Nibbles and Sips Around Town – August 28, 2013

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

One of the private dining rooms. Painting by Brian T. Dang

One of the private dining rooms. Painting by Brian T. Dang

   Uber Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj Has a New Baby 

When it comes to cooking up success, Ashok Bajaj has a formula that could well be called the ‘ultimate dish’.  It’s simple, really.  Hire a talented chef, train your staff to a fare-thee-well, commission a trendy architect to design a stylish restaurant, and put it in a high-end location with plenty of foot traffic.  What could go wrong?  Not a blessed thing, as it turns out.

Bajaj’s latest foray into downtown DC is nopa Kitchen+Bar, whose floor-to-ceiling windows face out onto the exquisite Greek Revival façade of the stately National Portrait Gallery.  It’s an area he’s already dominated with 701, Rasika, Rasika West End, Ardeo + Bardeo, Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca, The Oval Room and The Bombay Club, his first outpost in Washington.

A dining room with a view from nopa Kitchen+Bar

A dining room with a view from nopa Kitchen+Bar

Over the past twenty-five years, Bajaj, a transplant from New Delhi whose training at the Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces prepared him well for DC’s kingmakers, has been showered with umpteen awards from industry titans to magazine editors, who track his latest ventures like Bengal tigers.  Earlier this year Bajaj was named “Restaurateur of the Year” by Washingtonian Magazine, an accolade bested only by his recognition by the James Beard Foundation, Forbes, CNN and GQ Magazine.

So what’s nopa got that sets it apart from the others?  To begin with nopa’s Executive Chef, Canadian Greg McCarty, who has brought along his impressive resumé.   Before landing in DC he spent six years alongside celebrated chef, Jean-George Vongerichten at the luxurious Bahamian restaurant Dune, later trotting off to Manhattan to open Nobu 57 and assisting renowned restaurateur Drew Nieporent on a number of special projects.

The zinc bar

The zinc bar

Described as an American brasserie, nopa’s fresh decor has beautifully transformed its earlier incarnation as Zola.  Martin Vahtra, the resto’s swank designer has swept away the heavy velvet drapes to reveal a series of light-filled dining rooms with white-washed brick walls, rustic wooden beams, and a black-and-white original mosaic tiled floor beside the zinc bar to reveal a unique space that can now highlight the historic building’s distinctive architectural elements.

Let’s have a cocktail, shall we?  The bar’s designer cocktails are surprisingly well priced at ten dollars and list six under two categories “The Classics” and “Signature Cocktails”.  “Blood and Sand” is an updated version of the original using Black Bottle Scotch Whiskey with Luxardo Cherry Liqueur, Dolin Rouge Vermouth and blood orange puree and “Red Envy” is an exotic concoction of El Dorado Rum, Heitz Cellar Ink Grade Port from the Napa Valley, lime and Fee Brothers Chocolate Bitters.  But the warm day spells gin to me, and the “800 F & Tonic” sports Plymouth Gin, house-made tonic and lavender with a ginger infusion to spice it up.

Because of its Penn Quarter proximity to the International Spy Museum and other local attractions, the menu ranges from family friendly choices like burgers and vegetarian options like the veggie bánh mi sandwich with cauliflower purée and a fresh herb salad, to fine dining and designer drinks.  At a recent lunch I found some hits and a few misses.   Foie gras terrine with a swoosh of carrot ginger purée was addicting, but the bluefish paté was disappointing, the negligible amount of fish in the spread renders the whole thing inconsequential and its accompanying triangles of earthy Russian-style black bread become far too ponderous a vehicle, especially when the bread basket has such alluring choices.

Nopa - Foie gras with carrot ginger swoosh - Spring radish salad with pineapple, mint and feta

Nopa – Foie gras with carrot ginger swoosh – Spring radish salad with pineapple, mint and feta

Gazpacho seems to be the only soup offered.  Unfortunately it was blended into the consistency of a breakfast smoothie and the crunch of summer vegetables unexpressed.  But crispy soft shell crab with avocado basil purée was precisely on point as was the sprightly radish salad with chunks of pineapple, feta and mint.

Soft shell crab with avocado basil purée

Soft shell crab with avocado basil purée

When it comes to fish the chef treats it with a gentle respect, no doubt from his days in the Bahamas preparing fresh catch with a French chef, and a glazed Chilean sea bass with tender baby eggplant and wasabi pea mash was everything one would hope it would be – the sweet taste of the fish balanced against smoky soft eggplant and a hint of fire from the Japanese horseradish.

At this point dessert beckoned and it was, well, cute!  Tasty fried cherry hand pies with crushed raspberry icing – the sort of thing grandma would toss into a cast iron skillet and a creamy dreamy version of banana pudding that was reminiscent of a church picnic.

The creamy dreamy banana pudding

The creamy dreamy banana pudding

For Ashok Bajaj the formula is still working.

