Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tasty TABERNA del ALABARDERO still amazes in DC

Ok, I know you think we must be insane, but we did go out again for the THIRD tasting dinner in eight nights this past Wednesday. We figure that it's winter, quiet and just the right time to plan these dinners and enjoy them with friends and clients alike. I do promise, no more tastings for some time!

This time is was TABERNA del ALABARDERO ( downtown DC's bastion of gourmet Spanish cuisine. It has been years since we have been there, and we were a bit concerned that it might have lost some of its cache with the recent departure of longtime chef Santi Zaballeta. WRONG! His sous chef DANI has taken over and is handling the kitchen wonderfully, and the excellent caring and courteous staff make it simply a treat to dine here. Add the elegant warm decor that really can't be described as other than Old World cushy and you have a fine night out with great food:

CAVA BRUT 1+1=3 was our starter sparkling wine and it went wonderfully with a superb selection of FOUR TAPAS 1)Tortilla Espanola was a traditional Spanish omelette cut into squares, and was quite filling, so I left this to move on to the 2)Gambas al Ajillo which were spicy and loaded with garlic--yum,yum 3)Fried Croquettes Balls of Cheese, Potato and Serrano Ham were creamy, but petite, but the winner was 4)PULPITO a la GALLEGA, gorgeous whole baby octopi with baked potatoes, extra virgin olive oil and sweet paprika

By this time we had moved on to the first white recommended by Gustavo and he chose brilliantly: 2006 NORA ALBARINO from Rias Baixas had the creamiest flavor I have ever had for an Albarino and was perfect with all the seafood as well.

Our next course was ENSALADA de ENDIVAS con PALMITOS, Mousse de CARBALES y GRANIZADO de Miel made up of the tastiest (and in no way bitter) Endive with Hearts of Palm and a light and not intense mousse in the center made from Spanish Blue Cabrales cheese mixed with Honey Ices. The slight chill from the mousse would make this a really great war weather dish as well, but also its lightness worked within the frame of a huge meal like ours.

Next came CARACOLES con CHIPRIRONES SALTEADOS, Hojaldre Salsa de Setas y TInta Negra which was a brilliant assemblage of sauteed snails (escargots) with tender circlets of squid lying on a ring of mashed potatoes with a Lemon & Mushroom Emulsion Sauce drizzled with Black Squid Ink, on the side was a small puff pastry. The sauce was stupendous and the combination of escargot and squid simply a work of genius.

The next white wine was the 2005 ABADAL BLANC from Pla de Bages made from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Picapoll and was actually lighter than the Albarino and most akin to the Sauvignon Blanc, although not to citrusy. Honestly, I would have reversed the two whites as the next course was also quite rich in texture: ESPARRAGOS Rellenos de TXANGURRO y ESPINACAS Salteadas con Crema de BOGAVANTE sounds exotic and was another tasty creation of Asparagus and Basque Style Crab Meat, Sauteed Spinach and Lobster Bisque all enclosed in a Fried Egg Crust (think Egg Foo Young) with some of the bisque drizzled over the top. Form the description, I was expecting a soup or bisque, which would have been too heavy; this was just perfect and with two spears and some crab not that huge.

You thought the entree was next? Well, you are partially correct. Upon arrival we looked at the special tasting menu and saw THREE "main courses." Will was confident this meant we were to choose. WRONG! First came a small and excellent plate of PAELLA de MARSICOS with mussels and clams, simple yet infused with saffron rice and merely a tease for our palates.

The second main course was HALIBUT en SALSA VERDE con ALMEJAS a beautiful fresh fish so moist and served in a Garlic-Parsley Sauce with tasty small Clams.

As we finished this we asked Gustavo to find a tasty intense red wine to finish with and he scored yet again with a Rioja 2001 REMELLURI RESERVA made from Tempranillo, Graciano and Mazuelo that was intense, not tannic and rich enough for our entree, but also fine enough to enjoy between courses.

The third main course was an amazing ENTRECOT con RULADA de RABO de TORO that was a Strip Loin with an Oxtail Roulade served in a cylindrical cake-like form with a crunchy crust and moist rich inside; asparagus appeared on the side as well. The loin seemed hard to cut, but was oddly as tender as possible in the mouth--thank goodness for those sharp Laguiole knives, but the star on this plate and of the meal for me was the Roulade!

We enjoyed a break before the first dessert came in the form of FRESAS MACERADAS, Bizcocho de Vanilla y Helado de Yogurt, a refreshing dish full of marinated strawberries so sweet over a small piece of vanilla sponge cake and Yogurt Ice Cream. We all enjoyed a wonderful glass or two of CASTA DIVA COJECHA MIEL 2005 an superb sweet Alicante Moscatel that I have always enjoyed. It was perfect with the final TARTA GUADALQUIVAR, a traditional Chocolate delight from Seville.

