Friday, December 4, 2009

Bryan Voltaggio is a Dirty Liar

A couple of weeks ago my friend Roland said to me, “It’s too bad you’re not going to be here the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I have the chef’s table in the kitchen at Volt.” To which I replied, “I’ll be back on Saturday!” And so began on of the most spectacular dining experiences of my life so far.

A little background: Volt is a restaurant in Frederick, MD, that is co-owned and chef-ed by one Bryan Voltaggio. Bryan (I call him Bryan) is also one of the final three contestants on this season of Top Chef, and he always does really innovative, interesting food on the show. It’s hotly debated who is going to win this season—all the finalists are great contenders. Volt has also received much high praise as one of the best restaurants in the DC area. So clearly this was not an opportunity I was going to pass up.

Oh, and Bryan’s also super dreamy.

I got all duded up and arrived at Kim and Andy’s house at 7:45 or so, having been told that the limo (limo!) would be picking us up at 8:15. Greg and Sally were already there, so we hung out in the kitchen with some wine and cheeses, and Kim and I tried not to squee too much about the prospect of meeting Bryan. “What if he’s not there? Do you think he’ll be there? I bet he’ll be there. I bet he came home for the holiday. Oh my god, what if he’s there?” Finally, just before our voices reached teenage-girl pitch, I got a text from Roland saying he was two minutes away. We all got our coats, said goodbye to Amelie and Grandma, and went outside.

I had never been in a limo before—went to proms in Honda Civics or my date’s dad’s Caddy—so I didn’t know what to expect. Here’s the thing: limos are ridiculous! Blue starry lights on the ceiling, shag carpeting, bottom-lit bar along one side, big wrap-around seat—absolutely hilarious. Roland, being the wine guy and generous soul that he is, had brought along some very nice champagne. It was quite an experience, being driven through Maryland while drinking fancy wine, laughing with pals, and rocking out to Motley Crue. This is the way to travel, folks.

We finally arrived in Frederick, and after some joking about stopping at Sheetz for subs and chips, made our way down the main street of the very pretty Old Town area. The trees are all decorated with white lights, which just added to the special feeling of the evening. The restaurant is in a massive brick mansion, and while it’s quite grand on the outside, it’s very clean and modern inside. Roland checked in with the hostess, who took our coats and then guided us past the main dining room and the private party room to the small kitchen dining room in the back. I went in first.

You guys? Bryan. Was. Right. THERE.

He was talking to the people at the table next to ours. I looked at Kim. She looked at me. We may have both peed a little right then. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god,” went my brain, although I don’t think I said anything out loud. My face must have been betraying my thoughts, though, because Roland gave me a look that said, “All right, calm down.” You would have thought all of Duran Duran were there (except Andy Taylor, because he sucks).

Once we were seated, a tiny little boy wearing his father’s suit came over to explain the menu and take our cocktail orders. (He was actually the junior sommelier, and I shouldn’t make fun, but seriously, he was very wee. And 23. How does one become a sommelier when one has only been legal to drink for two years?) We asked him for recommendations, and he told us which were his favorites. (The Presbyterian and the Pomegranate Fizz, in case you’re curious.) We had decided not to go with the wine pairings with dinner, but rather to order off the wine list. This is what you do when you’re out with Roland.

Okay, so the main event. The kitchen menu is six courses, plus an amuse bouche and yummy breads. Here’s what we had:

Amuse bouche – tiny meringue shell filled with guacamole, tiny tuna tartare with sesame oil “air”, tiny falafel with lamb heart:

Shiitake veloute with pine nut sabayon, chili oil, and basil:

Goat cheese ravioli with butternut squash, sage brown butter, and chanterelle mushrooms

Monkfish tail with ruby quinoa, black trumpet mushrooms, salsify, and prosciutto broth

Iberico red wattle pork belly with cranberry beans, calypso beans, red ribbon sorrel, and pancetta chip

Beef strip with ratte potatoes (I don’t know), broccoli puree, dragon carrot, and garlic “transparency”:

Textures of chocolate – white chocolate ganache, milk chocolate ice cream, cacao bean crisp, and chocolate caramel:

Domaine Humbrecht Pinot d’Alsace (Roland, correct me on this?)
Hartford Court Pinot Noir, Russian River
Saviah Cellars Une Valee red, Walla Walla

Everything was absolutely exquisite. If I had to find fault with anything, I’d say that the ravioli was slightly more al dente than I like, and the monkfish was just ever so slightly overcooked and a little tough. But the shiitake veloute was UNBELIEVABLE, the sage brown butter sauce was the stuff of dreams, and the beef was probably the most perfectly cooked piece of meat I’ve ever had. Just stunning, stunning food.

And the service! The waiters are all very young, but whoever’s the boss of them has those kids trained. Everyone’s dishes arrived at the same time, and the team of waiters, acting on some invisible signal (I know, because I was watching), put the dishes down in front of us at the exact same time. Gorgeous to watch. Oh, and they all wear eggplant-colored Chuck Taylors, because that’s what Bryan wears.

After we finished dessert, I begged Kim, who had been making friends with our various waiters all night, to ask one them if Bryan was still there (he was nowhere to be seen just then). She said, “You ask! I’m not asking!” So I took a last swig of wine and screwed up my courage.

“Is the chef still here? Do you think he could come out and say hello to the birthday boy?” (Read: “take a picture with me?”) I was assured that yes, he was still there, and the waiter would go see if he was free.

He was free.

When he came out I almost fainted, but managed not to make too much of a fool of myself. We chatted with him a little bit about the food, Kim asking him about the sabayon and why chili oil and not siracha and things like that. He was incredibly gracious and professional, and just an all-around nice guy. I asked if I could take a picture of Roland and him, and even though he must be getting sick of people taking his photo, he said, “Sure, of course!” He and Roland were posed together and I was about to take the photo, when Kim said, “Jenny, you get in there too!” Not being one to disobey orders, I took up position on the other side of Bryan. And I put my damn arm around his waist! Holy crap, what was I thinking?! He didn’t seem to mind, though, although all I could think was, “I’m touching Bryan Voltaggio. I’m touching Bryan Voltaggio.” He’s a pretty slim dude, too, in case you were wondering.

So after all that, TJ (the tiny wine guy) came by to see if we wanted any after-dinner drinks or coffee. We didn’t, but one of the guys said something about wishing he had a cigar. Says TJ, “Let me get you our cigar menu.” What does this restaurant NOT have? So the boys ordered cigars and we all repaired to the patio so they could enjoy them. TJ accompanied us out there to cut and light the cigars, and in the meantime told us about his aspirations to own his own restaurant one day. He was just a delight to talk to. He brought us chairs and got our coats for us. He brought the bill out to us with a plate of teeny tiny “ice cream sandwich” profiterols, and didn’t rush us to pay, even though we were one of the last groups in the place. And after we’d paid the bill and the guys were finishing their cigars, out TJ comes one more time.

“Here are some pumpkin cranberry muffins for you all to take home.”

I mean, come on. Just a lovely touch. That right there is how you get a repeat customer.

It was a perfect evening. Good friends, good wine, a little celebrity sighting, and exquisite food. Thanks, Roland, for letting me be a part of it!

Oh, and the dirty liar part? While we were talking to the chef, Roland said, “Well, we hope you win Top Chef,” and Bryan replied, “I hope I win, too!” At which Kim or Andy or someone said, “You don’t know who won yet?” He said, “No, I don’t even know!” Which is when I sassed back, “You’re a dirty liar, you do too know!” Bryan laughed and said, “You’re right, I do know.”

I made Bryan Voltaggio laugh.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Behave Yourself!

