Nibbles and Sips Around Town – Latin Fusion Sizzle, Cathal Armstrong: The New American and Top Chef Mike Isabella Cooks Italian – Jersey Style

Jordan Wright
September 26, 2012
Special to  www.dcmetrotheaterarts.comwww.broadwaystars.com, and www.localkicks.com 

Executive Chef Adam Goldman - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Executive Chef Adam Goldman – Photo credit Jordan Wright

Get Global

Masa 14has a special place in my heart.  There’s just so much to like here.  Bold flavors, super-creative fusion cuisine – think of it as Asia romances Latin America and Mexico.  Add a great rooftop garden, super casual ambiance, an all-you-can-eat-and-drink brunch and yummy seasonally inspired food by and it’s a sure-fire winner.  Last week I sampled the new fall offerings – Cornmeal Crusted Oysters with togarashi aioli, Roasted Beet Salad with curried goat cheese, and an ooh-and-aah Cream of Corn Soup with sweet corn tomato relish and lump crabmeat.  At the same time the restaurant will present a series called “Melting Pot” to run one month per quarter starting with riffs on Asian-Brazilian dishes and drinks from Sao Paulo.  Owned by über chefs Richard Sandoval and Kaz Okochi, Masa 14 has earned the street cred it deserves.

Cream of Corn Soup Masa14 - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Cream of Corn Soup Masa14 – Photo credit Jordan Wright

For the $35 brunch and drinks deal first pick your poison.  There’s Masa Mimosa, Galleata (made with Faretti Biscotti liqueur and OJ), Strawberry Lemonade, Lychee Bellini or Bacon Bloody Mary to put you in a laid back Sunday mood.  Then go for in-house made flatbreads, salads, eggs dishes, sandwiches and Banh Mi burgers.  You’ll need to order the brunch for your whole table to get in on this offer.

Another option is to go up one flight to the Banchan Rooftop Brunch. The three-course menu breaks the fast with a basket of bread, then four small salads to share, a choice of one entrée and one dessert.  Tack on $15 for the bottomless brunch drinks.  Entrees are house-made biscuits smothered in chorizo or sausage gravy with scrambled eggs; Oaxaca Herb Waffle with scrambled eggs and sausage gravy and a side of spinach and arugula; or a grilled Monte Cristo made with crushed Masago rice crackers and served with agave syrup for dipping.  There’s also the Masa pizza topped with Oaxacan cheese, bacon, prosciutto and pico de gallo or a fantastic Cuban sandwich that subs pork belly in place of pork tenderloin.  Seafood comes in the form of Roasted Salmon with Oaxacan cheese polenta and salsa verde.  Follow with chocolate tart, sopapillas, banana and chocolate spring rolls, or fruit empanadas then string up a hammock for your siesta.  www.Masa14.com.

AOL Jen Brandt Boots - Photo credit Jordan Wright

AOL Jan Brandt shows Custom Boots – Photo credit Jordan Wright

South of the Border in Clarendon

Bursting onto the Clarendon scene is Fuego Cocina and Tequileria, a Latin explosion hotter than Pancho Villa’s spent pistol.  It’s the current brainchild of successful restauranteurs and partners Jeff Tunks, Gus DiMillo and David Wizenberg of the Passion Food Hospitality Group.   The two-level paean to Mexican cooking has a wide range of dishes from antonitos and tacos to botanos (small snacks) and entrees like posole and carne asada, a grilled skirt steak served with nopales salad.  Meats are cooked low and slow and falling off the bone.  Fish are seared or fried.  A whole trout is crisp and succulent with Cholula aioli for dipping.   This is a highly ambitious menu with over 65 dishes including nine varieties of tacos in which roasted goat, shrimp, pork, beef short ribs and tilapia appear in starring roles.  Authentic ingredients like huitlacoche, the Aztec fermented corn, epazote, the ancient fresh herb, and mole negro, the deep dark chocolate-infused sauce, appear alongside the hipper duck confit which gets incorporated into a traditional flauta.  Fuego’s Chef de Cuisine Alfredo Solis, who has cooked at Zola, Ceiba, Acadiana, DC Coast, District Commons and Ten Penh, can at last cook from his Mexican roots.  Olé to that! 

Prickly Pear Margarita - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Prickly Pear Margarita – Photo credit Jordan Wright

On the street level a long serpentine bar soars to the rafters with over 120 tequilas.  I went for the Prickly Pear Margarita.  Tame but hydrating.  Up a gracious winding staircase is the expansive second story with a bird’s eye view of the downstairs and the peek-a-boo kitchen at work.  Black leather low-backed booths stretch down the center of the room in a sleek space designed to see and be seen.  Along the far wall a twelve-foot raised fireplace anchors the scene – a sweet spot to cozy up in winter. www.FuegoVA.com.

