Thursday, July 27, 2006

terrific Tuscan dining at DINO's

We tried Dino's only once before and had such a good experience with Samuel and the food we decided to return last night along with Samuel's 8-year old cousin and her dad visiting us for several days.

We know that DINO's ( at 3435 Connecticut Ave, NW (across from the Uptown Theater) was featuring Tuscan dishes this month and decided that would be fun as well, knowing that the kids could always get their plain pasta with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese.

We were in the same wonderful corner booth upstairs which keeps Samuel kind of caged in as well, although the restaurant had an air conditioning issue with freon earlier in the day, so the temperatures hovered over 80 degrees in the dining room. We aimed the cooler next to our table right at us and sat down to enjoy a wonderful meal, if a bit on the warm side.

BELLINI ROSSOs started us off which is Italian dry sparkling prosecco with Blood Orange has a red color from the blood orange, hence "rosso." They were yummy and the kids enjoyed Shirley Temples. I had never had BURRATA before, and this magnificent cheese concoction is actually airlifted from Campania twice a week directly to Dino's door. It is a Bufala Mozzarella wrapped around ricotta and served with Olive Tapenade, Olio DiConciliius and Tomato Basil--simple YET SUPER!

We ordered a bottle of 2005 CANTINA NALLES "GALEA" red from Alto Adige. This wine is served chilled and is made from the Schiava grape from South Tirol, and was refreshing, dry and simple, not overwhelming; basically fun. Our first courses came with Will trying the excellent PANZANELLA, a Tuscan salad of Tomato and couscous and me gulping down the tasty INSALATA di RADICCHIO which were delicious greens paired with Purple Beets Sliced and layered with Goat Cheese.

Dino's has small plates, large plates, half plates and many options. During the Tuscan specialties month of July (check dates at the website) we opted for four courses each. My next was RIBOLITA, a traditional Tuscan vegetable broth with bread chunks and pesto and Will went for the LINGUINE with Garlic, which was loaded with cooked cloves that we smashed and spread on the bread as well!

My pasta was the PAPPARDELLE ai CINGHIALE, long ribbons of homemade pasta with a spicy wild boar meat sauce that was heavenly. At this point we switched wines and could not resist the magnificent and reasonably priced wine list (with discounts offered Sunday-Wed as well). A 1999 (that spectacular year) ARGIANO BRUNELLO di MONTALCINO was poured and literally tasted like silk; it was a dream, and drank so beautifully despite its youth. Will had the perfect dish with this as well, a Tuscan PEPPOSA of braised beef.

Our final course was the SPIEDINO di SALSICCIE di CINGHIALE or a skewer of Wild Boar Sausage with veggies (tomato, zucchini, onion) over polenta. It was yummy and went wonderfully with the wine as well. Will's cousin-in-law loved his simple TUNA barely seared and served with basil olive oil and the excellent LASAGNA. Once can eat elegantly or simply at DIno's as there are just so many options. DULCE di LECHE Ice Cream and Strawberry & Blueberry Sorbets came for those of use who could manage another bite before rolling home quite full.

When we return next, I am ready for a tasting and lots more of the great cheeses and wines that owner Dean Gold really knows how to serve!

Monday, July 24, 2006

much magnificence at MARCEL's on Monday

Monday in the summer is always a bit quiet, and it was not a full house last night in the least. The cooler (well, for a day at least) weather made me hungry and I had so much trouble deciding what to eat, so I ordered three appetizers (well, really four), and our guests thoroughly enjoyed their first visit to this winner of so many awards (2401 Pennsylvania Ave.,, so much so that they decided to come back soon to celebrate a birthday!

Marcel's has always been special for us, and indeed a place to celebrate, whether with family, friends or intimately. The service is of the finest quality, the food always superb, and I have never met a soul that leaves unhappy!

We started with a DUTTON GOLDFIELD 2003 Russian River RUED Vineyard Chardonnay that just oozed oak and overtones of those big California Chards. It was a perfect aperitif and drank so beautifully, whether alone or with food. The amuse of ROASTED RED PEPPER FLAN with Creme Fraiche and Chives was an intense flavor burst and welcome start to our evening of fine dining.

Our appetizers were varied and all beyond our greatest expectations:
BEEF TARTARE with Grilled Baguette & Quail Egg was creamy from the homemade mayonnaise and had just the right amount of pepper for a bite.
CREAM of CORN SOUP with Jumbo CRAB FLAN and Pea Tendrils had a bite as well from the white pepper, but really should be called bisque as it is quite rich and creamy.

Two of us chose the scallops, and since there were TWO scallop appetizers on the menu they graciously agreed to let us have half a portion of each:
MAINE DIVER SCALLOPS with ARTCHOKES, English Peas, Roasted Peppers and Chardonnay Cream was the lighter of the perfect with chardonnay, too. AND
PAN SEARED DIVER SCALLOP with YELLOW WAX BEAN RISOTTO & Red Wine Syrup was the other (from the tasting menu), which I have had before and always adore. There is no grain or pasta in the "risotto," since it is really a take one the dish using the beans chopped up small and then placed in the wine sauce. YUM YUM. It was hard to decide which half of the plate was more enjoyable.

