Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Eve in Naples, FL at CHOPS CITY GRILL

Last night this Phyllis got to see a different Phyllis and her husband Michael, as we are visiting them here in Naples for a couple of days. They chose CHOPS CITY GRILL ( in Bonita Springs, just to the north as they had no set menu on New Year's which can sometimes be a drag.

Chops City Grill has nice simple decor and nothing to really wow you visually. When we arrived at 9:15pm it was packed, but by 11pm when we left, we were the only folks at a table in our section; Florida does go to bed early!

They offered us a complimentary bottle of LOUIS PERDRIER CHAMPAGNE which was nice and we chatted away as we perused the huge menus. Phyllis and Michael split a tasty DOUBLE WEDGE SALAD of Iceberg and Boston with Point Reyes Blue Cheese, Applewood Smoked Bacon, Watercress & Radicchio in a mild blue cheese dressing. The warm sourdough was tasty and melted in my mouth and the butter oddly comes sitting in pool of olive oil.

Will opted for the SHORT STACK (which was not really a stack) of JUMBO LUMP CRAB CAKES with Lobster and King Crab in a sauce of Sun-Dried Tomato, Roasted Garlic and Champagne; an exciting and tasty preparation with huge chunks of all the shellfish.

My ROASTED OYSTERS "Chopafella" came in Garlic & Voda Cream and each of the three tasty mollusks were topped with a huge chunk of KING CRAB, ANDOUILLE SAUSAGE (to add a bite), SPINACH & melted SMOKED GOUDA; it was a divine dish.

We moved on to tasty ARCADIAN "Fiddlestix" PINOT NOIR 2003 from the SANTA RITA HILLS which was bold and fruit forward and really worked with the tasty entrees. We all ordered the 6 ounce (smallest size) FILLET which were dry aged on premises. They can be ordered in several different ways (Will and I went for the PEPPERCORN CRUSTED) and with difference sauces from a rich thick BEARNAISE to a masterful BLACKBERRY CABERNET (which our server ingeniously recommended to pair with the peppercorn versions).

The steaks were beautifully presented atop a piece of grilled EGGPLANT and topped with tasty crisp ONION RINGS. Unlike our steak houses back home, here in Florida a side dish is included. We tasted the CREAMED SPINACH with CRISPY ONIONS which was nice, but not up to the level of the creamed spinach we get at those fancy big steakhouses. On the other hand the SEA SALT BAKED POTATO with Applewood Smoked Bacon Bits and Chives with Sour Cream was an inspiration.

It was indeed a wonderful New Year's Eve with dear friends, good food, good wine and many prayers for what has to be a much better 2009! HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Tonight--we all dine at SEA SALT, a recently opened top rated place in downtown Naples owned by our other set of dear friends living here Ingrid & Fabrizio Aielli, who moved here from Washington where they used to own TEATRO GOLDONI!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Clearwater's CAFE PONTE takes a high place

Our last night in the Tampa Bay region we chose a fancier place and left Samuel with a sitter. CAFE PONTE ( gets high Zagat ratings as well as an often number one spot in the local zines for fine dining. We arrived to be seated next to a family with two young children, and they were well behaved, I just guess that in this area, anything goes (shorts, kids, jeans, tank tops, etc) even in the "finest" of spots. This did not mar the fine food we had, so maybe next time we will bring Samuel.

The large dining room has cozy booths and tables and is spread out, with little decor of note. The curved open kitchen is easily seen and the bar is oddly placed right next to that. There is a glass enclosed free-standing wine cellar in the middle.

The chef proprietor is Christopher Ponte, but the menu lists his chef de cuisine as Anthony Bonanno, but we didn't really know who was in charge.

We started with a SCHRAMBERG BRUT ROSE North Coast, California which was dry, bubbly and had an intense strawberry taste; a fun treat on the day before New Year's Eve. An amazing amuse of MUSHROOM SOUP came loaded with Wild Mushrooms, Truffle Cream, a dash of Sherry and Mushroom Dust; a rich creamy concoction that would warm anyone on a chilly (58 degrees) Florida evening. The bread had garlic clove centered buns and superb focaccia; these came with humus with a candied walnut and "European" Butter.

The appetizers were both of the highest quality with my Serrano Ham wrapped PAN SEARED SEA SCALLOPS with Fresh Melon Salad over a Vanilla Bean Sauce only marred by the silly dish that caused my utensils to keep sliding into the sauce! Can't chefs understand that some of these pretty designer plates are just USELESS! Will's appetizer was a larger than entree size ASIAN CALAMARI with Fresh Spinach, Asian veggies (sprouts), toasted PEANUTS, CARAMEL SOY GLAZE (with peanut sauce) and Cilantro Aioli. It had a nice spicy bite and was as tender as could be...and did I say HUGE, so I helped him finish it.

We moved on to a tasty CLOUDY BAY CHARDONNAY 2004 from Marlborough in New Zealand that has no oak and works well with just about any dish. I had the DAY BOAT CATCH which was BLACK GROUPER soy-marinated with SUGAR SNAP Peas in a Spicy (which was not that spicy) TOMATO-GINGER Broth and Pea Shoots. It was yummy, but the fish was just slightly overcooked. Will fares much better with the YUKON POTATO Crusted CHILEAN SEA BASS (after the manager steered him away from the tempura fried Yellowtail Snapper) with Braised LEEKS and Sugar Snap Peas in a RED WINE SAUCE! It was divine and tasty!

We split the tasty RASPBERRY CREME BRULEE which was a VERVEINE TEA infused brulee with several raspberries on top...superbly crunchy top and creamy custard. I had a great cup of AFRICAN AUTUMN tea (my throat has been a bit sore) from HARVEY & SONS made from South African ROOIBOS. It was a tasty red tea with huge cranberry flavors. CAFE PONTE proved that fine dining is indeed fine in Clearwater.

Monday, December 29, 2008

FRENCHY's is a fun group in Clearwater Beach, FL

Both of our lunches here were pretty good experiences as we chose FRENCHY's a small local chain of five places on or near the beach. On Monday we lunched at FRENCHY's SALTWATER CAFE ( and Samuel enjoyed a kid's hamburger, his newfound love, while Will chose the SOFT SHELL CRAB SANDWICH, which he said was just ok.

Frenchy's is famous as the award winner of the GROUPER SANDWICH and my CAJUN STYLE was superb as the fish is grilled perfectly with some nice spice and a remoulade sauce on a tasty bun. Our sides of coleslaw were nice, but oddly came with pineapple mixed and hence a bizarre sweetness to the slightly creamy version.

Tuesday we chose the original FRENCHY's CAFE and Samuel adored the fish tacos which came (at an amazing special spice that day of $1.50 each) in a soft tortilla and a yummy salsa. I had one as well along with my excellent SEAFOOD GUMBO, a superb thick gumbo loaded with small shrimp and tasty fish chunks and lots of yummy okra. Will said the GROUPER REUBEN was overwhelmed by the 1000 Island dressing, but still good.

The price is right, the atmosphere very "Key West" and local with friendly service and a good meal. Check out Frenchy's if you are in Clearwater Beach!

CESARE at the beach gets a bitty bravo (Clearwater Beach, FL)

Our first night of several in Florida this winter was spent on the gulf coast east of Tampa in Clearwater Beach. Our hotel concierge recommended CESARE ( down the street as "the best Italian" on the beach. Of course, after long thought, the remaining Italian places here tend to be pizza parlors!

The decor is nothing special, but like most of the folks here, the service is efficient and very friendly.

Samuel was in a spaghetti and meatball mood and after half a huge child portion, called it quits without even dessert.

Our server Chad (he hated his name) recommended an excellent Sicilian Syrah, but sadly I lost my notes and also the exact name! DAMN! It was jammy, earthy and a treat. Will felt like ordering a plate of bruschetta, which I never do, but I said I would split it. The 4 pieces alternated from soggy to brittle bread and it was a shame as the topping was full of fresh tomato and tasty. There was also an heavily herbed oil for the bread which Sam and we all loved adored. SACATINI was a pasta type I had never heard of before, and these small purses of pasta with melted cheese inside were superb with pancetta and mushrooms in a light cream VODKA Sauce with peas. Will and I split the dish which was perfect for splitting and a truly delish dish. We both had Veal for the entrees and it was a winning meat choice. Will went for the SALTIMBOCCA rolled with prosciutto and cheese and nicely done, but my huge VEAL CHOP in a Brandy-Cream Sauce was divine. As is wont in Florida everything comes with huge sides and here it was potatoes and zucchini. After all this we were so full we headed right back to the hotel and three of us crashed after the long trip down and a long day.

Sorry, I lost my's driving me nuts as we also had a nice NEBBIOLO d'ALBA for the second bottle as well.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

RAY's HELL BURGER in Arlington--amazing accoutrements...

We have tried Ray's the Steaks in Arlington once and want to go back, but this was our first trip to it's new neighbor and younger brother at 1713 Wilson Blvd, RAY'S HELL BURGER. The place seems unmarked and it is as basic as it gets with several "B" (or worse) movie posters, small tables, wooden chairs, paper towels and signs asking you not to "save" tables until you have ordered.

After heading to the rear area you can pick up a menu which a choice of ONE ITEM: a Premium Aged 10 ounce burger, hand trimmed and freshly ground served with lettuce and tomato on a toasted (seeded) brioche bun with an orange smile at $6.95. Then there are the toppings:
Four choices of styles:
Au Poivre
or Diablo (Chipotle Marinade)

the choice of temperatures:
Recommended -warm red center
or Cooked Throughout

the toppings with a charge:
Seared Foie Gras with Truffle Oil which tops the prices at $10
Roasted Bone Marrow with Persillade for $3
and Black Forest Ham, Guacamole or Applewood Smoked Bacon for $1.50 each

The choices of cheese are American, Swiss, Vermont White Cheddar, Smoked Mozzarella, Muenster, Pepper Jack or Fontina at $1.00 each
Aged Danish Bleu, Gruyere, Imported Double Cream Brie or Dutch Mustard Seed Gouda at $1.50 each
Chimay a la Biere for $3.00
Roque Creamery Smokey Bleu, Queen Anne Stilton, Cave Aged Amish Cheddar at $4.50 each
and Epoisse de Bourgogne at $5.00 (I would have had this, but felt the price was a bit outrageous...)

NO CHARGE for the following:
Grilled Red Onions
Sauteed Peppers
Roasted Garlic
Raw Red Onion
Charred Jalapenos
Bread & Butter Pickle Chips
Dill Pickle Chips
RAY's HECK SAUCE (described as tangy and special, but not spicy)
Piranha Sauce (fiery, spicy, green sauce)

There are lots of varied chips and some potato options as well...we skipped these as the burgers are HUGE. Samuel joined us and finished off 1/2 his plain burger which was really excellent.

Of the four adults (our friends' one month old chose not to have a burger as he was asleep!), the burgers did seem to all come a bit past medium rare as requested, which was truly the only problem.

There are 10 pre-designed burgers as well and two folks tried the SOUL BURGER NUMBER ONE with the Applewood Bacon, Swiss Cheese, Mushrooms and Grilled Red Onions. I created my own from the superb BLACKENED BURGER which had just a slight bit of spicy Cajun seasoning and did not overwhelm at all combined with those to die for MUSHROOMS, the VERMONT CHEDDAR and the HECK SAUCE....I loved it.

