Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Food Field Trip Boston: B&G stands for Brilliant Gastronomy

Boston's B and G Oyster

My fascination with Barbara Lynch, a bonafide Boston food pioneer, began years before I had the pleasure of sampling her cuisine.  B and I spent two years living right by the state house on Beacon Hill, so each day on my walk to the subway, I passed her flagship No 9 Park.  And each day I peered beyond the curtains, into the candlelit dining room, casting longing glances at the beautiful plates and shimmering glasses of wine.  Sometimes I would even catch a glimpse of the chef herself, but at that stage in our lives, No 9 Park was far outside the bounds of our food budget and only accessible in my foodie dreams.

It was not until after we moved to DC that we were able to finally experience No 9 Park on a trip to Boston.  That evening -- over four years ago now -- was everything I imagined.  We indulged in the tasting menu with wine pairings, and noticed John Kerry and Theresa Heinz sitting down to a late dinner on our way out of the restaurant.  How Boston is that?  It was a dining experience that was worth the wait.
No. 9 Park on Urbanspoon

Since that time, Lynch has opened a bevy of new restaurants in the city, paying homage to meat, seafood, and the cocktail.  B and I found ourselves back in Boston this weekend and--as is usually the case while there--craving seafood. So on this trip we decided to forego our go-to bivalve mecca, and try for the first time Lynch's B and G Oysters in the South End.  When I called to cancel our too-early reservation (due to a late lunch), I learned that the fifteen seat bar is reserved for walk-ins.  So we decided to try our luck and stop by later in the evening. 

B and G Oysters is tiny; in addition to the bar which surrounds the open kitchen there are only about a half dozen tables (there is also a patio with about as many tables, but it cannot be relied upon but for maybe two months out of the year, as was the case on our cool, rainy June night). The cramped interior requires tip-top managerial organization and the staff are very adept at handling the flow of walk-ins.  If there is no room at the bar, you provide your cell phone number and head to a nearby watering hole.

On a rainy, cool summer Friday night, our wait time was forecasted at an hour but came in at a little over thirty minutes  This lag time gave us the opportunity to head across the street and try out the Beehive.  This uber hip space is a combination restaurant and club and the crowd and interior seems more West Village than South End.  When we arrived around 8pm, we headed downstairs and enjoyed drinks backed by a quiet jazz trio.  The dark lower level has a huge bar, exposed brick walls and over-the-top-art.  As we neared finishing our 20-oz local beers in Cheers-like dimpled mugs, my phone rang.
The Beehive on Urbanspoon

After walking across the street and being seated comfortably at the bar, I sized up my surroundings and was alternatively impressed by the talented and tireless oyster schucker, the meticulous cooks, and the knowledgeable servers.  Our waitress's knowledge and passion for both food and drink showed throughout our meal.  She explained that the dozen oysters available change twice daily, the olive oil is a single press from Greece, and of course it will be no problem to have the kitchen split the clam chowder. 

We started with what else, but the oysters -- all varieties we had never enjoyed before (Naked Cowboys anyone?) -- perfectly shucked with varying degrees of salty, ocean sweetness.  We liked the oysters so much that we scored a free sample of two of the fried versions, which were presented on a dollop of tartar sauce in their half shell.

B and I did not skimp on the food.  Our clam chowders were each topped with a paprika pastry puff and teamed with whole fresh clams.  The calamari rings were huge and fried perfectly--just like the oyster appetizer and later, the fries.  I needed my New Englander lobster fix and while there was a traditional roll on the menu, we decided to share the signature "Lobster BLT."  Any tender lobster would be proud to go out like this with garden fresh tomato, smokey bacon,  and just a touch of a tangy mayonnaise to bring everything together.  The accompanying fresh pickles, fries, and cole slaw were fresh  and generously sized--again, split beautifully by the kitchen without asking.

And though at this point, we were beyond full, we just had to try dessert.  Of the three offerings we went with a rhubarb flan-like custard dish, which came topped with pistachio ice cream, candied rhubarb and fennel.  This unique treat was tart and a refreshing end to a seafood feast. 

