Chasing Windmills with a Fork

Dine and Dash

Monday, February 26, 2007

Dear Exquisite Reader,

I mean that, reader, singular. I know there is only one of you, but I need to thank you for your solitary fortitude during this difficult drought of my dining and writing, and let's face it, ranting. You have been kind, and dutifully check back to find, much like the menu at Bistro du Coin, that nothing has changed. No seasonal salad, no fresh winter vegetable hash, no warm cocktails to melt the Wharton-like chill. Just some dull, summery whatever-tinis to tease you into thinking that Punxsutawney Phil was an accurate barometric pressure gauge and not a mammal lured from his knob by the scent of a female and a hearty meal. I have led you away and left you in diaspora, and I am regretful. Even Chili's updates their menu.

I have been training every night for the upcoming Cherry Blossom 10 Mile, on April 1. Running 4 miles after chasing windmills for 7 hours makes fine dining rather difficult at night. I am secretly hoping that the race coordinators April Fool's prank on me is that the race will be a 10K instead, but alas I must prepare myself.

Do not fret too much, all this running makes one hungry and I have recently dined at a new locale, and will report haste.


Domani, Domani, y Domani

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Unfortunately I was not blessed with a culturally Italian family (or a cultured one, for that matter) nor a mother who could improvise in the kitchen to fool anyone of her blandly Russian/Romainian roots with the ability to conjure only the spirits of Belle 'd Matzo Ball and the Baron of Brisket every (Jewish) holiday season.
Italian food, good Italian food to me is like Faulkner. Let me be perfectly clear when I allude to this: many people claim to have read Faulkner, yet "The Sound and the Fury" to most reminds them to download the latest The Fray album off iTunes rather than wax allegorical about drawing parallels from the Shakespearean play (sneeze Macbeth) from where the novel garners its title. Italian food is complex, deeply rooted and often its rustic roots are rinsed off too thoroughly leaving patently shiny yet completely uninteresting result...Covered in red flavorless sauce. Good Italian food uses its long history and deeply entrenched notions of homemade texture and freshness to create frescos Giotto would be proud of.

One recent Saturday night I found myself in Georgetown at Papa Razzi, stood up. Well, actually I was acutely aware of my would-be companion's last minute flight to the north country but I was already seated and hungry. My interest in "Italian" chain restaurants is generally limited to the salt-crusted, crack-infused bread sticks at Olive Garden, and the occasional craving for a Pizza Hut meat-lovers supreme. That is, to say, I'm not certain real Italians would be caught dead eating at such establishments. I have had the beau with the Italian gourmet mother (to date attempts to be adopted for the purpose of technique and recipe development while no longer dating their sons have failed), I have traveled to Italy for the singular purpose of eating gloriously well, and I have my favorite amoeba sized mom & pop Italian dives in South Philadelphia...chains don't quench that thirst.

Throwing caution/judgment/prejudice to the wind I sat down at the bar and opened the wine list. To my surprise, Papa Razzi has not one flight of wine tastings, nor simply one per "wine color" as is often the case, but an array of flights arranged neatly by bouquet and body. When my "light and fruity rosso" trio arrived I was giddy at the carefully selected and organized wines samples each distinct yet superbly matching the 'light and fruity" categorical label.
Valpolicella, Allegrini, Veneto: fresh cherry aromas with hints of raspberry, cherry and cola. Easy on the tannins.
Barbera d'Asti, "Vobis Tua" Volpi, Piedmont: Strong aromas of strawberry and raspberry, with hints of coffee bean. Not nearly as bitter as it sounds.
Pinto Nero, Borgo Magredo, Friulli: Cinnamon, clove and cherry with hints of pomegranate and strawberry.
I requested the Insalate Caprino which came with mixed greens, tomatoes, goat cheese, and fennel lightly tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette Mario Batali would breast-feed his spawn with; crisp, refreshing, and pungent. An excellent way to start a flavorful meal.

Next, I was greeted with my entree of Gnocchi Di Sorrento. Generally, I find gnocchi falls in the extremes, those being god-awful and heavenly. I wasn't looking for innovation so the small potato pasta in pink pomodoro sauce and mozzarella seemed like an easy pick. What arrived smelled tasted so organically pure yet deep in richness and crisp flavor. The gnocchi were angel topped clouds encased in a luxurious tomato, cream and basil sauce and lifted to shuddering glory by fresh molten tributaries of mozzarella. That wistful look Rafael painted on those pudgy cherubim, this meal was the inspiration for that look.

