Tuesday, March 30, 2010

D.C.'s bright side

As much as I semi-deservedly whine about D.C., it does contain (1) some of my favorite people, and soon will contain more,* and (2) some really good restaurants. (And to be honest, between late nights at work, freezing early spring rain, and the Evacuation-Causing Crane Incident, the past week or so hasn't been so great in N.Y. anyway.) So:
Friday: minibar reservations for the second seating with Adam, Deanna (the recent birthday girl), and Merritt (finally getting to meet her!). Despite an hour delay on the Amtrak, I still managed to beat Adam to Cafe Atlantico. Deanna and Merritt had found each other at the bar and had ordered drinks. I was semi-cranky because of the delay, but a sip of Deanna's foamy cocktail + Deanna herself helped. Because I've blogged/photographed minibar before, I'll only note the new/improved dishes. The Pisco sour: a layer of hot, a layer of cold, a whipper for each. Reminiscent of the g&t at el bulli (which was all hot), interesting and very tasty.

The olive oil bon bon has been replaced with the "Ferrero Rocher," a take on the classic gold foil-wrapped chocolate-hazelnut treat. Same technique, with gold mixed into the outer shell. Very close to the original in flavor, with the texture twist of a fragile shell and a nutty inside that was liquid/hazelnut bits. Delicious, but perhaps better suited to later in the meal? And the olive oil bon bon was so amazing, I miss it.

The "blue cheese and almond" was a thin, melt-in-your-mouth, nutty shell holding a light (well, as much as blue cheese can be) blue cheese . . . mousse, is maybe the best description? With crunchy almond bits on top. The shell was the same technique as the pine nut shells we ate at el bulli, but the addition of the blue cheese took an interesting technique and made it a tasty little amuse. minibar beats el bulli again.

The tomato crisp with anchovy 'caviar' was the next bite. I don't really remember much about this one except the vibrant, slightly tart tomato-y flavor of the crisp. Similar in dehydrated intensity to the beet tumbleweed. Very fragile.

Next came a string of dishes we'd had before, including the cotton candy eel, dragon's breath popcorn, and guacamole. Generally very similar to past experiences, but the guacamole was actually improved from its past (delicious) incarnation. Slightly spicier than before, and fewer frito crumbles over the top.

The organic carrots with coconut were one of the highlights of the night. The "carrots" were spherified -- if that's the right word, when they were carrot shaped -- but they exploded into liquid carroty sweetness. The perfect carrot flavor (which, according to Ryan, was apparently harder to accomplish than one would think), like the best carrot juice ever on steroids. The perfect little shapes added to the impressiveness of the dish. I may be totally making this up, but I think the liquid inside was actually thickened (or frozen? I should pay better attention) so that it can be piped into shape, and then dropped into the solution to spherify (another vague recollection, but the chemicals that normally go into the liquid and the bath respectively were switched). It reliquifies upon heating. Anyway, totally delicious with the coconut flavor.

The charcoal salmon toro with black garlic was another amazing dish, but despite a bit of lime caviar on top, this was less a technical dish than a really really great main course. I would happily eat a full-sized portion, and could see it on a menu outside of minibar. Garlic is always great, black garlic a visually interesting and slightly different change of pace. Loved it.

The 'tzatziki' was another new one that I enjoyed, although not as much as the previous two. Obviously, it's a very springy, pretty dish. The Greek yogurt ball in the middle was dropped into liquid nitrogen, so it's actually frozen and cracks apart when hit with a spoon. The flowers -- which looked like bizarro zucchini blossoms on the tiniest little vegetable sphere imaginable -- were actually cucumber blossoms. Which I didn't even realize blossom! The flavors were reminiscent, of course, of a traditional tzatziki, which I love, so win.

We'd had the parmesan 'egg' before, but for the record, all my eggs should be made of spherified cheese. That is all.
Tigernut horchata with cigala. I think maybe we had this before? But I'm not sure. Didn't really stand out.

The Thai dessert was a repeat, but having been one of my favorites two summers ago, it was actually slightly worse -- too sour. The mango box is a fruity crystallized shell with a foamy inside, yummy.

