Memorable Meal at Bombay Club

You know those people in your life who you were close with for a period of time and then you move away, change jobs, or just take a different path? You mean to stay in touch, but somehow the years fly by and you never do.  One of the unintended consequences of my blog is that it has reconnected me with several people from my past. A mutual friend tells the long-lost friend about Been There, Eaten That and it motivates them to contact me.  Every now and again when I grow tired or frustrated with blogging, I think about these renewed acquaintances and it re-energizes me.

I have chosen The Bombay Club as the spot to reconnect with a friend I haven’t seen in more than 25 years. I’ve never been to Bombay Club, but it is a relative to Rasika, one of my favorite DC restaurants.  Both are owned by one of DC’s premier restauranteur’s Ashok Bajaj.  Bombay Club, currently celebrating its 25th birthday, is older than Rasika and not quite as sought-after as a destination.  But it has a solid reputation, and has been on my to-do list for quite some time.

It’s challenging to focus on a menu when you have 25 years of catching up to do.  Fortunately I have done a little pre-scouting.  A must-have on my list is is the Bombay Club version of one of Rasika’s most famous dishes, palaak chaat.  I consider this one of my favorite dishes of all time.  The Bombay Club version replaces spinach with kale.  This rendition is a heavenly blend of crispy kale, date-tamarind chutney, bits of tomato and onion, and a smattering of yogurt. It is both familiar and new.

Bombay Club kale chaat

Bombay Club kale chaat

Crispy butternut squash samosas are enjoyed as we alternate between conversations on current jobs and kids, and reminisce about the workplace where we met early in our careers.  I have to stop chatting for a moment to focus on the food.  When methi shrimp with ginger, garlic, and fenugreek seeds is set before us, there is a shared moment of awe expressed at the dish before us. The plump charred shrimp momentarily capture our full attention.  They are cooked to perfection, and the slightly sweet and nutty flavor of the fenugreek is just enough to add interest but not overpower.

 

Bombay Club methi shrimp

Bombay Club methi shrimp

Goat cheese kulcha sounds better than it is.  We agree that the bread is soggy and bland.  We mention this to our server who silently whisks it away and brings a plain naan per our request. (We are charged for both breads, and think it would have been nicer had the replacement naan been gratis.  But this is a minor quibble).

Khubani duck with apricot, onion, cashewnut, and mace flavor is beautiful and complex.  The mace is a little too strong for my liking, but the apricot provides a nice balance.  The tender duck is melt-in-your-mouth goodness.

Bombay Club duck 2

Bombay Club khubani duck

The dining room at Bombay Club is more formal than Rasika, the food a bit more subtle in flavor. I like the sophistication, which seems appropriate for a get-together that reflects on the passing of time.

As the meal progresses, it is clear that my friend’s recollections from the years we spent working together are much more vivid than mine.  Some of them startle me in their preciseness.  But from the moment I see her, there is a familiarity in her voice and gestures that evoke memories from the past.  It is unfathomable to me that there has been a 25 year gap since last we met. It is equally incomprehensible that my culinary path has not yet led me to Bombay Club.

I don’t intend to let another 25 years pass before I get to Bombay Club, or to meet up with my friend again. Although the good news is that I won’t have to jog my memory about this experience.  Another unintended consequence of Been There, Eaten That.

 Bombay Club, 815 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC

 Washingtonian 100 Very Best Restaurants 2014  (#10)

Washingtonian 100 Very Best Restaurants 2013 review

Washington Post 2012 Fall Dining Guide review

Bombay Club on Urbanspoon

8407 Kitchen Bar…Third Time’s the Charm

Sometimes I will visit a restaurant, enjoy a meal, begin writing a blog post, and then lose the motivation to finish it. This happened twice this year after visiting 8407 Kitchen Bar in Silver Spring.  I had every intention of updating my original post about the restaurant, written in August 2011. But on one visit the restaurant was between executive chefs, and on the second I didn’t have much to say. So I moved on to writing about new restaurants, leaving behind my unfinished thoughts.  Every now and again I thought about finishing what I’d started.

Despite my inability to complete a coherent post, 8407 has always been one of my preferred dining destinations in Silver Spring. It has a comfortable and cool vibe, and an “artisanal American” menu that has appeal but isn’t fussy or over-thought. When I learn that Chef Justin Bittner of Bar Pilar is taking over the kitchen, I anticipate that the restaurant is about to move to the next level.  Bar Pilar gained a fine reputation during Bittner’s tenure, and his skills are a good fit for 8407.  According to the website, Justin brings you his farm-to-table expertise and his passion for perfecting small plate offerings. His approach to American artisanal cuisine is imbued with classic influences from the French countryside.

This new development results in my third visit to 8407 this year.  Will I be inspired to catapult my notes off of my Ipad and into published cyberspace?  I invite four friends to join me on my quest.

We begin our meal with Caesar salad, roasted beets and Path Valley greens with feta, and a selection of artisanal cheeses.  The choice ingredients make for a promising start, and we eagerly anticipate the main event.  A glance at the menu reflects enticing updates from Chef Bittner.  My friends are divided between rockfish and salmon, but I covet the seared pork loin. I hesitate, feeling self-conscious about eating pork among a group that includes kosher-keepers.

My mind wanders back to a recent online exchange on www.donrockwell.com.  I had inquired whether Chef Bittner has begun cooking at 8407, since it isn’t noted on the restaurant’s website.  Chef Bittner himself responds:  “If you look closely at the menu you’ll see a shit ton of pork which should have been a hint.”

The words “a shit ton of pork” are dancing in my head. He’s a pork guy, so how can I resist?  The server’s enthusiastic guidance, along with the encouragement of my friends, convinces me to go with the pork. I have no regrets.

It’s a double whammy, with a generously portioned slices of tender pork loin, along with crumbled spicy smoky chorizo swimming in a sweet potato hash. This is a phenomenal dish, further enhanced by tender brussels sprouts and sweet carrots.  I love every bite, and savor the leftovers  that I carry to work in a brown paper sack the next day.

