Monday, February 28, 2011

Closest Thing to Top Chef: Number 68 Project

DC Food-Loving Folk, by now, no doubt, you've heard about the Number 68 Project. It started with a Social Network-style invitation-only concept, but quickly developed into a marketing beast. We attended the first event, last Sunday, with chef Mike Isabella and mixologist Derek Brown providing cuisine and libations. The theme for our evening was "We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails: adaptability, optimism, perspective".

For us, it was less about being existentialist, and more about trying something that would be a one of a kind experience. This was as close as we were and are going to get to something like Top Chef, so it was about the experience for us, just maybe not the experience the hosts had in mind.

Let's see. Cast alumni? Check. Pre-set meal designed for one night only? Check. Guestlist predetermined? Check. Service on site in a makeshift kitchen? Check. Corporate sponsor? Check (Leblon Cachaca Brazilian Rum). Course doesn't quite make it the table? Check. Attempt to stick to a theme? Check. Yup, pretty close to Top Chef. This was our version.

Crudo: tuna, pine nuts, aged balsamic reduction
- served with aperitif of rum, pear brandy, sparkling wine, lemon
Padma: This is pleasant, but rather pedestrian, don't you think?
Tom: The flavors are nice though.
Gail: Mmm, and I really like this drink. It's refreshing.

Salad: cocoa and cashew-dusted beets, mozzarella, balsamic reduction
-served with mocktail of cacao black tea, milk, lemon,and sparkling water
Padma: Wow, the cocoa really brings out the flavor of the beets.
Tom: Yeah, the flavors are right on.
Gail: I must say, it's a nice idea to have a non-alcoholic beverage with the salad course. And, again, this is a delicious drink.

Pasta: ravioli of pork shank, mustard sauce, rye crouton
- served with cocktail of rum, maple-infused vermouth, bitters
Padma: I like the mustard and rye flavors, but I wish the pork was a bit more flavorful as well.
Tom: Would have been better had I not run to the bathroom, and come back after it got cold.
Gail: Whew, this drink is strong. I'll concentrate on my pasta; I like the wilted greens.

Meat: oxtail, pepperoni sauce, rapini stems
-served with cocktail of rum, apple juice, forbidden fruit (glass infused with bison grass smoke)
Padma: Does anyone else think this sauce is just weird?
Tom: The pepperoni is so strong. It just doesn't work. And the oxtail is overdone. I like the drink though.
Gail: Agreed on the drink, Tom. I love the unique flavors.

Cheese: panini of teleggio cheese and eggplant
- served with grapefruit juice, honey, and bitters
Padma: Mmmm....(**eyes rolling** both in satisfaction and to make sure that the others are in agreement before she says something)
Tom: No complaints. This is good.
Gail: I love the idea of grilled cheese for the cheese course. The honey in the drink sets off the flavors nicely.

Dessert: nougat, chocolate, almond torrone (according to Isabella, pomegranate sorbet did not make it to the plate)
Padma: It's very sweet. It's really too bad that the sorbet wasn't served.
Tom: That's a lot of chocolate, and the texture is lacking. I could use a cup of coffee.
Gail: I'll give him points for the idea though.

Judge's Table:

Padma: Derek (in the right foreground), your beverages were our favorite courses of the night. They were all delicious.

Tom: Mike,  you made some spectacular dishes, but the oxtail fell short, and the dessert just was not complete. It's hard to send someone home, but we have to choose one.
Padma: Please pack your knives and go...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Perspectives on Dining With Children: Ellen Kassoff Gray

I've never considered the posts I write on restaurants to be reviews, per se. I'm no culinary professional, and I don't have the luxury of unlimited funds to visit restaurants as regularly as would be necessary to term what I write reviews. Instead, I like to share my experiences, and thoughts, for what they may be worth to my valued readers. So, when I recently sat down to write about our not-so-positive experience at a supposedly kid-friendly joint in Dupont, I just wasn't motivated. I think most of this had to do with not wanting to re-live the whole debacle.