The limited wine selection by the glass numbered around a dozen, but provided some unique and well-priced options.  Just be careful you don't enjoy those wine selections too much--the tiny winding staircase to the bathroom is quite precarious to navigate, almost making it feel like you are enjoying the sea's offerings from inside of a ship.  Our meal with three glasses of wine, a Harpoon UFO, eight oysters, clam chowder, calamari, lobster BLT, dessert, tax and tip came to $165.
B & G Oysters on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 24, 2011

Beach Shack Fare in the FC

Clare and Don's Fried Pickles

While the name made much more sense when the restaurant was located in Clarendon (get it?!), Clare and Don's still delivers a ramshackle beach-inspired experience right outside of DC.  Yes, now you do have to drive to get to it, but the sprawling fenced in patio in Falls Church feels much closer the coast! The spacious patio is decorated with garlands of flip flops and the picnic tables are shellacked and brightly painted.  And if you don't already feel the ocean breezes, order a draught Kona Longboard Lager and you will soon forget that Tyson's Corner is only moments up the road.

The food is definitively not gourmet, but fun, with most items either grilled or fried.  The cornmeal crusted appetizer of silver dollar-sized fried dill pickles is ample for sharing--the best of this gratuitously caloric treat I have had in the area.  The buffalo shrimp are every bit as good as I remember from the restaurant's Clarendon days years ago.

Clare and Don's seems as consistent in their delicious takes on snack shack fare as they are on terrible service.  The waiters and waitresses, called Dons and Clares, respectively, seem to be everywhere, but inhabit a different world.  So expect uneven wait times and to ask for most things twice, BUT if you assume a Caribbean island mindset, the slower pace is much easier to handle.  And with prices hovering around $10 for a wide array of beach fare, this is an affordable escape!

Clare and Don's Beach Shack on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

DC's "French Laundry" with a Mediterranean Flare

Photo Courtesy of DCist.com

I should have been able to come up with a more inventive title to describe my incredible experience at Komi last week.  But before you hate on this comparison, let me explain.  To begin, the difficulty in securing reservations at Komi very much parallels our country's most storied west coast restaurant.  While DC does not have Thomas Keller, I found Johnny Monis's talent, creativity, and commitment to seasonal, local quality ingredients to be on par with the former.

Let me get the logistics out of the way up front:
  • Reservations are taken one month to the calendar day by phone; the reservation line is open from Tuesday - Saturday from 12:00 - 5:00pm EST.
  • There are no printed menus.  While most dietary requests can be honored, the meal will consist of a dizzying array of various sized courses, ranging from mezzethakia (small, light dishes) to a pasta course and a family-style entrĂ©e, followed by desserts. The cost is $135; wine pairings are available for an additional $70.
  • Parties are limited to four people or less.
  • No photos (for me the hardest rule to follow because the food was stunningly beautiful).
Got it?  Now unto the good stuff.  I will start by saying that, as with all Eating Around DC's previous splurge occasion restaurant experiences, I will not detail the specifics of any dish since the element of surprise is an integral part of such an experience.  I will say however that this culinary safari was the perfect choice for me and B to celebrate our shared birthday.  Yes, we were born on the same day in the same year.  This serendipitous event is our excuse to go all-out on the special day.  And this year, knowing that we would be in DC, we both thought: Komi!

We first ate at Komi about three and a half years ago.  For DC foodies, this was way back when there was a printed menu with a price that hovered around $80 and reservations were tough to snag but not the ordeal they are now.  We loved it then, we adore it now--even as the prices have surged and the menu disappeared.  Why?  Let's start with the comfort of knowing that you will not need to make one single decision about your food.  So relax, sit back, and just wait to see what the kitchen brings forth.  Each dish seems to impossibly surpass the last in terms of presentation, unique flavor, and creativity.  We decided to do the wine pairings, which were all impeccably chosen by quirky sommelier Kathryn Bangs, who also offered to further tailor the night to our own personal wine preferences.

