Friday, July 30, 2010

Lunch Break: The Italian Store

Napoli Sandwich 
A sandwich from The Italian Store can add a lot of spice to an ordinary lazy, bland, hot and humid DC Saturday. This hearty lunch option is bursting with Italian meats and cheeses served on either a hard or soft roll (I recommend the latter) dressed with oil, lettuce, onions, and hot and/or sweet peppers.

Located in a strip mall off of Lee Highway in Arlington, The Italian Store specializes in Philadelphia-style Italian subs as well as pizzas, fresh pasta sauces, and a variety of other Italian staples.  And while the outside is non-descript, the word has been out for some time that this is pretty much the only place to go in Arlington for sandwiches and pizza of this quality, so expect large crowds. And true to its Italian roots, expect plenty of chaos, disorganization, and long waits -- all of which the consultant in me really wants to consult with management to improve.  Also, there is a no doubt that the grocery selections are grossly overpriced.

First tip: if you are getting a sandwich, get your number immediately upon entering.

Second tip: I have been here a few dozen times, and the experience is always frenetic.  Stay the course, the fresh-prepared items (subs, pizzas, homemade sauces) are actually worth this hassle.

While the Italian Store offers a few outdoor tables and a small counter inside, we almost always get our sandwiches to go.  There is something about unwrapping the large square of butcher paper to reveal that sandwich that you patiently (or maybe not!) waited for that really adds to the experience.   Sandwiches are priced between $7 - $9.

Italian Store on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Effects of Reality TV on the Local Cupcake Industry

This past Sunday, I witnessed the effects of reality TV  rear its ugly head amid an already over-run cupcakery.  DC Cupcakes is a truly horrid show on TLC detailing the supposed behind-the-scenes stresses of running a cupcake shop, with a full share of antics between the two sisters who developed the concept. Though I've never seen their mother in the store, much less themselves all that much anymore, Mommy is prominent in the show as well. But despite its insipid content and feigned drama, it has drawn even MORE throngs of camera wielding, middle- and high school-age tourists to its shop. Today this resulted in a two-block line of DC visitors du jour a mere fifteen minutes after opening on a 100 degree Sunday. Never before have I seen such a long line for any bakery; this humdinger easily surpassed the notoriously long lines I've encountered at Magnolia, the original gourmet cupcakes shop, in the West Village of Manhattan.

As I have previously posted, I actually think the CAKE in Baked & Wired's cupcakes is a bit better (though I am not going to lie, Georgetown Cupcakes are also delicious and great looking!). And the packaging and presentation of Georgetown Cupcakes make for great dinner party gifts--hence my attempt to pick some up this past Sunday.  Seeing the line, I sighed and complained, and then headed down to Baked & Wired, where I happily picked up a delicious assortment without a tourist in site.

Consider yourself forewarned: Georgetown Cupcake is now more of a scene than ever. If there is no line, do try their cupcakes, but if you see the line before you see the shop, perhaps head down M Street, hang a right on Thomas Jefferson Avenue, and walk just beyond the C&O Canal to Baked & Wired (just don't tell any TV producers or tourists about it)!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Mettre à Jour: Napoleon Bistro and Cafe Bonaparte

Last week I chronicled our brunch experience at Napoleon Bistro in Adams Morgan.  Having been extremely impressed by the food (though disappointed with the service) we decided to give its older sibling in Georgetown a visit on Sunday.

Et Voila. Cafe Bonaparte offers the same phenomenal French selection of crepes in a smaller, more intimate setting, and the service is fantastic.

This is going to be our new brunch go-to spot as long as we are able to eat well before the noon brunch-rush.  We got there at 10:30 and were lucky enough to score a seat at the bar, all the tables were full when we arrived and all but one of the six or so other bar seats were occupied by 11:00.  For $30 you get to savor a terrific brunch entree while reminiscing about--and in our case maybe plotting--a trip to Paris.

Cafe Bonaparte on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Food Field Trip: Napa Valley Style with OBX Views

Sound views from the outdoor bar and waiting area
I like to think of the Blue Point as the Central of the Outer Banks; the quality of the ingredients and preparation are as masterful, and there is the same need to make reservations weeks if not a month in advance. This bustling bistro, located on the sound in Duck, serves creative and hearty American fare, with an emphasis on local seafood and pork.

If your reservation experience (phone only) did not clue you into the popularity of this restaurant, the parking situation will. Come early to secure a spot in the very crowded parking lot shared with a series of adjacent shops and restaurants.

