Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Des Moines, Iowa's HARBINGER is heavenly, modern and marvelous (7-8-18)and other Des Moines tidbits

My long weekend in Des Moines, Iowa was ,y virgin visit to the state's capital and I cam away finding amazing food everywhere, not to mention some of the friendliest folks around.
My first night at the Maytag Dairy Farm 40 miles east of town in the middle of nowhere, the Des Moines Metro Opera catered and amazing meal from Table 128 in town featuring Pork Chops with Maytag Blue Cheese, Grilled Corn, Beans, awesome biscuits and so much more. A real treat before the opera was the complimentary popcorn, made from the corn right next to the opera stage set outside! There were Maytag Blue Cheese & bacon popcorn as well as what they call Chicago popcorn (Cheddar & caramel mixed!!), there was an anise/orange which I skipped. After the opera, the cast and operagoers enjoyed the best ever Strawberry-Rhubarb pie made by a local woman in nearby Newton. It was a great first night. The other evenings I ate at the theater in Indianola and the food was a decent buffet, but needs no review.
One lunch at Bubba's in the city featured the best brined and fried chicken I have ever had that was so juicy I needed multiple napkins and the crusty skin was so good I at every last crumb. The mashed garlic potatoes won't win a prize, but the beans were delish. Sunday brunch, also in town, was at St. Kilda's, and when I arrived at 1130am the place was heaving. There was one party of 10 waiting for quite some time and it turned out to be the soprano lead from Fledermaus the night before! I was lucky enough to get a counter seat with a view of the whole place and enjoyed my one course of Salmon Burger with Avocado, slab bacon, fried egg and arugula on a gorgeous fresh seeded bun. The coffee was delish. It was a quick stop, but if you want to go reserve ahead!
The last meal and only real dinner out was at Harbinger, where Iowa native Chef Joe Tripp set up home just a year ago who has won TWO James Beard Awards for best Chef in the Midwest over the years. I invited 5 opera singer client/friends and we all had a truly amazing time. The grained wooden tables and chairs are pretty, but don't offer much rearend comfort; bu there are some bench leather seats along the walls. The walls have gorgeous lathed wooden bowls from local wood sculptors as well as jars with fresh sunflowers; one wall has a giant dried wreath. There is a small bar and the small space that seats under 50 is open to the kitchen at the side. I arrived early and started on a bottle of Stolpman Vineyard 2016 Roussanne from Ballard Canyon, Lompoc (Santa Barbara area), California. The rich unfiltered wine had tones of melon and pineapple and went with virtually everything, but drank beautifully alone. Our server Katelyn was extremely accommodating as we all ventured through the menu of 5 starters and twelve or so mains, but they were all really small plates meant for each person to have 4 or so. Some folks opted for the five course Chef's Tasting. I never did get a price on that menu, but the average cost per person without the drinks, tip or tax was about $45, and we ate a lot for 3 hours!
Many of the dishes can be viewed on my facebook page and are presented below in no specific order.
Haikuri Turnips were grilled over Thai Fruit wood and came with Nasturtium, Buttermilk and Green Tomato Marmalade (the marmalade enough was able to send us into ecstasy) was the first course of the tasting
Squash Blossom Rangoon was battered and deep fried with Tomato Sweet & Sour Sauce and Chinese Mustard. I started with this crunchy delight and it was the 2nd course for the tasting.
Spicy Eggplant toast with Thai Basil, Crispy Shallots and Pickled Fresno Chili looked a bit odd, but got raves, but the 
DUCK EGG inspired by Japanese omelet was a Tamago Custard with Smashed New Potatoes, Garlic Chives & Bacon Consomme that was truly a major breakthrough in cooking.
They also have Steamed Buns and the Vietnamese Meatball with Chili Glaze, Aioli and Cilantro got high marks as well.
The third course of the tasting was a perfectly grilled Miso Glazed Octopus and the
fourth course was a Superb Pork Loin with fermented Black Beans, Blueberry Vinaigrette(more like a gastrique) and Squid Ink.
Baby Heirloom Carrots (flavors of Thailand) with Lemongrass Marshmallow, Toasted Peanuts and Flowering Cilantro may not sound so interesting, but these were some of the best carrots from local farms and the lemongrass marshmallow was an inspiration that made the dish simply unequaled to any carrot dish ever had before in my mind.
I adored the English Pea Gnocchi-inspired Mochi with House Ricotta, Pine Nuts, Snap Peas & Tendrils which was probably one of the heaviest plates and at $9 was truly unbelievable.
My main course was the Lucky George Farm's Rabbit (memories of claypot in Singapore) with magnificent local mushrooms, broken rice and scallions. The dish was cooked perfectly so the rabbit shone, but like a stew without a single tiny rabbit bone.
By this time we had moved on to the celebratory Balfour Pinot Noir/Chardonnay Leslie's Reserve Sparkling Wine from Hush Heath Estate in Kent, UK and if this is where "champagne" is going in the future it's a good sign. It was intensely bubbly but full of wonderful yeasty flavors. It was even better using the Riedel crystal. Our dinner was right after the matinee of the remarkable Jonathan Dove masterpiece "Flight" and two of it's singers had joined us, so champagne was in order for it was one of the most memorable operatic encounters of my entire life.
The many plates were not that filling so dessert was in order and some chose the Lemon Meringue Blueberry and Spice which had a large lemon pudding with toasted meringue cookie. 
The tasting menu dessert was a Carrot Cake with Dehydrated Thai Chilis and while there was cream cheese involved, this was not your traditional carrot cake; it was divine, as was the entire evening with such a great group of singers.
This meal alone proved what Des Moines is capable of and I understand there are many other wonderful dining spots, so I guess I will have to return again for another Des Moines Metro Opera season!!