Recently a list of 100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do was posted on the New York Times website, and boy, did it generate some commentary. While I definitely agree with some of the items, others I think are overkill—always bring the peppermill with the appetizer? Really?—and most of the list is really just a primer in good behavior. I know you didn’t ask, but it’s my blog, so here are my thoughts on some of these dos/don’ts.

3. Never refuse to seat three guests because a fourth has not yet arrived.
PLEASE. I have always found this to be unreasonable. If the majority of the party is there, seat us, especially if we tell you that the remaining one or two are parking or in the cab or something.

7. Do not announce your name. No jokes, no flirting, no cuteness.
The name thing doesn’t bother me. On the one hand, I’m not assuming we’re going to be buddies after my meal, but, if you’re an awesome waiter, I want to be able to commend you by name. But yeah, don’t flirt and don’t perform. That’s annoying.

12. Do not touch the rim of a water glass. Or any other glass.
OH MY GOD SERIOUSLY. I was at a gastropub this summer where the water comes in reusable antique glass bottles (very cool idea), but the runner picked up the bottle by ITS MOUTH when moving it to make room for our food. NO.

17. Do not take an empty plate from one guest while others are still eating the same course. Wait, wait, wait.
I’ve talked about this one before, so I’ll just say this: WORD. A thousand times, WORD.

41. Saying, “No problem” is a problem. It has a tone of insincerity or sarcasm. “My pleasure” or “You’re welcome” will do.
I know a lot of people get wound up about this, but I don’t see it as a big deal. “You’re welcome” is certainly more polite, but I’m not going to get bent out of shape over “NP.”

64. Specials, spoken and printed, should always have prices.
Please. I always assume that the special will be more than the regular entrees, but I’d like to know how much more.

84. Do not refill a coffee cup compulsively. Ask if the guest desires a refill.
Mother of pearl. This happened to me at brunch on Sunday. The waiter would sneak in behind me and pour more coffee without asking. All I wanted was maybe one or two cups of coffee to wake me up, but I ended up with like five. And I got charged for the refills. Not happy.

85. Never bring a check until someone asks for it. Then give it to the person who asked for it.
Eh. I don’t love it when the check just shows up, but I hate even more trying to find the server when we’re ready for it. I think it’s okay for the server to bring the check and just put it on the table with “I’ll take this whenever you’re ready.” That way I don’t have to hunt for him, but I also don’t feel rushed.

97. If a guest goes gaga over a particular dish, get the recipe for him or her.
What? No, this one is just weird. I think restaurants need to keep their awesome recipes a secret—that’s what makes the experiences so special. I have a friend who partly judges her dining experiences on whether the food is something she could not make at home. Handing out special recipes diminishes the fun.

A lot of this list is just common sense, but people do sometimes need reminding. The flip side of this, of course, is a behavior guide for restaurant patrons. I’ll start us off:

1. Do not treat your server like a servant or be rude. You’re entitled to good service, not to treat a fellow human being like shit. And if you do that and I’m on a date with you, you may be sure you’re not going to hear from me again and that I will tell everyone you’re a tool.

2. Do not snap your fingers at the server or bartender, or ever, EVER use “garçon.” Did you not see Pulp Fiction?

3. If something is wrong with your meal, speak up early. Don’t eat three-quarters of your entrée and then complain about it.

4. Don’t expect anything to be comped, even if it’s a special occasion or something wasn’t right with your order. Restaurants are businesses, and it’s not a great business model to give the product away. If something is comped, then that’s great, and you should be appropriately thankful. But don’t assume.

5. If you’re a large party, for heaven’s sake, bring some damn cash. Don’t hand the waiter the folder back with 27 different cards in it to split up the check. It creates chaos at the end of what was probably an enjoyable time out.

All right, that’s enough of my peevery for today. I just think people need to remember that going out to eat is an event, and should be fun. If we treat each other right, everyone wins!

What gets you? Hit me up in the comments!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

In the Kitchen with Dad

My dad was many things—a scientist, a Navy man, a husband, a shy Midwest guy, a lover of puns—but no one would really call him a chef. He traveled a lot with the Navy when we were kids, so Mom did most of the cooking. But once in a while, usually on a Saturday, maybe a rainy one, Dad would pull out his big binder of recipes and take over the kitchen. Sometimes his experiments went well—“experiments” because he was a scientist, after all—and some didn’t go quite as planned. But I loved being in the kitchen with him, even if it was just to watch.

I first thing I remember Dad making was beef stroganoff, which I didn’t like as a kid because of the mushrooms and the noodles, but I love it today. We only had that a few times, all special occasions, as I recall. He made pita bread (which we called “Arab bread”—hey, it was the 70s. Political correctness hadn’t been invented yet.), which always came out hard and crispy, instead of soft and pliable, no matter what he did. But it was still delicious with butter and honey. I can still see the little white rounds on squares of tin foil all over the kitchen counters. He could rock a pan of shit-on-a-shingle (creamed chipped beef on toast, for those of you not in the Navy). His experiment with bagels was an interesting one—I think the fact that the dough had to be boiled first really fascinated Dad and made him want to try it. They came out a little too doughy, but the kitchen smelled like a dream. His flank steak marinade is still my favorite, and he could slice that meat so thin that it was never, ever tough. He made soft pretzels once, and I had the hardest time trying to figure out how to make the knot shape when I was “helping” him.

But it was Christmas when Dad really shone in the kitchen. When we were younger, my grandmother would send us tins of her Christmas cookies—honey cookies, anise cookies, spritz, Brazil-nut bars, and a German molasses-based cookie called lebkuchen (or something like that). But as she (and we) got older, it probably became too much work, so Dad started baking our Christmas cookies. He was usually solo in the kitchen, and we would wander in and out to see where he was in the process. For a couple of weeks there was a bowl of some kind of dough in the refrigerator. We would sometimes help him out with rolling the dough or cutting out shapes. But the bulk of our job was to decorate the cookies when they were done. We did it as a family either on a Saturday or after dinner some night. We would all sit around the table, which was covered in brown paper, with bowls of green, pink, and white icing, green and red sugar, red hots, and those little silver balls. We kids tried to be as detailed, creative, and meticulous as possible, while Mom and Dad kept it pretty simple. But I know they had a great time watching what we came up with, and didn’t care that we licked our fingers as we went.

Ten years ago, we lost Dad very suddenly. Christmas that year was really hard, but my sisters still made honey cookies and lebkuchen. We still decorated the honey cookies around the kitchen table, and it was a wonderful time, but there was an empty chair, a lack of puns, and a hole in our lives that no amount of cookies could ever fill.

If your dad is still around, give him a hug or a call. Then go make some cookies.

1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup molasses
3/4 cup brown suger
1 egg
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp lemon rind
2 3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp soda
1 tsp each of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg
1/2 cup citron (candied fruit)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Bring honey and molasses to boil. Stir in egg, lemon juice, and rind, and add dry ingredients. Chill dough overnight. Roll to 1/4 inch think on lightly floured board; cut into squares. Bake 10-12 min at 400 degrees.
Makes 6 dozen. Store these cookies in a tightly covered tin. They lose their moisture pretty quickly, but that just means they’re extra good to dunk in tea.

Honey Cookies
1 egg
1/3 c sugar
2/3 c honey (8 oz)
1/2 c shortening, melted
2 3/4 cup flour
1 tsp soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla

Chill dough before rolling. Cut into festive shapes. Bake at 350 degrees until slightly brown. Test doneness by touching lightly.

