Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hidden Treasures

I wouldn’t say I’m a world traveler or a gourmand by any means, but I have certainly eaten in enough places to know that some of the best food can be found in places other than fine dining establishments. Food trucks, airports, holes-in-the-wall kiosks—you can get some damn fine eats in some unexpected places.

Unexpected Snack Joy
For example, the best buffalo popcorn shrimp I ever had was at a tiny gate-side bar in the Knoxville, TN airport. I don’t eat a lot of popcorn shrimp, as it’s generally bready, greasy, and tasteless—what my friend Andy calls “breaded shapes.” But back in ’96, my boss and I had some time to kill before our flight to DC, so we went to the bar for a beer and some snacks. The regular bar food options were on the menu, so I decided on the shrimp.

And what a snack they were. Just enough breading to be crispy, but not heavy. Although they were small, they were meaty and still tasted like shrimp, not just fry grease. And the buffalo hot sauce had actual flavor, not just heat—vinegary, peppery, and zingy. I’m salivating right now.

Sadly, these will always be associated in my mind with JonBenét Ramsey, as the story of her disappearance was on the news as we sat there in the bar. I probably need therapy because of it. Or more shrimp.

Sandwich Des Dieux
On foreign soil, I found the best sandwich known to mankind. I was on a trip to Paris with my sisters and my mom. My younger sister, Sarah, was part of a dance/performance art piece that was part of an arts festival going on, so Mom, Maria, and I decided to go see her. It was Maria’s first trip to Paris, and I was eager to make sure she had a great time

We were staying in a small hotel in the 5th Arrondissement on the rue des Ecoles, not far from the Seine, Notre Dame, and Ste. Michel—a great central location for sightseeing and getting around on Metro. We quickly discovered a little café/bar around the corner where we could get coffee and pastries for breakfast before setting off on our adventures. There were plenty of restaurants recommended by my guidebook that were within walking distance (including one Brasserie Balzar, where we saw NBC’s David Greggory dining with his family, speaking perfect French, and being very tall). And we had already introduced Maria to the joys of Nutella at the crêperie by the Centre Pompidou. But it was when we went across the street from the hotel to the tiny snack/newspaper kiosk in search of a quick snack that I was transported.

Let me talk to you about the jambon beurre. It’s ham. And butter. On bread. Simple enough, nothing amazing, right? Au contraire, mon frère. This was thinly sliced French country ham that must’ve come from very happy pigs. I don’t normally love ham—find it too salty—but this had the smooth flavor and gentle fattiness of prosciutto, but thicker. And the butter: unsalted, slightly sweet, super creamy. Ho, man. And as if that weren’t enough, in place of the usual crusty baguette, this sandwich des dieux came on a soft, slim roll that was just slightly sweet, perfectly blending with the porky meat and creamy butter. I thought Maria was going to lose her mind.

She said she tried to recreate it at home, but you just can’t get the same ingredients in, say, Central Washington that you can in Paris. I found a jambon beurre at Marvelous Market in DC, and while it’ll do in a pinch, the baguette is too hard, and they put cornichons in it. I like cornichons as a rule, but they are not in my memory, so they do not belong in my sandwich.

Noodles for the Soul
Speaking of finds on my home turf, it was a chilly, rainy day when Ali and I decided to see a movie. We got tickets to whatever it was at the Gallery Place cinema, which is just on the edge of Chinatown. Ali insisted on taking me to a tiny little noodle shop she had been to recently, so after some walking up one street and down another, we finally found it—Chinatown Express.

You have to keep your eye peeled for this place, because not only is it teeny-weeny, but it’s also below street level. You’ll know you’re at the right place, though, when you see the red, roasted ducks hanging in the window, the fish and lobsters in the tank below them, and the old guy hand-stretching noodles behind the counter. He had a long jump rope of dough between his hands and was kind of boinging it up and down while simultaneously stretching the stuff like taffy. It’s an amazing thing to see, and I have no idea how it works.

What I do know, however, is that the food in this absolutely-not-one-frill-to-be-found place (avoid the bathroom, if you can) comes out fast, hot, and snorkilicious. We each got noodle soup, which almost slapped you in the face it was so fresh, and I think some dumplings as well. Ali likes to doctor her noodle soup with lots of hot sauce, and it wasn’t long before she was sniffling and red in the cheeks. But that was some damn fine soup, and the next time I feel chilled to the core, I’ll be back.

