Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Chipotle Duel

I will unabashedly admit that Chipotle is one of my go-to lunch spots. The wildly successful mega-chain empowers customers to customize endless combinations of  fresh veggies and meats for about $7.  But customer instructions are critical to this concept, and that's where my experience more often than not goes awry.

Why is it that the burrito-istas always reach for the mild tomato salsa as the default?  They immediately grip the mild salsa spoon, ready to draw at any minute, regardless of my desire.  I for one have never had the mild salsa (and never will), so I have learned to preempt their reach for the mild spoon. The situation is akin to a lunch showdown, and I do my best to read their intentions and determine whether they are actually listening to me.  Will the mild salsa be summarily dumped onto my carefully crafted burrito bowl regardless of what I say?  Lately, more often than not, even after (perhaps too) loudly announcing my choice--HOT--it is too late, the scoop of mild salsa has already landed.  And I have lost another salsa duel.

Chipotle on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Food Field Trip NYC: Cloudy with a 100% Chance of Meatballs

The Meatball Shop's tasty balls (get your mind out of the gutter!) keep their cozy East Village storefront dining room jammed.  And like NYC's many other one hit food wonders, the Meatball Shop's popularity indicates that the city's single-food-restaurant trend is not slowing.  On an April Friday afternoon, the wait for the small dining room clocked in at over an hour. 

A large communal table occupies the middle of the tiny one-room restaurant, which also includes a ten seat bar, where we were able to snag two seats and bypass the completely unorganized hostess.  Hipster waitstaff sported the requisite fedoras and turtle rimmed glasses, so I immediately knew that I was not cool enough for this shrine to the meatball.  But the fabulously handcrafted balls and excellent sides were fit for this relatively unhip DC'ite.

Ordering is simple.  You mark off your choices on a laminated menu with a dry-erase marker, so one would assume food would arrive swiftly.  Somehow our order of "naked balls" got lost (or was submitted with delay); our wait for food was almost an hour (so much for our luck in snagging those bar seats!).

Our traditional and spicy pork ball orders were both fork tender, moist, flavorful, and covered in just the right amount of sauce.  And the biggest surprise was the delicious and fresh green sides--we went with an exceptionally crisp, peppery arugula and apple salad and the bitter-and-sweet seared sugar snap peas with mustard greens.

Be prepared to deal with a fair share of annoyances that go along with the any NYC "it" place du jour, but this mecca to all things meatballs is worth a trip.  The Naked Balls are $7 an order and the sides average about $5.

The Meatball Shop on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Food Field Trip NYC: Morning at the Pub

In my opinion there is no better Sunday morning comfort food than an old fashioned donut.  DC has many highbrow brunch spots that offer excellent designer donuts, but sometimes you want a donut that doesn't require a reservation.  So on my last trip to NYC, I made sure to check out the Donut Pub, an institution dedicated to the art of the classic, no-frills donut.  With almost 50 years of old fashioned donut making experience, this Chelsea storefront boasts dozens upon dozens of delicious items. 

So grab a stool at the laminate wrap around counter, get out your cash, and brace for a bite down memory lane.  At a little over a $1 for a classic donut, this may be one of the most affordable food excursions NYC has to offer.

The Donut Pub proudly proclaims themselves the "treasure trove of tasty treats."  Well said.  I ordered a larger-than-life chocolate and vanilla glazed crueller.  This sugary and sweet twisted cake delight was bite after bite of calorie-packed comfort and nostalgia.

Any DC based entrepreneurs with a background in donut making out there want to go into business?  Let me know!

Donut Pub on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Sunday Night Pig Fest: Masa 14

Masa 14: Lechon Asado Sundays

Sunday nights just got a whole lot more interesting in DC.  In this high strung, uber-type-A city, you might have thought that Sunday nights were reserved for preparing--or dreading--the next morning's plunge back into the workweek.  But after a recent Sunday night family style dinner and literal pigfest at Masa 14, I think there is good reason to extend weekend relaxation -- at least until after dinner.

Masa 14 is now offering Lechon Asado (Suckling Pig) Sundays.  For $25, you get to choose between traditional or Cuban style spiced and shredded roasted pork.  And if you are not in the mood to make any other big decisions (it is still the weekend after all), the rest of the menu--four rotating sides, three salsas, tortillas, and a dessert of sopapillas and chocolate mouse--is predetermined.

