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Proof – The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
March 10, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Anna Fagan (Catherine) and Chuck Leonard (Robert) -   Photos by Matt Liptak

Anna Fagan (Catherine) and Chuck Leonard (Robert) -
Photos by Matt Liptak

Catherine (Anna Fagan) lives with her professor father in an unsettling world of mental illness somewhat reminiscent of the film A Beautiful Mind.  Robert (Chuck Leonard), a brilliant mathematician whose elegant formulas and research on prime numbers have dazzled his peers, believes aliens are sending him messages through the Dewey Decimal System.  He suffers from major depression and psychotic episodes that Catherine fears could be genetic.  “Crazy people don’t ask each other if they’re nuts,” he explains when she holes up in her room reading fashion magazines.

When Hal (Josh Goldman), a former student of Robert’s, “He’s on the infinite program,” Robert jokes, comes to their home in hopes of discovering publishable formulas, Catherine, a math whiz in her own right, gets suspicious that Hal might be stealing the material to self-attribute and we watch as she spirals into a depression of her own.  But the pair needs each other.  Their discussion of Sophie Germaine, an actual 18th C mathematician who hid her genius by writing under a man’s name, portends things to come.  Could Catherine be as brilliant as her famous father?

Anna Fagan (Catherine) and Elizabeth Keith (Claire) - Photo Matt Liptak

Anna Fagan (Catherine) and Elizabeth Keith (Claire) – Photo Matt Liptak

When her sister Claire (Elizabeth Keith) shows up at the family’s suburban house to make funeral arrangements, she insists her Catherine cannot handle life alone and determines to take her sister back with her to New York City to seek psychiatric help.

Proof, set in the 1990’s, switches back and forth over a four-year period and covers Catherine’s close relationship with her father, her testy but compliant relationship with Claire, and her curious partnership with Hal.  The tidy four-person cast handles complex emotional turns with ease in this Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play written by David Auburn.

Anna Fagan (Catherine) and Josh Goldman (Hal) - Photo Matt Liptak

Anna Fagan (Catherine) and Josh Goldman (Hal) – Photo Matt Liptak

In a deeply engrossing script tinged with wry comedy, the play explores mental illness as related to genius and presents a storyline as complicated as it is uplifting.  Susan Devine, who consulted with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Flint Hill School teacher William VanLear to gain insight on the topic, directs an impressive cast that has both the strength and confidence the story demands.  Leonard, who himself is a director and reminds this reviewer of John Cleese, captures the humor and subtleties of his role, while Fagan demonstrates her total immersion in a tricky role that swings from upbeat to somber at the drop of a hat.  Goldman, who has appeared in several LTA productions, proves he has an impressive range – – while Keith, another LTA alum, gives a shining performance as the self-centered sister.

Through March 29th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com

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Whisk and Quill Wishes All Gastronomes, Oenophiles, Theatre Mavens and Wanderlusters a Sparkling New Year Full of Fresh Footsteps and Delicious Dishes

Thank you dear readers for pursuing life’s intriguing and ever-evolving adventures with Whisk and Quill in 2013.  This December celebrates my sixth year as a food and travel writer and third year as theatre critic for the Alexandria Times.  And though my life has gravitated more to the keyboard than cooktop, to the frequent inquiries about my work as a chef, I say, “Yes! I still enjoy catering private events.”

This year I shared my column, “Nibbles and Sips Around Town”, with the area’s most comprehensive theatre website, www.DCMetroTheaterArts.com.  Since they share their content with www.BroadwayStars.com, I now have the only non-theatre column on both sites.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was when Indian Country Today magazine, where I have contributed pieces on American Indian Culture and the Arts for the last three years, chose my feature story on the discovery of the long-lost silent film, The Daughter of Dawn as one of their “Top Ten Best Stories of the Year”.  And in keeping with neighborhood participation, in June I was chosen as the sole judge for the “Taste of Del Ray”, one of the most fun events I have ever participated in.

For www.TheCredits.org the website of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) I interviewed leading Hollywood directors Ariel Vromen and James Franco, Academy Award-winning Superman musical composer, Hans Zimmer, and writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash of The Way, Way Back. 