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Bistro Aracosia brings awesome Afghan to DC(6-30-18)

Will had been to Bistro Aracosia around the corner on MacArthur Blvd a couple of times and has been raving all year, so we finally headed over last night for a quiet dinner for two(

The location is where the late Listrani's and Bistroquet were, but unlike those, the place was full on Saturday at 7pm and a line was waiting for tables. I think this is here to stay!

The décor in the front retains the tin ceiling and small bar with bistro style seating(chairs are more comfy, but tables are small and crowded) in the two rooms. The walls have Afghan jewelry, scarves, paintings (think whirling dervishes) and quotes from famous poets(Rumi, Hafaz) and the rear room now has a beautiful fabric ceiling that makes it quieter (but last night a tad warmer than the front room, especially with the outdoor heat topping 90). The staff sport long embroidered Afghan shirts, which are most attractive.

We were warmly greeting and seated quickly as we perused the drink menu. Will chose the Khyber Pass made with Casa Noble Crystal Tequila, Patron Citronage, lime and chile while I aimed for the Sumac Infusion with sumac-infused vodka(mild), velvet falernum, pomegranate and lime. The tall thin glasses look smaller, but are misleading as the drinks seemed to last quite long. The Afghan bread arrived and Will said it was not as fresh as the previous visits, but still delicious with the four "chutneys" or sauces that come with it and can be put on any or all of the various dishes, but especially the kebabs. The mildest was the Avocado/Yogurt with spices and they progress very quickly in spice levels to the Red Chile then the Thai Pepper & Green Herbs(almost tomatillo-like) and the intense Mango Sweet & Spicy, definitely the hottest, but still superbly tasty.

It was quite busy and took a while to order, but we specifically told the server to give us a good break between courses as we saw the portions arriving near us were quite huge. The owner was back over asking what we had ordered and if we had ever tasted the lamb chops. Within minutes he returned with a plate of two gorgeous grilled lamb chops in Afgan spices. Unfortunately, Will is highly allergic to sumac and when he asked, the owner mentioned that all the grilled meats use sumac as it is a pre-mixed spice rub; more for me. The chops were cooked perfectly and were even more amazing with the green and mango sauces.

We ordered a bottle of Rioja Imperial Reserva 2012 from Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana in Haro and it was drinking beautifully. The wine list offers many lower prices options in the 30's and up, but they do tend to get pricey for the better quality ones and at $90 this was as high I was willing to go. Some wines were in the $300's!!

Will started with a Cold Scythian Soup of Yogurt, Avocado, Cucumber and Dill, with the latter being quite intense(a bit too much for my taste) while I was thrilled with my Sabzi Boulanee (turnovers) which are the flakiest of pastries (quasi-phyllo, less than turnovers), filled with spinach, kale, collard, mustard & turnip greens, and cilantro, then deep fried and served with the avocado/yogurt chutney dipping sauce. This is one of the best veggie dishes around for my bang!

I later learned that Sabzi means greens as Will ordered the Lamb Shank Sabzi Moghuli for his main course which was braised bone-in shanks with braised mixed greens in a spicy tomato stew with Garam Masala. It was delicious and huge as well.

I could not resist ordering the Bodana (Quail) Kabob with Basmati Rice and the most amazing Butternut Squash side dish topped with amazing spice sauce and a dab of yogurt drizzle. There were three huge quails(see the FB photos) all grilled and seasoned perfectly, but after those two lamb chops, I only got through half the plate and took the other 1-1/2 birds home for another night! Everything was cooked perfectly and again the supers sauces made every bite different.

