Sunday, January 30, 2011
2839 N. Clarendon Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22201
Having failed to receive the memo that cupcakes have gone the way of mesh trucker caps and Ithaca Is Gorges t-shirts, Crumbs Bake Shop, a New York based cupcake bakery chain, has recently opened in Clarendon (which clearly needs more chain restaurants and eateries). It is a little storefront shop next to a Red Mango, and its presence has now supplanted the tart Korean yogurt establishment as the most dated dessert fad on the block.
Clearly meant to cater to recent college grads and square state transplants who haven't yet become utterly wearied by the surfeit of cupcake shops in the DMV, it is a small, intimate space with about three tables shunted to the side of the store. After ordering at the counter and sitting down, I was glad to see the store live up to its name as I looked down upon a complimentary dusting of crumbs on the table.
I chose the Cookie Dough cupcake, a vanilla based cupcake with a huge wad of cream cheese frosting on top. It wasn't dry, though it wasn't exactly moist either. but the frosting was so confected and the cake felt so processed, I flashbacked to my days in college when I would eat a box of Entenmann's pastries as a chaser after downing a forty of Colt 45. Though not as pleasantly evocative of thing's past as Proust's Madeline, it was amusing to reminisce about times in my erstwhile youth when I had the metabolism to process the calories and chemical preservatives in this monstrosity of a sugar bomb.
My friends ordered a chocolate cupcake and a blueberry muffin. The chocolate cupcake was apparently, and unsurprisingly, dry. The muffin was reported to be edible, but it looked like something that came fresh out of Dunkin Donuts display case just around closing time.
I wouldn't completely write the place off. If you want to get a coffee and chat with a friend, this will do and is certainly better than Starbucks. There aren't many other options in the area.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
1550 Wilson Blvd., Ste. 1
Arlington, VA 22209
Cafe Asia is a "fusion" restaurant...the type of place now ensconced in the better strip malls across the American heartland. As a rule, I generally avoid "fusion" restaurants for the simple reason that I don't fully understand the appeal of being able to order candied Pad Thai with a side of California rolls squirted with syrupy teriyaki sauce on top. But, as it so happens, I was meeting some people after work and since this restaurant is conveniently located in the hive-like catacomb of office buildings in Rosslyn, we all decided to come here.
The interior is of a minimalist design, de rigueur for this type of establishment. The walls are primarily glass, the open-air kitchen is composed of burnished stainless steel, the furnishings are made of blonde laminate, and the place is otherwise unadorned with ornament (the gigantic projection screen broadcasting a basketball game being the one notable and garish exception). The color palette of the interior is, much like the food, whitewashed. All we would need to complete this archetypal design scheme is a gigantic Buddha statue, a rock garden, and some bonsai trees surrounding a little electric-powered fountain with a cutesy spout.
The clientele is to be expected: young urban office drones wearing their Friday night best, sipping on industrial pinot grigio and gamefully spearing pieces of gamy spicy tuna roll on their chopsticks. Luckily, since it was a Friday, they kept their yoga mats at home, though every table had a Blackberry, Droid, or Iphone sitting next to the bottle of soy sauce and packages of Nutrasweet.
The cuisine was as I expected. I ordered a beef rendang, which the menu characterized as an Indonesian curry. I have had this type of curry before in Malaysian restaurants, and it is an interesting cross between Indian and Thai style curries: it contains the earthiness, weight, and deep color of an Indian curry while also having the creaminess and some of the brightness of a Thai curry. The sauce in this dish was actually pleasant and piquant; unfortunately the beef was not properly braised and thus insufferably stringy. After eating this dish, I can now safely report to any medical journal two surefire ways to contract lockjaw: stepping on a rusty nail and masticating the beef in this rendang.
I had a taste of my friends' dishes as well. One ordered the Lemongrass Chicken, which was fine. It was made out of boneless, skinless chicken thighs (vastly superior in flavor to chicken breast). It had a nice char, was moist, and surprisingly tasted like chicken (though I didn't taste any lemongrass). Nothing you couldn't get anywhere else.
My friend had Shrimp Pad Thai. It was bland and limp, which is actually a vast improvement to most other pad thai I have eaten because at the very least it wasn't saccharine and cloying.