 

8407 Kitchen Bar seared pork loin

8407 Kitchen Bar seared pork loin

The fish dishes are presented beautifully, and cooked to perfection. A few of my companions have been with me on previous visits here, and left with a “like it but don’t necessarily love it” opinion. This time there is unanimous agreement about wanting to return with spouses.

The rockfish is covered in fried almonds, and nested on sweet succotash.  I am not an almond-lover, but I can appreciate the appeal of the dish.

8407 Kitchen Bar rockfish

8407 Kitchen Bar pan roasted Maryland rockfish

Grilled Faroe Island salmon with celeriac-cauiflower puree, baby eggplant, and capers has a smoky richness.  The eggplant is eliciting choruses of OMGs. I tear myself away from the pork loin to taste a bite, and I have to agree with the expressions of approval.

8407 Kitchen Bar salmon

8407 Kitchen Bar Grilled Faroe Island salmon

Pastry chef Rita Garruba has created an enticing menu of desserts at 8407.  We share a chocolate peanut butter tart with curry vanilla ice cream,  peanut brittle, and raspberry sauce.  Am I left wanting more?  A few bites are enough for now, but I make a mental note to leave more room for dessert on a future visit.

  8407 Kitchen Bar peanut butter tart

My third visit to 8407 Kitchen Bar has broken my stalemate, and motivated me to sing the praises of the restaurant and the chef.  You could say that Chef Justin Bittner has succeeded in putting words in my mouth.

 

Washingtonian 100 Very Best Restaurants 2014

Washingtonian 100 Very Best Restaurants 2013

New Chef Heat Map, Restaurants Worth a Return Visit

8407 Kitchen Bar on Urbanspoon

Hitting the road for Trummer’s on Main

Trummer’s on Main in Clifton, Virginia is not a hop, skip, and a jump from where I live in Silver Spring.  It has been nearly three years since I dined here last and I’m itching for a return visit, particularly since Austin Fausett is now Executive Chef.  Fausett has an impressive resume that includes stints as sous chef at both The Inn at Little Washington and Central.  My husband and I set out for Clifton with two other couples late one Saturday afternoon, blissfully unaware of some bumps in the road that lie ahead. Fortunately, I am not referring to the food.

Clifton is a cute little – actually very little- town, with a population of less than 300 people.  There are a couple of shops, a lovely wine store, some historic buildings, and Trummer’s on Main. Fun fact:  “Sleepless in Seattle” was written in a house on Main Street in Clifton.  We learn this from a self-guided walking tour before dinner.  Who knew?

As I wrote in my first blog post about Trummer’s, I find the breezy main dining room to have great appeal.  I am lulled into vacation mode just by the atmosphere (and the one hour drive).

Our server charms me with a description of Trummer’s signature drink, The Titanic. Its got muddled green grapes, elderflower, champagne, and an actual sorbet iceberg floating in the center.  The good news is that the ending to the drink isn’t tragic.

My husband and I share housemade burrata with heirloom tomato, watermelon, and avocado ice cream.  These are tomatoes at their peak of flavor, paired to perfection with sweet watermelon, and a silky burrata. It’s a summery treat that is fulfills my heightened expectations for the return visit here.

 

burrata

burrata with heirloom tomatoes and watermelon

I sneak in a spoonful of a my friend’s chilled yellow tomato gazpacho with kalamata olives and feta cheese.  For a brief moment, I covet my neighbor’s dish.  Fortunately, going back to the burrata is not a bad thing at all.

Chesapeake Bay rockfish with corn risotto, achiote pickled garlic, and oyster and chanterelle mushrooms is a popular choice for our group, with half of us choosing it for an entree. On my first bite I tackle the fish, perfectly cooked with a crispy exterior.  The sweet risotto, meaty mushrooms, and savory sauce balance the delicately flavored fish.

Rockfish

My friends rave about braised kale and papardelle pasta with zucchini, cippolini onions, fried caper berries, and limoncello buerre blanc. Jerusalem artichoke risotto with tomato froth and pine nuts is on the soupy side, and has little visual appeal. It’s not bad, but other dishes are better.  On the plus side, its nice to see a selection of vegetarian entrees.

One dish at the table disappoints based on portion size. I am assured that Cornish game hen with arugula pesto, corn pancake, and bruleéd mission fig is far from lacking in taste.  But the serving of two small legs is a mystery.  This is not the dish for a someone looking for a hearty meal.

Cornish game hen

Cornish game hen

The dessert menu has a number of items with great appeal, but I am unwavering in my desire for popcorn ice cream with butter sable, peanut butter powder, and caramel corn.  Caramel corn and I have a special relationship, and this dessert jumps out at me as soon as I see it on the menu.  It doesn’t disappoint.

popcorn ice cream

popcorn ice cream

We voice concern that cinnamon sugar beignets are run-of-the-mill compared to some of the other options.  We end up eating our words, and all of the beignets.

cinnamon sugar beignets

cinnamon sugar beignets

Our server is exceptional, showing up at just the right moments, offering us a touch of humor and a good bit of expertise.  While the food at Trummer’s doesn’t knock my socks off, its still quite good.

We head home happy and full.  About a mile out of Clifton we hear an excruciatingly loud bump. We’ve hit something in the road and my friend’s car now has a flat tire. Three men struggle to change the tire but the tools at hand are ill-suited to the task. It’s not easy or quick getting late night road service in the wilds of Northern Virginia.  It’s over an hour before help arrives and then another hour before we’re home.  A lesser meal would have had me vowing never to return to Clifton.  It’s a good sign when I realize that the ride to Trummer’s can be fraught with bumps, but its still worth the road trip.

 

Trummer’s on Main, 7134 Main St, Clifton, VA

 

 Trummer’s on Main named in Washingtonian reader favorites

Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants 2013

 

Trummer's on Main on Urbanspoon

“The devil made me do it” at Bourbon Steak

With a slew of interesting new restaurants in town, why go to a pricey steakhouse situated in a hotel in Georgetown? And why in heaven’s name should we go when half of my party of six doesn’t even eat meat? Fair question.

