Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Off to Cuba -- Fill 'r Up

Fast Gourmet's Cuban Sandwich with Eggplant fries

Fall is my is my favorite time of year to travel.  Mild temperatures with just a hint of crispness abound and the tourist crowds are minimal.  As I look back over entries from past autumns, I realize how fortunate I am--two years ago I was getting ready for a culinary adventure through Paris, Beaune, and Lyon; last year, I was preparing for a Napa Valley wine journey (complete with a reservation at The French Laundry).  But this year is a bit different--B and I are headed to... Cuba. 

We were lucky enough to get a spot on the Harvard Alumni Association's 35 person tour-- centered on architecture, art, and music--under one of the "people to people" licenses for travel to Cuba that the Obama Administration began to expand the issuance of last spring.  Perhaps graduate school is finally paying off!  And although this tour is not singularly focused on food, the itinerary includes historic dining spots and dinners at family-operated paladares.  So, upon my return next week, I will bring you a special Food Field Trip Cuba edition.  But until then, I have a Cuba-related teaser for you to chew on...

I have never viewed a gas station as anything other than a place for a fuel fill up, a bathroom stop, or maybe, just maybe a place for a Diet Coke and if hunger is really setting in a prepackaged, processed snack.  But in DC just north of U Street, Fast Gourmet is transforming a functioning gas station into a culinary destination.

You first pass the fuel pumps and then walk into the station past the gas cashier (safely isolated behind bullet proof glass) and head to the counter up back.  Just follow your nose.  It is here, that you find a bustling open kitchen, dishing out hearty fare. 

We both went for what else, but the Cuban sandwich. Now before you send in the comments, I understand this is an American-concocted creation.  So we ordered, and then took a seat at a counter overlooking the gas station and, on this particular evening, an intersection where a traffic stop was being conducted by some half dozen local police.  Only in DC do you get this type of people watching, while indulging in some truly excellent casual fare.  The sandwich was massive, filled with succulent and juicy roasted pork, savory ham, gooey cheese, yellow and whole grain mustard, and of course, pickles.  It was quite simply the best sandwich I have had in DC all year.  And that is to say nothing of the eggplant fries.  These fries, golden eggplant freshly battered, literally melted in your mouth.

Almost everything on this menu is under $10 and available for eat-in or pick-up.  Drinks are limited to the carbonated, non-alcoholic variety and the atmosphere, is well, that of a gas station.  So if your stomach is on empty, this made to order gourmet gas station fare is worth the trip!

Fast Gourmet on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Oyamel's Little Dishes from the Streets

Oyamel: Fried Masa Cakes with Shredded Duck Confit

I was slow to embrace the tapas craze.  The stress of having to choose several small plates instead of just one entree outweighed the inherent benefit -- variety.  But I have recently discovered that tapas dining done right can be a real treat.  Jose Andre's Oyamel brings antojitos or the little dishes from the streets of Mexico to DC's ever-expanding fine dining scene in Penn Quarter.

This bustling, vibrant, and loud restaurant is yet another tough DC reservation to score.  But if you are patient, and can handle a wait at the cramped bar area (made much easier with a potent, Margarita in hand), you will be rewarded with the best Mexican food in the area.

We began with the queso fundido topped with chorizo, which is flambĂ©ed with tequila and served with hot hand-made tortillas.  After that, there were so many possibilities.  From a delicious take on black refried beans stuffed with cheese to a tamale verde with shredded chicken, each dish was delicate and decadent.

If you are looking for a culinary way to celebrate the season, get in before November 2nd, when the little plates spread is even bigger, with a "Day of the Dead" special menu.  B and I shared and slurped a creamy and rich butternut squash soup, which was spiced with habenero chiles, sweetened with cinnamon, crunchy with pumpkin seeds and fried pork skin (and quite pretty thanks to micro marigold blossoms).

Prices range from $6 - $13 and two to three plates per person will leave you satisfied and satiated; Andres' dishes may be little, but each delivers, big, bold flavors.

Oyamel on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Graffiato's Pumpkin Zeppoles Nestled in Caramel

Blah describes the way I have been feeling lately about the newcomers to the DC dining scene.  But, and this is a big but, when B and I tried Graffiato this past weekend that Blah feeling instantly morphed into Bravo, Brilliant, Bring-on-More!

A note up front: it took us about a month to get a reservation at Graffiato.  While it was unquestionably worth the wait, if you do not want to plan that far ahead, the downstairs bar area provides room for approximately 25 walk-ins and offers the full menu. 

Graffiato is Mike Isabella's (formerly of Zaytinya) ode to Italian-American food, but with a characteristically un-Italian-American twist: only small plates.  The dining room is sparse and casual; you will not find any white tablecloths here.  But what you will find is exceptional food, solid service, and an overall atmosphere that provides culinary treats without taking itself too seriously. 

I highly recommend the $55 tasting menu with the $35 wine pairings.  For DC this price tag is an unparalleled value and includes four courses comprised of many small plates  ranging broccolini to burrata.  You will not leave hungry.  The most impressive part of the entire spread was the way that the kitchen was able to make each ingredient shine without adding unnecessary flash - no foams or flaming presentations here. 

The "country man's pizza," which had a mushroom puree base and slow poached egg, was every bit as polished as the slightly more upscale potato gnocchi with shaved truffles.  Both tasted of fall goodness--earthy, indulgent, and leaving you wanting more.  A chestnut marscapone ravioli topped with brown butter, brussel sprout leaves, and winter squash was truly a bite of Thanksgiving.  Isabella is perhaps best known for his pepperoni sauce and this too delivered, adding spice to an indulgent, fork tender plate of chicken thighs. 