Photo credits – Jordan Wright

Nibbles and Sips Around Town – August 16, 2013

Jordan Wright
August 16, 2013
Special to DC Metro Theater ArtsBroadway Stars, and LocalKicks   

The Sushi Bar in Del Ray 

There’s been a fine kettle of fish brewing in Del Ray.  Raw fish, that is.  Jilted by the adults-only restrictions at a new sushi bar, horrified moms lit up Twitter and the Del Ray Patch’s Facebook page with blistering comments, accusing the restaurant of discriminating against their little paragons of politeness.  Others claimed they were just fishing for publicity.  One writer challenged the unique name of someone’s child on the comment board.  While another retorted, “One day some family is going to pull a Rosa Parks on this place!”  Good heavens!  What was going on in hipster Del Ray, the sweet little burb where Gen-Y parents queue up with their little angels at The Dairy Godmother for soft-serve on steamy summer nights?

Here’s the skinny, if you haven’t already heard.  Six weeks ago restaurateur Mike Anderson of Mango Mike’s and Pork Barrel BBQ, opened a sushi and sake bar for adults.  That’s all.  If you saw the miniscule size of the place you’d realize that even one stroller could get in the way of service.  There are sixteen seats at the sake bar, six stools at the sushi counter and a few banquettes along the back wall, accommodating a grand total of 45 guests who will enjoy its pleasures on weekends between 5pm and 1:30am and during the week from 5 till midnight.  Get the picture?

From left - tuna tartare, yellowtail & jalapeño, salmon carpaccio and sea scallops with mango salsa and tobiko  -- Three Kings - toro, salmon roe and uni -- Tuna, yellow tail and salmon with a quail egg shooter in iced shot glass

From left – tuna tartare, yellowtail & jalapeño, salmon carpaccio and sea scallops with mango salsa and tobiko — Three Kings – toro, salmon roe and uni — Tuna, yellow tail and salmon with a quail egg shooter in iced shot glass

The Sushi Bar’s jewel box size is its charm.  It’s an intimate and relaxing spot with exceptional sushi and a well-chosen sake menu.  Momokawa, from Denver, Colorado, is one such sake in the nigori style.  It’s the first sake ever to be produced in the US.  I enjoyed its Moonstone Asian Pear, a delicate fruit-infused sake with the unmistakable floral sweetness of the fruit that dovetailed nicely with the raw fish and smoky seaweed flavors.  My partner opted for the Momokawa Pearl, an unfiltered sake that was both sharp and sweet.  Other sakes are in the ginjo & daijinjo, junmai and nama styles.

Moonstone Asian Pear Sake

Moonstone Asian Pear Sake

We sat at the sushi counter with sushi master, Peter Kannasute, an abundantly cheerful fellow who delights in describing his craft.  Omakase, meaning “chef’s choice”, is an option that allows the chef to dazzle the diner with a seven-course dinner that showcases his creativity.  For Kannasute, that’s the highest compliment.

Fourteen years ago Kannasute came to the US from Thailand, where his family owned a restaurant in Bangkok.  While attending college on Florida’s East Coast he made the decision that becoming a sushi chef was his true calling. “I asked myself what I really wanted to do,” he remembers.  “I knew of one master sushi chef with his own Japanese restaurant.  He hired me on and began to teach me the art of sushi.  Ten years later I was the head chef.”

Master Sushi Chef Peter Kannasute with some of his creations

Master Sushi Chef Peter Kannasute with some of his creations

At age twenty-three Kannasute entered an Iron Chef-style competition at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, where he went head-to-head with local leading chefs, including Jeb Bush’s private chef.  “I was the only entrant who hadn’t gone to culinary school!” he recalls.  “Ginger was the main ingredient.  I prepared lobster rolls and won!”

Later on in his career Kannasute opened the Atlanta branch of Sushi Ra, a well-known chain of sushi restaurants, where he established himself as head sushi chef.  At The Sushi Bar the young master has achieved his dream of teaching others about sushi.  He expresses his philosophy in the restaurant’s logo – the Japanese symbol for ‘dream’.  “I want our all our guests’ dreams to come true too.”

Red bean & green tea mochi with strawberries and yellow raspberries

Red bean & green tea mochi with strawberries and yellow raspberries

Gin Takes Center Stage in Summer Cocktails 

Central's Gin Program

Central’s Gin Program

Summer says G&T to a lot of us, but who knew we could keep it local?  In DC New Colombia Distillers is making it the juniper-based elixir the old-fashioned way in a copper pot still, launching Green Hat gin – the city’s first gin since Prohibition. The distillers even craft seasonal gins like their Spring/Summer offering with floral notes of cherry blossoms.  We’ll want to serve this during next year’s Cherry Blossom Festival.

At Central Michel Richard they’ve jumped on the gin bandwagon with both feet offering US made gins and those from as far away as France, England and Scotland and using over twenty varieties in surprising concoctions to highlight its glories.

Gin – The Cucumber Mint Gimlet

Cucumber Mint Gimlet at Central Michel Richard

There’s California’s Distillery No. 209 Napa Valley Gin, a citrusy gin made from an original recipe from the 1860’s and distilled five times.  Or try Greenhook Ginsmiths gin out of Brooklyn, NY whose product is made from organic wheat using Tuscan juniper, elderflowers and chamomile in the blend.   Berkshire Mountain Distillers, the first distillery in the Berkshires since 1911, is in the town of Great Barrington where my family had a country retreat nearby.  This summer Central presents a cocktail made from the company’s “Greylock” gin.   It’s called ‘Gin Blush’ and uses Campari, Chinotto, orange and lemon to enhance its charms.

