Sunday, February 22, 2009

still lovin' LOCANDA on Capitol Hill

This past Sunday a group of us headed to Capitol to return to LOCANDA (633 PA Ave, where chef Brian Barszcz and his charming wife Tammy are running the show. Indeed, all of us were thoroughly entertained with virtually every element of our evening. Locanda is a local bistro or trattoria style spot with simple decor and while the food is the star, the crystal is elegant Schott and the service is attentive. We started with a bottle of RUSTICO NINO FRANCO PROSECCO to celebrate a dear friend's recital that had just been completed. We moved on to a SPERO VALPOLICELLA 2005 Classico Superiore "Sant Urbano" that was a big wine needing food more than sipping alone. The star wine of the evening was a magnum of ISOLE e OLEANA 2003 CEPPARELLO which we got for a deal as it had been opened the night before. This did nothing at all to detract from the silky smooth Sangiovese that we all adored! The Moretti Draft Beer also got a rave from one of us who chose to go the beer route.

The appetizers included my creamy rich MANCHEGO & CARAMELIZED ONION SOUP with Crispy Prosciutto. If you think the consistency of a superb Chestnut Soup, that is what this was but with intense onion flavor and that punch or rich tangy Manchego cheese.

ARANCANI were wild mushrooms served with truffle oil and the simple OLIVES come warm and spicy to the table making them irresistible. The BEET Salads were popular as well as we all devoured our food with glee.

A plate of complimentary CROSTINI with a tangy ROMESCU Sauce and Manchego Cheese was a nice in-between course and we proceeded to our big main courses: MINT PAPPARDELLE with LAMB Ragu, Gaeta Olives and Parmesan had only a hint of mint and did not overpower. Chef Brian easily knows his pasta and makes it all and should win an award for just that. The PENNE ALL'ARRABBIATA and the ORECCHIETE with BROWN CAULIFLOWER, Swiss Chard, Garlic and Peperoncini were hits along with the superb special of ROASTED BEET RAVIOLI with CHIVE Butter (a dish that seems to appear every now and then on the "ravioli of the day").

I had the DUCK LEG CONFIT with Spiced Red Cabbage, Glazed TURNIP & Vincotto (I never did find out what that was!) which was dreamy, moist and tasty. The veggies were both of the most supreme quality.

A couple of desserts rounded the table with CHOCOLATE HAZELNUT CAKE, a tasty MEYER LEMON PANNA COTTA and a to die for BRANDIED CHERRY BREAD PUDDING that was actually light and crisp rather than heavy and intense. We all enjoyed a bottle of sparkly sweet BRACHETTO D'ACQUI 2006 "Passione" from Coppo and some superb spice cookies arrived as we filled our full tummies even more.

I can guarantee that while the folks may not be Italian here, they sure know exactly how to put on an Italian feast!

Monday, February 16, 2009

no raves on Restaurant Week menu- a bit tepid at TEATRO GOLDONI

As you should know, Washingtonians are enjoying RESTAURANT WEEK here through this coming Sunday. Last night we returned to TEATRO GOLDONI ( in downtown DC on K Street for the special 3-course $35.09 dinner menu. In past reviews of Restaurant week I have praised many dining spots for their inventive and varied menus; some even offer almost everything off their regular menus. I have also slammed some fine dining spots for offering such limited menus, that one wants to order off the regular menu at sometimes twice the price (but that is NOT the point of Restaurant Week).

Returning to Teatro Goldoni after many years had bittersweet memories now that our dear friend Fabrizio Aielli and his wife Ingrid have sold the spot and moved to Naples, Florida (where they have opened Sea Salt which we adored on January 1 of this year!). Recent changes at Teatro have brought back another friend, Chef ENZO FARGIONE who ran BAROLO on Capitol Hill for so many years, so we were very excited about seeing an old friend in his new digs!

