Sunday, March 28, 2010

Urban Brunching

As my friend Sam always says, "There is nothing better than brunch." According to her, "Brunch, which combines the greatest foods from breakfast and lunch, was a big meal eaten by Christians after attending mass." Well, this brunch was not after mass... considering we were trying to load up on carbs before the start of Passover, but it was absolutely a combination of the greatest foods from breakfast and lunch.

Sam and I chose Urbana because I had heard wonderful things about their bellini bar. I fell in love with bellinis when I traveled to the drink's birthplace, Venice, during my time abroad. For those of you who do not know what a bellini is, you are absolutely missing out: it is a lovely mixture of prosecco and peach puree. Urbana takes this concept a step further and built your own bellini bar. They have a variety of fruit juices and purees (mango, passion fruit, peach, strawberry, orange, etc.) sitting out, which allows you to make your own concoction of fruit topped off with bubbly. Do you want to know what the best part of this is? Are you sure? Ok, so here it goes: you can have a bottomless bellini for the low price of $11! That is equivalent to one mediocre drink in Adams Morgan on a Saturday night. This is a much better use of alcohol and money.

Knowing that we are about to be on a carb-less diet for a eight days, we chose to gravitate toward foods that were full of them. We must have been giving off the Jewish vibe, because even our observant and attentive waiter made a comment about needing eat carbohydrate-heavy dishes before Passover. With that in mind, it was an easy decision to make to order the blueberry pancakes. Although I can't speak for my dining companions' dishes, mine was close to perfect. I could tell that the blueberries were fresh, leaving little stains of purple juice on the fluffy pancakes. The other thing that I appreciated was the maple syrup, which I am fairly certain was the real stuff from maple trees in Vermont and not Aunt Jemima's or Log Cabin from the grocery store. My fellow brunchers also cleared their plates of challah French toast and eggs, toast, and bacon. As my mother always says, "The clean plate club is always the mark of a good meal."

DC Brew Master

The official start of spring inside the Beltway isn't the first crocus, daylight savings time or even the vernal equinox. In DC, spring begins when the cherry blossoms start to bloom and the city gathers to fly its kites on the National Mall during the Smithsonian Kite Festival. Yesterday, I was invited to head down to the mall with a few friends to fly kites and enjoy the beautiful weather. Once the sun started fading away, it was quickly decided that we needed grub and some beer. One of the people we were with had heard good things about Capitol City Brewing Company's seasonal cherry blossom ale, and it seemed somewhat appropriate considering the day. After a walk through the throngs of tourists who were unsure of where they were going, we finally made it to the restaurant in Chinatown only to find ourselves among more tourists. After a 20-minute wait surrounded by fanny-packs and fold-out maps, we were seated.

Let me tell you this upfront: you don't go to Capitol City for the food. In fact, I would say that it is the last thing that you should go there for. If you want to go there, go for their signature brews. Those of my friends who tried the cherry blossom ale enjoyed it and said it had a nice finish. Since I couldn't have the cherry blossom ale (I have an allergy to cherry flavoring/red dye), I chose the Capitol Kolsch brew. Really hoppy beer, doesn't do much for me. Thankfully, this was a light, German-style beer that was mildly sweet.

Sadly, as expected, the food was a let down. I honestly felt a bit like I was back in college in our dining hall. Everything that came out of the kitchen had a processed taste to it, almost like it had been sitting in big bags in the walk-in freezer. I ordered sliders that weren't precisely tiny burger patties between the buns; it was as if a normal-sized burger had been cut into quarters.

I could continue to rant, but it's not worth it. The moral of this story is as as follows: go to Capitol City to enjoy a pint, but find another one of the many wonderful restaurants in the same general area to eat dinner.

images: personal photography

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

God Loves Us and Wants Us To Be Happy

Benjamin Franklin once said that, "beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." As someone who is not the biggest beer drinker, I would have been up for a good argument with with this Founding Father. Well, before heading to Birch & Barley with my Dad, anyway. We met there for a final dinner before he headed back to Cleveland.

And though I have never been to a
Neighborhood Restaurant Group establishment - as many of them are in Virginia and my car lives in Ohio - I have certainly heard people praise the overall experience at their restaurants. Lucky for me, NRG just opened up their first restaurant/bar in the District. I'm even luckier because it's located in Logan Circle and around the corner from my dad's hotel.