We are grateful for our kind server Martha, who never seems to feed us too fast, and was always there to explain everything, and the whole staff at Taberna who made this Spanish tasting a real treat.

It was also nice to see retired opera star Mattiwilda Dobbs at the next table, as she has always been a fixture in the Washington vocal scene, but has not been out much lately due to a bad back (she is having surgery this month and we all wish her a speedy recovery!).

Monday, January 28, 2008

RJ Cooper's vivacious cuisine at the venerated VIDALIA

Approximately 6 years ago we started going to TOKA Cafe on 19th Street and had the pleasure of enjoying then rising chef RJ Cooper III's exciting cuisine. We returned again and again, and brought many of our friends who fell in love and returned as well. As fate will have it, Toka closed and Chef Cooper moved on to other places in town, most recently taking over at VIDALIA ( as Chef de Cuisine under the guidance of chef/owner Peter Buben. In those several years, Chef Cooper has honed his talent and ingenuity and last year was rewarded with the James Beard Mid-Atlantic Region Chef of the Year Award for his amazing work.

Last night, after a way too long absence (although I was there last fall for a James Beard Foundation event) we returned to the now even more elegant VIDALIA (1990 M St, NW) for a spectacular tasting menu that surely will go down as one of the best around. It really is great that we have so many chefs in DC willing to do these magnificent displays of their excellent talent.

The four of us sat down to a superb 1998 NICOLAS FEUILLATTE Blanc de Blanc Champagne that was yeasty, full of fruit and really a wonderful revelation at its 10-year peak. The champagne was served for quite some time while we enjoyed three separate and brilliant AMUSE: KUMAMOTO Oyster in GEWURTZTRAMINER Gelee, Fennel Emulsion, Osetra Caviar was our first blast of taste from the kitchen and we yearned for more.

The presentation of the second amuse is worth a paragraph in itself. A tilted stemless martini glass was on the right side of a rectangular plate filled partially with a creamy BRANDADE with Smoked Gelee, on the left two large piles of caviar: WHITEFISH from Montana and GRINNEL (I think from Tenn.) under a domed glass which was removed, reversed and then filled with a SMOKED VEGETABLE CONSOMME. We were instructed to savor the two caviars mixed with the brandade and then sip the broth almost as a palate cleanser. The latter was one of the best broths I have ever had; boy could I use it when I get sick! We savored
every bite and could decide which caviar we liked better, but it was simply a wonderful experience.

Amuse #3 was a Torchon of Smoked Hudson Valley FOIE GRAS dusted with Valrhona COCOA and served with Chocolate MOLE, Sundried CHERRY PUREE and a dash of BLIS 100 year old Sherry BALSAMIC. The flavors all together were creamy, rich and at times acidic depending on whether you included the balsamic or not. It was loads of fun to have the foie gras with each or several of the "condiments"; I forgot to ask why the dish was called "Foie Gras, Valrhona Cocoa, minus 8"?

Please also don't forget the tasty cornbread, exquisite mini-popover muffins and the luscious onion compote to spread on them.

The first course was simply called HAMACHI 2008 and was a novel treatment of the traditional sashimi dish with four separate presentations in a row:
HAMACHI with OYSTER & ANCHOVY was first and was a blast of fish, shellfish and that wonderfully salty fresh anchovy.
HAMACHI with AVOCADO Puree was next and while very flavorful, really stressed the fish itself.
HAMACHI with BLOOD ORANGE and Micro Greens was third and the final blast and wildly creative was HAMACHI with OLIVE OIL SORBET and WONTON. The fish had a slice of fried wonton with the sorbet scoop leveled atop that and was truly tasty, especially with another hint of blood orange.

The wine is one I must look for as it tasted glorious alone and paired perfectly: 2005 MULLER-CATOIR RIESLING Trocken(dry) from Pfalz, Germany.

Pasta may have a new friend in Chef Cooper as he served ORECCHIETTE laden with sliced PERIGORD TRUFFLES and Two year old Parmeggiano Reggiano. The wine was a Perigord novelty as well: 2001 TIRECUL la GRAVIERE which was a tasty blend of Semillon, Muscatel and Sauvignon Blanc from Montbazillac in Dordogne, France; even more amazing since I generally don't care for Semillon!

The fish course was a BLACK COD, HATTERAS STEW which had a stew of baby octopi, oysters, potato and more topped with a flaky perfect piece of cod with a crunchy yellowfin potato crust. The wine was a blend of six premier cru vineyards from Beaune in Burgundy called 2002 BOUCHARD 1er CRU BEAUNE de CHATEAU that we all marveled at.