Then there was fried rice. It looked fine. At least it looked like it wasn't prefabricated in a factory and reheated in a wok.
All in all, the one reason you would come to this place is that it is convenient and there is so-so people watching, if pasty-faced Rosslyn office workers tanned by fluorescent lamps are your thing.
Thursday, January 27, 2011
I then made the "champ," which is basically mashed potatoes with scallions and apparently a traditional preparation in Ireland. Simple enough: boil peeled potatoes, heat some heavy cream, mash potatoes in heavy cream, throw in some chopped scallions and butter, mix, and serve.
This was a great dish. It actually seems like a spin on Filipino Chicken Adobo, where you get the savoriness and saltiness of the soy sauce with the brightness of the lemons and vinegar. Of course, the western bit is the addition of the honey, but it doesn't add too much sweetness while giving the sauce a nice viscous texture and conveys a floral hint to the aroma. The sauce also added a lot to the champ, marrying well with the slight bite of the scallions and the richness of the potatoes. So, here, you have a very Western dish with very subtle Eastern notes [the soy sauce, the "adobo" of the chicken, and the use of scallions in the champ]. Lovely.
I also enjoyed the Meyer lemons, which I don't believe I have ever had before. Meyer lemons are essentially a cross between a regular lemon and a mandarin orange, so you get less acidity and slightly more sweetness [though not sweet enough to eat on their own]. They are grown in California and I believe they are only available in DC during the winter months, so get them now while you can. Definitely a subtler fruit than regular lemons and actually refreshingly pleasant to bite into when you're eating this dish.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
However, I stumbled upon a clip posted on Youtube of Gordon Ramsay making scrambled eggs with a technique I had never seen before. What he did was to put the eggs in a pot, put a pat of butter into the eggs, and then begin beating the eggs with a spatula while cooking it over a fairly high heat. You continue stirring, taking the pot off the heat at times to ensure that eggs don't burn, dry out, or overcook. When the eggs have set, you season with salt and pepper and then put in a dollop of creme fraiche in order to cool the mixture and give it richness. What results is a custard like concoction that has a rich, velvety texture. My version above used heavy cream instead of creme fraiche, but was otherwise identical. I also placed some chopped chives on top to give the dish a little bite. The key, I think, is the continual stirring in order to prevent burning or huge curds from forming...not wholly dissimilar to the old technique I used to make scrambled eggs. Anyway, it is good to have something else in my repertoire and I will probably use my old technique solely to make omelets now and use this one when I want to have something a bit more luxurious and rich for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a late midnight snack.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
There were only two or three other parties dining there when I arrived and we were quickly seated. The menu was slightly confusing; select items had random codes attached to their descriptions. It took me a while for me to find the key before I was able to decipher that VG signified vegan, VT was merely vegetarian, OR was organic, GF was gluten free, and SPICY probably meant spicy (just a wild guess...it wasn't in the code key). So, it is one of those type of places...you know, those crunchy, granola ridden holes that caters to people wearing sandals and hemp and who are otherwise too stoned to care whether the vegetable-based, factory-processed proteins (probably shaped by the hands of sweatshop migrant labor) are underseasoned and overcooked. My expectations duly plummeted. Unfortunately, then the bread came.
The bread was tasteless, dry, and slightly stale. I tried dipping it in the olive oil, but because of the huge blot of balsamic vinegar floating in the middle of it, the olive flavor was completely masked by the tart fruitiness of the balsamic. I resorted to the butter. Things weren't looking good.
Luckily, the actual entrees were better. My dining companion ordered the eggplant parmigiana (GF, VG) while I ordered the Shrimp Risotto (SPICY), one of the least coded items on the menu. The shrimp risotto was surprisingly not bad. The rice was toothsome, the tomato sauce was not tinny, overly bright, or ketchupy, the shrimp was not rubbery. and it had a nice tart flavor with a little SPICY kick to it. It reminded me of jambalaya, actually, and while this is a dish far afield from the Tuscan hills, I enjoyed it.
I tried a bite of the eggplant parmigiana and was not similarly impressed. The eggplant was bland, the pasta was overcooked, and the sauce was rather heavy and unimpressive. I only had one bite though, so perhaps it develops in flavor if you leave it on the table for a while (like a fine Brunello developing in the glass...right?).
