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 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.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Occidental - Downtown

Occidental is a power lunch spot located in the Willard Hotel just blocks away from the White House. Its wood paneled interior, waiters bedecked in waist aprons, and various tasteful brass knick knacks and photos of bygone silver age celebrities usually denote an old school American restaurant that aims primarily to provide a suitably formal ambiance for cutting a deal while leaving the food an afterthought. Fortunately, the food, while unimaginative, was generally well prepared. My nicoise salad had some spicy greens mixed in and the filet of yellowfin tuna on top was prepared properly (that is, rare). The fried calamari was crispy, salty, and generally tasty, though the accompanying aioli tasted like the dregs from a bag of Lay's BBQ potato chip. One of the individuals I was dining with allowed me to taste some of her lima beans, which were rich, buttery, and flavorful. The desserts that were ordered were generally quite tasty as well, including a fruit tart and a chocolate pyramid.

If you work in the area, it is a place worth trying. And the people watching alone can make the meal.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Weygandt Wine Food Blogger Tasting

On Thursday I went to Weygandt Wine for a BYOW wine tasting held for local DC food bloggers. Luckily for me, the flavor and aromatic profiles of the wines people brought leaned towards the old world; more about elegance and earthiness than fruit and power.

I brought a 2010 Clos Roche Blanche Touraine L'Arpent Rouge. This wine is made out of a obscure grape vareity called pineau d'aunis, and it produces a distinctive herbal and musky aroma. Perhaps a little too funky when you first open this wine, but this funk blows off with time. On the palate, the wine initially felt a little hollow on the edges, but fleshed out considerably with air while retaining its silky, lightweight elegance. With respect to taste, it has some intriguing spicy notes (think cloves, cinnamon) while also conveying tertiary notes like forest floor and decaying leaves one usually finds in wines with far more age than this one. All in all, this was a life-affirming wine that is quite reasonably priced.

Others wines I liked that night were: the 2008 Occhipinti Nero d'Avola Siccagno Sicilia IGT which was a strange blend of power and elegance; the 2006 Williams-Selyem Pinot Noir Ferrington Vineyard (North Coast, Anderson Valley) which was surprisingly restrained and earthy for a Cali pinot; the 2009 Baudry Chinon Croix Boisee (far too young, tannic, and closed, but filled with potential); the 2008 Puffeney Arbois Poulsard M (classic Jura red); and the 2010 Vissoux Beaujolais-Village Cuvee Traditionelle (I think I like 2010 in Beaujolais more than the hyped 2009 vintage).

I am also glad I tried the 2006 Jaboulet Hermitage Blanc...a blend of Roussanne and Marsanne, it basically confirms to me that I am just not a Rhone White type of guy. Far too round and waxy on the palate and not nearly enough acidity for my tastes. But, it is well made wine.

The 2010 Pascal Janvier Jasnieres was nice, transmitting the quintessential "wooliness" that one finds in varietally correct Chenin Blanc wines, but still bracingly dry and fruity at the same time. However, if it wasn't for the deliriously delicious Anjou Chenin Blanc (from the Coteaux de Layon) I had last week made by Rene Mosse, I would have enjoyed the Janvier much more.

The champagne I found a bit simple and the Ganevat was a little too apply chardy rather than lemony chardy that I prefer in my chardonnay. But both were good wines.

The Octavin was Jura for kids, as someone said, and way too fruity and polished for my tastes.

The Cote du Rhones had an intriguingly barnyard aroma, but was too heavy on the palate. Not a bad wine, but not my cup of tea.

I regret not getting around to the Bandol. Mouvedre is something I should try more of.

There are additional notes from someone else who attended the event which you find in the link below:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Aged Loire Cabernet Franc Dinner

A friend of mine invited me to his house with a group of fellow oenophiles in order to try various Loire Cabernet Franc wines that have been aged for about 15 years on average. By and large, they all showed incredibly well and all seemed to have plenty of life to age another decade comfortably. It just shows that one should not just age Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Dinner was absolutely delicious: the seared duck breast and the duck confit with cassoulet paired beautifully with the elegant earthiness of these wines. I recommend you try it for yourself one day.

Detailed tasting notes (and some pictures) can be found in the link below.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Hill Country - Penn Quarter

Hill Country serves a wide array of "authentic" Texas barbecue, ranging from sausages, to beef ribs, and, of course, brisket.

Table service is of the DIY variety (a la Nando's), where you go to a counter, order meat by weight, and then get your sides cafeteria style at another counter. Waiters buzz around the long picnic tables in the main dining room, re-filling your water and bringing your beers.

The barbecued meats appear to only have a dry rub on them, with barbecue and hot sauce available at the table. Generally speaking, I find the Kreuz sausages to be fairly good and flavorful. Where Hill Country shines (albeit dimly) is with their barbecued brisket, which is tender and smoky, but a little dry. The sauce helps here. However, their beef ribs are basically a mass of gristle and fat which requires a herculean effort to chew through.

The sides are decent. Corn bread was good and moist. I also ordered the corn pudding, which is pretty tasty (though a little redundant if you have corn bread). The mac and cheese is a little bland, however.

In sum, I would probably not go out of my way to eat here again, but, if you are really craving for smoked meats, this place is a viable option.

Mai Thai - Dupont Circle

Mai Thai is a competent Thai restaurant located near Dupont Circle. The beef salad dish with accompanying sauce had decent tang and the beef was well grilled properly. However, the drunken noodles were rather undistinguished, the basil duck slightly rubbery, the shrimp and minced chicken dish mildly over-salted, and the stir-fried watercress a little too chewy.

All in all, your typical Thai restaurant in DC.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Thai Square - Arlington 10/15/2011 Update

Having been here several more times, I would say that the most important thing to bring to Thai Square is a Thai friend. My first meal here was excellent, but having returned with non-Thai friends and ordering randomly, I must admit that there are a lot of subpar items on the menu.

Their curries tend to be sweetish, overly-unctuous, and bland. Essentially, they are no different than curries found in your local neighborhood Thai restaurant. Many of their noodle dishes seem quite Americanized to my palate as well. Also, after eating their crispy duck dish some more times, I can't get over the fact that all you taste is batter and honey and no duck. It was like eating dessert.

On the other hand, their papaya salad with pickled crab is one of the best dishes in Virginia, period. But, of course, it is off menu and I would never have ordered it if I wasn't with my Thai friend. I am beginning to think the popularity of Thai Square has caused it to dumb down its dishes for their increasingly non-Thai clientele and that they only really serve the authentic stuff for their Thai customers. It is a shame, but I guess that is what happens when you try to get Asian food on the East Coast (outside of New York, that is).

Surfside - Glover Park

Surfside specializes in Baja-style Mexican food, and does it fairly well. A two level restaurant with somewhat limited seating, it was hopping the Friday evening I went there with some friends. It only offers counter-service, but they seem fairly efficient and it did not take too long for our food to be prepared.

Unlike most Mexican places, the chips and salsa do not come gratis. Nonetheless, we ordered a basket of chips with salsa and guacamole. The salsa was not pico de gallo, but rather a salsa roja that had a little tang and some savory smokiness. The guacamole was more run-of-the-mill, but was sufficiently chunky and seasoned to be enjoyable.

I got the Maui Tacos, which were chunks of grilled tilapia wrapped in white corn tortillas with a lime and sour cream sauce. Although tilapia has to be one of the most insipid pieces of seafood available in the U.S., Surfside did a good job grilling it, imparting just enough char to coax what little flavor you can get out of the fish. While the sour cream and lime did not add enough punch to the dish, with some the Yucateca Green Habanero sauce, the tacos got sufficient peppery tanginess to be pretty delightful. The side of rice and beans were adequate...nothing to be excited about, but competently done. An after thought, like the rice and beans at most Tex-Mex and Baja Mexican places I have been to.

I was initially a little apprehensive about Surfside, but I am glad I went. Perhaps not worth going out of your way for, but, if you are Glover Park, it is definitely a place to check out and try.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

XO Taste Restaurant - Falls Church

This is probably one of the most authentic Cantonese restaurants in Arlington. However, even though the dishes are all authentic, from their "barbecue" meats, to their noodle soups, right down to their casseroles, I came away slightly underwhelmed. Fundamentally, the problem with X.O. is one of execution: dishes came to us either under-seasoned, over-salted, or over-cooked.

The mixed barbecue platter of roast duck, BBQ pork, and soy sauce chicken was merely ok. While the BBQ pork was nicely prepared with a subtly sweet marinade, the soy sauce chicken was pretty ordinary while the roast duck was tasteless. Our steamed flounder with ginger-scallion sauce was overcooked, dry, chewy, and bland. Similarly, the seafood and eggplant casserole did not have a lot of flavor. On the flip side, the congee with preserved egg was way over-salted. It probably isn't a great sign when the best dish is comprised of stir-fried snow pea leaves with garlic (which were very good).