Provided I can find the joint, that is.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Eating and Yelling

It’s football season! While that usually means months of nail-biting and near heart attacks for us Redskins fans, it also means a chance to get together with the Usual Suspects almost every Sunday for beers, burgers, and camaraderie. Every year an e-mail goes around before the regular season first game to decide where we’re going to watch the games this year. We don’t always go to the same place, but we do establish a “home base” where we become regulars for four or five months of the year.

Herewith, a list of some of my favorite places for eating, drinking, and screaming at large men who can’t hear me.

TS Muttley’s
Good old Muttley’s is gone now, and it’s really kind of a shame. It was a shithole, the bartender was always hung over, and the sliders were always burnt, no matter how many times I asked for them medium rare. But they had a bunch of TVs, and if you got there first, you could dictate which one showed your game. The beer selection was crap, but the bartender Hernando* was friendly and generous with the rally shots of Jamison’s. And it was right down the street from my apartment. We frequented Muttley’s for most of the 2008 season, and then one Sunday it was just closed. For good. No warning.


Farewell, Muttley's. I hardly knew ye.

So we turned to…

The Reef
This place originally opened as a dining destination with exceptional beers and organic, sustainable ingredients. Over the years the ownership and chefs and menus have changed, and The Reef (so named because of its many aquariums full of colorful fish) has become more of a neighborhood bar. Nothing wrong with that, especially since its commitment to organic food remains the same. The beer selection is still nicely varied, and the appearance of wings on the menu (and TVs above the bar) make it a fine football venue. Plus, I’ve been going to The Reef since it opened, so I know the bartenders. Which never hurts.

Maddy’s Bar & Grille
I stumbled across Maddy’s last year when looking for a new place to go (after the demise of Muttley’s). I noticed that Timberlake’s, a bar I used to frequent back in the day, had closed and that a new place was opening soon—right before the season started! I looked Maddy’s up online when it opened, and the reviews on Yelp were pretty good, so I suggested it to the gang.

It was a good suggestion.

In addition to a nice (if not large) beer selection, Maddy’s had GREAT food. (Which is a bit surprising, considering that the chef’s a Dallass [tm Vlad] fan.**) The wings took a little while to perfect, but now they come in a bunch of different varieties. The burgers are big and juicy and properly cooked, and served on brioche buns, and the sliders are just as good, but smaller, and served with onion strings that are KILLA. The flatbreads are a nice change of pace from the usual bar menu—try the pesto/gouda/chicken one. And the fries, you guys.

The fries.

You can get regular or sweet potato fries, and they come in a big cone and are served with your choice of dipping sauces. Truffle cream. Horseradish cream. Pesto aioli. Chipotle cream. (There’s a roasted eggplant one, too, but I don’t know how it is, because why would you want eggplant on your fries? Maybe that’s a Dallass thing.) Make sure to ask for them crispy, though—the doneness can be a little hit or miss.

Maddy’s also has a good brunch menu, in case it’s a 1:00 game and you want to get there early. And if you do, Chris will make you a very nice bloody mary, with the spiciness to your liking, because he rules.

And then there are our back-up/specialty places:

Pour House
This is where you go if you are a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. I don’t know how it became a destination for the black-and-gold-ers, but if you go there, you can expect to be surrounded by a very loud sea of Stillers fans. The Pour House has plenty of specialty beers, in addition to the regular stuff (including Yuengling, of course). The food is fine, if not adventurous—the notable exceptions being pierogis and the “Three Rivers Primanti-Style Kolbassi & Cheese,” which is a giant sausage sandwich with fries RIGHT IN IT. You will leave the Pour House full and deaf.

Bar Louie
This big ol’ sports bar in Gallery Place boasts one million TVs and loaded tots—tater tots topped with queso, scallions, and… (wait for it) BACON. Other than that, there’s not much to recommend this place. The service is shitty, to the point where we had to threaten to leave last year when they said they weren’t going to turn off the music and turn on the sound when the game came. This when the bar was FULL of football fans who were obviously there to watch the games. Stupid. I’m really just including it here because of the tots. They’re that good.

The Corner Pub
This little joint in Silver Spring, which I’m fairly sure has been there since the dawn of time, is pretty much as “sports bar” as you can get, and not in an ESPN Zone kind of way. There are pennants and flags and pictures from the various local teams all over the place, and TVs aplenty. The beer selection covers everything from Miller Lite to Smithwick's, and the menu is groaning with the food you want in a sports bar—wings, burgers, pizza. Get there early, though—this neighborhood joint fills up FAST. Don’t expect fancy, but do expect friendly.

Unless you’re a Dallass fan.