Our one and only decision of the night involved water--sparkling or still.  This leads me to my one and only criticism.  Of the half dozen or so restaurants of Komi's caliber that we have had the pleasure of dining at over the past year, this is the only one that charges for sparkling water.  While Pellegrino is not outrageously--though expensively--priced at $7 a bottle, this a la carte charge is irksome in an otherwise inclusive, unfussy environment.

But back to the food and the wine.  From Komi's classic stuffed dates to an innovative take on DC's half smoke to the signature housemade lollipop, each dish highlights every ingredient while simultaneously marrying together diverse textures and flavors.   The Mediterranean influence is apparent but not 'in your face.'  On the wine front, expect the unexpected: a sparkling white wine from... Greece!  And yes, it is very good.

And after enjoying wonderful service throughout a lingering spread of nearly twenty treats, we requested a kitchen tour.  Our request, graciously obliged, allowed us to see the small space where the magic happens.  We were thrilled to speak to the mastermind himself, who happens to be the same age as us!  I wish I could accomplish even a fraction of a fraction (even in my own kitchen) of what Johnny has done with Komi, but I have oh so much catching up to do--Komi is a restaurant worthy of a trip to DC just to experience this Mediterranean adventure.

Komi on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 20, 2011

Friend Wins for Savory Crab on Sweltering Day

I am far less creatively and culinarily gifted than most of my friends.  I may write and critique, but it is my wonderful friends who actually cook, create, and invent.  While I was covering Savor DC, my friend Kasey was besting the competition a few hours north, taking second place in Philadelphia's Cheese Experiment with her Summertime Savory Cheesecake.

I first met Kasey when I was in graduate school almost ten years ago now.  B and I had just started dating when a loud, brash woman--his friend from college--arrived on B's doorstep.  Anyone who has met Kasey knows she is one of a kind and quite frankly (and she knows this) I did not know what to make of her. As a star waitress at Morton's in Boston's Back Bay, she graciously opened my eyes (and stomach) to my first premium steakhouse filet.

But Kasey is the ultimate hostess inside her own home as well.  I remember a Christmas party in her cramped Beacon Hill apartment; in spite of the closet-sized living room, the place took on a grandiose and resplendent aura.  My glass never fell below half full (or empty), and her culinary prowess was on full display. 

Like so many of my friends, we now live in different cities, but might Kasey's passion and talent be starting to reach the culinariatti in Philly?  I hope so. So DC, in honor of her birthday, I give you the incomparable Kasey and her most recent award-winning invention.


Here's the backstory in Kasey's own words -- a Louisville Kentucky native, you will catch a hint of Paula Deen and Ina Garten in both her writing and cooking styles.

There were 20 something competitors, I think, from savory to sweet. I had read about the contest when we were having that gross heat wave, so I decided I wanted to avoid anything hot and heavy. I then remembered a crawfish cheesecake that I had devoured once in New Orleans, and I thought hell. Never tried it, but how hard can that be?

Crawfish season had just passed, so I settled for crab meat, and did mostly claw meat for the flavor and color, and some jumbo lump to give a nice, firm, crabby mouthful every once in a while. The recipe was shockingly easy.

The recipe follows, save for one thing: I made homemade cream cheese (because it was a cheese contest) for all of the cakes save one because I ran out. And honestly, I could not tell the difference except for a tiny bit of a texture change.

Savory Crab Cheesecake

Puff Pastry Sheet
One medium onion
12-16 ounces of crab meat
16 ounces cream cheese
8-10 ounces of good, sharp goat cheese. (Kasey used Shellbark Farms Sharp Goat)
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
4 ounces sour cream or yogurt (Kasey used plain, organic yogurt)
2 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut a puff pastry sheet  to be a little bit bigger than the bottom of your springform pan. Cover with tin foil and weigh down with beans, a plate or a weight of some kind that will cover most of the bottom. Cook for 8 minutes and let cool. Remove foil and weight. It may shrink so that it doesn't cover entire bottom...no biggie. Turn oven down to 250.

Chop one medium onion and caramelize with a few teaspoons of Whole Food's "Red Chili Paste" found in their Asian/Thai section. Let cool.

Go through the crab carefully to pick out and shells or connective pieces.

