Wednesday, March 23, 2016

ABSOLUTE NOODLE in DC's Chinatown may be absolutely the best ramen around (3-22-16)

If you are near Chinatown or the Penn Quarter and love noodles and want a supreme deal head to ABSOLUTE NOODLES ( at 772 5th St, NW.
This tiny place with a bar, open kitchen, several tables, a take-out station is nothing fancy for sure. The tables, floors and chairs of wood don't make it very comfortable either, and the fact that only 3 tables were occupied scared me.
The menu is large, varied Asian, mostly noodles and literally DIRT CHEAP. This is the spot to head for ramen and a deal in DC.
I started with the LARB GAI, a traditional Thai dish with minced chicken, herb-infused rice powder, cilantro, scallion, red onion, mint & basil leaves and julienne carrots all marinating in a seviche-like Thai LIme Dressing over Romain lettuce leaves used to wrap the tasty meat and eat a la lettuce-wrap. It was spicy, satisfying ans superb. The portion was huge for a starter and now I was worried as I had ordered the Ramen Special and saw the huge bowls coming out all over the place. I also ordered a glass of Starborough New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a budget brand for sure, but it was super with all the spice in both my dishes.
My main ramen was the KIMCHEE RAMEN which was a gorgeous bowl (see FB foto) of Beef, Kale, Bean Sprouts, Ear Mushrooms, Poached Egg, Noodles and Kimchi on top which melted into the dish making is a bit less spicy with each spoonful as I mixed and munched. I could not believe the quality of this budget dish...and while I had a show in 1 hour after my arrival, I had eaten in exactly that time and leisurely as well....for under $30 for both courses and the wine without tax and tip!!!!!!!!!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Arlington's SER serves up superb Spanish (3-20-16)

Last night, six of us headed back to SER in Arlington where we had a superb meal last summer and promised to come back.
The place was busy at 6pm and justifiably so as everyone scurried around to get the full house served.
We had a super time and great food, and again my only complaint is the truly hard wooden chairs (I forgot the cushion!).
Both the sparkling and still water is Spanish Sant Aniol which we liked and our friends raved about. Even the delicious olive oil on the table is top notch Spanish:Los Aljibes.
We ordered a bottle of tasty Epifano Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero and it was really yummy with some nice spice. The vintage was 2013. When we asked where the bottle was apparently they had thought we only wanted two glasses, so they just brought us another whole bottle (and did not charge for the first two glasses), but this was a 2014 which was smoother and finer indeed.
My starter was a superb and large plate of Octopus a la Gallega which was sautéed with paprika and a couple of tiny potatoes; some of the tastiest I have had in ages and different since it was not grilled.
Will and Samuel had the excellent STEAK TARTARE which is made with Santona anchovies(although Sam asked for his without), an organic quail egg and piparra (mild Basque chili peppers). There is a gorgeous salad on the side with beautiful colorful flowers, tasty fresh-as-can-be greens and top quality shaved radishes.
Samuel also had the Pan Catalana which is a glorified garlic bread with EVOO and tomato sauce as well.
Croquetas are crisp and yummy outside with ham, chicken and molten cheese inside.
I thought of trying the Salmorejo which we loved so much in Spain, but a cold tomato soup(akin to gazpacho, but better) was not possible on such a wet and chilly night.
The hot Red Bean Soup Special was a hit for sure though in this weather.
For main courses, Will thought his Bacalao a la Vizcana needed a bit more seasoning on the salted cod with choricero peppers, and scallion tempura.
The Sirloin Bavette was a successful tender steak and the burger was amazing with a side of patatas Bravas(chunky fried potatoes with a side of tomato sauce) not to mention the small pickled peppers and a beautiful mini-salad of various lettuces, tomato and onion on the bun.
I almost went for the Rabbit, Duck & Chicken paella (next time) but moved to the lighter and superb Cordonices con Endrinas or Roated Organic Quail wuth Patxaran Sauce(made from a Spnish liqueur) which our helpful server Gabruiel explained as a sweet & sour sauce, but it was really more of a light glaze that was simply divine on the tasty little birds.
The salad special was composed of more of the amazing colorful flowers and varied greens but with salmon, avocado and spinach as well. Salads are indeed a treat here and it's only March!
Dessert here should not be missed as we recalled the amazing GOXUA from last time served in a layered mason jar with strawberries, cream, sponge, custard and a brulee on top that makes this such a tasty treat.
The Dark Chocolate Souffle was a hit as well and is akin to molten lava cake, so was a big hit with Samuel.
We went home very very full and happy with a truly wonderful evening of food and friends to remember.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