I even had the opportunity to interview a Cirque de Soleil artist and the Artistic Director of Cavalia when those shows raised their tents in town.  Noted Jazz musicians Ski Johnson (Saxophonist), Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and Marcus Johnson (Keyboardist) were featured on our site this year too, as were interviews with songstresses Iris DeMent and Grace Potter.

There were articles on local, national and internationally renowned chefs, tons of restaurant reviews, food events, farmers, vintners (Barefoot Wine founder Michael Houlihan was featured in February), breweries, new food products (Jose Andres launched a line of Spanish delicacies), and cookbooks with so many local chefs publishing this year (check out December’s column).  I even braved a chef-driven “Snakeheads at the Harbor” dinner in Georgetown…all in the name of research, don’t you know.

Travel took us from Oxford, MD along the Chesapeake Bay and Culpeper, Virginia to Airlie House and the Castleton Festival in the Virginia countryside, and later to Tallahassee and Wakulla County, Florida where we ate as many oysters and shrimp as the law would allow.  All the while meeting innovative chefs, farmers, musicians and those whose spirits would raise ours to new heights.

Wines were especially high on the “To Do” list with tastings of Greek, Israeli, Brazilian, French, American, New Zealand and Serbian vintages.  In celebration of her recently published memoirs, I shared a lovely lunch at Fiola with Margrit Mondavi, the “First Lady of Napa Valley” and  “Grande Dame” of the Mondavi Winery.   We also visited the Stillhouse Distillery to learn how they make their whiskey and bourbon, an experience I shared with readers in August.

In the “Travel” section posh properties were scrutinized or extolled, while in the “Theatre” section dozens of shows were picked or panned – all without one single advertiser on our Whisk and Quill website.

In July we were thrilled to welcome a very special guest contributor to Whisk and Quill.  Cary Pollak is an accomplished chef and well-known DC area food writer.  He’s also a successful attorney, but we won’t hold that against him.  Pollak has already given us exciting stories on New York’s Fancy Food Show, DC’s Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show, a recipe for his glorious French Fruit Tarte (Pollak also hosts cooking classes on baking and East Indian cooking), a “Celebration of the Grape” at Zaytinya, a November piece on Ridgewell’s turning 85 years-old, and a comprehensive piece on his travels to Central Texas and the food scene there.  Look for more terrific stories from Pollak in the upcoming months.

So here’s to 2014 and another year of reporting to inspire, tempt and dazzle you to create your own journeys.  Let’s drink a cuppa kindness, or whatever lovely spirits you may have handy, for the auld year and for a scintillating, theatrical and scrumptious New Year!

Cheers!

Jordan

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Nibbles and Sips Around Town – November 15, 2013

Jordan Wright
November 15, 2013
Special to DC Metro Theater ArtsBroadway Stars, and LocalKicks 

 Cedar’s Aaron McCloud Creates Amazing Dishes with Olives from Spain

Olive salad at Cedar Restaurant

Olive salad at Cedar Restaurant

As one of eight U.S. chefs selected to highlight the use of Spanish olives in their cuisine by Olives From Spain, Cedar’s Executive Chef Aaron McCloud staged a spectacular five-course luncheon last week using recipes he devised and pairing the dishes with Spanish wines.  Among the other well-known chefs chosen are Seamus Mullen of New York City’s Tertulia; Michael Kornick, Chef/Owner of Chicago’s mk; Ethan Stowell, of Seattle’s Staple & Fancy and Anchovies & Olives; and Giorgio Rapicavoli of Miami’s Eating House.  The concept was to show how non-Spanish chefs and home cooks can incorporate Spanish table olives into their recipes.  Throughout the season McCloud will be featuring some of these dishes on Cedar’s menu.

McCloud, who gave up studying classical violin with Itzhak Perlman for a life behind the scenes, hails from Michigan and brings with him a farmer’s keen sense of natural ingredients in his approach to cooking.