Ray's Hell Burger is fun, and we all enjoyed ourselves immensely for a very reasonable price and the toppings are what makes the burger here on top of excellent beef. If they can get the temperature'll be a star!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

TALLULA takes some top honors (Arlington VA)

Last night we returned to TALLULA after over a year and a half to find an entire new staff from the top down. Chef ANDREW MARKERT has taken over in the kitchen and has retained the basic menu setup with lots of new and fun turns.

There are still the small bites which really are a bunch of amuses available for about $3-4 each. We tried the creamy STEAK TARTARE with Cornichons & Worcestershire on Crostini which was yummy and just right for two bites (the creamy mayo texture with mustard made it quite rich). The SHORT RIB CROQUET (which we sadly found out leaves the menu today for the winter) was a dreamy crunchy treat full of tasty meat, garlic and parmesan on a bed of RED WINE AIOLI which I promptly mopped up.

We ordered a plummy yummy bottle of BOARDING PASS SHIRAZ 2006 from Barossa Valley Australia which is an adorable bottle having a label like a boarding pass (the three letter "airport code" is "AUS" for Australia) and on the rear a kind of pre-departure flight attendant demo cartoon showing them sniffing, swirling and tasting a wine.

The DIVER SCALLPS with CAULIFLOWER, PARMESAN "vol au vent" and Spicy Garlic was a tasty dish (although one scallop was slightly too firm for my tastes). The RABBIT PAPPARDELLE had monstrously wide ribbon pasta with Jasmine Tea, Pistachio Foam, Chives and Candied Pearl Onions. The onions were not really "candied" or caramelized" and were actually quite crunchy. This was tasty, but I do prefer them cooked a bit more (or I often taste them later!). The rabbit and pasta was divine, but I still don't get this foam thing as it has so little taste, but looked nice.

Our entrees were a monstrous portion of LAMB STEW with CHESTNUT RISOTTO, BACON, Cider Reduction and Fried Parsnips which was rich, yummy, filling and a total wintertime treat. The DUCK TWOFOLD offered up tender breast and rich confit with three types of BEETS (golden, purple and red), FIGS, Earl Grey (do you sense the chef likes tea) and CINNAMON TOAST. The confit on the toast was dreamy as it was not too sweet or sugary (just cinnamon-y) and it was really hard to find the tea taste, but it was hidden there somewhere, as I got a hint every now and then.

For dessert we split a superb RED WINE PEAR TART with PISTACHIO Ice Cream and Peanut Brittle that was more like a crumble or brown betty tart and was just right and not too big as well.

TALLULA has always been a great place, especially with the near-in Arlington restaurant scene not having a huge variety. Despite the present economy, the place was full when we left at 8pm as was EAT BAR next door, so they must be doing something right!

Monday, December 15, 2008

New York's NEO SUSHI is sublime (if pricey)

I was on the Upper West Side on Monday night for a charity benefit concert and stopped in at NEO SUSHI on the southeast corner of Broadway and 83rd Street ( It was quiet at 530pm and a welcome respite from the starting to get chilly temps (it was 63 degrees during the day!) and drizzle. A pot of GREEN TEA warmed me up and I proceeded to watch the three sushi chefs at the bar prepare meals for three lone clients.

The place is simple with wooden floors, chairs and even wooden banquettes (albeit with a cushion back) in the front section. If you don't want to sit at the U- almost L-shaped sushi bar with its cushioned bar stools and don't want the not too comfy window seats in the wood banquettes up front (although when alone, the tall windows give nice street views of passers-by and you CAN see the sushi chefs very well), then opt for the cozier cushioned booths in the rear.

Hot towels come before the meal and after, so NEO is already placing itself in a class above most international business class flights that are now down to one towel!

I started with a SUPER WHITE TUNA ROLL, an appetizer special that had a lightly seared White Tuna stuffed with SPINACH & MONKFISH LIVER (done in a pate style and looking much like a ying-yang symbol in the center of each roll) on a bed of three thick purees of beet, carrot and scallion (purple,orange and green) the latter of which was the most tasty. It was an ingenious combination and made me realize that NEO would not be your run of the mill sushi place. They incidentally have a full menu of non-sushi items as well.

I was adventurous and asked for the SASHIMI OMAKASE platter of 8 pieces priced at $46, which when it boils down to $6/piece while magnificent, seemed a bit too high. I watched the chef blow torch one piece and "decorate" each piece and lots of care went into the dish, so maybe the price was not so bad. The truth is that each piece was indeed SUBLIME:
Seared OH TORO
the most tender SHU TORO
AHI TUNA with TOFU Sauce
SALMON TORO -which I had never had before and is simply luscious
OCEAN TROUT on EEL SAUCE(which was thick and rich) and SUNDRIED TOMATO
RED SNAPPER with VINEGAR JELLY-another superbly tasting new treat

I was so intrigued by the quality, I asked my server what smaller item she might recommend in addition and she suggested one of the 12 or so "house" rolls.

I loved the Salmon Toro so much I wanted to include this and chose an item called the TWISTED NEO ROLL which came attractively laid out with 8 pieces on a plate in an X-formation with ginger topped by and orchid leaf at the cross. At $20, it was extremely filling and reasonable, and consisted of WASABI (mild) MARINATED LOBSTER and CUCUMBER wrapped in SALMON TORO & AVOCADO over a FRESH MANGO SAUCE. It was the creamiest, yummiest sushi I have ever had in NYC and again the presentation should win an award as the roll had this "twisted" kind of double-helix look of alternating orange(salmon) and avocado (green) on the outside with a sliver of tasty salmon skin alternating as well.

I left full and looking forward to returning to NEO again to try the many other items they have!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

5 NAPKIN BURGER-Hell's kitchen hosts the best burger in NY

Before my matinee on Broadway today I stepped a bit westward to 5 NAPKIN BURGER ( at 9th Ave & 45th Street where I was treated to the BEST BURGER I HAVE HAD IN AEONS!

First of all the place is crowded, noisy and a treat with white tile walls and lots of glass to the street side. The ceiling seems to have cleaners tracks (which I realy think are meat packing plant tracks) with meat hooks, bare light bulbs and at this time of the year stray Xmas ornaments.

I am glad for the linen napkin(if they were paper, you WOULD need 5 napkins!) as this 5NAPKIN House burger is an amazing and oozy juicy treat of 10 ounces of ground chuck coated with melted COMTE cheese, CARAMELIZED ONIONS and ROSEMARY AIOLI on a fresh soft white roll. It was best akin to a burger in onion soup--but without the liquid (save the juice). You could smell the cheese and onion like a bowl of French onion soup when it was placed in front of you and all you could do was DEVOUR THE ENTIRE THING! The fries were nice, but no revelation; thin, crispy and salty. At $13.75 (with fries) you might balk, but
this burger was worth EVERY SINGLE cent and I thin I have a new theater-district spot to eat lunch!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

NYC's east side gem is JOJO and Jean-Georges is at his roots

I have never been a big fan of superstar chef Jean-Georges, but lately I have been impressed by the places where he sets a theme and keeps his hands off. JOJO has been at 160 E 64th Street on Manhattan's East Side for years and has been bringing in the crowds nonstop. I discovered last night why.

This cozy small downstairs and upstairs brownstone just seconds from the haute couture shopping (which in this awful economy was a booming madhouse yesterday!) had a full house by 6pm. I booked 530pm so I could catch a crosstown bus and make a Lincoln Center concert at 8pm (and it went quite smoothly).

There is gold leaf molding, heavy drapes to keep the cold out (and nice double doors too), small intimate, if crowded, dining rooms and I would say about 5 two-tops and 2 four-tops in each room, making for not a huge turnover. Wines are offered up at 2.5 oz. tastes or 5 oz. glasses and I started with a POUILLY FUISSE 2006 from JJ VINCENT that had huge mineral tastes but went wonderfully well with my SHRIMP DUSTED IN ORANGE POWDER. This was really a huge Salad of ARUGULA with ARTICHOKE HEARTS and 4 tasty dusted shrimp. A pepper mill made it perfect and while the warm baguettes that arrived earlier were now dry and flaky, I thought that the bread did need some work unless you eat it right away.

This unpretentious but warm spot reminded me of my younger years in the late 60's and early 70's in NY, when my parents sometimes asked me to join them to dine (often before or after theater) at A LA FOURCHETTE on the West Side or MARIO's Villa D'este or Villa Borghese on the East Side; how I miss those wonderful times. Obviously JOJO attracts a regular crowd as so many of the folks around me were welcomed by so many of the staff on a first name basis and even with, "oh my, you have ordered something different tonight!"

My entree was a superb Peppercorn crusted VENISON MEDALLIONS with reconstituted PEARS (really confit), POMEGRANATE Seeds, Fingerling Potatoes and Savoy Cabbage. Sauces here are not the stars, the meat and food itself is, which is why I say it is so traditional and clearly not newfangled cookery. A glass of COTES DUE RGHONE 2006 LA FRAMBOISERIE was the perfect foil to the meat and all its ingredients.

Dessert was again truly traditional and simple and called RASPBERRY CRISP with Raspberry Cream, but was a Napoleon style concoction of piles of raspberries with some delicious fruity cream and wafers layered all on coulis; a gem of a fruit dessert and not too heavy at all.

Chatting with manager Jamie Unwin, we were able to reminisce about our dear late friend Jean-Louis Palladin, whose first (and sadly failed) NY restaurant he opened so many years ago. The memories, the food and the real French tradition made JOJO a true gem and treat.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The St. Regis' ADOUR displays Ducasse amazing talent

Last night four of us spent several hours at the new ADOUR in the St. Regis Washington Hotel where superstar chef Alain Ducasse has positioned chef Julien Jouhannaud in the kitchen and they are indeed turning out some pretty delicious meals.

I have to admit that I miss the voluptuous elegant Empire furniture and setting, all that remains is the gorgeous emblazoned dark wood beam ceiling. There are white leather chairs, crisp linens, well-spaced tables and around the wall tall curved banquettes of brown and black that make quite a cozy setting for two, although we had two of the white chairs at ours still giving us lots of privacy. The St. Regis bar is separated from the restaurant by a glassed-in wine cellar which runs the width of the dining room. In its previous incarnation, Lespinasse may have been a bit stuffy, but Adour is less so; a bit formal, but also casual with excellent friendly staff as well; our server KYUNG had worked there some 12 years I believe!

I expected the wine list to be severely inflated, but sommelier Ramon Narvaez (who came from Marcel's) has been very careful and still allowed many lower-priced wines that are good deals to find their way to the extensive list. We first chose a MARCEL DEISS 2003 Pinot Gris "BEBLENHEIM" and since Ramon was out, the assistant wine steward mentioned that he needed to chill the bottle. I tasted the wine and it was room temperature, so I asked what temperature the cellar is kept at. He told me 55 or so, but that it blew a fuse earlier that day! OOPS! He quickly rectified this by offering us a complimentary bottle of ALAIN DUCASSE house champagne from Lanson which was very nice and very cold (while the Pinot Gris chilled). I should mention that the house sparkling water is BADOIT, my favorite on earth (even at $8)!

Our friends arrived and we all quickly decided on the 5-course $95 tasting menu, which is really the best way to sample what the chef has to order as well as taste multiple items at a reasonable cost. It is indeed quite a filling meal as well.

