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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

First Bite - Graffiato

Few restaurant openings in Washington DC have inspired the same type of palpable excitement that has been generated by Mike Isabella’s Graffiato. This Chinatown “hot spot” has barely been open a week, but the buzz has been building since Isabella left his head chef position at Zaytinya. Yet, after eating my first meal at Graffiato I can confidently say that all the hype has been worth it.

I was lucky enough to snag one of the first reservations at Graffiato and met a handful of friends there on Sunday night. (I guess that is what you get for obsessively calling the restaurant until no longer getting a busy signal). After arriving we were promptly seated at a table that wasn’t in the kitchen, but it was as close as you could get. Chef Isabella and Bryan Voltaggio were standing mere inches from us and kibbitzing. Not a bad way to start the evening, especially when you combine it with a glass of bubbly prosecco on tap.

From there things only improved. A few of us had been thinking about getting the chef’s tasting menu, but our server thoughtfully steered us away from it. He said that it made more sense (and it would be less expensive) to just order whatever we wanted off the menu. He was absolutely right. All 5 of us left full and happy and paid significantly less than we would have (under $35 - before drinks but with tax and tip).

Right off the bat we put in an order for the fresh mozzarella and the bread basket. The mozz came out warm and it was topped with a lovely fava bean puree and some fruity olive oil. The homemade bread basket held a treat for everyone at the table. Some of us loved the olive bread (we think there were also raisins hiding in there) while others were smitten with the sweet polenta corn bread. Yet, we all could agree that the olive oil jam & fresh ricotta took something that was merely “good” and elevated it to “great.”

Next up were 2 pizzas. Our server told us without hesitation that his favorite was the Countryman with black truffles, fontina and a duck egg. Done and done. We also opted to order the White House, a beautiful pie topped with mozzarella, taleggio, ricotta and black pepper honey. Both exceeded expectations with their crust and combinations of toppings. The Countryman had a delightful balance of earthy and upscale ingredients. It had a smokiness and saltiness that was unlike anything I had previously tried in this city. On the other hand the White House was something that screamed summer to me. The combination of cheeses mingling with the fresh honey made it the perfect pizza to devour on a hot summer night.

We couldn’t leave Graffiato without trying Chef Isabella’s award winning dishes on Top Chef All Stars - the infamous chicken thighs with pepperoni sauce and the roasted gnocchi with pork ragu, whipped burrata, and picked ramps. These lived up to all expectations that Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons set on tv. What made it even better was our first table-side visit from the chef himself. He told us a delightful story about going with his wife to Pennsylvania to pick 30lbs of ramps. Now how many chefs do you know that do that?

There were 2 additional dishes that made their way to the table. We opted to be semi-healthy and order the wood roasted mushrooms and the sweet corn agnolotti. The mushrooms were complemented by a handful of sweet and spicy cherry peppers and a wonderful addition of mustard. It was not a traditional way of serving them, but it didn’t matter. There wasn’t a single speck left in the dish. The agnolotti (kinda like mini ravioli) were filled with a sweet mixture of cheese and corn puree and they were topped with pine nuts. It was perfection in a bite.

Now, if you thought that we would leave without trying dessert you are crazy. I had originally had my heart set on an order of zeppoles, but apparently they haven’t started making them yet. Oh well, just another reason to return in the future. But, our last course did not disappoint. First up was a slice of chocolate tart (with a pinenut crust!) that was served with sea salt gelato. Looking at it you would have expected something ridiculously rich, instead it was light with the perfect amount of sweetness. We also ordered a cup of dark chocolate gelato that was quite sinful, and a plate of beautiful Nutella cookies. Chocolate coma is the only appropriate phrase for the end of this evening.

The meal was a standout from start to finish. Each course tasted better than the last and the service would be worthy of the highest Zagat rating. I have no doubts that Graffiato will become a go-to hangout for Washington, and will deserve every ounce of praise that visitors, locals and critic give it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

First Bite - Shake Shack in Dupont

Let's get this out of the way: DC is not NYC. You know this. I know this. But somehow the restaurant industry has decided the concepts that draw customers in Manhattan must do the same in DC. There are instances where this is not the case, but when we're talking about DC's newest burger joint, it absolutely is.


Shake Shack opened yesterday in Dupont to much fanfare and lines that stretched down Connecticut Avenue. Yes, I waiting in one of those lines to try out the burgers, fries and custard that New Yorkers swear by. Go ahead and laugh, but I will say that it was worth it.

