Monday, July 28, 2008

Cartoons come to life


If you are like me, you loved Ratatouille the movie. Even though it was animated, my mouth was watering with each scene. I was intrigued to find this recipe for Remy's Ratatouille, and thrilled when I tried it.

It worked like a charm. As I do with almost every recipe, I improvised a bit and substituted sliced tomatoes for eggplant (some residents of this household are not fans). Not only is this dish delicious and simple to prepare, it is also a beautiful presentation.

A Pleasant Surprise: Liberty Tavern

Friday night, with no dinner plans as of 7:30, I found myself searching Open Table for a last minute opening. Hungry and not wanting to travel far, the availability of an 8:00 slot for two at Liberty Tavern in Clarendon caught my attention.

Half an hour later, upon being promptly seated, I ordered a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and the bread basket soon arrived. The wine was served almost warm, and the bread was not notable, so we were not off to a particularly stellar start. Our attitudes would soon shift, however, with the introduction of spectacular opening courses, a salad of octopus and grilled shrimp for myself, and braised short ribs for my dining companion. The ribs, served on silver dollar pancakes, melted in my mouth (yes, I got to try not one, but two bites that were spared, no pun intended), completely fused with flavor and leaving behind entirely the texture of the meat. The salad, lightly dressed with a citrus vinaigrette, red onion, mint and mandarin oranges, was refreshing and just generally palate-pleasing. The octopus surely was the star though, a unique grilled treat.
For our main courses, we enjoyed the smoked pork chop and pan-crisped mountain trout. The pork chop was heavy for a summer evening, but nevertheless tasty. The "milk and honey jus" tasted a lot more like a butter sauce, but provided a nice compliment to the juicy chop. The goat cheese souffle was nice, but not worthy of any particular acclaim. On the other side of the table, my dining companion thought that the lavender butter sauce overwhelmed the trout. Personally, I thought the flavors meshed well, especially with the house-cured bacon. Both dishes included perfect tender-yet-crisp snap peas, something I always enjoy as a seasonal side. In the end, we were both too stuffed for dessert.
All in all, the food was of an unexpected caliber. I'd been for the scrumptious brunch, but I was nevertheless skeptical of the evening fare that my fellow compatriot deems a favorite. Perhaps because Liberty Tavern's founders do not seem intent upon taking the culinary world by storm, but rather providing a neighborhood hangout. Or, maybe because the first floor is such a desirable destination for the bar crowd (tasty cocktails here indeed). In either regard, I underestimated how top notch the cuisine could be. In fact, LT has found a way to fuse two environments (bar and grill), with neither floor detracting from the other. I'll be returning again, for brunch and evening dining.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Two All Beef Patties (part two)

As promised, I've ventured out a few more times in the hot summer weather to try the various burger joints popping up around town. I'm sure glad that I did!! Both Ray's Hellburger and Good Stuff Eatery live up to the hype. Both offer a mouthwatering sandwich, though my vote (and I'm as surprised by this as anyone) goes to Spike Mendelsohn's Good Stuff.

I first tried Ray's...As an Arlington resident, I was excited about the prospect of walking to dinner to be fed by carnivore-pleasing chef Michael Landrum without a ridiculous reservations policy. I ordered the soul burger, which was delicious, but perhaps a bit over-topped. What left me smiling was the juicy, salty goodness of the generous 10 ounce patty. In the future, and there will be future visits, I'll likely go with simple toppings; lettuce, tomato, and a slice of cheese from the impressive selection offered. By the time I return, however, I do hope that Ray's is serving up a new bun...This seems to be a pervasive complaint. The sogginess, which led to a complete collapse of my burger, left the only tarnish on an otherwise enjoyable dining experience.

While I originally questioned the decision to not offer fries, the watermelon and buttered corn were perfect accompaniments. If not enough, there are numerous bottled soda and bagged chip offerings. The line was lengthy, but we were able to take home our meal within 15 minutes (finding a seat may have been more of a challenge). The crowd was varied, from extended families to the usual Arlingtonian yuppies picking up dinner after work. All in all, a nice place to either gather or take out.

In the end, I was left with newfound respect for Landrum's bovine prowess. Even with a burger, he serves up the same quality and consistency we've come to expect at Ray's the Steaks. Here, Landrum's meat is king!

...

Across town, a week later, a friend and I waited out the line at Good Stuff Eatery for a weekday lunch. Even at 1:30, it took about 25 minutes between standing in line and being served. Can you imagine the noontime rush? My first impression was wow, this place must be raking it in. I soon found out why people are willing to wait. I ordered Spike's 5 napkin burger, complete with maple bacon, cheddar cheese, a fried egg, brioche bun, and Good Stuff Sauce (which, as usual, is a "secret sauce" of thousand island dressing). Indeed, about 2 minutes in, I looked down and laughed because donning my lap were no less than five napkins. Five napkins soaked in deliciousness!