Smoked trout with Meyer lemon and olive relish

Smoked trout with Meyer lemon and olive relish

At a luncheon last week the chef started the meal with a delicately crafted salad of spiced walnuts, arugula, Gordal olives, Manchego cheese and decorated the plate with nasturtiums.  Our second course was smoked trout with pickled fennel, grapefruit supremes, preserved Meyer lemon and olive relish which was followed by Merino lamb loins crusted with olive powder and placed in a tart of olives with pickled royal trumpet mushrooms.  Spanish Gordal olives made a second appearance stuffed into a roulade of wild boar loin and served with an olive salad and heirloom tomato salad dressed with bacon and olive vinaigrette.

 Merino lamb with olive powder and pickled Royal trumpet mushrooms

Merino lamb with olive powder and pickled Royal trumpet mushrooms

Proving the versatility of the olive with meats isn’t as tricky as it is with sweets.  But McCloud overcame the challenge by using the milder type of uncured black olives in a silky panna cotta.  The smooth egg-less custard was enhanced with a sweet herb “soup” of made from pineapple sage, lemon verbena and sugar and cooked down to a light syrup and poured over the dish at table and served with a white chocolate olive cookie.  McCloud explained, “I decided to make a cookie and thought of substituting the olives for the usual raisins.”  Sliced almonds spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, fennel seed and cumin, and baked with maple syrup, provided the unique dessert with a delectable crunchiness.  So delectable in fact that I secured the recipe along with a cache to take home.

www.CedarDC.com. And for more information on Spanish olives visit www.OlivesfromSpain.US.

Go With the FLO, Baby

Jazz Master Marcus Johnson at FLO Wines party

Jazz Master Marcus Johnson at FLO Wines party

What pairs best with wine and friends?  Why, jazz of course.  So say DC-raised Contemporary Jazz Keyboardist virtuoso Marcus Johnson and his partner Winemaker and Co-Founder Rob Piziali.  FLO stands for “For the love of…” and there was a lot of love flowing from the top floor of Georgetown’s chic Puro Café last week when the pair debuted their gently priced Red Blend, Chardonnay and 2011 Moscato wines, all of which are produced and bottled in Napa Valley’s St. Helena.  Though the company was launched only a year ago, the popular wines can already be found around our area in stores like Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, Giant, Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, Total Wine and Farm Fresh, and hotels like Marriott and Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC.

While guests enjoyed nibbles and sips Johnson tickled the ivories for his rapt fans – – one of whom won a lavish gift basket chockfull of gourmet goodies and bottles of FLO Wine.  The company has teamed up with Thankfully Yours, a DC-based company, to create festive wine and food gift baskets for the holidays.

Johnson, a Billboard “Top 10” and NAACP Image Award-nominated jazz musician with 15 studio albums to his credit, will be at Blues Alley Jazz Club from December 12th to the 16th.

Visit www.FLOBrands.com to learn more about upcoming wine events in the area.  To order their gorgeous gift baskets go to www.ThankfullyYours.com.

A Master Class in Brazilian Wines at DC’s Fogo de Chao 

Coming from a family who bought a coffee plantation in Brazil on a whim, I can’t say I ever imagined in my wildest dreams I would be sitting among experts drinking  fine wines from Brazil.  But that’s what I was doing last week along with area buyers, wine consultants, fellow writers and local sommeliers at a large U-shaped banquet table in DC’s Fogo de Chao restaurant.  A dizzying array of fifteen wines and thirteen “churrasco” style barbecued meats were served while Master Sommelier and Wine Educator, Evan Goldstein, kept the enthusiastic sippers engaged with a power point presentation of the regions of Brazil and the development of its industry.

Brazilian wines and churrasco at Fogo de Chao

Brazilian wines and churrasco at Fogo de Chao

After first reminding us that no less a wine connoisseur than British journalist and wine merchant Steven Spurrier (responsible for the legendary “Judgment of Paris”) had lauded Brazilian wines this year in an article featured in Decanter magazine, Goldstein urged us to begin with a delicate rose-colored sparkler before tasting more serious wines whose grapes are picked from vines brought to Brazil from early Italian and Portuguese settlers who arrived in the country in 1551.