Chef and Restauranteur Cathal Armstrong - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Chef and Restauranteur Cathal Armstrong – Photo credit Jordan Wright

American Cuisine at the National Gallery’s Garden Café

The Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art continues with its theme of pairing up food and drink with current high profile exhibits.  October is the opening of Masterpieces of American Furniture, a spectacular installation of American Chippendale furniture, portraiture and decorative arts from the distinguished George and Linda Kaufman collection.  Following in the very large footsteps of Chefs Jose Andres, Fabio Trabocchi and Michel Richard, famed local chef and restauranteur Cathal Armstrong partners with the Garden Café’s Executive Chef David Rogers to offer American regional cuisine in the Garden Café Americana.

American Chippendale Collection of Kaufmann - Photo credit Jordan Wright

American Chippendale Collection of Kaufmann – Photo credit Jordan Wright

Armstrong who has built a considerable empire in Alexandria, VA with The Majestic, Virtue Feed & Grain, Eammon’s – A Dublin Chipper, PX, TNT Bar, Society Fair and Restaurant Eve, hails from Ireland but has been offering regional American cuisine right alongside Irish fare since coming to our area.

“It’s a tremendous honor for an immigrant like me to showcase an American menu,” Armstrong told me. “I drew from the quintessentially American dishes of the 1700’s to the 1850’s to create the menu and to reflect the same period of the exhibit.  The American palate is extraordinarily broad.  I thought about the South, the Pacific Rim influences and the Burgundian climate of the Northwest.  For me it was inspiring.”

On his interest in the art world he explained, “My wife Michelle was a former student at the Corcoran and art has always been a part of our home life.  In Ireland I did carpentry and joinery for my uncle, a master Chippendale style cabinetmaker, who once made a wedding cabinet with 21 secret compartments and a dollhouse for Laura Ashley’s daughter.”

Glazed Root Vegetable Salad - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Glazed Root Vegetable Salad – Photo credit Jordan Wright

His fall/winter menu features refined comfort food like Glazed Root Vegetable Salad with rosemary and toasted garlic vinaigrette and Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with toasted pumpkin seeds.  Braised Beef with aromatic vegetables and a Turkey Pot Pie served with a buttermilk biscuit show Armstrong’s reverence for the South.  A warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream revealed a tender buttery crust and the Georgia Pecan Pie with caramel sauce was spot on.  The buffet is lavish, assorted breads, a cheese plate, salad, entrée and dessert.  At $20.75 per person it’s quite affordable.

A small selection of American beer and wines are available.  Alexandria’s Port City Brewing Company’s Optimal Wit makes an appearance as do several vintages from Virginia’s Rockbridge Vineyards.  Mixologist Todd Thrasher contributes a few snappy cocktails to the list with a Bourbon Milk Punch and a refreshing Gin Rickey.  Museum going just got a whole lot merrier!  www.nga.gov/dining.

Author and Executive Chef Mike Isabella - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Author and Executive Chef Mike Isabella – Photo credit Jordan Wright

“Down The Shore” with Mike Isabella 

Jersey born and bred Mike Isabella has a passion for food – earthy, soul-stretching, heart-stirring Italian food – and he’s decided to share it with the home cook.  His new cookbook Crazy Good Italian (Da Capo Press Lifelong Books) takes you into the kitchen with his nonna to teach you the family’s recipes.  Included in the over 150 recipes that speak to his Italian roots is his famous Pepperoni Sauce, the one that wowed the judges on Bravo’s “Top Chef”.  Isabella has gotten to be a familiar fixture not only on television, where he was seen in a cameo appearance on “Life After Top Chef”, but also around the DC area with his casual resto Graffiato and M Street venture Bandelero.

Smoked Olives with Baby Bellas - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Smoked Olives with Baby Bellas – Photo credit Jordan Wright

At Graffiato where he held his book launch and signing, samples of some of the book’s recipes were served up to an adoring crowd and Isabella proved to be the ever-gracious host.  Counters were piled high with delicacies like Crispy Baby Goat on Creamy Polenta, Smoked Olives with baby bellas, and Rainbow Cookies made with tri-colored almond paste drew knowing foodies.  This moment was the culmination of years of hard work and the young chef knew it was a helluva lot easier than working the line. “This is everything I’ve worked towards and here it is, and it’s mine,” he said, knowing this was his shining hour.  www.graffiatodc.com.