OMG, Yum....and as if the burger weren't enough, the toasted marshmallow shake, served up by Spike himself, was pure childhood delight. At $5, it's a bit pricey, but large enough to split. I really have no complaints, including the village fries, seasoned with rosemary, thyme, and ground pepper. Flavorful and crisp! My dining partner, a vegetarian, was busy raving about her portobello burger, stuffed with cheddar and muenster, or as she called it, a "volcano" of cheese. I tried a bite, and while scrumptious, I think that the mushroom was actually heavier than my burger!

Customers tended to be professionals, though some tourists had found their way over. We had to laugh, as they seemed a bit overwhelmed by the scene. The space is cozy, but with outdoor seating, there are ample chairs. Mendelsohn runs a tight ship, and the system works efficiently. And even though I wanted to hate this celebrity poser, I couldn't. He was friendly and working diligently, busy mixing shakes and sorting orders (even more so than Landrum who more holds court while forming burger patties). In fact, the entire staff managed to be friendly while processing all of the customers running through the line. The experience as a whole, plus the comparable strength of my brioche bun, wins the hamburger prize.

I have to say, this is a trend that may add to my waistline, but of which I'm a fan. The varied offerings, with the added bonus of less stomach pain that I usually experience from Five Guys, make me happy. Simply happy.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Majestic isn't exactly the word I would use

It may not be overstating it to say that I am in love with Cathal Armstrong…not in your traditional, romantic sense. No, instead I love Cathal more in the obsessive-compulsive sense, in that I am obsessed with and act compulsively regarding his offerings.

Given this declared love, I was therefore quite disappointed with my first dining experience at Majestic. After several nearly perfect nights at Restaurant Eve (FN1) and a night of take-home delight from Eamonn's (FN2), my expectations for the rustic mid-Atlantic cuisine offered by chef Shannon Overmiller (under Armstrong's ownership) were understandably high. Unfortunately, perhaps a bit too high. For such a small space, one would think that the kitchen would have no problem keeping up. Whether intentional or not, our 9:30 seating ran pathetically slow. For instance, with only a few tables left, dessert arrived a mere 20 minutes after we ordered it. As our waitress was ever present, it appeared that the stoppage resulted from the kitchen.

For apps, our table ordered mussels, soft-shell crabs, and a green salad to share. The mussels were flavorful and tender, with the right balance between butter and broth. A hearty sourdough roll to sop up this broth would have been a nice supplement. As has been the trend this season, the crabs were over-battered and fried, not leaving enough crab flavor. The salad was fresh, but not particularly memorable (given that I have nothing more to say about it). Between the table (seafood lovers, if you hadn't noticed, given our appetizer choices), folks ordered the Whole Grilled Bronzini and the Seared Blue Prawns. Both were delectable. The bronzini was flaky, tender, and moist - exactly how you want it. The prawns were seared delicately and complimented well by the shrimp-reduction risotto. We figured that things were warming up, having mediocre appetizers, but delicious main courses. We found, however, that the entrees were the climax. Splitting a couple of desserts including the week's special, a strawberry mocha cake that virtually everyone in the restaurant ordered, we were left with a bland impression. A shoulder-shrugging mediocre.

It's the casual "older sister", as the owners and staff like to refer to Majestic, but it just cannot stand up to its younger sibling. Perhaps I'm expecting too much, with Armstrong not actually running the kitchen. Majestic to me connotes a memorable fantasy experience. My experience here was not spectacular - not bad, but not spectacular. The true fantasy is digging into and savoring Armstrong's fare. I'm not giving up on big sis just yet, with a Nana's Sunday Dinner on the itinerary (fried chicken, mac and cheese, and peach pie on August's menu), but for now, the older sister has some little shoes to fill.

(FN1) With the incredible wine selection, motivated service, and mouthwatering morsels, how could anyone not adore Restaurant Eve?

(FN2) Eamonn's offers quite respectable fish and chips. Everything is full of flavor, and does not come off as greasy. If not enough, the fried Milky Way, a delight I'd never before tried (not enough county fairs for me evidently), topped off the meal.

Makoto?!

Any thoughts on this one? I've never been....I just don't know what think about a Japanese restaurant tucked in the Canal Road enclave. Also, a restaurant in this day and age that does not have a website. Suddenly, it usurps the Inn at Little Washington in Zagat food ratings?! Wow! This just comes as a shock. I know that Patrick O'Connell and Reinhardt Lynch's partnership ended, but the Inn is the Inn.