WINE at Wolf Trap did not work so well this year (Design Cuisine had duds) 3-19-16

Last night was the 8th annual Wine at Wolf Trap, which in the past has been not only a fun event for an intimate crowd held in the Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA, but also a superb wine and food experience.
As always there was excellent Champagne and passed hor's d'oevres including excellent Peking Duck rolls, Quail Eggs with a tad of caviar, earthy-tasty Mushroom Cups and superb braised Beef in an adorable little spoon.
We moved into the theater for our dinner where as always the music got too loud and we had to raise our voices in conversation. I am thankful that I always get seated far from the stage under the balcony overhang where the noise is a bit lessened. Many of us spoke about how fine dining these days is so often marred by a WAY TOO LOUD setting is so many restaurants; this was similar, but not awful.
The seated 5 course meal started with a truly perfectly cooked SEARED FOIE GRAS glazed with Rhubarb on a crispy Brioche Toast with a small piece of Crispy Serrano Ham on Top. Alone it was a dream dish, but none of us at the table could figure out the wine pairing. All the wines at the seated dinner were from Bonneau Wines in Sonoma and were introduced by John Bambury, the vintner and GM, who was most charming, but sadly could not be heard over the loud noise the crowd made as he attempted to tell us about the wines. At any rate, a 2013 Bonneau Sauvignon Blanc (from Monterey & Mendocino) was the wine which we all agreed a good wine, but the worst choice with all its citrus front loaded to charge at the foie gras. Many glasses on the table were left half full for the competent serving staff to take away.
Next was a gorgeous plate of CRISPY PORK BELLY with a SEARED SCALLOP sitting opposite on a superb Seaweed Salad. Next to the scallop was a pile of Vegetable Ash which was weird indeed and in between the two was what was called a "Parmesan Puree" but it was really a Mayo barely flavored with the cheese. While the dish was good, many of us got hugely fatty pieces of belly that were indeed inedible. We also all agreed that these should be TWO different courses as the belly was so fatty it totally overpowered the amazing scallop and its seaweed bed. The wine was  a 2012 Bonneau Chardonnay from St. Catherine's Vineyard in Carneros which was superb and a brilliant choice with the scallop, not with the pork. Indeed it was the next wine served with the third course, a 2012 Bonneau Pinot Noir, which was nice, but very light, that should have been paired with the pork.
This Pinot was actually served alongside the 2009 Bonneau Petit Sirah that was almost everyone's favorite wine all night and worked like a gem with the third course of GRILLED WAGYU TENDERLOIN. A friend next to me said this plate reminded him of hotel food, and while I was not totally in agreement as the meat was delicious, the accompanying Barley Risotto was so overcooked I could not even consider it. Roasted Beets were really a collection of nice Root Veggies.
From here the meal took a decidedly downward turn into an oblivion it could never recover from. STILTON SOUFFLE with Fig Chutney was really more of a miniature Potato Puff, (no souffle was ever this heavy) with nice chutney on the side as well as a yummy slice of the Stilton Cheese itself. One bite of the "souffle/puff" was enough for me, but I did enjoy the cheese. A 2011 Bonneau Cabernet Sauvignon was lighter than many of its California cousins, but drinkable for sure in its youth.
I have no clue who was thinking when they decided on SWEET POTATO DOUGHNUTS which came to our table in varying sizes on a plate with some Brown Butter Ice Cream and a tad of Salted Caramel. The doughnuts were not only cold, but they were hard as if cooked ages before, perhaps in a previous incarnation. The only thing I could even eat on the plate was the salted caramel, which unfortunately was also so cold and hard it had to be scraped off the plate with a spoon. 2009 Bonneau Nectar de Carneros is a dessert wine that I enjoyed but would win no prizes At least it got the cold gumminess from the doughnuts off my palate.