We brought Samuel with us as well as our dear friends Mel & Juan and went in really expecting a treat, but left a bit sour. There is no question that the menu at Teatro Goldoni is dreamy, indeed, we ordered a portion of pasta off the regular menu for Samuel: RIGATONI with Homemade Sausage, Broccoli and Fresh Tomato Sauce which he adored. The main course portion was huge (we had asked for a half portion and got a whole--they had to cut the price when the check came with the full amount!) and we all tasted a bit, as there was no way Samuel would finish it, even though he thought it was superb (and it was!).

The wine list at Teatro has stars from $35 to way up in the $1K zone; something for everyone. We drank two bottles of superb fresh tasty SALVIANO ORVIETO 2006 from Umbria; a real bargain at $35! It makes for a great aperitif and goes with lighter dishes as well like our starters. We asked for a red wine (Negroamaro/Cab combo), but they were out and sent over a MONTEPULCIANO d'ABRUZZO 2003 from Bosco Nestore called BOSCO PAN instead that is 85% Montepulciano and 15% Cab making for a nice medium to full bodied red, great with bigger dishes as well as lighter ones. Oddly, when the bill came, the price was wrong and it took TWO trips to get it straightened out.

So far, everything was pretty good, it was with the set menu that we lost interest.

There were only two choices for starters and desserts and three choices for main courses; hardly a decent selection. What was sad was that little or no love went into the construction or creation of these dishes compared to the superb Rigatoni.

SUSHI STYLE CAESAR Salad Roulade with Olive Oil Soaked Bread Crumb Dust and Chive Mustard Sauce and Roasted Parmesan Cubes was a sad attempt at something inventive, but bland. The lettuce came in a thick wrap sliced up and the highlight of the dish was the four excellent mini-cubes of parmesan.

WARM BABY SPINACH FOAM SQUARE over FONDUE of Soft Tuscan PECORINO CHEESE, Crispy Sweet Onion and Ragu of CAPONATA Style EGGPLANT with Tomato Filet and Black Olives sounds and was indeed delicious, but sadly the portion was quite small, let's say about two-three times the size of an amuse..which by the way there was none of.

So with one hit appetizer we went on to the main courses which included a third fish option nobody tried:

GIANT RAVIOLI PASTA filled with PORCINI Mushroom, Potato & Thyme in a Roagu of Roasted SHRIMP and Warm Broccoli Mayonaise was indeed just one giant ravioli, and again quite a skimpy portion. I also found it odd that the menu called it "ravioli pasta," when pasta is really not needed in the description! It was quite delicious, but one square that was about 3x3 inches hardly filled the bill.

The rest of us opted for the ROASTED STUFFED VEAL with Mushroom Potatoes & Rosemary in a Port RED WINE Reduction and Sauteed Spinach. The dish was well conceived and the portion size decent, but sadly the meat was quite chewy and tough.

When asked by both our waiter and the manager how our food was, we indulged and told them both of our displeasure with the quality of the meat and the size of the ravioli portion; they barely apologized, and I guess that is where I felt something had gone wrong. I know it's Restaurant Week, but that is not an excuse for bad service and no reparation when things go wrong.

The highlight of the meal and a true treat were the desserts: ALMOND CAKE in CARAMEL SAUCE with Cappuccino of Mascarpone & Rum Cream Custard was a wonderful combination of visual and flavorful ingredients.

VANILLA/ORANGE PANNACOTTA "Sunny Side Up" was a perfectly created vanilla panna cotta with two orange "eggs" in the center; a playful treatment and one that was simply delicious as well.

Four small glasses of limoncello came and placated us a bit. We KNOW that the quality of the regular menu at TEATRO GOLDONI is tops and hope to return soon when Chef Enzo can prove this to us as he did dozens and dozens of times at Barolo in the past. As far as the Restaurant Week menu goes, avoid it.

Indeed, we probably will avoid the rest of Restaurant Week anyway!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

yummy YAKU (Arlington,VA) fuses Asian and Latin lovely

After a concert in Virginia with a bunch of friends, we decided to take them and Samuel to a new spot near Courthouse called YAKU that opened late last year ( While the address is 2001 N. 15th St, beware that the entrance is on Clarendon Blvd. at the corner of Scott and 16th Streets. It is a simple space and has friendly warm service with a menu that tends to lean Asian with some Latin infusion. Yaku is from the Incan Quechua language and means water.