We asked our amazing server Gene for a slight break as we knew the meat course was next and while waiting a while sipped the next wine, a huge intense and slightly spicy Shiraz 2005 TORBRECK "The Struie" from Barossa Valley Australia which went just superbly with the KAGOSHIMA WAGYU BEEF BRISKET and Smoked Puree of Potato. This was actually two preparations of Wagyu flown in from Japan: the first was an extremely rare seared piece of meat while the second was the 24 hour braised brisket cooked to perfection and a side of mirepoix of veggies. These were dusted with two types of rock salt tableside: Indian sulfuric and Himalayan; I guess that's the new fun trend these days as I've had it like four times since December!

Dessert was CHOCOLATE "en Cubism" which was a huge plate covered with all types of chocolate ganache goodies in 1/2 inch squares and dots of cherry jelly, mint, pistachio and berry creams and coulis. It was lots of fun and since the pieces were small, not too intense. Two small scoops of creamy yummy ice cream help cut the chocolate intensity: Chocolate Mint and Raw Sugar.

A 2004 M. CHAPOUTIER Banyuls from France was perfect with the chocolate as the Late Harvest Mourvedre seems to be so wonderful in balancing almost any chocolate dessert.

One can't possibly leave without Mignardises and they were loads of fun as well. ANother long rectangular plate arranged with one each of the following was placed for each of us (so we didn't have to share anything!):
Cocoa truffle
Mint Chocolate truffle
one each Raspberry and Apricot gelee
miniature Southern Red Velvet cake in the most adorable of mini-foil cupcake holders
and my notes say White Chocolate ??
oops, too much scribbling, and of course, a glass of LUSTAU East India Sherry was a sweet treat to send us home.

I have a funny feeling you will be reading more about Vidalia and Chef Cooper not only from me, but in many other places as well! Kudos to the entire staff under General Manager Michael Nevarez who knows how to run a restaurant!

Correction: Someone is doing their reading well, and just noted that I wrote VIDALIA is owned by Chef "Peter" Bubin and it is indeed JEFFREY BUBEN. A thousand apologies for my faux pas to all and the Bubens as well. Luckily there was not a single mistake last night with our excellent meal!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The MAJESTIC of Alexandria is regally royal

Last night we returned to The MAJESTIC at 911 King Street in Alexandria, VA ( which was recently purchased and revamped by its present owners the Armstrongs (of Restaurant Eve and Eamonn's Fish & Chips in the same neighborhood) clearly improving on what was once really a glorified diner.

Gone are the black and white old photos from the dining area and replaced with subdued recessed lighting which really enhances the feel. There are no fancy linens and the simplicity remains, but the menu is very different and allows many options and a fine wine list with superb Schott crystal makes my day.

We started with a bottle of KEN FORRESTER 2007 Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa that was so creamy and rich, we thought it had to be oaked! It was so good, we had a 2nd bottle! The two boys munched the excellent biscuits and sipped Shirley Temples or Ginger Ales and ordered the amazingly priced $5.00 children's PASTA with Red Sauce. I was amazed at the quality of the amazing homemade pasta, which the chef called Fettucine, but it was a thicker, tastier (they called it Northern Italian) version almost akin to long strozzapretti! They also had a yummy side dish of Glazed Carrots.

Huge portions would be an understatement here, as my STEAMED MUSSELS with APPLES, Cider Cream, Bacon and Shallots must have had 3 dozen of the plump tasty bivalves. This is easily one of the best mussel dishes around with great flavor in the thick broth, but also because they are squirted with the tasty cider cream (that looks like cake icing because it is white). The FRIED CALAMARI is the crunchiest around without a hint of grease for miles as are the excellent FRIED GREEN TOMATOES with Artichoke-Onion Ragu and Parmesan Barigoule Sauce. The CHICKEN PATE was also rich and creamy, but I thought the winner was my
mussels by a mile.

Our red wine is also served by the glass so we were able to taste it before ordering a bottle of the HUGH HAMILTON Sangiovese Blend "The Mogul" 2005 from McLaren Vale, Australia. The wine was spicy with hints of cloves and not huge, but just right to go with several different entrees. When the bottle itself came, it was way to chilled (the cellar is kept at 55 degrees) and it took quite some time for the fullness of the wine to be experienced; this is our only real complaint about the entire dining experience.

The entrees were all superb: SEARED SCALLOPS with Oyster Cream, Swiss Chard, Potato and Wild Mushrooms was a big hit as was the tender and tasty PORK RIB CHOP with Brussels Sprouts, Bacon, Apple-Onion Ragout and Cider Jus. My CALVES LIVER with Onion, House Cured Bacon in a Red Wine Sauce was simply perfectly cooked, but so large I had to take some home.

Our server, David, deserves kudos for handling the four of us, plus the two boys so well. On Sundays, Majestic offers a Sunday dinner special (if ordered in advance) and the place was booked solid from the time we arrived at 5pm, until we left at almost 730pm! Kudos to the whole staff under Chef Shannon "Red" Overmiller for getting everything out so perfectly.