I heard that this place was owned by the same people as Full Kee in Chinatown, and the menus are very similar (X.O. eschews many of the Americanized dishes found in Full Kee). The eggplant casserole, for example, was almost identical to the casserole I got once at Full Kee (they even use the same casserole dishes), except the one at Full Kee had more flavor. It feels odd to recommend a DC Asian restaurant over a NoVa restaurant, but to be honest, the kitchen at Full Kee is probably a little bit more skilled than the one at X.O., and the dishes are pretty much the same. So, you might as well get the better prepared dishes at Full Kee and save yourself the trip to the burbs. I think this is a testament to the sad state of affairs of Cantonese cuisine in the greater Washington metropolitan area.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Duccini's Pizza - U Street Corridor

Duccini's, sitting at the intersection on 18th and U St., NW, is perfectly situated for the waves of late night drunks filtering out of Adams Morgan and the U Street bars on weekends. But, it also happens to be my local neighborhood pizza place, and all things considered, it does a decent job.

Unfortunately, they only sell jumbo-slices (this is still DC), but the crust is neither too doughy or too crunchy, and retains a decent bite. The sauce doesn't taste too tinny and the cheese, while pre-shredded and processed, is eminently serviceable. While jumbo-sliced, I never got a soggy pizza, which is the main issue I have with the other establishments located further up 18th.

I would (and do) come to this place sober, which, for a DC pizza restaurant, is just about the highest compliment I can bestow.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mailing List Hysteria - Rhys Vineyards

So, it appears that I just got on the active mailing list for Rhys Vineyards.

For those of you who don't know, Rhys Vineyards (pronounced REESE) is a fairly new California producer that has garnered a lot of press lately for producing pinot noirs that emulate the flavors, elegance, and restraint of the red wines of Burgundy. Burgundy, located in eastern France near the Saone River, is considered the benchmark location for pinot noir (and some would say all red wine varieties) in the world.

Though it is probably debatable whether pinot noir was first cultivated in Burgundy, historical records date viticulture to Burgundy from the early Dark Ages and show that the Cisterician monks farmed the pinot noir variety in the Clos de Vougeot vineyard from at least the early 1300s (and for those who are interested, there are still many modern producers who grow pinot noir in the Clos de Vougeot today). With centuries of trial and error, the Burgundians have (arguably) identified the best vineyards for the cultivation of pinot noir. And, unlike the Bordelais, who tend to blend all their wine together irrespective of vineyard, the Burgundians vinify and bottle the wines from the finest vineyards (identified as premier crus and, for the very best, grand crus) separately.

While California does not have the same history of pinot noir production as Burgundy, the state has been producing pinot noir for some years now, with demand skyrocketing after the release of Sideways. Arguably the most famous location for pinot noir in California is the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. There, pinot noir flourishes because the Russian River Valley has a cooler microclimate than the rest of Sonoma County, but nonetheless produces wines that tend to lean towards the fulsomely fruity and marked with less restraint, structure, earthiness, and minerality (and much higher sweetness and alcohol) than those found in Burgundy. Although Russian River Valley producers argue that these characteristics are just hallmarks of their terroir, and not cellar techniques, agricultural practice, or other forms of "manipulation" as some have contended, they nonetheless produce wines that do not enchant those who first fell in love with the pinot noir variety through Burgundy.

And this is where Rhys Vineyards come in. Kevin Harvey, a Silicon Valley software mogul who had developed a taste for red Burgundy, decided one day to grow pinot noir in his backyard. As recounted in Mike Steinberger's Slate article, Harvey vinified the grapes in his garage and produced a wine that was "shockingly good," marked with the restraint, precision, and minerality of red Burgundy. Having, through "pure serendipity," stumbled on a great vineyard for pinot noir in his backyard, he abandoned plans to start a winery in Sonoma County and focused on finding plots of land closer to home...namely the Santa Cruz Mountains (for the full story, I recommend you read the entirety of Steinberger's Slate article, hyperlinked above).

What separates Rhys Vineyards from many others is Kevin Harvey's precise methodology for researching the soil and exposure of the vineyards he chooses to purchase. In many ways free-riding on the centuries long trial and error process of the Cistercian monks, Harvey looks for traits similar to those found in the vineyard of Burgundy: shallow soils with geological diversity (preferably with a high dose of limestone), cool climates, good exposure to sunlight without heat, and ideally a slope for drainage. Through his research, Harvey has found vineyards that produce pinot noir wines that are ripe, yet low in alcohol, and built with the structure (that is acidity and tannins) to age and develop complexity.

Thus, among burgheads, Rhys has developed a cult-status, being one of the few California pinot noir producers making overtly Burgundian wines. Which bring us to the issue of the "mailing list."

As Harvey remarked on a thread on Wine Berserkers, the mailing list is similar to Churchill's characterization of democracy---"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Basically, for those of you who don't know, most California wineries run mailing lists through which they offer to sell wine to the general public. For small, cult producers like Screaming Eagle, Sine Qua Non, Carlisle, Alban, and, yes, even Rhys, their most coveted bottlings can only be purchased through the mailing list.

No problem, right? Just get on the mailing list and you can get that bottle of Screaming Eagle (if you have a spare $1000 on hand, that is). Not so fast. The issue is that because of the huge demand, only those few who got on the mailing list early get offered wine, while the Johnny-come-latelies, who want to buy because of the three digit Parker score in Wine Advocate with its rhapsodic tasting note describing the "hedonistic nose of jammy, brambly garrigued fruit coated with butterscotched church spices slathered on pain grille (yes, he means toast)," are placed on the waiting list.

And, here comes the kicker: in order to stay on the mailing list, one has to buy. Otherwise, you get dropped and replaced by one of the hundreds of dittoheads on the wait list. Well, at least you get your wine, right, even if compelled to purchase it? Obviously, since I asked this rhetorical question, you know the answer is no. Because, even if you are on the active mailing list, many are still on a wait list of sorts. That is because not all members of the mailing list are equal. Each person gets an "allocation" of wine and can only buy what the winery offers. The logic is that people on the mailing should all get an equal shot at getting wines without worrying that it will be bought up by just a few. However, those who have a record of buying more for a longer period of time get larger allocations, and more importantly, are allocated the wines that get the three digit Parker score with the ridiculous tasting note. All the others get offered only the entry level wines that the wineries are having a difficult time unloading. And, people keep buying the entry level stuff with the hopes of building enough of a purchase history to one day be allocated that single bottle of Screagle, SQN Pisoni Hillside Select Super Duper Reserve, Manischevitz Supreme+ Cubed, Gary's Vineyard of Bacchanalian Awesomeness, etc..

Luckily, for me, my tastes for wine tend to be more old world, so I have managed to avoid the California cult-wine mailing list shit show. Back when I didn't know what I liked, I tried to sign up for several cult mailing lists, but, thankfully, usually never got off the wait list. To this day, I still get a postcard from Alban every fall and spring, sadly informing me that I have yet to make it to the elect of the mailing list and getting the opportunity to purchase their Zin-fully delicious Rhone Rangers. I did once get promoted to another mailing list, and they informed me via my credit card account by charging me for the full allocation without bothering to call me first. Thankfully, I managed to talk to the winery, and with some convincing (and intervention from the winery owner himself) managed to reverse the charge and get my ass off the mailing list.

But, here I am, now on a mailing list for Rhys. To Rhys and Kevin Harvey's credit, they don't play the ridiculous games that most other cult wineries pull with their mailing list. First, they offer an allocation, but don't force you to buy wines you don't want to buy. Purchasing any wine will keep you on the mailing list, no matter if its the cheapest or most expensive allocated. Furthermore, you don't have to buy every time they make an allocation. You can skip one so long as you buy once a year. They have also been fair about the waitlist...because they have increased production this year with vines from a vineyard now deemed suitable for cultivation, everyone on the list was offered a small allocation of highly rated and regarded wine. While the most coveted wines were already taken by those on the active mailing list, they were still offering to those on the waitlist wines that were in high demand, and not just some negociant plonk they were seeking to unload (to be fair, their negociant plonk is also reputed to be of extremely high quality, though it appears they don't make them anymore).

But, nonetheless, even on this relatively fair-minded mailing list, there is still plenty of cause for hysteria. I have been on the wait list for over a year, when in fact I was on the active mailing list when I first signed up, but declined to buy anything from my allocation last year. After discovering I was waitlisted after not receiving an allocation for Spring 2011, I began to panic. I thought I had blown my chance, to be condemned to receive the semi-annual postcard sadly informing me about my waitlist status as I get to read about all the other mailing list members crowing on the Internet wine boards about their allocations. Lamenting to a friend about my "plight," she told me point-blank, "you're screwed."