What this experience did contribute, however, was some additional perspective on the notion of dining out with children in tow. I like to consider myself a rational and reasonable person. I also consider the idea of dining out with our very active toddler a tad bit daunting. To date, we've stuck to lunch at our neighborhood joints in the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor, those with which we are comfortable and know what to expect. We also plan accordingly for the experiences - we wait until after H has his nap, we pack appetizers (usually veggies, cereal, maybe a fruit bar), and we go in with the expectation that we may have to take part of our adult meals home if things get out of hand. This recent experience to which I've alluded, however, just soured me and made me self-analyze - Are my expectations unreasonable? Am I just being a whiny mother?  Am I failing to take the restaurant's perspective into account here?! So, I went to the source - a mom and restaurateur - to see just what is within bounds in dining out with children.

Ellen Kassoff Gray, owner/operator at Equinox, and Watershed, coming to the NoMa neighborhood, wife to chef Todd Gray, and mom to Harrison, 11, shares her perspective on dining out with kids.

Teach them. Grow them.

Kids have their own tastes and their own preferences. Sure, they go through stages of certain affinities, and those affinities change. Ultimately, though, we are responsible for helping our kid's tastes develop, and for establish healthy eating habits.

Ellen says that if the parents are connoisseurs of fine food, it's more than likely the kiddies will turn out to be mini-connoisseurs too. For this reason, we cultivate them; we teach them how to dine. If we want our kids to be adventurous eaters, like ourselves, that sense of adventure will ultimately grow out of their own experiences. In other words, start them dining out early and often. Don't limit your children, and don't limit yourself.

Be Reasonable

With the ideal that we set the tone for raising little eaters, we have to be reasonable in what we expect of our children and of our fellow diners. Be prepared for the experience. When asked just what is unreasonable, Ellen doesn't hesitate in answering. "Don't ignore your screaming kids," she says. It's not fair to a child to let them get to such a point, and then to ignore it. Nor is it fair to your fellow diners to force them to experience the hell that is a child screaming, particularly when they are paying for the experience.

As a parent of a little man who can quickly turn to a little screamer, I would add that parents should always come prepared with a back-up plan, and if necessary, a quick exit strategy. Pack snacks because food will not arrive instantaneously. Bring something to entertain a slightly older toddler. Take a little walk to break up the scenery. With the expectation of trying new things, know your child's needs and capabilities, and be prepared to be flexible. This will help everyone involved.

The Golden Rule

If you come prepared to proceed with reasonable caution with your child, you should be able to expect the same reasonableness from the restaurant. Expect that a restaurant has a high chair, and a booster seat. Don't expect to nurse your child without cover at the bar. Make your expectations for early service of the kid's meal clear to your server. Don't expect the menu to be gluten, dairy, and nut free without special requests. You see what I'm getting at.

Some restaurants are particularly willing to be reasonable, and these might be the places you want to return again and again. Ellen shares that the philosophy at Equinox is that every diner, from 5 months to 50, is a potential customer-for-life, and she feels that each should be treated as such. She goes the extra mile to make sure the littlest customers have a great experience. As a parent, I can attest that restaurants where the staff is willing to make everyone feel at home are indeed the types of places that we will repeatedly return, along with our munchkin. Whether they are white tablecloth establishments, or family diners, restaurants that treat their customers as extensions of their own families (Ellen's theory on welcoming the youngest customers), are the types that we will frequent as a family.

If All Else Fails, Bribe

Kid acting out? Ellen has a few tips. As a mom who has wondered exactly what do to in these precise situations, my reaction?! Brilliant!

As we all know, we can take every conceivable step to make sure our kids stay happy, and still, they have a meltdown. Most of the time, we can either take a walk, or leave, if desperate.  There are times though, that these are not options. Ellen's solution (she says that she has consistently done this on airplane rides) is to buy those around you a round of drinks. Now, why didn't I think of that?