The desserts were a bit heavy or creamy for my tastes (very modern take on traditional American, which is nice, but not my style), so I opted for the AMERICAN FARMHOUSE CHEESE PLATTER which had 5 super cheeses last night:
BERKSHIRE BLUE from Mass was a sharp intense blue, but not overpowering at all
SAN ANDREAS hard goat from Calif
GRAYSON from Mass
and my favorite, the soft, almost alive goat BOM BOUCHE from Vermont that was tart and intense.

The platter came with a tasty quince paste and balsamic (this worked nicely with most of the cheeses) and a yummy homemade NUT TOFFEE which was like peanut brittle that had not yet hardened.

Pastry chef Rebecca Willis has numerous offerings such as the LEMON CARAMEL TARTLET with lots of whipped cream and Dulce de Leche Ice Cream, CHOCOLATE & BUTTERSCOTCH PARFAIT which has butterscotch pudding, brownie bits and Grand Marnier whipped cream and a BROWNIE & PEANUT BUTTER CREAM Sandwich with Chocolate Ice Cream. The boys enjoyed Dulce de Leche Ice Cream, although Samuel was not thrilled and got a replacement scoop of Lemon Sorbet; what great service.

I have to get back to Majestic soon just to try the MEATLOAF since nobody ordered it!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

CITYZEN zooms right in on the fabulous end for food

Last night we returned to CITYZEN at the Mandarin Oriental Washington ( after a way too long two year hiatus, but then the pricing of this top rated posh spot makes it a place one does not go to regularly (unless you are related to Bill Gates!). These days the menu has three options, a 3 course a la carte at $75.00, a 6 course vegetarian tasting at $90, or the Chef's tasting menu at $105 for 6 courses (both tastings offer wines by the glass at an extra $75).

Two of us could not resist the tasting menu, while Will went for a la carte.

We started with a glass of Chatogne-Taillet Brut Champagne from Merfy which is a small grower (Will got a kick out of this term) making a super yeasty bubbly that we all adored.

Chef Eric Ziebold is having lots of fun with his amuses these days and they were all superb starting with the MUSHROOM FRITTER over Mushroom Puree and Truffle Oil, continuing with the GREEN EGGS & HAM (which is one of Samuel's favorite books these days!) which is a magnificent assembly of QUAIL EGG with Ham Salad with Leek Puree. Himalayan Rock Salt is shaved over this to replace the egg yolk, and it has that sulphery smell of yolk! A third amuse was a LOBSTER BROTH which really needs to be renamed as it was thicker and richer than broth, but not a bisque and had a wonderful cappuccino-like froth on top served in an espresso cup.

One of these amuses (I forget which) was for those of us on the tasting menu, while Will received a yummy creamy rich OLIVE OIL CUSTARD instead (I had to taste!).

The breads came and I think this may be the only sore spot at Cityzen. While the bread was very good, the choices SOUNDED better than they tasted: Bacon Cheese Potato, Guinness (beer) Rye and Country all were fresh, but did not really taste much from their named ingredients. Of course, the big winner at Cityzen is the little jewelry box presentation of the magnificent mini-Parker House rolls with the main course! Our first wine was a Grenache Blanc/Gris 2005 from Domaine de la Dourbie in Coteau de Languedoc which has a huge acidity but lots of flavors which went very well with our fish courses. Will started with
the PAN ROASTED ROUELLE OF SPOTTED SKATEWING with Meyer Lemon, Spanish Caper, and Cardoon Gratin which was rich and creamy from the cardoon (thistle-related) gratin and sauce. His entree was the excellent RHODE ISLAND MONKFISH STEW with Caramelized Celery Root, York Apple, Braised Salsify Applewood Smoked Bacon and Matelotte Sauce.

Our wonderful main menu started with CARPACCIO OF ATLANTIC FLUKE Fuyu Persimmon, Puffed Japanese Sweet Rice, Micro Peppercress and Pomegranate Vinaigrette which was wonderfully crunchy due to the rice and full of so many flavors it was hard to experience them all, but we tried. Next came GRILLED ATLANTIC DAY BOAT SCALLOPS with Belgian Endive Marmelade, Citrus Velouté and Lobster Oil which is easily one of the top scallop dishes around these days. As we finished our fish we started on a bottle of PODERI ELIA Barbaresco 2000 "Serracapilli" which was a bit tight at first so we let it open up; after 30 minutes, we opted to go on to another red, and save the Barberesco for our cheese course as it was just sooooo big.

Our tasting continued with POLLY-FACE FARMS POUSSIN with Dried Currant and Italian Pistachio Mousse, Parsnip Purée, Sugar Pie Pumpkin and Swiss Chard Rouelle. The chard was done up like a nori wrap and the mousse was more like polenta in consistency, all of which made this dish a great experience.

We moved on to our second red, a 2005 DOMAINE de PIAUGOT Sablet from Tenebi which is made from the Cunoise varietal, a rarer but not expensive and very excellent wine that goes with just about everything.