Anise Cookies
1 ½ cup sugar
½ cup shortening
1 cup milk
1 whole egg + 1 egg white
5 cups flour
2 tsp ammonium carbonate
10-15 drops anise oil

Dissolve ammonium carbonate in milk; let sit overnight. Combine all ingredients. Refrigerate dough overnight. Roll dough to about 3/8 inch thick, and cut into shapes. Bake at 350 degrees until firm – about 8 minutes. (These cookies should not brown.)

For the honey and anise cookies, make icing with powdered sugar and milk and add food coloring. (Icing shouldn’t be too thick—should drop off a spoon.) Get your family together, find some kids, and ice cookies and decorate with colored sugar, red hots, nonpareils, or whatever you think is festive.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Food Memories

I was talking with my sister Maria recently and she reminded me of a restaurant we used to go to as kids in Annapolis, The Little Campus. We went there for birthdays and special occasions—Maria said, “I remember wearing my long dress there.” (Remember when a “long dress” was the height of glamour and formality?) I couldn’t tell you anything about the food, except that we always got to have Shirley Temples, and they had this roll-up cake that we always got for dessert. It was chocolate cake with either white frosting or ice cream, all rolled up like a Ho-Ho. I Googled the restaurant, and it appears, sadly, to have been replaced by an Irish bar. Don’t get me wrong—I like an Irish bar as much as the next person—but it was kind of sad to realize that a piece of my childhood was gone.

Our conversation got me thinking, though, about other food memories of my childhood. We went on a lot of summer car trips as a family, mostly driving up the East Coast to Maine or to visit Grandma and Grandpa in Ohio. Dad usually wanted to get started early in the morning, so we would head out right around dawn. The trade-off for this was that we would get donuts for breakfast. I’m not really a fan of the donut now, but as a kid it was a special treat—a decadent change from the usual breakfast of Product 19 (remember that cereal? No? Just me? Carry on.) or Cracklin’ Oat Bran. We’d drive for several hours, and we three girls in the back of the Volvo would bicker and color or do needlepoint (shut up, it was the 70s), and Mom would occasionally pass back a roll of Lifesavers. Everybody wanted the cherry one, of course. And when Lifesaver Lollypops made their debut—oh boy, was that a great day for candy-dom! (My dad the scientist told us about the Wint-o-Green trick—how, if you bit down on one in a dark room, green sparks would come out of your mouth. Then he told us why, but we didn’t care about that. I still don't. If you really want to know, look it up.)

If it was a summer trip, we’d stop around lunchtime at a rest stop, and Dad would pull out the big, clunky turquoise Coleman cooler with the squeaky latch, and the red jug of lemonade. (We had Kool-Aid extremely rarely, so sometimes Mom would surprise us with that.) Our picnics didn’t consist of pre-made sandwiches. We had whole loaves of Italian or sourdough bread, logs of baloney or salami, and hunks of cheddar and jack cheese. Dad would slice the meat and the cheese, and we’d rip off hunks of bread to make sandwiches. You could chase me down the street with baloney these days, but some taste and texture memory still lingers of those roadside sandwiches.

Eventually we would stop for the night at a Holiday Inn, which was exciting enough for a kid. Hotels meant swimming pools, watching TV in a big bed, Pepsodent toothpaste (which I loved the taste of, and no, I don’t know why we only used it when travelling), doing the Wint-o-Green trick, and eating in a restaurant. I loved eating in restaurants. (Harbinger of things to come, maybe?) There was so much choice and possibility, and they did things so differently than at home! They filled your milk glass all the way up to the tippy top, which for some reason I found fascinating. If you got chocolate pudding for dessert, it came in a fancy glass dish with a little blob of whipped cream on top. And everybody could have something different for dinner. Maria told me recently that she remembers always ordering chopped sirloin, because it made her feel “so grown-up.” I went through a period of only ordering fried shrimp, French fries, and Orange Crush. (I guess I wanted all my food to be the same color or something.) In my mind I did that for years, but it was probably only for a few weeks in Maine.

Trips to Grandma and Grandpa’s for holidays were even more wonderful, food-wise (although maybe not as exciting). We would get to their house in the afternoon and sit around talking and catching up while drinking Teem or strawberry soda (the height of exotic beverages, to my eight-year-old palate) from aluminum glasses and eating those rippled potato chips that came in the big can (Maria, brand, please?). I remember being so excited to go to Ohio for Thanksgiving because it meant we got to have “lumpy mashed potatoes!” What I didn’t realize then was that those were real potatoes, mashed by hand—we had instant “mashed potatoes” at home. I hope I didn’t offend my grandmother too much by pointing out the lumps. Breakfast (brunch, really) was a massive, extended affair, with Grandma’s cream coffee cake, pecan rolls, homemade bread, orange and applesauce donuts, eggs, sausages, actual butter, homemade jam—all the fixings of a good Midwest brunch. Grandma had these awesome glasses commemorating the Apollo missions, and I always tried to get the milk lined up with the top edge of the blue flag graphic. (I was utterly thrilled to find the same glasses in an antique store years ago. I have one in my bathroom right now.)

Looking back, even though I guess we probably didn’t have a lot of money, and Mom wasn’t exactly a gourmand, we were always well-fed on pretty normal food, like any normal family. But it was the special times—rolled-up cake, grenadine “cocktails,” fresh bread in fresh air, sparkly red soda, homemade apple dumplings and ice cream—that probably made me start appreciating food. And for that, I thank my family.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Restaurant Week Summer 2009, Part 2 (Electric Boogaloo)

For our second Restaurant Week 2009 adventure, Ali had booked a table at Art and Soul, a southern restaurant owned by celebrity chef Art Smith. I think it’s safe to say that if you’re going to a celebrity chef’s restaurant, you shouldn’t expect said chef to actually be in the kitchen. He wasn’t, but whoever was did a pretty fine job. But even though the food was good, we didn’t have the best experience.

I got off the Metro and took a mildly frightening walk through a sort of dodgy neighborhood (conveniently located right by the DC courthouse) to the restaurant in the Liaison Hotel. (If you decide to go and take Metro, get off at Union Station. Less scary.) The rest of the girls weren’t there yet, so I went to the bar to have a drink and wait.

Now, I don’t know if it was because it’s a hotel bar or if it was because it was Restaurant Week, but the bar was crowded and noisy, no thanks to the TV showing the Little League World Series. I managed to find a free barstool, though, and ordered The Standard (Ketel martini, slightly dirty, three olives). The martini that arrived was way too salty, but the bartender seemed more interested in talking to her friends who had just come in than checking in with her customers, so I just took small sips while perusing the menu and listening to the two drunk suits next to me try to one-up each other on the “who knows more important people” scale. Gotta love DC!

Ali, Heather, and Kim arrived, and we were shown to our table. It was right inside the door, and spitting distance from the hostess stand. Not the most ideal location, but at least it was August and we wouldn’t have to worry about a cold breeze every time the door opened.

The waiter came and offered us our water choices (we went with DC’s finest tap) and delivered the wine list and menus. After we’d had a few minutes to peruse and discuss, he came back and asked if we had any questions.

Me: How is the salmon cooked?
Guy: However you want it.
Me (in my head): Really? You don’t want to tell me how the chef recommends it? Huh. Okay.

Ali: What would you recommend?
Guy: Oh, everything’s great.
Ali (in her head): Thanks, that’s really helpful.

Come on. When a person asks for a recommendation in a restaurant, that’s what she’s looking for! Tell me your preferences. Ask me about mine. I know you eat the food there. Help me out.

That unhelpful exchange over, we asked for a few more minutes to decide. We settled on our RW choices and decided to try a couple of sides from the regular menu. After all, when you’re in a southern restaurant, you don’t NOT try the mac ‘n’ cheese and the fried green tomatoes.