Tiramisu. Oh dear sweet tiramisu, how you have been brutalized by the TV dinner-swilling masses taking your lovely layers and making them one unitedly bland taste, rather than letting your triumvirate of espresso-soaked lady fingers, fluffy zabalgione, and a pungent waft of cocoa come together at the table to form a force so strong North Korea is considering embargoes. No, sadly the American public has been subject to a rouse, a trap and has been led astray into believing that tiramisu is a mixing of flavors. The complexity of Italian food can be seen in the strata of ingredients and how they are each wonderfully represented in one dish. Papa Razzi does tiramisu justice, showcasing the delicious flavors individually and freeing the dessert from its shackles of mediocrity and blandness.

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, a mother in Tuscany is proud.

Crusteaceon & Punishment

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Though I am not of the Catholic persuasion, I believe it is duely confession time. As you may have read I do not require a linen napkin-lapped silverware'd atmosphere to enjoy and discuss my gustory delights, however my love of food goes beyond the occaissional paper towel prerequisite, greasy meal and extends to a dimension of vulgarity seen rarely outside the realms of rapacious wildlife denizens of the Serengetti. Forgive me reader for I come from peassant stock; generations of ill-fed serfs have led this food writer to a life of hidden impropriety in a candy coated shell of well-bred. To their credit, the wolves who raised me were very polite.

My confession was prompted by my epicurial encounter yesterday. We went to the Dancing Crab, just North of the American University Metro stop for their All You Can Eat Crab Feast (Tuesday -Thursday, 6-10pm). When we sat in the half-full inside portion of the restaurant we were enthused by all the plates of steaming crabs ushered past us. Nearly 15 minutes later when the server finally arrived I had to convince my guest to stay instead of storming out over being ignored during a slow time for the dining room. Although she aquieced and remained, she was no longer in the mood for the Herculean challenge of defining "all you can eat" as I had proposed. While she logically ordered the single plate (pashaw) of king crab legs, I requested the Feast.

At first, five decent sized Maryland Blues were brought out swathed in old bay and spices, steamed to a perfect red on a tray obvioulsy lifted from the Howard University Hospital cafeteria. As was the pail to dispose of my crab waste. I positively adore being elbow deep in shellfish, every ounce of those gorgeuosly seasoned former ocean dwellers tender and full of the flavor that most west coast crabs lack. I cherish the brown paper table "linens" and the 16 year-old kid who continued to bring me tray after luxorious tray of succulent sidewalkers until after 2 1/2 hours and 21 crabs later I waved my white flag, secure in the notion that the Chesepeake Bay could hemmorage no more that day.

The friendly staff at the Dancing Crab actually took pity on my guest, who was finished her meal in 30 minutes, and offered her drinks on the house while they parlayed for her phone number. They were kind, helpful, and ultimately and supplied me with the information that:
1. a combination of small & mediums are used for the "All You Can Eat Feast" ($34.95)
2. on that particular evening they only had mediums in stock
3. the average all-you-can-eater polishs off 9 crabs
4. one dozen medium crabs runs $46.95
5. they hoped I would not return for quite some time, but hoped I enjoyed my visit
Classic Maryland Blues are ambrosia with elbow grease. They are not easy to eat, and they require you to work for your meal with true dedication, and the asssitance of a least a paring knife and a small mallet. In my experience the only cuisine that necessitiates more grunt work coupled with finesse on the user-end is a full artichoke in polite company. In the end my experience at the Dancing Crab was fantastic. The crabs were perfect and really, that's all I cared about.

To Eat, Per Chance to Dream

Friday, August 25, 2006

This will be short since Saturday is my singular day of rest and though the desire to stare at a computer screen is a virulent sirens' song I will attempt to flee nonetheless.

Yesterday I was too busy to escape on a long, well deserved lunch break, but there was a sign posted in the ladies room with grammar so atrocious I felt I needed to leave scene of someone else's crime. I stepped out and into the bar at the new Bobby Van's Grill for a half-hearted attempt at getting satiated and satisfied in one fell swoop. My previous experiences there had left me saddened as their sisters (15th Street in DC, and Park Avenue in NYC) have left quite the large big-girl heels to fill. Bobby Van's Steakhouses are decidedly different and their newer, grill-style canteen had the potential to offer a glimpse at their culinary prowess while still not making me cower at the thought of a $45 steak for lunch. While I'm not sure which was worse: the thought of reviewing the cuisine at McDonald's on 12th for the rest of the week due to budgetary constraints or the notion that I would have to return to half-a-days work after devouring a 23-ounce porterhouse, but both make me cringe with horror only the image of a homicidal maniac misrepresenting a Salinger novel could previously conjure.