The answer?  Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown offers quality, consistency, and sinfully good fries that they don’t even charge you for.  You don’t really need to drink bourbon or eat steak to enjoy a meal here.  In fact my favorite parts of dinner have nothing at all to do with alcohol or red meat.  I am more partial to the surroundings, which applies to the food as well as the atmosphere. At many restaurants, the devil can be in the details, but at Bourbon Steak it’s the details that leave us smiling.

The decor is dark and swanky, with an understated elegance. It’s one of those nights where us girls are a little more dressed up than usual.  We’re not alone.  Cocktail dresses are not out of place at Bourbon Steak. 

Initially, we aren’t thrilled with a prolonged wait for our drinks to arrive.  But when they do, along with those crisp hot fries coated in a thin layer of duck fat, all frustrations are forgotten.  There are rosemary herb fries with spicy ketchup, onion-dusted fries with sour cream, and smoked paprika fries with barbecue sauce.  Oh my. What a wonderful way to start a meal.  So much better than bread.

Bourbon Steak Fries

Bourbon Steak Fries

Oh wait…there’s bread too.  Warm black truffle dinner rolls have an exquisite aroma and are sinfully good.  I am rendered powerless against their charm.

Bourbon Steak Truffle Bread

Bourbon Steak Truffle Bread

I don’t eat sardines, but have to admit that these look beautifully prepared.  I’ll take the word of others on this one.  I find the smell alone to be hellish.

Bourbon Steak Sardines

I’ve had my share of steak lately after dinners at Le Diplomate and Del Campo.   I try to limit my red meat intake, but I can’t steer away from it here.  Chef/restauranteur Michael Mina’s menu at Bourbon Steak is obviously meaty.  As the winner of DC’s 2012 American Lamb Jam tour, Executive Chef John Critchley clearly has a way with lamb, and I’m happy to indulge. Border Springs Farm grassfed lamb is prepared simply, allowing the meat to stand on its own merits.  It does, although my preference for more creative cuisine leaves me a touch wistful.

Bourbon Steak Lamb

Bourbon Steak Lamb

Our non meat-eaters enjoy Virginia rockfish with pine nut, chermoula, and sea beans with flavors that are slightly sweet with a touch of heat. It’s not a rave-about kind of dish, but it is enough to justify the visit for the pescetarians among us.

Bourbon Steak rockfish

Bourbon Steak rockfish

Bourbon Steak’s farm fresh side dishes provide a creative touch.  Silver queen corn with lime, cotija cheese, and huitalacoche (corn fungus!), stand out as my favorite.

Crunchy profiteroles with salty caramel ice cream, nutella, and hazelnuts doesn’t float my boat as a way to end the meal.  Michael’s root beer float with sassafras ice cream, and root beer sorbet is a refreshingly good alternative.

Bourbon Steak profiteroles

Bourbon Steak profiteroles

 

Bourbon Steak is a heavenly option for true carnivores.  For others, it’s the fries and the bread that help make this a memorable dining experience.  And if like me, you overindulge on the extras, just say “the devil made me do it.”

 

 Bourbon Steak, 2800 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC

Bourbon Steak in Washingtonian‘s 100 Very Best Restaurants 2013

Bourbon Steak in Tom Sietsema’s 2012 Fall Dining Guide in The Washington Post

 

Bourbon Steak on Urbanspoon

Baltimore’s Pabu: the joy of eating

A colleague is telling me about a recent dining experience at DC’s The Atlas Room. “The food is so outrageously good, that we keep putting down our forks and giggling.”  I don’t know that chefs should aspire to create dishes that make guests break into peals of laughter.  But there is something to be said for food that induces some expressions of glee.  A recent excursion to Michael Mina’s Pabu in Baltimore’s Four Seasons Hotel elicits quite a few exuberant exclamations at our table.

We are here with friends who I will refer to as Chef S. and his wife.  Chef S. is a discerning diner and accomplished home chef.  When Chef S. tastes something particularly pleasurable no words are necessary. At first there is a look of wonderment as the tastes fully register on his palate.  This is eventually replaced by an  expression of pure joy.  That’s what I’m talking about.

Our approach to Pabu’s  Japanese izakaya (small plates) menu is to incorporate pescatarian options to satisfy my husband’s kosher requirements along with some very appealing beef, pork, and shellfish dishes for the rest of us.

Fire-roasted edamame with sake, mirin, soy, and Japanese chili is a cut above other similar versions.  The intermingling of salty and spice is a perfect way to ease into the whirlwind of flavors to come.  Ahi tuna poke with tobiko, scallion, and wonton crisps has flavor that builds to a satisfying finish.  We could easily devour a second portion, but it’s too early in the game to stuff ourselves with one dish, no matter how good it is.

Pabu ahi tuna poke

Pabu ahi tuna poke

Amberjack with kanpachi, yuzu-chili, fried shallot, and pine nuts is a nightly special.  And special it is.  The fresh and delicate fish has just a touch of crunch and loads of flavor.

Pabu Amberjack

Pabu Amberjack

Tiny eggplants with spicy miso glaze is one of the don’t miss dishes from Todd Kliman’s Washingtonian review.  We are glad that we don’t.  This is the first of several dishes we order featuring miso glaze.  We don’t notice this when ordering.  Fortunately, its a sticky sweetness that could enhance any dish, and we don’t tire of it.

 

Pabu tiny eggplants with spicy miso glaze

Pabu tiny eggplants with spicy miso glaze

Maryland crab okonomiyaki with fried egg, pork belly, and mustard mayo is something of a mess at first glance  But the pile of ingredients featuring contrasting colors each have a distinct flavor:  tangy pickled ginger, creamy egg, and  deliciously salty pork belly, not to mention the delightful crab.  Could this be our favorite dish of the night?  Perhaps.