We had some extra cash on the Groupon left over, so we ordered a chocolate cake. It was ok. A little dry near the edges, but the chocolate had a decent, dark depth to it.
The service was fine. The waitress was nice and the water was refilled with a satisfactory frequency. I don't know if I would go out of my way to try this again...it seems like the deformed bastard child that would spring forth from an Olive Garden crossbreeding with a health food store in Berkeley, but I wouldn't write the place off. I had no regrets dining here.
1400 Irving St NW
Washington, DC 20009
IHOP has finally arrived in the District! Now, no longer do we have to sally forth to the hinterlands of NoVa in order to satiate a 3:00 am craving for a stack of pasty flapjacks smothered in the finest synthetic maple syrup that $4.99 can buy. The IHOP in Columbia Heights opened several months ago, but I didn't have an opportunity to try the place until this weekend. The IHOP is the most recent addition to the cornucopia of chain restaurants that now grace this little corner of Columbia Heights. Embedded within the Target complex, it is across the street from the Five Guys, near a Chipotle, below a Pizza Hut (located in the Target) and next to a freestanding Panda Express. All we need is an Orange Julius and this would be one of the finest open-air mall food courts in the District.
This IHOP seems to serve a niche that the original planners of this development inexplicably failed to address during the original construction...a sanctuary providing on a daily basis 24 hours of post-bacchanalian respite where one can sober up by soaking up the booze in one's stomach with a liberal dose of pancakes, burnt bacon, and overcooked eggs. Now, this grievous oversight has been remedied (not to mention it can also double as a dessert place to go to in order to cap off a fine meal of chow fun and teriyaki at the aforementioned Panda Express).
As mentioned earlier, the IHOP is embedded within the Target complex and is only accessible on Irving Street. Unfortunately, because of this, you don't have the soul-stirring sight of the iconic blue roofed, A-frame pagoda to greet you when you first approach. The interior also has much to be desired...it is almost monochromatically beige and feels like the basement cafeteria of a college dorm.
I went there with a friend around midnight. Service was a little confused and slightly inattentive. I placed my order with one waitress, and then five minutes later, another waitress came up. After trying to sell me on the all-you-can-eat pancakes (which I had already gleefully ordered from the first waitress), she departed and literally a minute later the first waitress came back with our coffee. Unfortunately, she failed to bring any utensils with her, so I had to use a (sealed) straw (that was probably left over from the previous cover) in order to stir in the cream and sugar.
Luckily, the food made up for chaotic service. Right now, IHOP has an all-you-can-eat pancake special, so I ordered the $4.99 deal: five flapjacks on the first plate with as many additional servings of 3 pancakes that you can eat. I only ordered one extra helping, but since I still managed to gorge on eight pancakes for $5 (which is probably 7 more than I should have ate considering I ate earlier that night), I more than got my money's worth.
So, go now if you are going to go at all. The pancakes aren't exactly light as feathers, the syrup is treacly, artificial, and slightly gross, the service is disordered, and the ambiance is the pits...but, for some reason, there is no other place I would prefer going to after 2:00 am on a weekend night (though that is probably because everything else is closed).
Monday, January 24, 2011
2300 North Pershing Drive
Arlington, VA 22201-1428
Astor Mediterranean is a small local chain with two locations: one in Arlington and the other in Adams Morgan. Several friends decided to have a group meal and after much debating, balloting, cajoling, and vote rigging, we finally decided to go to the Arlington branch.
The Arlington branch is located in a rather dilapidated building which also houses a Army/Navy Career Center and is across the street from an abandoned strip mall currently being demolished by a bulldozer. The interior of the restaurant, despite the neighborhood consisting primarily of rubble, rusting I-beams, and other wonderful iterations of urban blight and squalor, is actually fairly nice. Astor Mediterranean seems to be primarily a takeaway place...a lot of douchy recent college grads in hoodies and sweats were coming in and ordering out, and for some reason they were all wearing cheap flip flops and sandals in 10 degree weather (to each his own I guess). Since Astor is essentially a deli, you order at the counter, receive a ticket, and wait for your ticket to be called. While there is no table service, there are several tables available for sit down, and they even serve the food with china and silverware if you choose to eat in. They also have some flatscreens where you can watch the crawl on CNN when you get tired of talking to your dining companions (i.e., a great first date place! Sure to impress!).