BRAISED KAGOSHIMA KUROGE BEEF SHORTRIBS with Marinated Beets, Cipollini Onions, and Caramelized Salsify was our big meat course and the meat was superb, perfectly cooked off the bone, moist, tasty and not too large either.

As most of you know, before coming back to DC, Chef Ziebold was Executive Chef at the French Laundry in Napa, and it is clear that his style, flair and multi-course meals are a direct result of that experience. I can easily say that it is like having our own version of the Laundry here in DC (especially since our meal ended up being 12 courses including the amuses and post-desserts!).

The cheese course from the trolley was loads of fun and offered up some of the best variety around: Latur from Lombardy (Italy), Fromage de MEAUX, a superb triple creme goat cheese from KUNIK, New York, Brascinella Staginata, a cow HOULIGAN from Connecticut, Caschel from Ireland, PECORINO di Nocce, a crunchy and wonderfully nutty tasting ROOMANO 5year aged GOUDA. Will munched on some English DORSET in honor of his homeland. The plates came with Apricot and Anjou Pear
Marmalades which were yummy as well.

Our dessert was a CHEESECAKE CHIBOUST with Soft Graham Cracker and Passionfruit Sauce, perfectly light and in no way over-filling. Will's super dessert was a MAPLE & PECAN TARTE with Sugar Pumpkin Ice Cream, but as I mentioned, it was nowhere near over. A tasty glass of MOSCATO d'ASTI came as we moved on to the post desserts of HUCKLEBERRY Sorbet in Peanut Tuille with Peanut Butter Bavaroise Creme!! and then the PINEAPPLE SORBET with Spiced Rum Granita. Almost four hours after we arrived the mignardises of Orange Jellies, Hazelnut Chocolates and Caramel Butter Cream Macaroons arrived before we headed home very

Incidentally, kudos to the entire staff under manager Mark Politzer who are friendly, attentive, kind and helpful at every turn. I also must note that sommelier Andy Meyers, who has one of the most varied wine cellars in town, is always helpful and will not hesitate to recommend an excellent $40 bottle as well as one for ten or twenty times as much!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

D'ACQUA - delicious but also a disappointment re:Rest Week

Last night we took Samuel to D'ACQUA which over a year ago took over the space vacated by the ill-fated SIGNATURES at 801 Pennsylvania Ave, NW (tel 202-783-7717). The gorgeous sleek, warm and elegant feel is now gone and replaced by a bistro feel of muted terra cotta arches and walls, green tablecloths and shimmery sheer drapes. Sadly, the drapes adorn the floor-to-ceiling windows which allowed way too much cold air to penetrate (ok, it was the coldest night this winter) them.

The long L-shaped bar remains, now with two flat screen TV's that can be seen from most of the dining room; I hate this. Televisions are fine for bars and cheap establishments as pizza parlors, but not for a fine dining location.

Samuel did get a great plate of PENNE Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce and lots of cheese, which was so huge, we took home more than half of it. I could not help feel that they don't really want to cater to children (even though the dish was available and only $10) and this was somehow evident in the speed with which every course was delivered; WAY TOO FAST. We were out of there in just over an hour, which is just ridiculous, especially when the place is not that full and the table is not needed (which is still NO EXCUSE!).

Will and I took one look at the $30.08 3-course Restaurant Menu with its somewhat unexciting 4 appetizers and totally boring 3 entrees and decided to go a la carte, raising the price of dinner about $40-50, but at least giving us some delicious food that we desired.

Incidentally, the three entrees were a Ravioli with Chard and Ricotta filling, Salmon and a Lamb Steak; see what I mean. Furthermore, why should an establishment known for fish offer only ONE fish entree; this is a total lack of understanding of Restaurant Week.

Anyway, we ordered a delicious bottle of VINNAE JERMANN 2005 Bianco Veneziana Giulia from Friuli, clearly a blend of wines which neither the waiter (when asked)nor the bottle elaborated on. Excellent long thin breadsticks and some of the best FOCACCIA around with fresh tomatoes on every giant slice made us happy as Samuel conducted with the breadsticks!

We ordered Samuel's pasta at about 7:10pm and it arrived steeping hot less than 5 minutes later and our appetizers followed shortly thereafter before 7:15. Will had the BURATA CHEESE and a gorgeous CHERRY TOMATO SALAD wrapped in a cucumber cylinder ring. I adored the tender, tasty BABY CLAMS with WHITE WINE and loaded with Garlic, but must agree with Mr. Sietsema (of the Wash Post) that the one piece of grilled bread that accompanies it is not nearly enough to mop up the yummy broth. How chincy can one be with the bread?

