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.