While the service originally lagged, it quickly picked up.  House filtered sparkling and still water are offered gratis--one of my favorite new restaurant trends.  The wine pairings managed to compliment each of the four courses, which is quite the feat, given the number of plates in each.  My one complaint was the starter of Virginia sparkling wine which predictably lacked the crisp, bold features of its California and/or French cousins.

Graffiato is fun, affordable, and somehow manages to have a sense of humor, while clearly taking food very seriously.

Graffiato on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Local Beers Pour onto the Scene at Shirlington Oktoberfest

Capitol City hosted the 12th Annual Oktoberfest this past Saturday in Arlington's Shirlington Village.  Bright sunshine brought above-average autumn temperatures and set the scene for a delightful afternoon.  Combine 40+ plus breweries, German food, and a oompa band DJ spinning German-themed tunes on an Apple laptop (perhaps an ad hoc tribute to Steve Jobs?) and you have one DC's most spirited fall events. Lederhosen-clad urbinates dotted the landscape, which also included many four-legged friends. 

This homage to craft beer's growing popularity prompted the organizers a few years ago to ditch the all-you-can-drink arrangement and allocate ten 4oz tasting tickets with the $25 admission price tag.

Breweries from across the country --from Harpoon to Abita--sampled their suds, but I could not help but notice and revel in the growing number of local brews.

Falls Church's Mad Fox was pouring their Punkinator, a seasonal offering that gets its flavor from 250 pounds of heirloom Cinderalla pumpkins and pumpkin pie spice from Penzey's of Falls Church (located right across from the Brewery).  The parents of the Fox in Mad Fox were pouring on Saturday, and their enthusiasm was contagious. 

Alexendria's Porty City was also ably represented with four taps.  This burgeoning local powerhouse is less than a year old, but already available in some 250 plus locations.  Public Tours are available at the brewery at 12:30 and 2pm on Saturdays (reservations not required) and include a tasting glass and full beer tasting.

The Lost Rhino may be the most lauded newcomer among NOVA beer lovers; their Face Plant IPA packs a hop-filled punch.  Tours are available at their Ashburn brewery Saturdays until 6pm.

Not to be left out, the District also now has its own brewery.  While I didn't make it to the DC Brau booth on Saturday, I did learn that they open their doors most Saturday afternoons for tastings, tours, and growler fills.

As I sat back, enjoying a weisswurst and an Oktoberfest style beer, I realized that though I remain a skeptic when it comes to the area's wine scene, I am a full on convert and proponent of the growing, local craft brewing community.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

How will it end? The Trials of an Ice Cream Pioneer

When I heard the news that Friendly's filed for bankcrupcy earlier this week, a wave of sadness and nostalgia washed over me. This cannot happen. Where else can you get peanut butter sauce, cone head and happy endings but at this classic New England-based ice cream mecca

I first heard the news late last week when Gawker cheekily proclaimed Friendly's Faces an Unhappy Ending. For anyone who grew up on the casual dining ice cream mecca that is (soon-to-be was) Friendly's, you immediately understand the reference.  Like hundreds of thousands of others growing up in New England, for years I was blissfully ignorant of the other meaning of that term and instead, looked at a happy ending as something sweet and exciting; sort of like Friendly's itself.

Friendly's is an indelible part of so many childhood memories.  I longed for hot and humid summer evenings, a relative rarity in central Massachusetts.  But on such nights, my family often retreated to one of two local Friendly's to enjoy air conditioning, a kid's meal of of chicken fingers, and of course, a cone head sundae.  This was pure childhood bliss.

While I aged out of the kid's meal, the place remained a go-to middle and high school hangout after football games.  Full of teenage angst and mozzarella sticks, my friends and I would spend countless evenings and hours occupying the red and green pleather banquets.

Friendly's is trying to reinvent itself, but unlike the shudder-worthy TGI Friday's or Applebees, profit margins are low--Friendly's does not serve alcohol, only Fribbles and Coca Cola.   Friendly's recently unveiled an express option offering a limited menu and of course the ice cream they are known for in more urban settings like in Boston's Coolidge Corner.  While Friendly's Express has not yet ventured into DC, you can find (for now!) Friendly's restaurants dotted throughout the VA and MD suburbs.  If you have never experienced a Friendly's sundae, what are you waiting for?  Time may be running out.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Grape Juice for Adults

Food Field Trip Napa Valley 2010

A glass of crisp chardonnay on a summer day cools and refreshes. A flute of champagne exudes excitement and celebration. A Burgundy on a brisk fall evening warms and charms.  And let's face it, in a city that works as hard and as much as DC, I am one of many wine worshippers. 

Rohan over at District 365 has decided to do something to address the appetites of DC oenophiles.  Recognizing the market for wine delivery and the desire for wine-themed dinners, classes, and tastings, Rohan is getting ready to create a virtual hub for all things wine in DC. 

In celebration of the launch, District 365 is running a contest for a wine getaway in the burgeoning wine regions of Virginia and Maryland.  While admittedly I have not yet come to appreciate our local wine market (and am not sure I ever will), a weekend in the country imbibing on local wines gratis does not sound half bad.  Click here to enter and learn more about District 365 Wine.