Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Veloce Italiano at Vapiano

Italians like to take their time; it’s just a fact of life. In Italy, when you go to a restaurant for dinner you “own” that table from the moment you take your seat until the moment you pay the bill. No waiter or manager will ever rush you out the door because someone is waiting for a table or it is getting close to closing time. Dinner should be leisurely and without stress. There is something to be said for this slice of Italian culture, but it is clearly something that we have not adopted here in the States.

Vapiano, the self-proclaimed “fast and hip” casual Italian restaurant is a European concept that landed in Washington DC in 2007. The concept came from the first McDonald’s franchise owner in Germany, and everything about the experience screams commercial.

Upon entering, diners receive cards that contain a computer chip. Each time you order something, you press your card to a reader so that you only pay once prior to leaving. This makes jumping from the pizza station to the pasta station to the bar relatively easy, especially knowing that you aren’t pulling out cash or your credit card every few minutes.

The food at Vapiano is customizable, giving each patron plenty of options. The chefs behind the counter won’t yell at you for ordering your Bolognese on top of spaghetti (Italians tend to frown upon putting heavy sauces over thin pasta) or ordering an unusual combination on top of your pizza. But, since the food is made to order, it’s bound to be good, even if it isn’t true to Italian tradition. Each dish is also served with hot bread, which can (and should) be dipped in the balsamic and olive oil that flows freely in the restaurant.

One of the best things about Vapiano (which is Italian slang for kicking back and relaxing, ironic though it may be) is its happy hour. It runs Monday through Saturday, from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and then on Sunday from noon until close. The long time range isn’t even the best part! You can enjoy a Peroni or a glass of wine (both red and white) for a mere $4. This deal has made all of the DC locations a hot spot for happy hour lovers. I know many people who are happy to camp out there for an entire evening.

One more word to the wise – if you are in the mood for some tiramisu or panna cotta go online and sign up for Vapiano’s e-mail list. They will send you a coupon for a free dessert as soon as you're entered.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

First Bite - Casa Nonna

Yom Kippur is the one day a year when I have to refrain from partaking in one of my favorite activities: eating. Throughout those 24 hours of repentance, every cereal commercial on TV, mention of meal times, and single hint of food makes my stomach rumble and crave sustenance. In order to survive this seemingly never-ending day, one has to prep by eating a very large meal.

Casa Nonna, the new Italian concept from the people behind BLT Steak, seemed like the obvious choice. They have been touting it as a homegrown Italian family kitchen. (Casa Nonna is Italian for "grandmother’s house"). The large portions and traditional dishes allow this Dupont spot to live up to its name. 

Elliot and I arrived at the restaurant right around 6pm, only to find the dining room almost completely empty. This allowed me to have a good look at how the space has been transformed since its former life as a California Pizza Kitchen. The interior went from having a California-chic feeling to that of a rustic Italian trattoria, complete with red checkered tablecloths. 

In order to fill up our stomachs, Elliot and I started with the risotto balls and the fried mozzarella. The risotto balls (better known to us as suppli) were good, but didn’t live up to the high expectations we have after becoming regulars at 2 Amys. They were a bit too small and the fried outside didn’t have enough flavor for my taste. Luckily, the fried mozzarella fared better. The fried rounds were served with what appeared to be an anchovy butter complementing the slightly sweet cheese. Another treat was warm, gratis bread that comes with a bit of garlicy pesto smothered on each slice. The couple sitting next to us asked for bread without the pesto, and I truly felt bad for them knowing that they would 
miss a highlight of the restaurant. 

The true star of the evening, however, was the lasagna. At first glance, the $30 price tag made me balk, but then I realized that this dish would contain a 1/4 pound of pasta for each of us, ensuring us that we had more than enough food to last us through the 24-hour fast. Most lasagna recipes call for a combination of ricotta, cottage cheese, mozzarella or another mild form of cheese. This tends to make any lasagna dish feel very heavy inside of your stomach. Casa Nonna chooses to use a bechamel in between the layers of pasta, ensuring that you feel full but not too full after devouring every last morsel. Another benefit is that you can better taste the marinara sauce left in the dish.

Casa Nonna still needs a few weeks to allow the staff to get into a routine and have the kitchen learn to pace themselves. There were times when we felt as if our waiter was hovering just waiting for us to take a sip of our water so he could refill it. Literally, he was standing five feet away. But I feel like the rhythm will come in time, allowing Casa Nonna to become a bright spot in the BLT Empire and the Dupont dining scene. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Here We Go Againn

Don’t get be wrong... I love me some fish and chips. But that is about as adventurous as I tend to be when it comes to British pub fare here in the States. I guess you could say that some of the names just plain scare me. Bangers and Mash sounds like a horror movie. Spotted Dick sends shivers down my spine just hearing it spoken aloud. Bubble and Squeak makes me think of a cat getting its tail stepped on. British food just can’t win in my book, at least mentally.

Well, at least it couldn’t until I tried Againn on a recent Friday night. It was one of those places that had been on my million-mile long “to-try” list for far too long, partly because I hardly ever make it to downtown DC in time for happy hour. Yet, an early release from work allowed me to make it in time to sneak up to the bar at Againn and try their delicious fare.