We decided to try the Firni for dessert which is an Afghan pudding infused with cardamom and topped off with crushed pistachios akin to flan, but even thicker. It was nice, a bit rich and quite heavy, although refreshing. I would have liked more pistachios for crunch on top, but we left very happy knowing that we will be back soon to another awesome establishment in our 'hood!

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Phyllis List › Sally's Middle Name modified menu still makes my mouth water (6-17-18)

I completely forgot to write up our visit to Sally's Middle Name on H st, NE last week. I had a great visit there in the winter and returned to discover a now printed menu(instead of it being written on the wall) which was somewhat modified and reduced on option choices, but still worthy. I started with a drink called The Wanderer (how could I resist when I had two opera geeks with me) made of vodka, rhubarb shrub, vermouth and lime was a sublime pleasure. One of my guests went for the mocktail of Rhubarb Shrub and the other a Gone Fission (rum, strega, lime, lambrusco float). Check out the pretty FB photos! 
We ordered virtually everything on the menu as it is all small plates, skipping the bread & butter, olives, gazpacho and tomato salad. This left 7 dishes for us to share and it was just right:
Mixed Greens with feta, onion, almond, tarragon and raspberry vinaigrette was a tasty salad and good starter, but won't win a prize while the
Shaved Broccoli Salad with red onion, serrano chiles, Piave and lemon was indeed a prize winner with thin shafts of broccoli loaded with a punch from the chiles.
Braised Collard Greens were superb with bacon and molasses
and the pasta, a Cavatelli with Vegetable Bolognese was rich and filling, although we really craved meat!
the Smoked Chicken Breast is one of the most moist around with a superb rhubarb sauce, but alas that was the ONLY meat option on the menu for this day!
We continued with Moilee Curry of mixed squash, jasmine rice and cilantro which was nice, but the best cooked veggie dish was the
Smoked Royal Trumpet Mushrooms with Lentils, Tomatoes & Parsley.

I felt the wine list had reduced as well to 3 reds, 3 whites and a rose and we tried several by the glass
Senda Verde, Albarino  &Casa D'Ambra, Ischia Bianco were nice whites for all the lighter dishes and the red Saint Cosme, Cotes du Rhone which I had last time paled next to the fuller Gran Passione Veneto Rosso.
For dessert only two of us remained but marveled and then devoured the spectacular Raspberry Glazed Doughnut Sundae with Vanilla Ice Cream and Almond Brittle. Catch the FB photo of this and you will head right over now!
It's great to have this place across from the Atlas Theater where we go periodically and so many new places popping up in the 'hood!

Friday, June 22, 2018

ART WORKS NOW-one of the best foodie private events around with a veritable volume of women chefs from all over (6-21-18)

Last year I attended the ART WORKS NOW fundraiser at the home of Barbara Johnson(who founded this amazing organization and her spouse the amazing Ruth Gresser (founder/owner and chef of the Pizza Paradiso group here in the DC area). It was great last year and even more fun this time as Will joined me and we went home with tons of auction prizes. Only several dozen people can fit into the huge open kitchen at their home where some 8 or so tables were filled with food and art lovers who came to eat some of the most exciting cooking around.
The evening started outside with cocktails/mocktails/prosecco and hor's d'oevres cooked by Chef Jamie Knight who works under Jamie Leeds of Hanks Oyster Bar (who was sadly ill) and offered up some awesome Harissa Scallops in pastry cups, luscious Lamb Chop Lollipops with herb crusted black olives and a superb (but a bit difficult to eat) Kataiff wrapped artichoke hearts with parmesan mousse. With just one chop, several scallops and one artichoke we were filling up, so slowed down and just after an hour of yummy cocktails(tequila based) headed inside for dinner.

The first course came from NY's Elizabeth Faulkner of Falk Yeah! (That's a great name for a company)  and was called Super Greens & Crunchy Vegetables Salad with Carrot Hummus & Feta Cheese (FB pictures of course). This sounds pretty basic but there were farm fresh snow peas, collards, broccoli, radish and carrots with a superb hummus made from carrots, mung beans and yellow beets. The toasted grain braid was awesome as well. As you know, I am not a beer person, but this pairing of NV Right Proper Brewing Company's "Diamonds, Fur Coats, Champagne" Berliner Weisse made right here in DC was truly spectacular. The almost sparkling wine-like beer was not as beery(read yeasty) as beer is and when you ate the salad, the beer taste dissolved and you felt you were having a sparkling white wine!