Our second wine was a French Chardonnay, SAINT ROMAIN from Domaine Bertrand Ambroise 2004 which had lots of fruit, a slight acidity normal for the French varietal and lots of full body, it was even better with the red wine scallops with wax bean risotto.

As I said, I could not decide on an entree and was so enthralled with the many appetizers that I had three of those. My next was the NAPOLEON of SUMMER TOMATO, GRILLED ONION, GOAT CHEESE Dressing and Lardons of Bacon. I was expecting a goat cheese dressing, but it was literally gorgeous yellow and red tomatoes layered with rich goat cheese; rich, but delicious, and a perfect interlude.

My final appetizer was the monstrous sized RAVIOLIS of DUCK CONFIT with GREEN PEPPERCORN Sauce. This was indeed a very filling portion of two huge raviolis stuffed with yummy confit in a masterful sauce. By now, we had also switched wines to a special bottle we had brought along from our cellar: CLOS ST. DENIS 1985 Domaine Dujac, now at 21 years old was at first a huge burst of Pinot Noir flavors in the nose, so typical of a great Burgundy. The wine was bigger in the mouth at first, but quickly dissipated, so we drank it rather fast, enjoying every sip. It was fine with the food, but even better just alone.

The Pinot paired perfectly with the FARM HOUSE CHICKEN, on the menu since day one, the gorgeous GROUPER FILET with Potato Galette, Baby Spinach, Aged Sherry Shallot Butter (I wish we saw grouper more often in DC!), but perhaps overpowered a bit by the VEAL SHANK with Melange of WILD FOREST MUSHROOMS, Yukon Gold Potato Puree and Veal Jus.

By dessert we were starting to wind down and shared two:
Peach Sorbet, was a perfect size to share as it was rich, but not too huge (as my mousse at Talulla was). The excellent sorbet was the perfect foil to the chocolate as well.
The BLACKBERRY SORBET came in three adorable bowls each with a scoop and we all raved about the quality of the fruit-intense and smooth treat.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

ZUNI- a Latin & American find in the NY Theatre district

While I desperately tried to reach NYC on Friday, I was delayed by horrid storms and completely missed dinner and even part of the first act of my Broadway play (the excellent HISTORY BOYS). I had planned on trying a new spot for me in the theatre district called ZUNI (589 9th Ave @43rd St. tel 212-765-7626 and managed to get myself back there today for brunch before another show (the also fun DROWSY CHAPERONE). I am glad I found this spot, which features new AMERICAN cuisine, but I really think its more modern LATIN cuisine. The brunch menu has many American standards, but I opted for the QUESADILLA with CHORIZO, ONION, CHEESE, & EGG. Each plate comes with a drink (I had the peppery BLOODY MARY) and two yummy mini corn muffins (one yellow and one blue) all for $9.95!!! At this price I couldn't resist ordering an appetizer of the CRISP CORN FRITTERS with SPICY CHIPOTLE MAYO.

The unassuming and small restaurant is bright because of the yellow brick walls and many tables and comfy booths with crisp white linen cloths and napkins (alas covered with that piece of white paper-I guess it's good for kids with crayons). There is lots of modernish, but good, original oil artwork on the walls as well. The staff is courteous and cheery and I quietly waited my for food as I sipped my drink.

There were six large golfball size fritters on the plate and they were made of more corn MEAL than pieces of corn but were tasty and crisp.
The chipotle mayo came in a small bowl floating on a large dollop of honey. This idea was novel to me and was really TASTY and FANTASTIC. The spiciness of the chipotle was sweetened by the honey; it reminded me of sopapillas and honey in the Southwest!

The quesadilla was even larger measuring about 8 inches across and cut into six sections each loaded with lots of crumbly chorizo and cheese.
Atop the crispy dough was a 6 inch double fried sunnyside up egg, looking a lot like the happy face from Walmart, but much tastier. It was a cute idea and also, quite tasty..and what a deal for $9.95 (did I SAY THAT?).

I had a couple cups of coffee and went very full on my way refusing dessert, but knowing I have found a new secret spot just 5 blocks from Times Square!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Phyllis' husband(aka Will) dines at DAHLIA

While Phyllis was off schmoozing in NYC, I took a dear friend whom I hadn't seen in quite some time to dine at Dahlia, which is a relatively new restaurant in the Spring Valley area of DC, (4849 Massachusetts Ave. Washington, DC 20016. 202-364-1004). The chef and owner of the restaurant is David Scribner the owner of Jetties on Foxhall Rd (the best sandwiches in town) and Smith Point in Georgetown.