First came some Emmental GOUGERES which had coarse salt on them and BOY, were they salty, but yummy. Next came an amuse of PUMPKIN VELOUTE with Ricotta Cheese RAVIOLI and Creme Fraiche which was quite excellent. We tasted the Marcel Deiss again and it was sublime with (as Deiss does) an amazing terroir and a slight hint of sweetness, like a German Riesling, yet creamy and divine with loads of minerals from the "Beblenheim mountain" where the vineyard sits. It was the more than perfect accompanying wine for the first course DUCK FOIE GRAS CONFIT with Pineapple Chutney and Dried Pineapple Wheel. This was indeed a rich thick creamy torchon and I felt the use of "confit" on the menu as opposed to torchon or pate made me expect a warm dish. No matter it was sublime and came with yummy brioche and French bread toasts. One of us asked to substitute the HAMACHI with green apple and was also brought a glass of wine to pair with it as well!

We knew gnocchi and fish were coming, but really felt like red wine, so Rigaa, who also assists Ramon, recommended a NUIT SAINT GEORGES 2004 "Les Fleurieres" from Jean-Jacques Confuron which is also offered by the glass. It was a traditional Burgundy Pinot Noir with some depth, but not too intense and again a perfect pairing with the two courses to follow:

RICOTTA GNOCCHI with Sauteed Lettuce, CRISPY PROSCIUTTO & CHANTERELLES Mushrooms & Sauce. The gnocchi were light and almost floated above the sauce, and the large piece of crispy prosciutto was fun and added a dash to the simpler tastes of the dish.

BAKED HALIBUT with CHESTNUTS, Button Mushrooms, Mizzuna came in an ARBOIS WINE Sauce and again I was reminded how much I adore this fish. I asked where it came from at this time of the year, since we usually see it from Alaska in the summer and discovered it hails from the North Atlantic.

Our final wine of the evening was a 2006 CHATEAUNEUF du PAPE from Domaine LAFOND "Roc-Epine" which was a bit young and tight when we first tasted it. Rigaa proceeded to decant the wine into a clear wine-bottle shaped decanter with an odd looking breathing device (apparently both created for the Ducasse kingdom) and believe it or not, the wine opened up quite fast and within 2-3 minutes and a big swirl in our Schott crystal glass it was perfect with the ROASTED PENNSYLVANIA RACK of LAMB with EGGPLANT CAVIAR, APRICOT CONFIT and Creamy QUINOA. The highlight of this dish was the beyond superb QUINOA that blew my tastebuds away! The lamb was rare and tender and tasty, the eggplant divine (and I don't usually like eggplant) and the apricots were simply cooked a bit to tenderness (so why confit?), but a nice touch.

Dessert on the tasting menu was GIANDUJA "Sable" of Milk Chocolate with orange Zest and Marmalade Sauce, but two of substituted the GALA APPLE SOUFFLE with Granny Smith Compote, Calvados Lady Fingers and Vanilla Ice Cream that was perfectly prepared. Fruit filled souffles, are NOT easy, and this was light, fluffy and tasty with the fruit floating within and not weighing down the egg custard at all.

Additional macaroons of Raspberry or Gianduja came to the table as well as a plate of chocolates(milk, passion fruit and Adour dark), just in case you needed more!

I can safely say that we all adored every bite at ADOUR!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

CommonWealth Gastropub-odd name, a gourmet-ish take on British cuisine

Chef Jamie Leeds has expanded her Hank's Oyster Bar locations and even opened a new British pub/restaurant in the way up and still coming Columbia Heights neighborhood (CommonWealth Gastropub ( at 14th and Irving, NW under the eye of Chef Antonio Burrell (Viridian, Bis, Gabriel). This is a pretty amazing accomplishment in today's economy, and while the "pub" was not super busy last night, it was doing fairly well. Luckily, this created a lower noise level than I was expecting, and that's always a blessing.

The ambience is a bit dark, and I needed to ask for a flashlight to read the menu as the lone flickering candle on the table was pretty useless. I was given a torch (that's British for flashlight) and it was sorely in need of fresh batteries, but I persevered and managed to order a bottle of 2004 BODEGAS Las 800 Granacha Blend from Priorat that was full-bodied, tasty and has some wonderful smokiness along with lingering tart cherries that worked so well with all the heavier food and sauces. There are dark wood tables, leather banquettes, wooden chairs and a nice outdoor patio when the weather is warm. The decor is somewhere between the UK and the USA pub-style, but comfy and warm.

Samuel chose the DOG in a PUFF with CHIPS which is a sausage-type hot dog partially wrapped in puff pastry (which he instantly discarded-even though it was superb). The "chips" were of the thick steak-like American variety and were steaming inside and very tasty. They managed to stay flavorful even way into the meal, and were perfectly fried and crisp on the outside (but not greasy in the least). Each table gets an amazing tray of pickled veggies(beets, carrots, cauliflower) and corn relish that we HAD to refill and then get extra for a doggie bag; it's THAT GREAT! The bread is less exciting, so stick to the veggies.

I started with the SMOKED TROUT ROLLMOPS, a superb chilled filet rolled around and served on a superb creamy POTATO SALAD. It is a large and filling portion loaded with flavor, and perfect on a warm or hot evening, although I loved them last night when it was 50degrees out! Will went for the totally traditional British items and got a gastro-variation of things he grew up with: SCOTCH EGGS are tasty little quiche-like cups with a hard-boiled egg center usually served alone, but here enhanced with a choice of three sauces: HONEY MUSTARD--a bit sweet, but nice SPICY AIOLI-which was creamy and rich mayo and not spicy at all (Will liked this the best) and a GREEN SAUCE of herbs (cilantro, etc) that was a perfect foil to the egg and made the best combination in my mind.

His entree was the CUMBERLAND BANGERS & MASH with ONION GRAVY which was actually one large sausage on a bed of creamy yummy to-die-for mashed potatoes in a superb sauce (which again is a gastro-turn, as Will is used to having them with baked beans back home).

I could not decide between the Flank Steak and the special of Grass-Fed BEEF MEATLOAF with Sauteed GREEN BEANS, MASHED POTATOES and SHERRIED MUSHROOM GRAVY, but our server Jonathan (who will commented has excellent teeth) said that the while his favorite is the steak, the specials are not always available, and I can always come back for the steak. He was right. The meat and sauce were divine as were the creamy potatoes. The beans were cooked perfectly and the portion was monstrous. There were some cayenne peppers in the meat, but also an Eastern spice I could not pin down (nobody in the kitchen could help and Chef Burrell was out; Chef Leeds was there but way too busy with another group).

Will and I split the STICKY TOFFEE PUDDING which was a superbly created cake-like pudding with a caramelly sticky toffee sauce. Only the dollop of whipped cream was unwelcome as way too American. In the UK, the pudding would have sat in a pool of overdose cream custard as well! Besides, I never care for whipped cream.

We had a great time and look forward to returning to a little spot of the UK here in DC!

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Yesterday I took Samuel to the Gay Men's Chorus holiday/concert production with his Uncle Rick and he enjoyed it (though not much as much as The Wizard of Oz the day before...or Mary Poppins the week before).

Afterwards, we met up with Daddy and decide to try the "Tastings Journal" Menu special being offered this week. I have told you before than anyone can sign up for the Tastings Journals email specials at local restaurants. This week is ODEON CAFE ( at Dupont Circle offering a multi-course menu with two glasses of wine all for $45 plus tax and tip.

I have not been to Odeon in almost 20 years since I lived a block away, and I could not believe it has been there for 28 years now! It is a decent neighborhood Italian spot and has much going for it. A simple wine list (if limited) with most prices under $40/bottle, a variety of pastas and pizzas (Samuel adored his PIZZA topped with FRENCH FRIES (how's that for cholesterol indulgence?!) and some quite nice and tasty entrees.

The service is decent, but nothing to rave about; we had to repeatedly ask for napkins and flatware, and the ambience is fairly quiet and attempted upscale; although the Bocelli musak is a bit grating after and hour. My biggest complaint was that they did not bring fresh flatware for each of the courses, although they did bring new glasses when we switched wines!

We started with a bottle of RUFFINO RESERVA DUCALE 2004 Chianti Classico which warmed us up on that oh so coldest night of the year so far!
The salads were tasty with nice tart dressings: ARUGULA with GOAT CHEESE in BALSAMIC Vinaigrette and MESLCUN mix with HONEY MUSTARD Dressing, Walnut and Apples

The second course of FRESH CALAMARI sauteed with SPINACH, GARLIC, Fresh Lemon and Olive Oil was enhanced by squeezing the fresh lemon provided as were the MUSHROOM CAPS stuffed with CRABMEAT in Garlic Butter Sauce, but these were merely nice appetizers from the standard fare with little thought to invention.

We switched to a 2005 BOLLA VALPOLICELLA which was advertised on the menu as from MASI. I know that MASI wines cost much more than $40-50, and was doubtful, but since I believe they own the Bolla label, it was not worth arguing about. The wine was not as big as I had wanted, but adequate.

The third course was a choice of soup and there was CREAM of BROCCOLI with Garlic and Parsley or the quite tasty LOBSTER BISQUE with some nice (if small) pieces of shellfish marred only by a small chunk of congealed soup.

The entree included a glass of house Chianti or Pinot Grigio, both quite on the wimpy side and we all chose different entrees: The GRILLED Fresh SALMON FILET served over Angel Hair Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes, Basil and Olive Oil needed something as it was a bit bland, and came over thin spaghetti, not angel hair pasta. My POLLO VALDOSTANA was two huge rolled chicken breasts stuffed with Spinach and Ricotta Cheese in a tasty tangy yummy LEMON CAPER Sauce. I opted to take one breast home as the portion was so large (along with half of Samuel's pizza, which we shall all dine on tonight). I think the taste award was for Will's Braised LAMB SHANK with Veggies, Red Wine Reduction and Rosemary Roasted Potatoes. The dessert came with a glass of unexciting "champagne" which I am positive was prosecco, but Samuel discovered WARM CHOCOLATE SOUFFLE which was a scrumptious molten lava flow inside a firm cake round topped with Vanilla Ice Cream. Tiramusu went over well with Will, and we all headed home quite full.

I can say that Odeon is a great spot to grab a bite in the neighborhood, pasta or simple dish, but that the multi-course tasting is not their forte, although we definitely got our dollar's worth!

Friday, November 28, 2008

ABOVE at NYC's Hilton Times Square is a bit above...

Yesterday we took Samuel along with a friend to see Mary Poppins on Broadway, and knowing it was the day after Thanksgiving I looked hard for a quiet place that kids would also enjoy for lunch. I chose ABOVE on the 21st floor of the HILTON at TIMES SQUARE (234 West 42nd St.) just two doors away from the theater and discovered a hidden gem.

ABOVE is indeed hotel dining as it is in the 21st floor lobby and while it is a quiet spot with a nice bar as well. The views through the huge windows to the north show the NY Times Building amongst other historical ones and the new builds on the west side of Times Square (although you can't see Times Square itself).

There are simple tables, marble floors and good service, and it was a quiet oasis from the jammed streets below. Samuel and Juliana gobbled up the "chicken fingers" which were actually three large lightly seasoned breasts pounded thin an d baked to perfection. The kids ate every bite of chicken and some for the tasty fries as well.

Will enjoyed a FALL HARVEST PIZZA with thin crust, Kabocha Squash, Chunky Berkshire Bacon, Caramelized Onion, Sage and Fontina Cheese that was huge, filling and tasty.

My MONTE CRISTRO ABOVE deserves an award for Chef Donald Drnek. First of all it was so huge at $15.00 that I was able to share the entire dish with its tasty SWEET POTATO FRIES with our friend Aunty Lauren who dropped by for dessert (but ate half my plate!). The sandwich was chock full of moist TURKEY BREAST, HONEY ROAST HAM, melted GRUYERE CHEESE and was stuffed into a BEER BATTERED deep fried wrap (think GIANT egg roll made with beer). On the side was a tasty GRAIN MUSTARD AIOLI making this dish a sandwich winner for all times.