Overall, my experience was a very pleasant one (minus hte fact that Mother Nature wasn't the most cooperative). I got in line around 12:40 p.m., was inside ordering around 1:10 and I was out the door and heading back to my office at 1:15. Not too bad when you consider there were probably about 60 people in front of me when I joined the queue. I have to give props for the frozen custard samples that they brought out to those of us waiting in line. It was a sweet little tease of what was waiting for us inside.

I didn’t want to go overboard, but I did want to try as much as possible, so I got a Shack Burger, an order of fries, and a concrete. The Shack also offers a variety of hot dogs, a portabello burger (I’ve heard from friends in NY that it’s fantastic) and a plethora of items made with frozen custard. In addition, it’s noteworthy you can also enjoy a beer or a bottle of wine while enjoying your beef patty.

Overall the food was good, with some items standing out more than others. First up - the Shack Burger; a single angus burger patty on a potato bread bun topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomato and ShackSauce. I thought that the burger was slightly overcooked and was a tad salty. I also could have used a bit more ShackSauce, because the little amount that I had was great, but not enough.

Now on to the great. The French fries really do deserve a round of applause. Yes they look like the Ore-Ida crinkle fries that you find in your grocer’s freezer, but they are so much more. They are crispy and perfectly salted and kind of addicting. Shake Shack also serves them with a cheddar/American cheese sauce. Can you say yum?

And to round the meal out I got the Presidential Sweet Concrete. The first place I had a concrete was at Ted Drewes in St. Louis, but this one may have that one beat. The Presidential Sweet is made with the vanilla custard, peanut butter sauce, marshmallow and milk chocolate chunks with caramel inside. This item has stolen my heart and made me wish that I could magically get rid of my lactose intolerance. It was sweet without being too sugary and the combination of textures is worthy of praise.

Will Shake Shack come out on top of the DC burger wars? I’m not sure; there is steep competition. But I do think the place will become a staple in Dupont for the lunch crowd and for the late set ( they're open to 11 during the week and midnight on the weekends). But another thing Shake Shack has going for it that others on the burger scene don't? Buzz. The place is a marquee name in NYC's own burger wars and is poised to make a lot of noise in DC. The rest only time can tell.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNNN('s Mongolian BBQ)

Mongolian BBQ is neither Mongolian nor BBQ. Are you surprised? Yeah, I was too. Yet, the misnomer didn’t stop me from enjoying Khan’s BBQ on H Street NE.

The great thing about this type of cuisine is it’s completely customizable, allowing you to satisfy the cravings of a large group or just a couple of picky eaters. When you walk into Kahn’s BBQ, your eyes are immediately drawn to the large griddle by the front door where your food is cooked. Directly behind that is where you are given the tools to make your perfect meal.

Each person approaches the food bar and takes a bowl that can be filled to the brim with all sorts of fresh vegetables, noodles and pineapple. Then you move down the line to concoct your own sauce. You can choose to mix everything from soy sauce to mustard to teriyaki to buffalo(!) sauce and then take that along with your veggies to the griddle. The chefs behind the counter will ask you if you would like chicken, beef or shrimp and then proceed to cook your meal to order. Once it is handed back to you there is the option getting a scoop of fresh rice to eat alongside your main dish. You can grab a drink from the soda fountain, pay for your food (no more than $10) and then proceed to find a seat.

Khan’s is trying to position itself as somewhat of a sports bar with a number of gigantic flat-screens stationed around the restaurant with a well stocked bar. It is my understanding that the owners are working on a bar menu that will allow restaurant goers and bar buddies to eat without the “fuss” of making their own creation.

This restaurant is a great addition to the ever-expanding food options on H Street. Although the concept can be considered gimmicky, the food is fresh and cooked with an expert touch and the owners and made it clear that they want to be a part of the neighborhood culture. Kudos to that.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hot dogs Soar at DC-3

There has been a lot of talk recently about the hot dog. In my opinion, this link of cased meat rarely gets the respect it deserves. Sure, people expect to eat them at baseball games or unimaginative versions on street corners. But this sells the hot dog short. There is so much more that can be done with them.

It seems that the folks behind Ted’s Bulletin and Matchbox agree with me. They recently opened DC-3 by Eastern Market. DC-3 is a hot dog temple. They offer 17 different regional hot dog preparations including some of my personal favorites that, to date, remain difficult to find here in DC. The dogs range from traditional to new age (i.e. a falafel dog and a cod dog), meaning there is something for everyone.