This Latin-Asian fusion spread is flavorful and filling. On a recent Sunday visit, the pork was succulent and juicy and far more than my friend and I could finish.  And the sides almost upstaged the pig--garlicky, ginger spinach, shoestring French fries in a spicy sauce, rice slow cooked with cream that is finished under the broiler for crunch, and cheesy black beans.  The salsas added a citrus infused zest and robust heat.  The thinly sliced and fried sopapillas are dusted with coco powder and cinnamon, which contrasted well with the decadent and sweet chocolate mousse base.

In the middle of our main course, a fellow patron appeared to have a bit of food stuck in her throat and was unable to breathe.  The restaurant handled this situation with impressive speed; the waiter alerted the manager who quickly administered the Heimlich without causing a commotion.  The patron was relieved and not losing her life, she quickly rejoined her husband and continued with dinner.  Sometimes I forget all that goes into a restaurant and this example of quick thinking and preparation on the part of Masa 14's staff was impressive and reassuring.

So this weekend if you want to avoid that pesky red light on your blackberry for a few more hours, why not consider a pigfest at Masa 14?

Masa 14 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Food Field Trip: Oasis in a Culinary Wasteland

This past weekend, B and I retreated to the woods of the most Northwestern corner of Maryland for some much-needed downtime from the city.  Make no mistake, past credentials aside, I am not mother nature's biggest fan and and no one would confuse me for the outdoorsy type.  So you can imagine my initial reaction when B suggested renting a cabin in the woods for the weekend. 

Friday afternoon we embarked on a two and a half hour car journey, leaving the city and its culinary comforts behind.  B patiently coaxed that it will be fun to stop somewhere "quaint" for dinner.  But as we made our way towards our camping-for-yuppies hideout, the Savage River Lodge, we were aware that the pickings were likely to be slim.

Our first food pit stop was Cumberland, where the architecture was charming and the mounds of mounds custard at the Queen City Creamery was indulgent, but the dinner options sparse. So we made our way west to Frostburg's town center, assuming that in a college town, we would surely find something.  We found nothing!  The main street yielded disappointment after disappointment.  On a Friday evening, virtually empty pizza joints, seedy bars (and even seedier clientele) were as good as it got.
Queen City Creamery & Deli on Urbanspoon

As we neared Savage River, we felt like pilgrims in a parched culinary wasteland.  So on the last exit before the lodge, we acquiesced to trying the Hen House, a barn-sized restaurant filled with huge taxidermed deer heads, massive fireplaces, and even canoes suspended from the ceiling.  We learned that the family-run operation has been churning out chicken dishes since 1961; its latest building a newish replacement to a smaller one that recently burnt to the ground.

While all the food was solid, it was the chicken soup recipe that won us over.  This was truly chicken soup for the soul and stomach.  The combination of homemade noodles, roasted chicken, and a slight heat to the broth made this almost worth the trip alone.  Two half-chicken dinners (each of which comes with soup, salad, and a side dish) with two beers each, tax, and tip came to $60. 

Hen House West on Urbanspoon

Dining faith restored, we continued on our journey a few minutes up the road to the Savage River Lodge. In addition to a Wine Spectator Award winning restaurant, Savage Liver Lodge prioritizes local ingredients.  The dining room showcases property-produced maple syrup, local game, and produce from a nearby Amish market (which it stores year round thanks to cold storage).  The talented chef and energetic, enthusiastic, and professional wait and bar staff are as authentically excellent as the food. 

An appetizer plate showcased three different homemade sausages, of which the meaty wild boar option popped when dipped in the accompanying raspberry Dijon sauce.  The soup du jour was "lima bean," and had Mike, the eccentric and gregarious owner of the lodge not passionately described the evening's preparation during happy hour (nor ordered it himself right after), I am not sure I would have taken the plunge.  But I am so glad I did.  This creamy soup brought the oft-overlooked lima bean to new heights thanks to the pureed preparation and the addition of smoked house maple-cured  bacon.