The reasoning was Rhys was not only getting plaudits from Parker and Antonio Galloni of the Wine Advocate, representing the mainstream fruit-bomb wine press, but also reviewers respected by the burgophiliac, anti-flavor elite nerdlings (namely Allen Meadows and John Gilman). Rhys was even garnering grudging respect from spoof-a-phobic, vin jaune-swilling, amphora aged pineau-d'aunis loving, wine geeks on the Internet boards, who would rather risk blindness and drink antifreeze than an oaky and overripe red burgundy imported by North Berkeley Imports, much less a California pinot. There was no way Rhys would be able to keep up with the demand since they seemed to have pulled the hat trick of getting unanimous acclaim from every corner of the oeno-sphere.

There was of course the option of buying from someone else's allocation (there were so many "offers you couldn't refuse"). On Wine Berserkers, numerous people, seeking to boost their purchase history record, were offering to those not on the waiting list a bottle or two from their allocations. And, much like slinging crack on a Baltimore street corner, this was a Faustian bargain. By buying through them, I could get a bottle, but, in the long run, to accept such a deal would only condemn me to an even longer stay in waitlist purgatory. This is because buying from others only boosted them through the hierarchy of the mailing list, ever expanding their allocations as they took credit for MY PURCHASES! It would also keep people on the active mailing list that normally would have been dropped for not buying. To quote Cicero, O tempora! O mores! But, there it was. With a simple PM (private message), an e-mail, even a clandestine rendezvous in an offline (that is face to face meeting) I could get the forbidden nectar of Rhys. But, at what a cost.

With this whirlwind of hysterical paranoia swirling in my head, when I was offered an allocation this time, of course I jumped on it. Not to get the wines, mind you, but to be a member of the elect! Well, here I am, now a captive on the active mailing list. I've beaten the odds. While I wasn't allocated anything from the celebrated Home Vineyard (Harvey's backyard), I am still on the list. And with enough sweat, perseverance, and most importantly, dollars, can one day struggle my way up to the top of the heap, getting that single bottle of Home Vineyard to nurse, cradle, cellar, and not drink until I'm on my deathbed. God help me.

(And, if you want anything from my allocations, PM me and I can hook you up...muhahahah!)

Alberto's Pizza - Dupont Circle

Having just gotten off the Circulator starving, I went down into this basement level restaurant to get a slice. Of course, this being DC, it was "jumbo-sliced" (essentially serving a portion the size of 2 normal slices and charging you $5 for it). I vaguely remember enjoying the pizza before, even though the only other times I have been here have been past 2:00am on a weekend night with my taste buds blurred by PBR and bottom shelf rail drinks. But, what the hell, how bad could it be?

Of course, whenever someone ends a paragraph with a rhetorical question like that, you know it has got to be pretty friggin' bad. I basically spent a good 10 minutes trying to choke down a sheaf of dry, tasteless crust slightly reminiscent of pre-vamped Domino's (which is to say, corrugated cardboard). The sauce imparted texture, but no flavor, and the cheese was heartily preprocessed. Basically, I managed to salvage the meal by pouring on powdered "parmesan" cheese and red pepper flakes that helped cover up the taste.

But, I wouldn't necessarily mind returning, just so long as it is past 2:00am and my liver is on the brink of needing a transplant because of alcohol poisoning.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shamshiry - Tyson's Corner

Shamshiry is a sit down Persian restaurant located in what appears to be a nondescript office park in the middle of Tyson's Corner. I ordered the salmon kebabs with scented rice. The salmon was well-seasoned, if a little well done and dry for my taste. The scented rice, on the other hand, was intriguing. It was perfumed with dill, which you could smell as you took a forkful of rice and put it in your mouth. It was actually fascinating because the aroma of the rice enhanced the flavor of the salmon as a whole (an interesting example of the olfactory sense affecting one's taste, much like a fine wine's flavor being enhanced when you inhale deeply from your glass while sipping the wine). Slivers of fava beans were also mixed into the rice, giving the dish some welcome heft and heartiness.

In sum, I am not sure this is worth a detour to go to, but the food was generally well done. The rice was the best part of the meal and I would be interested in coming back one day and trying out some of their other rice dishes.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Yechon - Annandale

Yechon is an Annandale institution. It is a consistent, reliable standby that serves a wide variety of Korean staples 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most non-Koreans probably come for the BBQ (which I have yet to order), but there are plenty of items to choose from on the menu for bold epicurean or even the slightly less adventurous palate.

For those seeking to expand beyond Korean BBQ, try the dolsot bibimbop. It essentially is rice served in a hot, stone bowl with various vegetables, both pickled and fresh, tossed in with a portion of Korean BBQ beef (bulgogi). When mixed together with the hot pepper paste and a little sesame oil, you get a nice melange of earthy spiciness, piquant acidity from the vinegary vegetables, and the heartiness of toasted rice. I would also urge you spend the extra money on the hot, stone bowl: the slight crust it develops on the rice really elevates the dish. They also have bokumbap, which is a Korean fried rice dish, that is a little softer and less sauced than Chinese fried rice. The stir-fried noodle dish (japchae) is also well made and an utterly correct rendition.

For the more adventurous, I am a big fan of their oxtail soup (kkori gomtang) which is essentially just a milky beef broth made by slowly boiling beef bones and oxtails for several hours. It is a very refreshing dish, though many would probably characterize it as bland. But, throw in some diced scallions, salt, and red pepper, and it becomes a marvel of simplicity. On the other end of the spectrum you have the spicy buckwheat noodle dish (bibimnaengmyung) which is served cold. Traditionally a summer dish, I think it is still suitable for the fall.

The gratis banchan dishes are all solid if unspectacular. The radish kimchi (kaktugi) is good, though I find the cabbage kimchi (baechu kimchi) a little bland. The potato salad and bean sprouts are nice.

All in all, I ate with two other people and we got a huge spread for $40 plus tip. Service is efficient and polite and the ambiance is quiet and sedate (though I hear that it is quite hopping late night on weekends). It is a good place to go to try Korean food for the first and you really can't go too wrong with any of the Korean dishes they have to offer: probably one of the more consistent menus I have tried in Annandale.

N.B.: One amusing detail my sister noticed as we left: the staff were eating Domino Pasta Bread Bowls for dinner. I guess even they get tired of Korean food (though I suppose it shows that we generally can't really kick our love for carbs).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

District of Pi - Penn Quarter

I must confess: perhaps I just don't get deep dish pizza. I remember vaguely being thrilled with Uno's when I was ten, but I must concede the possibility that my tastes have evolved since then. Nonetheless, even if I am somewhat biased against pizza casseroles in general, I can't help but feel that my ambivalence towards District of Pi is justified.

First, the positives. The ambiance of the restaurant itself is great. Lots of brick walls, cozy tables, and comfortable seats...a wonderfully convivial atmosphere. The staff, generally, were friendly and welcoming. However, the food just was not up to snuff for me.

The appetizers we ordered were fine. The meatballs were solid, the genoa salami was nice enough, and the pickled thai cucumbers actually quite pleasant. But, the pizzas...

One side of our table ordered a Southside Classico (Sausage, Mushrooms, Green Peppers, Onions, Mozzarella) while my side ordered a Western Addition (Ricotta, Mozzarella, Spinach, Mushrooms, Onions, Garlic). I took a slice of what I thought was the Western Addition and tasted a pile of blandish, chunky tomato sauce on crust. No cheese, no spinach, no nothing. Then, we discovered, that the waitress had actually misidentified the pizzas, and I had been eating the Southside Classico. Well, I tasted no sausage, no green peppers, no onions, no mushrooms, and maybe the occasional wad of mozzarella. When I finally got to taste the Western Addition, it was an improvement. At least there was a discernible amount of cheese and spinach underneath the pile of sauce, but tasting any of the other "toppings"? Fuggedaboutit.

I don't know. Maybe it is just me, but I kind of like Italian food that isn't swimming in a pool of sauce, drowning all the other ingredients in a deluge of tinny tomato. Unfortunately, that is exactly what I got at District of Pi.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Shophouse - Dupont Circle

Shophouse is essentially Asian Chipotle, and I mean that literally (it is owned by the same company). It follows the same assembly line process as Chipotle, primarily slinging rice bowls, but also serving "banh mi" sandwiches as well. You can pick one out of four different proteins (chicken "satay," pork and chicken meatballs, grilled steak, and tofu); one out of four different carbs (jasmine rice, brown rice, rice noodles, or the banh mi); one veggie; one sauce; one garnish; and one topping (the banh mi restricts to you to only the green papaya slaw garnish and the crushed peanuts topping). While I normally avoid "Asian" restaurants that serve food that require me to make copious use of scare quotes in order to describe them (like just now in this paragraph), I suppose I can cautiously recommend Shophouse.

