Saturday, January 21, 2012

Oval Room - Downtown - Restaurant Week

I always approach Restaurant Week with a certain amount of ambivalence. While $35 for a prix-fixe dinner may sound like a good deal, in reality, that is more or less the same price you would have paid during a regular weekend for the vast majority of restaurants that participate in this promotion. The added downside is that you usually get a limited menu of untested dishes designed specifically for RW and, because kitchens limit themselves to these dishes, they have a tendency to mail in their efforts during RW.

However, I do find that the $20 prix-fixe lunches can still be a relative bargain if you choose the right restaurant. The Oval Room is one of those restaurants.

Getting reservations for an RW lunch at the Oval Room was surprisingly easy. The one downside is that you have to give your credit card information to them just in case you are an unannounced no-show. This is obviously unnecessary and annoying, especially considering that when we arrived at the restaurant, numerous tables were empty.

Furthermore, the service at times was a bit supercilious. The maitre d' was unfortunately a bit too stiff and curt with my party, and not particularly welcoming. I get RW brings in the bridge and tunnel yahoos and hicks like me, but a paying customer is still a paying customer and deserves to be treated with utmost respect. For a formal restaurant like the Oval Room, you are not just paying for fine food, but for a fine dining experience. Anything that detracts from that experience, especially any hints of superiority or snobbishness on behalf of the staff at the expense of the diner, ruins the food and it needs to be mentioned. On the other hand, the waiter who served us was pleasant and affable and I quickly forgot my run in at the front of the house.

The food was consistently excellent. Generally speaking, I would characterize the style of Oval Room as New American with Asian and Latin twists thrown in. I ordered pappardelle with a smoked duck ragout for my appetizer and it was exceptional. The duck was perfectly braised and fall apart while the smokiness gave an interesting twist on the sauce. My entree was a salmon fillet with cabbage and a citrusy, Asian style dressing that imparted a nice brightness and lift to the unctuousness of the fish. They also prepared my fillet to a nice rare/medium-rare, retaining its moistness. My dining companions also ordered crispy chicken with mole that was huge, which my friend absolutely raved about. While not a traditional mole sauce as found in Mexico, my friend noted that it nonetheless worked seamlessly with the various other components of his dish. My other dining companion also enjoyed her steak with tamarind sauce, though it seemed a little more conservative than my salmon dish and the chicken dish.

Desserts were fine. My toffee cake seemed a little dry for me, but the accompanying ice cream was tasty. My friend's chocolate bomb was sufficiently chocolaty and quite good. Obviously, dessert is not really my wheelhouse, but I would have both again without hesitation.

In sum, for $20, this meal was a steal. When RW rolls around next August, I will be sure to try to get another lunch at the Oval Room.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Georgia Brown - MacPherson Square

Georgia Brown is a southern, "low-country," restaurant located in the heart of downtown DC. Luckily, they provide a relatively inexpensive pre-fixe lunch menu in which you can have a leisurely paced power lunch where one can cut complex, bet the firm deals or gossip about the lovelife of your cubicle mate.

The ambiance is sedate, if a little dated. The color palette of the dining room is priarily earth toned (think light browns, reds, yellows...the colors of autumn). However, there is this tangled skein of undulating bronze affixed to the ceiling, as if a spider had decided to weave a web of metal, which quite frankly just confuses me. However, while a little busy and distracting, it does not detract from the dining experience too much. The clientele, at least during lunch, was primarily professional.

The food is generally well prepared and the portions are ample (in my opinion, they are too big). The fried green tomatoes consisted of two slices of green tomato with a layer of goat cheese int he middle. They were crispy on the outside, but meaty in the inside, and the ooze of goat cheese was quite welcome.

The fried chicken I ordered was juicy, although I didn't care for the sweetness of the accompanying collard greens. While I appreciated the tartness of the greens, I wish they were a little more savory. The mashed potatoes were also quite good, if unexceptional. Luckily, even unexceptional mash potatoes are delicious.

I also sampled the Charleston Perlau, a rice dish with tomatoes. The dish comes with head on shrimp (one if you order off the pre-fixe menu, three if you order the full entree) and sucking the organ meat out of the heads were a delight. The rice was tasty enough, a little al dente which was nice, but it did not absolutely exude a kaleidoscope of flavors. But, I would eat it again without complaint.

The desserts were unfortunately absolutely forgettable. I remember dryish cake and sundries.