The evening at
Birch & Barley did not start off so great. Frankly, it had me wondering why people always go on and on about NRG restaurants and their service. Although the hostesses at the front door were nice, it seemed as if they were unprepared for the sheer number of people coming through their doors. When I was told that we were going to have to wait for our table to be ready even though we had a reservation, they weren't entirely sure where to stand without getting being in the way. We wandered up the steep, wooden stairs to see the hubbub that is ChurchKey. It was a Wednesday night at 8:00 p.m. and the place was hopping. The back of the bar showcased the infamous 555 different beers that have been imported to the restaurant from over 30 countries. I would have loved to hang out upstairs a bit longer, but there wasn't a spot to be had at the bar... or anywhere near to the bar, for that matter.

Downstairs at the back of the restaurant is a bar that is considerably more subdued than the one upstairs. The list of beers on tap was incredibly impressive, but what was more awe inspiring was the design behind the bar. There is a series of what appears to be copper pipes the are connected to the 50 kegs upstairs. The lumination from the tealights on the walls reflecting off of the pipes reminded me of the organ at my synagogue in Cincinnati. Maybe Birch & Barley sees beer as somewhat of a religious experience. But on to more important things: the beer! The selection of beer on tap is impressive, even to someone who doesn’t typically enjoy beer. Our bartender acted as a sommelier of sorts and allowed my father and I to try a number of different beers that he thought we would enjoy. I wound up with a beer from the category “sweet and tangy,” and my dad had a beer from Great Lakes Brewery. It was almost like he had never left Cleveland.

When we finally sat down, I was more than ready to feed my grumbling tummy. Thank goodness the food did not disappoint. Prior to visiting the restaurant I had heard about their amazing bread plate. Oh goodness, there are not words that can adequately describe how wonderful that platter full of hot carbs smelled and tasted. The hit of the table was absolutely the fresh pieces of pretzel. This is no Auntie Anne’s in the mall or New York City street vendor, it is an honest to goodness delicacy. I was pleasantly surprised to taste just enough salt without being overpowered (the crime that gives hot pretzels a bad rap).

The next course at our table could have been called the beet course. Beets are a fairly new addition to my list of favorite vegetables and the dishes that we tried confirmed my newfound love. I chose to have the Vialone Nano Risotto, also known as risotto with roasted beets, wilted greens and goat cheese. The beets made the risotto rice a gorgeous burgundy color that tasted as pretty as it looked, and the addition of the goat cheese gave a wonderful creamy texture to the dish. It was bit too rich to eat with another course coming, but it made a wonderful light lunch the next day. Dad had the beet salad, which I fully expected to be some beets over leafy grains with a few pecans on top of it. Not even close. This was a beautiful cup of beets with a citrus vinaigrette. Yum.

I presumed the main course would be somewhat of a letdown. After all, this is a fairly new restaurant, and at most new restaurants there is always something that isn't quite up to par. Not at Birch and Barley; kudos to them! My skate was cooked so that it was flaky and it had absorbed the parmesan broth to give it this wonderfully unexpected flavor. The Brat Burger that my dad ordered looked like monstrosity of meat topped with sauerkraut. I only took a little bite (sans sauerkraut), but that was ok. My dad ate the entire thing.

Saying goodbye to my dad was made slightly easier by the perfect, little key-lime icebox cake that capped off the meal. It was the perfect mixture of sweet and tart. A wonderful end to a wonderful evening.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Proof is in the Pudding

When I saw there was
an opportunity to give back to the community by eating out, it took me approximately 2 seconds to start
asking around to find a friend to eat dinner with me. Luckily, it didn't take me long to find someone, and she and I were drawn to the same place on the list of participating restaurants. Proof lived up to all
expectations, especially considering 35% of our bill was going to help fight the AIDS epidemic in DC.

After my first (almost) full week of work, I needed a good
glass of wine. Thankfully our waiter was able to skillfully guide me through the novel of a wine list. He helped me pick out a wonderful glass of riesling, which he warned me was very tart. It's a good thing that I am the type of person that likes to eat lemons. But really, it was a great glass of wine that I would happily order again... except for the small fact that I forgot to write down the name of it. Oh well, you live and learn.

Gnocchi has been one of my favorites since I tried it on my first trip to New York City for my 12th birthday. I love a good traditional preparation, but sometimes it's the unusual ingredients that just push an amazing dish beyond the stratosphere. Proof serves a version prepared with sauteed Yukon gold potatoes. I was in culinary heaven and it was a comfort to know that one can get good pasta outside of Italy and Manhattan.

A few years ago, Haagen Daz held a competition to have the public come up with the next flavor that they should make. The winning flavor was sticky toffee pudding, which is a dessert of British origin that is this lovely mix of a brown sugar cake and a toffee sauce. Up until that night at Proof I had never had the real dessert, but I can't imagine having a better version than that one. My friend and I devoured the cake, savoring every morsel.