* A one-act play about Hernando:
Gary: What’s his name?
Me: Hernando.
Gary: The bartender.
Me: Yeah. Hernando.
Gary: What’s the bartender’s name?
Gary: He looks like an Eric.

** JK. Kisses, Carlos!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Revolutionary Soup

On the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA, (a pedestrian mall with loads of little shops and eateries), there are lots of places to get your comfort food on. But on a recent visit I was introduced (thanks, Tate!) to a hidden gem that I can’t wait to get back to.

Revolutionary Soup is tucked away on a little side street with an unassuming entrance. (Just look for the tattooed kids—although they’re kind of everywhere down there.) Through the door and down the stairs, you’ll find yourself in a brick-walled, wooden-floored, below-street-level mecca of lunchtime happiness. The menu is chalked up on blackboards behind the register, and it’s pretty varied. Fortunately, the friendly hipsters behind the counter are very nice about letting you taste before you order.

Tate, bless his brave, “ketchup is my salsa” soul, asked for a taste of the Spicy Chicken Tortilla soup, and actually did end up ordering a small container of it—it was that good. (He wasn’t actually able to finish it before the heat got to be too much for him, but he did enjoy what he got through.) Megan got the Creamy Rosemary Potato soup, which was as good as it sounds. And I, because I am drawn to the word “curry,” ordered the Lamb Curry soup. Chunky with potatoes, lentils, and hunks of lamb and garnished with yogurt to temper the heat, it was a lovely little visit to the Mediterranean on a chilly grey day.

Prices are incredibly reasonable, portions are sane, and plenty of options are available for the veg/vegans. The well-stocked cooler features a variety of sodas and beer (including Tetley’s Draught, yay!). And you can even order online for pickup later—very nice.

The menu also features a bunch of salads, sandwiches, and specials that I can’t vouch for, but if the soups are anything to go by, the other stuff is probably worth a look.

Soup may not sound like something particularly revolutionary, but this little college town joint makes it something special. Stop in the next time you’re driving down 64.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cupcake Heaven

I'm not usually a huge fan of the cupcake -- can take 'em or leave 'em -- but holy shitballs, this is amazing. It's a dark chocolate cupcake with some kind of peanut butter-caramely goo inside, topped with a thick peanut butter frosting.

Topped with bacon.

When I die, I want to go to there.

Cupcake courtesy of Buzz Bakery in Alexandria.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Top Chef Coming to DC?

Oh my god oh my god oh my god...

There's a rumor going around that Season 7 of Top Chef will be filming in DC! Can I get a "SQUEEEEE!" Eater National says:

The folks at Bravo have yet to make it official, but the Washington Post's gossip column reports that the new season of of Top Chef will be filming in Washington D.C. The city seems like a perfect pick — not only does it have a massive Whole Foods, but there are also a lot of former cheftestants who live in the area, and of course, there's the whole Obama factor.

This is awesome for a number of reasons, not least because it will finally give DC the notoriety it deserves as a serious food town.

It is also my opportunity to finally usurp Padma's throne. Starting mastermind planning now. Ideas/henchmen welcome.

Also: Colicchio? Saddle up, pal. Rowr!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Eating Las Vegas

I recently returned from my first “for fun” trip to Las Vegas. I’d been to Sin City twice before for work, but never just to kick around, and not for over 10 years. Turns out Vegas can be a pretty fun place if you don’t mind parting with your hard earned. Also turns out that you can find some damn good eating there!

Actually, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the last season of Top Chef was filmed there. But the last time I was in LV we ate at a lot of meh restaurants and those weird café/diner-ish places where you can get breakfast anytime (“I’ll have the pancakes in the Age of Enlightenment”) and play Keno while you wait. I’m sure those places still exist, but we, happily, did not have to encounter them.

My merry gang stayed in New York New York, which is one of the more reasonably sized hotels in Vegas. (I actually could find my elevator!) The part of the casino that is not covered in slots and tables is set up like a city sidewalk, which is a cute way to do it. There was a sort of food-courty “neighborhood” where you could get a wiener or a slice or a coffee, and there were also some bigger, nicer restaurants (Il Fornaio and Gallaher’s) and an Irish bar called Nine Fine Irishmen (none of whom I found, sadly). Ali and I were happy to discover that Il Fornaio’s café had great coffee and pastries in the morning—no buffets for us!