Although the s'mores are supposed to include bacon, the meat-free version was a pretty tasty take on one of my favorite nostalgic snacks. (I miss my Cambridge fireplace and its s'more-making usefulness.)

I'm having a hard time remembering the fizzy ball -- I think sort of like pop rocks-y cotton candy.

Saturday. I'd wanted to try Obelisk since my 2L summer, so we'd made reservations with Jay and Melissa, and happily they could squeeze in Beth when a last-minute interview brought her to town. (Beth + Caleb = 2 additional wins for D.C.). It's ridiculously hard to find. Three doors down from the restaurant -- unmarked except for a small obelisk symbol by the door and a small menu at the foot of the stoop -- a building prominently bearing the alleged street number of Obelisk bears plaques for two human rights organizations, a therapist's office, and a bridal shop. Two phone calls to the restaurant later, we found it and were conveniently seated by the window. The perfect vantage point to spot Jay and Melissa walk right past on their way to the bridal/rights/therapy building. Another phone call (to them) later, we were all settled in the cozy restaurant, which seems like someone's slightly spartan, filled with tables and no couch, but nonetheless charming living room.

The handwritten menu (charming!) offers three choices for three courses. We made our selections, gave our dietary restrictions, and attempted to restrain ourselves from eating too many of the olives and addictive crunchydelicious bread sticks. (So hungry.) The antipasti misti started arriving, mostly family style. The burrata was amazing. Soft, creamy, delicious on its own (with a drizzle of oil and a sprinkling of black pepper), delicious with bread, still delicious when I ate most of Jay's abandoned plate with some of the roasted peppers from the roasted pepper and anchovy plate. The peppers and anchovies were intended to be our substitute for the pork brought for the carnivores. Not sure how good it was, but I don't think that it all got eaten. The salad was basically a really good Cesar salad.

The cod croquettes were good, but not a standout -- pretty much like any decent bacalao croquettes. The eggplant salad, however, was one of the highlights of the antipasti.

Our first bottle of wine was a bottle of 2005 Ageno, La Stoppa, which came from the menu's section of whites made like reds. One review I later read describes it as an "orange" wine -- it's sherry-like color and character come from the skins' being left in the wine for awhile, as is done with red wines. So interesting that even Melissa was tempted to take a sip. Dry and light and totally worth trying. We followed that one with concurrent bottles of red and white: a 2003 Movia Velika, and a Massa Vecchia Rosso. Both were got, but not as memorable as the first one.

Between the five of us, we got all the primi and secondi. Adam ordered the rapini ravioli with anchovy butter, and I got the spaghetti alla chittara with fava beans and guanciale sans guanciale. My spaghetti was close to being an excellent pasta dish, I think -- the fava beans were nice, but the dish was undersalted. I expect this was a failure to adjust properly for guanciale omission, so more forgivable, and still enjoyed it. The ravioli was also very good, although I didn't love the anchovy butter flavor. Although it's a nice change to get saltiness from something that isn't pork-based, I rarely love anchovies. The gnocchi with goat ragu got good reviews from the carnivores.

Only one pescatarian-friendly main: snapper with chick peas and green sauce. However, it was good enough that I didn't really mind having an entire dish to myself. I've never had green chickpeas before, but I'm a fan -- more flavorful than the common beige version. The green sauce was really nice and fresh, herbaceous (which is a word I actually kind of hate but which is appropriate, I guess). Anyway, really good, in that simple but delicious way that Komi does so well. The quail with morel mushrooms and culotte with artichokes, olives, and potatoes both looked good, and Melissa seemed to particularly enjoy the quail. The culotte with artichokes, olives and potatoes looked good, but I don't remember if either Jay or Melissa said anything in particular about it.

The cheese course included robiola di capra, piave vecchio, and taleggio with fig jam. Jay, who had earlier told the waitress that he's a fromagophobe, got a radicchio that looked, on first glance, like a squid tentacle, but he seemed happy and the unsolicited substitution was a nice touch.

We agreed that the proper way to deal with the dessert choices was to order one of the toffee ice cream --everyone wanted to try it, and felt a bit lame ordering ice cream for dessert -- two each of the pineapple crostada with vanilla ice cream and chocolate hazelnut cake, and share. Both the crostada and the chocolate cake were good (with the cake getting the edge), but the toffee ice cream was actually the surprise winner, in my opinion.