In sum, for the pre-fixe price, Georgia Brown's is an ideal spot for lunch. And, even though the pre-fixe portions are smaller than the regular entree portions, they are still so ample that I would encourage people to get the pre-fixe just so they don't leave the restaurant too overstuffed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

China Boy - Gallery Place

China Boy is a small storefront that primarily sells store made "chow foon," a broad, rice noodle, but also serves various soups, stir-fries, and crepe dishes, all of which feature their chow foon.

The store is primarily a carryout with only one table available to sit in. The interior is quite spartan and most of the people who came in while I was there had no interest in tarrying. I also noticed that the vast majority of people came in and ordered the chow foon plain, presumably to use in their own dishes at home.

I ordered a tripe noodle soup and a noodle crepe dish with dried shrimp. The tripe noodle soup was hearty, rich, and beefy. It was perfect for a cold winter's night. The tripe was tender and just chewy enough without being overwhelming offalish on the palate. The only drawback, to be honest, was the chow foon. Now, the chow foon itself was delicious, but I guess I don't much care for it in soup. I simply prefer thinner noodles with a little more bite to them. But, YMMV, as always.

The crepe dish, again featuring the chow foon, was more to my liking. The chow foon gently draped the dried, preserved shrimp, framing the briny, saltiness of shrimp in a billowing cushion of soft, chewy noodle. Some soy-based sauce and chili oil really made the dish sing. I would definitetly recommend this dish.

The woman at the counter was a little brusque, but I did get there near closing (they close around 5:00 pm). However, we conversed and she was surprised I was not Chinese since I ordered the tripe dish and visibly enjoyed it. And, I learned that, apparently, there are more than one type of tripe. The tripe she uses is only suitable for soups (and costs around $2.99/lb.) while a more expensive type of tripe can be deep fried and made crispy (something I had while eating at Ripple in Cleveland Park and costs about $5.99/lb.). You learn something new everyday!

So, if you want a crash course on offal with a side of chow foon, stop on by China Boy.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Oyamel - Gallery Place

Oyamel is Jose Andres's Mexican small plates outpost, serving consistently well-prepared, inventive, and accessibly priced dishes that your average, twenty-something, white-collared Washingtonian can afford as a splurge now and again.

The ambiance is upbeat, but not nearly as frenetic as Andres's Greek/Middle Eastern inspired restaurant Zaytinya. This place is a restaurant foremost, and it is possible to have conversation without having to scream in your companion's ear. Service, however, can be a little intrusive, as my waiter consistently interrupted conversation with my dining companion. I know he was just trying to be helpful and attentive, but part of the art of quality service is to ask patrons their status during lulls and to not interrupt when the guests are trying to have quiet conversation with each other.

The food was of fairly high quality that you won't find in many other restaurants in DC. The one exception to this was my lengua taco. While well made, I know of several tacquerias where I could have purchased one of the same quality. But, the Mexican squash salad was refreshing and moreish. The Papas al Mole were crispy and the sauce dark and flavorful. Although they were just fries, they were excellent fries. The plaintain fritters were sweet and tasty, though the sauce was fairly forgetabble. On the other hand, the tamal verde had a bright and zippy sauce, but the chicken breast was kind of bland. The guacamole was nice and well made.

Other dishes I have enjoyed immensely in the past have been the scallops pasilla chile and pumpkin seed sauce, the short ribs, and the taco with confit of baby pig (which you cannot get at the other tacquerias in town).

I know this sounds like I am damning the food with faint praise, but the food really is generally well made. I have no qualms about coming back, especially because, generally speaking, you will not find food like this anywhere else in DC.

Bistro D'Oc - Downtown

Bistro D'Oc offers a fairly standard French bistro experience. The ambiance was a low murmur, mildly bustling, but not overly noisy. Conversation with my dining companion was easy and pleasant. The waiter also struck the perfect balance of being attentive yet simulteneously unobtrusive.

The food was solid, if unexceptional. My escargot was a sufficiently buttery and garlicky, but the texture was rubbery due to being overcooked. My dining companion's salad was far more successful: a pleasant medley of warm bucheron paired with beets and haricot vert.

The entrees were solid. My short ribs were properly braised and the pomme puree was sufficiently rib-sticking. It was a perfect meal for a fall evening. My dining companion's duck confit was crispy on the outside and juicy in the inside. The pommes frites were also tasty and plentiful. While the food was not innovative or creative, sometimes you want to eat classics, and these renditions were generally well-made and correct (with the exception of the escargot).