The coffee was good and we all walked out stuffed at a most reasonable price with some great photos of the skyline too!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Philly's AMADA is amazing

You may recall that a month ago I wrote about TINTO in downtown Philly. Last night after the opera, I took a number of clients to it's sister restaurant in town (located on the east side near the river), AMADA ( and it was just as impressive. We were six people and what a treat to be escorted to the rear private room which was oh so quiet (very good for singers) and held two large marble slab tables that could easily fit 8 or more. Another small group sat at the next table later and we even serenaded the twins with an operatic "Happy Birthday."

We all marveled and the menu while we sipped the tasty WHITE SANGRIA that was so refreshing and finally decided on a number of items which we all gladly shared and tasted. Not a single one was less than amazing. A bottle of TINTO TORO "Temple" 2004 from Bodega Rejadorada was a smooth wonderful warm tasty red that two of us polished off with glee.

If I must complain about anything it would be the extremely small print of the wine list and the lack of spoons to serve and share items with. AS before, we did have to ask for bread to mop up the superb sauces, but it dome come.

As we waited for the tapas to arrive a creamy rich TUNA CAPER Spread came with FLATBREAD. The many tapas were actually served at perfect intervals so that we were never overwhelmed with too many dishes on the table:
ARAGONES-a light cheese served with White Sangria Honey & Golden Raisins
QUESO de CABRA-a rich creamy yet not intense goat cheese served with a sauce of Balsamic & Strawberries
The requisite SPANISH OLIVES which were tiny and tasty, like olives, not salty at all
GARBANZOS con ESPINACAS was a light tomato based sauce with chick peas and sauteed spinach (I find the veggie options to be superb)
SETAS SALTEADAS-Hen of the Woods Mushrooms sauteed with Thyme and White wine
COCAS: PATO con DATILES- We had to try one of the Cocas or flatbreads which really were small pizzas. The combination of DUCK CONFIT, JAMON
SERRANO, CABRALES Blue Cheese and Date Glaze was spectacular

Some of the more traditional items were:
GAMBAS al AJILLO (shrimp in garlic) were sizzling hot and tasty SCALLOPS a la PLANCHA were huge slices grilled to perfection CHICKEN SKEWERS a la PLANCHA were moist and seasoned beautifully CROQUETAS de JAMON were filled with rich cheese and ham and fried but not greasy PIQUILLOS RELLENOS were small mild red peppers stuffed with creamy CRABMEAT

the ALBONDIGAS here were LAMB MEATBALLS in thick sauce with Peas and Shaved Manchego making them truly the best I have ever had

Two novel and modern tapas that were the highlight of the meal were: MADRE e MIJO (literally "mother and son") and consisted of a chicken breast over fingerling potatoes with a Fried Egg on top with Mojama or Dried tuna loin and Truffles for added flavor. It is called mother and son since the chicken represents the mother, the egg is the son. OOPS!

MOLLEJAS con GUISANTES were CRISPY SWEETBREADS served in a light sauce with FAVA BEANS, ENGLISH PEAS and JAMON IBERICO, a small pile of CHESTNUT PAPARDELLE at the center.

Grilled Asparagus and Grilled Mushrooms filled out the dishes and the six of us managed to down everything save for some olives! But no room for dessert!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Iron Chef MORIMOTO makes Philly food fantastic /cheese conquers at PANORAMA

Am in Philadelphia for the weekend and last night I finally got to MORIMOTO ( where the Iron Chef himself actually rarely rules the court. Indeed, I was told that one of his TV show assistants now runs the open kitchen and the boss' visits are down to monthly stops. I believe this Philly hotspot was Chef Morimoto's first US venture, and on a Saturday night it was heaving; indeed the noise level was DAUNTING, so I was glad I was alone as conversation might have made me hoarse!

I started with a carafe of FUKUMITSUYA Morimoto, his own labeled Junmai Daiginjo Sake which has huge overtones of melon and a super rich flavor and texture. It was superb with all the raw fish that came out in may over-the-top tasting or Omakase These are available starting at $80, but I could not resist the $120 option which guaranteed upgrades to toro, lobster and kobe!

The long wide room has a wavy blond wood ceiling which made me fell like I was in the belly of a friendly whale. The walls are undulating off-white with 3-D sculpture like protrusions. Each white glass table is separated by low clear glass partitions which change color from red to blue to purple throughout the night. Along the right wall a one-step raised section has tables for two all along it (best for viewing the room) with the most wonderfully comfortable white leather chairs with black trim. The center section of the room is divided into tables for 4 or 6 (a quiet private dining room is available downstairs for larger groups) and the left wall again has tables for two stretching down its length to the kitchen at the rear. Sadly, the design and the loud music make this a place to go to see and eat, not hear your dining partners.

My server Alix was a gem, and so was Rachel the manager who helped with the wine (although she had never heard the female term "sommeileuse" before); there is no snotty pretense here; they just want to make you happy.

I started with a Timbale of TORO TARTARE loaded with CRISPY SHALLOTS which made every bite a fun crunch. It sat in a small pool of soy sauce and a YAMAMOMO or miniature Japanese Mountain Peach sat on the side (it was quite tasty and sweet). This was the first of many "melt in my mouth" dishes, each worth the upgrade price.

The only course that did not impress (save desserts) was the KUMAMOTO OYSTER dish which offered up three of the tasty sea gems each with a different sauce: Japanese Salsa, Citrus Ceviche with Yuzu and the most tasty Thai Fish Sauce with a mild Jalapeno(is that an oxymoron?) sitting on top. They do get presentation points for the yummy lime slice and a pretty orchid on the side.

The carpaccio was AMADAI, a seared TILEFISH with MITSUBA LEAF (Japanese parsley), YUZU SOY and HOT OIL, Ginger & Chive. This WHITEFISH was superb and the second of those "melt in my mouth" dishes that filled the evening.

SASHIMI SALAD is a nice change from all the raw fish with few greens. Here there are MIXED MICRO GREENS topped with slices of HAMACHI (more melt in my mouth) and served with a tangy YUZU VINAIGRETTE. An adorable balsamic green glazed the bottom of the plate that faced me :-)

At this point I began to think about the US fine dining experience at length. We have some truly amazing (what I would call) 3 star spots in every major city and more. In Europe, there is the Michelin 3 Star spots which generally (perhaps save for some spots like Gordon Ramsey in London) are quiet relaxing palaces of gastronomy where we can enjoy the food and the company. When the food was presented at Morimoto, I constantly found myself needing to ask what the dish was, as it was quite hard to hear (and some of the presenter's accents were heavy as well). I missed that 3 star syndrome when I dine here.

The intermezzo was a shot glass of APPLE MINT SODA and then a glass of MOET et CHANDON BRUT ROSE appeared which paired perfectly with the LOBSTER "EPICE" a half roasted lobster with eight spice blend, YUZU Creme Fraiche and garnished with a White Asparagus, Carrot and Broccoli. This dish is more akin to Indian spice blends and was indeed, quite spicy and oh so tasty. The rich whipped creme fraiche was just to cut the spice and I really did not use it save for a taste or two. The presentation of separated claw and tail was easy to eat and came out of the shell except for the smaller section of the claw, and Alix ran back with a mini-pick which did the job.

A super soft and tasty PINOTAGE from WILDEKRANS 2006 in Walker Bay, South Africa paired superbly with the (yes, melt in my mouth) SEARED KOBE BEEF in Basil Oil & Soy with small small slices of earthy TRUMPET MUSHROOMS.

One might have thought the meat was the last course, but SUSHI came next with five sashimi pieces of divine (melt again) CHU-TORO, SUZUKI (striped bass), KISU (Japanese whitefish), AOYAGI (a fun slightly chewy Orange clam) and AJI (Jackfish) which save for the toro was my new favorite fish. Rachel proffered an aromatic sake of pineapple, mango and actually celery nose that was fruit forward-JUNMAI GINJO "YUKI NO BOSHA" or "Cabin in the Sky," that was simply perfect with the sushi.

Dessert was the failure of the evening as I received a MARJOLAINE F. POINTE (stole from the famous Rhone Valley chef Ferdinand Pointe, where I have eaten) which was basically an almond dacquoise with green tea butter cream and did nothing for me. I moved on to a YUZU MERINGUE TART which was a tasty shortbread with marshmallow cream, but the crushed mango on the side was not ripe (and I was shocked to see I was charged $10 extra for a second dessert!). The best part of dessert was the Sparkling BUBBLY BAMBOO, a fruity bubbly called HOU HOU SHUU which was like champagne and raspberry cream soda!

I walked back to my hotel, PENN'S VIEW and sat at the bar for something I needed: Cheese. This wonderful hotel ( has a typical and very busy Italian restaurant called PANORAMA with a great bar serving over 100 wines by the glass. I ordered Flight #812, the Northern Italian Nights which was a way too young BARDOLINO 2007 "Le Fontaine" from Corte Gordoni; a 2005 BARBERA d'ASTI Superiore from L:a GIRIBALDINA "Val Sarmassa"; 204 BONARDA :Oltrepo Pavese-Carlino" from Castello di Luzzano was a true treat as was the 2005 VALPOLICELLA RIPASSO from Giuseppe Lonard. The 2000 AMARONE "Aurum" from Tenuta Valleselle was nice, but no revelation.

The Spanish cheese tray was superb:
A wonderfully lemony CANA de OUEJA Sheep from Murcia
one year aged MAHON RISERVA
LEONORA - a creamy yet bold goat
LA PERAL- always a mild blue cow from ASTURIAS

I went to bed very happy.

ALAN--still in Philly for more today

Monday, November 17, 2008

I would say DO for DISH in DC

The Kennedy Center area here in DC does not have tons of dining spots that you can rush to the theater from, so when one has a 7pm curtain and you wish to take out a very special client before that curtain (and go with Samuel) at 5pm...there are even fewer choices. We returned to DISH in the River Inn last night (924 25th St, NW) after not having been for quite some time and while the decor is the same, the food seems to be a step up these days.

The wine list is still small, but we had two warm your insides on a cold evening reds that were just fine. VALLE ESCONDIDO Malbec 2007 from GOUGUENHEIM in Mendoza and CALVET-THUNEVIN "Cuvee Constance" 2005 from Cotes Catalan in the south of France.

Our food was warming as well and ranged from MAC 'n' CHEESE to CHICKEN & VEGETABLE SPRING ROLLS with Thai Dipping Sauce (crispy and tasty, but no revelation) to the gorgeous warm melting SMOKED SALMON & CREAMY HORSERADISH TIMBALE with Herb & Horseradish Oil, which was not overly spicy in any way--just right.

Samuel adored is BBQ'D PORK TAQUITOS and actually tasted and liked, but left, the Salsa (and ignored the Sour Cream) which was followed by a quickly devoured scoop of Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream.

We continued with an unexciting FILLET with Mashed Potatoes, a tasty PORK CHOP and my PAN SEARED ROCKFISH with SHITAKE & MASHED POTATO RISOTTO (which was really NOT risotto, but was creamy, rich and full of flavor) with HERB CREAM.

For dessert we each gobbled up our own CHERRY & PEACH COBBLER with Vanilla Ice Cream and manged to drop my client at the Opera House just 10 minutes prior to curtain, Mission accomplished with good food too.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Atlanta cuisine-catch it at CANOE

I am only here in Atlanta for one night and had a hard time finding a place to dine in the NE burbs near the new Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. The streets are lined with strip malls and a dearth of Italian, Chinese and Mexican chain restaurants, so I was thrilled when my crystal Zagat and the Cobb Center website yielded up a neighborhood just 5 minutes away called "the Vinings." This are has numerous quaint spots and CANOE ( is probably the largest sitting on the river with a glass wall facing reeds, wooden gardens and flocks of geese and ducks.

