Thursday, April 28, 2011

Food Field Trip NYC: Dining as Theatre

La Grenouille

I am an avid eater and a lover of all kinds of cuisine. But there is so much more to dining than just the food; on special celebratory occasions (such as our recent wedding anniversary trip to New York), B and I seek out dining opportunities that might be understood better as entertainment than eating.  Not only can such an experience mirror the composition of a fine theatre performance--an ensemble cast of supporting players, lighting, presentation, attentive and polished service, wine and spirits--but all the bells and whistles are designed to showcase a star--the food.

Our first act: La Grenouille. This almost 50 year-old institution is dedicated to classic French cuisine. The story goes that La Grenouille first opened its doors on a snowy evening in 1962 and to this day remains largely unchanged. The setting is a mirrored and slightly dated dining room, overflowing with an unfathomable amount of fresh flowers, which add vibrant colors and fragrance to the intimate space. The cast of all male wait staff is attentively hopping about everywhere. I especially appreciated that a cocktail was offered as a prelude before the menu presentation.

La Grenouille offers a pre-theatre 3 course prix fix before 6pm for $60 ($85 with a custom wine pairing), whose menu options are both traditionally French and lovingly and personally prepared. A starter of foie gras, was layered with chicken liver and complimented by a zesty celery root remoulade. The Quenelle of Pike "Lyonnaise” entree consisted of two lighter-than-air mousse brochets served in a rich butter sauce. A dessert offering of rhubarb on a buttery, layered tart (paired with a sweet pistachio ice cream) heralded the beginning of local seasonal spring produce. Surprises were sprinkled throughout the meal: gougeres, cheese straws, and petite fours. And the cast of grey-haired Frenchmen was from start to finish gracious, professional, and charming. Bravo.

La Grenouille on Urbanspoon


For Act II, the curtain went up the next night on Gilt. This intimate restaurant is housed in the Palace Hotel in the Villard Mansion, a building that dates back to the 1880s. Gilt channels the late 19th century Gilded Age, and this was the scene for the actual day of our 5 year wedding anniversary. Secret doors and hidden passageways set the stage for a whimsical, otherworldly experience. From the ornate bar and waiting area, a sliding wooden door opened to a breathtaking dining room of gilded walls and cathedral ceilings backlit in a red glow. And if you just happen (wink, wink) to head up an extra set of stairs from the bathroom, you will find yourself in an eerie library.

Justin Bogel’s cuisine is as unique as the décor, with a three course prix fix menu starting at $89.  A starter of "bacon and eggs" blended tapioca, caviar, bacon, and custard into a truly magical ménage of textured sweet and smoky flavors. The succulent Niman Ranch Strip Loin was complimented by dollops of bone marrow mousse, hen of the woods mushrooms, oyster root with a balsamic reduction, and bits of a vibrant green dehydrated broccoli sponge cake (a bit much!) This performance ended on a high note, with flavor inspired and conceived desserts centered on chocolate, including a mini soufflé, and apple, complete with cinnamon donuts. The service was again an all male cast that left us wondering where the female stars were hiding? And while the service was professional and attentive, there was a certain palpable tension and stiffness (presumably directed at earning that next Michelin star?)

 Gilt on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 25, 2011

Food Field Trip NYC: I'll Have What She's Having

Katz's Deli Corned Beef Hash

B and I just returned from an over-the-top theater (Book of Mormon, Good People) and dining (Le Grenouille, Gilt) whirlwind tour of New York to celebrate our five year wedding anniversary.  We usually plan our food destinations well in advance with an (over) abundance of diligent research.  While this was certainly true for the majority of meals on this trip (more to come on those later this week), I wanted to rundown our impromptu venture one morning after we found ourselves shut out of Clinton Street Baking Company, and left in a deluge of cold, spring rain with no working smartphones to help us with a dining plan B.  So we trudged a few blocks up Houston Street, dodging puddles and cabs, and stumbled into Katz's Deli.

We opened the door, were handed a ticket, and brusquely forwarded to the counter and instructed to order.  This sounded simple, but was quite complicated, as each item was ordered from a a multitude of stations that seemed to stretch into eternity.  Soaking wet and in sour spirits, we were not amused, but we reluctantly went from station to station to order.  To put the service in context, this experience makes the servers at Carnegie Deli seem polite and gracious.