Nibbles and Sips Around Town – Graffiti Goes Glam

Jordan Wright
September 22, 2012
Special to  www.dcmetrotheaterarts.comwww.broadwaystars.com, and www.localkicks.com

Individually numbered limited edition Hennessey’s V.S. Cognac bottle with a new Futura-designed label

Individually numbered limited edition Hennessey’s V.S. Cognac bottle with a new Futura-designed label

What is so extraordinary about legendary graffiti artist Futura, neé Leonard McGurr, is that at a mere 57 years old he has outlived so many others of his genre and generation and continued to triumph in the Paris, Tokyo and New York art worlds, where he enjoys patronage and support from leading fashion designer Agnes B. and international art critics.

A fixture on the New York City scene in the ‘70’s with the late graffiti artists Keith Haring, Dondi and Jean-Michel Basquiat with whom he shared space at the Fun Gallery, Futura has enjoyed a resurgence of appreciation for his abstract street art and can command upwards of $200K a pop for his space age surrealism.  Defined by his pioneering thin-lined style of aerosol art, now referred to as “Graffuturism”, he has been known for painting backdrops on stage during concerts with The Clash, album covers for Unkle, and designing edgy street fashion under the name of Futura Laboratories.

Earlier this week we met up at Smith Commons restaurant in the trendy Atlas neighborhood for the launch of the individually numbered limited edition Hennessey’s V.S. Cognacbottle with a new Futura-designed label.

Futura autographing

Futura autographing

Jordan Wright – What were some of your early influences?

Futura – Let me take you back to the 1964 World’s Fair and the Unisphere.  I was fourteen, and I saw a fantastic experience of what the world was going to be like.  All the New York City schools were busing kids out there to see it.  That was my first indication that we lived in a really big world.

By 1969 Neil Armstrong was landing on the moon and it was the Vietnam War.  I was going to school on the subway and seeing graffiti on the trains and I became inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I had read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and I was into sci-fi, but the seed was planted by the World’s Fair.  The future sounded promising.  We would have more advanced technology, something I have always been fascinated by.

JW – Everything was about supersonic travel and food was jet-puffed back then.

F – Oh yeah, I had to have my Tang.  That’s what the astronauts were drinking.  I felt very connected to what my perception of the future was going to be.  It wasn’t just jet packs but Dick Tracy two-way radios and face time, whatever we have in our toolbox of technology.   It was the Golden Era of that movement in New York.

JW – Who did you hang out with?

F – In 1974 I joined the Navy and was stationed on a carrier in Alameda [California].  I remember I was at the 1980 Grateful Dead show in Oakland. I had been brought out there with a crew from New York, ‘manicurists’ who were out there to ‘clip’ marijuana.  None of us had been told why we were there.  I remember the Hare Krishnas and sprouts and carrot juice.

I was running around at night and painting but it wasn’t until the 1980’s in New York when uptown and downtown came together on a social platform and the alternative galleries in the East Village began to dominate the early 1980’s art scene. It was Basquiat, Haring, Scharf, myself, Dondi, Zephyr, a veritable who’s who.  Some came from the subway school of art, some more traditional.  Basquiat, the great artist that he was, came from nothing but he was very clever.  He knew about art history and had all the answers.  He was more calculated, writing these provocative and powerful phrases, and he was very prolific too.  But it was Haring that commercialized the art.  And Andy’s big show at the MOMA had a huge impact.  But I wasn’t one of Warhol’s group.  I was homophobic back then and felt uncomfortable in the gay world.  I regret the ignorance I grew up with.

JW – Graffiti was considered unacceptable then.  People were talking about what products would facilitate its removal and what kind of machines could blast it off surfaces.  When did it begin to become an acceptable art form?

F – In the beginning of that period it was, “How did it all progress beyond where it was?” And in a sense the rudimentary graffiti that still exists anywhere you go, is made by some kid with a can or marker and some sort of rebellious energy to express themselves.  It’s unfortunate but it’s always going to remain on some lower level.  There’s nothing productive or beautiful about it.  It’s like a dog pissing on a fire hydrant.  There’s always going to be what we call a “toy”, someone at the bottom of the barrel, and then you have your masters who are more mature and know their place in the system.

When graffiti was being cleaned from trains and security was increased to prevent it, artists could no longer access subways.  Today it’s hard to paint on trains anywhere in the world from Russia and Tokyo to Sao Paulo and India.  But why did we have a decade of street art?  Because it’s the most accessible to artists.

JW – Do you still paint on the streets?