The dining area is a big square with tables around the edge and a few larger tables in the middle. The seating booths and tables were a dark wood (almost a deep cherry) and the walls were a light lime color (a very odd combo if you ask me). A lot of the art work on the wall made me feel like I needed glasses because it was very blurry and almost uncomfortable to look at. As we walked into the dining room I heard a woman say " well that's when I had my hysterectomy" (an odd thing to hear as you are walking into the dining room). I noticed that the woman who had said it was sitting on the other side of the room and the level of her voice was pretty normal, but for some reason this room carried every conversation. We were given our table (next to the hysterectomy lady) and the waiter came over. We ordered a bottle of the Fitz Sauvignon Blanc (2003) to start. It had a slight fizz (which was pleasant rather than bothersome) on the tip of the tongue and (as my friend Linda described it) had a woody grapefruit taste to it. It was lovely and refreshing. For our app's I ordered "grilled bruschetta with brie, smoked salmon, farm tomatoes and chives" and Linda ordered "mixed lettuces with pear, walnut and blue cheese, shaved fennel and endive". They had the smallest appetizer fork I had ever seen. They looked like baby cutlery. After we had finished ordering I heard "well tell him that she is your mother for pity sake" loud and clear from someone about 5 tables away, mmmm, ok! When the app's arrived Linda said that her salad was delicious and that the combination of different tastes was great. Unfortunately not such high praise for my bruschetta. The brie was WAY too over powering and the salmon and yummy looking tomatoes were lost. All I could taste was brie (a heavy brie).

I had explained to our water at the beginning of the meal that this was a kind of reunion and that we would appreciate not being rushed. He kindly said that he would wait for me to tell him when to fire up the main courses. Well, about ten minutes after our app's were taken the main courses arrived (I had not asked). I decided not to make a fuss as I didn't want to spoil a good night out. What I didn't like (and this is a pet peeve), is that even though Linda was NOT at the table (bathroom break) he left her food there. I explained that my friend would be back shortly but could he please take her food back to the kitchen and keep it warm for a couple of minutes until she returns (as she was also popping outside for a cigarette break). He did this with no if's, and's or but's. I had ordered the "parmesan crusted baby lamb chops with Yukon gold whipped potatoes and grilled ratatouille" and Linda ordered "pan fried trout stuffed with lemon, herbs and capers with sauteed flat leaf spinach and green herb aioli". With our food we ordered a glass of Rodney Strong Merlot 2003 (BORING). As we tucked into our food we heard "Sonny's coming home tomorrow" (yet another conversation from a number of tables away). I thought it sounded like a good name for a TV series. Linda was very happy with her food again (although not as hot as she would have liked). She said the trout was wonderful. Her favorite part was the crunchy salt on the skin. She was making all the right decisions. My lamb chops were yummy (the only person who makes them better is Phyllis), but the presentation had no love in it at all. The potato and very dry ratatouille where just piled on top of each other in a lump in the middle of the plate and the chops were just thrown around it. It needed some love ! After our dinner plates were removed the hysterectomy lady and her friend left. As the lady squeezed by our table she passed GAS !!!!! For pity sake folks when you get to a point in life when you can no longer control your gas, please don't let the rest of us suffer. AAAARGH !!! She didn't even notice. We then heard "birthdays, baby showers, I don't feel like I need to give gifts to any of them" (yes, another conversation). It wasn't like Linda and I were not talking, but these conversations kept piping through. The waiter asked us about dessert and we said "sure". He listed "chocolate cake, banana cake and lime chiffon cake". Somebody wake me up from this boring selection !!!! I ordered the lime chiffon and Linda ordered a fork and coffee (which she said was very good). The lime chiffon was a bit dry but had a nice tartness to it. It was screaming out for berries or a coulis, but was only accompanied by the tiniest scoop of vanilla ice cream you have ever seen.

We left feeling full, but not all together satisfied. It was wonderful to see my friend again which made everything worthwhile. I wouldn't run to Dahlia again, but who know's next time might be a whole new adventure with new conversations and NO GAS !! Phyllis's hubby

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

TALLULA, even more terrific this time (Arlington, VA)

Last night I returned to TALLULA in Arlington after over a year since my first visit and I was totally taken by the TALLULA team from start to finish! (2761 Washington Blvd, Arlington tel 703-778-5051

Keep in mind that Tallula is less than one mile from Key Bridge or the Roosevelt (I-66 & US50) bridge, making it only minutes from Northwest DC, in the quiet Pershing neighborhood just near Fort Myers (behind Arlington Cemetary). This makes it a true neighborhood spot (they really SHOULD be nominated for a RAMMY in that category!); add this to the fact that their wine and beverage list would impress anyone with 50 wines by the glass served in Riedel stemless or Schott crystal and that the food is amazing and you have a HOT SPOT!