Entrees are eclectic and include extensive vegetarian selections.  We selected the eggplant parmigiana and the wild game meatloaf.  While vastly different cuisines, the hearty portions were perfect after an afternoon spent hiking amid the pines.  And for dessert, Chef Eric dreamed up a peanut butter mousse pie in a chocolate cookie crust topped with a chocolate ganache.  This towering slice, even when shared, was over indulgent, but so good!

And while we were dining in the middle of the woods, we did not want for liquid refreshment.  The local Heaven's Gate Amber was available on tap at both the Hen House and Savage River.  And on the award winning California-heavy wine list, we found one of our favorite Sonoma cult wines, Gundalach Bundschu.

And this city girl is actually looking forward to going back.  In fact, upon checkout, we did something we've never done at any hotel, anywhere: scheduled a return trip.  When we come back in August, we plan on trying the lodge's Wine Geocache--a high tech, self-directed scavenger hunt that pairs personal GPS devices with a code that will lead to four hidden chests located somewhere amid the property's hiking tails.  After we find all of the hidden treasure and collect a cork from each, we will (I hope) triumphantly return to the lodge bar for a glass of wine to savor and reflect on our success.  Now that is an outdoor activity that I am happy to sign up for!

Lodging was $220 a night and dinner with wine, tax, and tip came to $180.

Savage River Lodge on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 6, 2011

Surf's Up in Glover Park

Though there may be no ocean in sight, Surfside brings a lively island feel to the oft-overlooked Glover Park "strip" on Wisconsin Avenue, just north of Georgetown.  The restaurant's tropical hued interior and half-shaded/half-sunny roof deck oozes an oceanside vibe that practically mandates a margarita on the rocks.

Surfside's menu mixes Tex-Mex -- think tacos, burritos chips and salsa -- with seafood, all ordered at a counter. Each entree is inspired and named after beachy destinations from the Caribbean to Martha's Vineyard.  On a recent spectacularly sunny spring day, we headed for the roofdeck with our starter order of guacamole.  Surfside's take was a hearty, citrus infused bowl suited for sharing. 

Fish tacos are ubiquitous on Mexican-inspired menus lately--they rose 22.5% in 2010 on menus across the country.  But in spite of this proliferation, I usually find myself disappointed biting into limp, unseasoned, uninspired fish bits, slapped on a tortilla with a dollop of sour cream and/or salsa thrown on to mask the unseemly flavor.  But the Negril Taco plate at Surfside was quite simply exceptional.  A generous portion of juicy, blackened mahi-mahi was topped with just the right amount of zesty slaw, spicy cream sauce, and fresh avocados. 

The generous portions are served with a comforting side of red beans and rice.  At about $10 an entree, a meal at Surfside satisfies the need for a beach food escape if you experience such an urge on a sunny weekend day in the city. 

Surfside on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 2, 2011

Food Field Trip NYC: Shake Shack

Shake Shack: Love and Custard

When the weather cooperates, spring in New York is spectacular. When B and I stepped off the train last Thursday into a picture-perfect day--sun shining, tulips sprouting, birds chirping--love was is the air. Or was that actually a more potent version of love masquerading as frozen custard?

Walking from Penn Station, our first stop was the Flatiron District, where we repeated a previous food field trip lunch feasting on fried chicken. After that delicious detour, enjoying the brilliant weather, we walked across Madison Square Park and stumbled upon Shake Shack, a counter service hut whose snaking line at lunchtime is visible well before the building itself. 

Undeterred by the line, we made our way to the express window, where you can bypass the crowds but only if you are ordering concretely. The Concrete starts with a base of a vanilla, chocolate, or the daily featured custard flavor and is mixed with your choice of rich, luscious toppings.  As I ordered, I thought, how is it that I have never had the pleasure of tasting chocolate truffle cookie dough before? The combination of the creamy custard with rich hot fudge, decadent peanut butter, and large chunks of that cookie dough was quite simply divine. But be forewarned, true to its name, after feasting upon a Concrete, you do feel a bit weighted down!

And great news DC'ites. Soon, getting your hands on this sweet treat will no longer require a trip up the East Coast. The Shake Shack is slated to open two DC locations in Dupont Circle and Nationals Stadium in June. Bring on the Concrete!

Shake Shack (Madison Square Park) on Urbanspoon