F – Oh no.  I just had an opening in New York this week at Valmorbida on Washington Street and sold a painting for $190K.  It was very large, 8 feet high by 16 feet wide.  That will help out my family a lot.  I’m in the middle of a renaissance.  It’s great.  Recently my Paris gallery bought several of my earlier paintings to get them off the market and control the market.  Now they can control the inventory and offer new work too.  I’m happy to see a great price for my work at auction.  It’s a secondary market that the galleries use to sell my new work.

JW – How do we encourage younger artists coming up?

F – I’ve always told younger artists to first and foremost have a sense of humor.   Don’t allow others to dictate what your process or vision is.  It’s uniquely yours.  Today there are more artists then ever.  Back then you had to think on your feet and be creative.  I see our society as seventy percent lazy.  Nowadays artists don’t have to paint illegally.  They can just ask a business to do a mural on their walls.  There are ways to do public works today.  So artists need to be more entrepreneurial, take advantage, be more forward thinking – not wait for the opportunity to come to them.

JW – What’s next for you?

F – I’ll be continuing my tour with Hennessey.  We started in August going to cities throughout the US.  Now we head to London, Paris and Tokyo.  In 2014 I have a proper Rizzoli book coming out.  I had a book in 2000 that sold out.  I tried to buy a new copy online and it’s now selling for $500.  Prior to myself Hennessey co-branded with artist KAWS.  I’ll be doing a show in Tokyo next June and of course I’m still making work in my Brooklyn studio.

Interview with Futura conducted, condensed and edited by Jordan Wright.

Futura Artist at interview with Jordan Wright

Futura Artist at interview with Jordan Wright

Nibbles and Sips Around Town – Kraut Rocks Competition Brings Cool Cabbage Vibe to DC

Jordan Wright
September 19th, 2012
Special to  www.dcmetrotheaterarts.comwww.broadwaystars.com, and www.localkicks.com  

Top Chef Alumni Spike Mendelsohn Hosts Kraut Rocks Competition

Top Chef Alumni Spike Mendelsohn Hosts Kraut Rocks Competition

Kraut Rocks is the hipster appellation promoters have conferred upon a sauerkraut competition involving five of DC area leading chefs.  Steered by Bravo’s Top Chef alumni Spike Mendelsohn, the contest is sponsored by Great Lakes Kraut (GLK), a century-old company and largest producer of sauerkraut in the world.  GLK is the maker of the KRRRRISP Kraut, as well as the Bavarian style Silver Floss Sauerkraut that boasts a hint of caraway and Courtland Valley, an organic kraut with healthful probiotic benefits.

It’s an intriguing concept from a company looking to introduce the region’s younger generation to the wonders of sauerkraut.  Revered in France, Eastern Europe and throughout the Slavic states, the fermented cabbage has yet to enjoy the same hoopla in our area. (N.B. Costco has recently ceased offering it with its in-store hotdogs.)

Before refrigeration pickled and fermented vegetables were in every family larder and rows of glistening Mason jars contained the jewels of the growing season providing nutritious eating throughout Northern winters as well as an appealingly tart accompaniment for Southerners when it was too dang hot to cook.

Kraut Rocks puts the classic ingredient into the hands of edgy chefs like Teddy Folkman of Granville Moore, Fabrice Reymond of Redline GastroLounge, Ian Reeves of The Queen Vic British Pub, Ryan Wheeler of Virtue Feed & Grain and Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground, and that’s where the transformation from age-old condiment to trendy ingredient takes shape.

Throughout the month of September voters choose their favorite dish online at KrautRocks.com.  Dishes can order the dishes at all four restaurants and a $250 restaurant gift certificate to the winning chef’s restaurant will be awarded as a grand prize in the Kraut Rocks Online Sweepstakes, second grand prize winner scores a $250 gift certificate to one of Mendelsohn’s multiple restaurants.  In addition there are five first prizes of Kraut Rocks restaurant gift certificates, merchandise and exclusive access to special events hosted by Kraut Rocks’ chefs.

Whisk and Quill spoke to Spike Mendelsohn and some of the chefs this week.

Jordan Wright – Where did you get the idea to do Kraut Rocks?

SM – It was Krispy Kraut and I was honored to team up with them.  They approached me after reading about stuff I’d done with kraut.

JW – Has it been done anywhere before?

SM – Nope!  It’s the first time ever in the company’s history.  They were debating which city to host it in and settled on DC because the food scene here is growing at a very fast rate.  They are trying to take the fear out of fermentation, the process also used to make beer and pizza dough.  The idea is to make kraut more fun and creative.

JW – How did you select the chefs involved and what does each one bring to the table so to speak?