The four of us started with POULLY FUME 2004 La Vigne de Berge "Les Loges" which was a wonderful fume filled with honeydew melon and apples, but perfectly crisp for this hot weather. It paired lusciously with the VIRGINIA GOAT CHEESE RAVIOLI, Wild Mushrooms, Summer Beans and LAMB SAUSAGE, and ingenious combination of many things, but truly a masterpiece in the mouth. There was some crunchy bacon or speck that added just the right crunch as well.

With such a wonderful and huge wine selection, it was difficult to choose next, and sadly the Austrian Riesling we chose was sold out, so we opted for an A TO Z OREGON Pinot Gris that was another excellent choice (so many of the wines are under $30 as well making it a veritable trove of fun wines for the budget conscious as well). This went with our "Amuse Yourself" dishes which is really a requirement at TALLULA. There are many choices of small two to three bite "tapas" like dishes which run about $2-4 each. The only disappointment was the LOBSTER ROLL with Tarragon AIOLI on Brioche, and not due to the fine lobster, but just the fact that the roll was too big and overwhelmed the excellent shellfish. I had to try the MAHI-MAHI CEVICHE as last year's was excellent, this time with CITRUS GREEN ONION Vinaigrette which was a potent and tasty dish, perfect for a hot summer night. If you like cool foods, uncooked as well, don't skip the STEAK TARTARE, served in a yummy parmesan tuille; I would order it as a full-size appetizer or even an entree if they had it! LIPTAUR CROSTINI was a new item for me, but our German guest indicated it is a common Austrian dish made of QUARK & GOAT CHEESE SPREAD which is a strong cheesy mixture, tasty and also potent. The RISOTTO FRITTER will always please, and the PULLED PORK BARBECUE got raves as did the BABY BURGER with Black Truffle Butter and Onion Marmalade!

Next came a selection of appetizers, some of which easily quality as almost-entree size, such as my truly Jumbo JUMBO LUMP CRAB CAKE with SWEET ONION MARMALADE, Crispy Yucca and Avocado Cream. This yummy delight easily makes the top 10 crabcake list and is so different from the rest as creme fraiche is used instead of mayonnaise, but the marmelade is the best touch! (I was so glad they dropped the mint that was in the crabcake last year.) Another truly signature dish is the WILD MUSHROOM STRUDEL with Yukon Gold Puree, Porcini Mushroom Butter and Truffled Butter Lettuce Salad. Don't overlook the CHILLED CUCUMBER
SOUP with Grissini and Melon Salsa if you are starting to fill up and the FRIED GREEN TOMATOES with DUCK CRACKLINGS, Frisee and Bacon Vinaigrette are also very different from your average Low Country preparation as they again lack all the creamy remoulade or aioli; crisp, crunchy and tasty, especially with the duck!

Chef NATHAN ANDA has introduced both venison and foie gras to his menu and a magnificent BACON WRAPPED VENISON LOIN with SEARED FOIE GRAS, Caramelized Strawberry on Potato Puree with Aged Balsamic is a crowning achievement that really should be on the menu! This paired with an amazingly aromatic EREDI LODALI 2003 BARBERA d'ASTI.

Pastry Chef Amy Foster can be impressive too, but it was just impossible for me to finish my MILK CHOCOLATE CAPPUCCINO MOUSSE with HAZELNUT CRUNCH and TRUFFLE POP. I did pop the yummy pop fast, but the creamy mousse was so rich, I could only get through half of it (leave room next time!). The KEY LIME Pie with Sweet Cream and Raspberry Coulis and VANILLA BEAN CHEESECAKE with Passion Fruit & Blueberries are also excellent, but still quite rich as well. You don't want to miss these tasty treats, so do plan ahead. We finished off a 1/2 bottle of superb SILVANER EISWEIN 2003 from ERICH BENDER in Pfaltz, Germany. A very viscous wine would have just been too much here in combination with the rich desserts, so we were grateful that while the wine was sweet, it had a strong mineral content so indicative of German Eiswein that worked perfectly to balance the sweet desserts. While I never did get to the DUO of NIMAN RANCH PORK I so wanted to try, I now know I will be back to TALLULA within a much shorter period this time; over a year is too long a wait for this excellent food!

And before I forget, I must mention the excellent service we received every second of the evening from TAMMY and the entire staff at Tallula who were simply superb!

Saturday, July 15, 2006

middling to good Middle Eastern fare at PASHA CAFE, Arlington

Last night four of us ventured to the child-friendly PASHA CAFE (Lee Highway at No. Pollard) in Arlington with our two 3-year-olds. We called in advance to see if a reservation was needed, and told simply no. Upon arrival we got the last table for six, a perfect booth at the rear. Lesson One: DO RESERVE, since a huge table of 15 senior citizens occupied the center table for an early bird party.

The decor is basic; the walls a bit on the pale grayish terra coota side, reminding me of a vomit brown Impala my parents bought some 30+ years ago! There are some nice posters and artwork, but not much to write about. The service is efficient and quick when needed, and while our server poured the wines for us to taste, we had to refill our own glasses (if this is the only flaw, then they get an A-).