The wines are nice and we chose a FOLIE A DUEX SAUVIGNON BLANC 2006 with mild citrus flavors and a RAVENSWOOD 2006 LODI ZIN from Sonoma both of which were strong enough to stand up to the spices in the dishes as well as to blend with the milder dishes.

Samuel chose the main course of Sauteed NOODLES with CHICKEN, Onion, Snow Peas, Peppers and Sprouts which he immediately declared as "Yummy in my tummy." Samuel also reported back on the facilities (I never managed to check them out) saying that he loved the way the sink glowed green!

We ordered a large variety of dishes (we were 8 people) from the least impressive LEMON GRASS CHICKEN SKEWERS marinated in curry-coconut milk and served with a mange-jalapeno sauce that just did not cover the dried out texture of the meat. There was no dish that one could call small, so any choice would easily fill you up from the tasty DUCK ROLL which is really a crepe to the huge portion of filling (stir-fried carrots, onion, mushroom, cellophane noodles and choice of meat or tofu) that comes with the LETTUCE WRAPS (move over PF CHANGS!). The STUFFED YUCCA CROQUETTES and three large cheese filled and oh so creamy rich gems with a superb and slightly spicy HUANCAYNA Sauce(?). The CEVICHE CALIENTE is an odd dish in that it is not really ceviche. It is in reality small cubes of MAHI-MAHI flash fried and served with AJI PEPPERS, CILANTRO, topped with SALSA CRIOLLA (a bit spicy) in a large WONTON CUP. It was tasty and I loved the spicy salsa, but it needs a different name (our server was very clear that it was NOT ceviche).

Our server steered us away from the SECO de CANE, a Peruvian stew which she said was way too cilantro intense and suggested the ASIAN BEEF SHORT RIBS as the number one beef dish. This was not a large portion, but the 48-hour marinated and cooked in Chinese BBQ sauce with a superb and large side of STIR-FRY VEGGIES and White Rice was quite tasty.

The AJI di GALLINA was a pulled chicken served in a very rich AJI AMARILLO CREAM over POTATOES with Parmesan Cheese. This dish is indeed so rich, it is better shared by 2 or 3 people (all the dishes do indeed share easily). Similarly the AJI DE CAMARONES are large tasty shrimp in the same sauce with a hint of cilantro as well.

The table gets four sauces at the start of the meal and when we asked the guy who brought them what they were, he kind of pointed to the waitress. Will said he was too pretty to explain! We tasted and sprang back from the super-spicy SIRACHA paste that was indeed nothing but the hot chiles.The others were simple soy, hoisin (plum) and a sweet and sour style.

Sam loved the PAPAYA and COCONUT Gelatos and we all went home quite happy to know that there is a new Asian fun spot not too far away (just 3 minutes from Key Bridge!).

Saturday, February 14, 2009

BOCCA di BACCO on NYC's West Side filled my bocca!

The other day I met my friend Scott for an early supper before the opera in NYC. He recommended a place called BOCCA DI BACCO at 828 Ninth Avenue and 54th Street ( which was luckily empty at just before 5pm on Valentine's Day. The hostess did say she needed the table at about 630pm, and we were fine with that.

BOCCA di BACCO has an amazing wine list, but you will need a flashlight to read it (your waiter should have one!) and they could improve the light levels just a bit. The menu is Italian at its best and very reasonably priced with large portions to boot. This may be THE NEW FIND of the Theater District! The tables are simple wood and the place is casual, yet intimate and warm.

Scott was not eating alot, but loved his heavy (great on a cold night) FAVA BEAN SOUP. I was hungry and chose the HERB GRILLED OCTOPUS with Celery and Red Potato Salad. The portion was indeed HUGE with large chunks of tender octopus (and one whole tentacle as well) all grilled to a crispy tasty crunch on the outside. The celery was just braised so it was not too hard and the potato salad was light and not creamy enough to invade on the taste of the octopus.