I went up the counter, checked the selections, and decided to order the kufta kabob. Essentially, we are talking about ground sirloin seasoned with several herbs and spices (like a Mediterranean KFC) redolent of the flavors and aromas of the Middle Orient (you know, cumin...maybe some salt). I had no complaints: the meat was well seasoned, had good flavor, and was moist. The rice accompanying the kabob was also seasoned and well prepared. There were some forgettable stewed chickpeas on the side and a leaf of braised cabbage, but they didn't detract, and the main players on the plate more than satisfied. The cucumber and tomato salad with yogurt sauce was also not bad.
Most of the people I dined with had the braised lamb shank which looked big enough for a caveman, smelled even better, and I am sure was delicious. It received plaudits from everyone who ordered it. Other friends had a salmon dish and a vegetarian combination platter, which they both liked. All of these entrees and the sides were less than $12 (mine was only $9).
I'll probably try the branch in Adams Morgan fairly soon, though it is smaller and doesn't have the lovely ambiance of urban decay that this one has. On all counts, I heartily recommend this place.
Over the weekend, I decided to try roasting a chicken for the first time. I consider myself fairly competent at throwing together a pasta dish, grilling or sauteing chicken or steak, and whipping up a simple vinaigrette and salad, but I have avoided more complicated dishes involving proteins until recently. But, having done fairly well with a pot roast and the coq au vin, I decided to do a simple roast chicken. And, in my opinion, it turned better than I could have hoped.
I think the key with roast chicken is simply getting quality ingredients. So, I stopped by Whole Foods, bought the whole bird (which was only 20 cents more per pound than at Safeway) and some fresh herbs. When I got home, I first left the chicken on the counter to get to room temperature. According to Thomas Keller (I saw a clip of him roasting a bird) , this is done to allow the bird to cook more evenly. I don't know if this is scientifically true, but he's Thomas "French Fucking Laundry" Keller, so I'll give him a benefit of a doubt.
All I did with this particular roast was: season the cavity liberally with salt and fresh ground pepper; prick a lemon with a skewer and stuff it and some fresh sprigs of thyme into the cavity; truss the bird with some butcher's twine; place it in an oven-safe saute pan; liberally season the top with coarse sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and chopped fresh thyme; and place it in the over at 450 degrees for 45 minutes. After I pulled it out, I let it rest for about 5 minutes, carved it, plated the breast, thigh, and leg, squeezed a little juice from the lemon into the pan juices over and spooned the elixir over the meat.
The breast was moist, the thighs and legs thoroughly cooked, and the oysters of the bird were absolutely delicious. The coarse sea salt formed a crust on the skin, giving it a wonderfully crisp texture. And the pan juice, by itself without any additional trimmings or tricks, was the perfect sauce. Basically, this was a really satisfying dish that practically cooked itself.
Friday, January 21, 2011
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
I also had some leftover parsley from another dish I made and decided to chop it up and throw it on top of the dish. In hindsight, the dish would have probably been served better with a flat leaf parsley or fresh basil that had a little more bite and flavor than curly parsley. Regardless, the parsley gave the dish some herbaceousness to counterbalance the brightness of the tomatoes, the tartness of the capers, the salt of the olives, and the heat of the red peppers. I even tossed some freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano on top as well, but actually preferred the spaghetti without it. There is so much going on in the dish as is that the Parmesan clashed with all the other flavors. Otherwise, I thought it was fairly successful (if a bit messy) and would recommend it. Just don't oversauce.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
There are few things more satisfying to eat in the middle of winter than a braised meat or poultry dish, especially when it is smothered in buttery mash potatoes. For this dish, I made a fairly straightforward Coq Au Vin (with some modifications...it is hard to find old rooster in the supermarket shelves). The one twist was that I chose to mash sweet potatoes rather than regular potatoes, and threw in a little extra butter for good measure. I just wish I had a blender or strainer in order to make them a little smoother. Flavor wise, I thought my dish was great. Appearance wise....you be the judge.