We quickly ordered a huge selection of appetizers (most of which run about $4-7 each):
KIBBEH-ground beef in fried crushed wheat with pinenuts, raisins and yogurt sauce
SPINACH & FETA in PHYLLO (aka Spinakopita)
FELAFEL with Tahina
EGYPTIAN STYLE (what makes them Egyptian) Stuffed GRAPE LEAVES

I only wish that hey offered a huge appetizer platter allowing us to select several of these wonderful items, especially if there are only two or three people dining and so many appetizers would be excessive. Each was indeed delicious and the dipping sauces were all superb. For wine we were impressed by the small and inexpensive list (most under $30) and started with a superb CHATEAU de TRIGNON 2002 Cotes du Rhone from Gigondas. The rear label had a T. Jefferson quote of "Good wine is a necessity of life for me," which I loved. Our second white was a Greek ASSYRTICO 2004 from Santo Wines on Santorini. This intense apple imbued wine had an overall Sauvignon Blanc crispness to it and was a nice change, especially in the heat. Our third wine was a 2001 PEDRONCELLI MERLOT from their BENCH VINEYARD in Dry Creek Valley,Sonoma. It was a warm tasty and full-bodied red that would make anyone happy, and I am glad the Pedroncelli folks have gotten their wines back up to par after having such devastatting grape disease in the past years.

Samuel chose to eat only the HUMMUS (we sneaked in a piece of schwarma) and then split a child's pizza (which was six small slices) with Joshua. They both agreed they ate a good dinner. Our entrees were decent, but not as good as the appetizers: MOORISH SHRIMP were moist and large, but needed a bit more "Middle Eastern Spice"

The MIXED GRILL was a LAMB CHOP (which came medium instead of medium rare), excellent KAFTA KEBAB and a dryish CHICKEN BREAST with some superb Slow Cooked Green Beans, and the LAMB KEBAB was nice as well, but the best dish was easily the KOSHARI of Green Lentils with spices, rice, pasta garnish, fried onion, garlic and tomato.

I thought the CAPPUCCINO PIE was nre like a simple Frozen Ice Cream Pie, but those that ordered it thought it quite good, The kids enjoyed Lemon Sorbet, and there was a CHOCOLATE SOUFFLE thats disappeared pretty fast. My BAKLAVA was tasty but suffered from a very hard bottom crust that was almost inedible.

SO, go to Pasha, order lots of appetizers, and stick with the kebabs, veggie options and you should be fine.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

It's a bit so-so at SONOMA Restaurant & Wine Bar

Last night four of us ventured to Capitol Hill (well, out friends live there) for a first visit to SONOMA (223 Pennsylvania Ave, SE and while I won't rave, I won't heap out the complaints either. The experience had its highs and lows. The bar, lounge and outdoor sidewalk areas were heaving (well, it was a reasonably pleasant-for DC summer-SATURDAY night), and the noise levels in the "Bistro" where there are only a couple dozen tables was at high.Will tried a glass of refreshing ARNEIS to start and I requested the QUIVIRA "Wine Creek Ranch" 2005 Mourvedre Rose from Dry Creek Valley which I loved; a bold and very dry rose! Sadly, our server took almost 15 minutes to get these to us. The water glasses (smaller than your average breakfast juice glass) came with lukewarm water (and never ice as they would have overflowed) and needed refilling constantly.

Indeed, for a wine bar, the glassware was below the quality of almost any decent place in town. They used thick cheap restaurant glassware that really did not help the wine. We realized that the reason for this was because we heard a least three glasses break during our several hours there!

Sonoma had many dining options such as plates of meat, cheeses, salads, pizzas, pastas, starters and entrees. For this reason we chose many different items, some to share, and had fun weaving our way through the for-the-most-part delicious food. First came the HALF CHARCUTERIE PLATTER of Meats for which we chose DUCK SALAMI, PROSCIUTTO and AMISH CHICKEN PATE. These were all superb, and the latter rich and creamy. They were served with small side bowls of HERBED NUTS, superb WINE STEEPED FIGS, unexciting PICKLED SCALLIONS and TRUFFLED PEACHES, which were a mystery in themselves. These little olive-looking and indeed tasting peaches come from Italy in truffle oil and to me tasted like something from the pickle side of the earth, rather than fruit. My guess is that someone bought a whole pile of jars of this stuff and needs to get rid of it. The platter came with ample delicious focaccia and a heap of country mustard. Our first bottle of TRUTH "Lindsey's Cuvee" 2003 from Santa Rosa finally arrived and thoroughly enjoyed thjis syrah-cabernet blend with its high (14.5%) alcohol level, intensity and spicy bite as well. (You may note a hint of sarcasm, as while we asked for our dining to be leisurely, it always seemed forever to get the wine).