Turns out we should’ve passed on the latter. They were heavy with fried batter and pretty much tasteless, and the remoulade on the side didn’t help much. The mac ‘n’ cheese was pretty awesome, though.

Anyway, on to our actual meals. Heather, Kim, and I all started with the arugula salad with goat cheese, watermelon pickles, and blackberry vinaigrette, which was very good, but maybe a little heavy on the arugula. Ali had the restaurant’s version of a Caesar, with grilled hearts of romaine, shaved parm, and a white anchovy. She loved it. Nice starts for all.

I went ahead and ordered the salmon, mostly because it came with pea risotto and I am powerless to resist the R word. I asked for it medium, and it did indeed come out cooked perfectly all the way though—nice and flaky and moist. It also came with a little salad of yellow beets and a sauce of preserved lemon vinaigrette. Really good. The risotto was a little on the gummy side, but it was very flavorful, and the peas gave it a nice green-ness and a little pop.

Kim also had the salmon, while Heather had the roast chicken (which I was tempted to order, because it came with a goat cheese drop biscuit, and who wouldn’t want to try that? No one, that’s who.) and Ali went with the pork chop with stone fruit (peaches, nectarines, plums, stuff like that) relish. Both had good things to say about their entrees—Ali so much so that she was a little reluctant to share.

We were pretty much utterly stuffed by now, but as I recently learned from Jeffrey Steingarten’s fun book, The Man Who Ate Everything, there’s a difference between hunger and appetite. I certainly wasn’t hungry, but I still had an appetite for my lemon pudding cake (PUDDING!) with blueberry sauce. It was nice and light and a lovely ending to that big meal.

Sounds good, right? “What’s the problem?” you may be asking.

The problem was the service. Our waiter never came back to check on us, to see how everything was, not even once. Isn’t that like lesson #1 in waiter school? I mean, I know it was Restaurant Week, but we had a late reservation and the room wasn’t full or busy. Guy just disappeared on us. Also (pet peeve alert), plates were taken away before everyone was finished, WHICH I HATE. It rushes the people who are still eating, and leaves the other people just sitting around. God. It might not seem like that big of a deal, but when I’m out for dinner, I’m not just there for the food, I’m there for the whole experience. If you want a good tip and you want me to come back, make me feel cared-for. This is not rocket surgery, people.

Happily, a comment card came with the check, which Ali filled out and handed directly to the manager. To his immense credit, he came back promptly and apologized for the service and told us very sincerely that he would address the issues with the staff. He offered us complimentary after-dinner drinks, which we declined on the grounds of imminent explosion if we ingested one more molecule, and urged us to come back. I guess he’d conferred with the hostess as well, because she then came over and handed us each her business card, inviting us to come back any time and telling us she’d find us “a nice handsome Jamaican waiter” to serve us. Well, sold!

That’s how you make a customer feel good.

And now, a few final thoughts on Restaurant Week from Karina:

(17:11:22) Karina: I've got a post about that: Indebleu: blows.

(17:11:36) Karina: The only reason to go there is for the cocktails.
(17:11:41) Karina: oh but the mac and cheese with bacon at Redwood is f*cking money

There you go.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day Love

Ah, Labor Day. Unofficial end of summer and official cookout time. Here’s how my Labor Day weekend went:
  • Green tomato and green apple tart with onions and gruyere, with a LARD crust because Andy is trying to kill me
  • Chicken sausages with spinach and feta
  • Salad of tomatoes and basil from Heather’s garden with feta and balsamic vinegar
  • Chistarra (Spanish sausage)
  • Homemade pork sausages with Thai spices
  • My awesome deviled eggs, with a sprinkling of Bacon Salt
  • Couscous with peas, carrots, and the merest touch of stuffed elephant
  • “Gazpacho” of pureed eggplant, tahini, and yogurt
  • Grilled pork skewers that had been marinating for a week in pineapple juice, Thai peppers, vinegar
  • Various pates and smelly cheeses
  • Caprese salad with yellow and orange heirloom tomatoes
  • Excellently grilled hanger steak marinated in homemade Korean marinade
  • Butterscotch “brownies”
  • Salad of tomatoes and basil from Ali’s garden with chevre, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar
  • Grilled chicken, marinated in olive oil and Italian herbs
  • More grilled hanger steak, marinated in olive oil and rosemary
  • Grilled okra from Heather’s garden
  • Chipotle mashed potatoes with sour cream and green onions
  • Various wines from various countries

I love a holiday weekend. And I sure do love my friends.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Restaurant Week Summer 2009, Part 1

I know that people have different feelings about Restaurant Week. Some think it’s the worst time to try a restaurant, with the limited menus and rushed or indifferent service, while others look at it as an opportunity to go to restaurants they normally might not be able to afford. I get that. I’ve had some awful experiences (Butterfield 9, I’m looking at you—oh wait, no I’m not because YOU CLOSED), and some wonderful ones (hi PS-7’s, love you!). But it’s a crap shoot I’m willing to roll the dice on.

(For those of you who don’t have RW in your area, the deal is that twice a year—winter and summer—local restaurants offer three-course meals for a flat rate, usually based on the year. For example, this year lunch was $20.09, and dinner was $30.09. Menus are usually abbreviated for RW, but some places do offer all of their regular dishes, and the price doesn’t include wine/beverages. So there you go. Moving on…)

Poste Moderne Brasserie (
I wasn’t expecting too much from this restaurant in the Hotel Monaco. I’d been there a couple of times for cocktails or brunch, and had had decent food, but nothing mind-blowing. So when Gary e-mailed to say he’d made reservations, I thought, “Eh, well, okay. It’s just 35 bucks, and it’s dinner out with friends.”

Tuesday night after a CRAPTASTIC day, I met up with Gary, Ali, and Heather at the bar before our reservation. Ali had some kind of cocktail with pureed mango, Heather had something with dark rum and cinnamon, Gary had a dark ’n’ stormy. I wasn’t in a mood to make a decision, so the bartender concocted something for me with Earl Grey-infused gin, St. Germain (elderflower liqueur), a little lemon, and a little soda water. A very nice way to calm the hell down and relax before dinner.

The hostess came over and told us our table was ready, and we settled in to our cushy booth (complete with pillows!) to go over the menu. Poste’s menu isn’t very long to begin with, so the RW menu didn’t take very long to peruse, but what was on there was intriguing.

Since it was a warm summer night, Heather and I opted for the heirloom tomato gazpacho with Dijon ice cream. (I’m guessing this involved liquid nitrogen, since I don’t think they probably keep a big tub of mustard ice cream in the back, but I may have just been watching too much Top Chef—a distinct possibility). This soup was amazing, and I will tell you that for free. And get this presentation: The food runner put down a large glass bowl in front of me that contained a small white scoop of the Dijon ice cream and two tiny grape heirloom tomatoes. Then the waiter swooped in with a small glass pitcher with the gazpacho—the tomato, peppers, onions, vinegar, and magic were all pureed together—and poured it into the bowl, garnishing it with fresh basil from the restaurant’s herb garden (gotta love that). The ice cream itself was unexpectedly good—you don’t normally expect things that are salty and mustardy to be creamy and cold—and when mixed with the soup, added just the right amount of richness. Gary and Ali both had an arugula salad with basil, mint, figs, parmesan, and sherry vinaigrette, and they both really dug it.

One thing happened, though, that really bugs me. The busboy came and took plates/bowls away before everyone was finished. I hate that, especially since on this night I was still enjoying my soup, and felt like I had to rush to finish, and that was not a bowl I wanted to rush through. The rest of the service was very nice, though—not overly familiar, but not stuffy, either. Plus the waiter was really cute.

