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Nibbles and Sips Around Town – February 1, 2016

Jordan Wright
January 2016
Special to DC Metro Theaters Arts

Secret Chopsticks Brings Classic Chinese to Rosslyn – Pennsylvania 6 Challenges DC’s Established Steak and Seafood Houses – Let’s Do BBQ! Texas Jack’s Style – Austrian Embassy Focuses on Art and Photography with a Side of Schnitzel 

A dinner consisting of a parade of eleven courses is all in a day’s work, isn’t it?  It was for me at Executive Chef/Partner Robin Li’s new Chinese restaurant, Secret Chopsticks in the luxurious Turnberry Tower in Rosslyn.  Li, along with Dim Sum Chef, Tonia Wang, are sticking to the classics, preparing regional Mainland Chinese cuisine, rare in the DMV.

The dining room at Secret Chopsticks

The dining room at Secret Chopsticks

Li’s early training came from a stint in the US Navy who sent him to the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park to hone his skills.  After his hitch was up, he returned to the school to graduate and then back to China where he opened an American-style steakhouse.  Thankfully he turned his sights back to the States and Chinese cuisine.

There are so many dishes to triumph here.  On a recent visit the menu listed a variety of dishes sans description, though I’m told that will soon be corrected to better inform diners.  Dumplings sheer as silk stockings and consommés as delicate as French haute cuisine are artistically presented and often garnished with a single goji berry.  Most dishes come lightly poached, with few fried offerings.  Those that are, like crispy tofu skin, are light as a feather.

(L-R) Tofu Blossom Soup -- Beef Potstickers -- A delicately prepared Steamed Chilean Sea Bass

(L-R) Tofu Blossom Soup — Beef Potstickers — A delicately prepared Steamed Chilean Sea Bass

From the Tofu Blossom soup, which looks like a chrysanthemum in full bloom, dishes were nicely timed – – not rushed.  Though the menu offers a la carte or dim sum, you can opt for an 11-course tasting menu to experience dishes that highlight the best of Mainland China and showcase some unusual ingredients not commonly seen in our area’s Chinese restaurants.  A delicacy called “fengo” uses a bok choy cousin called yu choy, a tender green incorporated into a superb dumpling and Li’s rendition of crystal shrimp dumplings, the hallmark of all great Chinese chefs, is spot on.

(L-R) Dongpo Pork Belly -- Durian Pastry with durian ice cream

(L-R) Dongpo Pork Belly — Durian Pastry with durian ice cream

An intriguing array of craft cocktails, surprisingly more in keeping with the hipper watering holes in town, rise to the level of excellence.  Though they change from time to time, we found the cocktails to be beautifully balanced and original.  Try the ‘Bao Bao Green Tea Mojito’ (my personal favorite) or ‘Turn Down Service, For What?’, a play on rapper Lil Jon’s hit song.  And winter’s wrath may be tamed by a drink aptly named, ‘Happy Toddy’.  Whatever you choose, be sure to cap it off with Durian Pastry with Durian Ice Cream.  Notwithstanding all the horror stories you have heard about durian’s overpowering taste and aroma, Li tames the fruit into a delicious and refreshing confection.  www.SecretChopsticks.com

Pennsylvania 6 – A New Downtown Hotspot Challenges the Old Guard

The bar at Pennsylvania 6

The bar at Pennsylvania 6

Pennsylvania 6 is presenting some serious competition to downtown steak-and-seafood establishments, and it starts with a gorgeous interior that is spacious without being cavernous.  Anchored by large oak columns, the large Carrera marble bar gleams with stainless steel accents.  Tinted mirrors are inscribed with the cocktail and seafood specials of the day.  The afternoon I was there the I Street afternoon sun spilled onto the rustic wood floors lighting up a hammered metal bucket filled with juicy citrus fruits.  And since atmosphere sets the tone for the direction the menu will take, comfortable seating at properly-lit linen covered tables allowed us to be able to see our food without sacrificing ambiance.  Beyond the bar white subway tiles surround an Oyster Bar where crustaceans are nestled in their icy beds.  Maine lobsters and oysters from both coasts awaiting their star turn.  It’s everything you would hope for from a restaurant keen to dispel any whiff of newness.