One of the more intriguing factoids about the region’s wines is that Brazil has two harvest seasons every year.  By applying a product called Dormex, growers can encourage early ripening that results in two seasons of picking grapes.

There are five dominant wine-growing regions in Brazil, though currently only three have certifications of origin.  The main regions are Santa Catarina, Serra Gaucha, Serra do Sudeste and Campanha in the Southern region of the country, and Vale do Sao Francisco in the Northeastern Region near Bahia.  Serra Gaucha is considered the most important and largest wine region within Rio Grande do Sul.

We sampled a 2009 Cave Geisse Terroir Nature, a glamorous sparkler made by Maurice Geisse, a Chilean winemaker who once worked for the house of Moet & Chandon and who is now using his considerable talents at his family’s vineyard in the Serra Gaucha region.  But an appealing parvenu nipped at its heels.  Retailing at half its price, Casa Valduga Brut 130 is a sassy sparkling wine once lauded by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy during a visit to Brazil.

As we progressed to the still whites, I was surprised to hear that Moscatos and Chardonnays dominate the whites.  In fact Lidio Carraro Dadivas Chardonnay is made by fifth generation Italians and has been chosen as the “Official Wine of the World Cup”.

The stellar Salton Pinot Noir

The stellar Salton Pinot Noir

Here are the wines that stole my heart and they were all reds.  Salton Pinot Noir 2012 (young yet, but holding distinct promise); Salton Desego 2008, a Merlot aged in 50-50 French and American Oak; Perini Marselan 2010, another youthful vintage with the unusual cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache from a vineyard dating back to the 1870’s; Lidio Carraro, Quorum, a pricey Merlot, Cab, Tannat and Cab Franc blend from 2006; and Pizzato CONCENTUS 2007, a knockout at $25.00.

Look for these at www.FogodeChao.com

Iron Gate – History Restored 

The much-anticipated opening of Iron Gate on N Street turned into one the most fabulous private gatherings for a restaurant opening ever.   While many guests reminisced about their dining experiences in days past, there was no one present that could have said they were there when it was opened in 1923 by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.  The group whose headquarters are in another historic building next door, is still the Iron Gate’s landlord.  To this day the Federation Director’s private residence overlooks the restaurant’s garden from atop the third story.

The wood fire oven at Iron Gate

The wood fire oven at Iron Gate

For those who may have dined here before the restoration slash remodel, the surprise will be an enclosed and two-story dining space and bar area inside the restaurant’s elegant carriageway.  The entrance is now dominated by magnificent lead-framed windows that rise two stories up to meet the building’s original keystones.  Iron lanterns, and a pair of repurposed chandeliers retrieved from an old theatre in Baltimore, light the old brick walls.  In the bar a massive walnut-framed mirror that was discovered in a garage in Silver Spring, overlooks the 10-seat bar.  The large bricked garden, adorned with century old wisteria and still-producing grapevines, sports an electronic awning for inclement weather.  A romantic aura fills the main dining area where dark wainscoating, flickering candlelight and a roaring fireplace lend an air of charming intimacy.

The style of cuisine is drawn from the traditional dishes of Greece, Sicily and Sardinia with a menu arranged by category – “Garden”, “Water” and “Pasture”.  Diners make their selection from a four- or six-course menu (with or without wine pairings).  Some items are available a la carte at the bar or on the patio.  Leading a trio of seasoned and award-winning professionals is noted Chef Tony Chittum who left Vermillion in Alexandria’s Old Town to showcase his creativity in this beautiful space.  He is flanked by Mixologist Jeff Faile, formerly of Casa Luca and Fiola, and Wine Director Brent Kroll, formerly of Adour at the St. Regis.

At the friends and family opening, plates were piled high with everything from spit-roasted pig, broccoli bruschetta bright with house-made ricotta and garnished with a tiny sardine.  Crispy sunchokes with yogurt dipping sauce and light-as-a-feather veal sweetbreads were delectable treats as were the grilled fennel sausages that had an insinuating way of demanding repeat attention.  I loved an Ouzo Punch, made with rosemary, ouzo and Galliano.  I haven’t seen Galliano in a cocktail since “Golden Cadillacs”, made with the herb-infused yellow Italian liqueur, crème de cacao and cream, were all the rage.