Now, my primary concern with this concept is whether all these different ingredients will taste good regardless of the combination chosen by the customer. Otherwise, you are going to end up with a "Slophouse" of discordant flavors swimming in your paper bowl. Luckily, at least, my selection of brown rice, meatballs, red curry, long beans, pickled vegetables (almost a kimchi like concoction), and crispy garlic worked reasonably well together. The red curry was just beneath the threshold of my heat tolerance and the pickled vegetables added quite a bit of kick as well. The long beans were also crisp and flavorful. Surprisingly, the meatballs were the least exciting part of the bowl, though they were still good. My friend ordered green curry with chicken and long beans and also enjoyed it (the green curry sauce, while milder, is still hot---my friend couldn't even finish his bowl).

But, on the other hand, there were some things I noticed that gave me pause. For example, the rice noodles were pre-boiled. I wouldn't claim to be an expert on "Asian" food, but I would assume that it is just about axiomatic among all cuisines, both oriental and occidental, that noodles and pasta should be prepared a la minute; otherwise they become a gummy, unappetizing mess. For some reason, I would assume that Shophouse has yet to discover a way to overcome the primordial laws of physics, so I would avoid the noodles. And, while I enjoy spice, I think it is inevitable that they will tone down the sauce eventually. While, with respect to a Thai palate, the spice is probably normal and authentic (I've had curries and papaya salads that were as spicy as this), there is no way that a mass-market chain restaurant will be able to get most middle class Americans to eat this regularly for lunch. It is just too spicy for the American palate. But, I can also see Shophouse retreating too far the other way and serving the same creamily confected unctuous sludge that one can find at any strip mall Thai restaurant in the lower 48. I truly hope that they try to make the sauces more approachable, but still retain significant heat.

For $7.50, I suppose you could do worse. And how many times can you eat Chipotle anyway?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Pho 14 - Columbia Heights

A Vietnamese friend of mine once told me that the pho at Pho 14 is correct. Not being Vietnamese, I can't substantiate her claim, but I do know it is good. I come here fairly often, always getting the pho with eye of round, fat brisket, and delicious, sundry bits of the cow's digestive tract. Seriously, you are not really getting pho if you don't have a steaming pile of tendon swimming with the leaves of basil and noodles. The chew of the tripe and gelatinous mush of tendon just adds so much texturally to the soup. But, to each their own, I suppose.

The broth is a strength of the dish. Deep and savory, if a little heavy on the anise, it is a wonderful complement to the cornucopia of cow bits and fresh herbs in the bowl. But, the broth can be inconsistent; there have been times when I have found the broth insipid and thin. Also, I do wish they had some other herbs besides Thai basil. Maybe some fresh coriander or culantro as well? But, beggars can't be choosers. This is probably one of the better pho joints in the District, so, short of trekking to the Eden Center, make haste to Columbia Heights if you want a steaming bowl of the best of the Indochine to warm your day.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Thai Square - Arlington 5/29/2011

Thai Square has renovated recently and now has a clean, spare dining room with a red color palate. Luckily, the kitchen is still the same and they still deliver good, authentic Thai food.

I went there with a Thai friend who ordered for us. Generally, all the dishes were good. The green papaya salad with pickled crab was fantastic. My friend had the foresight to order it less spicy than normal because even toned down, I found it incredibly fiery. Nonetheless, paired with the coolness of shredded papaya and the tartness of the dressing and pickled crab, it was a wonderfully refreshing starter for our meal. If you want to get it with the pickled crab, you have to ask for it specifically. But, I should warn the squeamish: it's raw, so don't get it if you have an aversion to raw shellfish.

The other entrees were nearly as good. My friend ordered a beef hotpot soup with meatballs, shredded beef, and greens, which were liberally seasoned with cilantro. Since I'm a cilantro junkie, I thought it was very good. Another dish we ordered was the crispy pork with Chinese broccoli: generally a solid dish anywhere, but the crispy pork skin that came with it imparted an interesting texture to the dish. Sort of like a side of pork rinds with your greens, which I heartily approve of.

Probably my favorite entree was the softshell crabs with chili-tamarind sauce. The softshell crabs were pan-fried and you have the option to pour the chili sauce over it. What you get is the inimitable crunchy texture of softshell crab and the fiery and subtle sweetness of the chili sauce. My one criticism would be that the sauce is so pungent that it can drown out the flavor of the softshell crab, but the sauce is so good that it makes up for that one shortfall. This entree is a special, and will be taken off the menu once the softshell crab season is over, so get it while you can.

One of the house signature dishes, the crispy honey roasted duck with basil, was quite good. Each small nugget of duck was covered in batter and smother in a sweet, piquant sauce that was not too spicy. My one issue with this dish is that you get a mouthful of batter every time you took a bite and couldn't taste the duck. It was still a good dish, but I wish the duck flavor was a little bit more pronounced.

All in all, a very good Thai meal. As my friend told me, this is probably the best (and only place) to get authentic Thai in NoVa. Just be forewarned: it gets extremely crowded on weekends and there is limited parking.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Great Wall Szechuan House - Mid City

Great Wall Szechuan House is the other Sichuan place in the District, and while it doesn't have the same breadth of dishes that Sichuan Pavilion has, it still manages to punch far above its weight class. This place, for all intents and purposes, is a carryout. From what I heard, it was only about three or four years ago that they removed the bulletproof plexiglass from their counter. And, it is still very much a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. When you look at the menu, the fast majority of it covers the typical carryout standards: General Tso's, Egg Foo Young, Lo Mein, and fried chicken wings. However, in a little corner of the menu is a box labeled "Ma-La," and these dishes are why people come here.

For those who don't know, "ma-la" refers to the numbing sensation one gets when eating dishes spiced with Sichuan peppercorn. Sichuan cuisine is indeed spicy, but the numbness one feels is what truly sets this particular cuisine apart from all other Chinese culinary traditions. And you get ma-la in spades when you order the Mapo Dofu, a tofu dishes that is smothered in ground pork, an oily hot sauce, and enough Sichuan peppercorn to numb your mouth, you can get a root canal afterwards without taking any Novocaine. A milder dish, the twice-cooked pork, is also excellent. It is essentially sliced pork belly seasoned with peppery spices (but be sure to order it off the ma-la menu and not the version in the Americanized portion of the menu). I also have heard rumors that you can order off-the-menu entrees, (like the Sichuan hot pot) if you call in advance.

In sum, Great Wall is great place to go if you need a ma-la fix without wanting to travel to hinterlands of Virginia and Maryland. It is unfussy, simple food, but sometimes that is a good thing.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Piola - Rosslyn 5/26/2011

Piola is an Italian pizzeria chain, which is to say that it is a pizza chain based in Italy, though most of its branches are located in South America. Initially, I was a little leery about going here, but in the end, I have to say I was won over. I ate outside on the patio, which was lovely, but managed to get a peek inside: high ceilings, self-consciously trendy decor, and a weird red toned color palette. But, I've seen worse.

The pizza itself was actually pretty good. The thin crust had a nice bite...not too chewy, but not too soft. Moreover, unlike many other pizzerias, they held back on the cheese and sauce. The Piola pies had just enough of the creamy mozzarella and the tomato sauce to prevent the crust from being too dry, yet also avoided being too gummy with excess cheese or being soupy with excess sauce. Unfortunately, I ordered a pie that came with smoked salmon and ricotta on top of the mozzarella and tomato sauce, and while the salmon was actually good, the ricotta was piled on too thick. I had to scrape the excess off. But, having tasted the underlying pie, I would imagine that ordering a more traditional pie from Piola would provide a rather satisfying gustatory experience, especially for a restaurant located in Rosslyn.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pete's Apizza - Columbia Heights

I usually try to stop by here whenever I'm shopping at either the Best Buy and the Target across the street. It is one of the few places that serves individual slices of pizza without feeling the need to jumbo-size them, which I certainly appreciate. The crust is crispy, but also has an interesting, chewy texture once you bite through it. I do find the tomato sauce a bit problematic: it can taste a little tinny and bright for my taste. But, then again, I usually order the white clam pizza anyway, which is delicious. While Pete's claims that it slings New Haven pies, it doesn't. And you know what? That's a good thing. They are quite content to be themselves without trying to blindly copy Sally's or Frank Pepe's. Sure, they put some clams on their pie, but they don't obsess about all of the details and they just focus on producing as good of a pie as they know how. It's quite refreshing to see that. And if they are going to aspire to serve a New whatever product, I'm glad they chose New Haven rather than New York. (Seriously, serving Boars Head turkey on a kaiser roll does not make you a New York deli and anything Jumbo Sized automatically disqualifies you as a New York pizza.)