One of my favorite chefs in the world is Anita Lo, and I was devastated a couple of years ago when her famed Annisa closed in NY, even after she had just had a massive success cooking in the (Obama) White House. Chef Lo has futur plans, but for now I was thruilled she was available to come to DC and cook one of the best dishes I have had in ages: Grilled Quail with Szechuan Peppercorns and Potato Sesame Salad. The salad looked like noodles, but was actually potato and it cut the spice of the pepper perfectly. A 2016 Hahn Winery Pinor Noir from Monterey California was ideal; so much so that I asked for extra(twice) and came back to it at the end of dinner for more!

The main course came from NY's famed Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy, a famous veggie dining spot we shall have to try with Samuel soon (if we can get in!). She offered up a Smoked Cauliflower & Waffles with Horseradish Cream & Maple Syrup that was so reminiscent of Chicken & Waffles we thought we were eating that! The cauliflower was roasted and fried two times; I wish I knew the process as it was truly delicious and impressive. We went back to a white wine, 2016 Patient Cottat "Le Grand Caillou" Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire, which was okay, but this dish could have easily stood up to a nice big red!!

Dessert was just as awesome: Cherry Pistachio Financier with Cherry Blossom, Honey Roasted Figs and Yogurt Sorbet (and a gooseberry), from Migdaliz Velez-Rayes of Ana G. Mendez Culinary Arts.
The pairing was an NV Arvero Limoncello from Campagnia, Italy., which was a bit too sweet for my taste (and I adore limoncello).

How much fun was this and we went home with super coffee (Tanzanian Peaberry from Southeastern Roastery), cupcakes, cookies (that spelled A,R,T) and of course all the awesome auction items, including a delivery this fall of white & black truffles!!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

DC's GRAVITAS opens quietly but with grandiose goodies (6-12-18)

This week, after much delay, Chef Matt Baker opened his gorgeous GRAVITAS in an old tomato canning factory in NE DC in what is now called Ivy City ( to a select group of diners. D-DAY for the public opening is approximately July 3 as reservations are now being accepted. You need to book FAST, as this beautiful and simple, yet intimate, space, is surely going to be one of the big hits of this year. The décor is raw with a concrete floor and small private dining loft above and lots of exposed pipes and vents. The tables and chairs are ;ight wood with a small bar at the entry with six stools (I love the hooks underneath for purses/manbags/etc.). A large open kitchen hold about half the floor space at the rear, with floor to ceiling windows all around.
Our menu was a set one and everything was amazing from the non-alcoholic Black Cherry Spritz that Samuel kept re-ordering to the exquisite dessert.
The warm breads were excellent and made even more tempting and irresistible with the soft seaweed butter with salt flakes. Sam must have finished off two platters by himself as we had refills twice!
Will also started with the Black Cherry Spritz bit his had gin, while I chose the Black Pepper Vodka Tonic that was refreshing with a hint of pepper. Indeed my only complaint the entire evening was that the drink glasses tend to condensate a lot onto the pretty wooden tables. Wine flowed as well and the Argyle Brut 2014 was a perfect pairing to the Yellow Melon Gazpacho amuse with creme fraiche, basil seeds and purple nasturtium flowers. I am gong to have to start working on summer gazpacho batches at home soon, and this just made me want to try new ideas even more.
The first course was a Sunchoke Veloute with Poached Lobster(without for Sam), Fennel Marmalade, Green Apple and Brown Butter Powder. The novelty of the crispy apple and the powder was fascinating and made for a fun tingle on the tongue while the soup was rich and creamy but never overpowering with lots of lobster chunks all poached to perfection. There are numerous FB photos(all posted on June 15(not the 12th). 
There was a choice for the second course and while Sam chose the Poached Morel Mushrooms, Will and I decided to share the same with the other choice, a Yellowfin Tuna Sashimi. The mushrooms definitely won with awesome funghi added to with Glazed Chanterelles, a crispy polenta, parmesan emulsion, garlic aioli and lavender; definitely one of the best mushroom dishes I can recall in ages. The Sashimi came with soy vinaigrette, shaved jalapeno, black vinegar aioli and dehydrated shallot & garlic, and while very tasty, didn't really differ from so many other similar tuna dishes we see these days. I love raw fish, but the mushrooms were truly a heavenly creation, and even Sam agreed (who wont eat my mushroom dishes much anymore at home!). Domaine de Pouy 2106 Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeau was a nice pairing for both dishes as well as the main course. Will & I both chose the Truffle Dusted Diver Scallop with roasted carrot & fennel, snow pea puree, herb oil, sherry juice and chives with shaved black truffle atop. The dish was ideal and the scallop seared sublimely to just the right crispiness; novelty,  creativity and just plain good cuisine won here. Samuel loved his Slow Braise Beet with cauliflower puree, horseradish chip, magenta leaves and beet jus; alas no taste for me.
We decided to try the Cotes du Rhone red blend from Chapoutier called "Pic" after the famous multi-Michelin star Anne-Sophie Pic and it was the perfect wine to sip after a superb meal while we anticipated the dessert:
Strawberry "Shortcake" was really a biscuit-like White Chocolate Cake with Roasted Strawberries, Compressed Rhubarb, Basil & Yuzu Sorbet that was truly one of the best desserts I have had in ages.
As you know I am not a big dessert guy, and not a spoon was left in my bowl.
Our server Dwayne was a charm as is all the staff and it was clear they were anxious for this new hot fine dining spot to be open. Grab your reservation and head on in before you can't get one! We'll be heading back again soon for sure.
For those not familiar, Ivy City is just north of the Union Market complex off New York Avenue, NE. While I thought that getting there might be painful, I would suggest a 730pm reservation on weekdays as we had, and then the time from upper NW is way under 1/2 an hour, from Dupont Circle area much less for sure. Don't let the location fool you, as this is bound to be one of the new DC destinations and for now there is plenty of free on street parking! ENJOY!