We waited for our food amongst a sea of blue and white collar locals, hipsters, and camera-wielding tourists, which I suppose (reluctantly) included us.  That's when B noticed a sign directly overhead that proclaimed that Katz's was the setting for the famous scene from the classic movie When Harry Met Sally.  How could I have forgotten that?!  For some reason this found bit of movie history made me look at Katz's in a more positive light.

And then, finally, after having placed my order twice (my first request was either ignored or forgotten), I was ready to feast on the homemade corned beef hash.  The heart attack sized portion was rich and meaty, offset by the crunch of green peppers.  The hash had a subtle heat, but it was even better with a few squirts of the deli mustard sitting on the table.  While not the brunch we set out to find, Katz's was certainly an experience.  And despite the nonsensical service, at $14 for the corned beef hash and a Diet Pepsi, I would return. 

Katz's Deli on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hill Country Barbecue comes to DC

Having already been smitten with Hill Country Chicken on a food field trip to New York City, I had high expectations when I heard of Hill Country Barbecue's venture into Penn Quarter.  B and I decided to brave the hordes on a recent April Saturday night, armed with our appetites.  We entered the cavernous space, fronted by a 360-degree bar and filled with long wooden tables.  Hill Country's country-themed interior is large but warm, charming and inviting.

Patrons are given a "food passport" upon entry which is presented at the three stations in the rear of the space where, like a kid in a candy-store, you select from classic barbecue main and side dishes.  Carvers help you select meats, priced by the pound, and weigh and price them right in front of you, grocery-style. We asked lots of questions of our carver; he was passionate, knowledgeable, and right before we moved onto the sides stations, he revealed that he was the chef!  He told us that he had trained the staff at NYC's Hill Country Chicken, so I knew we were in for a treat.

We decided to splurge on the beef short rib: $30 (!) a pound for a Fred Flinstone-sized cut.  It was fork-tender, succulent, and well worth the splurge.  But the other meats we chose--the brisket and chicken--also had an unbelievable smokey depth of flavor, impossibly juicy and tender.  While barbecue sauce is available, we barely touched it, since the flavors of the chicken, brisket, and short rib needed no enhancers.

Sides are no slouch either.  The six cheese macaroni and cheese is creamy, tangy and justifies a trip to Hill Country just to give this side a try.  Campfire baked beans with burnt ends were hearty and slightly sweet.  The one flaw in an otherwise untoppable feast was the cornbread, which was comparatively dry and flavorless.

We each enjoyed a mason jar of beer at the bar before taking our order to go.  The heat insulated bags kept everything hot on the drive back over the river.  The dinner was not inexpensive, but highly customizable as meats are available at fair prices, and sides come in three sizes.  Our meal with two beers, a short rib, barbecued chicken, moist brisket, one medium side, one small side, and cornbread came to $75 with tax and tip, but would have been significantly less had we not splurged on that finger-licking short rib!

The verdict: best barbecue for miles around, which hopefully means that this Manhattan transplant is here to stay!

Hill Country Barbecue Market on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dine Like a Founding Father at Plume

In the past several weeks, all the talk in Washington has been about budgeting, cutting spending, and even the possibility of a government shutdown.  And like most DC area residents will attest, sometimes the only way to cope is by tuning out.  And how better to tune out of the austerity debate than by heading just blocks away from budget central to the opulent Jefferson Hotel.

Purse Stool
Thomas Jefferson's notoriety as both oenophile and francophile is the inspiration for the culinary lavishness at Plume, the hotel's restaurant.  If you have the Presidential sum of $1776 per person to spend on dinner (or maybe an unexpected tax refund), you can get a personal sommelier experience including rare, old vine vintages to pair with a custom menu created just for you.  Based on my own splurge experience this fall at Plume sommelier Michael Scaffidi's former employer, French Laundry, I have no doubt that this would be an experience to remember.   Full disclosure, my tax refund was not this good, so I have not yet experienced the 1776 way of dining -- would someone like to sponsor me?!