The salads went from a decent to our superb BABY BEET SALAD with Frise, Black Walnut Vinagrette and Ricotta Salata. I enjoyed the saltiness and crumbly cheese more than a creamy goat with the beets as it brought out more flavor.

"Firsts" as they were called included a yummy PENNE with PULLED AMISH CHICKEN, Dried Tomatoes, Basil and more of that salty crumbly Ricotta Salata. An extremely rich and filling SQUASH BLOSSOM-GOAT CHEESE RAVIOLI with Summer Squash and Fresh Tomato Sauce and my excellent LINGUINE VONGOLE (with clams), Housemade Bacon, Chili Flakes, Garlic and White Wine which packed a bite from the chili and really had a rich sauce I just wanted to mop up. Alas, Sonoma does not serve bread unless you wish to order extra focaccia for a fee. Frankly, it wasn't worth it, so forget mopping up any yummy sauces wihtout forking over an extra three bucks or so.

Our final bottle was a very plummy and fruity AMETHYST VINALIA 1999 Carneros Sangiovese which was oddly lighter than the other wines depsite its age. I had never heard of this vineyard (and indeed many on the wine list), but we enjoyed experimenting nonetheless. While Will ordered the superb ORGANIC WAGYU BURGER with his choice of MELTED GOAT CHEESE(which masked the excellent meat a bit too much)and WILD MUSHROOMS, the rest of us chose the BABY BACK RIBS. The ribs were decent, but not of great quality, the POTATO-GREEN GARLIC SALAD on the side was superb, and the WILD FLOWER HONEY MUSTARD SAUCE drizzled over the rbs made for a fabulous change of pace and atruly different preparation, despite a chewy or gristly rib here or there.

Several of us needed a big wine fix and went for glasses of STEELE PACINI 2002 ZINFANDEL from Mendocino which was fun, but only our second choice after the Steele Syrah wasn't available. Desserts are not memorable from decent Banana Ice Cream with Caramel Syrup and Pistachio Nuts to a mediocre VANILLA PANNA COTTA with Blackberry Sauce, so I was glad I opted for a small platter of cheese served with overtoasted hard bread (which I skipped) and both red and white wine jellys (which were yummy in small portions on the cheese).

GORWYDD CAERPHILLY (listed on the menu as from "Whales" as opposed to "Wales" was a treat as you rarely find the finer British cheeses in the US; UBRIACO PROSECO (listed as from France on the menu--it's from Italy) is a harder nutty cheese and finally REDMONDO Oregon goat lsited as caramelly, lush and herbal was oddly none of these. It actually was an aged goat and reminded me more of a parmesan,pecorino or hard Dutch cheese, but I was stomped!

While our overall experience was NOT negative, I just don't think I would head back to Sonoma unless it was on a quiet night, perhaps for the burger, or a double portion of pasta; maybe the Charcuterie with some nice big red wine.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

the Wondrous WILLARD ROOM will WOW

As I often say, hotel restaurants are not usually on the DC finest dining list, but this has started to change in recent years with the advent of the Kimpton properties, the Ritz-Carlton's and many others of note. To this list, we can now add the sumptuous and elegant WILLARD ROOM in the Willard Hotel (1401 Pennsylvania Ave, NW). This bastion of luxury with its wooden panels, many brass chandeliers and excellent service may just be on its way to being the newest hot spot to dine in DC. An entire new staff has taken over the scene from top to bottom with manager Robert Chestnutt (of Ireland), chef Nicolas Legret (of France) and chef sommelier Caterina Abruzzetti (who most recently revamped the wine scene at Restaurant 2941). These folks are determined to give everyone the best service you might find anywhere, and some pretty darn good fixin's as well.

The only thing you might want to check before you go is your wallet as the appetizers start at $10 (going up to nearly $30), and the entrees at $30 (going way up into the $40 range). New at the Willard Room is a choice of excellent tasting menus (they also have pre-theater menus) of 5 or 7 courses at $69 and $95 respectively, which is a real bargain (you can add wine pairings for an extra $49 on the 5 course or $65 on the 7 course, which will always be top quality wines with Ms.Abbruzzetti in charge!).

We started the evening with a glass of MOET BRUT IMPERIAL ROSE Champagne which looked so red in the glass due to the rooms colorings, but tasted perfection. An amuse of a shot glass of FENNEL CREAM with a MUSSEL came first and was a great explosion of flavors to start the meal off.

FOIE GRAS CONFIT with Mango Ginger Chutney was the first course and this "pate" was excellent with a splash of pepper on top and the ginger in the chutney picking up the ginger notes in the accompanying TRIMBACH GEWURTZTRAMINER 2001 from Alsace. The wine had aged so beautifully that the pepperiness had subsided and the wine was simply a perfect drink alone or foie gras wine.

PAN SEARED RARE TUNA Facon "Biscayenne" was a new preparation to me with beautifully just seared tuna over a bed of Arucola and roasted red peppers and onion. Will loved the "creamy" SANCERRE LA MOUSSIERE 2005 from Alphonse Mellot that was paired here.