At about 730pm our entrees arrived while we still had our appetizer plates in front of us; for me this is unacceptable, Will had the tasty MONKFISH wrapped in PANCETTA with fresh Herbs, Lemon, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Shitake Mushrooms, while I opted for the GROUPER with SAUSAGE & LENTILS which was a huge portion loaded with simply cooked fish and a superb sauce of lentils and tons of slightly spicy sausage chunks.

Sam enjoyed a tasty scoop of MIXED BERRY Sorbet which came with one blackberry and one slice of strawberry (do I seem cynical here?), which he wolfed down and proceeded to lick the plate as well. I joked that he might consider eating the plate and he mockingly took a bite of it! Will and I decided to opt for the signature STRUDEL which was Banana with Raisins with Pecans in Caramel Sauce on the menu. Our server apologized and said that because the strudel was one of the 3 or 4 choices on the Restaurant week menu they had run out of it (and it was only about 655pm!). Will decided on the TIRAMISU and I had a bite feeling very full and just wanting to leave..which we did at 710pm.

So, while the dishes were great, for the most part, I felt the warmth was at tepid and the speed to fast, and the essence of Restaurant Week totally missing.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Restaurant K by Alison Swope swings in with winners

As we all know Restaurant Week can be hit or miss, but the brand new Restaurant K by Alison Swope (1700 K St, NW Washington tel 202-974-6545) is a sure hit. They are offering up not only 90% of the large superb menu for the special $30.08 three course deal, but also have 4 white and 5 red wines at the same price which are a steal. Add this to the fact that Alison Swope has always been a success here in DC from her opening of New Heights thru Santa Fe East and most recently for many years at Andale in the Penn Quarter. The dining room is quite large with a large bar area as well, but was never noisy. The decor is unremarkable, but cozy with lots of roomy booths and earthy tones.

Even on Restaurant Week the amuse comes out and ours was a tiny but tasty GORGONZOLA & WALNUT SHORTBREAD with Housemade FIG JELLY. The cheese was not overpowering at all in the "bread" slice and indeed had just the right amount of flavor. Our amazing $30.08 bottle of TORII MOR Pinot Noir 2006 from the Willamette Valley in Oregon was a perfect match for just about anything on the menu; big full-bodied and loaded with fruit, this is a can't miss wine, especially at this price!

My dining companion (Will needed a stay at home night after a full week of Restaurant Week lunches working at Kinkead's!) and I decided to share our courses, so we wisely ordered different options and shared plates. Our server William was a genius in giving us ideas and options from the large menu.

We started with the LAMB SAUSAGE on PLANTAIN "Tostones" with Goat Cheese and Parsley Pistou. There were three large slices of slightly spicy and very tasty sausage and the small round plantain tostones were soft and a nice foil with the soft runny goat cheese. The parsley pistou was a vibrant green, but parsley always seems to have virtually no taste for me; besides, everything else on the plate was so tasty, it was perfect. The WILD MUSHROOM BAKLAVA is really more of a Napoleon with PIPE DREAMS FRAM GOAT CHEESE, Balsamic Reduction and Roasted Sweet Pepper Puree. It was another large, tasty and filling, if slightly rich dish, and my only suggestion is to increase the layering of the phyllo so that there is more pastry that does not get absorbed into what should be more "baklava-like."

We rested and contemplated the regular menu deciding we must return for the LOBSTER SHEPHERD's PIE one day soon! Our entrees were amazing, two huge portions with loads of flavors and tastes all around. The CHICKEN TWO WAYS uses Bell & Evans Organic BREAST which is grilled and marinated, while the whole LEG & THIGH is braised witrh DATES, APPLEWOOD SMOKED BACON & OLIVES. The dish comes with thick papardelle-like BUCKWHEAT NOODLES which could have used a bit more separattion, but worked great with the sauce. The PORK OSSO BUCO could become a signature dish here with hints of spice from the Pasilla Chiles all in a RED WINE Sauce with a whole half Braised Green Cabbage and a tasty LEMON-THYME POPOVER, which here is more like a Yorkshire Pudding due to the rich gravy-like wine sauce.

When it comes to Chef Swope, I dream back to her first plate of signature cheesecake (that believe it or not, the Washingtonian trashed, and I immediately canceled my subscription!) at New Heights twenty-something years ago. Today she has tweaked the cake and it is an excellent creamy tasty WHITE CHOCOLATE version with COCONUT CRUST and Berry Sauce. The CORNBREAD & APPLE PUDDING with Fresh Goat Milk CARAMEL and Fresh (Straw) Berries is another treat. The best way to describe this is to think Cornbread Flan with slight hints of apple, although the delicious berries do overpower the apples if included in a bite-no matter.

We both left very full and very happy and it was even more of a miracle that the total bill (without tip) with wine and tax was just $100!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Restaurant week begins with a Wondrous WILLOW time

Washington's bi-annual Restaurant Week began yesterday and runs through this Sunday with many fine establishments offering 3 course lunches for $20.08 and 3 course dinners for $30.08.