Sweet things await at Iron Gate

Sweet things await at Iron Gate

The sweets were playful – Campari marshmallows, loukamades, hot from the oven and dripping with orange blossom glaze, and Sicilian pistachio buckeyes coated in chocolate.  Sheer ambrosia.

With classic architecture, intriguing history, celebrated chef, gorgeous garden, fireplace, separate bar, intimate dining room and sidewalk patio, Iron Gate is truly dressed to impress.  www.IronGateRestaurantDC.com

Photos by Jordan Wright

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The 39 Steps – Murder and Comic Mayhem Done in Classic Hitchcock Style -The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
October 29, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The 39 Steps is a rollicking send up of and tribute to Alfred Hitchcock.  References to his classics abound – – The Birds, Dial M for Murder, North by Northwest, Psycho, Rear View Window and more.  You’ll have fun picking out some of your faves.

Bob Cohen and Erik Harrison (Everyone else) with Jeff McDermott (Richard Hannay) and Elizabeth Keith (Pamela) - Photos by Keith Waters/Kx Photography

Bob Cohen and Erik Harrison (Everyone else) with Jeff McDermott (Richard Hannay) and Elizabeth Keith (Pamela) – Photos by Keith Waters/Kx Photography

We come upon our hapless hero, Richard Hannay (Jeff McDermott) in a state of high anxiety.  His life is worthless, he claims, because nothing exciting ever happens to him.  “Find something mindless,” he suggests to himself aloud.  “I know – – a trip to the theatre!”, a remark which gives the audience their first clue that this is going to be a night of cooked-up hilarity. “It’s music hall and vaudeville – – pure theatricality,” Ted Deasy told me in March of 2010 when I interviewed him at DC’s Warner Theatre where he played the lead.

Elizabeth Keith (Pamela) and Jeff McDermott (Richard Hannay) - Photos by Keith Waters/Kx Photography

Elizabeth Keith (Pamela) and Jeff McDermott (Richard Hannay) – Photos by Keith Waters/Kx Photography

At the theatre Hannay sits beside a glamorous lady in red (Elizabeth Keith) who quickly insinuates herself into his uneventful life with a beguiling tale of German spies, an unsolved murder and a clandestine rendezvous in a castle on the Scottish moors.  Intrigued he takes her back to his flat for a nightcap, where she is stabbed by a mysterious stranger.  It becomes our hero’s challenge to solve this wacky whodunit.

The play is an adaptation of the eponymous Hitchcock classic.  Borrowing on the 1935 film, writers Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble came up with a version to be played by four actors who perform between 130 to 150 roles.  Some “roles” are actually inanimate objects and some of the actors change characters over and over, often playing three characters simultaneously.

The trick is to make the mayhem look effortless.  The effect is achieved by piling on schticks from vaudeville, comedia and slapstick using old theatrical styles and even Shakespearean asides.  The physical part is done in a supersonic pace that leaves the audience breathless.

Jeff McDermott (Richard Hannay) and Bob Cohen (Everyone else) - Photos by Keith Waters/Kx

Jeff McDermott (Richard Hannay) and Bob Cohen (Everyone else) – Photos by Keith Waters/Kx Photography

McDermott is on stage throughout giving the play its anchor, while Elizabeth Keith plays the three female roles (though there is a bit of cross-dressing in some of the roles) quite handily.  Bob Cohen and Erik Harrison, whose comic timing is, shall I say, “drop dead” perfect, manage to portray the dozens of others.

The 1930’s mood is cleverly set by lighting designers Ken and Patti Crowley who created over 150 evocative atmospheres for this electrifying production using both a flat-screen TV and a projection screen for some of the images.  How they manage to suggest bi-plane bombadiers is for me to know and for you to find out.