Pabu Maryland crab okonomiyaki

Pabu Maryland crab okonomiyaki

 

The  Berkshire pork country ribs with red  chili glaze have me licking my fingers.  The miso glaze makes another appearance, gently coating the wonderfully tender meat.  This might be my favorite dish of the evening.

Pabu Berkshire Pork country ribs

Then again there is roasted bone marrow.  I’ve never really understood the appeal of bone marrow.  Until now.  Pabu’s spicy miso glazed (here it is again!) bone marrow is accented with ramp salsa verde.  The bone marrow begs me to pick it up to ensure that I leave no morsel of meat untouched. I cannot ignore the call.  Seriously this is my favorite dish at Pabu.

PABU ROASTED BONE MARROW

PABU ROASTED BONE MARROW

Four people are now grinning from ear to ear, as each dish that arrives at the table is better than the one that preceded it.

Dessert is debatable, and we’re leaning towards going without.  But when we are presented the dessert menu from the neighboring Wit & Wisdom (also in the Four Seasons hotel), in addition to Pabu’s menu, we feel we have hit the dessert lottery. We decide to go with Wit & Wisdom’s offerings which includes “Banana” – warm banana cake, banana sherbet, cinnamon chocolate, brown sugar wafer and “Coffee and Cake” – devil’s food, espresso curd, and brown butter coffee sherbet. They are both heavenly.

Wit & Wisdom Banana

Wit & Wisdom Banana

Wit & Wisdom coffee & cake

Wit & Wisdom coffee & cake

There are many areas of the menu we’ve left unexplored including sushi, sashimi, and rolls, which may have been a tactical error.  On the other hand, it’s certainly an excuse for a return visit.

The casual atmosphere is inviting and comfortable.  But it’s the background music from the 80′s that makes us feel right at home, and brings more smiles to our faces.

PABU INTERIOR

 

Pabu is one of those places that I’ll be thinking about for a long time.  It makes me realize that when at it’s best, food really is a laughing matter.

 

Pabu, 725 Aliceanna Street, Baltimore, MD

Review from Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants for 2013*
Pabu on Urbanspoon

 

*Pabu is on Washingtonian’s list of 100 Very Best Restaurants for 2013.  Washingtonian‘s Todd Kliman explains why Pabu, as well as Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, make it on the magazine’s list in one of his recent online chats:  Our feeling was that both those places offer an experience that is not so common in DC, and that those experiences are worth sharing with our readers.

Food is love…The Inn at Little Washington

Last fall I attended a farm-to-fork tour of Rappahannock County sponsored by Les Dames d’Escoffier DC  The tour included a visit to the famed restaurant Inn at Little WashingtonChef/restaurateur Patrick O’Connell spoke to the group about his beginnings at the restaurant more than 30 years ago, his connection to local farmers, and how he believes that “food is love.”   The goal at the Inn is for guests to enjoy a transformative and luxurious experience, encompassing far more than the enjoyment of fine food.  Chef O’Connell is a charismatic speaker, and I am spellbound by his words.

For years I felt I was missing something by not having dined at the Inn. But for maximum enjoyment (i.e. a nice bottle of wine) to dine at the Inn requires an overnight stay, since its Washington, Virginia location is an hour and a half drive from home.  This is not just dinner out.  It is a commitment of time and money.

But listening to Chef O’Connell speak, I realize that there is no more appropriate place for my husband and I to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. Food is love?  This is basically the theme for our marriage.  Fortunately my husband agrees with the plan, which is probably part of the reason we have been married 30 years.  (Not the agreeing with me part but the being okay with spending hundreds of dollars on dinner part.  Well maybe both).

Since a stay at the Inn itself is another commitment altogether, with rooms starting at approx. $600 per night, we opt to stay at a bed and breakfast in nearby Sperryville, Virginia.

You don’t sign on for a meal that costs $200 per person before tax, tip, and alcohol without extremely high expectations. It is imperative to suspend any concern about cost.  This is about excellence.  Inn at Little Washington is #1 on Washingtonian’s list of 100 Very Best Restaurants, four out of four stars from The Washington Post, an almost perfect score from Zagat, a 5-diamond (highest-rating) award from AAA for 25 years running, and too many other acknowledgements to mention.  Ask almost anyone who has dined here, and you get a reverent sigh of satisfaction.

Joining us for dinner at the Inn are cousins A & B, who are also celebrating an anniversary.  Since their introduction came by way of our engagement party, we agree that a joint celebration is in order.

We begin our evening in a sitting room adjacent to the dining area, where we can soak in the ambiance before we focus on the food.  The Inn’s decor is ornate and old-fashioned, with tassles and fringe galore.  The immersion in luxury begins.

little_washington

A closer look at the decor reveals whimsical touches, such as a wooden cow waiting to take a turn as a vehicle for the cheese course. I usually prefer a more modern atmosphere, but it’s impossible to resist the Inn’s charm.

Faira the Cheese Cow - Picture of Inn at Little Washington, WashingtonThis photo of Inn at Little Washington is courtesy of TripAdvisor

From the moment we are seated, it is clear what the fuss is all about.  Employees are well-trained in the art of hospitality and are ready to accede to our every wish.  Cousins A & B, who are here for the second time, remark that their previous visit to the Inn felt more dramatic.  It’s difficult to replicate the magic of a first time experience.  We have no basis for comparison, and are content with service that may lack drama but is not at all short on finesse.

The four course tasting menu has a welcome diversity of options.  While some tasting menus present challenges for my Kosher-keeping husband, this is not the case at the Inn at Little Washington.  The menu includes fish and pasta that do not require a request for substitutions or omissions.

Our server guides me when my confidence in what to order falters. I am poised for a culinary adventure, and I don’t want to make any mistakes.  It doesn’t take long for me to relax and enjoy the parade of breath-taking dishes placed before us.

I begin with carpaccio of herb crusted baby lamb loin with caesar salad ice cream, which provides a shockingly cool and satisfying contrast to the rare meat. It tastes as spectacular as it looks.

THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON Carpaccio of Herb Crusted Baby Lamb Loin with Caesar Salad Ice Cream

 

My second course is  New England day boat scallops sautéed with curried cauliflower, sultanas, and garlic chips.  While I have resorted to dishes featuring two of my favorite ingredients, other lamb and scallop dishes I’ve had recently pale in comparison.  My only concern is this:  when  you dine at the top of the restaurant pyramid in terms of flavor, complexity, and presentation, can you subsequently find satisfaction at a lower level?  Time will tell.  This meal is about the present.

THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON New England Day Boat Scallops Sauteed with Curried Cauliflower, Sultanas and Garlic Chips

 

My main course is seared rare tuna crusted with mustard seeds, and layered with foie gras, with preserved lemon puree and a confetti of garden vegetables.  I am not accustomed to eating foie gras, but the indulgent ingredient seems appropriate for the occasion.  It is a generous portion and at some point I decide to leave some of it behind and focus my attention solely on the tuna.

THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON Seared Rare Tuna Crusted with Mustard Seeds, Layered with foie gras, with Preserved Lemon Puree and a Confetti of Garden Vegetables

One of the things I like best about a tasting menu is that I don’t have an internal struggle about dessert.  It’s included.  I’m eating it.  End of story.  My selection is cocoa nib Napoleon with caramelized bananas, chocolate mousse, and sorbet with caramel lime sauce.  I have again steered towards my favorite flavors (caramel and lime) and have no regrets.  The Happy Anniversary message is a lovely, although somewhat expected, touch.

THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON Cocoa nib napoleon

In the interest of time and space, I will not include the dishes enjoyed by my dining companions. Suffice it to say that a magnificent meal was enjoyed by all.  Happily, the story of my experience doesn’t end here.

The next morning my husband, who is in the restaurant equipment business, has arranged to work with some of the staff at the Inn.  I tag along, because I can’t turn down an opportunity to spend more time here.

We have just eaten a lovely breakfast at our B&B, but when we are invited to sit at the chef’s table and enjoy breakfast before my husband begins his work….how can we refuse?  My husband looks uncertain, but I am grinning from ear to ear.  Diner’s at the Inn can pay a surcharge on their meal for the chance to sit at the chef’s table and observe the goings on. The surcharge for a Saturday night is $575.  While this isn’t a Saturday night, and the kitchen is most certainly more relaxed than during dinner, this is an opportunity not to be missed.  A flight of juices, a warm basket of baked goods, fresh fruit, and hot coffee exceed my expectations.  When I don’t think it is possible to eat another bite, we are handed a menu and invited to order a breakfast entree.  Can I possibly eat any more?  Apparently so.  A brioche French toast with blackberry sauce is one of the most heavenly dishes I have ever tasted.  It’s so light and airy that I can’t imagine it contains any calories at all.  At least that is what I tell myself.

THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON French Toast The staff are treating us like royalty, although at this point we are not paying guests.  This is a testament to how a culture of excellence in service is ingrained in the staff.    It is not something that dissipates when you are behind the scenes.  I mention to one of the staff that my only disappointment about the previous night is that our meal did not include the truffle dusted popcorn, for which Chef O’Connell is famous.  This is included in the more robust Gastronaut’s menu, but not the a la carte menu.  The executive sous chef promises to make me a batch of the popcorn before we depart.  I am treated to a demonstration, where I marvel at the luxurious ingredients which includes air popped popcorn, truffle oil, sugar, Parmesan cheese, and a healthy shaving of imported truffles. At this point I really am too stuffed to enjoy the treat I have lusted after. I take a few bites and hold onto the rest for when I am hungry again, which isn’t until many hours later.

My only remaining regret is that there is no Chef Patrick O’Connell sighting, although I know he is in the kitchen while we are enjoying dinner.  I want him to know how much we have loved his food and have fully appreciated the care and attention that he has put into his entire operation.  Dining at the Inn is an experience to be cherished, and for a special occasion experience, it is unparalleled.  I think back to his speech that brought me to this moment.  His 30 years at the Inn at Little Washington.  Our 30 years of marriage. Indeed…food is love.

The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Virginia

Video of Chef O’Connell making truffled popcorn

The Inn at Little Washington on Urbanspoon

Feeling age appropriate at Wildwood Kitchen

I am accustomed to being among the oldest diners in many DC restaurants.  Most of the time I don’t really think about it- except when I am standing in line to get into a place like Toki Underground and my back starts killing me after 10 minutes.

But walking into Wildwood Kitchen, the new Robert Wiedmaier retaurant in Bethesda’s Wildwood Shopping Center, is a different story.  My first clue that I may be on the younger side of the demographic scale is the Bobby Darin tune playing in the background. It’s actually refreshing to be in a restaurant that has me in the lower age range of its target audience.

Wiedmaier’s reputation precedes him, as the chef/owner of notable restaurants including Brasserie Beck and Marcel’s, as well as Bethesda proper’s Mussel Bar (which I can’t seem to get motivated to try, since I don’t eat mussels).  In this suburban strip mall, he is clearly aiming to fill a niche in an area that is high in income and low in decent restaurants.

I arrive early and this gives me a few moments to soak in the atmosphere.  Wildwood Kitchen is casually elegant, with a touch of the outdoors brought indoors.  This includes a border with a forest scene, and a light fixture that looks like a tree branch. Everything is kind of wild and woodsy.   I can’t quite decide what to make of the servers who are attired in checked shirts and jeans.  On the one hand, it goes with the theme, but the Mediterranean-influenced menu feels more dressed-up to me.

The menu itself is short and appealing.  Part of the concept is that the food is light on butter and cream,  perfect for the largely over-50 suburban crowd, who are likely to applaud flavor without the added calories.  I put myself right into this category.  It’s refreshing to know that I can dine with a bit less concern for the long-term impact.