The bar at Central has a rotating menu of four cocktails that are indelibly creative.  Try a ‘Lavender Gin Rickey’ made with FEW American Gin and lavender turmeric syrup, or this one that sounds particularly appealing, ‘Summertinez’, made with the UK-based Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Vya Sweet Vermouth, Triple Sec and house made strawberry rhubarb bitters.  General Manager David Hale partners with the staff to come up with new concoctions every week.  Cheers to that!

Clyde’s Turns 50

Clyde’s CEO and partner, John Laytham, is reveling in half a century of success.  “I don’t know of too many restaurants that have been around for fifty years or too many restaurant companies who haven’t closed a restaurant,” he remarks in his book How We Do Business, Clyde’s Primer For Beating The Odds In The Restaurant Business (Brick Tower Press). 

Scheduled for August release, the book chronicles the history of the company’s fourteen restaurants and is broken down into vignette conversations with the company’s founding partners who reflect on the restaurants’ proud history and their modus operandi.  The late Stuart C. Davidson quoting the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, espoused the business’s core philosophy by once remarking, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”   The company has proven that adage beyond a shadow of a doubt with an enterprise that has continued to grow and prosper. 

Pages are filled with photographs of Clyde’s formative years in Georgetown.  I checked to see if I was in one of them, but didn’t see myself, though I lived around the corner on Cecil Place and misspent a good bit of my reckless youth downing Bloody Marys and ripping into steak tartare amidst its red-and-white checkered tablecloths.  Oh, the memories…

Clyde's - Stuart Davidson hanging from fire escape; John Laytham in the bib overalls holding straw cap

Clyde’s in Georgetown – Stuart Davidson hanging from fire escape; John Laytham in the bib overalls holding straw boater

There are beautiful images of Old Ebbitt’s Grill and the group’s newest outpost, The Hamilton in downtown DC, a spectacular 37,000 square foot entertainment venue, restaurant and bar that had its first incarnation as Garfinkel’s luxury department store.  And even Clyde’s famous chili recipe has here been revealed.  Unfortunately no photos of The Tombs tare provided, though my initials might still be carved in one of the tables.

Local writer, Food Network producer and documentarian, J. Garrett Glover, does a fine job of capturing the owners’ personalities with an ear for humor and a keen perspective on the history of Clyde’s and its many outposts.

Photo credit – Jordan Wright

Nibbles and Sips Around Town – August 1, 2013

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

Maketto at Hanoi House Serves Its Street Food Indoors 

When Erik Bruner-Yang decided to do a pop-up test kitchen in advance of Maketto, his open air market and retail store slated for Lord knows when, it was a chance to revel in his Southeast Asian street food at the bargain price of $30.00.  For that very affordable price of admission, we embarked on an eight-course Asian odyssey during which we became quite eager guinea pigs for the sweet heat of Thai/Viet/Cambodian regional cuisine.  Until its official opening on H Street, Hanoi House, a Franco-Viet hip slip of a place on Fourteenth Street will serve as Maketto’s temporary quarters.

The Franco-Viet decor at Hanoi House

The Franco-Viet decor at Hanoi House

Bruner-Yang is a hands-on guy.  One minute he’s in the kitchen making your dinner the next he’s serving and describing his dishes and the a la carte items on the dim sum cart.    There’s also a full bar menu.  Specialty cocktails called “Strongdrink” are a good way to start.  I opted for “Silk Road”, a refreshing concoction of rum, coconut milk, ginger and vanilla – – perfect for a steamy summer night.

On the night we dined the menu started with Lok Lak a DIY Cambodian dish in which you pack with egg, tomatoes, rice noodles and Wagyu beef into a lettuce wrap, then dip the leafy cylinder into an irresistible pepper, garlic and lime sauce; then Bok Lahong, a spicy salad of green papaya, dried fish and shrimp, chilies and cabbage.  As the meal progresses the courses get spicier – in a good way.  Fried prawn heads, the spot where the crustacean guards its fat and flavor, are a gastronome’s nirvana.  Pick up the head, suck out the meat and rake out the good bits with your teeth.  Lick your fingers and repeat.

The bespoke bar at Hanoi House

The bespoke bar at Hanoi House

As the kitchen brought out more courses we watched Chef de Cuisine James Wozniuk standing behind the bar pounding spices with a mortar and pestle, tattoos flexing with each smash while tantalizing aromas waft about the room.  Next up was ground pork chili pepper ragout – – spicy, addictive and enrobed in a tangy tamarind sauce with green beans and water morning glory stems, a plant I’d never encountered before.  The insistence on its name from our server was so mystifying I thought I hadn’t heard her correctly.  I later discover Bruner-Yang grows it at home from seed.  The next day I look up its Latin name, ipomoea aquatica, to better understand its origin.  It’s the same genus as our morning glory, however “water morning glory” is a separate species, not well known here but commonly used in Southeast Asian and Eastern cuisines.  Mystery solved.