Elizabeth Keith (Pamela), Bob Cohen (Everyone else) and Jeff McDermott (Richard Hannay) -  Photos by Keith Waters/Kx Photography

Elizabeth Keith (Pamela), Bob Cohen (Everyone else) and Jeff McDermott (Richard Hannay) -
Photos by Keith Waters/Kx Photography

Through November 16th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com

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Nibbles and Sips Around Town October 2013

Jordan Wright
October 28, 2013
Special to DC Metro Theater ArtsBroadway Stars, and LocalKicks  

Frenchifying Fairfax, The Gin Game Redux, J&G Steakhouse Adds a Secret Room, the Day of the Dead Comes Back to Life and Olive You Too, Espana!

Frenchifying Fairfax 

If you blink you’ll pass the modest storefront of Le Mediterranean Bistro, a mere slip of a place in historic Fairfax City, Virginia that quiets down towards nightfall.  Once inside the cozy bistro senses prick up.  You might detect a whiff of foie gras lightly searing with brandy, lobster carapaces creating a rich seafood stock or lamb shanks braising in wine and herbs.  The room is filled with the aroma of tarragon, thyme, rosemary and lavender – – the floral notes of the Midi.  But wait!  There’s more.  Exotic spices like saffron, cinnamon and cardamom intermingle with traditional French herbs – – a clue to Chef/Owner Driss Zahidi’s Moroccan roots.

In the kitchen of Le Mediterranean Cafe with Chef Owner Driss Zahidi

In the kitchen of Le Mediterranean Cafe with Chef Owner Driss Zahidi

The 50-seat spot is already bursting at the seams.  Last month there were lines outside and tables were filled with diners looking as blissful as Cheshire cats.  The décor is simple but welcoming.  Warm pumpkin-colored walls, linen covered tables and a few large contemporary paintings in a room dominated by a chalkboard announcing the evening’s food and wine specials.

The cozy atmosphere at Le Mediterranean Cafe

The cozy atmosphere at Le Mediterranean Cafe

Leading off with the most decadent dish on the menu might not seem like a wise beginning, but would you pass up pan-seared diver scallop and steamed lobster topped with foie gras and bathed in black truffle sauce?  I think not, fellow gourmands.  It’s already made my top ten dishes of the year.

A roasted beet salad with creamy goat cheese and Cara Cara orange sections hit all the right smoky-tangy notes, before moving on to into seafood paella and osso bucco.  The paella served in its own pan had baby clams, artichoke hearts, scallops, lobster (Can one ever say no to more lobster?), shrimp, mussels and bits of spicy chorizo.  Billowy clouds of steam rose off the dish and its saffron scented rice.  An imposing portion of braised lamb shanks, falling-off-the-bone tender, was served atop fluffy cous cous, perfect for absorbing the meaty wine-infused juices on the bottom of the earthenware casserole.  Each dish we tried showed the hand of an experienced chef, one who understands French country classics while celebrating his own country’s contributions.

The heavenly seafood bouillabaisse  - Lobster, scallop and foie gras with black truffle sauce at Le Mediterranean Cafe

The heavenly seafood bouillabaisse – Lobster, scallop and foie gras with black truffle sauce at Le Mediterranean Cafe

Dessert is made in-house and you can’t go wrong with the apple tarte tatin a la mode, aswirl in caramel sauce or the last-of-the-summer peach cake with a foil of piquant raspberry coulis.

As for service, it was swift and polite.  Each table in the small room seemed to get the same friendly attention.  As for me, I reveled in the cheerful, well-orchestrated atmosphere that makes it feel like a private party.  Reservations recommended.

The Gin Game Redux

The patio at New Heights

The patio at New Heights

Recently I took a stroll down memory lane and into Woodley Park.  It’s been moons since I’d been to New Heights, a restaurant that’s launched more successful chefs than NASA has launched rockets, most notably – Cahal Armstrong, Brian McPherson, RJ Cooper, Ron Tanaka, John Wabeck, Logan Cox and Matthew Lake.  Cutting edge dishes are de rigeur in this friendly neighborhood watering hole that overlooks Rock Creek Park.