I ordered the open face steak sandwich. To my exquisite surprise a luscious cliff of perfectly cooked medium-rare (adjustable for those of you that prefer your meat a bit more tortured) steak emerged atop half of a seasoned baguette with a Madeira mushroom sauce so savory I would bathe in it if socially/hygienically acceptable. The steak was so gloriously tender, and the flavor so rich as the jus and the sauce mingled aloft the buttered/seasoned roll to make quite the operetta for the palette.

Also, it came with fries! I begged the generous barkeep, bearer of my salvation (a.k.a lunch) for more mushroom sauce...the fries, surely they must not be condemned to death by ketchup, they shall leave this world coated beautifully with the sauce if I have any say. The Shroud of Turin the little Idahoan martyrs deserve.

I was hungry, and now I am again.

Q d'etat?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

In the city of Washington, D.C. with its wholesale self absorption and vapid desire to be seen, unpretentious charm is at premium. That's why establishments such as Ben's, Old Glory, and Lindy's Red Lion are such stupendous bastions of reality. All are fairly hole-in-the-wall-ish, all have excellent food at a price affordable even after the taxi zone hikes, and all have a staff that generally appreciates the fact that reservations and martinis are about as wholesome and friendly as a dominatrix tax collector in April.

It is with that thought that I present to you two additional D.C. haunts that emit the sweet smell of Bar-B-Q with a conviction Johnny Cochran would be proud of. Chinatown's Capital Q, and Glover Park's Rocklands are two cramped, aroma filled hovels that offer the promise of cowboy/backyard warrior nirvana. For those of you true barbecue enthusiasts I will concede that a side by side comparison is not wholly fair; Rocklands is technically Southern/Memphis style BBQ while Capital Q is Texas. Regardless, they both serve "dead things cooked good"* smothered in a tomato-vinegar based sauce, and of all the chefs I am acquainted with the singular person who would raise a furrowed brow had I not included that disclaimer is a college chum who worked summers at an eastern Tennessee rib shack...snob.

Capital Q has been fortunate in its urban positioning, the virtual heart of the once-dilapidated, now gentrified (read:where have all the Chinese gone/zhong-guo men zai nar?) "China Block". There could, and shall be an entire diatribe on the metamorphosis of yet another yuppie revitalization in a derelict section of D.C., so I shall limit my rant and write Capital Q's location off as either grand luck or sheer clairvoyance. Much has been written about the Q as "the best Texas-style barbecue in town"(Washingtonian), it has even won wide praise from true BBQ aficionados:

"Capital Q is a home-away-from-home for lost Texans. It is one of the few places in D.C. where you can wear boots and jeans, get a great meal, and even use Texas talk, like `howdy' and `fixin'."
This insight from Rep. Kay Granger (R-Ft Worth) leaves me wondering; is this a selling point? I too am a D.C. transplant, and while I do feel the occasional diasporic twinge in the form of longing for a cheesesteak or truly enraged Eagles fan, I never find myself waxing sentimental over the mispronunciation of words like water (wooder), can (keaan), or any other form of Rocky Balboa patois. But to each his own I suppose. My most recent personal experience at Q was tainted by the disproportion of fat versus meat on my brisket, the soggy bun and flavorless potato salad. The sweet tea, which is one of my favorite reasons the South did not successfully secede, was good. On previous visits I was duly impressed by the pulled chicken and "Texas Caviar", a black-eyed pea and jalenpeno laden cornbread. Hit or miss is an excellent review for a BBQ place in DimSum-ville.

Next we travel up-town, no metro but if you can tough it out on the 30 bus line you're in for a treat. Glover Park has many small gems and one of them is my beloved favorite BBQ palace. Rocklands BBQ serves up huge meals, fantastic sandwiches, and scrumptious desserts for mere shekels. A pulled pork sandwich to fill you will cost $3.98. Homemade chocolate chip cookies, apple pie and never-ending lemonade are all reasons to brush off the peanut shells and sit at a stool. Precious real-estate during busy times. I have eaten everything on the Rocklands menu and everything is fantastic. Not fatty, not too greasy, but perfectly tender, smoke infused meat, chicken, and fish. They have an 8-minute promise, and they live up to it. They also make you wait because its fresh, unlike Capital Q which goes for the lunch-lady approach of mass produce and pull together later.

Try both, love Rocklands!