Friday, June 08, 2018

DC's NOPA is nope and yes but better with MINER Wines(6-7-18)

A couple of months ago, I received an email from the Miner Wine Club in Napa which we have subscribed to for about 24 years and was thrilled they were coming to DC for a wine dinner. I had never been to NOPA in the Spy Museum(I was at the location in its previous incarnation Zola) and was excited to try it out. Little did I know it would be the same night as there was a huge Caps game being simulcast at the Cap Center just across the street (Nopa is at 800 F St, NW facing the Portrait Gallery). I gave myself almost 45 minutes to drive there and hit massive backups along the Mall, Pennsylvania Ave and almost everywhere I turned and finally found a parking space at 3rd & C, NW (the entire neighborhood has parking bans up) and ran into the dinner about 15 minutes late.

I was hot and bothered and the awesome waiter poured me a GIANT glass of the best Chardonnay I had  in years, MINER Lone Oak 2016, which I bout ten bottles of later!). I had only missed the intros and settled in as the first course of Smoked Salmon Rillette was served with Pickled Caperberries, Lavender, Dill and a Butter Flake Roll (think small popover). It was refreshing and super delicious and paired perfectly with my second GIANT glass of Chard; I have to say the pours were super-generous.

Next came Duck Liver Mousse Toast with Ruth's Zucchini Bread topped with the mousse and a yummy pickled Strawberry Jam. This was paired with Miner 2014 Odyssey Red Rhone Blend which I have always loved.

The main course was a choice of Charred Romesco Cauliflower with White Bean Hummus, Pickled Beets, Pistachio tapenade and White Harissa Aioli which I SHOULD have ordered, but since I now cook so many veggie dishes at home I went for the Surf & Turf of Butter Poached Lobster with Potato Pearls, Creamed Spinach, Salsa Verde and Roseda Farms NY Strip Steak cooked perfectly and sliced. There had to be 10 slices on my plate and I took home more than half of it. There were about 3 or 4 small bites of the lobster, a ton of tiny potatoes, about one forkful of spinach and I just wished for more veggies!! Don't get me wrong, the meat was delicious, but the excitement of the first two courses made this one seem so uneventful. It was paired with two Miner reds 2014 Syrah & 2014 Cabernet Franc, both of which are sublime, and I love the Franc especially.

Since Miner is known for its reds, they brought a domestic Cheese Trio with some raisin-walnut bread and seasonal jam, but nobody could tell us what the cheeses were except that one was a local Stilton, which I somehow thought was only English. The blue was nice, the others unexciting, but it gave us a chance to enjoy magnums of the 2013 MINER Oracle Red Blend,one of their their top rated reds. The group of less than a dozen diners was surely enough fun, the wines superb, but I wanted more from my main and dessert. Unfortunately as I left the Caps game score was 3-3 and people at the bar and in the streets were getting unruly and frustrated. I had to literally force my way out the door and across the street to get away from the massive crowds assembled, but made it back to my car with no physical incidents, just a lot of people making silly or dumb remarks. I guess one should not wear a sport jacket in this zone when sports are ruling.

I might go back to NOPA if I knew the menu offered some other exciting and less steakful dishes for sure, but was glad to have the Miner folks in town for a night.