Ground pork chili pepper ragout in a tangy tamarind sauce with green beans and water morning glory stems

Ground pork chili pepper ragout in a tangy tamarind sauce with green beans and water morning glory stems

As quickly as one dish disappears another arrives.  Everything moves at top speed with the fixed price, two-seatings-a-night plan.  There were times we had to plead with servers to let us keep some of our courses, so eager were they to remove dishes we were still savoring.  A Cambodian concoction of black sea bass, dill and coconut milk was followed by Somlah Machoua chicken and pork broth based dish of tamarind, taro, lime juice, mint and crispy fried garlic – all mouth-wateringly delicious.  In the end I could have skipped the final dish of handmade fermented sausage that ended the savories with a whimper – – the only disappointment.

Shaved ice with sweetened condensed milk, fresh peaches and mochi served in a Mason jar

Shaved ice with sweetened condensed milk, fresh peaches and mochi served in a Mason jar

After all that we wondered if we could eat dessert too.  But we had signed up for the total immersion experience and we couldn’t pass up shaved ice with sweetened condensed milk, fresh peaches and mochi served in a Mason jar.  Could you?

Reservations required at www.HanoiHouse.com

Doukénie Winery Full of Surprises

Doukenie Winery

Doukenie Winery

Doukénie Winery came to my attention when I first heard of their Heritage Club, in which members have an advantage of pre-ordering their personal selections.  In mid-July we took a leisurely drive to the winery’s 520-acre property in Purcellville in the region known as the Loudoun Heights Cluster where we could sit overlooking the mountains drinking their award-winning wines and partaking of a once-a-month evening of live music and Greek food.  By the time we arrived “Bistro Night” was in full swing.  Guests were grazing on humus, Greek salads, gyros and baklava and watching ducks and geese splash around in a nearby pond while the sun descended over the blue hills on a clear night.  The barns and silo became silhouettes against the fading light and the water took on the sunset’s pinks and corals.  Most couples had purchased bottles to share and along with the band the lively atmosphere gave the evening the feel of a private party.

Sébastien Marquet, Doukénie’s winemaker, is a cheery and sophisticated fellow who began oenological school in Burgundy when he was a mere sprout of thirteen.   Naturally he gravitated towards the Côtes de Rhone and Bordeaux of the Burgundy region, the same wines he coaxes from Virginia grapes.  The winery produces an astonishing collection featuring Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Mandolin, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Vintner’s Reserve and Hope’s Raspberry Legacy, a dessert wine created by blending blackberries and raspberries with oak-aged red wine.  But the most popular among club members is the Mandolin and new offering, the 2009 Dionysus, made from 100% Merlot.  All of Doukénie wines are made from the estate’s own grapes.

Winemaker Sebastien Marquet

Doukenie winemaker Sebastien Marquet

We trotted off close on Marquet’s heels into the cool temperatures of the Barrel Room for a tour.  As he spoke of his life story and what brought him to America, he extracted samples with a glass pipette from oaken barrels coded by their variety and vineyard block.  They were intriguing and complex, a good sign, certainly holding promise, but clearly needing time to develop – – though it was fun imagining what they might become.

He explained the name of the winery, which is how I first learned that, notwithstanding the Doukénie surname, these are most emphatically not Greek-style wines.  So no retsina of course.  Though with the focus on Greek rather than French food, it was a bit puzzling.

As the story goes doukénie means “duchess” in Greek and reflects the name of the woman who was the first generation of Bazacos to come to America.  She was fourteen, a slip of a girl when she came alone by boat in 1919 from Greece.  Her father was a winemaker and she grew up in the vineyards around their home.  Traveling with scant possessions, she nevertheless chose to bring her mandolin, the symbol of which later has become the winery’s logo.

Hope Bazaco, the matriarch at Doukenie Winery

Hope Bazaco, the matriarch at Doukenie Winery

It was Hope Bazaco, Doukénie’s daughter and the winery’s matriarch, who shared her story with me as she fed the ducks from her golf cart.  Hope is originally from Brooklyn, New York where her mother settled among other Greek ex-patriots.  And it was Hope’s son, George, a local pulmonologist, who with his wife, Nikki, purchased their first tract of land in 1981.  Together they planted their first vines in 1986 as Virginia’s wine industry was finding its identity.  They called it Doukénie Winery after Hope’s mother who lived on the Loudoun farm for many years.

Sunset at Doukenie

Sunset at Doukenie

Bistro Nights are held on Fridays through the end of September.  On September 26th they celebrate the harvest with one of their biggest events of the year – the Italian Festival, featuring Italian food, wine tasting, grape stomping, live music and activities for the kids.  Resident geologist, Leanne Weiber, will take visitors on a guided tour of the vineyard by hayride to explain the area’s terroir.   For more info visit www.DoukenieWinery.com.

Osteria Marzano – Hidden in Plain Sight 

On the first floor of a glamorous high-rise, far more apropos of South Beach or Vegas, is the brand new Osteria Marzano.  Located in a cluster of office buildings near Alexandria’s Kingstowne shopping area, it is an unexpected beacon of light in an area better known for chain restaurants and strip malls.