SM – I’m a DC chef now and have been following the food scene here.  I wanted chefs whose careers were born here and also tried to choose from different neighborhoods like Chinatown and Alexandria.   Ultimately the company chose the chefs they wanted to participate.

JW – Is Mike Isabella in on this?

SM – Mike helped judge.  But it’s the consumers that choose the winning dish.

JW – What were the rules in regards to ingredients, technique and final product?

No rules at all!

JW – Have you ever heard about sauerkraut being used in a chocolate cake?

SM – Yes, we talked about it but I’ve never tried it.

JW – Would you say these are dishes easily made by the home cook?

SM – Definitely all the dishes that were presented could be done at home.  It’s one of the things the chefs kept in mind.

JW – Are they currently being served in their respective restaurants?

SM – Yes, all the dishes can be ordered throughout the month of September.

JW – Can you talk about your early experiences with pickling and kraut?

SM – When I did my formal training in the South of France there’s a dish there called choucroute, which I used to prepare when I was at Cirque in NYC.  It’s very wholesome and very delicious.  It’s one of my favorites.  Oh, and I love to snack on kimchee.

JW – Why was DC selected for the competition?

SM – They chose markets that weren’t big to get new people turned on to kraut and raise awareness.  It’s been one of the most enjoyable campaigns to work on highlighting DC chefs.

JW – What’s next for you?

SMThe Good Stuff Eatery expansion continues, as well as Life After Top Chef a show that follows my family and me around.  It’ll debut in October.  I’ll be on an upcoming Iron Chef and I have a new steak frites restaurant called Bearnaise opening up on Capital Hill.

Executive Chef Ian Reeves of The Queen Vic British Pub

Executive Chef Ian Reeves of The Queen Vic British Pub

Ian Reeves, one of the contestants and Executive Chef of The Queen Vic British Pub on H Street in the newly revitalized Atlas District spoke to Whisk and Quill.

JW – Have you ever been in a single product competition before?

IR – No, but it’s been a good experience and well received.

JW – Do you use sauerkraut regularly in the Queen Vic?

IR – We’ve had it on the menu before but we normally make our own.  I do like using this product though.  It’s a fine shred.

JW– How did you come up with your dish that so far is the top pick?

IR – I just thought of using it as the star of the dish and combining it with pork and apples.  I’m using the Red Delicious, which are in season now in Virginia.

Pork Loin with Sauerkraut and Apples

Pork Loin with Sauerkraut and Apples

JW – What are your earliest experiences with kraut?

IR – My first experience was in Munich about three years ago.  I was there for a wedding and had it at a bierhaus.

JW – Do you rinse or soak it first?

IR – I squeezed some of the liquid off since I was doing some caramelizing in the pan.  But not usually if it’s a good product such as this is.

JW – Have guests been ordering this dish?

IR – Absolutely it’s been quite popular.  I’ve already gone through half of the thirty pounds I requested while using about six ounces per plate.

JW – Would you say it’s brought new customers into your restaurant?

IR– There are definitely new faces ordering this dish.

Executive Chef Ryan Wheeler of Virtue Feed & Grain

Executive Chef Ryan Wheeler of Virtue Feed & Grain

Ryan Wheeler is the Executive Chef of Virtue Feed & Grain and trained under Cahal Armstrong, celebrated Irish chef and owner of Virtue and Restaurant Eve.

JW – Is sauerkraut something you serve at Virtue?

RW – Typically we make our own in house and serve it with a Polish style sausage.

JW – What was the inspiration for your dish?

RW– When I signed on I wanted to do something that embodies what we do at Virtue – something out of the box.  So I made Scotch eggs and put sauerkraut inside.

Scotch Eggs with Sauerkraut

Scotch Eggs with Sauerkraut

JW – What are your earliest memories of kraut?

RW – As a kid my parents would have it in the fall as an Oktoberfest meal.  That was my first exposure and so I’ve had it with schnitzel and spaetzle.

JW – Do you rinse or soak it first?

RW – No.  I enjoy the taste of brine and the good taste from the salt.  Though we do braise it here, which softens it up a bit.

JW – Do you find guests are ordering this dish?

RW – As a special, yes!  We’ve sold about 120 eggs so far averaging about 15 a day.

JW – How have you introduced diners to the competition?

RW – We do a good job of promoting it with table tents and menu inserts with the Kraut Rocks logo.  The whole team has been involved.  It’s been good fun and I’ve enjoyed the process.  I would encourage new chefs to get involved with challenging competitions like this.  We plan to put the Scotch eggs on our menu even after the competition is over.