Mix both cheeses, cornstarch, salt and yogurt together until combined. Scrape down sides, then add eggs one at a time, mixing well.

Gently fold in the onion and crab, trying to keep the crab pieces as whole as possible. When well combined, pour into springform pan and put into 250 degree oven. Bake for one hour, then turn off and without opening the door, let the cheesecake sit in the over for another hour.

Let cool for at least 4 hours, and serve either at room temp or chilled.

And if you are so creatively inclined, serve the Kasey way: I threw together a little sour cream/yogurt sauce with some thai spices, but it's also wonderful without.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Founding Farmers Version 2011

Founding Farmers: Heapin' Plate of Fried Chicken and Waffles

For better or worse, dining out is dynamic.  A few years ago, I ceded to the hype and tried Founding Farmers, which is honest-to-God owned by a collective of American family farmers.  The restaurant sources  fresh products from family farms, ranches, and fisheries from across the United States.  In the words of Ina Garten, how bad could that be?  Unfortunately, my first impressions: great concept, terrible execution--my original meal there was characterized by lack luster preparations and muted flavor. 

On the insistence of  friends, I gave the restaurant another go last month and this time found Founding Farmers to be thoroughly impressive: attentive service, hearty portions, robust flavors, and reasonable prices.

Our meal started off with some flavorful drinks.  I enjoyed the potent Grandma's Blackberry Sour, a refreshing concoction of Rittenhouse 100, Grand Marnier, lemon juice, blackberries, and a bit of egg white for binding.  And B, surprised himself when he discovered a robust Cabernet Sauvignon, from IDAHO...how often do you find wine--and a very good wine at that--from America's Heartland?!

The menu trends toward comfort food.  A heaping plate of fried chicken, waffles, and macaroni and cheese was absolutely satisfying covering both the savory (chicken) and the sweet (waffles) with a bit of extra carbs (mac and cheese) thrown in for good measure.  The skirt steak and enchilada had just the right amount of heat; the meat was flavorful and incredibly tender, and the enchilada oozing with cheese was a nice contrast.  And dessert reminded me of childhood, as the towering cakes are served with a softball sized scoop of ice cream.  While not the best red velvet cake in DC, it was great for a crowd and the cream cheese icing was finger licking good with its tangi-sweetness.

The biggest challenge of the evening was making it through the monster portions.  But with most entrees between $16 - 18, this is a great choice for group dinners with varying pallets in the heart of DC.

Founding Farmers on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Beer Glorious Beer: Savor 2011

Savor DC 2011

As a craft beer loving blogger -- this girl loves her beer (and wine) -- I am so happy that beer pairings are catching up to those of wine (perhaps even surpassing the latter on the innovation front) and capturing the imagination of foodies.  Last night I was delighted to attend for first time Savor: An American Craft Beer and Food Experience, an annual event showcasing the technique of matching cutting-edge craft beer with food. 

Now we know Washingtonians likes their beer.  We are fortunate to have the passion of Greg Engert of Birch and Barley and its sister restaurants in our backyard, but if the crowds at last night's event were any indication, DC is thirsty for more.  Last year Savor sold out in minutes, and even with the addition of another night this time around, tickets once again proved hot commodities in this its forth year.  This year the National Building Museum was filled with:
  • 72 craft breweries,
  • 82,000 prepared menu items (not including cheese, oysters or sushi),
  • 1,705+ gallons of beer,
  • 20,000 pounds of ice,
  • 2,000 attendees,
  • 250 pounds of artisan cheese,
  • 2,000 sushi rolls,
  • 2,200 artisan chocolate truffles, and
  • 2,600 oysters.
I was over the moon to be counted among the lucky few to snag media credentials, but I would have paid to attend in any case.  First, let me start by saying the beer guy, that stereotypical bearded, nonchalant fella is quite good company.  These guys cannot help but make the atmosphere decidedly chill.  No pushing, no shoving, no pretense; just adoration and good-natured passion for the best of the craft beer  movement.  In line for Dogfish Head, (which with Sam Adams attracted the most interest), I met two pilgrims who had traveled from Arizona to attend Savor.