Elliot and I tried 3 different hot dog preparations and 2 sides. We were both impressed that we were able to eat so much for just over $20. This makes DC-3 a great place for us to keep in the back of our minds on the nights where cooking doesn’t seem to be in the cards, but we don’t want to spend a lot of money.

First on the “to-try” list was the Cincinnati-style coney. It's topped with traditional Cincinnati chili, mustard, chopped onion and plenty of shredded cheddar cheese. As a Cincinnati girl (born and raised), I can tell you that this is as close to home as I am going to get inside the beltway.


Also, as both of my parents are from Chicago, I also have soft spot in my heart for the overstuffed Chicago 7. Almost all of the essential elements of this hot dog are up to snuff. There was something that wasn’t quite right about the poppy seed bun, but beggars can’t be choosers. I was particularly impressed with the correct portioning of each of the 7 ingredients that go into making up this dog.

The last frank that we tried was the Lancaster Dutch Pretzel Dog. Neither of us have any connection with Pennsylvania, but we were intrigued by the pretzel bun. I’m glad we decided to try this, because the bun combined with the slightly sweet all-beef dog and the spicy deli mustard was perfection.

DC-3 offers a few sides to go with their dogs. Both of the ones that we tried were winners. The frips (a strange combination of fries and chips) were crisp and salty without overpowering the main dish. Fried pickles have recently been brought into the spotlight and that popularity is rightfully deserved. These fried rounds are fantastic dunked in the dipping sauce provided every order.

If nothing on the board piques your interest - though it's highly unlikely nothing will - you can build your own dog for a mere $6. You get to choose the type of frank you want, customize the bun and even go down the line and decide what will top your personalized dog. But, no matter what you order you won’t be disappointed by this new cheap eat on the Hill.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Tout de Sweetest Thing

It’s the little things in life that make you smile. For some it’s listening to the sound of rain on the roof. For others it’s an unexpected email or phone call from a good friend. For me, it’s pastries - specifically French pastries. If you give me a flaky almond croissant or a chocolate mousse pyramid you’ve pretty much made my day twenty times better than it already was.

Since moving to D.C., I have been sans a reliable French bakery. There was just nothing out there that matched the pure bliss and flavor of the one I grew up two blocks from back in Ohio. Thankfully my p√Ętisserie dreams have been answered by Tout de Sweet in Bethesda.

Tout de Sweet ‘s small storefront near the Woodmont Triangle has a sleek and modern look that screams, "Paris chic." The front window displays colorful French macaroons while the small chalkboard advertises that they sell coffee and tea to go with your “sweet treat.” The walls inside are stark white with hints of mint green, a hue that recalls the color of a pistachio macaroon.

Jerome Colin, who previously worked as a pastry chef at Le Paradou and Sofitel Hotel, churns out some of the most authentic and tasty French bonbons that I have had since I was in France. The macaroons are the perfect midday pick-me-up with their sweetness and signature “soft crunch.” Every buttery croissant calls my name as if it was begging to be eaten. The willpower that it takes to walk by (and not eat) the beautiful cupcakes and mousse cakes deserves a round of applause.

Unfortunately, there are just a few bar stools that invite you to linger over your coffee and pastry. Luckily, there is plenty of seating across the street that can be utilized as we are headed into the warmer months. You can close your eyes, enjoy the sunshine, eat your French pastry and imagine that you are sitting in Paris living the sweet life.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

First Bite - Medium Rare

Medium Rare is a rarity, in both concept and execution. How many other restaurants in D.C. can you think of that not only exude a fine-dining confidence while offering a single item on the menu? None come to my mind. And so it is the brain trust behind behind the new bistro, opened up shop in Cleveland Park.

The premise is simple: once seated, diners are served bread, a mixed-green salad, and slices of sirloin cap steak paired with frites. Half of your serving of the steak and frites arrives immediately after you've finished your salad, while the latter half delivered to the table later to ensure you're always eating hot food. This alone is a brilliant touch.

But the prix fixe menu is tremendously liberating. You walk in with really only two decisions to make: how you'd like your meat cooked and whether or not you'd like additional items like wine or dessert. Because the restaurant is called Medium Rare, it seems like that first question is off the table. Therefore, you're free to enjoy the evening without all the self-doubt inherent in selecting from an over-packed menu. By deciding to dine at Medium Rare in the first place, all of the pressure's relieved.