I'd love to hear what people think about this one...please share your thoughts.

Curious

Did anyone notice that three out of the four municipalities currently operating the buses soon to be introduced by WMATA are in the metropolitan Los Angeles area? Isn't that from where John Catoe hailed, whilst being lauded for work on the Southland's bus system?! Coincidence, or shall we check his stock holdings? In all seriousness though, I am a fan of the new buses.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Quote of the Day (not that this is a regular segment)

From Mike Wise's column on Clinton Portis' (my favorite Redskin's) coming of age....

"Especially since Sheriff Gonna Getcha has a little deputy who needs Pampers."

Oh Come On

Jelly ballet flats....are you freaking kidding me? What...Jellies were not a good idea when we were children - you remember, circa 1990 (I had a lace pair myself). Jellies are certainly not a good idea as adults. AND NOW, thank you J Crew, they cost more than anything made of plastic should. They come in a variety of smog-like colors described, for instance, as "smokey clear". We, as a species, cannot give in to this concept. Just like everyone else, J Crew makes mistakes. Ballet flats, adorable as they are, make feet stink. Can you imagine when what the smell amounts to when you encase your feet in plastic? AND THEY ARE FUGLY!!!! Don't do it girls, I'm telling you, don't do it!

Life of the Informant

I love food, but it does not define me. I created this blog with the hope that it would become the next greatest thing among the many foodie pages in the Washingtonian blogosphere. I was suffering a bit in my job, and perhaps looking for alternative plans.

Now, a whole week and half later, I'm getting all philosophical and rethinking my plans. Don't get me wrong...I remain extremely passionate about my cuisine, but I'm more dynamic than that. I have other passions and pursuits. Why limit myself in the hopes that I become an authority?! I'm not. I'm a piss-ant lawyer for yet another administrative agency in this town. Basically, a dime a dozen. I do, however, have things to say. If no one wants to read them, I DON'T CARE. My opinion matters to me, and putting my thoughts on virtual paper means something to me. I want to write about sports, about politics, about being young, frustrated, and ambitious in this town, about metro and the necessary calamity that it is, about all sorts of things. I will write these things, while continuing to write about my culinary escapades.

In this vein, I do plan to keep my blog confidential. No need to turn into another blogger in hot water, though my exploits are slightly less controversial than most. I have the interest of protecting a job that I don't enjoy, at least at the moment. After all, maybe some day I will enjoy it again. So, in summary, I hope that you find this page. I hope that you read it and find it interesting and challenging. I hope that you add comments of your own. If not though, I'll be fine. I have a new soapbox for all of my passionate feelings on all sorts of "tings". Here's to revamping my platform...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Fried Yellow Tomatoes

Summer fare often brings out the flavors of simple produce. While many choose unripened green tomatoes for frying, the salty and sweet flavor of plump yellow tomatoes is also perfect for a quick fry. Not for eating with your hands like the green ones, these treats melt in your mouth.

Ingredients:
2 large yellow tomatoes
3/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup Wondra flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 eggs
1/4 cup milk

Directions:
Warm oil in skillet on medium heat. Slice tomatoes about 1/3 inch wide. Prepare simple batter line (one pan with eggs beaten with milk followed by one pan with Wondra with salt and pepper mixed in). Before preparing tomatoes for frying, make sure that oil is hot enough by dropping some batter in to make sure it fries immediately. Dip tomatoes in egg wash and follow by lightly coating each side with flour mixture. Place in oil immediately. Fry for 2-3 minutes on each side. Let tomatoes cool on paper towels to absorb extra oil. Enjoy while hot.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A tale of two sisters

Amongst the office buildings of the high-rent Golden Triangle district, you'll find Vidalia in a basement space, with no windows and an equal amount of personality. While the French/Southern fusion works for some, this establishment just isn't quite able to pull it off. In trying to promote its compromise between the two cuisines, it lacks identity. This rings true in the d├ęcor, service, and most importantly and unimpressively, the cuisine. I could recite a course-by-course analysis of the forgettable and flavorless offerings from Vidalia, but I'd rather devote my words to another location that has truly captured my heart.