Perhaps the error here started with trying to pair one winery with the meal, as before it has been one distributor with many varying wines that can offer the needed varietal tastes for a meal like that (which incidentally costs $500 per person and should therefore be QUITE impressive as it has always been). Perhaps nobody ever tasted some of the dishes with the wine, perhaps no food expert even thought out the dishes themselves which seemed to be an effort way beyond Design Cuisine's capability. I am indeed so sorry.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Shirlington's new PALETTE 22, perhaps in need of a more thorough review (3-11-16)

Samuel and I had theater tickets at Signature last night and decided to eat at PALETTE 22 ( which opened up across the street where Extra Virgin held court for so many years until it closed about 2 years ago. The large space has been empty for a long time, so the restaurant was a welcome neighbor for sure. The place opened only three weeks ago, yet the lines were out the door when we arrived before 6pm. Luckily we had a reservation.
Inside the folks were lined up in a crowd around the reception area, blocking access to the restaurant and huge bar entry beyond. As they have outdoor seating and it was gorgeous last night, the servers were having lots of trouble maneuvering around the crowd to get to the people seated outside.
We were seated quickly at a table right next to a woman who was on a computer hooked up to a large screen. She was photoshopping her photographs, many of which were quite interesting. Other artists are scattered around the place painting or doing their things and artwork adorns the walls and is for sale, as our server Elizabeth explained. This clearly explained the Palette name, but not the 22, which seemed a bit harder for anyone to figure out. It seems the owners have another place with a "22" in the name, but nobody knows why.
The décor is simple with concrete floors, lots of glass walls to see outside and let the light in, high ceilings and wooden tables and chairs which all tend to lend to loud noise reverberation. Sadly, there was loud thumping music making the decibel level even higher. At times, I had to ask Elizabeth to come closer to explain the menu or repeat what she had said as it was indeed so noisy. Each table has a small tin of flatware and a pile of plates, so that you don't have to ask for fresh flatware as the many different plates arrive. Tapas-style is the rule here with every dish ringing in at less than $15 and most being quite large and filling.
I ordered a White Sangria made from Gin, Spanish Brandy, apple orange and citrus which was a fruitless drink(not your typical sangria) that was strong and tasty, but nowhere near as refreshing as the super white sangria from La Tasca that I have loved for years.
My biggest problem here is that once we ordered, Elizabeth explained that the dishes come out when ready and in no particular order. Well, they all came out together and since we ordered 5 that was not good. I like to eat in a leisurely mode, and I like my food hot or at least warm if meant to be. The three dishes I ordered came out in reverse order, causing me to rethink my drinks and order a glass of white instead of red later on. When a place is so crazy, as this was, I often feel that we are rushed. Indeed, we were out the door in less than an hour!
I ordered (in this order, but arrival was reversed) TAKAYAKI, SINGAPORE CHILI-CRAB Potstickers and TACOS VAMPIROS.
Samuel ordered the same tacos and a CAPRESE FLATBREAD.
There are many flatbread and taco options, but I wanted to taste different things.
Indeed Sam & I agreed the Tacos Vampiros of skirt steak, serrano rajas, avocado, chipotle salsa and melted gooey queso cotijo were super. They come on upright taco holders with soft tortillas doubled so the cheese can be on one layer and the fillings on the other. Samuel liked his flatbread for sure, but said it won no prizes.
I went on to the Potstickers which for me were the star of the evening filled with sambal, nappa (why do they spell Napa wrong on the menu?) cabbage, crab and have a sweet soy dipping sauce. The sambal packs a punch and the dish is ndeed very spicy which made it even better.
May Takoyaki arrived late and I was not sure what to expect even after Elizabeth explained the dish (Spanish Octopus, Ginger, Bonito, Nori, Citrus and Kewpie Mayo) more like a salmon cake on potato. Well, you can see a phot on my FB page, and while it looks fascinating I can best describe it as a fish gnocchi with dried tuna flakes. It was tasty for sure with an oddity to the consistency and indeed was more fishy than octopus in flavor, largely due to the showering of the bonito in large amounts. The flakes were cellophane-like and large and actually repeatedly got stuck to the roof of my mouth. I ordered a glass of Washington State Pacific Rim Gruner Veltliner which was nice to wash down this dish as it was so fishy.
We were full indeed so 2-3 tapas is plenty depending on what you choose, and be sure to make a trip to the loo where the room has cool and lively wall  paintings.
Shirlington lost Extra Virgin a long time ago, and it had become a very noisy disco-like place with bands playing all the time at its demise. Most recently The Curious Grape also came to its end. The neighborhood has plenty of good dining spots, but still yearns for something a bit finer.