An intermezzo of SORBET of GRANNY SMITH APPLES & CALVADOS with Pistachios and Crisp Apple Slice came next paired with CALVADOS FINE RESERVE Domaine Dupont. I adored the sorbet, but it was the pistachios and apple slice that made the dish truly exotic and novel.

I have not seen a salt-crusted fish on the menu since we visited a Spanish restaurant in Miami years ago. This Iberian preparation is rarely seen in DC as it is quite work intensive and requires a lot of time to dissect the fish from its papillote of salt tableside. I would have preferred had the excellent BASIL RISOTTO been held warm in the kitchen until the fish was ready, but other than that the SALT-CRUSTED DORADO was one of the best pieces of fish I have had in ages. The LEMON
BUTTER sauce was unnecessary, but tasty and with the BASIL RISOTTO it was served over razor thin slices of YELLOW & RED TOMATOES. We had two neighboring but completely different wines, which was like a contest: PULIGNY MONTRACHETS 2004 from ETIENNE SAUZET and PATRICK MOILANE had such opposite characters it was wild. The latter having more mineral, but the former working much better with the dish itself (I think!).

For the entree I had the ROASTED DUCK BREAST served with Yukon Gold Potatoes, "Pommes Gaufrettes" in Black Olive Duck Jus. The preparation with those yummy homemade potato chips was superb and rare to medium rare exactly as requested. Will opted for the VEAL CHOP with MORELS & ASPARAGUS, another excellent preparation. The wine was an exciting first East Coast release of 2004 ROBERT ALLEN Lodi ZINFANDEL with loads of blackberry, fruit and a completely velvety feel. It had a 14.5% alcohol content, but not the intensity nor spiciness of many California zins.

The cheese tray is a wonderful option (if you are not full) and we could not resist trying just a small bite each of some new and exciting cheeses:

VERMONT SHEPHERD is a dry cheddary like cheese with a bite
PONT COUVERT from Quebec is a wonderful mild cheese with apple hints
FUMAISON from Auvergne is smokey and nutty
MAJORERO from the Canary Islands is a weird looking unpasturized goat that I can live without, but was not invasive or boring either.
DULCE MONASTRELL 2001 Jumilla Olivares was served with the cheese and we knew the sweet stuff was starting!

We asked Chef Nicolas if he could switch desserts as neither of us cared for the Mint Julip (the drink was created at the Willard) Ice Cream on the dessert on the tasting menu. We were treated to one of the best summer desserts around: ORANGE COCONUT RICE PUDDING with CORIANDER PINEAPPLE, Tropical Fruit Salsa and Passion Fruit Sorbet. Anyone suffering from the heat would love this! It resembled a Roasted Pineapple Slaw over Tapioca and was simply bursts of different fruits with each bite. The dessert wine was a newbie for us as well 2002 Feudi di San Gregorio Privilegio which is a late harvest botrytised wine made from the Fiano di Avellino grape. It was a rich apricot-invested wine with guava flavors picking up on the tropical scents in the dessert. A gem of a find.

This was a wonderful tasting with wonderful staff at the Wonderful Willard Room..check it out!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Kinkead's-always a cut above

If you look back at my reviews over the years, you will note that I have had only the highest of praise for KINKEAD's here in DC. We have never had a bad meal, a problem, or an unenjoyable evening. This past Monday was NO exception; another coup for Kinkead's. The ONLY problem we did have was that the hostess told our guests that we had NOT arrived, and indeed, we were already at the table. So we waited for almost 25 minutes until we went downstairs and found them at the bar. It wasn't a big deal, just an inconvenience.

In the meantime, we started a bottle of 2005 CLOUDY BAY SAUVIGNON BLANC from New Zealand that is always a pleaser, and excellent with the raw bar items we like to order first. A small portion of RICOTTA GNOCCHI with Sundried Tomato, Pancetta and Wild Mushrooms came and got our mouths watering. It was scrumptious. We followed this with a selection of 6 oysters each:

a slightly bitter SUNSET BEACH, and a briny DOSEWALLIPS were two new ones for me from Washington State. HOOD CANAL also came from there with the always yummy MALPEQUES and HURRICANE HARBOR from Prince Edward Is (shouldn't it be spelled Harbour, if it's Canadian?). Top award wen to the CAPE BRETON, Nova Scotia.

While I always feel oysters have character and personality, raw clams for me are a bit pedestrian, though our co-diner loved them. The MUSSELS with CHORIZO, Pequillo Peppers, Saffron Garlic Tomato Broth were superb.