My booth was on a raised step up just inside the glass wall and all the tables in this section are quiet and even romantic as the sun sets. Once dark my attention turned the other way to a large room of exposed brick with an open kitchen on the far side hooded by a huge copper canopy.

The service is southern hospitality at its best with lots of smiles and friendliness, and my server Christine was always checking up on me to make sure I was happy...and I was...VERY HAPPY.

Chef CARVEL GRANT GOULD is self-trained and worked her way through the ranks at the spot and other local dining establishments and has put together local and varied ingredients to create a true new Georgian cuisine. Her pasty chef Thomas Numprasong assists with superb desserts and soft sourdough, tasty wheat, poppy seed and sunflower breads and an I can't get enough of this sage-chili oil flatbread!

The menu has a bout a dozen choices for the first two courses and it was a hard decision but I headed right for the DUCK STUFFED GEORGIA QUAIL over Grilled Endive, Braised Cherries and Roasted Georgia Peanuts. The superb breaded coating has a "southern-fried" feel with each quail half boned and stuffed with duck, confit and foie gras....a divine dish and combo with the tasty endive, cherries and more crunch from the peanuts.

Christine really tried to sell me on the ALASKA King CRAB special appetizer, but I had to drift to the quail as it was truly a "local" dish and so creative; I was happy. BUT, I was even happier when Christine (having noticed my indecision in choices) brought over a small portion of the fresh flown in that day from the Aleutian Islands' Dutch Harbor RED KING CRAB. It seems that Chef Gould made friends with the crab fishers some time ago and this is the only place they will same day ship to anywhere in the lower 48 (I guess even 49) states, making it the only non-frozen Alaska crab around these here parts. She prepares the soft shelled chunks over an emulsion and piece of Butter (Bibb) Lettuce and tops it with an Extra Virgin Olive Oil Sorbet which is simply to die for. Christine even brought over a small taste of the BODEGAS MUGA "Blanco," a Viura from Rioja in Spain that is very reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc. Her tip just jumped 7%!

My entree was a PANKO DUSTED SKATE WING Fillet with MEYER-LEMON and BABY SHRIMP RISOTTO, Haricots Verts and RIESLING BUTTER SAUCE. It was all simply divine from the tasty light fish that is so underrated to each bite of risotto with the tiny shrimp and strong lemon flavor to the crunchy tasty green beans. A glass of TELMO RODRIGUEZ "Gaba do Xil" Godello (a crisp white) from Galicia was a perfect pairing as well, and the Spanish Godello is quick becoming one of my newest favorite options for dry white wine.

Dessert was a MEYER LEMON SHORTBREAD with Toasted MERINGUE with TANGERINE. The small shortbread looks like a cookie canoe and the lemon curd sits in this with 10 tiny peaks of meringue on top. It is light, refreshing and was just what I needed, surrounded by citrus slices and a small pillow of ever-so-light chiffon whipped cream. The cappuccino was frothy and superb and a small plate of cookies was a highlight with a fudgy chocolate biscotti-looking cookie bar, a shortbread cookie and the I will never forget crunchy OATMEAL RAISIN cookie oozing WHITE CHOCOLATE!

I could easily go back to Canoe, as such detail and attention are not only shown with each dish, but with each patron.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

I can be with AVEC in Chicago...but damn that noise

I have dined next door numerous times at Blackbird, and on the previous night, we all tried to get into AVEC at 1130pm, its sister spot, but the place was so heaving we could barely get in the door. So we headed next door to Blackbird for an appetizer (my mussel soup was delish, as was the cheese plate, but my hosts were not too impressed with the Pork Belly appetizer) and dessert.

Knowing full well that AVEC does not take reservations, I returned the next day at 5pm for dinner before the opera, to find the place a bout 1/2 full. It is small to begin with; a long narrow stainless steel tapas bar on the left seats just over a dozen or so on very hard uncomfortable tall wooden stools. Along the right wall are tables and the same shorter stools. This must be an attempt to keep the crowds moving at AVEC ( The tables, floors, walls and cielings are all made of the same light wood making for a noisy experience, and then there is the blaring music; I am glad I was alone and did not need to converse!

At first, the bar server was friendly and helpful, but by the time of my departure at 7pm, the place was heaving with lines of 20+ outside and I could barely get my check. Avec is fine if you go off-peak and don't mind relaxed service, but it's the food that stars here. Plates are listed as small and large, which is already a problem, as the small plates are really about TWICE the size of a normal small tapas plate. I goofed when I ordered three of these, but adored every single mouth-watering bite of each:

CRUSHED TOMATO & Olive Oil Braised OCTOPUS with Baby SPINACH and ONION Salad with PANCETTA Vinaigrette was a huge plate of at least 5 large pieces of tender mollusk and tons of lightly sauteed spinach and some onions; the sauce of tomato was divine. I enjoyed a LUIS PATO white from Portugal called MARIA GOMES (the varietal) which is very full bodied and reminded me or chardonnay.

Next was the "La Quercia" PROSCIUTTO Late with Lemon, Slivered ALmonds and Marinated MANCHEGO all sprinkled generously with fresh pepper. A huge warm boule (French loaf) came with this, but I tried to avoid eating most of it. A CASTILLO de FUENDELAJON Campo de Borja from Crianza was made from old vine granacha and tempranillo making for a smooth yet robust taste.

My final plate was the ROAST PHEASANT SAUSAGE (why my eye hit first on the menu) with LENTILS, BRUSSEL SPROUTS and Candied Bacon served "agridolce: or sweet and sour style. The sausage was huge and the plate had everything loaded on including potatoes and the excellent al dente sprouts, but I could not force myself to finish, so I asked for some coffee and headed to the opera.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Chicago's GRAHAM ELLIOT exudes excellence

I often have a dilemma in Chicago of where to dine before the opera as the curtain is at 730pm and the places near the opera house are not so great.

Yesterday I headed for the River North neighborhood just north of the loop and found that the newly-opened in June GRAHAM ELLIOT( starts dinner at 5pm. Lucky for me and the chef here is none other than the award winning GRAHAM ELLIOT BOWLES previously of Avenues at the Peninsula and who came up through the ranks with the likes of Charlie Trotter and Dean Fearing (Mansion on Turtle Creek).

He calls his cuisine: "Fine dining redefined" and it works just fine indeed. I only wish he would tone the music down a bit. Upon arrival my server said she would ask, but it was to no avail, as this chef likes it blaring most of the evening. When I left at 645pm, the place was almost full and the music only made it impossible to have a decent table conversation....AGAIN!

The wooden floors, black wooden tables, exposed ceilings and no place for absorption at all don't add to this, but it is a comfy spot with leather and fabric banquettes and chairs and the food is simply superb.

An amuse of warm APPLE CIDER with Calvados soaked apples and milk cappuccino foam was a welcome sight on one of Chicago's coldest nights this fall. The came the nightly popcorn; last night's was a superb GARLIC BUTTER, but this could never replace bread as it really does not work to soak up those wonderful sauces. I would not want to trade the popcorn; but can't they find some bread on request?

A citrusy glass (big Riedel stemware) of 2007 SCHLOSS HALBTURN "Velt" 1 Gruner Veltliner from Burgenland in Austria was a great aperitif and went perfectly with the ROSEMARY SKEWERED SWEETBREADS, a dish I shall remember forever. Two huge cubes of crispy sweetbreads were skewered with the rosemary and served over an apple cider-caramelized turnips, heirloom apples and a magnificent BOUDIN NOIR Puree. I had to use my fingers to finish the sauce!

Choosing an entree was hard and I went for the ROASTED MONKFISH WELLINGTON which had the wonderfully cooked to perfection fish wrapped in a pastry dough with duxelles and spinach and sliced, served over French Lentils, Glazed Carrots, Melted Leeks and another brilliant sauce of TRUFFLE COULIS; it was AWESOME! Another Austrian wine was a superb match being a red 2006 Ernst TRIEBAUER BLAUFRANKISCH also from Burgenland with a huge fruit forward nose and oddly a completely different earthy taste.

I could not resist dessert and went with my delightful server Erin's suggestions as she had guided me so well on everything so far: GREEN APPLE FRITTERS were served with a warm icing of cider reduction and Cinnamon Ice Cream with pieces of apple...they were divine and I left for the opera knowing that I will return but hoping the music level drops.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Petit Louis Bistro in Baltimore gets bravos (mostly)

We were at a concert in Baltimore late yesterday afternoon on the north side of the city and decided to finally try PETIT LOUIS BISTRO ( which has been garnering raves for years and is indeed, a TRUE French bistro.

From the marble-like stone tabletops, the wooden floors, some etched and some stained glass and the small globe lights, one really does feel as if one is in Paris! The service is superb and friendly, and we enjoyed everything we ate.

I started with the SOUPE a LAPIN BRAISE, a wonderful broth loaded with shredded rabbit and autumn vegetables that was just what the doctor ordered on this first super cold autumn eve. Will had the CUISSES de GRENOUILLES and swore these frogs had a huge workout as they were the meatiest legs ever loaded with garlic, wine and butter sauce in the most traditional of preparations. This did call for the very nice "boule" of bread to mop up.

We drank a leathery, smoky and totally superb GIGONDAS from St. DAMIEN 2005 Vieilles Vignes to start that worked well alone or with the food and moved on to a huge 2003 Gigondas from DOMAINE SANTA DUC "Prestiges des Garrigues" that screamed for food, and was indeed, much better after our server Adam offered to decant it. Here was my major gripe with Petit Louis..the stemware. While it is RIEDEL, it is all too small for the huge reds they are selling, especially those costing more than say $80, or shall we say $300 that require larger glasses to aerate the wine while it is drunk, and to allow the nose to penetrate as well. We mentioned this to the manager and sommelieuse and they both said the owner has repeatedly refused to get larger (and more expensive) glasses as too many are broken. Yes, we heard at least two go while we were there!

We split a yummy BEET, CHEVRE and Mache salad with a light vinaigrette.

Our entrees were just as good with Will enjoying the GIGOT d'AGNEAU, a Lamb Leg Steak with a huge pile of POMMES FRITES (that's fries) and a Beurre Maitre' d'Hotel (which was really just a small slab of herb butter for taste). My CONFIT de CANARD would not have been enough of a dish alone, but was a perfect entree with the appetizer and 1/2 salad. It was a duck leg served over Local CRANBERRY BEANS in a light broth with Garlic, Bacon and Sweet Candy Onions.

We saw the cheese tray which looked quite good and went into shock when they said it was served by the portion at $4.00 each slice! So, if I wanted four types, it would have been $16.00 and this seemed a bit too much, so we passed the remaining two glasses of wine to our friend, world famous Polish contralto, Ewa Podles (who sang the recital earlier) and her husband, Jerzy, who were dining nearby and headed back to DC.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

NYC's AMALIA actually annoys with noise

I am always happy to try new spots and I was very excited about AMALIA at the Dream Hotel in NYC ( on 55th Street just off of Broadway and two blocks from Carnegie Hall (two areas I hang out alot). The cuisine is Greek-influenced, but quite varied and offers up some tasty and exciting dishes, but when we arrived to a virtually empty restaurant, the music was so loud that we had to ask them three times to turn it down. This didn't ever seem to work, and as the place filled up (despite a very segmented and spread out set of rooms) and got so noisy we just gave up talking all together. Even Will & Samuel could not hear me on my cell phone when I called to say goodnight!