On the other side of town, however, in an inviting space in the uber-posh Hotel George lies Bistro Bis, the sometimes overshadowed (at least in the foodie world) sister restaurant of Vidalia. Just a glance at the restaurants' (singular) website reveals that Vidalia is Chef Jeffrey Buben's spotlight destination, while Bistro Bis caters to the political power crowd with French fare. While BB is touted for its elbow-rubbing capabilities (indeed, my last lunch included a little neighborly eavesdropping on a tete-a-tete between the respective chairs of the SEC and FTC), it is the French fare that brings me back. French classics are always mouth-watering here, including the reliable Onion Soup Les Halles, Steak Frites, and Beef Bourguignon. In the raw category, Steak Tartare and Salmon Cru are among my favorites. On a recent visit, I strayed to the Chicken Salade Gourmande, with the temptation of foie gras. While tasty, the confit and foie gras were oversalted and not palate-pleasing. Dessert, however, soon brought me back to a state of mid-day happiness. On this occasion, it was the Chocolate Toffee Bread Pudding that revived my senses. Other options include sorbets and "glaces", which are refreshing, and the crisp and sweet Tarte Normande.

While Buben does not serve as chef, Bistro Bis is where his Fully-Baked Restaurant Group impresses. This sister is the Cinderella in the mix.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Everything's Better in...High Def?!

Does the Food Network not look incredible in HD? I find myself salivating and totally engaged, even watching shows I don't enjoy, like Unwrapped. Not sure I need to see Alton Brown's, what do you call it? - facial scruff, in such detail, but it's nevertheless awesome. I do however, need to avoid watching late at night, I either get incredible cravings, or the overwhelming need to dirty every pot and pan in the house.

Two All Beef Patties...

What better way to start off the new food blog for America's city than with a post dedicated to America's meal, the hamburger.

The Post finally picked up on the emergence of establishments dedicated to the patriotic sandwich. In just the last week (to coincide with most patriotic of holidays, no doubt), we've seen the much anticipated Good Stuff Eatery and Ray's Hell-Burger open their respective doors. These two follow on the heels of several other recent additions to the emerging market, including Big Buns in Arlington, Z-Burger in Tenley Circle, BGR in Bethesda, Urban Burger in Rockville, and Elevation Burger in Falls Church. Wow, that's a mouthful, of beef.

So far, I've only tried Big Buns, and I'm hoping that is not an indicia of the entire genre. While the top-your-own concept creates a niche, the burger just isn't enough to trek it out to Ballston again. Other offerings in the vicinity, including Ted's Montana Grill, a chain, but a chain with really good buffalo burgers, are more tempting. The meat itself is the problem at Big Buns - it just has no flavor; the bun and fries are forgettable as well. And if I want pineapple, or an egg, or salsa on top of my burger, I can go to Red Robin and find a comparable alternative.

A visit to Good Stuff is planned for next week, after the throngs of women throwing themselves at cute little Fedora-wearing Spike settle down a bit. I'm hopeful, and pleased to see the toasted marshmallow shake on the menu. While I understand the burger purest perspective (obviously, the quality of the meat is important), ingenuity in a now saturated market is appreciated. Hopefully, Spike's ego doesn't get in the way of a hometown boy making good.

The Post, though late to the punch, does raise two interesting questions in it's piece; (1) whether these joints can surpass the now readily available Five Guys, and (2) whether this trend is correlative to the struggling economy.

The truth is - Five Guys started early, and then they started often, expanding rapidly. It's not an overstatement to say that Five Guys owns the take-out burger market in and around DC. Back when I was a recent DC transplant, and in desperate need of a burger, Five Guys was really the only option. I quickly found one of the five original Five Guys, enjoying my first taste at the Old Town location. Now, however, I don't have to walk much further than the nearest Starbucks to find the nearest Five Guys close by. I've never really been one for a fast food burger, and my occasional West Coast trysts with In-and-Out and Fatburger (rumored to be opening semi-locally soon) are not enough to unseat Five Guys from it's rightful place. There is a time and place for Five Guys - I don't see these new gourmet as competition, but entirely different dining experiences. Five Guys has its own market - it is the once and future
DC casual "burger king".

Now, as to whether the currently stagnant economy is the driving force behind the recent carnivorous trend, I'm going to take this proposition with a grain of salt. In the midst of summer, the temptation to grill out is ever-present and usually less expensive then eating out, even for a casual gourmet burger. I also had to wait well past my reservation at my last visit to Central, where the burger costs as much as three courses at more casual outposts. (In a piece devoted to the almighty burger, I should note that I do think Central's, though a bit snooty, is undoubtedly the best in town.)

I'm going to posit that the driving force behind this trend is just that, the culinary need to be trendy, a la the artisan pizza blossoming (Comet Ping Pong, Mia's Pizzas, American Flatbread Kitchen, Cafe Pizzaiolo, Red Rocks) of the last year and a half or so. As DC becomes a more refined and current culinary marketplace, it's only natural that trends will run their course.

Perhaps I'm getting a little carried away for my first post. So, I'll wrap this one up. One last note before I go - while trends are fun, don't forget the classics. Ollie's Trolley - a dive, and a tourist trap, but always good for a bite of DC burger heaven.