We moved onto a CHATEAUNEUF du PAPE BLANC 2004 Domaine du VIEUX TELEPGRAPHE which was delicously minerally and refreshing. Our appetizers (albeit the 3rd course) were CRISPY SOFTSHELLS with LIME DIPPING SUACE and GREEN PAPAYA SALAD. We noticed the loads of chopped hot peppers in the dipping sauce, and love spicy stuff, but our co-diner ordered the same dish as an entree and poured the dipping sauce onto the crabs wreaking havoc with his palate. The crabs were quickly replaced and the sauce was also resent with alot less peppers! Despite this, the little critters were magnificent and the papaya salald a nice foil.

A BRICK HOUSE LE DIJONNAISE 2004 was served a bit chilly for my taste. It's big nose fooled us, as the wine was less intense on the palate, but still a worthy Oregon Pinot Noir to be sure. Our excellent server Keith did say this was one of their first vintages as they only sold grapes until 2000-something, which I knew to be wrong. Brickhouse has been making excellent wines for some time now.

The wine was perfect for big fish dishes such as the CRISPY BLACK BACK FLOUNDER with Baby Artichokes, Potato, Tasso Ham, Crayfish and Lemon-Thyme Sauce. My MUSHROOM & BRIK DOUGH WRAPPED HALIBUT with Morels, Roasted New Potatoes, Baby Green Beans and a Porcini Vinaigrette was superb and a bit rich as well. The "vinaigrette" was really more like a rich wild mushroom sauce, and so much the better. While we always praise Kinkead's for its excellent fish, these were indeed, some of the best fish dishes we have ever had! (of course, by now, we well know the meat dishes are just as good!).

Desserts have always been a major part of any trip to Kinkead's and we were cautious of a new pastry chef in the name of HICHEM LAHRECHE. Don't be cautious; throw caution to the wind. This guy will be nominated for Pastry Chef of the Year very soon with items like TORTE of Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse, Raspberry Coulis, Vanilla Ice Cream, Chocolate Genoise and Toasted Almond Brittle. If you prefer less chocolate, go for the MOCHA SUPREME with Chocolate Macaroons, Caramel Ice Cream and Coffee Sauce which I opted for and adored. There is still the traditional tasty PECAN CARROT CAKE with Rum Raisin Ice Cream and Butterscotch Sauce, but we will miss that old Tarte Tatin. As we like to end with a dessert wine we ordered several glasses of INISKILLIN 2003 VIDAL ICE WINE which is one of my all time faves: rich, viscous and intense...a great way to go home.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Samuel (and Alan & Will) love a la LUCIA

It's been a quietish weekend around DC, so we decided to try and take Samuel to an early bird meal in Alexandria yesterday. It was a brave move as Will & I dined on numerous courses, and we were not sure how he would behave.

A miracle occured at A LA LUCIA (Madison St, Alexandria) where Sam colored for several minutes, refused a piece of the tasty crisp BRUSCHETTA with zucchini and satueed peppers, and ultimately settled in with a huge bowl of PENNE PASTA with TOMATO SAUCE for almost an hour! He declared it was the best pasta he ever had!

We started with a bottle of RONCHE di MANZANO 2204 CHARDONNAY from FRIULI which was a perfect choice. No oak or overpowering flavors here, just crisp fruit and a big taste made for the excellent tasty food we ordered. Will had the CALAMARI SALAD which was piles of freshly cooked and marinated squid over a bed of lettuce with a yummy vinaigrette. I opted for the intense and truly magnificent SAUSAGE TWO WAYS: VENISON with PINE NUTS and RAISINS and VEAL & RABBIT with HERBS. The two sausages were actually both with pine nuts and raisins in a tasty brown sauce that was light, yet herby and flavorful. It was truly a masterpiece.

We split an order of the MATALDINE with VEAL RAGU which are pappardelle like pasta with a ribboned edge. We offered some to Samuel, but he would have none of this superb dish, as he engrossed is his own penne. What made the ragu so different was the addition of carrots, and especially celery, amking the falvor a bit lighter for summer than the intense winter-like ragu.

I could not resist the SAUTEED SOFT SHELL CRABS with ALMOND and WINE SAUCE with Broccoli di Rabe. This dish reminded me of my youth and the excellent Soft Shell Amandine I used to have in NYC. It was a perfect combination in a sauce so light yet tasty. Will went for the SAUTEED SWORDFISH with SHRIMP, LEMON BUTTER Sauce and Broccoli di Rabe. We tasted some of a bottle of Pinot Noir we brought from home with owner Michael Nayeri; a 2000 JK CARRIERE that we realized is at the end of its must finish what the cellar has. I guess about 6 years is the max for a regular vintage of this superb wine.

Samuel adored his vanilla and Nocciola (hazelnut) ice cream(he said it was cold!); Will joined him with scoops of creamy Vanilla and Gianduja, and I went for the FRESH BERRIES with MOSCATO ZABAGLIONE. Sam adores fruit and I managed to get him to eat some blueberries (there were also strawberries and luscious raspberries), but he did not take to the rich creamy zabaglione--more for me!

We were very proud of our now three-year-old's behavior and this summer he will get more chances to dine out around town..always casual!