There is a special menu for Valentine’s Day.  I am relieved to find that the regular menu is also available, since the special entrees are all priced $20 higher than the standard ones.  This irks me.  It would be so much more endearing to find a price fixe special menu offering discounts, rather  than inflated pricing.

It doesn’t take me long to recover. Wildwood Kitchen wins me over once they deliver a crusty bread with tuna ganoush dip.  Think baba ganoush but with a mild tuna flavor to add interest.

My husband and I share a beet and goat cheese salad.  I confess that I am beginning to tire of this standard starter, which I find myself ordering all too often.  But this is a high quality version, and I particularly like the soft and creamy goat cheese.

 

Wildwood Kitchen Beet Sal

Wildwood Kitchen Beet Salad

My main course is roasted duck breast with Tuscan style cauliflower, date puree, and cherry duck jus.  I could not have picked an entree better suited to my taste.  The duck is perfectly cooked with a lightly crisped skin, and a sweet but not too sweet sauce.  Dare I say, I nearly licked my plate clean?

Wildwood Kitchen Duck Breast

Wildwood Kitchen Duck Breast

 

My husband is equally fond of arctic char en papillote with julienned vegetables, lemon, coriander, and carrot jus. This is a package that is particularly fun to unwrap, unveiling a moist and fragrant fish.

Wildwood Kitchen Arctic Char

Wildwood Kitchen Arctic Char

The dessert choices are limited and nothing really speaks to me. But it’s Valentine’s Day and a shared dessert feels like a must.  We order the olive oil shortcake with champagne sorbet and strawberries from the special Valentine’s Day menu.  At $12 it’s going to be difficult to live up to the price.  The shortcake doesn’t have much flavor, but we like the champagne sorbet.  Worth it?  Not really.

 

Wildwood Kitchen Olive Oil Shortcake

Wildwood Kitchen Olive Oil Shortcake

The service here is competent- staff are not overbearing but at-the-ready when needed.  This is important at a suburban restaurant where some patrons will consider good service to be more important than good food.  Fortunately, Wildwood Kitchen offers both.

Some of the newer additions to the Bethesda/Rockville/Potomac dining scene such as Founding Farmers, Matchbox Rockville, Chef Geoff’s Rockville, and Sugo Cichetti are fine options as companions to a movie or theater, or even for a girl’s night out. But there are only a handful of Montgomery County restaurants that I consider worthwhile, if a decent dining experience is the primary intent of the evening. Wildwood Kitchen is now on my list. The fact that I can act my age makes it all the more appealing.

 

Wildwood Kitchen, 10223 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, MD

Washingtonian Magazine, 5 Places to Watch in 2013

 

Wildwood Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Taking criticism to heart at Equinox

I am a sensitive person. When criticism comes my way, I take it very personally. A negative comment is examined and reexamined, until I can figure out how to address the issue if at all possible.  A reader recently took me to task for attributing a movie quote incorrectly. “Wow! If you cant even get a movie quote right, I’m not sure if I trust your review.”  My heart sinks upon reading this.  I am so sensitive that when I get an unfollower on Twitter (and I know just who they are, thanks to unfollow), I agonize over what I have said to make them leave me. As someone who writes critiques that aren’t always 100% positive, it should be easier for me to field criticism.  I guess it really is easier to dish it out than to take it.

On a recent visit to DC’s Equinox  I can’t help but fixate on The Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema’s recent one and a-half star review.  It is filled with criticisms, many of them directed at recently-appointed Executive Chef Karen Nicolas.  In April Chef Nicolas was named by Food & Wine as one of the 10 Best New Chefs for 2012.  According to Sietsema “The magazine’s tastemakers must have hit the restaurant, which enjoys a perfect location near the White House, on one of its best days. Since Nicolas has steered Equinox, I’ve had four meals there: the first so underwhelming that I thought she needed more rehearsal time.”  Ouch.

Equinox is owned and operated by one of DC’s most respected chefs, Todd Gray.  Gray has earned numerous awards including the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s 2011 RAMMY Chef of the Year, along with five nominations for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Mid-Atlantic Award. I know this review has to sting.

I am not wary about dining at Equinox, despite the review.  One of my dining companions is a local wine writer (Grapelines).  He knows Chef Gray and his wife Ellen Kassoff, and is a regular at Equinox. I trust that we will be treated royally and that our meal will be top-notch. I’m more interested in how the review has affected business and staff morale. More about that later.

There are a variety of appealing options on the menu, but eventually every one of our party of six decides to order the vegetarian tasting menu.  It has universal appeal to a group that includes three non-meat eaters: beet salad, pumpkin soup, pasta with brussels sprouts, honey and spice roasted eggplant, and pumpkin pave for dessert.  However, when it’s time to place our order, I hesitate.  I am encouraged by my friends to venture in a different direction, for the sake of the blog. “I do love lamb,” I say somewhat wistfully.  “Go for it,” says the group nearly in unison. I consent, as long as they agree to share my order of house-made gruyere gougères.

Sietsema comments that he finds the gougères heavy.  This must have been addressed since the review, because they couldn’t be any lighter.  With a touch of garlic, rosemary and sea salt, the gougères are an indulgent beginning, particularly since they follow the unexpected delivery of a basket of flaky cheddar biscuits.

Equinox Gougères

Equinox gougères

The first course of the vegetarian tasting menu is citrus marinated beet salad.  I’ve ordered a portion for myself, since the dish initially drew me to the tasting menu and I don’t want to be left out.  Ricotta beignets, green olives, and pomegranate seeds accessorize lightly dressed micro watercress.  The female diners share a twinge of guilt about the ricotta beignets in the salad.  More pastry filled with cheese.  This meal is feeling very decadent and we haven’t gotten very far.  But, there is no place for guilt when enjoying such a polished and elegant meal.

Equinox Beet Salad

Equinox Beet Salad

I linger over my beet salad, while the rest of the group delves into a complex roasted pie pumpkin soup with poached quince, hazelnut crumble, and curry leaf.  It is a perfect late autumn soup- not too thick or too sweet.  There is a beautiful layering of textures and flavors.