The wine list is inspired by the Languedoc, which, if you didn't know, is oftentimes referred to as a "wine lake." I have had successful wines from this region, but you have to know what to order, and I did not find anything on the list particularly inspiring, unfortunately.

It is a place suitable for a date night and is conveniently located around the corner from the E Street Cinema if you want to impress someone with middlebrow cinematic fare. This is a good place for a second date where you know her enough to want to impress, but are still not at the point with her where you want to break the bank (dinner for two was about $100).

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Los Hermanos - Columbia Heights

Tucked away on a side street hidden underneath the shadow of the DCUSA Complex in Columbia Heights, Los Hermanos provides a wide array of authentic Dominican cuisine in a cafeteria style environment. When I walked in, I was greeted by one of the "hermanos," who was quite helpful in discussing the various braised meats, rice dishes, and sides that are displayed in chafing dishes on the countertop.

I ordered braised oxtail, a braised chicken dish, rice and beans, and "mangu," a mash of unripened plaintains. The mangu was a standout...a deeply savory dish that was rib-sticking and hearty. It was classic comfort food. The rice and beans were quite nice as well. The braised oxtail was delicious...the meat was falling off the bones and was slicked over with delicious bits of rendered fat. The chicken, on the other hand, while good, was less exciting. The sauce did not permeate the meat like it did with the oxtail, so the chicken, especially the bits of white breast meat I had, seemed under-seasoned. Other dishes my dining companions raved about were the yucca and the goat dish. The tripe stew looked quite appealing as well. On the other hand, one of my friends thought his pork was dry. My takeaway...go with the less traditional cuts of meat when you order your food. It stands to reason that you want a tougher cut of meat that has the inherent flavor to hold up under the long braising.

The atmosphere is friendly if spartan. As mentioned, service is cafeteria style and you bring your plate from the counter to your table. Unfortunately, the music is played a little too loudly for my taste, making conversation difficult at times (and there were not many people in the restaurant while I was there, so ambient conversation noise was not the issue). Also, the food gets a little cool sitting in the chafing dishes. But, all in all, this restaurant is worth a return trip.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Thanh Tong - Falls Church

Thanh Tong is located in the West Saigon wing of the Eden Center, one of several interior "malls" squirreled away in the recesses of this center of Vietnamese commerce. A small store front, Thanh Tong literally feels like a mom and pop hole in the wall minus the pop. The proprietor is a friendly, middle-aged Vietnamese woman who speaks halting English. She had two others helping her while I was there, one Vietnamese, the other Hispanic, both of whom spoke less English than the owner. Luckily, the language barrier only poses a small problem; all you need is a finger to point out the #9 Bun Bo Hue entree on the menu, and after that, pantomime and smiles can carry you for the rest of the day.

The #9 Bun Bo Hue is the specialty of this restaurant. What you get is a deeply flavored beef noodle soup filled with a texturally diverse array of Vietnamese sausage, beef, sliced pig's knuckles, and, if you're lucky, blood pudding (unfortunately, we came late and I believe they ran out of blood pudding for our bowls). Each bowl of Bun Bo Hue comes with a huge platter of bean sprouts and fresh herbs. It goes without saying that you should fill your bowls up with veggies because the crunch of vegetables and tang from the herbs provide an essential counterpoint to the chew of the meats and offal in your soup.

The noodles are of a thicker variety, quite dissimilar from the vermicelli you get in pho. These noodles had a pleasing bite and managed to soak up the beefy broth quite well. I would also recommend you take a spoonful of the fermented shrimp paste and stir it into the broth...it adds a certain indefinable something, part saline, part maritime, that enhances the overall dish. The hot sauce available on the table was also delicious, milder than Sriracha, but somehow gouleyant in quality, I was eating it by the spoonful unaccompanied by food, it was that good. I recommend taking a spoonful and stirring it into the peanut sauce if you order fresh summer rolls. It provides a nice lift and spice to the peanut sauce without overwhelming it with heat.

While the ambiance of Thanh Tong is starkly minimalist, the restaurant still has a charm that only an austerely functional ethnic restaurant can have: the promise of an exquisitely unique meal that comes at the expense of flashy decor and style. For a meal as comforting, homey, and delicious as the #9 Bun Bo Hue, that is an expense I would gladly pay.