Proof is a wonderful restaurant, if a bit pricy (but totally worth it for donating to a good cause). It's not a place that I would frequent often, but it is certainly a place that I would recommend for a good glass of wine, some dessert and a good conversation with a friend. And, after all, isn't that the most important thing?

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Land of Lobster Burgers and KitKats

I'll admit it - I'm extremely lucky because my father comes to DC for work on a fairly frequent basis. His time in DC doesn't just mean that I get to have some good "daddy/daughter" time, but it means that he gets to feed me.
Since I was a little kid, food was always an incredibly important part of my family. Food Network was the TV channel of choice. Family dinners were a time to catch up every evening. Cooking for a meal was turned into a make-believe cooking show hosted by my attention-loving younger sister. And eating out was always an adventure - it was the goal to try and find the newest restaurant, the best food and the most creative cooking.

Over the past 5 years that I have lived in DC I have had the opportunity to eat at some amazing restaurants, yet there is one that I keep going back to time and time again. I've been to Central Michel Richard to celebrate both my birthday and college graduation and last week I had the opportunity to return - and it was better than I remembered it.

About 6 weeks ago my father asked me to help him plan a dinner in DC for some of his business associates. Immediately I decided that it would be at Central - how could it not? The food is wonderful and the service is impeccable - two things that every impressive business dinner should include. Yet, I was still having doubts. Maybe it was because I've been there a few times and I wanted something new. Or maybe it was because there has been a turn over in the kitchen. Who knows what it was. But, during one of the Washingtonian's food chats their critic, Todd Kliman, said " I would take my food-loving visitors to Central...because it's unique. There's nothing like it anywhere else. So that, then, becomes a must-stop -- an experience thy won't find in their own city."

And what a good choice we made. The food once again found the ability to make my taste buds swoon during every course. I started with the traditional gougeres, which are otherwise known as cheese puffs. If you go to Central and you only order one thing these little bit-sized pieces of heaven should be it.

The rest of dinner flowed as freely as the wine. The service was unobtrusive, but the waiters always seemed to anticipate the table's every need. The lobster burger that one of the dinner guests had lived up to the hype. My short ribs were so tender that they fell off the bone with the lightest touch. My dad's tomato and mozzarella salad was not only presented beautifully the mozzarella was made in-house and transported me back to the markets in Rome.

The grand finale of the evening was Michel Richard's famous KitKat Bar - or at least that was what it was called the first time I ate there. Now, though it is referred to Michel's Chocolate Bar. Yet, the name doesn't matter, what matters is how incredible it tastes. It took some convincing but soon everyone around the table was swooning over the decadence and simplicity of this dessert.

I walked out of the restaurant feeling comfortably full and having no doubts that Central truly deserves every award and word of praise that is bestowed upon them.

Eat the World with Sauca

Most mornings start off the same. Alarm 1 goes off - press snooze. Alarm 2 goes off - press snooze. And when alarm 3 goes off I finally find it in myself to get up from underneath the covers and face the reality that I need to get ready, shower and commute to work. Thankfully, Wednesday mornings are slightly different - or at least they will be from now on.

This past Wednesday I woke up and checked Twitter only to find that the Sauca Mobile - a new foodtruck concept was making an appearance in my neighborhood and only a block from the the metro. I had been following Sauca on twitter for awhile, and thought that this would be the perfect morning to try this new concept.

For those of you that haven't heard of Sauca, they are marketing themselves by saying they are about "enjoying delicious, healthy, global foods in a new and exciting way, where sight, sound, smell, taste and touch are key to the full experience." It is a food truck that is heading out to feed the hungry people of DC with food that draws on flavors and traditional ingredients from around the world.

After visiting the truck that morning I would have to agree with the descriptors. I didn't have a ton of time - so I did a bit of the 'dine and dash' thing. I quickly scanned the menu which is posted on magnets on the side of the truck, and decided on a toffle with banana. From the taste and smell of the toffle it appears to be a fresh
waffle with a bit a caramel/toffee kind of crust on the top. The staff inside the truck was pleasant, apologizing for the wait and helping me make a decision about which toppings I should try.

The first bite that I managed to sneak in before heading down into the metro was delicious. Perfectly hot and crisp with the right amount of sugar to satisfy my early-morning sweet tooth. If I had more time on my hands (and the truck had opened on time) I may have decided to have a breakfast sauca (eggs, potatoes and cheddar cheese served on flatbread). Alas, that was not the case, so I guess I will just have to wait until the next time I run into the Sauca Truck.