The interior's decor and aroma reminds me of the Rutherford Grill, but step outdoors to the waiting and bar area, and the sunset over the sound will remind you--albeit in a good way--that you are definitely not in Napa.

B and I did not act fast enough to get a reservation, but we chanced it, walked in, and after waiting for about 45 minutes (with drinks in hand watching the sun set over the sound) were seated around 8:15pm. Like in many places, being a party of two is useful when trying to snag a seat.

Our waitress was quite knowledgeable on the evening's food and wine selections, and assisted us in selecting an earthy Oregon Pinot Noir that would suit our diverse menu choices. The wine list is relatively small but interesting.

Our appetizer combined sauteed shrimp, with ham, pineapple, and a Tabasco-laden sauce. This dish was good, but not great. I liked the combination of the heat and sweetness, but the textures were all the same. If the thinly slice ham had been fried to a crisp, I think this dish would have really clicked.

The North Carolina trout was a thick cut of trout with a smokey flavor. The sauteed haricut verts complimented the fish with a sweetness and crunch. My one complaint here is on presentation. The fish was served skin-side up, which while objectively attractive is wholly impractical and messy!

B went with a double dose of the pig: a massive bone-in glazed pork chop and a pulled pork slaw. I was skeptical as to whether this dish would work, but the preparations of the pork were so different, that while rich, it was a sumptuous dish, especially the juicy pork chop with the perfect caramelized crust.

To top of the meal, we went with seasonal fruit cobbler, which on that night was blueberry and peaches topped with a buttermilk ice cream. This dish tasted like a perfect summer day.

If you are staying near Duck this is easily the best restaurant in the area. Dinner for two with tax, tip, appetizer, two entrees, dessert, and a bottle of wine was $160.

The Blue Point on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fabulous Brunch Food...If You Can Handle the Management Issues

This past Sunday, I had reservations to check out Napolean Bistro for brunch with B and a friend. We walked into a chaotic scene which found the hostess doing double duty as drink runner, a huge party of about twenty occupying half the space, and a swarm of people waiting for tables.

This French bistro, akin in both style and menu to Boston South End's Aquataine, has mostly French fare with an American spin. The food was wholly fantastic, but the service and wait time are absolutely horrid. And so begins yet another less-than-stellar brunch experience in DC. (On the off-chance any DC restaurateurs, if are reading this, I implore you, please get a handle on brunch -- surely the margins are high (?), the city is hungry, and we need some decent options!)

The sweet but totally overwhelmed hostess noted that our table may be a few minutes; not a huge issue. The problem was that our table was cleared and ready to go about ten minutes before we were seated and we were seated only after we pointed to our table inquisitively, to which the hostess nonchalantly and--certainly not in any hurry--responded "yes."

Why didn't we leave? We were all starving, having started our mornings like good DCites at the gym, the weather was hotter than hell, and we all assumed alternative options in this stretch of Adams Morgan, such as popular brunch spots Cashion's and Perry's had surely lengthier waits for walk-ins.

And wait we did. We placed our orders and were told the kitchen was backed up so to please be patient. Then one of the iced coffees emerged, sans spoon. About ten minutes later an orange juice (fresh squeezed) made its appearance. And then after being seated for almost an entire hour, with no nibbles or apologies, and after inquiring twice, our food arrived. And the mood quickly turned from hungry frustration to eating-induced jubilation.

B ordered a buckwheat crepe with a savory mushroom filling. Yum -- this was hearty, flavorful, rich, and balanced by the lightly dressed mixed green salad.

I opted for an omelet of egg whites in the foreground of the next picture. It does not look like much, but it was lusciously filled with brie and sun-dried tomatoes. The red potatoes were surprisingly good. And in the background, my friend's sweet nutella banana crepes, two served side-by-side, were portioned so as to be sufficient for brunch.

In spite of all the glitches and the fact that management really needs to get it together, the food here is reason to go back. Next time we'll show up earlier (surely before noon), and not at the brunch rush. Food-wise, this place succeeds in portioning where Belga Cafe, comparable in cuisine and style, fails; Napoleon provides European style breakfast/snack options in portions in inverse proportion to its namesake, which keeps one satiated for more than an hour.

Brunch came to $48 with three entrees, an iced coffee, a fresh squeezed juice, tax and tip.

And the quest for an all-around DC brunch contender for which you don't have to make reservations weeks in advance continues.