Equinox pumpkin soup

Equinox pumpkin soup

The next course for the veggie group is hand torn malfatti pasta with brussels sprouts, mushrooms and roasted chestnuts.  There is agreement that the flavor is noteworthy, but the pasta noodles are clumped together, which makes it difficult to eat.  Regardless of the awkward texture, the ingredients blend to form a cohesive dish.

Equinox Pasta

Equinox Pasta

I am only slightly self-conscious as a generous portion of lamb arrives.  Thyme roasted Pennsylvania lamb loin is perched atop rainbow swiss chard, caramelized eggplant, and sweet garlic jus and studded with olives.  The lamb is tender and beautifully prepared, but it’s the charred eggplant with honey and seven spices that provide wonderful bursts of sweetness.

Equinox lamb loin

Equinox lamb loin

While I am savoring the lamb and eggplant, my companions are enjoying a similar dish (minus the lamb). Honey & spice roasted eggplant features many of the components that are on my plate and then some. Stellar dishes…both of them.

spice eggplant

Equinox honey & spice roasted eggplant

The pumpkin pave with cinnamon ice cream, hazelnut streusel, and pumpkin seed brittle looks incredible, and I am assured that it is.  However, I am steering away from anything hazelnut, even though my husband and friends insist the hazelnut is subtle.  They love it.

Equinox Pumpkin Pave

I opt for warm quince crisp.  It’s the only misstep in an otherwise stellar meal. The flavor is lacking (my friend thinks something is off about it, but I don’t agree) and there’s nothing to hold the dessert together.  On the other hand, the coconut sorbet is quite good, so at least I’m left with some sweet satisfaction.  All in all we have enjoyed an excellent meal with impeccable service, exceeding our expectations.

Equinox quince crisp

Equinox quince crisp

I am left wondering about that Washington Post review.  Was Tom Sietsema totally off base? A few days after our dinner, I have an opportunity speak with owner Ellen Kassoff about how things are going post the Post review.

“Every review is an opportunity to review ourselves, who we are, and what we are doing.  While criticisms can be harsh, we welcome them,” she says.  She believes that Equinox is held to an extremely high standard because of her husband’s length of experience.  It was difficult for him to hand over the title of Executive Chef.  Sietsema agrees saying the appointment of Nicholas in that role “suggests a veteran chef admirably willing to let go of some ego.”

Following the review Kassoff said that she felt some initial anger, but subsequently they took an opportunity to reexamine what they ultimately wanted for their restaurant.  As a result, Chef Gray has reclaimed the kitchen.  The menu has gone back to  its roots (more hearty and rustic food) and Gray is doing more of the cooking and working to mentor Nicolas.

The good news for Equinox is that loyal customers haven’t left.  They seem to be more loyal than ever. Kassoff says Equinox is having  one of its best years and the love and support they are hearing from their customers are helping staff through what was initially a very tough time.  Kassoff notes that it is easy to get distracted by what’s written in print and online.  “We just have to get back in the kitchen.”  Reviews and online comments can be combative and cantankerous but as Kassoff says “It’s just dinner.  People really just need to be nicer to each other.”

I am surprised by this conversation, as I truly expected a blasting of the critic rather than a story about taking criticism to heart.  No one likes getting a bad review. But you have to admire restaurant owners who use it  as an opportunity to move forward, rather than dwelling on the negative.  A lesson I hope I can apply the next time someone throws some disapproval my way.

Equinox, 818 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC

Washington Post review

Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants 2012

Equinox on Urbanspoon

the perks of dining with a wine writer

the perks of dining with a wine guy

Equinox Restaurant on Foodio54

Not always caring about sharing at Cork Wine Bar

There is nothing I enjoy more than sharing a meal with friends. In fact this quote by writer Michael Pollan says it all:

“The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.”
Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

But I’m starting to tire of, and maybe even resent, small plates.  I’m with five friends at Cork Wine Bar in Logan Circle.  One of my friends remarks, “I miss the days when I had my own plate of food.” I have to agree.  Why do I always need to share what I’m eating and turn a dish over to someone else before I’m ready? This feeling is intensified at Cork, where much of the food is so good that I’m not happy to part with it.

We are seated upstairs and enjoying the fact that the noise level up here is manageable. On the other hand, it is so dark that using a flashlight to read the menu is mandatory.  We are relieved to see that a young couple at an adjacent table is also resorting to supplemental lighting.  We eagerly interpret this to mean that our inability to see isn’t necessarily related to our age.

Things start off a little rough. We don’t love the bottle of wine we’ve selected.  Since Cork has a selection of 50 different wines by the glass, perhaps sharing a bottle of wine isn’t the way to go. Rookie mistake, and we’re a little disappointed. However, as our dishes begin to arrive, we settle into a happy groove.

Avocado with pistachios, toasted pistachio oil, sea salt, and grilled bread quickly makes us turn our attention to the food.  Avocado lovers take note: don’t miss this.  The avocado is a deserving star.

Cork avocado

I am not a fan of calamari, so I don’t think I’m going to partake in this particular dish.  But I can’t resist when I hear the reactions of my fellow diners, which include a series of oohs and ahs.  I gingerly take a bite and then happily take a few more of the light and crispy tendrils.  Thankfully, we’ve ordered a large portion and my friends are willing to share.

My favorite dish is the miticrema bruschetta with grilled summer squash and fried pickles.  The Miticrema, a sweet and creamy sheep’s milk cheese, oozes out from under the squash which is followed by a tangy shock of flavor from the pickles.  This elicits a round of hearty “yums.”

 

Cork miticrema bruschetta

Duck confit with fava beans, carrots, pickled cherries, and quinoa is another winner.  I’m grateful that only four of us are splitting this, as it gives me a better opportunity to savor the flavor.

Cork duck confit

The group order results in two dishes that I’m not terribly excited about:  marcona almond and carrot salad as well as arugula salad with basil, mint, figs, shallot vinaigrette, and parmesan. They both end up being terrifically fresh and far more complex than I could have imagined.