Carmine Marzano has been cooking his country’s cuisine for over 30 years – first training at the prestigious Istituto Alberghiero Statale di Pienerol and later launching his career as the Executive Chef at the exclusive Ristorante Giudice in Turin, Italy where he remained for three years before coming stateside to assist acclaimed chef, Roberto Donna, with the opening of Galileo.  Marzano served as Donna’s sous chef for four years before opening Luigino’s in 1993.  Sadly Luigino’s shuttered its doors in 2003 after a great run.

Partners Carmine Marzano and daughter, Elena Pouchelon, at their new restaurant Osteria Marzano

Partners Carmine Marzano and daughter, Elena Pouchelon, at their new restaurant Osteria Marzano

Fast forward to three months ago when Carmine finally put his name on the door at Osteria Marzano.  Along with his partner and daughter, the beautiful Elena Pouchelon, they have superseded all expectations in the creation of a stunning modern restaurant that covers both the Northern and Southern regions of Italy with dishes from the sophisticated to the casual.

Since opening three months ago it has garnered a loyal fan base from locals who pop in for lunch, drinks and apps after work or dinner at the end of the day.  Families, too, have discovered the wood-fired brick oven for pizzas and small plates called assaggini – – perfect for kids.  We dropped in last month for dinner and came away thrilled, sated and loaded down with doggie bags or more candidly, lunch for the next few days.  Last week tables and chairs were added outdoors across from a burbling fountain, providing a romantic spot for dining under the stars.

Chef Marzano has a light touch that works in dishes like thinly sliced salmon crudo with truffle oil and a toss of lemony greens, and Ahi tuna carpaccio with pink peppercorns.  Try the little polpette.  They are heavenly.  Made with veal, beef and pork and served with a scoop of ricotta, they nearly float off the plate.

Crudo di Salmone - Atlantic salmon with truffle oil and citronette - Polpette - meatballs with a spicy pomodoro sauce and a scoop of ricotta

Crudo di Salmone – Atlantic salmon with truffle oil and citronette – Polpette – meatballs with a spicy pomodoro sauce and a scoop of ricotta

All the meats on the salumi board are first rate.  Ditto for the cheese board that includes marvelous cheeses from five different regions of Italy and comes with ciabatta bread and house made fig jam.  Vegetables are prepared gently as are salads, a touch of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a hint of garlic.  A veal osso buco could have been heartier, its accompanying risotto, brighter and more al dente.  The sauce lacked the depth and richness the veal deserved.  It’s a dish best made a day or two in advance allowing it to bring the flavors together.

Tagliere di Salami with house made gardiniera

Tagliere di Salami with house made gardiniera

Osteria Marzano’s menu is short story-length.  There are fourteen pasta dishes alone.  Imagine!  One for every other day of the month!  Each made in house.  You can’t go wrong with a dish that incorporates the restaurant’s basic marinara, a sauce made here that is perfectly balanced – – fresh and tangy, not sugary, with the distinct flavor of good quality tomatoes and herbs.

Veal Osso Buco with Saffron Risotto

Veal Osso Buco with Saffron Risotto

But let’s talk pizza – – the offerings are dizzying.  Feta, fontina, gorgonzola, buffalo mozzarella, provolone and ricotta are the cheese choices.  Dozens more toppings attract.  Expect the usual sausage and pepperoni, although the sausage is made here.  But it was the grilled eggplant, Italian bacon, shitake mushrooms, and even fresh clams and mussels that caught my eye.

Heads Up:  Be sure to let the server know you want your pizza charred.  Apparently diners in the hinterlands haven’t gotten the word that 50’s style pizza has gone the way of bobby socks and poodle skirts.  Customers keep sending it back thinking it’s burned and the restaurant has had to dumb it down.  So be sure to tell the pizzaiolo to prepare it the way he knows best – – the traditional way, the correct way.  Because that is how they do authentic Italian pizza here.   Of course, my readers already knew that!

The fabulous Nutella pizza

The fabulous Nutella pizza

And speaking of pizza, have it for dessert.  Yes, you read it right.  The Nutella dessert pizza is bad to the bone – – as in good bad – – as in crazy mad fabulous!  Think Italian s’mores.  First the creamy hazelnut chocolate spread is smeared over cooked pizza dough.  Mascarpone goes on top with handfuls of toasted pistachio nuts and tiny marshmallows.  Finally it’s slid into the wood-fired oven, which is sort of like a campfire, if you get my drift.  The marshmallows melt over the nuts and into the Nutella creating an insanely craveable sweet that turns grownups into kids.  Do not miss it.

So close your eyes and pretend you’re in Roma or Napoli or Firenze.  Because this is as close as it gets to the real deal without Alitalia.

All photo credit to Jordan Wright

Nibbles and Sips Around Town – July 10, 2013

Jordan Wright
July 10, 2013
Special to DC Metro Theater ArtsBroadway Stars, and LocalKicks 

Debuts and re-dos seem to be the thread of late.  Restaurants in the DC Metro Area are opening and remixing at a astonishing rate no one could have imagined a few years ago.  Forks up!