Before speaking about the food, though, I’ve got to give the libations (and those who serve them) the accolades that they deserve. It’s not hard to tell that Againn is serious about everything that they serve at the bar. This is, after all, the restaurant that allows you to rent your own scotch locker on a yearly basis. Minutes after sitting down, bartenders Andrew and Rich were explaining how Againn makes spherical ice cubes for serving scotch; spheres have the smallest surface area of any three-dimensional figure and therefore melt slower. The two would serve as our docents for the evening, suggesting food and beverage pairings. In essence, the pair gave us a lecture in Bar Tending 101. Sitting at the bar and watching them create and perfectly intricate drinks was a treat in and of itself.

Because I had a LivingSocial coupon, I was able to try a wide variety of food on the menu. Yet I found it completely possible to eat and drink well at Againn on a budget. Elliot and I started off with hand cut chips (a.k.a. fries) and the Guinness soft pretzels. The fries were served with an amazing garlic aioli that was so good I was tempted to eat it with a spoon. I knew the pretzels were on their way because I could smell them before they were even in front of us. The gooey inside combined with the delicate crunch on the outside (and some spicy house-made mustard to boot) made for a fantastic treat.

I also went ahead and ordered the ½ pint of Atlantic prawns, a happy hour special. The shrimp were served chilled with Againn’s version of cocktail sauce, which was a bit more creamy than the standard fare. Eating those prawns made me feel like I was back in England standing on the beach. They were that fresh.

By this time I wasn’t very hungry anymore, but Elliot was still hungry. (Boys…what are you going to do with them?) The bartenders recommended the bangers and mash. For those of you that don’t speak "British," that translates to "sausage and mashed potatoes." Both were wonderful and full of flavor. The potatoes were creamy and offset by sautéed onions that packed just the right amount of punch.

To top our meal off one off, the bartenders recommended that we order the Guinness float. Yes, you read that correctly. This dessert is a root beer float wherein Guinness serves as a substitute for the traditional carbonated beverage. This is truly a “can’t miss” in my book. The homemade stout ice cream pairs perfectly with the hoppy flavors in the beer. And, if you wrap up your meal with this sweet ending, I can guarantee you that it will be impossible to leave unhappy. If you go for happy hour your wallet will agree.

View Larger Map

Monday, September 6, 2010

Red Hot Heartbreak (Elliot's Adventures in Mid-Atlantic Barbecue: Vol. I)

Ladies and gentlemen, I am a Kansan. Aside from a mild inferiority complex and an adoration of everything midwestern, this distinction usually only lends itself to one thing: I know my barbecue. I know all the rules: I know how smoked brisket ought to look; I know how ribs should fall off the bone; I know the merits of dry versus wet-age preparation; I know sauce; I know that serving barbecue with any bread other than plain old white is blasphemous.

Why point this out? Because knowing what I do also means that I know what is not barbecue. The charlatans and impostors are all visible to me from well over a mile away. So when a friend suggested recently that we dine at Red Hot & Blue for dinner one night, I was immediately dubious. And over the course of our evening, it broke almost every rule. The first was simply part of the restaurant's nature. Rule one: no chains. Multiple locations within the same city are fine; that's about serving to a greater demand. But national chains? No dice. But still, I said yes. I was really aching for ribs and didn't have the ability to drive to any of the out-of-the-way spots.

When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was the decor. Gaudy colors, blues posters and the like were everywhere. Rule two: a real barbecue joint doesn't need to prove to anyone it's a barbecue joint because it is a barbecue joint. I know this probably seems like a very Zen-like way to look at things, but it's true. Had the Red Hot & Blue crew spent more time on their menu instead of finding the brightest colors of paint and the most "legit-looking" blues posters, things might have turned out much better.

Up first, we ordered onion straws. Not much the most traditional barbecue side, but we went with it. What arrived was a block of what could have been onions... once. It was overly fried and completely flavorless. Rule three: sides are meant to compliment the barbecue eating experience by providing alternate flavors and textures. This dish had neither flavor nor texture. Shuddering and praying for a miracle, I threw a Hail Mary and ordered the dry ribs.

What arrived was an absolute atrocity. Rule three: quality dry rub adds depth of flavor to the meet, but it also brings out the meat's natural flavors so that you know you're eating beef, pork, lamb, etc. This slab was completely coated, covered in a red powder that I can only guess was unadulterated cayenne pepper. I say that I can only guess because the only thing I could taste was pure heat. Not the meat. Not the other seasonings in the rub (if there were any). Only heat. My meal was over, a complete travesty. And I only had myself to blame.

I knew these rules. I knew these rules and did not follow them. So the next time I'm feeling the pull of true barbecue - and it's quite possible that I've been itching since I even left Red Hot & Blue - I'll have to spring for the extra money to drive to a legit establishment. Maybe I'm elitist. Maybe I'm too picky. But the real stuff is so good that I can't possibly care. There are more rules that I'll address in future posts (like the different schools of barbecue thought), but for this first excursion, it was all about the basics.

If you can, help a brother out. Let me know where I can get the good stuff. For now, I remain in withdrawal.