Monday, January 17, 2011
The recently discovered bean is called Nacional, which is a particular breed of Forastero. Probably the most interesting characteristic of this particular bean is that it is genetically 100% Nacional. In contrast, most Criollo beans, even when labeled Criollo, tend to have some strains of other bean types in their genome (the widespread cross-breeding of cacao have even led some to claim that pure Criollo does not exist anymore).
According to the article, this particular bean produces a mellow, low acid, chocolate that lacks the characteristic bitterness of most Forastero chocolates, but also is far more disease prone than most other Forastero breeds. In many ways, it sounds like a Criollo.
Several chocolatiers produce bars made out of this bean, though only one is named in the article. So check out Moonstruck Chocolatier if you want to try it.
Friday, January 14, 2011
Union Station Food Court - Lower Level
50 Massachusetts Ave., NE
Washington, DC 20002
I went to the Union Station Food Court today to have lunch with a friend. He wanted to go to Aditi Indian Kitchen, and, not too thrilled with the other options, decided to get food with him. I had been to Aditi Indian Kitchen before, both here and the one in Grand Central in New York (I guess they found a niche serving curries in mass transit hubs), and I find this chain to be consistently one of the better places to eat in the Food Court. Obviously, this isn't Rasika, so don't expect Haute Bengali cuisine, but the food isn't overtly Americanized either. The korma isn't saccharine, the paneer isn't gloopy, the curries have heat, and everything seems generally well prepared. Also, because Indian cuisine often involve stews and braises, it tends to stand up better to the constant low heat of chafing dishes, and thus tends to be a better option when you are in a food court. Of course, I doubt this is quintessentially "Indian" cuisine (they do serve chicken tikka masala...which is to Anglicized Indian Cuisine what General Tso's Chicken is to Americanized Chinese Cuisine), but neither is Rasika, and if you choose to defenestrate ideas of authenticity, you can get a satisfying meal.
Today, I ordered the Chicken Biryani, the Channa Paneer (Chickpeas and Creamed Spinach) and a Chicken Coconut Curry. My friend ordered the same. I was actually caught off guard by the heat and had to take a sip of water to quell it. I am not sure whether this is a symptom of me no longer eating as much Korean food as I used to or whether my age has decreased my heat resistance, but my tolerance for spiciness has declined precipitously. Perhaps, this is also a symptom of getting spicier dishes in general from restaurants; it might be the case that the proprietors are no longer concerned about appealing to a preconceived notion of what Americans like and instead realize that most Americans crave food as spicy as those prepared traditionally at home. I remember a time when a "spicy" order of anything involved a ladleful of ketchup glaze poured over an entree. Now, especially with the broadening of the American palate to include more exotic flavors (and flavor in general), I find "spicy" entrees to be legitimately piquant and flavorful.
Generally, the Paneer was good (though no better than creamed spinach you can get anywhere else, say a Boston Market for example), Chicken Coconut Curry nice and spicy, and the Biryani well seasoned and pretty flavorful. The bread (roti, perhaps...it didn't seem leavened like naan) was a little limp and soggy, but edible enough. Service was quick and efficient.
As an aside, the Union Station Food Court has a store that serves some of the best doughnuts in the District (and some of the best doughnuts I've ever had). It is called Nothing But Donuts and is near the escalator next to the downstairs Metro entrance. Everything can be recommended, though I like the standard glazed doughnuts and the Eclairs. (and don't get me started - it's spelled "doughnuts" people...as in a pastry made out of a nut of dough. The insidiousness of commercials, I tell ya).
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Although originally a part of St. Louis County, the ordinance authorizing the construction of Forest Park extended the City's boundaries over it. During that same year, the "Municipal Divorce Bill" also separated the County from the City, which was originally meant to prevent taxes raised in the City to be spent in the County. Of course, once the wealth started leaving the City and moving just over the border into Clayton, Ladue, and West County, the tax base went with them, spiraling the City into a cycle of inexorable urban decay that it still is trying to pull itself out of (the exact same thing happened in Baltimore, for those who are interested in the mid-20th Century decline and fall of the American city).
Luckily, St. Louis County still spends resources on the maintenance of the park, preserving this little tranquil oasis otherwise surrounded by urban blight. As I am sure you can tell, I took these photographs sometime in late autumn, with most of the foliage having already fallen.