We had a superb bottle of "Super Tuscan" 2004 "Rosso del Pievano" from LA PIEVE that was $52 and a great bargain. Many of the wines here are in the $30 and range up into the hundreds; something for everyone. This was a medium to full bodied red that opened up perfectly within several minutes and went well with almost any medium bodied food from say octopus to pasta to meat to heavier fish.

Speaking of pasta I had the special of PUMPKIM RAVIOLI in SAGE BUTTER with Asparagus which was again a monstrous portion of large raviolis stuffed thick with tasty pumpkin and layered with fried sage leaves for extra flavor. It suffered only slightly from the excessive use of butter and would have been perfect with just half of the same sauce.

The coffee was yummy and I look forward to returning as there were so many wonderful dishes on the menu that called out to me! See you at BOCCA di BACCO sometime soon!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

ME JANA in Arlington gets hig marks for Middle-Eastern

ME JANA ( opened a little over a year ago on Clarendon Blvd. smack in the center of the Courthouse neighborhood in Arlington and is a true gem of a find for Middle-Eastern cuisine at reasonable prices. Children are welcome, the ambience is fine with subdued lighting, cozy banquettes (with leather pillows) and some bright modern art. The neighborhood can be crowded, but there is free parking on evenings and weekends in an underground lot on the side street. Do be aware that Me Jana (named for a Lebanese welcome ballad) has a Wilson Blvd address with the entrance around the corner on Clarendon! We started with a bottle of crisp tasty KSARA Blanc de Blancs from Lebanon which goes well with many of the tasty appetizers, which was what we decided to make our entire meal up of.

The two boys chose the SALMON main course which was seared with a tahini type sauce underneath (of course, Samuel said he would not touch ANY of the fish that had touched the sauce!) and a superb Orange and Fennel Salad on the side, which neither of the boys ate, but we all gobbled up! You will recall I am not a fennel fan, but here the seasoning and the mildness of the fennel made it just perfect.

Our appetizer choices were, for the most part, all top notch, and what is nice is that many of the items are vegetarian or available as a vegetarian dish.

Rice-filled GRAPE LEAVES come with a light POMEGRANATE MOLASSES coating and are superbly tangy and tasty.

ZUCCHINI FRITTERS made with egg white, scallions, Manchego cheese and a touch of mint are crispy on the outside and almost decadently rich and creamy from the cheese on the inside. SEARED HALOUMI CHEESE is just bronzed and warm and served with seared PEARS & DATES (a few more slices of date would have been nice). The firm cheese is tasty and not rich making for a balance with some of the other cheesier items.

SPINACH PIES are on the richer side and come in a "hamantaschen" tri-corn shape and hence are more like empanadas when it comes to the "pie" as opposed to the traditional phyllo crust. Also rich are the creamy POTATO KIBBE (veggie option here) made with burghul, feta, pine nuts and served with one of the best BABA GHANOUJ DIPS(eggplant paste) that I have ever had!

The meat version of the KIBBE are also FRIED with beef, lamb, burghul and onion filling but served with the tart LABNEH (yogurt) DIP which is a nice foil. If you don't like yogurt, avoid the meat kibbe as they can be dry on their own and are truly "made" by the LABNEH. By this time we had moved on to a reasonably priced tasty L. de LYETH 2006 Sonoma County CABERNET SAUVIGNON which is another pretty good wine to pair with most of the varied choices.

Will was feeling a bit "meaty" and asked to try the BEEF PIES which were sadly a bit on the dry side. All they needed was some of that tasty Baba Ghanouj or another sauce to dip in!

I must give credit here to Post critic Tom Sietsema whose review we used from Feb '08 for Me Jana. While many of the things HAVE changed (the grape leaves were NOT cold), his basic info is quite good. We did stick to the tasty dips, appetizers and gorgeous fluffy warm pillow shaped pita, and avoided the main courses except for the boys.

He did say that we should mention to co-owner/co-chef Rabih Abi-Aad (and we also did to our server, who was a bit slow each time we tried to order) that we were first-time patrons and "there's the chance a glass of sweet wine will appear after dessert...Show up again, and the kitchen might send out a few desserts for the table to share." Well, I guess Mr. Siestsema's chances of this were better than ours!