Tortellini with tomato confit, shallots, and tomato water is a special.  This sounds so good that we order two. The portion is small, so I’m a bit wistful after biting into a tortellini that bursts open to dispense a delicious savory liquid.

Cork tortellini

I find one dish fairly distasteful.  The sauteed exotic mushrooms with Madeira and marjoram are too salty.  Our server overhears our comment, and without a word another portion is delivered to our table.  The second order has less salt, but I still find the flavor somewhat soapy.  The opinion of the group is split.  Some enjoy it.  In this case, I happily forgo my portion.

Cork mushrooms

I have to leave before dessert but I’m told that this is a highlight of the meal, particularly goat cheese cake with fresh berries and cookie crumble.  I’m sad to have missed out, but hearing this means that I am resolved for a return visit that’s sooner rather than later.

There really is nothing more satisfying than sharing a meal with others.   At Cork, I’d simply prefer the sharing to be a little less literal.

 

Cork Wine Bar, 1720 14th Street, NW

 Washington Post review

 Washingtonian‘s 100 Best Restaurants 2012
Cork Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Something special at Bethesda’s Bistro Provence

There is one question I get asked more than any other.  Where should I go for a special occasion meal in Bethesda? I have a tough time coming up with a response to this, because there are lots of pretty good places to eat in Bethesda, but special occasion/destination worthy?  Not so much.

So when my husband and I join two other couples for dinner at  Bistro Provence, I am holding out hope that Chef Yannick Cam can provide a possible answer to the Bethesda question.   If anyone can, it’s Cam.

Chef Cam was a celebrity chef in DC before there really was such a thing.  He was Executive Chef at  a number of critically acclaimed high-end French restaurants in DC, including Le Pavillon and Le Paradou. I have not always been the biggest fan of French food, but it’s been growing on me lately. So, I’m happy to give the two-year old Bistro Provence a try. One couple has dined here recently, and look forward to returning. It’s a good sign.

It’s February when we decide to make a reservation for May, to take advantage of the beautiful garden setting.  Unfortunately, we would have been better off in February.  Our May outing turns out to be on a particularly cold and dreary evening.  We are seated in the upstairs dining room, which appears to have once been someone’s living quarters.  At least that’s the only explanation I can come up with for the presence of a washing machine on the side of the dining room.  Despite this, it’s a lovely room, although the noise level is extremely high.  We are at a round table, which usually facilitates conversation.  I’m having trouble hearing the people across from me.

Bistro Provence

I’m adjusting to the sound level and perusing the menu.  I’m surprised at the prices.  Most of the appetizers start at $14 and go up from there.  I rule out an interesting sounding foie gras at $24.50.  There are still plenty of appealing choices, but I’m in one of those modes when I can’t make up my mind.  We’re also struggling to pick a somewhat moderately priced bottle of wine.  The waiter is French and serious, and someone who I can imagine has worked with Chef Cam for many years.  He appears to be growing somewhat impatient with our indecision.

I realize this is starting to sound like I’m talking about a meal that doesn’t end well.  I was thinking the same thing at this point of the evening.  Then my food starts to arrive.

My first course is risotto with tomato confit, saffron, and roasted shrimp.  It’s a generous portion, which I easily could have split with someone else.  The shrimp are cooked just right, and the risotto benefits from the saffron which is distinguishable but not overpowering.  It’s a bit rich, and I can’t finish the dish. But it’s a satisfying starter that turns my uncertainly at the start of the meal into an eagerness for what’s ahead.

Bistro Provence Risotto with Shrimp

I’m hearing positive comments from my fellow diners.  My husband enjoys arugula salad with salt packed anchovies and parmesan reggianno.  It’s simple, but these ingredients don’t need much enhancement to make them taste good.

Bistro Provence Arugula Salad

My main course is a game changer.  I ask for the server to direct me to something on the high end of the flavor scale.  He he has one word for me….bouillabaisse.  (Its even more appealing when pronounced with a French accent.) Server knows what he is talking about. It’s chock full of sea scallops, shrimp, and sea bass.  The seafood is plentiful and perfectly cooked.  But it is the broth that distinguishes this dish with notes of pernod and fennel.  Each dip of the spoon brings forth something just a little bit different than the taste that comes before it.  It’s one of those dishes that you can still taste hours later.   The memory makes me want to immediately head back to Bistro Provence for more.

 

Bistro Provence bouillabaisse

One of my friends tastes the bouillabaisse and can’t get over it.  Throughout the rest of the evening he alternates between saying “I should have ordered the bouillabaisse” to “I have to go back for the bouillabaisse.”  It feels good to be the person with the most coveted dish at the table.

My husband isn’t quite as effusive about the grilled salmon with ratatouille and basil.  He enjoys the fish and vegetables, but the salmon is a tad dry.

 

Bistro Provence Grilled Salmon

Other dishes at the table are herb roasted chicken, and veal chop with artichoke and sage jus.  The chicken is described as tender and delicious, and the veal chop is a hit as well. I know I should be paying closer attention to what is being said about the food, but I am too absorbed in savoring my own dish.

Bistro Provence Chicken

We opt out of dessert, which doesn’t please the server.  It’s not that the options have no appeal, but we’re planning to change venues.  The way I look at it, it gives me some unknown territory to explore, because I know I’m having bouillabaisse on a return visit.

Just this morning a colleague asks “where should I go for an anniversary dinner?  I don’t really want to go downtown.”  I hesitate because I’ve gotten used to doing so when asked this question.  Then I remember.  I have an answer.  Bistro Provence and the terrifically special bouillabaisse.

Bistro Provence, 4933 Fairmont Avenue, Bethesda, MD

Washingtonian‘s 100 Very Best Restaurants 2012, 2 1/2 stars out of 4

The Washington Post review

Bistro Provence on Urbanspoon

 

 


Questions or comments?
Send an email to lorisue6@gmail.com