Unfortunately, I have not tried the pastas, sandwiches, or salads, though I hear they are well made. I do like that their fountain dispenses Boylan Soda, rather than the de rigueur choice of either Coca Cola or Pepsi products, just another little detail to distinguish themselves from the crowd.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Pacific Dover Sole with Brown Butter Sauce

I was in the market today and I saw some Pacific Dover Sole for sale and decided to buy some. Pacific Dover Sole tends to be less firm (and a bit less flavorful) than Atlantic Dover Sole, but otherwise has similar properties.

I first dredged these fillets in flour before pan-frying them in olive oil. Because they are so thin, it takes only about 5 minutes (3 minutes on one side, two on the other) for them to become crispy, yet still moist in the middle. I pulled them out of the pan and re-seasoned with a little bit more sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

I then put about two or three tablespoons of butter in the still hot pan, and when it began to bubble and brown, I squeezed a little bit of honey and stirred. After about two minutes, I put in a generous spoonful of capers and little it cook for about 30 seconds. I then finished the sauce with the juice of one lemon, stirred, and then spooned the sauce on my fish.

This was pretty perfect. The fish had a nice crunch, yet was still moist. The brown butter sauce had a hint of sweetness to it, but was balanced by the acidity of the lemon juice, with the capers imparting a pleasant brininess to the dish. This took about twenty minutes to make. A great weekday dinner!

Tachibana - McLean

Located in the middle of NoVa strip mall hell, Tachibana looks like your typical suburban Japanese restaurant. The clientele is a mix of McLean locals and Japanese expats. A highlight is the broiled salmon collarbone, embedded with succulent pockets of crispy salmon flesh. The raw fish dishes were also consistent and fresh. The various maki rolls we ordered were all well made and filling. But, for me, the standout dish was the $11 Chirashi bowl, filled with several generous slices of sashimi. An absolute steal of a deal (and only available during lunch).

A great place to get sushi, especially for those in the McLean area. That its menu also has several off-beat Japanese dishes only makes it that much more appealing.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sichuan Pavilion - K Street Corridor 3/27/2011

[Not related to the Sichuan Pavilion in Rockville]

On first glance, Sichuan Pavilion looks like your typical Americanized Chinese restaurant. However, closer examination of the menu belies this. Interspersed between the Chow Fun and various iteration of General Tso's entrees are some authentic Sichuan dishes. However, you have to know what to order.

If you are interested in something authentic, you can't go wrong with the Steamed Pork Bacon (with preserved vegetables). In reality, it is uncured pork belly marinated in a earthy sauce that isn't overwhelming spicy at all. If you see a group of Chinese people eating at this restaurant, you will see this dish on their table. It's basically this restaurant's signature.

Another good dish is the dan dan noodles, a noodle dish drenched in a spicy sauce seasoned with Sichuan peppercorn. Sichuan peppercorn isn't necessarily spicy, per se. What it does is creates a "ma la" (i.e., numbing) sensation, which is quite frankly an inimitable hallmark of Sichuan cuisine. Similarly, the mapo dofu (a tofu dish smothered in a similar Sichuan peppercorn sauce) is another classic Sichuan dish this restaurant makes a faithful rendition of.

The dry hot pepper chicken, which is basically small chunks of fried chicken sauteed with dried red peppers. The chicken is crispy with just a hint of spiciness to it. Really simple, but really good. I also like the tea smoke duck, but it basically just fried duck with hoisin and pancakes. It wasn't a crowd favorite with my group, so YMMV.

There are some landmines on the menu. For example, the lamb stew was watery and only had a few scraps of lamb in it. And, as mentioned earlier, the Americanized dishes are no better than what you can get at your neighborhood carryout, so don't bother ordering them. But, if you order carefully and conscientiously, you can get a fairly authentic meal without having to leave the borders of the District.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bojangles - Union Station

The first time I heard of Bojangles was when I was working on a case where a bunch of individuals decided to stop by this restaurant and grab some fried chicken before going out on the town to conduct a drive by shooting. Ever since then, Bojangles has piqued my curiosity; obviously, it must sling some superlative chicken if this is the place you choose to go to before going out on a shooting spree.

Having my curiosity morbidly piqued for several years, it was not until Bojangles opened at Union Station this past spring that I had the opportunity to try it for the time. Having finally gone there, I would say my main takeaway from all this is that would be murderers should not be ones culinary lodestar. The chicken was fairly good...moist and flavorful. But, the crust on the skin hadn't adhered itself properly and would slide off the flesh; it also lacked the crispiness I find essential in good fried chicken. While the biscuits were flaky and tasty, the sides were fairly forgettable. I will go again to give it another shot, but I probably built this place up in my head far too much for far too long.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Temari Japanese Cafe - Rockville 4/30/2011

Temari Japanese Cafe is located in a small storefront in a strip mall on Rockville Pike, typically jam packed with Japanese people. Although it serves sushi, this place seems to cater to those looking for home cooked, Japanese comfort food, like ramen, curry, miso soup, and various broiled fish dishes. Generally, I found the food to be well that is probably as well prepared as you can find in your typical Japanese household. The stars, for me, were the broiled fish dishes. The broiled mackeral was fantastic...a slightly charred and crispy skin covering moist, mildly salted flesh. The broiled salmon looked great as well. The ramen was solid, if nothing to feel rapture about, but the fish was truly memorable.

Dashi and Japanese Soups

I have been experimenting with Japanese soups the past couple of weeks and I feel as if I have finally have gotten the hang of it. The major breakthrough has been my ability to make a decent dashi from scratch. Dashi is the mother broth for most Japanese soups and is basically composed of two ingredients: kombu and katsuoboshi. Kombu is a thick, dried stalk of seaweed, which you place in a pot of water slowly brought to a simmer. After the kombu steeps in the water for about 15-20 minutes, you remove the kombu, take the pot off the heat, and then put in a handful of katsuoboshi. Katsuoboshi, also known as bonito flakes, is dried, fermented skipjack tuna, which is essential for a good dashi. You leave it in the hot, kombu-flavored water for about 10-15 minutes, and then strain. You now have dashi, an acrid, smoky, fishy, and to me, unappetizing liquid. However, you essentially end up with a pot full of pure, liquid umami that, with the addition of just a couple of ingredients, is the foundation of some delicious soups.

The simplest one is probably miso soup. All you have to do is put in about a tablespoon of miso for 4 cups of dashi, bring it to a boil, and then you're done. Add some finely chopped scallions, tofu, and a little wakamane (dried seaweed) and the result is something indistinguishable from a restaurant.

Another great dish is Udon Noodle Soup. Here, you get your four cups of dashi, add two tablespoons of dark soy sauce, and one tablespoon of mirin (a sweet Japanese rice alcohol). Bring the liquid to a boil and then put in some udon noodles, and you get a classic noodle soup. I gussied it up with chopped scallions and sliced kamaboko (Japanese fish cakes), maybe throw in some wakamane and an egg, and you get a classic Japanese dish. A subtle dish that has hints of sweet, salty, and umami interacting with each other in a comforting, homey soup.

Considering how easy dashi is to make from scratch, I don't think I can go back to granulated dashi bouillon anymore.

FYI: If you need to buy kombu, bonito flakes, or instant dashi, and you don't want to leave the District, you should go to Hana Market on 17th and U St NW (across the street from the police station). They have all the ingredients there.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Red Rocks Pizzeria - Columbia Heights 2/20/2011

Red Rocks Pizzeria is a local pizzeria chain that sells pizzas cooked in a wood fired oven. The Columbia Heights location was the first, housed in a renovated townhouse that is tight, but comfortable. Waits can be long, and uncomfortable since the front of the house is cramped and the bar is usually packed.

When we got seated, I ordered the margherita (buffalo mozzarella, basil, tomato sauce) while my friend ordered the Sunrise pizza (fried egg, breakfast potatoes, and a dusting of parmesan). The crusts were correct: they had some chew with just enough char to lend some pleasing bitterness to the pizza without being ashy. The toppings were also solid...the sauce tasted fresh and wasn't tinny, which is a problem I run across quite frequently in DC. But...for whatever reason, it just really didn't come together for me. Everything was correct, but kind of uninteresting. For example, a pizza from New York, New Haven, or even Chicago or California (bastardized forms as the latter two may be) are distinctive and instantly recognizable. Red Rocks, on the other hand, just seemed to be imitating what they thought a Neopolitan pizza should be without attempting to leave their own particular stamp on their interpretation. It was like there was no "there" there. Maybe I should give them another try, but this place definitely did not inspire me to go out of my way to dine here again in the future. But, if I'm in the neighborhood, I wouldn't object to eating here again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Faccio Luna - Clarendon 3/4/2011

Faccio Luna is a pizza parlor which self-proclaims that it serves the best pizza in Virginia. While I wouldn't go that far, it isn't bad. If it weren't for the inexplicably long waits, it would be a nice place to pop into if I was in the neighborhood to grab a cheap meal with friends.