To vote for your favorite sauerkraut dish, watch videos of the ongoing competition, and get all the recipes to prepare at home, go to www.Krautrocks.com.

Nibbles and Sips Around Town – Bistro Vivant Channels Toulouse-Lautrec

Jordan Wright
September 4th, 2012
Special to  www.dcmetrotheaterarts.comwww.broadwaystars.com, and www.localkicks.com

Bistro Vivant's daily specials - photo credit Jordan Wright

Bistro Vivant’s daily specials – photo credit Jordan Wright

Destination McLean, Virginia

With umpteen restaurants opening in the DC Metro area of late one might be reluctant to venture to the outlying burbs.  But I assure you this 25-minute hop from the center of town to this destination restaurant is worth the drive.  Tooling up the GW parkway and basking in the seasonal panorama is part of the adventure.  You might stop along the way at Roosevelt Island and stroll the paths on a crisp fall day or catch a stay-in-your-car view from a Potomac River overlook.  Peer down the cliffs and you might spot a Great Blue Heron eyeing his supper or catch a glimpse of Georgetown University’s scullers rowing to the cadence of the coxswain’s call.

Bistro Vivantis the perfect and rare combination of delicious food, knowledgeable service and charming ambiance.  That it is housed in a former BBQ joint in a lackluster strip mall is quickly forgotten as soon as you enter.  Here’s a place that gets the details right and has a well-heeled clientele who appreciates the effort.

Bistro Vivant's Co-owner and sommelier Aykan Demiroglu - photo credit Jordan Wright

Bistro Vivant’s Co-owner and sommelier Aykan Demiroglu – photo credit Jordan Wright

Owned by Domenico Cornacchia, who is also the Executive Chef, and Aykan Demiroglu, the four month-old bistro is reminiscent of a Montparnassian retreat orchestrated by Toulouse-Lautrec himself.  At the end of the long granite-topped bar sits an ice-filled silver bowl where bottles of champagne await and mason jars of fresh fruit and vegetable garnishes stand single file.  Bottles of wine are stacked to the ceiling and bentwood stools cozy up to high-top tables alongside the 22-seat bar.

The sunny space succeeds with a refreshing absence of pretense.  Dark wood accents, creamy walls and a tiled floor convey a no-nonsense we-are-all-about-the-food-and-wine message, leaving the distinct sense that no trendy restaurant designer had a hand in the décor.  Rather it feels effortless and familiar – as if Paris were your usual stomping ground.  Open and airy with windows lining the room, the focus is a giant blackboard scribbled with the day’s specials, an ever-changing selection of classic French bistro “soul” food.

Escargots en cocotte - photo credit Jordan Wright

Escargots en cocotte – photo credit Jordan Wright

Poached lobster with two sauces - photo credit Jordan Wright

Poached lobster with two sauces – photo credit Jordan Wright

New Zealand cockles with chorizo - photo credit Jordan Wright

New Zealand cockles with chorizo – photo credit Jordan Wright

 

On a recent evening Demiroglu sprinted from bar to dining room in this lively place checking on patrons’ dishes and pouring wines. “Here try this one,” he says, offering a Pouilly Fumé.  “I think this will go best with your lobster.  Not to your taste?  Okay, try this.  It’s from a very small French winery, no one else carries it in the US,” the Turkish-born sommelier urges, pouring an estate grown Chablis, this one right on point.

Bistro Vivant’s wine program is exceptional for any restaurant.  Wines are offered by the bottle, carafe, half carafe and glass and are ninety percent French sourced.  “We seek out small boutique wineries in France,” he beamed, “They’re just not found in area restaurants or stores.”  Daily menu specials suggest pairings but Demiroglu seems happy to accommodate individual tastes.

Each Sunday he haunts the Dupont Circle Market to select produce from local farmers and twice a week much of the restaurant’s seafood is flown in from the Mediterranean.  Briny New Zealand cockles, spiked with chorizo and bathed in a light saffron broth, are spicy and delicious as are the shelled escargot served en cocotte in a sauce of butter, wine, roasted garlic cloves and herbs.  Swoon-worthy is the whole poached lobster with fava beans, baby fennel and heirloom tomatoes atop two dazzling sauces – one of carrot ginger, the other a basil pistou.

Recently a posh burger has joined the ranks.  Eponymously called the Pat LaFrieda Burger, after the New York butcher to renowned chefs such as Mario Batali, Danny Meyer and Laurent Tourondel, the custom made seven-ounce patty is made from Black Angus beef, chopped not ground, and boasts two parts chuck, one part brisket and one part boneless short ribs.  The juicy wonder comes with Niçoise olive tapenade, grilled tomatoes, vinegar-spiked grilled onions and aged Comté cheese on a brioche bun.