La Tasca Gets A Culinary Facelift

At La Tasca the privately owned chain of Spanish-themed restaurants, there’s huge buzz with the hiring of Josu Zubikarai, former executive chef at DC’s posh Taberna del Alabardero.  The Basque native, whose knowledge of Spain’s authentic regional cuisine has earned him a beloved following, has come back to DC to ratchet up La Tasca’s menus with tapas and paellas both traditional and modern.  He’ll work on pairings with his former Alabardero colleague, Aurelio Cabestrero, whose last stint was sommelier at Marcel’s.

Flamenco dancers at La Tasca - photo credit Jordan Wright

Flamenco dancers at La Tasca – photo credit Jordan Wright

In my experience Spanish wines are some of the unsung stalwarts of the vineyard.  At a recent gathering of sophisticated Spaniards I asked an elegant socialite why she thinks Americans aren’t more enlightened about Spanish wines.  “Because we want to keep them all to ourselves!” she cheerfully explained.   I’m hoping Cabestrero will be more inclined to share his knowledge from the fantastic wine list he’s assembled.

Berenjenas served with a warm Cabrales cheese dip - Pulpo a la Gallega – Steamed octopus with potato – photo credit Jordan Wright

Berenjenas served with a warm Cabrales cheese dip – Pulpo a la Gallega – Steamed octopus with potato – photo credit Jordan Wright

Of the five La Tasca outposts around the DMV, I chose to visit the Old Town Alexandria location.  As I approached the sound of flamenco music was pouring out onto the street.  A party!  Even though the sun was barely setting, the bar was lively, with patrons sipping sherry or drinking pitchers of sangria, some with filled with summer berries or fresh peaches, and nibbling on tapas.

There are over fifty tapas to choose from – – traditional nibbles like Manchego Frito, (fried manchego cheese) served with honey orange marmalade and Croquetas de Pollo y Jamon (croquettes with ham and chicken).  The list goes on and on.  More contemporary tapas like Mejillones Tigres (spicy mussels breaded and deep-fried with a béchamel sauce) are fabulous and you can’t go wrong with a cured meat platter of salchichon, cana de lomo, jamon de Serrano and chorizo served with picos and Marcona almonds or a cheese board of Tetilla, Montenebro, Valdeon and Manchego that arrives with a delicious fig jam.

 

Eggplant with almonds and goat cheese - Brazo de Gitano - A rolled sponge cake layered with quince jam and served with Manchego cheese ice cream at La Tasca - photo credit Jordan Wright

Eggplant with almonds and goat cheese – Brazo de Gitano – A rolled sponge cake layered with quince jam and served with Manchego cheese ice cream at La Tasca – photo credit Jordan Wright

Some diners never get around to the paellas, but you should venture forth.  Most of the rice-based dishes incorporate shellfish along with the traditional peas and peppers.  One variety uses chicken and duck.  Finish with café cortado or a glass of Gran Torres Orange, a Spanish liqueur, and hot and crispy house made churros or a creamy flan, and you’ll find yourself clicking your heels and shouting olé!  www.LaTascaUSA.com.

Sofitel Lightens Up 

No matter how critics whine and moan about small plates, they are here to stay.  Whether it’s to please grazers whose palates operate like Twitter, or dieters who eschew heaping portions of protein, diners are choosing smaller, lighter and healthier portions.

Sofitel Washington Outside

Sofitel Washington DC – photo courtesy of Sofitel

To that end Sofitel DC has reintroduced its popular, De-Light by Sofitel, with a lightened up summer lunch menu guaranteed to have business diners served and out in thirty minutes if they so choose, which I do not.  Because who wouldn’t want to linger at an outdoor table with a glass of rosé, savoring the cuisine of Executive Chef Franck Loquet and the heavenly macarons from Pastry Chef Vincent Bitauld?

The 30-minute De-Light luncheon menu from Sofitel - photo credit Jordan Wright

The 30-minute De-Light luncheon menu from Sofitel – photo credit Jordan Wright

Or why not dine languorously under the smashing black & white celebrity photo portraits by Gilles Bensimon covering the dining room walls?

But this is news about a quick, well-balanced, low-calorie lunch whose courses are served at the same time.  That’s an appetizer or salad, entrée and dessert with a calorie count of under 200 without sacrificing taste or satiety.  There are a few choices to make first – Grilled Asparagus Salad with orange basil dressing or Branzino Tartare scented with lemon, ginger and vanilla, a delicate Chicken Tagine with fennel and pearl onions or Mixed Grill, an assortment of fish, tomato, lemongrass and glazed baby vegetables.  Dessert is a strawberry and milk foam treat called ‘Milky Way’ for its etherealness.

 Bearnaise – Adventures in Retro French Bistro 

On the opposite end of the spectrum of Gallic cuisine are the cholesterol-heavy dishes of BearnaiseSpike and Micheline Mendelsohn’s latest endeavor whose steak frites concept beckons like a croupier at a baccarat table.  To say this type of cooking is as out of fashion as Carla Bruni, is an understatement.  I had thought we were fast-tracking towards healthier fare, not the cardiac unit.  Don’t expect to celeb-spot vegan goddess Gwyneth Paltrow slicing into a filet mignon here.