As noted, the place primarily serves pizza, but I also shared a salad that was pretty flavorful and some meatballs, which were a lot more forgettable. The pie we ordered had sausage and pepperoni, and the toppings and sauce were generally enjoyable. However, texturally, the pizza wasn't interesting and it lacked the hint of bitterness a nice, charred crust imparts on a pie. Indeed, the dense crust somehow managed to pull off the hat trick of being simultaneously bready, friable, and dry. While this may sound unappetizing, I actually enjoyed reminded me of the pizzeria in Connecticut that my family used to get take out from. memories, though whether being comparable to a suburban pizzeria is a compliment, I leave that up to you to judge.

In sum, Faccio Luna is a nice neighborhood spot that serves an eminently serviceable pizza (and if you think that is damning with faint praise, well, you might be right).

Shake Shack Right Now Is a Shit Show

Lines for Shake Shack right now go out the door and down the block towards the Nando's. Probably at least a 45 minute wait before you get to the counter. I'll try again next week.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fast Gourmet - Columbia Heights 3/25/2011

Fast Gourmet is located in the Lowest Price Gas Station on 14th St. and W St. NW. The interior has been redone and is actually fairly spacious and comfortable. The staff is also very friendly, especially considering we are in a gas station, and were fairly prompt. While the place is called Fast Gourmet, this is not a fast food restaurant (I waited a good 10-15 minutes). But, it was worth the wait to get a freshly made sandwich rather than one sitting underneath a heating lamp.

I ordered the Chivitos, a Uruguayan sandwich that has beef tenderloin, ham, melted mozzarella, bacon, a hard boiled egg, tomato, lettuce, pickled red bell peppers, and chopped green olives. While the ingredients as a whole were fresh and delicious, it was the green olives which elevated the sandwich, bringing much needed brightness and lift with their acidity, tempering the heaviness of the other ingredients.

It was a legitimately great sandwich. Probably one of the better sandwiches I've had in DC (though that isn't necessarily saying much). But, it also cost $13, which, while a fair price considering the quality of ingredients, is not inexpensive. But, definitely worth at least one visit.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Nando's Peri Peri - Gallery Place 5/13/11

I went to Nando's on Friday with several friends who I found out have never been before. The Nando's in Gallery Place can get raucous and loud during dinner (and for that reason I prefer the Dupont location for its quieter ambiance), but luckily we manage to get a table quickly for our party of five. As noted elsewhere, they have an unusual system where you order at the counter, pick up your own flatware and drinks, but have your entrees delivered to you. I'm used to it, but it can be bewildering for first timers.

I ordered the half chicken with hot sauce, which has pronounced, but tolerable heat, with a side of fries. While the fries are solid, the chicken is where it is at: juicy and flavorful. To be honest, I generally prefer Nando's to the Peruvian chicken places like El Pollo Rico. I just find the breast meat dry at those places while Nando's manages to deliver consistently moist white meat, which is quite a feat considering how many orders they must churn out daily. Also, I would go with a half chicken...while I generally prefer dark meat, the quarter chicken is literally just a leg and a thigh, which I find a little small. Not to mention you miss the contrast between the white and dark meat when you get only a quarter chicken.

The sides are good, if a bit meh. The mash potatoes are solid and someone ordered pea mash with mint, which I found a little weird texturally. The chicken livers are actually very good, smothered in a hot sauce, but the richness and intensity of the liver is not for those who feel fainthearted with respect to offal.

In sum, Nando's is a reliable stand-by I go to whenever I feel like an inexpensive, but flavorful meal. Although it is a chain, like Chipotle, they understand where their strengths lie, and they always execute their limited menu with great consistency.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Huong Viet - Falls Church 5/15/11

The Eden Center can be overwhelming when you go there for the first time. It is rather huge strip mall filled with stores, restaurants, and bars that cater to the local Vietnamese community. While most of these restaurants are known for particular entrees (the noodle place, the soup place, the fried tofu place), Huong Viet is generally considered to have one of the more consistently good menus.

When we got there, it was fairly crowded, and while the crowd did ebb and flow, it stayed consistently busy throughout the day, with people waiting to get a seat. Now, consider that they did this when there must be at least 15 other Vietnamese restaurants within a 2 minute radius of the place (literally...if anything, this may be an understatement).

I've been here before and can say that the "bun" dish (basically a vermicelli noodle dish smothered in fresh vegetables with grilled pork on top) is something that everyone should try once. The grilled pork is extremely flavorful, and slight bitterness from the grilling interacts well with the refreshing acidic lift of the sauce on top of the noodles.

Today, I went family style with my group of friends and we got several dishes. We accidently ordered fried spring rolls (we were trying to get the fresh, unfried rolls, but it got lost in translation) which were crisp and not greasy. Delicious with nuroc cham, a sweet and sour Vietnamese fish sauce. We also had a beef salad that was really refreshing and filled with fresh herbs like cilantro. Our three entrees were a yellow curry with catfish, caramelized pork with black pepper, and grilled lemongrass chicken. All three were good, though the lemongrass chicken was something you could have gotten in a pan-Asian restaurant and probably isn't worth the trip (but you won't have any regrets if you order was very well prepared). But, you can't go wrong with the caramelized pork which was absolutely delicious. I enjoyed the fish curry, though my friend wished the curry was stronger.

On your first trip to the Eden Center, go to Huong Viet. It is consistently tasty and you won't go wrong ordering blindly on that menu.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Miso Soup with Soba Noodles

I decided to make miso soup for lunch today. But, rather than use instant dashi, I decided to make dashi from scrath. Basically, you steep "kombu," which is a thick, dried seaweed, in a pot of water and gently heat it. Right before it starts to boil, pull it off the heat and then put in a handful of bonito flakes and stir. Let that steep for several minutes and taste. Once the smokiness of the bonito has seeped into the stock, strain. You now have dashi, the foundation for most Japanese soups.

In order to make miso soup, put the dashi back in a pot, add a generous spoonful of miso (I used Japanese white miso, which is the lightest), and simmer. I also put in wakamane, which is a thin, tender seaweed and some finely chopped green onions. After boiling the soba noodles in a separate pot, I threw it in the miso. Not very authentic, but hey, it's a Saturday afternoon and it is better than Cup O' Noodle.

Dino - Cleveland Park 5/11/11

Dino is a cozy, neighborhood Italian restaurant located near the Cleveland Park metro. The food, generally, is well-prepared, if straightforward, fare. I find the pasta generally quite good and the entrees well done as long as you get the simplest preparations. The wine list is exceptional and has a comprehensive selection ranging from wallet-friendly Soaves and Montepuliciano d'Abruzzos to budget-busting Barolos and Brunellos. They also have a nice wine by the glass program, offering full pours and smaller 3 oz. tastes, which is a nice opportunity to try a wide selection of what they have. On Sundays and Mondays, they have 33% on all wines over $50 and Mondays through Wednesday, they have free corkage. This is basically my go-to place if I want to taste some aged wines with friends from our cellars.

On Wednesday, I got a prosciutto plate, soft-shell crabs, and a nutella-cappuccino mousse. It was all delicious, though in fairness, my starter only required knowing how to slice and my soft-shell crabs were simply brushed on olive oil and then grilled. But, it says a lot that they didn't mess it up, either. The mousse was very good, with an amaretto whipped cream on top and bourbon soaked cherries buried inside. I also tried a bread pudding with cinnamon gelato, which was also very good.

Vissoux Beaujolais Wine Tasting

I went to Weygandt Wines Friday evening in order to taste the 2009 Beaujolais lineup for Domaine du Vissoux (Weygandt also reps them as their national importer). Domaine du Vissoux, unlike most artisinal, natural wine Beaujolais producers, has a large lineup of wines ranging across several "crus" (that is villages or communes) throughout the Beaujolais region. But, unlike Georges DuBoeuf, the big negociant Beaujolais producer who is responsible for 95% of the Beaujolais Nouveau you drink in mid-November, Pierre Chermette, the owner of Domaine du Vissoux, has far lower yields and uses only natural, ambient yeasts. Thus, in these wines, you get greater intensity of flavor and you don't get those oft-putting banana aromas you find in most Beaujolais (caused by the use of 71B, an industrial yeast used to initiate fermentation.

2009 is considered one of the best Beaujolais in the past thirty years, at least by the wine press. I haven't tasted extensively, but what I have had tends to be deeply fruited, with good acidity and powerful aromatics. However, they can come off as a little simple right now without the traces of minerality and weightless elegance I more commonly associated with well made Beaujolais. Some people think these wines are shutting down and probably should be held for five years before trying again (if not longer). But, for the uninitiated, 2009 might be a good vintage to give Beaujolais a try, and if you were, I would recommend Vissoux. All of the wines seemed ready to go and were all uniformly enjoyable, while some were much better than others.