Last night we took Samuel and joined our friends with their two children at what was one of the best Restaurant Week meals we have ever had. Chefs Tracy O'Grady & Kate Jansen of WILLOW RESTAURANT in Arlington ( where you can see the full menu for Restaurant Week) offered up a plethora of choices and the best meal we have ever had at Willow as well. Restaurant Week is taken very seriously here and it has even been extended for an additional week (they are virtually fully booked this week, but you might squeeze in from Jan 21-27 if you book now; tell them I sent you!). The choices are vast, the portions are huge and the food is superb!

We got the kids started with their food while we sipped on a medium body DOLCETTO d'ALBA "Majano" 2005 from Piero Busso in Piedmont that was actually a bit more intense than a usual Dolcetto. Samuel had what has become one of Chef Jansen's signature dishes, the FLATBREAD Margherita, which is a totally flat and superb pizza with fresh tomato, basil chiffonade, scallions, Fontina & Parmesan cheeses. He wolfed down almost all of this and there were 12 small to huge square pieces on the plate (we all helped him a bit). Samuel said it was just like the pizza in Italy; a big compliment in my book! The CHICKEN FINGERS & Steak Fries were no less impressive and could win a DC's Best Chicken Fingers award hands down (or should I say "fingers down")! The moist white meat had a slightly spiced breading which the kids (and we) all gobbled up!

Our meals started with a selection of appetizers including the excellent soups such as the inventive SPICY COCONUT GINGER LIME Soup with Sweet Potato, Fried Yucca & Chili Oil or the smooth rich satisfying creamy PARNSIP Soup with Toasted Walnuts and swirls of purple beet juice. If you want a salad, head right for the NAPOLEON of BEET & Vermont GOAT CHEESE which has the red chopped beets on a button of mild goat, a selection of purple and gold beets with Candied WALNUTS and Arugula and another super button of slightly aged goat with a minimum punch.

The heavier appetizers included an amazing SEARED SHRIMP with BUTTERNUT SQUASH RAVIOLI, Mushroom and a Light Smoked Tomato Sauce. The pasta was perfect and a huge mushroom filled out the plate along with a tracing of Pancetta for spice and yummy Sunflower Seeds as well. The heaviest starter, but no less brilliant, is the CHESTNUT GNOCCHI with DUCK CONFIT, White beans, Brussels Sprouts and Carrots which are served almost like a mini-stew in a large ramekin.

We moved on to a wonderful full bodied CHIANTI-COLLI FIORENTINI Riserva 2003 from Castello di Poppiano which has a fab smooth finish to boot. It was great with our meats which included the again huge-portioned YOURNEDOS of PEPPER CRUSTED FILET MIGNON (on the Restaurant Week menu!!) with Gouda Potato Tart, Red Wine Mushrooms, to die for Crispy ONION RINGS and Beef Jus. Sam and I tried to gobble the Onion Rings off everyone's plate who had them! The Miniature RACK of PORK was anything but "miniature." Two huge portions were Stuffed with HOUSE MADE SAUSAGE and the magnificent CREAMY SPINACH was served in a tartelette with yummy Roasted Cipollini Onions and some Caramelized onions on the side. The meat was juicy and tender with a wonderful combination of spices from the sausage as well. I must also note the excellent use of the pastry tarts for the spinach and potato by Pastry Chef extraordinaire Kate Jansen.

Speaking of pastry, it was a hard decision when it came to dessert with something for everyone. The children each had a huge scoop of rich Raspberry Sorbet (almost like sherbet) with huge fresh raspberries (Samuel begged for all the extras!). The adults went from Chocoholic Cake to a superb rich and even more filling APPLE FLORENTINE TORTE with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream to my WHITE MOLTEN CHEESECAKE with Raspberry Sauce which was intense but not too large or overpowering. So few chefs want to use white chocolate, and this was a treat as I adore it. Even the adorable wafer that came with it was delish and was embedded with the droplets of dark chocolate, which Samuel adored as well, since we shared it.

Kudos to our server Chris who put up with the three 4+ year olds and I must say I think we all did a pretty amazing job and enjoyed a pretty amazing meal!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Cafe Un Deux Trois - Tasty but tripping; super soup at HALE & HEARTY

Yesterday I grabbed lunch at one of my favorite Times Square spots, Cafe Un Deux Trois (123 W 44th St) and as always had a pretty good meal.

Upon sitting down, I had to motion several times for my server to come over and take my order; he apparently thought I was waiting for someone else to join me (even though the chair opposite had my briefcase and coat piled on it).

I chose the tasty ONION SOUP GRATINEE which came oozing with cheese on top and needed only a dash of salt and pepper. I moved on to one of their better dishes the STEAK TARTARE and FRITES and this time decided to try the house mustard on my frites; it was heavenly. It was a sort of English-Chinese spicy yellow mustard and I asked the server what brand it was, but he never did get back to me.