Lately 25-year old Takeshi Nishikawa, a Japanese chef straight off a stint in Bryan Voltaggio’s Volt and earlier positions at Restaurant Eve and the now shuttered Maestro, three of the area’s most lauded kitchens, has taken the helm.  Nishikawa has already put a thrilling new menu together combining some unusual ingredients and sophisticated techniques to showcase his talents and experience.  From ginger and cardamom to highlight a carrot soup, beech mushrooms and eggplant paired with veal sweetbreads, and goat cheese tortellini served with pickled ramps and morels, the young chef is playing with food and thinking out of the box.  Farro makes an appearance beside locally raised rack of lamb and halibut gets polenta and pearl onions.  Expect the unexpected.

Owner Umbi Singh, an dashing fellow with impeccable manners, has been letting young chefs have their say in his kitchen for twenty-seven years, but lately he’s turned over the reins at the bar to Nicole Hassoum, a sprightly, and wildly inventive, mixologist who has transformed the small space into her own private laboratory.  It’s called The Gin Joint and it’s a temple to gin in its many forms.

Cocktail wizard Nicole Hassoum at The Gin Joint

Cocktail wizard Nicole Hassoum at The Gin Joint

Over 45 gins from around the planet go into her cocktails.  From dry gins, Old Raj from Scotland and Leopold’s of Denver; to spicy, Botanist from Islay to Green Hat, a DC distillery, to Silver Tip from Montana.  Citrus flavors are a separate category and range from the juniper flavored Greylock from the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, to Damrak from Amsterdam, described as showing floral as well as blood orange notes.  Two more categories define alternate profiles.  More floral still are Citadelle from France revealing jasmine, honeysuckle and cinnamon, and Darnley’s View from Great Britain with overtones of elderflower.  The final grouping includes Ransom “Old Tom” from Oregon, a revival gin once made in the 19th C, and Smooth Ambler Barrel Aged from West Virginia, a gin with aromas of orange, caramel and spice.

Adding to the “mix” Hassoum makes her own tonic.  Seven different kinds, if you will.  Crazy cool combinations like citrus cucumber, pummelo passionfruit, basil fennel, and hibiscus saffron.  Using these and other ingredients sourced from the kitchen, this adorable mad scientist has invented an extensive cocktail menu to show off her seemingly unlimited imagination.  I tiptoed around, choosing my target like a thief in the night, before selecting the “Filibuster” made with Jensen’s gin, heirloom tomato water, Lillet Blanc and basil.  The ultimate in gin bliss which harkened me back to an afternoon utterly misspent in a garden in the English countryside.  Visit her to be transported back to your own gin memories.

J&G Steakhouse Adds a Secret Room 

The dining room at the recently renovated J&G Steakhouse in the W Hotel

The dining room at the recently renovated J&G Steakhouse in the W Hotel

One of the most gorgeously contemporary designs in a dining room in Washington, DC surely has to be J&G Steakhouse in the W Hotel.  After a summer shutdown, the restaurant has blossomed into a stunning space with the addition of Bar 515 beside a wall-length banquette in the dining room where guests can see and be seen.  It’s got my vote for the most luxuriously chic and sophisticated décor in town.

Decorated in a dramatic palette of charcoal grey, silver and lipstick red the high-ceilinged room, surrounded by huge Palladian windows and massive columns that run the length of the room, has given Jean-George Vongerichten a perfectly sophisticated setting in which to flaunt his not-so-very-French dishes.

Anyone for a 12-ounce cut of Akaushi beef, or a 32-ounce pork porterhouse?  It’s here.  In the seafood category there’s fried calamari with pickled beet tartar sauce and jumbo lump crab cakes.  Pretty standard bar food elsewhere – – done here with finesse.  Grilled Loch Duart salmon, a farmed fish from northern Scotland, and Chesapeake Bay rockfish enhanced with mushroom dashi and Swiss chard, all rang my bell.

But I confess I’m most partial to two of the appetizers – – the beef carpaccio on flatbread and the yellow fin tuna tartare served with a tangy fennel mignonette and topped with toasted quinoa.  Imagine those with a dry martini made tableside by a roving bartender with a rolling bar cart and you’ve got the picture.