2009 Domaine du Vissoux Beaujolais Horizontal

'09 Beaujolais
: This is Pierre Chermette's basic bottling. I found this wine to have decent aromatics and was generally fruit forward and fresh on the palate. Darker fruited than I am used to, but that's the vintage. A little clipped and short on the finish however, with a slightly funky aftertaste.

'09 Beaujolais-Village Cuvee Traditionelle VV: One of my favorite non-cru Beaujolais, year in, year out. Much more powerful aromatics that are charged with a hint of freshly ground spices and ripe stems. On the palate, the fruit is restrained by a mineral edge, but nonetheless feels deeper and more complex than the more overtly fruited Beaujolais. Lithe and light on the palate, this wine is the highest toned in this lineup, its red fruit marked by a chalky minerality and earthy spiciness. The wine also gave my chest and throat a slightly warming sensation which, while normally considered a flaw, was actually pleasant.

'09 Beaujolais Coeur de Vendanges: This is a new cuvee from Vissoux that is made from grapes grown on 100 year old vines throughout the Beaujolais region. The densest wine in the lineup (more so than even the Cru wines), it is extremely dark fruited and bruising. You can feel the weight as you drink it, which to me is a bit atypical since Beaujolais, for me, is at its best when it is light on its feet and elegant. Good wine, but a bit strange.

'09 Fleurie Poncie: Lighter than the Coeur de Vendanges, but definitely has the weight and "seriousness" of a cru Beaujolais. Again, dark fruited, but definitely lean and focused with a refreshing acid spine. But, it doesn't have the pronounced mineral edge that I like in cru Beaujolais and just seems a little too overtly fruited. It isn't flabby or jammy in any sense of the word, and has good energy, bu perhaps it is just a little too facile for me. Utterly correct wine, I think most people would enjoy it.

'09 Moulin a Vent Les Trois Roches: Moulin a Vent is considered the cru which produces the longest lived, most serious wines in Beaujolais. Vissoux's '09 Moulin a Vent is very slick and polished. Apparently some of this wine is aged in smaller oak barrels which explains why it seemed so silky on the palate (oak allows the wine to breathe, and with smaller barrels, more of the wine can get exposed to oxygen than in larger vessels). Nonetheless, despite this, the wine was very well balanced and, while having pronounced dark fruit, still had restraint and elegance.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Wines at Dino 5/11/11

[originally posted on Wine Disorder with some additional edits...had to repost because of the Blogger crash]

A group organized by Bob Semon (including Maureen N., Cole K., Cristian D., Jonathan L., Gail G., and others) met at Dino in order to try out some aged Vajra, '96 Barolos, and a smattering of rieslings...including an '01 Donnhoff we all hoped could age. I didn't take notes, so I'm hoping others who attended will chime in. My palate got struck down by the hammer of Bacchus midway through the night (and by some pickled green beans), and wines began to blur a little.


'01 Von Schubert Maximin Grunhaus Abtsberg Spatlese: Not bad, but it had this rather pervasive tart green apple note on the finish that I didn't care for. I brought this bottle home and the next day the apple note disappeared and the wine became rounder, with a smooth, honeyed texture. In hindsight, I think I preferred this on day one since the acidity was more pronounced. Decent value...can get these wines around $25-$35 today.

Actually got better on Day 3. A little more cidery, which is what I like (the honeyed texture and sweetness settling down), but still fresh and zippy fun.

'01 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Spatlese: Beautiful and elegant. A lot more focused than the von Schubert. Everything was in the right place. My favortie white. Seems to be aging well. Definitely forward and fruity, but bracing with a fresh acidity that kept everything balanced. Much better than an '05 Donnhoff Norheimer Kirscheck Spatlese I had several years ago, though I detected a similar peachy/apple flavor profile, which I assume must be a producer signature. Donnhoff makes great wines, but out of my price range now, unfortunately. Wish I knew about this producer when they were $25 (only ten years ago) rather than in the $50-$70 range now.

'00 Vajra Langhe Bianco: A riesling made in an "Austrian" style, it was a little stark upon opening, especially after the Spatleses. Dry, mineral goodness. But, at the end of the night, opened up and a pronounced fruit flavor (peaches and apple...something I always pick up in good riesling) helped buffer some of the stark dryness. $35-$45 for recent vintages.

Token Red Jura:

'08 Gahier Trousseau Grand Vergers: Funky, weird, and interesting. Seemed almost screechingly acidic to me, but I don't have the most disorderly of palates. I liked, but didn't have a lot. Needs food. $25-$30.

Vajra Lineup:

G.D. Vajra is a Piedmontese producer that makes a wide variety of wines from native grapes. Their entry level wine, their Langhe Rosso, is a blend of several Piedmontese grape varieties, including nebbiolo, barbera, and dolcetto, with a little bit of pinot noir and freisa (around $15). They also make a Langhe Nebbiolo, 100% nebbiolo, that can be had in the $20 range and an entry level Barolo Albe that can be bought between $30-$40. All of these wines I had Wednesday night from Vajra (that weren't corked) were marked by elegance and balance. Nothing overtly fruity or jammy about any of these wines...great with food and a pleasure to drink on their own.

'00 Dolcetto d'Alba Coste & Fossati: Tasty. Well worth the tariff. ($20-$25 today).

'00 Barbera d'Asti Superiore: Showed very well. Elegant. Seemed like WOTN for
most people (not me, though I liked it a lot). Others claimed it declined by the end of the night, which isn't too surprising because of its age.

'07 Barbera d'Asti Superiore: I actually preferred the younger Barbera. I was in the minority, I think. Good structure and not as resolved as the '00 Barbera. I guess I must like my barbera on the younger side. These wines are $30 plus today.

'96 Kye: Corked. Bummer.

'06 Kye: Tannic and rustic. I liked this a lot. Reminded me of nebbiolo, which isn't surprising since freisa (the grape variety used in this wine) is a cousin of nebbiolo (the grape variety used for Barolo and Barbaresco). Too bad the '96 was corked. It would have been interesting to taste firsthand whether freisa nebbiolizes (that is pick up characteristics usually associated with nebbiolo). Expensive ($40-$50 today).

Token Red Burgundy:

'99 R. Chevillon Nuits-St. Georges Les Cailles: Seemed a little off. People were debating whether this wine was corked (we decided it was not). A little clipped on the finish. Maybe just awkward and young? It opened up later in the night. Probably needs to slumber. Chevillon Les Cailles now costs around $80-$120, depending on the vintage.

'96 Barolos:

Barolo wines, made out of nebbiolo, a grape variety that produces light colored, aromatic wines high in acid and tannins, is considered the "king" of Italian wines. "Barolos" can be made in several villages in the Piedmont, the five most important being (from northwest to southeast) La Morra, Barolo, Castiglione Falleto, Monforte d'Alba, and Serralunga d'Alba. Generally speaking, the further west and north you go, the more forward, lighter, and "feminine" the wines become. Thus, Barolos from Barolo and La Morra tend to be silky, high-toned, red fruited wines with the least amount of tannins and acids among the five major Barolo-producing villages. On the other hand, the further east and south you go, the more structured, tannic, acidic, and "masculine" the wines become. Thus, wines from Monforte d'Alba and Serralunga d'Alba tend to be darker fruited, bitterer, tarter, heavier, and more brooding. Castiglione Falleto, a village in between these two areas, are wines that are said to share both traits.

A consideration that is as important as the location where the grapes are grown (i.e., the terroir), is whether the producer is a "traditionalist" or a "modernist." Traditionalists macerate the juice from the crushed grapes on the skins during fermentation for a longer period of time than modernists (generally from 20-30 days if not longer) while modernists have shorter maceration times (7-15 days). The longer the juice macerate on the skins, the more tannin and acids leach into the juice, creating a bitterer and tarter wine that can age longer. Modernists are also more likely to use temperature controls when fermenting, and oftentimes intentionally start malolactic fermentation, which converts sharp malic acids (acids found in apples) into softer, lactic acids (the acid found in milk), making the wines creamier and less tart. Another consideration is whether the producer uses additional "modernist" techniques, such as a roto-fermentors (that is a fermentation vessel that rotates, which speeds up the maceration process, but arguably produces facile, fruitier wines that are less interesting), micro-oxygenation (a process that introduces oxygen to the wine in small doses to make them softer and fruitier), and reverse osmosis (a process to reduce alcohol content, necessary to balance overripe grapes that have too much sugar). The final consideration is the "elevage" vessels used to age the fermented wine before bottling. Traditionalists age their wines in large "botti," ranging from 3000-5000 liters in size made out of neutral, used oak (either Slavonian or French oak, though Slavonian is considered more traditional). Modernists tend to use smaller "barriques," that are around 225 liters in size, made out of new French oak (the same barrels used in Burgundy and Bordeaux). When wine is stored in these "barriques," they tend to age faster, become softer, less tannic, less acidic, and fruitier because the pores in the oak allows oxygen to come into contact with the wine. Also, new French oak tends to confer "woody" and "toasty" aroma to the wines and sometimes even a "vanilla" or "toast" flavor. Generally, even modernists are moving away from barrique, using larger vessels (500-1500 liters) and using fewer new oak barrels during elevage.