Downstairs dining area at Bearnaise -photo credit Jordan Wright

Downstairs dining area at Bearnaise -photo credit Jordan Wright

I enjoy revisiting the past as much as the next memoirist.  Traveling back to a more innocent time, before Bocuse, Guerard and Vergé gave butter and cream the heave-ho and snubbed their consensual noses at the great Escoffier.  Before the culinary renaissance of the 60’s trumpeted nouvelle cuisine and French restaurants reigned supreme, sauciers held sway, crepes suzette were made tableside, and bistros redolent of Gauloises and café filtre could be found on every street corner in France.  We are enamored of that sexy epoque and so is the restaurant.  Framed posters of Serge Gainsbourg, Brigitte Bardot and Coco Chanel dominating the cream-colored walls, are a dead giveaway.

The most difficult decision of the night - photo credit Jordan Wright

The most difficult decision of the night – photo credit Jordan Wright

Bearnaise is steak-centric and the tender cuts are cooked to perfection.  Serving them with a choice of sauces – béarnaise, spicy béarnaise, au poivre, bordelaise or maître d’hôtel butter – ups the ante.  Sides include roasted Portobello mushrooms, Brussel sprouts dripping with bacon and tarragon-infused béarnaise, bone marrow for the Paleos, and potato gratin with lardons in a creamy Reblochon sauce.  The night I dined there the soup of the day was vichyssoise that would have benefited from more leeks.  But the crispy frites made from Yukon Gold potatoes.  Sacre bleu!  I dare you not to dip them in one of the exquisitely made sauces!

The bespoke French table at Béarnaise -Steak frites with béarnaise  - photo credit Jordan Wright

The bespoke French table at Béarnaise -Steak frites with béarnaise – photo credit Jordan Wright

The restaurant prides itself on its affordable French wine list.  Over two dozen vintages are offered at $40.00 a bottle or $10.00 per glass.  A few, like the 2009 Cardinale Cabernet at $400.00 a pop, are for high rollers only.

So would I eat here again?  Mais bien sûr, mes amis!  Though I’ll have to eat like a peasant for a month before returning to the French onion soup smothered in melted gruyére, escargots bathed in garlic herb butter and topped with a jaunty pastry beret, flat-iron steaks, unlimited frites and chocolate mousse.

The questions remain.  Will the Mendelsohns’ legion of fans that flock to We, The Pizza, and Good Stuff Eatery’s burgers and shakes put their money on steaks frites?  Will General Manager Chris Connor bring members from his former gig at the Cosmos Club to the stylish spot?  Will Exec Chef Brad Race, formerly of Jose Andres’ Minibar and Michel Richard’s Michel be able to coax diners into dining on bistro cuisine?  I’m betting the bank they do.

Malmaison – Not Just for Josephine 

While we’re weighing in as Francophiles, I should mention Omar Popal’s new Malmaison is now serving dinner.  Mussel soup, vichysoisse, short ribs Bordelaise, vegetarian bouillabaisse and house made duck confit are a few of the offerings in this hidden Georgetown spot best known for hosting dance parties.  Malmaison has jiggered its cavernous space, once an ice factory, to provide diners with a view of the Potomac while dining on dishes from Michelin-starred chef Gerard Pangaud, formerly of Gerard’s Place and sweet treats from pastry chef, Serge Torres, an alumnus of New York’s Le Cirque.

Pastries at Malmaison - photo credit Jordan Wright

Pastries at Malmaison – photo credit Jordan Wright

Popal’s other hot spot, Napoleon Bistro & Lounge, will be celebrating Bastille Day on Saturday, the 13th with a “Vive la France” party at their Columbia Road address.  They’ll be spinning French beats and offering champagne cocktails.  The French-themed costume party invites you to sport your best beret, black and white stripes and a moustache – ladies are exempt from the latter.

Nibbles and Sips Around Town – May 20, 2013

Jordan Wright
May 20, 2013
Special to DC Metro Theater ArtsBroadway Stars, and localKicks 

Lessons in Modern Japanese Dining

Following in my tried and true method of going to newly trendy restaurants at unfashionable hours, I had no problem getting into Daikaya, the wildly anticipated Japanese restaurant and bar with its first floor ramen house, Izakaya.  I’m told the Japanese like to dine on many levels but my plan was to head upstairs where I would dine with one of the owners and be schooled in Sapporo.

School's in session at Daikaya with Daisuke Utagawa - photo credit Jordan Wright

School’s in session at Daikaya with Daisuke Utagawa – photo credit Jordan Wright

Multi-lingual, world traveled, and wed to a beautiful Brazilian he wooed and won in Dubai, Daisuke Utagawa opened his two-story labor of love this month after a four-year wait and a tasting trip to Japan with his partners, Katsuya Fukushima (Daikaya’s Executive Chef) and Yama Jewayni.  “When we were there I saw it with their eyes,” he said describing the men’s sense of wonderment as they hopped from place to place sampling food and drink and learning new recipes.  From that fact-finding mission they cobbled together a unique Sapporo-influenced menu, “a sort of Japanese comfort food” he calls it.  And with that I began my lessons from the very patient and congenial Daisuke.