All right, so entrees. Since the braised rabbit wasn’t on the RW menu and I didn’t feel like pasta, I went for the braised trotter, which the guy said is pork shank, but I believe is pied du cochon. Whatever it was, it rocked my comfort-needing soul. The meat was wrapped in a thin sheet of phyllo dough and rested on a bed of fresh greens (again from the garden), with a whole grain mustard sauce, and a dollop of onion marmalade on the side. The marmalade was a little sweet for my taste, but the whole thing worked really well together—the heartiness of the pork, the sass of the mustard, and the earthiness of the greens. Oh, and accompanying this was a very nice Oregon pinot noir, which you can never go too far wrong with.

Topping all that off was dessert. I wasn’t in the mood for something heavy after that pork shenaniganza, so I opted for the blueberry sorbet. Of course, that wasn’t just a scoop of icy blueberry goodness. Oh no. What came out was this gorgeous, deep purple spooning of the sorbet, accompanied by a scoop of almond ice cream (which was quite high in butterfat, I’m certain) and a dollop of hazelnut mousse. Oh my god, you guys.

Oh, and THEN! They came out with an assortment of house-made chocolate truffles with the bill. I don’t remember what they were, except one—white chocolate with lemon verbena.

This was a meal to ease a troubled soul, which it certainly did. Until I got home and got all pissed off again.

Next up: RW Part II -- Art and Soul

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Friday Night Bites

Friday night after a very insane workweek—hell, after a very insane Friday—it’s time to head out for Vanessa’s post-birthday happy hour and dinner. So Karina, Melissa, and I pile into Mel’s car and head out to meet Vanessa, Michael, and Alden in Alexandria for some drinkies and noms.

First order of business: Booze. Rustico is known for their beer selection, which makes Alden and Michael quite happy. I, however, am in need of something stronger after my week of not killing anyone, so I opt for my go-to—Ketel martini, slightly dirty, three olives. The edge effectively taken off, it’s time to look at the menu.

Rustico is also known for wood-oven pizzas, and Karina and I had been dreaming all day of the duck confit and cracklings pizza with brie and sautéed onions oh my god. Along comes the waitress, Karina orders, and we’re both so excited. Then the waitress gets a look on her face. Uh oh.

“Sorry, we’re out of duck.”

Did I just hear that right? Who runs out of duck? Especially when you have a pizza like that on the menu? “Out of duck.” Bah. Jerks.

All right, back to the menu. I spy something called “sesame crusted pickles,” which makes me curious. I ask the waitress what’s up and she tells me they’re basically fried pickles. I ask if they’re slices or if it’s a whole pickle (I’ll get to my reasons in a minute), and she says they’re slices. So I go for it.

They’re not slices, they’re spears.

Here’s the thing about fried pickles. If you’re going to do them, do them in THIN SLICES. I don’t know if you know this, but pickles are wet, and wet things don’t hold batter too well, and what does stick falls off after frying, leaving you with just a hot pickle, which is exactly what happened with these spears. And no one likes a hot pickle. (Insert your own joke here.) When the pickle is sliced thin, there’s less surface area to cover, so the batter sticks better. Best fried pickles I’ve ever had: The Penguin in Charlotte, NC. Go next time you’re in Charlotte. (You can tell them I sent you, but they won’t care.)

Two disappointments in a row—this is bumming me out. Will the third time be the charm? Let’s order another martini and find out!

I’m liking the look of the lamb short ribs, which Alden had ordered as his app while I was having my disappointing pickles. So I order them, while Karina, Alden, and Mel all get the mussels with white wine broth, bleu cheese, chorizo, and polenta, and Vanessa and Michael get a pizza with pancetta and bacon. (These are my people.)

Success! My ribs arrive and they’re quite literally falling off the bone. In fact, when I go to pick them up, the bone comes right out. Good sign. They’re slow roasted with smoky, sticky barbeque sauce that gets me licking my fingers, and they’re accompanied by a chickpea salad and minty yogurt sauce. The salad is a perfect balance for the rich meat and zippy sauce, and the yogurt isn’t too minty.

As I’m enjoying this, Karina, Alden, and Mel are all losing their minds over the mussels, and I have to admit, that polenta with the bleu cheese and chorizo business was INSANE. Polenta done wrong can be so bad, but this was ever so right. Karina would like me to tell you that she very nearly put her whole head in the bowl to lick up the last of the goo. And I would not have judged her for that.

So a successful dinner after a shaky start! What now?

Dessert, of course.

Vanessa is a big fan of the cupcake (of cake in general, really—or more specifically, of frosting), so it being her birthday sphere (TM Mr. Chileman) and all, we mosey across the street to Buzz Bakery, home of such delights at the Red Velvet Cupcake and the 9:30 cupcake, which is basically their reimagining of the Ding Dong (which I refuse to call “King Dons”). Tonight, Vanessa orders an individual red velvet cheesecake (which is so light it’s almost like mousse) and a tiny cupcake (birthday sphere, she can do what she wants). Melissa gets the caramel bread pudding, on which they pour EXTRA caramel sauce, I order peanut butter mousse tart. This is how I feel about it:

So the week ends up pretty well. Happy birthday girl? Yep.

Happy hour(s)? Indeed.

Happy tummy? Oh hell yes.



The Penguin:

Photos courtesy of Melissa!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Self-Dare -- #1

I recently made a mid-year’s resolution to try foods that I have previously been too chicken (heh) to try. Whether it’s organ meats or entire fish or things that I feel on a primal level shouldn’t be eaten—I’m going to do my best to go for it. (I’m not talking about rocks or pants or lipstick or anything—actual food.)

So it was in that spirit that I found myself perusing the menu at Cashion’s. I was enjoying a delicious cocktail, made by the adorable K-Man, of Hendrick’s gin, shaved lemon zest, and a whole apricot (which I’m generally not a fan of, but it worked in the garnish capacity), chatting with Wee Kate, and deciding what to eat. Cashion’s has an excellent menu that changes fairly often, so it’s always worth reading. But there’s one constant under “Starters” that I’ve always avoided.

Veal sweetbreads.

For years I, like many others, labored under the delusion that “sweetbreads” is just a nice way of saying “brains.” (The way of saying brains is “brains”.) This is not true. Sweetbreads are actually thymus glands, usually from cows, pigs, or lambs. (And if that doesn’t make you want to just run right out and try them, I don’t know what will!) However, Roland and Andy have eaten them many times and declared them delicious, so I decided to go for it.

After getting some assurance from the K-Man that they were indeed wonderful, I took the plunge. The sweetbreads themselves are veal, and they’re gently fried until just golden. They come on a bed of sautéed spinach with currants, pine nuts, and apples. The meat is dense and not particularly gamey, which for some reason I was expecting. It didn’t fall apart in my mouth the way chicken livers do. Just very savory, with a kind of creamy density balanced a nice light fried crispiness on the outside. The combination of that with the salty spinach, sweet currants, and pine nuts had me doing my happy food dance on my barstool. Wee Kate did try a small piece, bless her heart, and did not seem utterly repelled.

Oh, and the sweetbreads were paired with a Domaine Pascal Berthier Saint-Amour Beaujelais, lightly chilled. Perfect.

So Self-Dare #1 turned out pretty well. Next up: bone marrow.

Hoo boy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Western Eating, Still Proceeding

First of all, I would just like you to know that the “Center Pier” of National Airport (I refuse to call it Reagan) has disappointing breakfast options. I do not need pizza or Chinese food or a Potbelly sandwich at 7:30 in the morning. Where’s the damn Starbucks? (Shut up, don’t judge.) And Dunkin’ Donuts coffee rivals only their muffins in vileness.