New York New York is also directly across the Strip from the MGM Grand, which, along with Mandalay Bay, houses a good number of the city’s finer restaurants—places founded by some of the world’s best-known chefs. It was here that we ended up on our first night, and after passing Joel Roubouchon’s L’Atelier and Michael Mena’s Nob Hill Tavern, we settled on Wolfgang Puck’s Bar and Grill. We all wanted a good meal, but nothing too fancy, and this fit the bill nicely. After getting some initial attitude from the hostess, (whatever, cow, do you want our money or not?), we sat down for a perfectly nice meal. My chopped roasted vegetable salad was pretty good, if a little mushy (EGGPLANT, bleh). Heather’s ricotta gnocci were somehow light and dense at the same time, and my meat-covered wood grilled pizza was a whole lotta comfort. Patti’s mussels were delicious and vast, and Ali and Alex both seemed to enjoy their salmon. Was our meal off the chain? No, but everything was very enjoyable and our waitress was the bomb.

Oh, but the homemade truffled potato chips with Maytag blue cheese almost made me start crying.

The next day, Ali, Heather, and I decided to take a walk down to the Bellagio to see the Chihuly ceiling, and managed to work up a bit of an appetite going halfway up the Strip and back. So we decided to see what the Nine Fine Irishmen had to offer. We didn’t want anything too much, since we were going to dinner in the Venetian that night and then to see Blue Man Group. How about some nice light fried sausages and fried taters and beer cheese dip? Ah, who cares. Vegas is a city of excess anyway, right?

After that little snack (and several beers) we did a little gambling (read: losing, if you’re me), then got changed and headed over to the Venetian. Patti had an Italian restaurant in mind that she wanted us to check out, so we followed her to Canaletto, so named (presumably) because it’s on the “canal” that runs through the joint. I started with a simple salad of greens and carrots and then moved on to the saffron risotto with asparagus and chicken. It was pretty nommilicous. Patti scored, though, with a veal osso bucco OF THE GODS.

I was feeling a little iffy in the tummy area the next day, so I wasn’t all that into the idea of going to the raw bar at Harrah’s with Patti and Alex for lunch. That changed after some losing and free cocktails, so off we went in our cab, which was driven by Carlos Santana (who does a fine Tom Jones impression, I’ll have you know). And so began my day of eating things I normally don’t.

We wound our way through the down-at-heel-ish casino and eventually found three empty seats at the Oyster Bar at Penazzi. Now, I do not normally enjoy the raw oyster, but regular readers will remember my self-dares, so I decided to go for it. And you know what? They were really good! Don’t ask me what kind they were—all I know is that they were a good, Goldilocks size and they were pleasantly briny and not at all gritty. Yay me! Patti also ordered us some Oysters Rockefeller, which were an interesting surprise. Cooked oysters with spinach and cream and cheese? Huh. Liked ‘em, though. Enormous tempura prawns, a spicy tuna roll, and a hearty bouillabaisse rounded out our shared seafood-stravaganza. For the moment.

After some more bar time and gambling back at NYNY, and after Patti won the friggin’ JACKPOT at Keno, Patti, Alex, Mike, and I headed off to this out-of-the-way sushi place that Patti raved about. Now, I myself am not a fan of the sushi, having been overexposed to it the first time out (urchin, Fred? Really?), but Heather was going to a show and Ali took herself out for a big steak, so I decided to tag along. I don’t really know anything about ordering sushi, so I just winged it and let the rest of the gang do the honors.

This was some damn good sushi, y’all. The rolls were pretty ginormous, but everything was fresh and flavorful and very satisfying, which is saying something for a fish place in a strip mall in the middle of a desert. I’m still not excited about the giant pieces of raw fish (is that sashimi or the other thing?)—seems too much like eating a tongue (and not in a good way)—but I am all about some of those rolls now! Sister Terrifyah, not so much.

So that was Vegas. It’s a weird, weird place, but you can eat really, really well there.

Oh, and for our last dinner there, Heather, Ali, and I went to craftsteak, Tom Colicchio’s joint. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

RW 2010 Part 2 – Café Atlantico

For my second foray into Winter 2010 Restaurant Week, I really wanted to go somewhere I’d never been but had always wanted to try. Rasika was booked (damn you, Rasika, and your awesome popularity!), but I managed to find a table for four at a decent time at Café Atlantico. This Latin-themed restaurant is one of the many excellent offerings that innovative Spanish food weirdo Jose Andres has given Washington DC. It’s also the home of Minibar, a six-seat tasting “room” where the Andres team showcases their mad molecular gastronomy skillz (yo). Minibar is next to impossible to get into, and it’s wicked expensive, but I was happy enough to be going to its host restaurant.

