Monday, February 17, 2014

Sur La Place puts mouth-watering mussels on your plate in the Palisades (2-16-14)

I have written about our wonderful little neighborhood spot SUR LA PLACE ( before, but have not been in ages. Last night we joined friends and took our sons with us as they always love the place as well.  It's a cozy spot (although the drafts near the front can be an issue on a cold night when the door opens) with quaint reddish Keith Haring-style wall drawings, nice art and tin ceiling.
While Sur La Place specializes in Belgian Beers and Mussels, the menu is varied and we've never had a bad dish here. Will & Sam go there often when I'm away overnight, and our server, Tula, recognized them as soon as we arrived. Later, she remembered how much they loved the Brussels Sprouts which are superbly seasoned with onions and bacon (and maybe beer?) and sent our a complimentary side dish of them!
Will ordered his KWAK beer which comes in an hourglass-shaped glass supported in a handled wooden stand. It's quite a sight and highly carbonated and higher in alcohol than most beers. I tasted it, and liked it a bit, but stuck to the VIOGNIER Las Perdices 2012 from Mendoza in Argentina, which is a great wine with most of the mussel dishes for sure. Our friend, Kevin, tried the SAXO Blond Belgian beer which is $12.00 a bottle(WOW!) and I have to say not at all to my liking.
The boys ordered STEAK FRITES which Sam gobbled up faster than anyone else at the table could have eaten! He said he liked the Black Peppercorn Sauce on the side much better than the Béarnaise!
Starters included my always favorite and delicious HEARTS of PALM SALAD with baby Spinach, White & Green Asparagus, a thinly sliced Crispy Apple atop and a Citrus Vinaigrette. It is most refreshing and definitely on anyone's diet. AVOCADO COCKTAIL is more like a SEAFOOD Cocktail with avocado! It is loads of Baby Shrimp with bits of Lobster in a huge wide brim glass with Shallots, mixed green and a tasty Brandied Tomato Dressing, which is like a light version of that thick red cocktail sauce used so often with shrimp. Another dish that got high marks was the SMOKED SALMON WRAP which is salmon itself as the wrap around Asparagus and Haricots Verts. These are all pretty good lo-cal dishes as well if you need that! Kevin also said that his starter (ordered as a main course) of the Grilled DUCK PATE with Orange zest on wilted Spinach with a brandied Cherry Sauce was delightful.
While there are many choices for main courses, once comes here for the MUSSELS and we tried three different ones, each with its own superb flavors:
BEBERT is mild with celery, onion, herbs, leeks beer and horseradish and smoked salmon for a punch of flavor and contrast.
If you seek spice head for the RED DEVIL with celery, onions, herbs, tomato, garlic, horseradish, harissa for that punch of spice and beer. I loved my JAMAICAN ISLE which also has celery, onions and herbs but is touched with a dash of Coconut Cream (there is no sweetness or thickness to the dish, just flavor), as well as Curry & Beer. Of course the kilo pots come with a healthy cone of frites which I prefer to dip in the mussel pot sauce rather than the ketchup or mayo that comes as well.
Well after a kilo of mussels, a steak or whatever, dessert is often too much, so we all headed home very full and very happy. How great that this is 3 minutes away!

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Year of the Horse rung in at THE SOURCE, a DC celebration of the Chinese New Year (2-10-14)