*'Dead Things Cooked Good' is Rocklands BBQ t-shirt logo

New Heights Could Use a Boost

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

As the snow fell in Washington and I was forced into hibernation, I felt compelled to recall a recent experience that left me about as warm as that frozen sparrow on my windowsill...and about as gustatorily pleasing.
My excursion occurred while apartment hunting and I happened upon the oft praised New Heights on Calvert Street. I try and put reviews and comments from others aside when entering a new dining experience, as I believe each customer is a new chance to gain a loyal follower if the establishment so wishes. Although it is difficult to ignore New Heights begotten glory (rave reviews from the Washington Post, named Best Restaurant in America by USA Today, and Readers' Favorite by Gourmet Magazine)I tried and easily succeeded with the help of the lame decor and terrible glass of wine, recommended by the bartender, I had while waiting for a friend. In all fairness New Heights's reviews are antiquated (last one was awarded in 2000), and they didn't squeeze the grapes that made my medicinal tasting pino grigio, but a fall from grace if ever there was one.
My companion and I started our meal with the mussels appetizer and the lamb sausage. Both very tasty, both portioned for the heroin chic set. If splitting an M&M were my idea of an entree this first course would have been more appropriate, however the space in the tiny restroom would not allow for nosebleed inducing activities even if I chose to un-thoughtful. My companion and I both ordered the pork tenderloin served with onions not allowed to sauté long enough to become tender and absorb the pork jus. The pork was cooked perfectly but was coated with an extraordinarily salty crust. Perfect luring deer, passable as a meal for me. Dessert was a forgettable chocolate concoction, your standard mouse covered with a ganache layer showing the intense boredom of the pastry chef whose has too much heavy cream in his pantry.
Upon returning to my computer, and desperately writing down the dreary meal I ate so as to regurgitate it here, I realized that New Heights is owned by the name proprietor of Butterfield 9, another highly over priced and overrated establishment. Umbi Singh must be the best lay in town to obtain lavish reviews like he has serving such uninspiring fare as I just witnesses. Congratulations Mr. Singh, you've done a heck of a job!

Mass Versus Class

Monday, January 23, 2006

Before any preemptive strikes on my violation of the sacrosanct, lama-esque level of institutionalism that some Washingtonians believe the Old Ebbitt Grill embodies, let it be noted that it is on my list of personal favorites, and shall remain so. Now that we've all genuflected, formality shall be set aside and some mindful, and due critiquing can be accomplished.
I believe to be successful, in its long-term meaning as opposed to a fad that will be as exciting as a wet Kaiser roll next week, you must be consistent. This theory accounts for many successful, such as the Old Ebbitt and many (in my humblest of opinions) failures such as New Heights (see post). The Old Ebbitt has maintained an excellent staff headed by Dave Moran, Kyle Gaffney, and Chef Robert McGowan and their adherence to the Walrus Corporation motto of "Service + Value = Profitability" shows and thrives; you can't buy the crab meat it would take to make their crab cakes cheaper than they sell the entree (a consistent $24.95, sometimes $17.95 in the summer).
What the Old Ebbitt excels at in value and general service it lacks in specific areas where the average diner normally looks as indicators of a restaurants stature. With the floodtide of dining room guests (the place seats 500 and is packed every night, all night) and the massive bar crowd, the Ebbitt is surely to hurt somewhere.
The host staff is cordial, though inconsistent. While some are knowledgeable, friendly and professional, others are merely capable and seem to not enjoy the pressure cooker that I'm sure the maitre'd must endure. One hostess was downright unfriendly as she bemoaned my table number to the lady showing me to my table. Forgive me if my existence doesn't interest you.
The bathrooms were tidy, but awkward. Nice wood paneling on the sinks, marble countertops and old aluminum doors from a South Jersey diner on the stalls. Did they begin redecorating and and forget? It sounds inconsequential, but how a bathroom looks is a huge indicator that a restaurant cares about its customers' total experience.
Soup of the day is a place where a restaurant can showcase a new idea with a relatively low cost of failure; excellent soups, ideas and inspiration can come from this, but instead many establishments use this as a way to get rid of something over ordered...Soup du Jour: Cream of Leftover Vegetable. This regrettably is what the Ebbitt's soups have become.
I must conclude on a positive note, my dinner, my server and my overall experience was superb. Much has been written about this bistro behemoth, but most neglect the flavorful basil vinaigrette that covers the house salad, the experienced servers, the expedient bus staff, and a raw bar selection that is unparalleled across this landlocked town. In addition, the wine list is as extensive in grape varietals as it is in price range.

And let us be honest: there is no better place in the city to people watch than a cozy booth back in Grant's Bar. Consume everything.