Reservations are highly recommended.  On the weeknight we dined several disappointed diners had to be turned away.  Call 703 356-1700 and visit www.BistroVivant.com for further information.

Southern Skillet Vinegars

Southern Skillet Vinegars

Praise For Fruity Wine Vinegars 

I’ve been trying to compartmentalize.  Work some/play some segments dictated by weather and deadlines.  At home healthful meals are prepared quickly with ingredients able to last a few days between catch-as-catch-can shopping.  With heirloom tomatoes at their juiciest and pickling cucumbers at their crunchiest, a nutritious meal can be ready in a jiff.  Just add some crumbled goat feta, radish slices, drizzle with EVOO and lightly sprinkle Satsuma Wine Vinegar from Southern Skillet over all.  Fresh greens or arugula form a green nest packed with vitamins and chlorophyll.  Pack in some protein with cooked chicken, seared scallops, shrimp, lobster (if you’re feeling flush) or a lightly boiled egg.  Fresh herbs from the windowsill are quickly snipped in.

I discovered these delicate vinegars earlier this year at the Fancy Food Show and have been slipping in a dash or two in lieu of lemon juice.  If you like white wine or champagne vinegar you will love these for their subtle flavorings and adaptability.

The Alabama-based company also makes five other wine vinegars.  Red and White Muscadine, Sugar Cane, Tomato and Blueberry.  The Sugar Cane Wine Vinegar goes nicely with bacon-wrapped quail; the Blueberry lends itself to enhancing fruits and the White Muscadine cheers up a béarnaise sauce.  Try the Tomato to add a unique dimension to andouille gumbo and tomato gravy.  You get the idea.

Here’s a recipe using the Tomato Wine Vinegar from Southern Skillet Chef Amos Watts of Jax Fish House in Denver.  It even uses our local Rappahannock River Oysters!

Gazpacho Mignonette

3 tomatoes
1/2 cucumber
1/3 red onion
3 cloves garlic
4 sprigs cilantro
1 sprig basil
1 bottle Southern Skillet Tomato Wine Vinegar
3 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 tsp. salt

Puree all ingredients in a blender and let sit in the refrigerator overnight.  Strain through fine cheesecloth or a coffee filter.

Then add ¼ cup chopped shallots
1 Tbsp. coarsely crushed pepper
1 bunch cilantro, chopped

Use on top of freshly shucked Rappahanock oysters or as a sauce for fish or steak.

These unique vinegars haven’t hit the stores yet, but you can find them on Amazon.

NIBBLES AND SIPS – The Occidental, Forever Young

Jordan Wright
August 16, 2012
Special to  www.dcmetrotheaterarts.comwww.broadwaystars.com, and www.localkicks.com  

Occidental Grill and Seafood Executive Chef Rodney Scruggs. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Occidental Grill and Seafood Executive Chef Rodney Scruggs. Photo by Jordan Wright.

The Occidental, Forever Young

In the shadow of the White House a special watering hole welcomes celebrities, power brokers and out-of-towners in equal measure.  The Occidental Grill and Seafood situated beside the Willard Hotel continues its reputation as a swank establishment where legions of notable devotees have long gathered to drink, dine, swap State secrets, and make policy.  That it continues to attract both the well-heeled and influential for over one hundred years is a tribute to its reverence for fine food and superb service.  But what’s more impressive is, though it boasts a clientele of famous politicians and a roster of international scene-stealers, The Occidental has kept pace with the contemporary food scene.  It’s one DC spot that doesn’t rest on its considerably august laurels but continues to forge ahead with innovative American cuisine.

Executive Chef Rodney Scruggs has been steering the kitchen’s progress over the past seven years buying locally as much as he can and delivering the kind of elegant dishes his guests expect.  Oysters hail from War Shore Oysters and sustainable seafood is delivered six days a week from Prime Seafood.  On a recent visit he beamed like a proud papa over a tray of biodynamically-raised heirloom tomatoes from Virginia’s Whipple Farms and patiently explained how Molly Visosky’s famers co-op, The Fresh Link a system that links farms, food artisans and farmers markets, provides the restaurant with the best local produce farmers have to offer on any given week.   The spectacular steaks the Occidental is known for are from Rosetta Farms in Baltimore County who supply Scruggs with top quality naturally raised meat.