So my trip west wasn’t off the best start. I was headed to Seattle, then to Montana the next day with the family. I did end up getting a pretty decent caprese sandwich at a French bistro-ish place in O’Hare, but then I was stuck in the middle seat next to a crazy lady (she had a tattoo on her face, y’all!) on the flight to Seattle, so it wasn’t all that enjoyable.

So let’s skip all that and get to the fun stuff.

I arrived in Seattle safe and sound, and my sister Sarah picked me up. After heading over to Mom’s place and getting her all packed up and squared away, Sarah and I were both ready for some food, some wine, and some catching up. Sarah lives in Ballard, which is the Scandinavian neighborhood in Seattle, and which is also home to some really good food (not just lutefisk). Sarah said, “I thought we’d get burgers at Scooter’s.” I had never been there, but any place called Scooter’s is okay with me.

Turns out Scooter’s is this little tiny—like five seats at the counter tiny—drive up place that’s been around for years, and apparently used to be a Dairy Queen. They’re known for their onion rings, but both Sarah and I agree that onion rings are more trouble than they’re worth, most of the time. So we popped in, each ordering a bacon cheeseburger with fries, and decided to also try a chocolate malt, which neither of us had ever had. However, being devoted fans of Jonathan Richman, we went for it.

Chocolate malts are awesome.

The malt powder adds a slightly salty creaminess to what would otherwise be a chocolate shake. Unfortunately, we left most of ours in Sarah’s freezer. Oh well.

Let’s talk about Scooter’s burgers. They are exactly what I wanted from a tiny, years-old neighborhood dive. Big, flat, just greasy enough, with crispy bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes. Scooter’s does a secret sauce that seems to be just mayonnaise and ketchup, but it’s perfect with the rest of the burger. Go there next time you’re in Ballard.

All right, so the next morning we picked up Mom and headed for the airport for our trip to Montana. Nothing much to report, except that Horizon Airways serves local microbrews on their flights from Seattle to Montana (and back), and they don’t charge you for it. Thank you, Horizon!

After one hell of a bumpy flight (during which Sarah had to comfort a very terrified 17-year-old girl sitting next to her and assure her that we were indeed going to live), we stopped at Applebee’s for a nondescript but necessary lunch. Then we were off on the last leg of our journey to Gardiner (pop. 500 and change), where we would spend the next seven days with 13 more members of our family, eating, drinking, hiking, whitewater rafting, eating, looking for ghost towns, encountering wildlife, touring Yellowstone, and eating. Again. Some more.

A sampling:

My late grandmother’s cream-and-cinnamon coffee cake and cinnamon rolls, brilliantly recreated by my 14-year-old niece.

Bacon just about every damn morning, and my aunt’s homemade strawberry rhubarb jam.

Beef skewers with peppers and onions, cooked on the grill by Uncle Mike.

Thai beef salad, chicken and basil with green beans, shrimp sate skewers, and yellow curry chicken soup with sweet potatoes, pineapple, and other stuff, made by my sister and my Thai cousin-in-law. (Is that even a thing? He’s my cousin’s husband, so that's what I'm calling him.)

Giant sub sandwiches from The Pickle Barrel in Livingston, Montana, which is a lovely little town with some fantastic signs from the 40s and 50s.

My Aunt Marge’s famous turkey casserole, for which she actually shipped the ingredients (and some cookies) to my sister. She also made her INCREDIBLE chocolate cake with caramel frosting for my cousin’s birthday. I’m still running on the sugar high from that one, I swear.

My sister Maria's chicken with grilled zucchini, squash, and potatoes with her mango avocado salsa. I don't dig the mango so much, but it worked beautifully with the creaminess of the avocado and the heat of the peppers.

Spaghetti and some killa meatballs, made with beef and pork by my cousin Patrick and his lovely bride Jennifer. This amuses me because Patrick was a notoriously picky eater as a kid. His mom made a lot of hamburgers back then…

(Speaking of burgers) Insanely huge buffalo and elk burgers from Helen’s Corral Drive-in in Gardiner, home of Helen’s Hateful Burger. Elk is quite gamey, but really good. It’s the kind of meat that you take a bite of and your brain just goes, “Okay, I just ate caveman food.” My buffalo bacon cheeseburger is on the right:

I ate the whole damn thing.

Oh, and deviled eggs. I challenged my sister Maria, who has worked as a professional cook in the past, to a Deviled Egg Throwdown (with apologies to Mr. Flay), and she good-naturedly accepted. With my niece acting as scorekeeper and the rest of the family (except those allergic to eggs), Maria and I each made 10 deviled eggs.

I kicked her ass.

After a slow start, I pulled ahead and won, 7 and a half to 3 and a half votes. (Somebody wussed out on the voting.) To Maria’s immense credit, she was an incredibly gracious loser, and even admitted that my egg was better.

It’s all about the mustard, people. That’s all I’ll say.

Suffice it to say, by the time we got back to Seattle, I was really hankering for salad. Fortunately, Sarah knows a great pizza place that serves up a really fantastic salad of bitter greens, chick peas, tomatoes, cheese, and wonderful tarragon dressing. My system was very happy about that.

Back in my little apartment in DC, finally, I was that curious mix of relieved and sad to be home—relieved to sleep in my own bed, but sad because I didn’t have a great dinner to look forward to, and I didn’t have my family.

But I have my DC family here, and they like to eat.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Few Musings on Travel Food

Just got back from a trip to Montana, bookended by a couple of days in Seattle. I'll post a more comprehensive account of the actual vacation/meatfest later, but for now, a couple of ponderings on sustenance while traveling:

Why does airplane coffee smell so good, but taste like hot ass?

A full pack of Twizzlers will make your whole bag end up smelling like strawberry by the end of your flight, regardless of whether the pack is open or not.

All food items on airplanes/in airports appear to cost $7. Snack box on the plane? $7. Starbucks chicken ciabatta? $7. Bag of mixed nuts and bottle of water? $7. I know that the number 7 is supposed to have some kind of magical qualities or something, but don't you think that's just weird?

People in first class still get fed on planes. I know this because they separate the fancy folks from the proletariat with a sheer curtain. Way to make a person feel like a serf.

Big props to Horizon Air for not charging for beer on the flights to and from Bozeman, and for promoting local Pacific Northwest microbrews!

Whoever said Dunkin' Donuts coffee is awesome is a dirty liar.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Just Try It

I’m usually pretty good about trying out unfamiliar foods. I think it’s my duty as a citizen of the world. I also figure my friends have pretty good taste, so if they like it, it’s a good bet that I will, too.

But not always. Sometimes it’s a texture thing, sometimes it’s a taste bud thing. I can’t help it, but it disappoints me in my equal-opportunity, food-loving soul.

A couple of anecdotes to illustrate.

"What just happened?"
A few years ago The Ladies got together for a belated New Year's celebration dinner at Georgia Brown's, which is known for its "Low Country" cuisine—Southern food with Native American and West African influences. None of us had been there before, and we settled in for some warm comfort on a cold January night.

Ali and Kim both ordered the crispy chicken livers as their starters. Now, my first thought was, "Chicken livers, gak." But they were both so enthusiastic that I started to reconsider, and asked Kim if I could try hers. She was thrilled by the prospect of converting me (or possibly by the prospect of me barfing at the table, I don’t know). So when the food came, she forked me up a piece of the fried organ and handed it over.