Speaking of decor and layout, Amalia has many rooms and levels with an eclectic feel using bird and floral wallpaper, exposed brick, exposed beams and embossed stucco patterned cielings. The wood floors and tables are comfy with swivel leather chairs that have a 60's feel of sorts. There are odd columns of steel girders (support I guess) that are encased in glass and lit from the bottom for effect.

Pita is served with an herbed oil and is quite nice, but gets no raves. The wine list is nice, but there are only 4 or so each of red and white by the glass. I started with a Greek RODITO-MOSCHOFILERO 2007 from Domaine Skouros that was very refreshing and went on to a yummy TEMPRANILLO "Paso a Paso" 2006 from Jorge Ordonez in La Mancha, Spain.

My appetizer was the COCONUT CORN SOUP which came with what they called Crab Salad (a small bundle of crab) in the bowl and LEMON BALM (a sorbet-like Lemongrass) It was quite tasty and a very large portion as well.

My entree was the ROASTED GIANNONE CHICKEN BREAST with Fresh BEAN CASSOULET, CHANTERELLES in a bit too sweet APRICOT SAUCE and my mother opted for the SAUTEED & CRISPY CALAMARI served with WHITE BEANS, CHORIZO, Piquillo Peppers and Garlic Toast which was called medium-size, but was indeed quite a big portion of both deep fried and sauteed squid making for variety.

We split the CHOCOLATE FONDANT which was intense with a WALNUT CRUST and Berries in Sangria Sauce as well as CHOCOLATE-RASPBERRY Gelato, which had little berry taste at all.

While the food was pretty good, I fear that Amalia just is too noisy for me to jusitfy a return visit.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

La Miche wine dinner is fun and friends

Tuesday night we headed back to La Miche ( in Bethesda, where our last wine dinner was a bit less than memorable. This time the event, the wines, the service and the food was a total hit.

Our wines were from ROCCHE CASTAMAGNA in Piemonte in Italy and they were all quite superb starting with a 2007 ARNEIS which was served with GOAT CHEESE & BASIL RAVIOLI with BLACK TRUFFLES. In my memory, this is the first time I have ever had Chef Jason Tepper's pasta, and he did the tasty little pillows great justice with a wow of a sauce.

WILD BURGUNDY ESCARGOTS loaded with garlic came next and was served with a BABERA d'ALBA 2005 which was an excellent full bodied red that was perfect with the dish, but it was the DOLCETTO d'ALBA 2005 that usually is a lighter red that really blew us away with its wonderful full body and intensity. This was served with a TROUT Fillet topped with crunchy PANCETTA that was a great touch to the superb fish.

Our entree was the VEAL RIB CHOP which is always great at La Miche and the other night it was in a superb MUSHROOM LEMON CREAM Sauce and served with WILD MUSHROOM POLENTA CAKE; it was a truly wonderful dish heralding the cooler weather that was to arrive today! The BAROLO "Bricco Francesco" 2003 was a huge wine and sadly not ready to drink yet, but I would love to taste it again in 5 years! Indeed, we returned to the wonderful Dolcetto for seconds!

Dessert was a GREEN APPLE SORBET that I could have traded, but was so full, I did not care and the glass of LEMONCELLO was just the perfect end to a great meal with great friends!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Philly's CAPOGIRO Gelato/Sorbetto is sensational

I forget to mention that after first finding CAPOGIRO (two downtown locations in Philly) a year and a half ago, I was able to return there on Sunday before the opera.

Since I was alone, I couldn't taste too many flavors without being conspicuous. I also kept to sorbetto since I like to believe it is less fattening.

The BLOOD ORANGE was awesome, but I settled for a mix of tangy LIME CILANTRO and sensuous ORANGE CARDAMOM.

I only wish they would open in Washington....but them I would gain even more weight!

Philadelphia's TINTO is terrific

Last night after a day in Philly at the opera, I was joined by a dear friend for a truly terrific dining experience at TINTO ( the superb fashionable tapas brainchild of Chef Jose Garces. His chef de cuisine at Tinto is David Conn and the staff all make for a friendly warm, informative lesson in Spanish tapas!

The exposed brick walls have tilted mirrors, lots of wine racks and good lighting with a cozy warm intimate feel. Our server Will took care of every need from suggesting approximately 6 plates to share, making recommendations and explaining the exciting ingredients as well. First came an amuse of MAHON CHEESE CRISPS with a Smoked TOMATO CREME FRAICHE to dip in. These crumbled to bits, but had a slight bite and were loads of fun!

We chose the following tapas and not one was a disappointment: BOCADILLOS de RES-a small sandwich of superb tender BRAISED SHORTRIBS, BACON, ASPARAGUS and Celery Root Aioli

ALCACHOFAS con TRUFAS--Purple Tulip Baby ARTICHOKES with Black TRUFFLE, LEMON and idiazabal (sheep cheese) that was one of the truly exciting surprises of the evening with tons of chokes in a rich, thick, very lemony sauce that we had to beg for bread for mopping up.

PULPO-Spanish OCTOPUS (which was just slightly chewy, but not rubbery), Confit POTATOES, Piquillo Pepper Paint and Lemon Powder was a beautiful and tasty dish that had a swash of pepper paint across the plate, foam on the fish and a little pile of dried lemon powder for taste in one corner.

VIERAS con PANCETA were two huge SEA SCALLOPS with Benton's BACON, Cider Emulsion, Green Apple over Sheep's Cheese Grits and was a mouthwatering treat with so many wonderful tastes in each subsequent bite.

Indeed, many tastes is the essence of each tinto tapas's not really just ONE Tapas, it is so many things rolled into each dish.

HONGOS a la PLANTXA was a large collection of WILD MUSHROOMS with Roasted POTATO, Shallot & Parsley in the yummiest of sauces

and finally, the ALUBIAS de TOLOSA was a small cast iron pot of BLACK BEANS, crispy PORK BELLY & CHORIZO with Braised CABBAGE.

While the dishes were varied and all so exciting they all were fairly heavy and screamed for red wine--so Will suggested a TEMPRANILLO "Valdehermeso" Valderiz from Joven 2005 in Ribera del Duero that was medium to full bodied and full of yummy flavors with hints of coffee, chocolate and rich fruit flavors underneath.

I really look forward to returning to TINTO again, and to chef Graces gastronomic temple Distrito....where my guest had eaten recently and could only RAVE about!

Well, we can now also rave about TINTO!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The HELMAND inBaltimore has potential

For years I have wanted to dine at THE HELMAND (806 N. Charles St, Baltimore, MD tel 410-752-0311) for numerous reasons. It is has always been rated by many guides as Baltimore's most popular spot (the prices sure are good) and features the cuisine of Afghanistan, one that I have never had the opportunity to try.

THE HELMAND has been around for some time and I doubt much has changed there: the wooden floors are scattered with Afghan rugs as are the mustard and brick walls. In addition there are plates, fabric squares and one native costume on the walls. There is a cozy feel, if a bit to crowded, and by the time we finished there was not a single table empty in either room.

We decided to try as much as possible and share everything, starting with KADDO BORAWNI, pan fried PUMPKIN, baked with sugar in a YOGURT-GARLIC Sauce, the operative word here being GARLIC. I adore garlic, ad this dish was strong, but we had no clue that it would revisit us all evening throughout the opera and the night! I adored the intense flavor, and even thought to try and make the sauce at home, but today I would definitely hestitate. Perhaps the garlic was raw, or just too much--Oh well! The AUSHAK was an Afghan style ravioli that sadly came lukewarm but filled with tasty leeks and served in a yogurt-mint ground beef sauce that was divine.

The bread (like in Indian restaurants) comes with a small fee (2,50 or 4.50) and is like a thick version of naan in small squares. It really works great with all the superb sauces and is worth every cent.

Our entrees were the slightly dry LAMB LAWAND which was braised with tomato, mushrooms and herbs in a yogurt and sour cream sauce that did manage to cover the meat's slight dryness. ON the side was CHALLOW, a simple rice pilaf that comes with a slightly spicy green sauce and a superb bowl of SABZY, just sauteed spinach. The combination makes for a splendid meal.

The MANTWO is a soft housemade pastry shell (very similar to the Aushak ravioli) and is spicier because it is filled with Onion and Ground Beef and served on Yogurt wit Yellow Split-Peas, Carrots and a Beef Sauce (also very moppable). The flavor was much more impressive than the Aushak as well.

Dessert could have ben skipped as the Turkish Coffee was 60% sediment and quite bitter and my ANAAR-PANEER was about as dry and tasteless as cheese gets, even though it was sprinkled with pomegranate extract and raisins. The local Afghan cheese resembles ricotta, but rely is quite unexciting. Will did better with the FEERENY, a condensed milk pudding with lots of fresh fruit.

I am really glad I finally got my first taste of Afghan food, and would truly try it again, but do warn you to be wary of the garlic and avoid the desserts!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Brunch at HANK's OYSTER BAR isn't bad

We headed to HANK's OYSTER Bar at 17th & P Streets, NW and took a nice table outside so Sam could enjoy the passing dogs (and people) as we brunched and munched the GOLDFISH that come to every table as you sit down. His FISH & CHIPS were decent, but not a touch on the ones we had just had in the UK...although the very puffy crunchy batter was a bit different from the usual. The accompanying remoulade was a bit spicy and nice, but Samuel would have none of it, insisting on ketchup!

Rick enjoyed his CRAB CAKE & EGGS BENEDICT which was cooked to perfection (so many poached eggs are wrecked these days!). My FRIED OYSTER PO' BOY was very good with a lot of nice crunchy on the outside fried oysters, but the accompanying COLE SLAW was wimpy and needed crunch and punch; perhaps it was made the day before because it sure tasted like it did. A glass of superb no oak CHARDONNAY from FRAGOU 2006 in Greece was a great pairing.

As always, the chunks of semi-sweet chocolate come after the meal and can make up a whole dessert, which we did.

My big complaint, however, is that Chef Jamie Leeds, who is the owner and executive chef and has a child Samuel's age does not have a children's menu. MANY of the items on the menu are great for kids, but the portions are too large. At over $10-13 for the FISH & CHIPS at brunch, which Samuel only ate about 1/3-1/2 of, I would LOVE to see some $5-7 options with 1/2 portions. Perhaps this is a secretive attempt to keep children away, which would be an awful shame!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

the best of Belgium ET VOILA (is here!) in our 'hood

A couple of months ago a third or fourth incarnation at the sadly cursed 5120 MacArthur Blvd restaurant site in the Palisades, but I think based on this experience ET VOILA ( should be around for quite some time. Samuel and I truly enjoyed this real Belgian bistro where chef/owner Claudio Pirollo runs the kitchen. It is, as it has always been, a long narrow space, but the large mirrors at the top of the walls make it feel roomier as do the light colors. There are tables for two on the left side past a small bar and a banquette of orange leather running the wall on the right with tables for four; a small semi-private dining area is at the rear.

There were only TWO things that bothered me about ET VOILA and neither is a biggie. The orange Jackson Pollack-like plastic table runners hurt your arms and elbows and really are unnecessary and when we used the one bathroom, which is quite nice, the water in the sink did not work. I asked someone and they said to try it again, and it was fine. It seems that when the kitchen is using all their "water" forces, the
pressure in the bathroom gets a "no flow" situation!