Napoleon on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Food Field Trip: Ducking into Duck Donuts

There is nothing like a fresh, hot gooey doughnut. And this is especially true when you are on vacation, during which I firmly believe calories don't count.

Duck Donuts, a local chain with three franchises on the Outer Banks definitely fits the BILL (pun kind of intended). For $1.50 you get a hot cake doughnut fresh-dipped in either vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, or maple glaze, with an array of topping choices ranging from coconut to rainbow sprinkles.

These doughnuts are warm, dense, moist, and messy, and provide the requisite sugar rush. This is definitely not your everyday breakfast, but it is worth the splurge every once in a while. Just pack a snack for later in the morning, since a doughnut keeps you full for all of an hour or so, max!

B and I messily devoured our respectively ordered maple and vanilla glazed doughnuts. Eaten while sitting on a bench overlooking the sound, this was definitely a vacation breakfast worth repeating.

Duck Donuts on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 12, 2010

Food Field Trip Outer Banks: Hook, Line, & Supper

We were fortunate enough to escape the summer heat with an extended weekend at the Sanderling Inn, which is in the town of Duck on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. As I have mentioned ad nauseum here, my heart belongs to Cape Cod in the summer, but thanks both to our experience at this hotel (and friends who introduced us to the area beaches last year), as well as to the extensive local food scene, I am slowly adjusting to this closer-to-home coastal experience.

The Sanderling is an understated yet elegant gem of a resort on a sparsely populated stretch of beautiful beach. But as this is a food blog, this post is an homage to the Chef Joshua Holinger of the Lifesaving Station, the Sanderling's casual dining restaurant.

In celebration of the resort's 25th anniversary, the Lifesaving Station offered a "Hook, Line, & Supper" menu, in which each course was built around sustainable ingredients from local farmers and fishermen, coupled with wine pairings from Elizabeth Spencer. And the prices (compared to a similar experience in DC) were an exceptional value. The six course tasting meal paired with endless wine (the headache the next day was thrown in for free) was $75.

The pictures really do speak for themselves, and while this tasting night was a one-off event, I would not hesitate to recommend this restaurant if you find yourselves in the Outer Banks. We did not get to try out its more formal sibling, The Left Bank, though I don't know if we ever will when we return to the the Sanderling, given our experience at the Lifesaving Station--not to mention the fact that when we checked out the Left Bank around 7pm, we were the youngest guests by about 50 years or so!

The pictures below really tell a great story, but the chef also did a phenomenal job describing the sourcing and cooking techniques as each course was served.

This is actually the second course, the first, a heirloom tomato and basil caponata salad, I failed to photograph, as I was engrossed in conversation with our tablemates and too busy sipping my Chenin Blanc. But what is pictured here is the best crabcake I have tasted over charred green tomatoes, sweet corn, and pickled ramps. The crab was moist, sweet, and bountiful. The vegetables balanced the bite's texture and flavor.

Next came fresh-off-the-boat yellowfin tuna over a fennel and saffron potato salad. The fish was beautiful; while the potato salad had a nice tang, I decided to leave most of it on the plate so I could make it through the rest of the courses.

This is a blue soft shell crab--flash frozen earlier this spring--paired with chilled watermelon, arugula salad, and a 25 year old balsamic vinaigrette. The crab was succulent, and the sweetness of the watermelon and the balsamic really tasted like summer. The Chardonnay paired with this course was of the classic Napa Oak barrel style, which stood up to the intense flavors.

The last savory of the evening was a leek wrapped Mahi Mahi and house cured pork belly over a summer bean salad. The two stars of this plate were both cooked perfectly. The pork belly was meaty and so moist. And the firm, but equally as moist Mahi Mahi, a fish ubiquitous in the Outerbanks, was a cut above all the rest.

Dessert, while adorable, frankly, rather sucked. This chef is excellent at the savories, but needs some pastry help in the kitchen. I do give him credit for trying to save a key lime pie pop that failed to gel, but this just did not work.

So the Lifesaving Station, given its five hour driving distance from DC (without traffic!), is a field trip, but really worth both the stay and the dining experience as long as Holinger is still in the kitchen. Do note though, that the restaurant, a converted Coast Guard station from the 1890s, is rather rustic; the smell in the downstairs dining room one morning during breakfast was faintly reminiscent of Girl Scout Camp.

Oh, and for me, the night ended on a high-note when my name was drawn for a magnum of wine. Really, how much better can an evening be?