(L-R) A cozy setting -- The elegant private dining room

(L-R) A cozy setting — The elegant private dining room

On the walls a well-curated collection of old photos, magazine covers, antique prints, original oil paintings, and equestrian art add to the clubby atmosphere.  Off to one side tweed-covered sofas by a fireside beckon guests to linger awhile.

Executive Chef Mark Plessis

Executive Chef Mark Plessis

This is the sort of place to celebrate a promotion, mark anniversaries and birthdays, and impress clients.  It is upscale dining with a twist, overseen by Executive Chef Mark Plessis and Culinary Director Brian Cook.  And though the prime steaks and grand seafood towers are lavish, the approach is new and stylish.  Foie Gras Mousse gets an apple cider gelee, Kona Kampachi Crudo gets gooseberries, and steaks get a choice of sauces from peppadew chimichurri and bordelaise to gorgonzola butter.  Sides are excellent too, especially the Duck Fat Fries.

(L-R) Kona Kampachi Crudo with gooseberries -- Tuna Crudo

(L-R) Kona Kampachi Crudo with gooseberries — Tuna Crudo

As for desserts, it’s well nigh impossible to choose only one, so order a few and you be the judge – the Spiced Apple Cake and assortment of Mini Crème Brulees are divine.

A trio of Creme Brûlées

A trio of Creme Brûlées

I don’t always mention service in my reviews since if they know who I am, it may not reflect what other diners experience – and if they do not, it can be just as good, or just as bad as if they did know.  But in this case, the staff at Pennsylvania 6 is a breath of fresh air – well-trained, knowledgeable and crisp about their duties, striking the right balance between amenably responsive and respectfully unintrusive.  What a joy, since good food and a pretty place only go so far.  www.Pennsylvania6DC.com

Texas Jack’s Serves Up Killer BBQ from Former Brooklyn-Based Chef 

What does a kid who learned about barbecue in Brooklyn know from Texas barbecue, you might ask?  A lot, as it turns out!  In 2004 Executive Chef Matt Lang began his career in Manhattan at the much-lauded Pearl Oyster Bar, while still attending the French Culinary Institute.  Three years later he was running the kitchen at Fette Sau, a newly launched barbecue restaurant in Brooklyn where he created a menu inspired by every American region that offers barbecue.

Chef Matt Lang wrangles a juicy brisket

Chef Matt Lang wrangles a juicy brisket

Fette Sau was voted the number one barbecue restaurant in New York by Zagat, holding that position for each year Lang ran the kitchen.  In 2007 Fette Sau was lauded with a glowing review from The New York Times.  Later Lang competed on the Food Network barbecue show, Best in Smoke, competing against barbecue mega-giants like Famous Dave, Chris Lilley, and Brad Orrison, among others.  Lucky for us, he landed in the DMV.

At Texas Jack’s Barbecue, housed in the former Whitey’s in Clarendon, there is a whole lot of cheffin’ goin’ on.  And Lang has taken the don’t-mess-with-Texas motto and upped the ante by circling the mains with some healthful sides that really rock.

The bar scene at Texas Jack's

The bar scene at Texas Jack’s

Did I love this place?  To bits!  First off Lang sources high quality meats – strictly upper cut short ribs from Allen Brothers in Chicago; pork from the Duroc heritage breed from Missouri; Habanero sausage from Mitch Berliner and Stanley Feder’s locally based MeatCrafters; and sustainably-raised organic chickens from Freebird in Pennsylvania.  Local farmers fill in the produce blanks as much as seasonally possible.  This is not your average barbecue joint.  Expect these high end ingredients to express a far better product.  But there are some things that just don’t need changing, like the fluffy-soft traditional Martin’s Dutch Potato Bread the pulled pork sandwiches are served on.