That aside, the food and wine are superb. Samuel was thrilled with his moist and tasty CHICKEN FINGERS & FRITES which were actually two small breast pieces nicely seasoned and battered, rather than several fingers. He ate every single bite of it all, which is rare for him as it was a large portion, then polished off a 1/4 scoop of Vanilla Ice Cream.

I started with the magnificent CROSTILLANTS de BOUDIN NOIR avec Salade de Mache aue Miel. These were six cigar-pastry phyllo creations stuffed with spicy seasoned blood sausage and served on a mache salad with honey vinaigrette! WOW! I drank a superb PINOT BLANC from D. Kienstzler 2005 in Alsace that was so good I had another glass. It is perfect with any food, really.

The bread at the table was warm and crusty and Samuel remarked that he NOW INDEED likes GOOD crust on bread (but not on regular toast from a bag at home!). My entree was also superb, CARBONNADE a la FLAMANDE avec FRITES was a Flemish (beer) beef stew with a homey sauce that was divine and wonderful for dipping the fries into as well! A CHATEAUNEUF du PAPE from BERTHET-RAYNE 2006 was full of plum and spice and fruit and was simple a brilliant choice (by me) for this rich dish.

I was not planning on dessert but when I saw they had MISERABLE a la PISTACHE de SICILIE I HAD to know what it was, and it WAS GREAT! Two small cakes of almond pastry layered with Sicilian Pistachio Mousseline were on a bed of Strawberry Jelly which was really halfway between a jam and a gelee and thin and was the perfect flavor for the cake and I think I may have a new favorite dessert in town!

We went home happy hoping that ET VOILA stays around the 'hood for a long while.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

luscious at LIA's (Chevy Chase ,MD)

We had the pleasure of taking out Samuel's two babysitters since he came home 5-1/2 years ago and their family last night. We wanted something halfway between us and them, and chose LIA's in Bethesda, the sister or cousin to Chef Geoff's DC dining spots and it is a class above and truly fine spot. From the white or black napkins offered as you sit (depending on your clothes color) to the soft salmon walls, faux gray steel ceiling and soothing decor all around, it is a place to consider...often.

Luciano, our Brazilian server, was a gem and even offered to translate the menu for a relative who knew little English!

Keep in mind that when going to LIA's ( there is an option of $6.00 valet or some 50cents an hour using the garage underneath (special rate requires validation).

We started with some varied olives and dried/cured meats...don't miss the olives stuffed with garlic and capicolla!! Our wine choices were a TOLOSA "No Oak" 2006 Edna Ranch Chardonnay from Edna Valley which we loved bringing the chard fruits out and leaving the oak behind and an "Old Vine Cuvee" 2005 from TRINITAS in Contra Costa that was fairly big and bullish and tasty, though I have no idea what the blend was.

Starters were the yummy CRACB CAKE with Roasted Corn Salsa and my a bit-too-small-if -you-ask-me CITRUS CURED SALMON "TAQUITOS." There were three mini tacos each stuffed with a superb slither of cured salmon and some creme fraiche drizzle; a fourth would have been nice. They were oddly suspended upright on the plate by being embedded in cold mashed potatoes, which are really not worth eating.

The entrees were all magnificent from the WILD MUSHROOM RAVIOLI and ROASTED SALMON, Herb Crsuted with Sauteed Rapini, Sweet Garlic Confit and Saffron Oil to the HANDMADE BLACK PEPPER PAPPARDELLE with VEAL Bolognese. My huge portion (to make up for the small starter?) of VEAL LIMONE with olives, rapini (somebody really likes sauteed rapini in the kitchen) and sweet peppers was a dream with nice light batter on the veal scallopini and a light lemon sauce.

Samuel opted for the PIZZA, which is a big choice item on the menu here. I was not too impressed with it, but perhaps with toppings the individual pizzas are better. He loved the Blueberry Sorbet for dessert and we tasted a nice TOASTED ALMOND Gelato (more like ice cream) and a superb PEACH UPSIDE DOWN CAKE with Fig Vinicotto, Peach Clear Caramel, Candied Almonds and Vanilla Gelato. Alot of thought went into this work, which had a resemblance to a rum-soaked baba and
was superb.

We look forward to a return engagement! And don't forget their specials: 1/2price wine on Sundays and from 4-630pm there is a $19.95 3-course deal with very restrcited choices.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

celebrating with FOOD & FRIENDS at the Inn at Little Washington (VA)

On Tuesday just over 50 of us hauled out (many by chartered bus) to the gastronomic temple of Chef Patrick O'Connell at the INN at LITTLE WASHINGTON, just 90 minutes west of DC in the Virginia foothills. While the afternoon started off drizzly, it cleared as we arrived to a bevy of footmen and women who escorted us from the bus to the new :function" facility just across from the inn. This beautiful space has several rooms and allows wedding parties, meetings and more, not to mention a huge yard on which a hot air balloon (and probably a helicopter) could land. We had three miniature ponies grazing there for show!

As we sipped ST. GERMAINE Blanc de Blancs (methode champenoise) sparkling and some had Duvel Belgian beer we enjoyed the warm sun, the company and the spectacular hor's d'oevres. These included ISLAND CREEK Oysters with a choice of Cucumber Salsa & Sorbet or Horseradish Mignonette with Cocktail Sauce Sorbet. Both were tasty and chilly and great, as were the simply plain oysters; but they were best for me with just a dribble of the plain crunchy CUCUMBER SALSA. WATERMELON SOAKED in TEQUILA with a drizzle of Balsamic was a refreshing almost palate cleanser of an hor's d'oevre and the stars were the MUSTARD CUSTARD quiche-like pastries and the superb BBQ PASTIES, an American version of the British pastry filled with bbq meat.

I switched to the Domaine Buisson-Charles 2004 MERSAULT which was also quite tasty (too much bubbly gets me gassy!) as I munched on the yummy PROSCIUTTO wrapped melon in Balsamic.

I forgot to mention that the purpose of this outing was a benefit to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of FOOD & FRIENDS(one of our favorite charities here in DC), and Chef O'Connell had graciously closed the Inn for our group (I am not sure how much was donated?) which was a special much-anticipated treat. Our last trip to the Inn in Oct 2001 was less than stellar as the service was mediocre and the food only okay, as Chef O'Connell was not in residence at the time.

We sat down to an unexciting and a bit too sweet for me DEMITASSE of Chilled Local WATERMELON SOUP. Next came the MELANGE of SPICY BIG EYE TUNA with Mango, Avocado, Crispy Shallots and Sake-Yuzu Sorbet which was quite tasty and served with a wonderful Jean Vesselle, "Oeil de Perdrix" Blanc de Noirs Brut (Rose) Champagne. My guest (who actually used to work at the Inn years ago) asked the charming sommellieuse, Meredith, if she did not think sake would be a better pairing, and she promptly brought over a bottle of "BRIDE of the FOX" Junmai Daiginjo from Kanbara that was sublime and intensely yeasty as well (like the champagne, but moreso). After this, she proffered a bottle of "Divine Droplets" or TAKASAGO's Ginga Shizuku, another Junmai Daiginjo (I believe) which we did not care for as much. An odd occurrence came later in the meal when the manager asked who would be paying for the extra sake. It was bizarre that they were pouring every kind of wine, beer and drink complimentary, but Meredith failed to tell us that there would be a charge for these sakes. It was not well handled and a bit awkward for such a refined considered top-quality establishment.

The next course was a teeny CRISPY MARYLAND CRABCAKE with a Trio of Sauces: Garden Sorrel, Classic Tartar and Roasted Red Pepper which kind of spilled into each other on the plate making it difficult to actually taste each one (perhaps this was intentional). The crabcake was gorgeous, crispy and way too small, even for a tasting menu. The Vindeos de Ithica, ODYSSEUS 2007 (white) Pedro Ximenes (grape) from Priorat was a revelation and a rare wine I would search for should anyone be able to get it!

Unquestionably the best course of the evening was the Pan Roasted MAINE LOBSTER on Local Sweet CORN Succotash with FRIED GREEN TOMATO, and luckily it was a good size portion, or I might have asked for more. I specifically assumed our grand dinner would be huge and tried to limit my hor's d'oevres to one each (save for the oysters!), but was surprised the courses were so few and so small. The lobster was paired with a creamy rich TALBOTT VINEYARDS, Diamond T Estate CHARDONNAY 2004 from Monterey, Calif that I have always adored; any chardonnay goes sublimely with lobster!

The main course was a sadly too dry VEAL PARMESAN REINCARNATED: Prosciutto Wrapped Pan Roasted Loin of Veal with SPINACH RAVIOLINI and Parmesan Broth. I guess when the reincarnated the meat, it simply dried out! The wine was a perfect pairing in that it was a juicy fruity rich red:Venegazzu della LOREDAN Gasparini, "Capo di Stato" 2003 from Colli Trevigiani made of 60% Cab and a blend of other grapes.

The requisite LILLIPUTIAN PASSION FRUIT DREAMSICLE was yummy and the dessert was a chocoholics dream, but not my cup of tea. I wish we had a choice. CHOCOLATE MELANGE a TROIS included a Black Forest Mousse Bombe, Chocolate Creme Brulee and Bitter Chocolate Souffle. The bombe was way too rich, the brulee nice and the souffle sublime. A Broadbent 10 Year Old Malmsey MADEIRA rounded out the evening, but I really missed the cheese course, as I expect it in a dining pavilion of this calibre. Kudos to Meredith at the end for offering up a splendid glass of CHATEAU d"YQUIEM 1991 (was this just for our fun drinking table?). We got a box of candies and cookies to take home, but I guess I left mine on the bus. Oh well.

While it was great to be with very special FRIENDS and indeed some very special (though not all of it) FOOD and glorious wines, it was a wonderful evening to celebrate a very special cause. I still have to say that a trek to the Inn is a long one, and while one a perfect night it can be a godlike experience, it was not on Tuesday (only some of it), and there are places here in the DC area that can come close and sometimes surpass without the drive--although those hills do make one feel so gifted.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

bravos to BECK's -best brasserie in DC

Sunday evening we were treated by a dear friend to a belated birthday dinner for Samuel and we chose BRASSERIE BECK ( having always enjoyed the food, but having been wary of the noise level. We got a super quiet table in the back, and had a dream dinner. Even Samuel had a great time enjoying Grilled Salmon Fillet and Frites!

Our first wine request was not available, so we made a second choice with FERRATON "La Matiniere" 2006 Crozes Hermitages RHONE Blend which we know well as we had visited the wine cellar of Samuel Ferraton years ago when in the region. It is a wonderful blend, and he is a great winemaker, so you really can't go wrong with a Ferraton.

The soups created by Chef/Owner Robert Wiedmaier are always superb and Sunday was no exception with the LEEK & POTATO and the alway superb PEA SOUP with VEAL CHEEK MEATBALLS.

My STEAK TARTARE was sublime with a long narrow cheese-topped crisp (a small just passed poached quail(?) egg on top) and a wonderfully tasty slightly tangy lemony dressing around the plate (so you could use or not use it).

The simple leaf salad with fresh tomatoes was huge and tasty. Entrees included a magnificently cooked CRISPY SKATE WING a la Jacqueline (a regular diner at Marcel's) with Garlic & Spinach that would satisfy any fish lover, a rich BEEF "Carbonnade" STEW with Kasteel Beer sitting on a bed of polenta and my MUSSELS in the most traditional WHITE WINE & GARLIC Sauce. The mussels were juicy, plump specimens and the FRITES were perfect as always coming with a platter of three condiments: Mustard, Garlic Aioli and Rose Aioli (mayo with tomato). Samuel did not even use his ketchup on the fries; a true compliment to the chef! He finished dinner off with some tangy LEMON-LIME SORBET and we all headed home oh so happy!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Shirlington's (VA) SAIGONIQUE is a sure bet

Last night we tried the new and quite chic SAIGONIQUE ( website to come soon) at 4251 Cample Ave, just across from the new Signature Theatre in Shirlington, VA. It was a huge success with us from the moment we entered, and the only flaw was the lack of and fairly slow service (they had two waiters for the whole place on a Saturday night, albeit it just after the hurricane cleared).