Despite the warnings from reviews -- and from the exiting couple we passed on our way in -- we left full but not excessively so. (I suspect most people are not champion eaters. Lame.) It was a lovely evening, great company, friendly, accomodating service, delicious food, and a surprisingly good value given the amount of food and wine.
Sunday. Brunch at Birch & Barley. I asked the waiter for a rec between the donuts and the sticky bun. He recommended the donuts, as they're fried to order and the sticky buns are baked hourly, so I ordered the, but he then brought us a complimentary sticky bun so I could try both. The lemon-poppy seed donut was my favorite -- a tart lemon glaze on a still-warm donut. The sticky bun was also good, but not as gooey as I would have liked. I got an excellent seafood pasta, Adam ordered a light, tasty omelette (accompanied by a hash brown that fell on the I-like-it side of the fried potato spectrum). The cheddar grits were good, with some sort of dried herb I couldn't identify, but not as cheesy as I like my grits (and oatmeal -- not as weird as it sounds). My blood orange mimosa washed it all down quite well. A perfect brunch -- hitting all the sweet, savory, and alcoholic notes of a good brunch -- to end a delicious weekend.

*The sentence originally said "or soon will," which Adam and Elisabeth complained implied that DC might not currently contain such people, implicitly insulting them. Although the grammatical critique is technically correct, apparently DC also currently contains some seriously whiny favorite people. :P