Desperate for happy hour with the girls? Ellen's advice is to go to a hotel lobby lounge. "They're always full of kids," she notes. Meet up with the girls, have a cocktail and a snack, bring along the kiddies and some entertainment, enjoy yourselves, and take a cab home. I'm not saying this will work with a little one under two, but it's a fun idea. Particularly given the number of hotels within walking distance in my neighborhood.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine’s Day
Three seemingly innocuous words. For a very longest time though, I would have rather scalded the roof of my mouth with hot coffee than mutter those words. I hated Valentine’s Day and felt no need to celebrate it. So much, in fact, that C, wanting to propose over this particular weekend seven years ago, felt the need to get down on one knee on Friday the Thirteenth. He knew that I would not want my incredibly significant day associated with this particular holiday, the one I consider absurdly artificial and arbitrary (In my opinion, V-day leads to one of two things; single people feeling lonely, and paired people feeling inadequate. Neither is fun.).

But, as cliché as it may sound, becoming a parent changes everything. It changes your perspectives, and your thought processes, and your attitudes.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that I don’t hate the day itself, or Saint Valentine, or by any means, the concept of love. What I hate, or more appropriately, am annoyed by, is our culture’s concentration on romantic love as if it the only felicity to be celebrated (BTW, the current Hallmark company line – “Happy Valentine’s is not to say ‘I love you’, but to say, ‘I love us’!” - is a perfect example).

Another case in point – my lunch break today. I took a run to enjoy the beautiful weather, but I forgot to pack my gym socks.  I carried my credit card, and decided I would stop at the CVS a block away to pick up a pair on the way out. Not possible; there was a thirty-person-deep line, each member with various articles of pink or red in their hands, waiting for the registers. Romance, folks, does not involve a day-of stop at CVS to “show you care”. It just doesn’t. What are the recipients of these gifts going to think? “Oh, you stopped at CVS on your lunch break?! Wow, thanks for pulling out all the stops to woo me.”

What is, however, worth celebrating is the love that surrounds us. All too often, with our emphasis on the notion of romantic love, we forget to say "I love you" to our mothers, our fathers, brothers, sisters, inlaws, friends. Valentine's is a perfect excuse to celebrate the heck out of these loves, these all important individuals who are not our significant others. Having a child, and learning to understand a completely new and overwhelming kind of love, has helped me learn this lesson.

Growing up, you know who never let me down on Valentine's? My mom. She always sent a card, all the way through law school, and for at least a few years after that. I was either too immature, or too petulant, to recognize what this meant. But, being a mom myself, I finally understand why she did it, and why we all should do this. This is, after all, a day to celebrate love.

So, thank you Mom, for reinforcing this principle. I finally get it, and I look forward to arts-and-crafts pink and red hearts, helping H prepare for his class parties, and maybe one day, receiving a handmade card from the little man (we're a long way from that point). To everyone I say, Happy Valentine's Day! Cherish those that you love, even if it's not the movie version. 

Vocab Words of the Week: "E-I-E-I-O" (Old MacDonald), "Duck", "Up", and an inquisitive "Hmmm"....

Friday, February 4, 2011

Super Bowl Snacking

It's been a week, professionally speaking. With no time to come up for air on the horizon, I'll take this weekend to celebrate the American customs of football and gorging, concurrently. Here's our focus-on-easy-to-make snack plan:

Loco Ludo's Gougeres
Trader Joe's Frozen Appetizers
Low-Fat Spinach Artichoke Dip, with vegetable sticks
Brie and jam, wrapped in pre-frozen puff pastry
Cocktail Weenies, in the crock-pot (I love those things)
Roasted Stuffed Pears

We'll also be enjoying the little man's presence as he enjoys his second Super Bowl (he really cannot remember his first). This gives me the perfect inroads to introduce the new vocabulary word of the week segment. With recent introductions of "Whoa" and "Dog" to the repertoire, H's new word for this week is "Shoes", uttered with remarkable cuteness. Look for more vocab updates (found randomly at the end of completely unrelated blog posts!) soon.