Chinese New Year has come and gone and this past Monday a group of folks from AIWF (American Institute for Wine & Food) at THE SOURCE ( where Chef SCOTT DREWNO and his amazing team prepared a true New Year's FEAST!
On arrival downstairs we were presented with a glass of Prosecco and led to a huge OYSTER BAR laden with Chesapeake beauties and all the trimmings. I always forego that red cocktail sauce, but here we also had two novel and superb vinaigrettes or yuzu or ginger that brought excellent flavor (if used sparingly) to the mollusk treats!
We were led upstairs past several Live Action Stations where teams of two or three chefs were busy preparing our first course. We sat down and Dawn, who never stopped running like crazy all night, served us Tegrnseerhof Gruner Veltliner "T26" 2011 from Wachau Austria that was a nice foil to some of the mild spices in the many options we had. Dawn offered to bring plates of anything for those of us who did not wish to get up or stand (in very short lines), but we all wanted to watch the exciting prep:
LOBSTER EGG DROP SOUP was made with Scallions and Wild Mushrooms and each bowl had a Lobster dumpling. There was an intense rich flavor to the broth on this cold night, so it was welcome as well to get a hint of Sweet & Sour spice in the soup to boot.
CHICKEN SKEWERS came with Peanut Sauce and Pickles made from both Cauliflower and Persian Cucumbers. The ground chicken was tasty and full of those fabulous Chinese spice flavors. The LAMB SKEWERS came with Cilantro Puree and because they were grilled and sat a bit, they were a bit on the dry side, but still quite flavorful.
WHOLE ROASTED PIG BAO was prepared to order with each bun stuffed with crispy skin and delicious moist meat seasonsed with chili and topped with a cucumber spear and hoisin sauce. When we went back for seconds (and I think everyone did), we all tried to cut the carbs and just take the meat and skin with spices and sauce!!
CHINESE NEW YEAR DUMPLINGS came three to each plate and were presented gorgeously with great flair. SHRIMP and LOBSTER were milder, with the PORK SHUMAI Dumpling coming with a slice of Jalapeno. YUM.
WHOLE ROASTED BRANZINO arrived at the table and was fileted with flair tableside and tasted like butter with a tasty but not too spicy SATUSUMA(orange)-PEPPER Sauce and Crispy GARLIC. There were slices of pink grapefruit and Satsuma adorning each plate and as if this was not enough tons of side dishes arrived family style:
DRUNKEN NOODLES which had a super spicy bite came with sautéed onions and peppers
FRIED CRISPY BRUSSELS SPROUTS were yummy, if a bit oily from the frying
FRIED RICE was adorned with Egg, Scallion and Cauliflower
We had moved onto a superb FAILLA PINOT NOIR 2012 from Sonoma Coast California which was perfect for the full flavored fish and sides.
Out last wine was an amazing full bodied and intense CHATEAU MONPERTUIS, 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape that I would buy anyday. This was poured with the WAGYU NY STRIP in a 5 VEGETABLE STIR FRY that was tender and tasty to boot. Carrots, Potatoes, Kohlrabi, Mushrooms, Peppers, Cauliflower and a Mala(Squash) Puree also filled each plate, just in case you had not had enough sides in the previous course! White Rice Noodles were a highlight of this dish seasoned with Szechuan Peppercorns and Sambal. Having been on so many Holland America cruises with its large Indonesian staff, I am a big fan of Sambal, which has a massive spice intensity, but it was used here in just the right amount. PERFECTION.
Dessert was a Chinese New Year TANGERINE CAKE & House Made Fortune Cookie with banan Custard and Blood Orange Glaze. It was so yummy, Will asked for an extra to take home!
What fun was had by all there and it was truly a spectacular celebration!

Sunday, February 09, 2014

NYC's The SMITH still superb food, but not fine dining (2-8-14)

The SMITH ( now has three locations in NYC (the East Village, Midtown at 2nd Ave & 51st St and Lincoln Center) making it a great place to grab a meal, or just hunker down for a while when it oh so cold out in NY.
Yesterday, it was below freezing all day and after my Broadway matinee I had lots of free time before an 8pm opera at the Met.
Since Sushi-A-Gogo closed ages ago and not many new spots are popping up near Lincoln Center, I opted to return to The Smith, where I knew I could sit and enjoy a meal over my 2 spare hours.
On arrival at 530pm the place was heaving and folks without reservations were being told to hang at the bar for an hour or just being turned away. Well, with all those folks and the tile floors, glass walls and high ceilings, the place was quite raucous. Luckily, I was alone, so conversation wasn't necessary, although I had to ask my server to repeat the specials once!

Speaking of server, Lance was a gem when I explained I was in no rush and I proceeded to order each of my three courses one at a time, so they would not be rushed; brilliant! The complimentary two bottles of house water, sparkling and still, arrives, which is always a nice touch. The simple baguette is served in a paper wrapper with butter on the side; keep the bread for mopping up sauces, or eat it all and ask for more. At The Smith, the staff is very courteous and quick with your requests.

The noise also helped to mask the very high pitched twang of the lady's voice at the next table. I wanted to go to the men's room and when I asked her to uncross her legs so I could get by (both leaving and returning), you would have thought I asked her to pay for my meal! 
I chose the special appetizer to start and boy was I happy when the rich clear broth WILD MUSHROOM Soup arrived. On this bitter cold night, it was just perfect with an intense flavor from cremini, oyster and shitakis with baby bok choy scallions and a slightly past soft poached egg floating in the middle. A lot of love went into this dish that killed the winter chill.
A small carafe (wines come by the glass, small carafe or large carafe) of Bonarda 2010 by Mairena in Cuyo, Argentina was a great red that goes with anything due to its medium body.

I paused a while and then decided I needed a salad and chose the CAESAR with frico(a giant parmesan disc that is about 4 inches across in diameter across the top of the salad), Boquerones and "the best dressing." The best dressing was very good indeed, but just a slight bit too much for my taste. Lance did warn me that the salad came with anchovies and I said that was why I wanted it; sadly there were four quite tiny fish and I yearned for more. I guess we got spoiled with our extra load of anchovies on the cruise ship's Caesar Salads! I crumbled the frico into the salad and managed to finish all of the huge bowl.