But your check need not necessitate a comma if you order off Plume's nightly menu, though the experience is still most apt for a celebratory occasion.  The Jeffersonian inspired surroundings include a soaring skylight, a hand-painted mural of Monticello’s south vineyard, and even a personal stool for your purse. 

And there is yet another option to soak up such opulence: stop in for a drink at the adjacent bar, Quill.  Packed with cozy nooks and crannies, plenty of original Jefferson memorabilia, and some unique bites and sips, I am more than happy drinking like a well-heeled commoner when my purse can't quite afford its own stool!

Plume at the Jefferson Hotel on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sippin' Like the Southern Belle I am NOT

Eating Around DC is a born and bred true blue Yankee.  But let's face it, DC is well below the Mason Dixon line, and I will readily admit I do sometimes enjoy southern-style delights.  Last Friday I found just the springtime elixir to make me relax (for just a passing moment) like a southerner--the peach mint julep at the Degrees Lounge at the Georgetown Ritz Carlton.

This potent concoction of bourbon, mint, peach puree, and a touch of unrefined sugar is smooth and refreshing, and carries just the right hint of sweetness.  After one silky sip, I was able to easily settle into the plush burgundy arm chair and contemplate the important things in life, like: what am I going to do for the rest of the weekend?  

And to munch on a classed-up take on the s'more.  Yes please!  This gooey, rich, and complimentary dessert treat is available between 6:30 - 7:00pm.  And I have no doubt that folks with a sweet tooth--who hail from north or south of the Mason Dixon line--will enjoy this one.

The one flaw in this cocktail fueled escape (if there is one) is the price: the peach mint julep will set you back $15 before tax and tip.  So if you are feeling a little crunched after filing your taxes this weekend, stop by early instead and enjoy some of the other libations at the Rendezvous at The Ritz happy hour, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. nightly where you will find vastly reduced prices--half-priced cocktails and appetizers and select wines by the glass for $6 and beer for $3.

Degrees Bar & Lounge at the Ritz Carlton Georgetown on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cupcakes are the new Cocktails

When a friend, who had recently announced she was pregnant, came for dinner last week I wondered what could serve as a stand-in for cocktails?  Hmmm...cupcakes?!

This is not too bad of a trade-off.  Calorie-wise cupcakes are comparable to many if not most sugar-laced cocktails.  And while cupcakes mean lingering over small bites instead of sips, the ensuing banter, gossip, and bonding remains the same.  Plus serving cupcakes requires no lessons in mixology--a variety of styles are readily obtainable from the myriad of cupcake eateries that seem to open monthly in the DC area.

Crumbs, the New York City based cupcakery, descended on DC a few months back.  In order to maximize the shared experience, I went for their signature variety pack, which gets you 12 mini cupcakes for $18.  The unique, fabulous sounding flavors included cookie dough and grasshopper.  And before you judge, please note that we did not eat the whole variety pack by ourselves-- our husbands gladly helped us out.

And while the ensuing conversation was memorable, the cupcakes were entirely forgettable.  All tasted of variations of the same blandness.  If I had my eyes closed discerning between any two would have been a challenge.  While the raspberry swirl and red velvet were the best in the pack, neither measured up to any of the available flavors I've tried thus far at Baked and Wired and even Georgetown Cupcake.  While Crumbs has a seemingly endless variety of visually appealing softball sized cupcakes, they are going for quantity over quality in their franchising.

Crumbs Bake Shop on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 11, 2011

Give me Liberty or Give me Pancakes

Throughout April, the ultimate month for DC visitors, H Street has proven itself a welcome refuge from the hordes.  So guided by this Sunday's Washington Post Gurus guide to pancakes, we headed up to H Street for the second time this month.  And I am happy to relay that the Liberty Tree fits the bill for a laid-back, local, Sunday paper-reading brunch.

They say you can't judge a book by its cover, and this certainly holds true for H Street's New England themed eatery, the Liberty Tree.  A jarring bright blue exterior surrounds the front door, which opens onto to a small, square dining room, with standard New England accents, which I know from experience is at once calming and depressing.  This dimly lit space is fronted by an ample bar that opens directly to the kitchen.  While the Liberty Tree is certainly not in the running for any innovative design awards, the visible and tiny kitchen delivers well-executed plates.  The lone server for the almost-full dining room was polite but a bit aloof; determined but a bit inefficient. 