Monday, March 07, 2016

GARRISON is great and awesome American cuisine with Chef Weland doing wonders (3-6-16)

Garrison opened on 8th St, SE on Capitol Hill last year ( and has been receiving major raves ever since.
Last night I had the pleasure of being joined by a hotelier friend and Samuel for a superb evening that I can say was top notch.
On arrival we fell in love with the long narrow space which offers a quieter location than many of its noisy neighbors with comfy booths lined up as well as tables but in such a manner that the noise levels keep pretty manageable.
The kitchen is at the rear and there is a hum in this area as the food is plated and served from the dining side so we can all see what's ging on before it gets to the table!
We perused the wine list and fell in love with the wide variety and even tasted the wine(as it was available by the glass) before ordering a bottle of the Early Mountain 2013 "Novum" from Virginia which is mostly Cabernet Frabnc with Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon. It's a super red with lots of earthiness and body and minimal tannins for drinking now; good with almost anything.
An amuse that got us totally excited arrived in a small shot glass filled with Celery Root Soup, a small piece of seared Foie Gras, Burgundy Truffle shavings, Frizzled Leeks and Sorrel. It was a superb mix and I only wanted to lick the small glass, but alas it was too small and narrow, so some truffle shavings were still stuck at the bottom!! Even Samuel declared it divine, although he left his small piece of foie!
There are numerous choices here, but the menu is simple with starters, vegetables, a couple each of pastas, fish mains and meat mains, but I was able to construct a meal that was hugely filling and not even eat a main!
Samuel knew he was starting with the Virginia Bison Tartare (photos on FB!) which was quite a filling and huge portion, and I knew I had better order my own if I wanted a taste! There was just the right amount of tartare which I found was mixed with dashi, miso and a tad of sour cream as binder which made this a completely different version from the French mustardy-salty-caper type of tartare. Chef Weland has indeed made this a true Virginia tartare. The meat is piled on two large slabs of crunchy bread with a slice of local turnip underneath and a splay of peppercress and bottarga for saltiness. I could have easily made a dinner out of two portions.
Our guest ordered the Fluke Crudo which was quite a large portion as well with lemon, fennel fronds and horseradish.
For her main course she chose the gorgeous Virginia Bison Hangar Steak with Pierogi, Caramelized Onions and Roasted Beets(more photos on FB) which was as yummy as the tartare and bursting with flavors.
Samuel chose the Sweet Potato Tortellini with Black Walnuts, Sage and a Brown Butter Sauce that was gone very quickly, so I never got a taste.
I decided to skip a main and go for a second "starter" of Crispy Veal Sweetbreads with Kabocha Squash Puree, Red Onion Marmalade, Toasted Pumpkin Seeds & Oil, with Milk Poached salsify and Fresh Greens. It was cooked to perfection and much larger than a starter, but not quite the size of a larger entrée, so I was thrilled. We all shared the Roasted Cauliflower with Pine Nuts, parmesan & Pickled Peppers that was a superbly created mix of flavors.
Indeed we were all full and went home quite happy only after being given a yummy chocolatey mint candy that dissolved in your mouth....
I have to add that on Sunday night, Garrison might be full, but the parking is quite easy (and free) in the area and furthermore, there was no traffic getting to and from the Hill making this a quick jaunt and a pleasure as well!