It smelled great—like the most incredible fried chicken you’ve ever smelled. It looked yummy—a little golden fried nugget of goodness. I put it in my mouth. The ladies watched breathlessly. I thought, "Ooh, hey, that’s pretty goo--"

And then something happened. What had gone in as a fantastic little morsel of poultry organ just… disintegrated in my mouth. It was like it turned to powder or something. It was a solid piece of meat, and then it… wasn't. Squick.

Kim, who was watching my face this whole time, said, "Uh oh. I know what just happened. Not working, huh?"

I swallowed whatever it was that had just happened and replied, "Yeah, no. What was that?" The Ladies chuckled and gave me props for at least trying it, and I went to town on my shrimp and grits to recover. The wine helped, too.

"Quelle suprise!"
We’d been in France for a little less than a week. A group of us had rented a house in a little tiny town very close to the Mediterranean, so lunches and dinners were full of the freshest seafood I’ve ever had—mussels and oysters and langoustines right out of the sea. (I don’t even really like oysters and I was eating them like it was my job.) But after four days of that, I was kinda hankering for something from terra firma.

After a morning of shopping and sightseeing in Montpelier, Kim, Andy, Roland and I decided to hit a bistro for lunch. The waiter handed us menus, and my eye fell on "Andouillette." I thought, "Ooh, sausage! Like in Louisiana!" (This story is also an illustration of why you really should try to learn some French before you go ordering stuff in a restaurant in France.) So when the waiter came back, Kim ordered mussels, Andy ordered… something, Roland ordered steak tartare, and I blithely said, "Andouillette, s’il vous plait!" Andy and Roland both looked at me in some surprise as le garçon walked away.


"Andouillette, I had that in Paris," said Roland. "That’s tripe sausage."

Whuh-oh. My mind began to race."Well, we’re not in Paris. Maybe that’s just a Paris thing. What I ordered is that awesome spicy sausage, like what they put in gumbo. We're far away from Paris. It’s fine."

Kim, Andy, and Ro all looked at me with a bit of challenge in their eyes. So I took a breath and said, "You know what, I'm gonna try it. I'm in France, right? Gotta try new things!"

Our food came, and I took a look. Didn't look too alarming—looked like a sausage, and there was a boiled potato on the side and a little ramekin of that kickass French mustard.

The other three all watched as I cut into my andouillette. The smell hit me first. I don't know how to describe it, except to say that it smelled like "No." All right, fine. Some things that smell gnarl can taste divine. Look at all those stank-ass French cheeses, for example.

I cut a piece and was not encouraged by the innardsy-looking interior. I put it in my mouth and chewed. "Hmm. Kind of tastes like 'no' as well." Andy was watching me from across the table, fork poised above whatever he had ordered. I cut another piece and thought, "Maybe with some mustard. French mustard covers all manner of sins." I gave the piece a generous dunking and put it in my mouth. Nope, still not happening.

One more try, this time with a bit of potato and even more mustard. The third time was not the charm. I looked at Andy, and he very sympathetically held out his hand and said, "Do you want me to take it?" I handed over my plate with a pathetic, "I tried, I really did!" He said, "I know, and I’m very proud of you." Kim smiled and passed me the bread, and Roland offered me some of his steak tartare to help me recover.

The wine helped, too.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Beach Eatin'

Every year The Ladies and I go to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware for a long weekend. We’ve been doing this for about 16 years now, and it’s one of my favorite times of year. It’s our chance to get together and hang out for a few days, leaving husbands and kids and jobs and real life for a little while. We loll in the sand, walk on the beach, sometimes get in the ocean, read trashy magazines, and catch up on each others’ lives.


And we eat.

Over the years things have changed a bit, of course. Kim no longer burns herself crispy because she refused to put on sunscreen (“I’ll do it in a minute”). We now consider anything lower than SPF 15 to be ridiculously irresponsible. We haven’t had hi-jinks involving lost shoes or pool break-ins or shrubbery for a while now. We don’t drink quite as much wine or go for quite as many giant cocktails before dinner.

But in all the years of Ladies’ Beach Weekend, one thing has remained constant.

We eat, and we eat well.

Here’s how it goes:
We usually leave Friday morning around 10. We load up the car, make sure we have enough quarters for parking, and check on the EZ Pass for the bridge. Whoever’s driving goes, “So does anyone remember how to get there?” We chat talk about families and jobs and guys and crack each up other until we get to the Bay Bridge, when we all shut up and freak out a little bit inside.

We hit 404 and wonder whether Elmer’s is still open, and if there’s two and if it’s the one on 16 that closed or the one on 404. We comment on the houses as we mosey through the tiny towns that strictly enforce their speed limits.

We turn onto Rt. 1, roll past the outlets, check out what’s playing at the movie theatre (in case it rains), and wonder if they’ll let us check in early at the hotel. Windows come down as we turn onto Rehoboth Avenue, and we check out stores and restaurants that are new since last year. This is about the point when someone asks, “So where are we eating tonight?”

Because one of the great things about Rehoboth is the excellent dining that can be had there. Sure, there’s Grotto’s pizza (which even sounds disgusting—who named that company?) and Dotte’s saltwater taffy (never understood the appeal) and Jake’s Seafood (so lame it hurts my feelings)—places very much catering to families with kids who need something fast and easy. Totally understandable. But there is also some outstanding cuisine to be found, if you know where to look.

And where to look? Is in the Dining Guide.

Some enterprising person has put together a book of menus of many of the dining establishments in this little beach town, and that book gets put in many of the hotel rooms in town. Brilliant.

We get into our room, unpack, put on swim suits, and grab towels and sunscreen and water and books and Us Weekly—and the Guide. On the beach, Kim reads some of the menus out loud.

“Roasted quail with chorizo, wild rice and fresh herb stuffing, sautéed celeriac, malt whisky and maple syrup.”

“House-made gnocchi with shredded duck confit, pearl onions, grapes, chanterelles, walnuts and brown butter reduction.”

“Pan seared sea scallops with bacon risotto, oven-roasted tomatoes, sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, English peas, sherry-thyme pan reduction.”*

Holy shit.

At some point, though, we have to make a decision, and we call for reservations. Here, now, I’d like to share with you the Ladies’ Beach Week Dinners, 2009:

Friday night -- Eden (
The other three -- Lobster and crab tower, mango salsa, guacamole, roasted peppers, balsamic reduction (I am not even kidding you when I say that these girls talked about “The Tower” off and on all day)

Me -- Roast pork polpettes, braised black eyed peas, baby corn, black garlic, garlic greens. (These were little pork meatballs that I could have made a meal of by themselves. Very hearty, very homey, very Southern.)

Ali -- Grilled soft shell crabs, eggplant couscous, warm green tomato gazpacho, deviled aioli (This was kind of a self-dare, as she’d never had soft shell crabs before. Seemed to go well.)

Kim -- Pork tenderloin, creamy grits, slow roasted pork belly, braised local green beans/cherry salad (We told her she wasn’t allowed to order the scallops AGAIN.)

Michele -- Wood oven roasted USDA prime ribeye, bliss potatoes, arugula, mushrooms, black garlic vinaigrette, truffle butter (Hey, sometimes a lady just needs a steak.)

Me -- Pan seared local rockfish, lobster pomme puree, roasted baby corn, watermelon radish, lobster vin blanc (This blew my freakin’ mind. The fish was so creamy, the lobster added incredible richness, and the radish kept everything from getting too out of control. Incredible.)