“Sapporo is just one of twenty-six types of regional ramen in Japan.  It’s our Japanese soul food,” he instructs, going on to name the major styles – Sapporo, Tokyo and Kyushyu noodles – the last of which he characterizes as a ‘turbid’ or milky noodle.  These noodles are not the kind you microwave in a Styrofoam cup while cramming for finals.  The traditional ramen served here are handmade and pre-aged for ten days in a noodle factory in Japan and flown over each week.

Brined cucumber with togarashi - photo credit Jordan Wright

Brined cucumber with togarashi – photo credit Jordan Wright

Daisuke’s aims were to make his restaurant a democratic spot.  “In Japan you could be sitting next to a banker, a lawyer or a truck driver.  It was important to create this same ambiance in the U. S.  I wanted it to be a very free style.  So we hired an American designer that we sent to Japan to learn about the essence of Japanese design and translate it here.”  That is immediately noticeable by the crazy quilt walls and menus stapled inside of Japanese pop fashion magazines.  My edition read “Love Toxic” and featured dozens of laughing preteens in heart emblazoned t-shirts posing with their plush teddy bears.

Daisuke took charge of the ordering and we began our culinary journey with salmon poke, pronounced “po-kay” for those unfamiliar with the Hawaiian raw fish dish followed by a refreshing salad of mizuna with dashi gelee and ponzu vinaigrette, its profile tempered by the highly unorthodox use of burrata.  From a vast and complex selection of wines, beers, sake, Japanese whiskey (who knew?) I chose a softly floral Japanese made Belgian style beer, Suiyoubi No Neko by Yoho, for my pairing.  It was the one flavor profile that wasn’t in the food, so I felt I chose well.

A play on Oysters Rockefeller - photo credit Jordan Wright

A play on Oysters Rockefeller – photo credit Jordan Wright

All of a sudden small plates are flying to the table in rapid progression.  Baked Rappahannock oysters with teriyaki sauce and Parmesan cheese – a play on Oysters Rockefeller – and brined baby cucumber topped with thin-sliced togarashi.  I dip into chawanmushi, a soothing custard soup with steamed egg and braised shitake and enoki mushrooms.  A curative dish that would set you back on your feet after a night of sake sipping.

Blackened shishito peppers stuffed with gouda in a Japanese version of jalapeno poppers, and a hot-off-the-grill avocado with ponzu sauce, fresh wasabi and nori salt, are two more playful experiments.  Sweet, hot, cool, spicy, tender, crunchy, salty, umami.  It’s all about the balance.

Shishito peppers stuffed with gouda and topped with togarashi - photo credit Jordan Wright

Shishito peppers stuffed with gouda and topped with togarashi – photo credit Jordan Wright

A humble dish of fried garlic – nutty, creamy and not at all pungent – is swiped across kimchee-miso sauce.  Next up are tender sautéed chicken livers – lovely.  Skewered beef tongue is too tough.  The first, and what would prove later, the only miss.  But the memory is fleeting when little nuggets of tempura-fried chicken called Chicken Kara-age are dipped in ‘Chili-Kewpie Sauce’, a type of spicy Japanese mayonnaise.  Lady Gaga would smack her kewpie doll lips over this and Colonel Saunders would have never dared to compete with these tasty morsels.

Daisuke explains that the Japanese have many words and phrases to describe the exact moment of putting food into one’s mouth and of how flavor and texture affect the taste buds.  “For example when food passes through your throat or you drink a beer that is dry on the palate, we might refer to how it ends afterwards, like its dryness or ‘long tail’.  But there are many others,” he remarks.  An intriguing concept I would have liked to further explore.

Chicken Kara-age with chili-kewpie sauce - photo credit Jordan Wright

Chicken Kara-age with chili-kewpie sauce – photo credit Jordan Wright

To achieve the perfect sear on meats and vegetables the restaurant uses a Vulcan gas grill that emits infrared energy to mimic a charcoal grill.  Daisuke chose it in place of an open flame grill they couldn’t get city approval for.  It’s not any easier to use, its ferociously high heat demands full attention, but it achieves the same purpose.

With dessert Daisuke suggested Choya Ume, a delicious drink with a plum wine soaked lychee nut in the bottle.  It accompanied a trio of unusual sweets from black sesame panna cotta and purin, a concoction of caramel ice, orange and burnt orange zest to chocolate aisu-kurimi, a kitchen sink of miso-banana caramel, chocolate crisps and crushed banana crisps.  When I asked how they came up with such unusual combinations of ingredients, Daisuke answered in abbreviated Haiku, “If you listen, it will tell you how to prepare it.”  I’d been schooled.

Purin with caramel ice, orange, purin espuma and burnt orange zest - photo credit Jordan Wright

Purin with caramel ice, orange, purin espuma and burnt orange zest – photo credit Jordan Wright

At last, after two and a half hours of Daisuke’s gentle instruction I felt I could navigate my way around Daikaya’s menu but I surely would need help in future understanding the over thirty sakes including such varieties as unfiltered ‘Nigori’, and unpasteurized ‘Nama’.  That is better left to those more learned than I.  I am but a humble cricket.

Black sesame panna cotta with crispy wild rice, shortbread and sweet sesame sauce - photo credit Jordan Wright

Black sesame panna cotta with crispy wild rice, shortbread and sweet sesame sauce – photo credit Jordan Wright