Tuesday, March 01, 2016

SUCCOTASH is super for Southern fare with a twist (2-29-16)

Last night, almost a dozen of us joined at National Harbor which Top Chef contestant Edward Lee set up shop last year with Succotash ( under the helm of Chef Lisa Odom and a top notch staff that offers superb service. Our server Manny was on his toes all night and never seemed to fail. He, along with our gracious hosts, said the best deal is the "Taste of the South" served family style for the whole table and available only for tables of 6 or more. At $39 per person this monster meal offers so many dishes with still plenty left to take home. We each seemed to want an extra little dish or so, but that went swimmingly well as we tasted the additional Deviled Eggs with Dijon Mustard & Liverwurst; the awesome Fried Oyster "Rich Boy" is a twist not to be missed with Trout Roe, Duke's "Remoulade" and Pear Slaw adorning the juicy fried oyster sandwich!
The meal was served with two wines, Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2014, superb with the oysters, eggs and starters and Avalon California Cabernet 2013, which I really enjoyed with the heavier meat dishes.

The "Taste of the South" started with Smoked Chicken Wings in the most delightful of White BBQ sauces and Celery Slaw on the side that was irresistible. Next came the miniature iron pan filled with Pimento Fundido, sizzling cheese laced with Caramelized Onions, Corn Relish and served with tasty Seed Crackers to mop up the melted cheesy goo, that could benefit from a little less greasiness. I even tried a bit of the Crystal Louisiana Hot Sauce on every table for some spice! Fried Green Tomatoes could be the best in town, battered and fried perfectly with no hint of greasiness and served on a huge plate covered with Arugula, Goat Cheese and a superb drizzle of Buttermilk Dressing; their crunch was divine. The Weisenberger Mills Skillet Cornbread could win a prize, also served in a skillet it is an unsweetened bread with scallions, but topped with a knob of Sorghum Butter that you can't get enough of. Every piece was gone and we mopped up every last dribble of the butter.
The starters ended here, but the deluge of food did not. Baby Back Ribs are cooked with dry House Rub in an Apple Cider Vinegar BBQ Sauce that will have you licking your fingers. Oh, I forgot to mention the napkins have button holes like back in the days of first class airline travel, so your napkin won't fall and you can protect your shirt front from all the amazing sauces! Crispy Local Blue Catfish was another award winning dish and didn't have any of that usual sliminess catfish can often have. Frying here is indeed a perfected art and the Jalapeno-Mint Aioli with large Burnt Lemon pieces to squeeze over the crunchy fish pieces make it truly worthy. The Dirty Fried Chicken (dark meat with Spicy Gochujang Honey, Blue Cheese & Pickles) was the last main to arrive, so we all divided it up to take home for dinner tonight, as we were nearing the satiated level.
Sides are also included in the deal with creamy rich Bacon Mac'n'Cheese & the amazing Collards & Kim-Chi, another brilliant Asian influence from Chef Lee. We could not resist ordering the excellent daily vegetable special: Crispy Brussel Sprouts with Fried Pecans in Vinegar Sauce. The Creamed Onions & Cabbage also followed along suit, as did the wow your palate Succotash Curry (some had it without the curry, but that seemed silly to me!).
The "Taste of the South" includes two desserts as well and while I tried to resist I managed to taste the very rich and sweet Chocolate Bourbon Pie with Orange Whipped Cream and eat a bite of the superb Nutter Pecan Sandies served with Chocolate Puddin' & Vanilla Whipped Cream, which was creamy yummy.
Alas, our host mourned the departure from the menu of the Hummingbird Cake! We missed nothing though as we were full to the brim and rolled home happy to know that Southern cooking, albeit with a terrific twist is alive just minutes from DC!