I enjoyed a glass of BROUILLY Les Saburins 2005 from Louis Latour and both Brouilly and Beaujolais were misspelled on the menu (I guess they don't have an French employees who proofread).

When I asked for coffee and a refill on my water, I got the coffee, but with no sugar and had to ask for that and again for the water. As this was occuring, a small hubbub was brewing with four ladies at the next table. I saw one of them show their waiter a small plastic object that had been imbedded in her bread; it was about 1-1/2 inches long. He apologized and walked away. I was shocked that the manager was not there in seconds with profuse apologies. After several minutes the waiter returned to explain it was a small plastic Jesus doll and is part of the Three Kings Day tradition of the Latino staff to put this in the bread; apparently an error had occurred and one made it to the bread served with this woman's salad! I was still in shock that it took several more minutes for a headwaiter (the manager never did come) to apologize and finally after much coaxing offer the $10 salad for free. None of these women had even purchased the $20 prix fixe brunch dishes which comes with a drink (which is, by the way, a great deal here).

On my way out (I must mention I had to beg thrice to get my charge card run through so I could make my play on time!), the hostess (was she the manager?) asked how everything was, and I said, "fine, except for the failure at the next table." She told me thrice that it had been taken care of, even though after speaking with these nice women, I could not help feel they had not been treated properly. I hope the doll brings them better luck in the New Year.

A final note about the wonderful soups and sandwiches I have been munching on at NYC's chain HALE & HEARTY Soups ( which are located throughout the city and offer up some wonderful soups. Friday I had SENEGALESE CHICKEN SOUP which was a rich spicy thick tomato-based soup loaded with chicken and sprinkled with crushed peanuts. They have great salad/soup or sandwich/soup combos as well!

Saturday, January 05, 2008

seek out CITRUS on NYC's Upper West Side

Saturday night I was treated to a wonderful dinner at CITRUS on the Upper West Side ( at 320 Amsterdam Ave-at 75th St) by two dear friends of ours who live in the city. The choice was mine as I had been to Citrus almost two years ago with friends who live nearby for drinks and hor's d'oevres and really liked it; now I really LOVE it!

We started with martinis and they are nice sized tasty ones, but next time I will steer clear of the Prickly Pear as it is a bit too sweet with Prickly Pear Puree and Triple Sec on top of the Absolute Pears. We had these with some of the best SPICED EDAMAME ever made with three peppercorns, ancho chile and sea salt, which keeps you drinking, of course! Our other shared appetizer was the CHILE LIME SHRIMP CORN & QUESO FUNDIDO QUESADILLA which is a huge portion of six tasty triangles or shrimp and cheese with sides of tasty Guacamole and excellent PICO de GALLO, made of more fresh tomatoes than usual, which I really liked.

A plate of multi-colored chips always come with an intense-smokey tomato salsa that we could have kept eating for days as well! The cuisine here is fusion and I could not decide between pasta (Duck Pappardelle) or the Sushi Combo special, but we all ordered the latter which consisted of several slices each of tender tasty sashimi:

Bahamian Big Eye Tuna (always a favorite)
Asian Yellowtail Sashimi
and Aquanor Natural Farm Raised Salmon Sashimi which was the best salmon sashimi I have ever had anywhere!

A large timbale of RAINBOW TARTARE of spicy Bahamian Big Eye TUNA was topped with Wasabi Tobiko and had a Mango-Yuzu drizzle on the plate for added flavor. There was an 8-piece roll of MANGO & AVOCADO with the Spicy Bahamian Big Eye Tuna as well.

I must note that the ginger was so pale and white, but that it had less punch than usual and was actually better than most I have had in the past.

We asked about the wines and the manager Walter immediately came over and said he recommended a red with the sushi, but he would bring three for us to taste. We tasted the La MISION Sauvignon Blanc from Chile which was quite mild lacking either citrus or grass, the MONKEY BAY Chardonnay from New Zealand which was a bit of a puzzle to me, and decided on Walter's choice the excellent smooth and medium bodied MALBEC 2005 from Fabre Montmayou in Argentina. It was perfect with the sushi!

I can't fail to mention that our server Lydia was superb and constantly checked on us no matter how busy she was or how full the place got; it was literally heaving when we left at 730pm! Dessert was an array of options and they were all excellent, but I think top honors go to the STRAWBERRY CHEESECAKE with Caramel Sauce. I also loved the CINNAMON TACO Chips which reminded me of churros. The CHOCOLATE SOUFFLE is dense and rich with a slightly molten center and really for dark chocoholics, and the APPLE TART is made with RICOTTA in the Italian style. Ciao Bella DATE & WALNUT Ice Cream was an interesting and very delish flavor I had never heard of or even thought of prior to this wonderful meal!

I think I have found a new spot on the Upper West side when the time allows the stroll only 10 blocks north of Lincoln Center!