My favorite niche is off the dining room down a flight of stairs where a sexy-cool secret bar has been created out of a former storage space.  It’s lit mostly with candles and is so darkly intimate that on my recent visit I couldn’t get a proper photo of it.  Take my word for it.  The bar leads out onto a spacious patio where you can pose attractively under umbrellas while watching the swells go by.  A lovely place to dream a little dream.

The Day of the Dead Comes Back to Life 

The Pato Borracho "Drunken Duck" cocktail for the Day of the Dead celebration - A typical seviche - Making guacamole in the expanded dining room and bar at Oyamel

The Pato Borracho “Drunken Duck” cocktail for the Day of the Dead celebration – A typical seviche – Making guacamole in the expanded dining room and bar at Oyamel

That the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration coincides with Halloween is music to the ears of all things that go bump in the night – – though the pre-Columbians got the jump on the Halloween inventing Celts by about 500 years.  At Oyamel drinks and dishes have been created to honor Jose Guadalupe Posada, a turn of the century artist and political cartoonist best known for his satirical skeleton illustrations called calaveras.

In a preview last week I had the chance to taste all four specialty cocktails, ResucitoMaestro Dobel Diamond Tequila, Cochi Americano Rosa, lime leaf and grapefruit bitters; Cempasuchil – House-infused lavender Pueblo Viejo Blanco Tequila, Crème Yvette, mint and lemon; Pato Borracho (drunken duck!) – house-infused duck Gran Centenario Anejo, Chihuatl chile, pomegranate and pineapple with almond air; and Atole RicoDel Maguey Crema de Mezcal, Pueblo Viejo Tequila, house made atole, canela, piloncillo, vanilla, pineapple and lemon.

In addition to their regular menu Executive Chef Colin King has come up with five delicious new dishes.  Caviar de Chapala – with carp roe, Serrano peppers and green tomatoes in chochoyotes (a kind of dumpling); Ostiones Pimenton – oysters poached with bay leaf and garlic and served in their shells with a touch of lime and caviar; Pato Frito en Chile Seco – crispy Hudson Valley duck leg with Chihuatl mole, locally foraged mushrooms, kabocha squash and served with pomegranate pico de gallo; Chichilo Negro – slow-cooked short ribs with mole negro and vegetables; Sopa de Calabaza – pumpkin and squash soup with spiced pumpkin seeds, chile and annatto oil and served with foie gras.  Have I got your attention now?

King worked with famous cookbook author Diana Kennedy often cited as the “Queen of Mexican Cuisine” to, as he put it, “Advance the traditional and authentic dishes of the many regions of Mexico with an eye towards innovation.”

Olive You Too, Espana 

Gathering featuring nibbles by Jose Andres

Gathering featuring nibbles by Jose Andres

Our dear friend, José Andrés, the most famous Spanish chef in America, has launched a new line of foods from his homeland called José Andrés FoodsRecently I served some of these delicacies at a small gathering in my home.  Some of the products may sound familiar to you, others may seem mundane, but I assure you they are not ordinary.  The sardines are tiny fish, not the broken and halved sort found in today’s supermarkets, full of bones and packed in cheap vegetable oil.  These were delicate and the oil was first-rate.  We loved the Mussels in ‘Escabeche’ that I served atop Pa de Pagès, rustic Catalan toast slices that proved to be a perfect perch for any topping, including super ripe tomatoes.

Rounding out the nibbles were Andrés’ thinly sliced potato chips and Gordal and Hojiblanca olives.  The new line of foods from Andres includes white tuna in olive oil, razor clams, several types of olive oil and sherry vinegar, sea urchin caviar, Escalivada, a popular Spanish mixture of roasted eggplant, peppers and onions in olive oil, and Pista, a blend of tomatoes, red and green peppers and zucchini in olive oil.  All of these and more will be at your local Whole Foods starting this month.  Just add a pitcher of sangria or a nice Rioja to make your own party.

Spanish Vegetable Classics

Spanish Vegetable Classics

Photos by Jordan Wright

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