Monday, February 28, 2011

Down By the Bayou Bakery

I’m going to be dreaming about Bayou Bakery’s beignets for a long time. They come straight from the fryer and are immediately covered with a thick layer of powdered sugar that threatens to stick to your nose. With each bite the sugar emulsifies in your mouth to create a sweet glaze that enhances the fluffy consistency of the square treats. Let’s just say that if I lived closer to the Courthouse metro station in Arlington I would have a hard time staying away, though to be fair I may hard time staying away anyway.

Chef (and cookbook author) David Guas has created a third-space that should be known for more than just their version of the New Orleans doughnut. The bakery/restaurant on the corner of North Courthouse and Clarendon is small but airy. The back of the restaurant is a cozy nook that is decorated with Cajun kitsch, funny signs that reference "fancy ladies" and some overstuffed chairs, while in the front the tables and booths are bathed in the light of the floor to ceiling windows that display stained glass. Over the speakers you can hear the beats of The Big Easy interspersed with the names of the parishes in Louisiana (it's how you know when your food is ready), both adding to the laid-back vibe. The cozy environment encourages people to linger over a counter culture latte, a cup of house-made lemonade or beer. This is fantastic until you find yourself standing awkwardly in the corner waiting to pounce on the first available table.

Elliot and I were at Bayou Bakery around noon on a Sunday, so we were lucky enough to be able to decide between the breakfast and lunch menus. I opted to go for an egg and cheese biscuit while Elliot gravitated toward the muff-a-lotta sandwich. The biscuit left crumbs on my plate after each buttery bite, proving to me that this was the real deal (and something that I would be hard pressed to create in my own kitchen). The entire sandwich begged for a little something extra, so I topped it with a touch of apple butter that I found next to the coffee condiments. Elliot’s muff-a-lotta was dynamite. Between the two halves of the sesame seed bun you found a spectacular combination of salami, mortadella, smoked ham, provolone cheese and a smear of an olive salad. It was practically drool-worthy, especially when you consider it was a mere $6.

Given all the hype, it stands to reason that our first experience at Bayou Bakery would be a bit of a letdown. After all, those hailing Guas's new concept buy ink by the barrel. He was even nominated for Food & Wine's Best New Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. But with all that, it is impossible to ignore that the food speaks for itself. Classic recipes paired with strong execution make for a dynamic dining experience, even if you're wearing yoga pants or cycling shorts. It is safe to say, that despite the schlep required to get there Elliot and I will be back soon, hopefully to celebrate Mardi Gras.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Spicing Things Up in Cleveland Park

Finding good Asian food in DC that is both metro-accessible and reasonably-priced is an unusually hard task. On one hand, you have the Wolfgang Puck’s The Source; on the other you have the little Chinese carryout shops where they specialize in Americanized menu items like kung pao chicken. Now, don’t get me wrong, both types of places serve their purpose, but sometimes all I want is something in the middle. Thankfully Spices in Cleveland Park fits the bill.

I first found out about this little gem when I was interning in Woodley Park. On nice days I would sometimes walk the 5 or so blocks to pick up food for the office. Then I found out that they deliver (!) within a 2 mile radius. That was mighty helpful when I went to American because there were absolutely nights where studying came before cooking. The other night Spices once again came to the rescue when I needed a place between Tenleytown and Dupont on the red line to meet a friend.

Spices is nestled in the grouping of stores and restaurants on the east side of Connecticut Avenue. The décor is nothing to write home about, but it doesn't take away from the overall dining experience, either. What’s on the plate is far more important. There is a long wooden bar offering sushi as well as some traditional Asian-fusion dishes including crab-meat wantons, pad-thai and chicken teriyaki. Their sushi is clearly fresh and is easily the best you can find in the immediate area. Without a doubt you can find better in the city, but I would venture to guess that this is the best that can be delivered.

On the side of the menu that includes the appetizers and the main entrée, I am a big fan of Spices’ chicken fried rice. Not only does it taste fresh, it lacks the insane amounts of oil that you tend to find in most renditions. Although it isn’t in the menu the vegetable tempura is worth asking about and ordering. Yes, it’s fried making it slightly unhealthy, but it is wonderfully crispy, something that most tempura lacks. One night my friend ordered the Vietnamese grilled shrimp that was served over vermicelli. The bowl that it came in was presented beautifully and the flavors complemented each other to create a refreshing and filling meal.

Although we opted out (it was a Sunday night after all), Spices does offer ½ price drinks Sunday – Thursday nights (5 – 7pm). If you are one who likes to have a cocktail with your dinner, this is a great deal especially because few if any of the mixed drinks are over $8.

Is Spices going to win any “best of” awards? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a well-priced, local restaurant that can fulfill your needs for a good meal at a good price.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Comet Appears

You don’t have to know a lot about the game of table tennis to feel at home at Comet Ping Pong in Connecticut Heights. It’s not necessary to know the difference between a chop and a block and a lob. All you really need is a craving for good pizza in a relaxed environment.

The décor leaves much to be desired, especially when you are sitting on the metal benches. Yet, you aren’t here to curl up in a booth, and that’s more than ok with the waiters and waitresses who look like they would be more at home in the hipster kingdom of Brooklyn. Yet, it’s easy to see that the peeling paint, exposed brick and abstract steel sculptures mimic the laid back attitude that is Comet Ping Pong. In fact, the place is so laid back that they hid their restrooms behind an unmarked door and there is a mint green Vespa hanging from the ceiling.

Without a doubt the star of the show at Comet is the pizza. This isn’t a place to pussyfoot around and try to remain “healthy” (especially if you are on a date). I can tell you from experience that whatever calories are hidden in the hand-formed pies are worth it. We were able to try 3 different pizzas while sitting at our table (which looked like a mini ping pong table) and all of them were deserving of being in the winner’s circle. Elliot and I opted to share The Smoky, while our friends tried the Steel Wills and The Dive. Our pizza lived up to its name with layers of gooey smoked mozzarella, sweet onions and mushrooms (we opted to skip the bacon). We were afraid that the single pizza with our side of meatballs (more on them later) wouldn’t be enough food for the two of us. Luckily the close-to-excessive amounts of cheese on the pizza prevented that from occurring.

The other big winner of the afternoon, the Steel Wills looked (and tasted) even better than when it was featured on Food Network’s Triple D. The house-made ricotta lived up to all my expectations and made me wish I knew how to make it myself. And you can’t forget The Dive. I am a sucker for egg on a pizza, but unfortunately this one fell a little flat. The yolk was a tad overcooked, resulting in a less than ideal yolk to crust ratio.
In addition, we opted to try and order of the Curtain Lady’s Special (aka meatballs).
I’m normally not a huge fan of this particular Italian specialty, but the combination of the veal meat, flavor-packed tomato sauce and the salty Parmesan made it a perfect starter to our meal.

Even though there are plenty of more metro-accessible pizza joints, this one is a “can’t miss.” Make the trek up Connecticut Ave for a date or go out with a group of friends. The restaurant is extremely proud of the fact that they have offered free ping pong in the back room for over two years and they have live music a handful of times each month. In addition, they have a well-crafted beer menu that features beers from some great breweries including Bells and Great Lakes. All of these things make for a relaxed environment that one expects from a great pizza joint, and the best part is - it can all be had for a great price.