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

this glass of wine is delicious

I am finishing the last of a 2007 bottle of Chateau de Beaucastel Vieilles Vignes, left over from dinner at Eleven Madison Park last Friday -- hurrah for the wine doggie bag! -- so seems fitting to write about the meal. Adam's train was delayed, but I was seated immediately at our table (side-by-side place settings, facing toward the front of the restaurant). I like the art deco feel to the room, but the obvious used-to-be-a-lobby vibe is a little strange. Despite an interesting cocktail menu, I figured I'd stick to wine for the evening and declined a drink while waiting.
We decided on the eleven course tasting menu after confirming that they could accommodate our dietary restrictions, which of course was fine. (If the notations on our receipt were any indication, they only subbed two courses.) We also started with a half bottle -- from an extensive selection -- of 1990 Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese***, which the (female -- unusual and cool) sommelier recommended as being "very interesting." Which it decidedly was not; it was good, and sweet, but not interesting. It tasted shocking like the Navarro Gewurztraminer grape juice that we first had at Stone Barns (and of which Adam bought a number of bottles later), which, while tasty, is not really the most flattering comparison for a twenty-year-old Reisling.
First up, "hors d'oeuvres." The gougeres were disappointing (mine are better); undersalted, I think? From left to right: golden beet and goat cheese -- tasty but exactly how it sounds and you've had before. I don't remember what the second one was (never a good sign). Celery something? The third tasted like World's Fanciest Cheez-It. But I do love cheez-its. Fourth up, an apple macaron -- basically a slightly chunky (small diced apple) apple sauce filling a macaroon. Good but the apple sauce weighed down the macaron, which kind of defeats the purpose of macarons, doesn't it? Adam suggested that this would have been a great Civil Appellate Iron Chef entry (true). The last one, a little mushroom-stuffed pastry pouch. The duxelles was tasty, but the crisp outside was a bit greasy -- think fried spring roll -- and reminded me of some sort of semi-generic cocktail hour hors d'oeuvre.
First real course: "Sterling Royal Caviar: spheres of smoked sturgeon and salmon cream." The flavors were pleasantly brunch-reminiscent -- I do love brunch. However, spherified fish is A Mistake. Spherification is great for flavors exploding in and coating your mouth. Smoked fish, no matter how great with a bagel or in scrambled eggs, really should not explode in your mouth in liquid form. Adam thought this was a total mistake and quite bad, I thought it was fine. I guess spherification is the new foam. Chefs want to show off the skill, but technique doesn't trump good old fashioned deliciousness.
Next up: "Tardivo Trevisano: salad with buffalo mozzarella, champagne mango and terre bormane olive oil." Pretty much what you'd expect from radicchio and mozzarella cheese. Better in a bite that included all three elements -- the mix of sweet, slightly bitter, and creamy was nice -- but not really enough of the mango to make that happen throughout. And I'm rarely wowed by nice ingredients just placed together, which is what this was. Maybe it would have been better before the previous course. Too light to stand up the liquid fish taste lingering from before? Adam thought this one was much better than the caviar dish, but I'm not so sure.
The "Diver Scallops: Ceviche with Fennel, Yuzu and Satsuma Tangerine" was the first quite impressive dish of the night. A great combination of crunch and softness, tang and sweetness. Things are picking up. (Disappointingly, although we appear to have gotten much of the appetizer menu as part of our tasting, we did not get the Hawaiian prawns that so impressed Frank Bruni.)
The "Lynnhaven Farms Goat's Milk Ricotta: gnocchi with artichokes, taggiasca olives" was delicious, and so close to being amazing. Creamycheesygnocchiness obviously attracts me. The pillowy round gnocchi exploded into a cheesy delicious center (would love to know the technique that goes into making them). However, although the bit of sauce at the bottom had a bit of the olive-y flavor and was quite delicious, the actual olives were too much salty oliviness in a bite. But the salty flavor obviously added something, and there weren't enough olives to go into every bite. I think chopping the olives (halves? dice? not sure) would have diluted the intensity while spreading it to every bite. Apparently this dish normally has bacon; I suspect that it helps to distribute the saltiness and allows the olives to serve the additional function of cutting the fatty bacon deliciousiness. Mmm. Bacon. I miss bacon. Okay, focus. Bread didn't arrive until about this point in the meal, which was sad both because I was already starving when I arrived at the restaurant and because the salted goat's milk butter that came with the bread (as well as an unsalted cow's milk option, plus sea salt for our own seasoning) was good enough to eat with a spoon. I ate two plain mini baguettes and one olive, and then half of one of Adam's . . . I would have traded the wine for a doggie bag full of that butter. It had the vaguely familiar taste of good chevre, but creamy-light.
"The chef" -- who looked awfully like David Humm's photos, although I'm still confused about why he would have come out -- came out to plate "'Winter in Provence': black truffles, chevre frais and potatoes" tableside. My guess is that the plated dish is so vaguely icky looking that it requires a little bit of show to distract until you taste the first bite, which is delicious. Of the four blobs, one was black truffle, one was potato, one was chevre, and one celery. Two came out of whippers, two out of adorable mini copper pans. I don't remember -- did I know at the time? -- which came out of the whippers. I'd guess chevre was one, but who knows. So yeah, it looked like, well . . . look at the photo. But they are all wintery delicious flavors (obviously) and even better when swirled all together (as I suggested Adam do, after I did). Somewhere around here we moved on to a second half bottle, Bonneau du Martray Grand Cru 1989. I remember quite enjoying it, but maybe not as much as our normal white Burgundy? It didn't leave a strong impression.
Another on the appetizer menu from which something was removed: "Knoll Krest Farm Egg: slow cooked with vin jaune, winter mushrooms." This apparently normally comes with frogs' legs, but no one asked if we would eat them. Which, fair, not exactly seafood. But not exactly meat either? Adam is okay with them, I think, I'm still slightly torn, but they were the centerpiece of one of the better dishes we ate at Daniel for my birthday. (Yes, I ate them.) So I wonder what they would have added to this dish. Perfectly cooked egg -- soft whites, but the yolk held its shape until broken into rich goldeness. Beautiful mushrooms in a creamy sauce (made richer by the broken yolk). I have no idea what the frondy yellow things were. The truffle wasn't particularly pronounced. However, I feel like both this and the previous course depended heavily on delicious-but-heavy ingredients and not inventiveness. (Note, also, that at this point the restaurant had emptied enough -- and I was frustrated enough with the attempts to light with votive -- that I decided it was acceptable to use the flash. At least until someone told me to stop. Which no one did.)
So this was the point at which we transitioned from appetizer to entreeness. The "John Dory: slow cooked with pickled daikon radish and winter citrus" was another highlight. The John Dory was perfectly cooked, fork tender and delicious. I feel like the pickled citrus -- blood orange, tangerine, not sure? -- would have been better if is tasted less like dried citrus. I'm not sure that texture did much, and the "pickled" didn't taste like pickle. I think it would have worked better with juicy little supremes. However, the mix of lima beans (I think?), tender fish, and sweet/sour was great.
What I thought was the final savory course: "Nova Scotia Lobster: poached with piment d'espelette, celery and meyer lemon." Excellent. The lobster was perfectly cooked, the two types of lemon marmalade cut the richness of the sauce beautifully, and celery (the third streak) is best served in some sort of pureed sauce. Very rich and heavy, but a good way to end the savory part of the meal.
Except. I was wrong. The lobster was not the end of the savory part of the meal. I love food. I am a champion eater. But NINE SAVORY COURSES is too many. At least when they're rich and heavy and I can't do any more. The "Bouillabaisse: Atlantic black bass with octopus, calamari, bay scallops, prawns" intimidated me from the time it arrived, because I was starting to feel a bit . . . off . . . and so it is hard to judge objectively. The seafood was all well cooked, but I couldn't help feeling like there was a slightly sour twang to the bouillabaisse that I did not like. But Adam like it a lot, so perhaps it was just my sense of Too Much Food overwhelming me. But I did not love it.
A sign of how full I was? They brought over the cheese cart and I Did Not Want It. I. did. not. want. cheese. This is tragic and uncharacteristic. Of course, being too full for cheese is not the same as turning down cheese, so we got some. Adam chose two blues and a something else -- kind of Gruyere but not? I think appenzeller -- I chose something called etude(?) and . . . I don't remember. The cheese wasn't all that memorable, which is sad. There was raisin-looking bread that we didn't try.
The first of the desserts, "'Soda Pop': tangerine, grapefruit, pomelo and lemon." Pop rocks are a lot of fun, the airy meringue on top was nice, but one of the citrus fruits -- not sure which -- lent a quite sour taste (pithy rind?) to the marmalade-ish base. I did not love it, and I could not really distinguish the many citrus fruits included.
The second dessert, "Milk & Chocolate: variations of flavor and texture" was a different story. The ice cream tasted like dulce de leche, the crystalized milk was more dense than cotton candy but less dense than pretty much anything else -- dehydrated, maybe? A fun play of textures, and delicious. The darkest bits were a chocolate too bitter for my taste, and I ate around it. But if you like unsweetened chocolate, I could see how it would all work together and be delicious. Definitely interesting.