I lived across the street from Forest Park while I was living in St. Louis. Although the park is landscaped (beautifully, I might add), it felt liked natural growth. Walking through it felt completely unlike walking through Central Park, where I would always feel this odd sense of artifice whenever I was in it. I suppose a large part of it has to do with the lack of high rises ringing the park's perimeter, and that there are no centralized spots, like the Great Lawn, or the Reservoir, invariably drawing crowds of hipster dads pushing baby strollers while listening to Arcade Fire on their Ipods, lululemon clad yuppies toting yoga mats made out of either bamboo or recycled soda bottles, irritating college kids tossing frisbees or kicking beanbags while taking sips out of their reusable water bottles (remember to avoid BPA), and annoying buskers who need to restring their guitars and wash their hair more often.
Perhaps, I liked Forest Park because it was empty...and felt it. After I quit smoking, I would go running about 3 to 4 times a week taking this trail. I always enjoyed how the bend of the bike trail traced the dirt path, which ran along the banks of a stream (that is cropped out of the shot). I would occasionally see a winsome Wash U coed huffing down the opposite way, or a fifty year old professor gamefully power walking alongside the concrete trail, but other than that, it was quiet. I never had to fear some rollerblading douche blowing down the path and running me over or a gaggle of tourists pushing each other around to get that oh so perfect shot with their brand new DSLR cameras. I could just throw my head back, breathe in the crisp, autumnal air, and run.
Here is a photo of the stream (taken about a half mile to the west, I believe). I was glad the conditions that day allowed me to get a shot of the stream reflecting the bare branches of the trees growing on the bank. The bridge downstream also provides depth and a sense of unity to this composition (IMO...feel free to disagree). This is probably my favorite photo of those I took that day.
Geese! You can't have lakeside photographs without aqueous fowl of some sort gracing the composition. Also, the band stand on the right was built for the 1904 World's Fair. Indeed, most of the buildings in Forest Park and the elaborate houses on its northern edge were built to accommodate the foreign dignitaries visiting the Fair. And, luckily, they are still preserved and used.
The St. Louis Art Museum is also located in Forest Park, sitting atop a hill where you have a perfect view of the park and the rest of the western edge of St. Louis City (though I guess wasn't up to hiking the hill this day). I just wish I could have moved that tree on the right a little further to edge of the frame. Oh well.
Another trail, with another bend, girding a stream with another bridge (notice a theme?) The advantage to late fall and winter is that you get an unencumbered view of the park's vistas, though some orange and red foliage would have been nice. Unfortunately, St. Louis is much like the DMV...lacking in color. It certainly isn't New England in October. But, it is probably the most New England-like place in the area. So while you don't have those postcard pretty vistas with colonial era churches, low stone walls, and village greens, there are some gentle, rolling slopes to convey a sense of place and terrain. It isn't just big box strip malls surrounded by cornfields and access roads like much of the rest of St. Louis County.
Another trend I am beginning to notice in these photographs...a tree to frame the right edge of the composition, and a winding path, which I use to guide the eye to an architectural fixture on the left in the background. This was all quite unintentional, I assure you. See, below, no winding path!
Maybe I was subconsciously making an homage to some older compositions. I guess it is too bad that the U.S. Midwest lacks soaring peaks and mountain ranges. Maybe I'll try Denver next time.
Wang Meng (ca. 1308-1385)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Road work on 18th St. near Lauriol Plaza. Why is that place always packed (we are talking about a Tuesday here)? Anyway, the road work was visually more interesting than the crowd.
I tried to get some better shots with my real camera (an old Point and Click Canon A540 Powershot). It has a special function that is supposed to be used for night time pictures, so I turned it on and started shooting.
I like how the flash gives these pictures an orange pallor, with the snowflakes almost looking like burn marks in the photos. It's an interesting look, in an eerie sort of way.
I tried to get a picture without flash with limited success, mainly because it had to run at a lower shutter speed in order to get enough light, which led to a bit of camera shake. Some came out ok, though, if I was able to find a flat, level surface to rest my camera on...a sort of makeshift tripod.
I got this off-kilter dutch angle shot after I tried to take a picture without a flash down an alley way, resting the camera on an uneven surface.
Abstract art (i.e., not enough light, not enough stability holding the camera)
The masonic temple near my apartment.