All told, Me Jana offers a large varied menu and lots of fun for folks out for a good Middle Eastern jaunt!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Chef Rock rates high at DC's new NEXT DOOR

What does one do after being the winner of the heinous TV competition HELL's KITCHEN by the even more heinous Gordon Ramsey. Well, Chef Rahman "ROCK" HARPER took the job offered in Vegas for a year, made lots of "star" appearances" and the returned home to his roots and opened a great new truly American bistro NEXT DOOR (1211 U St, NW) to Ben's Chili Bowl, another true dining classic here in Washington. We were headed to a show at the Lincoln Theatre (also next door!) and popped in for a quick meal to find Chef Rock in Los Angeles (star chefs have to go to LA, don't they?), but leaving his barely opened restaurant in the best of hands. His manager, Rob, who also hails from near Fredericksburg, VA, Chef's grooming ground, gives a southern lilt as he welcomes you into the long narrow and slightly noisy rooms. At the front is a long bar with five flat screen TV's (alternating between sports and CNN last night) as well as tall tables with stools. All the tables and chairs are simple dark woods and the decor is not remarkable, this is a food and bar destination. The bar serves the regular menu as well as some items off the menu from Ben's Chili Bowl next door, should you be in the mood for a chili dog and want to be with a larger group with places to sit.

The rear room is not too large, and only reservations for groups are accepted at this point, so do plan ahead. I think the best spot if you want a bit more quiet is the small raised mezzanine at the rear perched above the kitchen. The kitchen is below this a la "split-level" and can only be seen through the swinging door by several tables at the rear of the lower dining area.

Our server, "T," was a gem. He told us we were in good hands and would make our 8pm curtain (we sat down at 645pm) with NO TROUBLE. He was right on all counts and exuded friendliness and was a great help as well. He recommended the superb MENAGE A TROIS (red blend of Zinfandel, Merlot & Cab) 2007 from Folie a Duex Winery in Napa that had a distinct burnt caramel flavor from the Zin (think of Tofanelli Vineyard Zins); it is not a spicy, but a smooth wine that goes quite well with many dishes.

"T" recommended the CREAMY CRAB CHOWDER with Potato, Sweet Corn, Carrots, Cajun Spice and Beef Bacon that packs a slight punch from the spice to my great delight. It is far from bisque or too creamy, which I loved, somewhere between a medium bodied soup and chowder with a very light cream base. There were chunks of crab and the beef bacon was oh so tasty.

Will opted for ROCK's CRAB CAKE which was a deliciously cooked crispy topped version made of virtually 100% crab and came with a SOUR CREAM REMOULADE which Will wished for more of! This may be a big contender for DC's top ten crabcake list!

For my main course, I followed "T's" lead and chose the ROASTE CHICKEN with ROSEMARY MAPLE SUACE, Caramelized Shallot QUINOA and GREEN BEANS. It was a thigh and leg cooked perfectly and oh so moist with the tastiest of crunchy maple-y skins, but not a super exciting piece of chicken overall. The moist quinoa and perfectly herbed and cooked beans were absolutely perfect and made the dish a BIG HIT with me. Will hit the jackpot with the DUCK FRICASSEE with Roasted Mushrooms, Shallots, Parsnip & GNOCCHI which actually is more like a southern style stew with tasty herbs and yummy gnocchi; think southern fricasseed duck confit.

"T" insisted we had to grab a piece of COCONUT CREAM CAKE before we left, so we split the superbly created 4 layer cake loaded with fresh coconut, white icing, lemon curd, and a small circle of creme anglaise and red fruit puree dots on the plate. The cake was moistly divine and was just the right size for two people as we headed next door for our show right on time!

We look forward to returning to see our friend Chef Rock in action in the kitchen when he returns from his whirlwind of engagements! Until then, it looks like the U Street revitalization is doing quite well restaurant-wise, even in this poor economy as NEXT DOOR was jammed last night!