The pancakes were impossibly fluffy at well over a quarter inch thick.  The stack of three topped with a strawberry apple compote tasted almost as good as my Dad's.  I can't help but think this is the New England influence coming into play.  And an egg white omelet provided  pleasantly flavor-packed surprises; sweet goat cheese was punctuated by salty kalamata olives, green peppers, and plump mushrooms.  The accompanying red potato hash browns had just the right amount of char.

While $5 Bloody Marys and Mimosas were on the menu, the aftermath of last Sunday's brunch at the Biergarten Haus was too fresh in our memory to consider imbibing at such an early hour.  Bottom line: for under $30 for two this is a good neighborhood brunch bet -- just come armed with the two Sunday P's: patience and the paper.

Liberty Tree on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Is the Ray-man Empire falling?

Not only readers of this site but friends, family, colleagues, and pretty much everyone who knows me has known my admiration over the past few years for Ray’s the Steaks, Michael Landrum’s once-innovative concept that brought upscale steakhouse fare to the common man and/or woman.  At its original location on lower Wilson Boulevard in between Courthouse and Rosslyn, you could find great cuts of steak for around $25, which included sides, and special touches, such as a shot of hot chocolate to conclude your meal during the cooler months.

By any measure, the Ray’s empire has proven a smashing success, with its first expansion in Silver Spring, and later a Presidential-approved burger shop and a neighborhood eatery in East River.  Long-promised additions to come include Ray’s the Glass (wine and bites) and Ray’s the Catch (fish).  The original Ray’s moved  its operation  up the street into much larger digs in the Army-Navy Building in Courthouse a couple years back.  At the beginning, the changes seemed largely positive: more seating (yes please!), reservations (table for 2!), and a new wine program (cheers!).

BUT, and this a BIG BUT (and one that is going to no doubt attract a slew of angry emails and comments), in spite of--or perhaps even because of--the changes which came with a bigger space, Ray’s is just not what is used it to be.  In fact, over the last several months, I've come to the regrettable conclusion that what was once my favorite spot for a casual dinner with B or for an out-of-town gathering of friends and family has lost a lot of its luster. I am writing this post with a heavy heart and a bit of trepidation.  But at this point in time, I cannot recommend Ray’s without several qualifications.

A rotating door of waitstaff has replaced what was once a stable cadre of familiar, efficient servers.  Prices continue to inch up--the modest Caesar salad is now $6.99 and the fillet is up to $31.99.  And that hot chocolate that accompanied the check in the winter months? No longer.  Dessert favorites keep disappearing too; first it was the coconut cream pie and then the cheesecake (OK, neither were available at the original Ray's), and most recently the decadent and airy white chocolate mousse (which was on the menu from the beginning). What replaced them? Nothing.

The only recent additions to the menu have been the dry aged selections, which are admittedly a bargain at a few dollars extra, but they've been hit or miss. Occupying what was once a lounge area, and later part of the "bistro" dining section is a massive locker--Landrum's latest pride, joy, and obsession--full of aging cuts of beef.

The atmosphere, which was always intended as nothing more than functional is also worn.  Scuffed tables line the main dining room (table cloths long since removed), and the air temperature on a recent visit vacillated between too hot or freezing cold.  And the dining room is now filled more with exurbanites (on the weekends) and area office workers (on the weekdays) than with your community neighbors.

And the steak itself, once lovingly prepared, now seems to emerge from the kitchen slopped onto a plate with temperature and presentation an afterthought.  While the steak can still at times be great, it is a gamble whether that steak ordered medium will be well done or rare.  And I wonder whether some of the dry aged cuts I've recently tried were aged enough or appropriately.

B and I dine at Ray’s frequently -- to the tune of thousands of dollars a year, as do many of our friends.  There have been times as of late when we've left pleased, but the chorus of complaints--some trying it for the first time, others regulars--continues to crescendo.  I truly hope this will only require a course adjustment and a return to the original emphasis on quality, value, and community.  But right now, the Ray’s empire is perilously close to falling off the cliff from neighborhood greatness to mass-dining mediocrity.

Ray's the Steaks on Urbanspoon