I asked Lance how big the CHICKEN POT PIE was and he smiled and said that everything here tended to be large. It sounded so good on this chilly night that I figured I could finish most of it. I was correct and got through about 65-70% of the huge pie that came in a shallow 7" or so pan with a flaky thin Cheddar Chive Biscuit crust on top that was divine. The sauce was brown and rich, not that white glop you get from Sara Lee, and loaded with huge chunks of white chicken breast cubed, peas, onions, carrots, celery and mushrooms (maybe even a leek here and there?). I would return for this dish anytime in the winter!

I skipped dessert but had a two cups of some of the best coffee I have ever had in a US restaurant. The Guatemala Antigua bean is always one we use at home and love, since Samuel hails from that country and city. This was superb coffee and it was served with a small container of frothed milk for extra body almost like a cappuccino. YUM!

Friday, February 07, 2014

Blowin' around DC at Chef Jeff Black's brilliant bistros (2-4-14)

Last year at a charity event we purchased a wonderful restaurant crawl here in DC with friends of ours and finally got around to scheduling it this past week.
It included transportation from our homes to Chef Jeff BLACK's five restaurants in the DC area where he has a miniature empire (BRG-Black Restaurant Group) that always provides good food, good service and good fun. (www.blackrestaurantgroup)
We started the evening at our local spot BLACKSALT which we always love. This was the least impressive course of the evening, perhaps because we had been delayed and we were starving. We polished off more than a bottle of yummy Nicholas Feuillatte Brut N/V and gobbled up the tasty bread served warm with a seasoned olive oil. Our first course was actually two amuses:
Potato Basket with House Cured Gravlax topped with American Paddlefish Caviar on top of a Cauliflower Veloute and
Fried Ipswich Clamwith Fried thin lemon slice and Tartare sauce.
These were quite yummy indeed, but we just craved more.
We hauled from Palisades to Takoma Park, where REPUBLIC reigns and has been open just over a month. Like most of the BRG spots, the oysters here are important and we got four each:
a mild yet tasty GOOSE POINT from Washington state
OLD BLACK SALTS from the Chesapeake were next and gave us a mouthful of intense flavor
Next were the other two Virginians: SEWANSECOTT and CHINCOTEAGUE.
These were all divine, so much so that we begged for seconds!
The dining room here is a bit noisy with wooden tables and floors and red velour accents. It's a fun place, but not great if you seek quiet.
A plate of WOOD GRILLED OYSTERS also arrived which were Barcat from Virginia as well and very tasty; I think we all agreed, raw reigns.
These oysters were indeed perfectly shucked and lots of love goes into each plate before it arrives.
We were treated to two drinks here: a bottle of BREATHLESS North Coast sparkling wine which saldy paled next to the Nicholas Feuillatte, but the treat was the PORT CITY REVIVAL OYSTER STOUT. I am not a beer person, but this drink was ideal with the oysters. It is made locally in Alexandria with oyster shells (so beware if you have shellfish issues!) giving it a slight brininess I loved.
Our next stop was in the tiny hamlet of Garrett Park in Maryland (just west of Kensington and outside the beltway) where Black Market Bistro is a true find. It is like a country inn and just near the city, yet quiet and relaxed; indeed adorable!
We were treated to a rich warm (what a chilly night it was) BUTTERNUT SQUASH SHOUP with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds that Chef Jaquie explained was peppered with a good amount of white pepper which we loved. Next to it was an ARUGULA Salad with Red Onion, Roasted Beets,
Candied Walnuts and a Maytag Blue Creamy Dressing. These two were the perfect pairing and the white wine that came with it from manager Debbie was divine: UBY Ugni Blanc/Colombard from Cotes de Gascogne. She explained the Ugni Blan is a sister tot eh Italian Trebbiano; who knew? Don't miss the Irish soda cracker bread here!
Our last stop outside of DC was BLACKS in BETHESDA where we have been before. Things had quieted down and we were the last to arrive and leave as the team welcomed us and brought out a wonderful AUKA Don Alfonso Malbec 2010 from medoza, Argentina that warmed our insides along with a huge portion of Braised SHORT RIBS with gremolata crust, Parsnip Puree, Brussels Sprouts, Ricotta Gnocchi and Ball Carrots. The gnocchi were actually fried for extra crunch and the reduction red wine sauce was made from the same wine we were drinking--BRILLIANT!
The last stop was back in the city center at PEARL DIVE OYSTER PALACE where we met Chef James Huff whom Will knew from his days at Kinkead's. How nice to find an old friend in a new place! He treated us to  SECUA 2009 Vino de la Tierra Castilla, a sweet Spanish chardonnay, along with a Moist CHOCOLATE CAKE with BLOOD ORANGE, Curd and Chantilly Crème. The dish sounds heavy, but it was delightfully refreshing and we went home very happy, full and knowing that Chef Jeff Black runs a tight ship with beautiful results all around town!