Matt Baker. Photo courtesy of The Washington Loyalist

Matt Baker. Photo courtesy of The Washington Loyalist

The recent hire of Chef de Cuisine Matt Baker ups the game with his edgy twist to food styling and concept.  Also new is Mixologist/Sommelier Jo-Jo Valenzuelawho is quite literally stirring things up with craft sodas and artisanal cocktails, plucking sprigs from the hotel’s herb garden and hunting down exotic spices, to create infused liquors and bring a fresh creative approach to the overall program.

Lobster roll with fennel at the Occidental. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Lobster roll with fennel at the Occidental. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Last week over Maryland lump crab cakes, yellow fin tuna burgers and lobster rolls with fresh fennel, and pleasantly ensconced beneath hundreds of framed photographs of the restaurant’s legendary clientele, tales of the town were swapped with a convivial group that included Metropolitan Opera star Alessandra Marc, über-defense lawyer and former DC Baseball Commissioner, Marc Tuohey III, National Theatre’s Executive Director Tom Lee, and Sean Graystone who currently oversees the restoration of the magnificent Temple of the Scottish Rite one of DC’s most iconic historic buildings.

As we talked our indoor table looked out over the pretty patio with its royal blue umbrellas and cast iron jardinères and window boxes spilling over with herbs and bright pink flowers reminiscent of a sidewalk café along the Champs Élysées.  You could almost sense the city’s original designer, Pierre L’Enfant, smiling down in approval, his vision realized and still very much alive.

Summer is Peachy Keen at Station 4 

The sleek interior of Station 4 is a fitting stage for the playful cuisine of Executive Chef Orlando Amaro.  Decor is a mix of campy chic and studied casualness with lipstick red button tuck leather banquettes, honey-toned pearlized leather chairs and shaded chandeliers.  The space is large and lively, with a bar that runs the length of the room and the tables are well spaced, affording easy conversation.  On summer evenings opt for the outdoor patio separated from the street by a pathway lined with rosebushes and shaded by white umbrellas.

Executive Chef Orlando Amaro of Station 4. Photo by Jordan Wright

Executive Chef Orlando Amaro of Station 4. Photo by Jordan Wright

In honor of National Peach Month Amaro has embraced the summer fruit, giving it a supporting role in any number of dishes.  Raw oysters become a cradle for a sweet tart peach mignonette; watercress is the underlying base for a piquant salad with blue cheese and pecans toasted with oregano and cayenne; and seared foie gras meets lightly charred peaches.  Of particular note recently was an appetizer of watermelon topped with lump crabmeat, halved yellow grape tomatoes and speckles of dehydrated Kalamata olives – an alluring partner to a glass of Schramsberg Brut Rosé.

Appetizer of watermelon topped with crab at Station 4. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Appetizer of watermelon topped with crab at Station 4. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Most conveniently Station 4 is located across the street from the Waterfront Metro Station, next door to Arena Stage, and walking distance from Nationals Park making it a terrific gathering place before or after a boffo show or a winning season Nationals game.  Check with the restaurant for Nats ticket promos.
 

Piaf Would Love This Place 

Chicken with mushrooms and summer vegetables at Bistrot Lafayette. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Chicken with mushrooms and summer vegetables at Bistrot Lafayette. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Along Old Town Alexandria’s well-trodden King Street is where you’ll find Bistrot Lafayette.  A cozy intimate restaurant – a little shabby, a little chic – just how the legendary French chanteuse would prefer.  Last week a memorable soupe du jour was cream of spinach served with a dollop of fresh goat cheese and a ribbon of olive oil laced with fresh herbs.  Expect to find classics like steamed mussels in white wine as well as roast leg of lamb and duck confit.  When the weather turns chilly try the beef bourguignon with a cabernet sauce, or a silken foie gras from Hudson Valley served with pears poached in a soupçon of lemon, honey and five spices.

Every weekend best friends and owners Isabelle Zorro and Marie Sinclair throw a party in their quaint two-story brownstone.  Aprés dinner those in the know head upstairs on Friday and Saturday nights to carouse with fellow songsters and Francophiles where live piano accompaniment is in full swing until the last drink is served.

Throughout the steamy month of August Bistrot Lafayette will celebrate their 10thAnniversary with champagne (Mais pourquoi pas, chéri?) offering guests a complimentary glass of French bubbly with each entrée and a full bottle for a table of four.

Cream of Spinach soup at Bistrot Lafayette. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Cream of Spinach soup at Bistrot Lafayette. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Zorro sends out, “A big thank you to our loyal clientele who have supported us for the past ten years, with many more great times to come!” To that end they are offering another special extending past Restaurant Week.  Lunch is $20 for two courses or $25 for three sans the champers.  And Mondays are far from blue with half price on all bottles of wine during dinner hours.

Vive la France!