screwtop--the same beer is available one block away at either Best Cellars or Wholefoods for $8.99 max, and less at Total Wine. The layout needs some work, but I just might try out the food at least before I completely write it off.

Rounding out this new corner is Amercian Flatbread, a micro-chain with locations in Virginia, Oregon, and Vermont. The interior looks like a chain, so I am in no rush to head there for dinner, but their six taps look promising with Bells, Dogfish Head, and other craft beers. They have happy hour week nights in the bar with $4 pints until 7:30pm. And a sign boasted of a so-called Ladies' Night on Thursdays with unnamed specials?

So my bottom culinary line on this block at this point: not the best combination of places, but not bad either. More to come from me once they are all up and running.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mardi Gras Gris-Gris

If you are looking for ways to celebrate Fat Tuesday here in DC, Central is reportedly hosting a special party with live music. While last minute reservations are probably no doubt impossible to come by, there is usually ample space at the bar. Lower key celebrations not requiring reservations include Ragtime's annual celebration, with music, beads, and of course, Abita Beer.

We hosted our own (second) annual Mardi Gras party this weekend, complete with the to-die for (read: containing more butter than anyone person should ever eat) New Orleans BBQ Shrimp (above) and melt-in-your-mouth macaroons shipped in from the fantastic Uptown New Orleans bakery Sucre (below).

Happy Mardi Gras!

Sucré on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Consistently Delicious: Guajillo

This week in the DC area has been anything but normal. With another foot and a half of snow expected today on top of the 2 feet that is already on the ground, the region is at a virtual stand still. Because of the Federal government closures, B has been off, and I have been working from home. The result is that by the end of the day we are both itching to get out and are lucky enough to be able to walk to some great places.

Last night we headed to one of our standbys: Guajillo. While we visit often, I do not think I have given this place its due on my blog. The food is great, really authentic, and consistent. The service is also excellent, and the atmosphere is fun with brightly painted walls, comfortable stretched leather chairs, and a small bar up back.

I started with an excellent house margarita. Their drinks are strong, the sour mix is homemade (i.e., not fluorescent green) and the tequila selection is pretty decent. After a sip I momentarily forgot that we had to trudge back up a snow laden hill after dinner. B had the Dos Equis Amber, the one draft beer selection. And a fresh basket of chips with a spicy salsa soon arrived to compliment the drinks.

Last night was not a typical night at Guajillo due to the snow and some of the busboys were stepping up as waiters. While our busboy-turned-waiter's English was not the best, he had a great attitude and was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the food. He also let us know Guajillo serves brunch, so now we are looking forward to a Sunday of huevos rancheros soon.

Last night there was a new option on the menu, a sampler of five tacos: roasted pork with pickled red onion, fish with cream sauce, lamb, pork with pineapple, and steak, all served on homemade corn tortillas with both red and green salsa on the side. I opted for this dish because I like everything I have ever tried at Guajillo and this allowed me the best of all worlds. It was fabulous. The fish was fresh and offset by red cabbage, the pork tender, and the lamb succulent. All five offered rich, varied flavors and I wish I had my camera with me, because the presentation was stellar. B opted for the beef enchiladas which were served with refried beans and rice.

It was a great meal and a tremendous value. The total with tax and tip was $52.

And an interesting note, while Guajillo was packed, Ray's Hellburger next door was almost empty. I think it is indicative of the fact that since Obama visited, patrons that drive in must predominate, and neighborhood folks might have given up due to the crowds. I am hoping the bigger Hellburger location solves this issue.

I was very happy with the our dinner and had enough energy to trudge back up the hill and stop into our local pub to meet fellow snowed-in neighbors for a nightcap.

Guajillo on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Eating Around Blizzard 2010 Edition

I just ventured outside and was quite surprised by how much is actually open today. Very few cars, lots and lots of people, and almost every bar is open.

Here is the rundown:

Our go-to neighborhood bar is open. While their food has gone downhill as of late, this month's featured micro beer is Abita Turbo Dog which sounds pretty good on a day like this.
Ragtime on Urbanspoon

Despite massive snow drifts, both the Starbucks in Courthouse and Clarendon are open.

And this should not surprise anyone, but Ray's is open. And no, we are not headed there tonight, but if you have a hankering for a steak, I am guessing you can get a reservation.

And this one surprised me: Boccato Gelato, a fabulous Argentinaian-influenced gelateria was open and full of people swilling down hot beverages. This month they are paying homage to my childhood and showcasing Thin Mint and Samoa flavored gelati; we got a scoop of each in a pint to-go for dessert this evening.

Boccato Gelato & Espresso on Urbanspoon

Whole Foods was most certainly not open, so if you need groceries, the only option is Walgreens or CVS. No organic produce today!

Hopefully everyone stocked up before the snow. If not, plenty of beer awaits if you are brave enough to venture out (read: walk, driving is all but impossible). Stay warm.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Dino Revisited with a Verdict of Delightful

So you may recall that B and I visited Dino in December. While he was blown away, I was less than impressed. We went back last night, and I must say, my opinion has changed. Dino is very much a neighborhood restaurant, and after last night is coming really close to making my top five list. Why has my opinion changed? Two words: Hawaiian Swordfish.