Beyond that? The food rocks. Everything's incredibly delicious. Even in the restaurant's first week of operation, the recipes are delicious. Utterly perfect, even. I guess that's another benefit of only providing a handful of dishes. The bread was right out of the oven, crispy and delicious. The salad wasn't drowning in vinaigrette. The frites were everything that frites ought to be. And then there was the meat. Dear God, what a delicious steak. Cooked perfectly, topped with an amazing house sauce, and so tender I barely needed a knife. Elyse looked at me midway through the meal and asked, "Is this your new favorite restaurant?" And it just might be.

As much as I love the D.C. restaurant scene, and as much as I've grown as a foodie (both in waist size and in scope of taste), the one thing I've really been missing is simplicity. This restaurant is a temple of simplicity. It recognizes that no restaurant can be everything to you every day; no establishment can carry the full arsenal of whatever any person might want to eat at any given moment, even though some misguided operations try. Medium Rare is the confident operation that says, "You're not always going to be in the mood for steak, and that's ok. When you are, come visit us, and we'll take care of you." At $19.50, it's hard to argue with the menu, and if you want to splurge on the dessert or alcohol, those are dandy to0. I nearly went into a coma after eating the chocolate cake; one of the managers told us he found a nearby bakery that makes a tw0-layer chocolate fudge cake and simply asked if they could double the number of layers. You gotta love that kind of imagination, don't you?

In the end, it's hard to oversell the quality of this place. The wait staff was stellar, the ambiance was chill and inviting, and the food was fantastic. What more can you ask for just over twenty bucks? So head up (or down, depending on your geography) and give this place a shot. You'll be glad you did. And if you're not, that's fine. More for me.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

ChiDogO's A-Go-Go

It's always an interesting time entering a dining situation with someone who has such extensive experience with the food you're about to eat. Whenever we go out to eat barbecue, I'm sure Elyse (hereafter referred to as "The Expert") is extra sensitive to all of the KC-style fanboy nonsense I spout. Similarly, any time we're within an area code of a restaurant that claims it sells "authentic Chicago-style hot dogs," my impulse is to watch her closely first and see how she reacts. I might love something, but until she gives it the thumbs up, I'll keep my thoughts to myself. She grew up visiting her family on the South Side of Chi so often it sometimes seemed like she never left.

Walking into ChiDogO's then, just off of U Street, NW, my food purist radar was on high alert.


Looking at the menus variety of dogs and sandwiches - it pained me to pass on the beef sandwich, but there's always next time - we settled to split a Chicago Dog and a Chili Dog. The first thing that struck me was the fact we were getting two hot dogs for under $8. The two dogs were handed to us wrapped and in a paper bag, which The Expert informed me was the right way. So far, so good.

The dogs themselves were delicious. The cheesy Chili Dog exuded all sorts of flavor and texture without being so messy that it required being hosed down afterward. And after an evening of spending too much money on alcohol on U Street, this seems like a tremendous end note to a night out. The Expert and I both greatly enjoyed the Chicago Dog as well. She ranted and raved that THIS was the kind of Poppy-Seed bun that so many area imitators lacked. The elements (yellow mustard, green relish, chopped onions, a pickle spear, tomatoes, celery salt*, etc.) were plentiful but not overflowing, and everything tasted utterly cohesive. Because we were so hungry, the dogs disappeared in a matter of minutes, leaving only the vague recollection of a prior doubt. Did ChiDogO's live up to all of The Expert's exact specifications? No. The Expert claimed it was sprinkled with too much celery salt and said the tomato seemed a bit limp. But, then again, it's hard to imagine her finding anything suitable anywhere more than 10 miles outside of The Loop.

Therefore, we already had a positive take on the restaurant before we got up to leave. As we did, Bill, ChiDogO's manager came out to say hello to us. He'd noticed Elyse (yes, enough with the gimmick) taking pictures of our food before we ate. She does this everywhere; just one of the hazards of food blogging, I guess. It's hard not to make a scene. But I digress.

Producing his business card, Bill told us that he hoped we'd enjoy our meal and to let him know what we thought. He told us to check out the restaurant on Facebook and Twitter, and thanked us for showing interest. Now, this seems like an obvious move. It seems obvious in this day and age that if you see people (who are obviously food bloggers) sitting in your dining room, you'd want to interact with him. But I can tell you he was the first. We've never been approached, engaged, and recognized in such a way. We don't write this blog for such interactions, to be sure. We write because we love food. But encountering someone in the restaurant world who doesn't look down upon our presence in his business and, quite the opposite, thanks you for being there? It's encouraging. Maybe the city is finally starting to get wise.