The Lifesaving Station on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 9, 2010

Memories of Childhood Frozen Treats

In New England summer was not summer without ice cream cones, gluttonous ice cream sundaes (with the requisite peanut butter sauce topping), and high school gatherings under the ubiquitous green awnings of the neighborhood Friendly's.

The fried food offered inside is pretty bad if not downright inedible, but the ice cream is classic. And with so many choices, it really provides the quintessential New England ice cream experience available to Washingtonians--if you are brave and patient enough to venture to DC exurbs.

So if you find yourself driving back from the beach this weekend, and see a sign for this place, stop. The ice cream, part nostalgia, with every flavor imaginable, is rich, sweet, and creamy.

My peanut putter and forbidden chocolate pictured above was solely mine to enjoy for the mere pittance of $2.50.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Organic Take on Lip Smackin' Soul Classic

B and I decided to end the long weekend by trying out Liberty Tavern's summer special: an organic take on fried chicken. I learned about this offering from Metrocurean, a heralded DC-area food blogger, that while influenced by restaurants, does provide excellent information on new offerings. I read it regularly and appreciate her knack to get the buzz on what's new, including specials and openings.

Back to the chicken. I started with the paired drink special, a bourbon spiked iced tea. This beverage was a bit strong for my taste at first, but as the ice melted, it provided a great elixir to the heat and paired perfectly with the food to come. Plus, on Mondays it is offered for $5.

Liberty's fried chicken special made me happy to be an Arlington resident. For $15, it included more food than I could ever eat. But beyond that, it was made of the highest quality ingredients -- a hallmark of this neighborhood eatery. The Polyface Farm chicken really did taste more like chicken than the usual stuff.

As you can see, the lightly fried chicken, battered with secret spices, came paired with the best southern biscuit I have ever tasted. I will admit that the biscuit is the only thing I was able to finish. The plate also included gravy, green beans sauteed with almonds and sausage (not pictured since it was plated under the chicken), an individual crock of gruyere fennel potato gratin, and for good measure a side of watermelon. Everything was flavorful and worked well together. The sides change based on the shifts in seasonal summer produce.

There was also a $5 dessert option, but B and I did not make it that far.

Our server was as usual very friendly and knowledgeable -- as all staff I have encountered here, but the pacing, also as usual, was off. At both Liberty and Lyon Hall the staff tries so hard, but the coordination with the kitchen is missing, resulting in ill-timed or extended wait times on drink and food service.

This special, offered Mondays after 5pm, despite the pacing issue, is definitely worth the trip and an unbeatable bargain. With tax, tip, a beer, the bourbon drink, and two fried chicken platters, the total was $51.

Liberty Tavern on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Summer Can't Miss: Cantler's

B and I celebrated the Fourth by finally making the trek to the much lauded (and we suspected over-hyped) Cantler's Riverside Inn, about forty five minutes northeast of DC right outside of Annapolis. I am happy to report that this place is fantastic and worth the trip. And thanks to our newly GPS equipped car, we made it there without any direction arguments -- perhaps a first for us!

When you arrive--or more accurately dead-end--at Cantler's, the first thing you notice is the smell of Old Bay seasoning in the air (Nice!). You are greeted by a group of equally surly and disaffected teens who serve as valets, hostesses etc (Not Nice!). But we got our beeper and headed to the dock to wait.

Twenty minutes later we were seated at a shady picnic table with a view that I am quite sure made everything taste just a little bit better.

And better yet, a tall, skinny Corona lite in a can. I have never seen this little guy before, but he was quite tasty.

And the best part. We were a little intimidated with the daunting task of working for our meal, so we opted to share the steamed mix above as well as a plate of butter seared lump crab cakes. The food was excellent, and next time I think we will go all steamed crab, with an extra sweet corn. Our waitress was also quite helpful at demonstrating how exactly one eats a jumbo Maryland crab -- it involves a knife, wooden mallet, and lots of determination.

The crabs were beyond fresh (see picture below of the crabs coming in right off the docks), flaky and succulent, the shrimp perfectly seasoned in a Bay-seasoned boil, and the mussels and clams rounded everything out. Add to that some fantastic in season sweet corn and you had two happy people.

Considering the fresh seafood, the views, charm, and breeze, the price is not unreasonable. Two entrees (which were beyond filling) with two beers, tax, and tip was $73. Being a New England girl at heart, summer in DC is always a bit depressing given the lack of proximity to an ocean. But Cantler's provides a quasi-maritime atmosphere with only 45 minutes or so of travel. It is worth the trip!

Cantler's Riverside Inn on Urbanspoon