Basically, a traditionalist wine is considered a vin de garde, that is a wine meant to be cellared for years if not decades. Traditionalist wines tend to be structured, tannic, acidic, and fruity. Modernist wines, which can be and should be drunk much younger, are fruitier and less bitter and tart, but arguably less distinctive as well. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. I've actually enjoyed a modernist Barolo recently from a recent vintage. But, as a friend of mine told me recently after tasting several modernist wines, he thought he was drinking "red wine" and not "Barolo," with none of them conveying the distinctive terroir stamp and varietal characteristics one would expect from wines from Barolo.

The wines below are all traditionalist wines from the 1996 vintage. 1996 is considered one of the best vintages in the Piedmont in the past 30 years. With global warming, Piedmontese wines have become generally fruitier and less tannic and acidic in the past 15 years, making them more accessible, but less cerebral. 1996 is considered the last truly "classic" Piedmontese vintage, characterized by good fruit and aromatics balanced with pronounced acidity and tannins (i.e., structure). However, because of its structure, these wines need a lot of time so the tannins can resolve (i.e., become less bitter) and acidity less pronounced. Right now, these wines all showed young, and in my opinion, a little shut down. I would check back in 2016.

'96 Brezza Barolo Castellero. The most forward of the Barolos with this interesting ashy component. But still plenty tannic. Obviously very young. No need to hurry. Castellero is a vineyard located in the village of Barolo, which probably explains why the wine was as forward as it was. Brezza range from $30-$50, which is a good value for Barolo.

'96 Cappellano Barolo Gabutti Otin Fiorin Franco: Tannins, tannins everywhere, and all the boreds did shrink. Tannins, tannins everywhere, nor any drop to drink. Kidding. I actually liked this quite a bit even if it is a mouthful of drying tannins. But nothing that a little T-I-M-E won't cure. Gabutti is a vineyard located in Serralunga d'Alba, which accounts for the dense tannin content in this wine. This wine will be a monster when it finally resolves. I just wish I had some in my cellar. The Gabutti "Franco" is around $120 for recent vintages. The grafted vines version probably $70+.

Another interesting factor is that Gabutti is a sandy vineyard. This is important because this particular wine comes from grapes grown on ungrafted vines. 99% of the grapes in the world are grown on vines grafted on rootstuck from grape species that evolved in North America. This is because a louse known as phylloxera, indigenous to the Americas, devours rootstock from grapevines native to Europe (that is all grape vines that produces wine). During the 19th Century, phylloxera destroyed most of the vineyards in Europe, and these were later replanted with vines grafted onto phylloxera resistant, American rootstocks. While this solved the phylloxera problem, it also arguably changed the flavors of the grapes. The Cappellano grapes from this particular wine, because it is grown on soils that are inhospitable to phylloxera, are from ungrafted vines. Cappellano also makes a wine from grafted wines from this vineyard as well, which I am now eager to one day try out.

'96 Vajra Barolo Bricco delle Viole: Elegant (noticing this to be a typical Vajra characteristic). Obviously, still young and could use more time. But still, lovely. Bricco delle Viole is from the village of Barolo and is located at an altitude of 450 meters, which is considered high. The high altitude (and thus cooler climate that is nonetheless well exposed to sunlight) probably accounts for the wines elegance and focus. This wine is around $70-$90 for recent vintages.

Dessert Wines:

'06 Vajra Moscato d'Asti: Bright, fresh, and vibrant (to me). Effervescent and refreshing. Probably around $18-$20.

'89 Roberto Anselmi Recioto di Soave I Capitelli: Unctuous and syrupy. Someone compared it to butterscotch. Not cloying or saccharine at all and it was interesting. BUT, I don't think I'm much of a dessert wine person, so I can't really judge it on its merits.

Arneis Dessert Wine (Forgot the vintage and producer): Similar to the Soave (unctuous, sweet, and intense). Well made. Not cloying, but the texture got to me. But, like I said, I'm not a dessert wine guy usually, so I can't judge. $40 for a half bottle, not available in the U.S. (Hand imported, as we say).

In Sum:

Great wines. Even better company. '96 Barolos need more time (surprise, surprise). Vajra ages well except when corked. Donnhoff seems to handle age (at least up to age 10). And softshell crabs are tops.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Lebanese Taverna - Pentagon City 2/16/2011

I was in the Pentagon City Mall Food Court, waiting for my friend and his cousins for dinner, when I looked over and noticed a Popeyes. I jokingly said we should probably just stay here for dinner. It was unfortunate that this joke would turn out to be a prescient recommendation considering my experience I would have at Lebanese Taverna.

The food was serviceable, although forgettable. The hummus solid actually. But the waitress was huffy. She dripped sauce on me when clearing the flatware (and held the dirty knives and forks right next to my face), and got in a tiff about packing someone's leftovers in a container. I could have gotten better service in an Applebee's. Pretty much killed the experience. Strange how terrible service tends to do that.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Zenebech Injera - Shaw 2/12/2011

Zenebech Injera
608 T St NW
Washington, DC 20001

Zenebech Injera is located in a small storefront in a once crumbling corner of Shaw, just steps away from the abandoned Howard Theatre. But much like that Beaux-Arts monument, currently undergoing a $28 million renovation, the neighborhood seems to be slowly turning a corner and appears to be much safer and economically vibrant than from what I remember it being three years ago when I first patronized this restaurant.

This restaurant is primarily a carryout that caters largely to cab drivers and local neighborhood residents. But, because the secret has long since been out on this place, you do see the occasional sit-in diner who probably has come farther afield to eat what has been described by several publications and bloggers as the best Ethiopian in the District. Especially considering the lack of benches in the immediate vicinity, and, while improving, the area is still fairly raffish, unless you drove, I would suggest you eat inside.

The interior is spare, though a vast improvement over what it once was before it went through a very time consuming and (I'm sure) financially painful renovation several years ago. Before the renovation, the store was essentially a bodega with card tables and rickety chairs. Now, while the interior design still won't win any awards from Food and Wine or Washingtonian, there is far more seating available and it is not an unpleasant place to stay and eat.

You still order at the counter, though, if you choose to eat in, they will serve your meal on a silver platter covered in injera, just like in other Ethiopian restaurants, rather than dump it in a styrofoam container as they used to. All the entrees here are under $10 and can easily feed two people. So, whether this place is the best Ethiopian in the District is certainly debatable (though, in my opinion, a defensible point of view), it has to rank as one of the best dining bargains in the District. Since I was eating by myself, I decided to order the kitfo, a spiced beef tartare dish, which is a dish I very rarely get to eat because of my regular dining companions tend to veto this particular order.

My kitfo was served on a piece of injera, with two folded pieces of injera, a pile of mitmita (a chili powder made out of African birdseye chili peppers), and some Ethiopian cottage cheese, next to it. The injera, as always, was on point: soft, yet chewy with a nice sourdoughish tang that wasn't overwhelming. The kitfo, rather than being extruded through a grinder, looked like it was whipped, imparting a lovely creamy texture delicately accented with spice. It was delicious on its own or with a little injera, but better when dipped in the fiery mitmita. The cottage cheese, while bland on its own, was a nice accompaniment that cooled and refreshed the palate in preparation for the next spicy bite of mitmita covered kitfo.

Some advice: the clerk at the counter asked me how I wanted my kitfo to be prepared. Get it raw or don't get it at all. When I told the person I wanted it raw, and I made sure he understood I meant not rare, not blue, but totally unsullied by even the faintest flicker of a stovetop's warmth, the look of relief that beamed on his face was almost heartwarming. And he's absolutely right, because otherwise you are getting Hamburger Helper...and do we really need more Hamburger Helper in this world?

Although I didn't have anything else this trip, I have had their vegetable combos and some of their wats. I find their vegetable dishes to be some of the best I have had in the District, and at less than $10 for an entree that easily feeds two, you are looking at one of the best deals in DC. I find their meat based wats to be not as successful (they can be stringy and greasy), but haven't had enough to make a conclusive judgment. But, the vegetables dishes and the kitfo alone merit repeat visits for this place.