I got off the Metro on this cold, blustery Wednesday night and made my way to where I thought the restaurant was supposed to be. However, Café Atlantico is on one of those weird Brigadoon streets that DC has so many of—streets that don’t appear where they’re supposed to, change in the middle of an intersection, disappear entirely—so I got a little turned around. Fortunately, I was early, so no big, but unfortunately, I was in some kickass heels, so that was a little more walking than I’d wanted to do. Anyway, I finally found it and the place was buzzing, but after the hostess took my coat I managed to snag a barstool so I could have a cocktail and wait for the rest of the gang.

As mentioned above, Jose Andres is known for his crazy experimenting with food, and this goes for cocktails as well. The bar features something called the “Magic Mojito,” and it is by far one of the cooler things I’ve ever seen. The mixologist (so much more than just a bartender) sticks a big wad of cotton candy in an up glass, mixes the mojito concoction, and then pours it over the cotton candy, causing it to disappear in an instant. So cool. And not overly sweet, surprisingly. Gary ordered one of these when he got there. I had a pisco sour, which was yummy and strong, and Sister Terrifyah had a caipirinha. She’s crazy like that.

Heather and Roland arrived (poor Ali was sick with a particularly tenacious cold), and as the place had gotten very busy since I first checked in with the hostess, there was a bit of a wait for our table. No big deal, though—gave us time another cocktail at the bar! After about 20 minutes the hostess came and got us and led us to our table on the top floor of the restaurant—and we could look directly into Minibar! That’s about as close as I’m going to get any time soon, so it was pretty cool.

Our very friendly waiter, Bob (that wasn’t his name, but I don’t remember what it was) showed up to give us the RW menu, which was pretty short—just four starters, four entrees, and two desserts to choose from. That was a little disappointing, but what was on there looked pretty friggin’ good, so we got over it.

Gary ordered the celery root soup, which prompted a discussion about the difference between celery root and celeriac. (Turns out they’re the same thing. We learned!). The presentation was a nearly empty bowl with a dollop of yogurt sprinkled with a tiny bit of caviar, into which Bob then poured the creamy soup. Gary made many yummy sounds. Heather and Roland both ordered the tuna ceviche with coconut milk and avocado and made them disappear (more magic!). I got the Dominican conch fritters. I had had fried conch in a bar in Ft. Lauderdale which were awesome, but these were so much awesomer. Inside the lightly fried coating was a piece of the shellfish, and somehow some kind of chowder/gravy liquid. How you fry liquid, I don’t know, but it was amazing. They came with what looked like little steamed dumplings, but the “skin” was actually made from jicama and the filling was crazy creamy avocado goo.

Oh, I forgot—we started the whole thing off with guacamole that was made fresh at our table. Other places do this as well, but this was so much better. Rosa Mexicano can go straight to hell.

For entrées, we were all leaning towards meat. I was vacillating between the duck and the flatiron steak, but in the end the beef won out. You guys. It was CRAZY good. The meat sat on a fluffy pile of potato “espuma”—basically really whipped potato puree—and was accompanied by haricots verte with sautéed mushrooms, garlic, and plenty of butter, I’m here to tell you. The meat was cooked beautifully, with just enough char from the grill. Gary and Heather also got the steak, while Roland went for the duck confit with Brussels sprouts, apples, and raisins. Yumblies.

The dessert choices were warm chocolate cake or sorbet. The hell? We all ordered the cake, because we are not insane. (In fact, Bob told us that he had served something like 94 tables, and only 12 or so ordered the sorbet for dessert.) Don’t get me wrong—I love a sorbet, but not when the words “warm” and “chocolate” are on the menu, and especially since I had shortchanged myself at Kellari Taverna.

Check this business out:

That island of chocolate cake, sitting the middle of a chocolate mousse sea, was actually a volcano with flowing chocolate lava inside. Uh muh gah. The banana goo I did not care for, but the rest was incredible, and very nearly killed me.

It was a great evening, for which I was very glad. Our waiter was friendly and attentive without being obnoxious or hovery, and was happy to explain what the Minibar guy was doing when he came up to get some dry ice. The food was just lovely, even though the choices were few. And the company, of course, was terrific.

Wines (chosen by Roland, who I will always defer to):
Alcena Monastrell 2007, a Spanish Jumilla aged in oak
Crios Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendoza, Argentina

I’m looking forward to going back to Café Atlantico, especially for their Latin “dim sum” brunch. I’ll let you know.