Saturday night – Espuma (
Harissa martini (red, spicy, Mediterranean, strong)

Appetizers: (I think these are right. Girls, correct me if I’m wrong.)
Kim -- Roasted local organic beet salad, grilled bleu cheese sandwich, wild mushroom vinaigrette

Ali -- Tartare of sushi grade tuna, cucumber "caviar", avocado mousse, tarragon, watermelon consommé

Michele -- Laura Chennel goat cheese and carmelized onion tart, roasted red peppers, belgian endive, fig puree, balsamic "foam"

Me – “Bacon and Egg (and Cheese) Salad” -- bibb lettuce, bacon lardons, black truffle-parmesan vinaigrette (This was kick-ass. I don’t know how he did it, but the chef managed to somehow bread a soft-cooked egg, so that when I cut into it, the outside was slightly crispy and the inside was still warm and runny. Killer. Magic.)

Ali -- Neo-classic Espuma paella -- shrimp, tender chicken, chorizo, saffron, mussels

Kim and Michele – fish special, which was great, but I can’t tell you what it was. Sorry. Deal.

Me -- Duet of Hudson Valley duck, cauliflower mousse, cippolinni agrodolce, radicchio, cherry glaze (I think I won on this one, frankly.)

Sunday night – Back home
Ice cubes and air.

People go to the beach for different reasons. For us, Ladies’ Beach Week is a constant in an enduring friendship of four very different women leading four very different lives. And the food we have every year helps cement the memories we make every year. And that's pretty delicious.

*All from the Blue Moon menu --

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Starting the New Year Off Right

January 1, I wake up late after a night of fairly restrained revelry with the usual suspects. It’s a gorgeous day, although pretty cold, of course. I hang out in bed for a while, looking out the window and thinking about what to do with the new day and the new year.

Suddenly it hits me. “I’m going to start this year off with bacon. Oh, hell yes.”

One shower and several layers of clothing later, I set off. First thought: The Diner on 18th St. (Note: it’s not that The Diner’s food is that good; I just happen to know they make a perfectly adequate bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich.) For some reason, I thought that everyone else in DC would still be wrestling with hangovers and I would have no trouble getting a bar seat. Well, they were certainly dealing with hangovers, but they were doing it in public, and mostly at The Diner. The crowd around the door was at least three deep—way more crowded than on a usual Saturday or Sunday.

Hmph. Plan B.

Down the hill to Jolt ’n’ Bolt. Their coffee is always way too hot (how do they do that? Do they brew it in molten rock at the earth’s core?), but their bacon-egg-and-cheese on an everything bagel has never disappointed me. I walk into the tiny place, and… it’s packed. Clearly I’m a moron for thinking I’m the only one who needs bacon this fine January morning.

Okay, fine. I’ll go to my local corner coffee shop, even though they overcook their bacon and never put enough cheese on my sandwich. But they’re super friendly, and I support my neighborhood businesses as much as possible, so back up the hill I go. I walk up to the counter and look behind the lovely Latina proprietress to the bagel rack. Wuh-oh.

“Do you have any bagels left?”

“No”—and here she shakes her head ruefully, sensing my disappointment—“No more bagels this morning.”

Okay, this year is not starting off as well as I had hoped.

(Now I know some of you are thinking at this point, “Girl, just go to the store, get some eggs and bacon, and make your own damn sandwich!” Well, that would certainly be one solution, but a) I don’t really cook, and b) the whole point was to have someone make something yummy with bacon in it for me. So shut up.)

Well, now what? I’ve been walking around for an hour and a half, and I’m starving, and I’m still determined to get me some bacon.

Then—it comes. Inspiration comes like a bright light from heaven above, like God in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Five Guys.

Ooohhh, Five Guys.

And I’m off to Columbia Heights with renewed vigor! I get into the red-and-white tiled place, and it’s not very crowded. Good sign… I go to the counter and give my order—little bacon cheeseburger with lettuce, ketchup, and mustard, and small fries (which is still like eight potatoes’ worth). I pay the guy, get my number, go fill my soda, and find a seat by the window to read The Princess Bride and wait.

“251!” Woo, my number! My bacon, finally!

I take the bag from the guy and go back to my seat. Pull my foil-wrapped burger out of the mass of fries that surround it like bamboo. Nom a few fries. Think to myself, “Wow, this is a big burger! Did they give me a double by mistake?” Open the foil.

Double burger.


You guys.


Oh, man, who did I piss off?

I take not-my burger back to the counter. “This isn’t my burger.”

“It’s not?”

“No, I ordered a little bacon cheeseburger with ketchup and mustard, and this has mayonnaise, which is vile, but more importantly, it does not have bacon.”

“I’m so sorry, I’ll make you a new one right away.”

Good heavens. Okay, so back to my window, my book, and my 29 pounds of fries. A few minutes go by and I’m startled by a voice at my ear. “Here’s your burger, ma’am. So sorry for the mix-up.” I assure him that’s no problem, and he hands me my sandwich.

I open it.

It’s my burger. It’s my bacon.


I happily tuck in, thinking this day might turn out okay after all.


I’m about 3/4 through my happy lunch, and there’s another voice at my ear. (What up, Five Guys guys, why you gotta sneak up on a person like that?)

“We messed up your burger, right?”

“Yeah, but it’s okay, I’ve got the right one now, thanks.”

“Here’s your money back.” And he hands me my $4.57. I stare at him for a sec and then say, “No, it’s okay, I got my burger, so we’re all good now.”

He says, “It’s Five Guys policy that if we screw up your order, it’s free.”

After all of that, after all of the walking around and the disappointments and the lack of bagels and the wrong burger, I finally got my New Year’s bacon.

For free.

That’s a way to start the new year off right.

This Blog's Raisin d'Etre*

I love food.

I love it.

I think food is one of life’s great pleasures.

I think the taste buds are some of the human body’s most sensitive parts.

I believe in butter.

I believe nearly everything can be made better with bacon.

I believe there’s a reason that the word “sated” applies to both food and sex.

I will try just about anything, although it may take some convincing at first. I have eaten tripe sausage. I have eaten ground grasshoppers. (I am still hoping to try the grasshopper tacos at Oyamel.) I have eaten pig cheeks right off the pig. I have eaten duck cracklings and lived to tell the tale. I have not tried marrow yet, but am looking forward to doing so.

I do not like mayonnaise, but understand its use as a binding agent and sauces base. I will admit that freshly made is probably far superior to Hellman’s. Prove it to me, someone.

I am fine with raisins.

I like bananas, but generally don’t like them in stuff.

I am trying to get better about sushi and other textured things.

God. Food.

All of this is not to say I’m a cook, because I certainly am not. I can make some stuff, but as a single chick with an inadequate apartment kitchen and a gas oven that I’m afraid of, I just don’t cook much. Fortunately I have friends who do, and who are willing to let me come over and chow down. Having said that, I will put my deviled eggs up against anyone’s any day.

I am fascinated by the food industry, even though I’ve never worked in it. I think chefs are some of the most passionate people in the world. I am hooked on just about everything on the Food Network, and I want to be Guy Fieri’s personal assistant. (Hey, someone’s got to keep that hair bleached and pointy!) I want Padma's job. Bourdain is my food TV boyfriend.

I’m in no way a food snob, but I do get disappointed by sad tomatoes or indifferent preparations or bad service. I’m also not all about the highbrow. Give me a Ben’s half-smoke all the way and I’m as happy as I am with the three-course prix-fixe at Oya. I’ll happily drink Bud one night and white Bordeaux the next.

So I’m starting this blog. My hope is that this will give me the kick in the pants I need to write more, serve as a “food diary” so I don’t forget some great experiences, and hopefully entertain some people. Let me know what you think, and if there’s some place that you think I need to check out, whether it’s nouvelle cuisine or a kick-ass chili burger, sing out!

And I need to especially thank The Ladies for the idea and the encouragement. You know who you are, and you know I love you.

* Yes, I know it’s “raison.”