But let me back up a bit first. At B's request, we headed back last night, a Tuesday. Our last visit was on a Friday night, which meant we missed the amazing deals Dino offers during the week. These include no corkage fee from Monday-Wednesday, which allowed us to enjoy the last bottle of wine we brought back from our 2007 trip to Tuscany. I actually give us a lot of credit; we have never been able to save a wine for more than two years. We thought we should enjoy this wine with rustic and authentic Italian food.

Also during the week, they offer a $37 three course meal that covers the entire menu and includes a glass of house made grappa, lemoncello, or muscato with dessert. They also offer a cheaper early bird option if you order by 7:00, which does not include the dessert beverage and is more restrictive with the entree choices.

Back to the swordfish. I opted for the more expensive tasting menu because of this dish and I was so glad I did. It was bursting with freshness and flavor, as if it had just swum over onto the grill. The filet was tender and the richness of the swordfish was enhanced by a homemade, winter hunter-green pesto, and offset by the citrus salad. It was quite simply one of the best fish dishes I have ever tasted.

Dean Gold, the owner, is constantly walking around the place, and I got to compliment him on this menu item. He explained that he only serves this dish in the winter, as that is when this fish has the best texture owing to its seasonal diet. His knowledge and zeal for his menu definitely added to the experience.

We also enjoyed cured meats, a delicious imported Burata mozzarella complete with curds flown in bi-weekly from Italy, as well as a rich brownie cake and poached pear desserts. B adores the grappa and I really enjoy the muscato, so the meal was rounded out nicely.

All this in an environment that is relaxed and friendly. My one complaint was our sever, who was attentive yet a tad indifferent and uncurious about the menu, which contrasted greatly with Dean's approach to his restaurant.

The bill with tax and tip (remember no corkage fees), three courses each and dessert drinks was just over $100. I can now say that we will be back.

Dino on Urbanspoon

Ray's The Expansion

On my metro ride to work this morning I was treated to an update on all things Ray's...

For any other Ray's fanatics, check out the newest happening on the link above. I am especially excited about this:

Landrum's evolution will certainly be on display at Ray's the Glass in the same building as Ray's: The Steaks. It was conceived as a wine bar and lounge; hence the name. But Landrum and sommelier Mark Slater, formerly of Citronelle, are launching a version of the kind of restaurant that Landrum loves to hate. Ray's: The Glass will offer reservations and private dining rooms where diners can order one of several "ambitious" set menus created with wine in mind.

While I love a good steak, lately it has been the wine that has drawn me back to Ray's the Steaks way more than I should (read: every other week for the past two months), so I am looking forward to other food options to go with that wine.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Ultimate DC Cupcake: Georgetown Cupcake or Baked and Wired?

DC is home to a number of followers in the latest food trends; in the last few years, several gourmet cupcake bakeries have sprung up akin to the New York City leaders in the craft. They range from the terrible to the divine. In the latter category, two local shops really stand out: Georgetown Cupcake and Baked and Wired.

Yesterday afternoon, after B's and my respective Sunday morning rituals, we stopped by Georgetown Cupcake for the first time in almost a year. The reason for this hiatus was not the cupcakes, but the inevitable frustration of the old locale's cramped space and inefficient management of their ridiculously long lines. Georgetown Cupcake recently moved to a new location on M Street which is much bigger and better designed, if only slightly more efficient. The issue with the new space is that the street entrance forces customers to cut through the line to get in line, but, unlike in the old storefront, customers order and pay the cashier first, and then you wait for their cupcakes.

These treats are $2.75 each and the flavors rotate daily with some staples making a constant appearance: vanilla, chocolate, red velvet etc. The cupcakes are on the smaller side, but make up for their size with rich and genuine flavor. They are also cute. Actually the entire concept is cute from the pink boxes to the sugar adornments. Yesterday B had the vanilla squared while I opted for the chocolate mint. The frosting on both was a rich, whipped buttercream, and the cake was moist and flavorful.

The cupcakes are delicious, this chain is getting national attention, and we will be back and love purchasing these treats as gifts due to both the taste and packaging; but I think the true standout cupcake star is deeper into the bowels of Georgetown: Baked and Wired.

Baked and Wired is a much less-hyped--even though it has gained some pretty cool press--half coffee shop, half bakery. This place is a bit hard to locate, behind the C&O Canal but before you hit the Potomac on Thomas Jefferson Street. You will not find a line stretching out the door, or an annoying gaggle of college-aged tourists, but the shop is marked by a telltale hot pink painted bicycle out front. This is a much crunchier operation, leaning more toward the attitude for which places like these is often known. Their website is not flashy and in fact, and true to form, cuts off some key details, like the description of each cupcake.

The cupcakes are heavenly; they are more like individual cakes than a cupcake and are about twice the size of their Georgetown brethren. This is the moistest cupcake I have ever tasted, topped with a very generous portion of rich frosting that is denser than the butter cream used by Georgetown. These cupcakes run $3.50 apiece and are definitely sharable. My favorite is Teresa's Birthday Cake, but I have never tried one that I would not indulge in again.

If I had to choose (glad I don't) my vote would go to Baked and Wired over Georgetown Cupcake, but I have no doubt that we will continue to patronize both in the future.

Baked & Wired on Urbanspoon