And of course Jim Koch, the widely recognized founder of the American craft beer movement (and Sam Adams), was the center of attention.  He held court with beer worshippers angling in for photographs and handshakes.  And in a nod to his New England origins, the lobster roll at Sam's booth was the best pairing of the night.  My old stomping grounds fared well, with Trinity Brewhouse (Providence) and Harpoon Brewery (Boston) both selected for the event.

And if the madness of the main tasting floor is too much choice for you to handle, the ticketed salons provide a deeper dive.  I sampled an assortment of Bourbon barrel aged brews from Full Sail Brewery, each vintage of which possessed a uniqueness of character.  And as if that were not enough, the brewery is led by a woman, which from what I can tell is a rarity in the beer world.

And while California breweries dominated in terms of sheer numbers, it came as no surprise that Oregon stole the show.  From Oregon alone, there were so many contenders that it really was hard to pick a favorite.  Homegrown brews on the other side of the Mississippi--like Louisiana's Bayou Teche and Illinois's Two Brothers--have extremely limited distribution, so it is only at events like Savor that you get the opportunity to sample them in DC.

And just in case you are lamenting that all good things have to come to an end, this is not true for Savor.  All attendees left with a parting gift: flowers.  And by flowers I mean the Dogfish Head/Sam Adams collaboration rose water based brew.

So be on the lookout for Savor 2012 -- it is a can't miss for beer lovers; just be ready to buy tickets the second they go on sale. While NKOTB was performing the same night down the block,  I think Savor was the hottest ticket in town.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Memorial Day 2011: From Haute to Hot

Recently I have been in a blogger's funk and have not been able to muster much inspiration.  Perhaps it is because two of the fabulous woman who have guided  both my weekdays and weekends, Oprah Winfrey and Liane Hansen, said goodbye last week.  Or maybe the constant roar of motorcycles circling my condo for Rolling Thunder drowned out my inner voice.  But this weekend, staying in DC brought me back to my jovial blogging self with my local Memorial Day weekend journey that went from haute to hot.

Despite the noxious noise, I found Memorial Day weekend a great time to really experience DC as many choice spots were largely deserted.  This was certainly true this weekend at the Jefferson Hotel's Quill bar.  Despite the absence of a large crowd, the service, cocktails, and entertainment were all top notch.  The Jefferson's elegant take on the finer things in life carries from the ornate decor to the menu.  While cocktails are not inexpensive ($15 a piece), they are all handcrafted, unique, and creative.  Their Tequila Mockingbird, showcases premium tequila in a wash of handcrafted strawberry grapefruit grenadine.  And if the menu's listed cocktails do not wet your whistle, there is always the Master Mind, an option that allows for collaboration between you and the bartender; B was quite happy with his chai bourbon-infused martini concoction! 

Quill makes it easy lose yourself in a setting that feels far removed in space and time; you forget you are in DC.  The plush chairs cradle you as you listen to jazz standards played by the amazingly talented jazz pianist and singer Peter Robinson, whose quirky quips punctuate his amazing by-memory repertoire of jazz greats from Porter to Gershwin.  And if the library is not reserved for the evening, make sure you stop in.  Signed books of the hotel's many guests line a far wall and it is here you discover that many of  America's dining legends have too enjoyed this space.
Quill (in the Jefferson Hotel) on Urbanspoon

Readers know that my tastes range from fine to frugal.  And it is this leap that brings me to my next Memorial Day food experience -- lunch for two for $3.27.  Where, you may ask?  And it is that question that causes me to blush ever so slightly.  This feast was at the suburban weekend nightmare that is the Pentagon City Costco.  But what is more American than enjoying an all beef hot dog in the middle of a consumer-driven, fluorescent lit cafeteria?  The hot dog was satisfying in a I can't remember when the last time was I ate a hot dog kind of way.  The Diet Coke was free flowing.  The onion dicing machine crank, well, that was just fun. 
Costco Wholesale on Urbanspoon

So from haute to hot, there are so many ways to take advantage of long summer weekends in DC.