The red faux finished walls, oscillating bamboo fans on the ceiling with draped fabric hanging between them all give a classy feel to this intimate space with a "Buddha" bar in the rear with a lavender lit pebbled wall.

We decided to share a number of dishes, and one of the problems is that the platters are quite large, yet the "sharing" plates are quite small and don't really allow for more than one item on your plate at a time.

The wine list is decent with 9 reds and whites (including sparklings) all available by the glass or bottle as well as several reserve bottles (mostly reds). We opted for a wonderful refreshing and loaded with apple aroma BAUER Riesling "Hengtsberg" 2006 from the Burgenland in Austria which had a great strong taste of Granny Smith apples-superb with the spicy food. We decided to order a second bottle, and they were out, so we switched to the red "L" de Lyeth Cabernet Sauvignon (blend?) 2006 from Sonoma, which has lots of plum, chocolate and flavor, but is fairly smooth and drinkable now.

Our starters were the Goi Du Du Kho Bo, a superb GREEN PAPAYA Salad with strips of Spicy Beef Jerky. I didn't think the salad itself was that spicy, until I dipped my finger into one of the red dots decorating the ring around the plate to find out it was super-hot hot sauce! The GOLDEN QUAIL with Mixed Greens and Black Pepper Sauce was a huge portion with FOUR quail halves on a huge salad and the lemony pepper sauce on the side. The meat was grilled to perfection, tasty and just lightly seasoned and not spicy at all, allowing the flavor of the meat to come through.

The star of the appetizers and the meal itself was the HEN XUC BANH DA, a huge Black Sesame embedded RICE Cracker the size of a 3/4 quart bowl filled with Sauteed BABY CLAMS and MINCED CHICKEN in a dreamy sauce. It can be a bit messy as you break off the cracker and scoop up the filling into each piece, but it was worth every ounce of messiness for the superb taste and fun crunch.

The entrees we chose were (we could not resist) GOLDEN SOFT SHELL CRAB sauteed with Garlic & Butter over salad with the same Lemon-Pepper Sauce as the quail for dipping. These were two of the largest soft shells that I have seen in ages, battered and fried to perfection, and not in any way greasy; the sauce added just the right flavor again. The other dish was one of the several "caramelized" options offered here in style that I did not know existed in Vietnamese cooking: Spicy LEMON GRASS CHICKEN in CARAMEL SAUCE. This is NOT a sweet dish, think caramelised onions and you are on the right track. It was tasty, but we ended up taking most of it home as we were so full. The portions here ARE huge and shareable, but DO refrain from overordering unless you like doggie bags!

We look forward to returning as we are at Signature Theatre so often!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

the last lunch at Brighton's BROWN's -musings on UK cuisine

We have enjoyed so many meals in England the past 10 days or so, and the last day, we took Samuel and his Uncle Jeff to lunch in Brighton after some clothes shopping (we actually found a great discount store!) at BROWN's on Dean Street, located in the Lanes of Brighton (an historic district revitalized just off the seashore). Brown's is about 40 years old and has lots of charm, potted palm ferns and leather banquets and lots of charm. The menu is large and it was hard to choose. We ordered up a TOMATO & MOZZARELLA FLATBREAD appetizer for Samuel, which he gobbled up with his fizzy lemonade, a treat he has come to adore here in England and will surely miss at home.

The rest of us split an appetizer of the SMOKED CHICKEN & GRILLED ARTICHOKE FLATBREAD with Rocket (you will recall, I hope, that this is Arucola) which the Brits seem to really think is a special treat as they charge lots more for it than regular field greens. The flatbread has fluffy crusts and was quite tasty, b ut could have used one more slice of chicken and artichoke.

I enjoyed a glass of Domaine due Vedihan Viognier and my superb SWORDFISH with Sauteed Potatoes, Avocado and Cherry Tomato Salsa, although I would not have called it "salsa," as they were really just slightly cooked and marinated in oil with a couple of onion tidbits. The fish was excellent and I loved the simple preparation. Jeff had the SALMON & SPRING ONION FISHCAKES with Mango Salsa (this was salsa) and Dressed Mixed Leaves (I am glad they were not naked!) which were quite good but a bit too heavy on the breading as opposed to the salmon for my taste (we are SO spoiled by our cakes--esp. crab-- back home). Will loved his BROWN's BACON CHEESEBURGER with crisp streaky dry cured bacon, Emmental, iceburg lettuce, tomato, pickle and chips (again, that's fries). It came with a celeriac coleslaw I was hoping to taste as Will does not usually care for cole slaw, but he devoured the whole pile saying it was great.

Samuel was the only one for a pudding this time as it came with his and the Fresh Strawberries with ELDERFLOWER JELLY (we would call it Jell-O) was superb. A small mold of yummy perfumey jelly embedded with wild blueberries and brambles (small blackberries) that were divine.

It was a fun way to end our last meal out. We started numerous days with superb breakfasts included at some hotels we stayed in, but my most interesting new dish was KEDGEREE with Smoked Trout and Poached Egg. Kedgeree is basically a risotto style preparation of harder yellow rice and the smoked trout is within and the egg on top...a truly new way to start the day. One day we enjoyed very traditional FISH & CHIPS, and while it was tasty, we felt truly imposed upon to pay an extra pound for a buttered roll, and 20 pence (37cents) for each small container of ketchup as it does not come with the chips. At one point when I stepped up to the counter to grab some extra napkins, I was sure the woman was going to charge me for that!

So many people have badmouthed the food in England over the years and I must tell them, it is time to admit that the food here is interesting, varied, fun, excellent and well worth the trip!

Monday, September 01, 2008

the food at FOOD in Worthing is very worthwhile (near Brighton, UK)

Our last big dinner (other than superb dining at Will's brother's home) was in their seaside town of Worthing in West Sussex, about an hour plus south of London. Will's brother Jeff, and his partner, John, chose FOOD ( just a block off the seashore and two blocks from their home. It was a great choice as we all enjoyed everything, and the only one error, an overcooked Beef Wellington, was immediately returned and replaces (although it took an extra 20 minutes to cook) with all its side dishes being replaced as well! John thought our adorable server was Swedish, and I said, perhaps, but his accent sounded Swedish by way of Scotland. WRONG! He proudly told us he was Transylvanian. His co-worker was Hungarian, and these days with the EU, we do indeed se so many people crossing the country borders for work and no matter what, everyone is always so nice.

FOOD has a second floor mezzanine and enjoyable live pianist and the decor is simple, but elegant. We asked for a bottle of Chateau Pouilly Pouilly Fuisse, but got a MOMMESSIN 2006 "2 Terroirs" Pouilly Fuisse which we gladly accepted for the same price and fell for instantly; it was love at first sip - creamy, rich, intense chardonnay to die for. As we chose some spicy starters we reversed to a simpler ANTARIO 2007 GAVI from Piemonte (Italy) which was a great choice with the OCTOPUS CREOLE (the only dish that was sort of small) that was tender and just slightly spicy, the ROASTED SALTED SARDINES and my amazing COCONUT ROPE-GROWN MUSSELS with Lemongrass, Coconut, chilli and onions. The sauce was spicy and totally intense and I had to mop up a cup of so with the big soft bread it came with.

Our entrees were all top notch from Will's (at first overcooked, but rectified) BEEF WELLINGTON in Red Wine Sauce (there was a choice of red wine, blue cheese or peppercorn sauces) served with summer veggies and a choice of potatoes (which came with al dishes but mine) of new, mashed, roasted or chips.

Jeff said the SWEET CHILLI SWORDFISH was quite good and John adored his MAPLE SYRUP LAMB SHANK which I tasted and raved about. Having had the mussels, a virtual entree size starter, my VENISON & DUMPLING STEW was probably the other heaviest item on the menu--but was exquisite. I ledt one piece of meat and asked for a kittie bag (Jeff & John have a cat) and they said they normally don't do that, but would indulge me. That's the funniest thing I find about dining in Europe; they would rather toss the food than let you take it home. We enjoyed a nice 2004 CLANCY's Shiraz-Cabernet-Merlot from Peter Lehmann with our entrees and only Will opted for dessert and I tasted his TRUFFLE & BAILEY's CHEESECAKE which was a very light whipped style cheesecake; nice after two heavy dishes--but one bite was enough. The Hungarian server offered us complimentary coffees and after dinner drinks and we reluctantly agreed, well after saying no, we quickly changed our minds and waddled the two blocks home.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Broadway brings us to the GREAT HALL at the Lygon Arms (Cotswolds,UK)

Our last night in the Cotswolds found us at the LYGON ARMS Hotel, an historic property that has actually always been an inn for almost 500 years. It is indeed a remarkable property, although its recent change of hands thrice in five years may have put the dining room called the GREAT HALL into a slightly tenuous state.

The staff is attentive (and huge, as is the room), and the huge curved vaulted ceiling and walk in fireplace do lend a very old feel, although we were told this was a 20th century addition to the hotel! Apparently the stuffed animal heads that once adorned with upper wall are gone forever, now replaced with lots of mirrors which we did not care for (as you look up, you keep seeing yourself). The chairs are big and comfy and the tables are large, if a bit close (a gentleman next to me clearly had on WAY too much cologne). We were shocked that no amuse came, and the bread was standard and not warm.

We started with a bottle of BAY of FIRES "Tigress" SAUVIGNON BLANC from Tasmania as in the past we have enjoyed some great Tasmanian wines while in the UK. This was no exception with a huge gooseberry nose and even taste at first then moving into citrus and lemon. We also had some fun comparing bottled waters. The Great Hall's regular is the British BLENHEIM and it has a very steely taste when we compared it to our favorite, the French BADOIT, which is softer and also has a bit less gas.

Will's SMOKED TROUT PAUPIETTE was fresh smoked fish wrapped around a trout mousse with LYGON GARDEN Tomato Salad and was sublime. My TERRINE of DUCK CONFIT & POACHED PLUMS with Beetroot Relish was also nice, but no prize winner.

We moved to a simple MERCUREY (light Pinot Noir) 2004 from Domaine de Sureman with our entrees which were both excellent: Breast of GUINEA FOWL, Limes, Fondant Potatoes, Glazed Carrots for Will and for me the Chilean SEA BASS, with Creamed Leeks & Peas and Saffron Potatoes. I try hard to eat local foods and felt it was daft (UK for "lame") to order Chilean fish, but the sauce was sublime and I was happy. The potatoes were the standard parslied boiled ones and if there was saffron in them, it was barely a pinch.

Will chose the BAKEWELL Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream for dessert which is kind of an almond pie or cake while my PEACH MELBA, PEACH SORBET and Fresh Raspberries was a disaster, save for the sorbet and 3 raspberries. The peach was nice and sat atop a kind of cardboard-like semi-freddo. I asked the server what it was and she said "ice cream." I told her it tasted like cardboard, and since she was from Germany, she did not understand, but said she would pass it on to the chef. Nobody ever apologized, we paid and left for a short walk around the totally dead at 10pm village, where swe spotted a number of busy dining spots where we might have saved money and probably done a lot better!