The "Mignardises" were all macarons -- quite good macarons. And accompanied by complimentary cognac. We'd been eyeing the interesting-looking bottle on other tables. Unfortunately I was a bit too wine-drunk to want it at that point. Plus I'm not sure I liked it. But the macaroons were delicious. They offered us a selection of flavors, which I've never understood. Can I have all of them? (Yes.) So why not just give me all of them? Why make me feel kind of sheepish (okay, so I didn't) about asking? So we got two of each. Lemon poppy seed: lemon curd filling, lovely, delicious. Chocolate something: meh, rich. Lavender something: tasted mostly like chocolate. But pretty and like the idea. Toasted coconut: another good idea that didn't overwhelm with flavor. Pear: delicious. Sesame something: interesting and delicious. Peanut butter and jelly: interesting and kind of nostalgically great.
We left kind of grossly full (sad), happily tipsy (me -- good. plus wine to go!), and generally pleased. The service was excellent, although I would have preferred one consistent waiter/ress to the seemingly constantly revolving staff. I particularly liked that the sommelier wrote up the wines, and they printed out the menu that we'd had without our asking (including all the alterations/substitutions, so clearly prepared just for us). Nice touch. Bottom line: the lows were not low, but none of the dishes really blew me away. Many were excellent, but nothing that would enter my list of Best Dishes Ever. None of the photos will go on my wall. I suspect that choosing wisely off of the a la carte menu might result in a more impressive experience. Maybe eating meat would help. I worry -- why is it so hard to wow me anymore? Next Friday, back to minibar. High hopes!
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