(L-R) Ribs, habanero sausage and sides -- Pulled pork sandwiches

(L-R) Ribs, habanero sausage and sides — Pulled pork sandwiches

Owner Steve Roberts knows cowboy vittles from his roots in Montana and wanted to bring the real deal to Arlington.  A Greek, whose background is in food service, Roberts already has five successful Cleveland restaurants under his belt.  He’s kept the original scuffed-up concrete floors and opened up a few arched windows that had been hidden behind brick walls that once separated the two buildings.  Now there’s a clear view to the expansive bar from the main dining room.  And he’s added some cool touches of his own.  Chairs and tables are custom crafted from reclaimed wood and food is served up on blue-and-white enamelware.  Styrofoam is out and only blue-striped cloth napkins are used.  This isn’t Cousin Bubba’s roadhouse.

But let’s get to the menu.  As mentioned the meats are top notch, especially the melt-in-your-mouth brisket.  But so are the sides.  They’re outrageously delicious.  Wrap your palate around a few of these, if you will.  I’m especially partial to the Kale Salad and a side with corn.

(L-R) Pulled pork nachos -- Mountains of kale, sides and a platter of brisket

(L-R) Pulled pork nachos — Mountains of kale, sides and a platter of brisket

Smashed Cucumber Salad with yogurt, rice wine vinegar and jalapeño; Warm Potato Salad, fried potatoes with a warm bacon vinaigrette; Esquites, grilled corn off cob with mayo, Mexican cheese, cilantro and jalapeño; Fried Chick Pea Salad with chorizo, epazote and lime juice; Fried Brussels Sprouts with lemon juice and parmesan; Not So Spicy Coleslaw with jalapeño, cilantro, red onion and cotija cheese, as well as Macaroni & Cheese. No Masa Sope Style Smashed Fried Potatoes with beans, pulled pork and cheese; Nachos with beans, pulled pork, white queso, crema, salsa verde and salsa roja; Chilaquiles, a smothered version of nachos; Kale Caesar Salad with croutons and parmesan; Burger, a classic double with American cheese, lettuce, tomato and piquin chile mayo; No Meat Burger with wheat berry, shiitake, porcini and chickpea; Pork Sandwich with not so spicy coleslaw and sriracha pickles; Brisket Sandwich with a fried egg, queso blanco and poblano; and Smoked Tofu Tacos.

As for dessert, it appears to be a work in progress.  High hopes for the locally made pies touted by the waiter, were quickly dashed when I encountered leaden pie crusts and scant fillings that had more in common with a jar of jam.  Skip dessert for now.

Along with lunch and dinner service, there is Sunday brunch (brisket hash rang my bell) and takeout.  Free parking in the evenings in the lot next door.  www.TXJacks.com

Art and Pastries with Love from Vienna 

Two weeks ago the Austrian Cultural Forum, an organization that organizes and supports a variety of cultural events (concerts, film screenings, exhibitions, theatre, lectures, panel discussions, symposia) here in Washington, presented a program dedicated to their latest art installation. In the light-filled atrium of the embassy, press and guests gathered to hear remarks by the newly installed Ambassador Wolfgang Waldner, visiting dignitary Dr. Danielle Spera, Director of the Jewish Museum Vienna, Andreas Pawlitschek, Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum Washington and Helena Hartlauer, head of Media Relations representing the city of Vienna.

Ambassador Wolfgang Waldner. - Photo credit: (c) Vienna Tourist Board

Ambassador Wolfgang Waldner. – Photo credit: (c) Vienna Tourist Board

A guided tour of the highlights of the exhibit included works by the noted photographer Erich Lessing, curated by his daughter Hannah Lessing.  Erich Lessing fled Vienna for Palestine in 1939 and returned to Vienna in 1945 to become one of the most important Austrian and international photographers, as well as a photojournalist for the Associated Press in 1947, a full member of Magnum Photos Paris and the official chronicler of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against Soviet occupation.

Known for his candid pictures of major political moments of his day, Lessing was best known for his documentation of the signing of the Austrian State Treaty.  The picture now serves as the iconic symbol of the rebirth of Austria as a sovereign state after World War II.  His famous portrait subjects included the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle. From the 1960s on he turned his focus to the arts, notably serving as on-set photographer for The Sound of Music starring Julie Andrews, which celebrated its 50-year anniversary in 2015.

The eclectic selection includes landscapes in Israel of quasi-biblical dimensions, images of post-war beauty queens, the documentation of daily life in post-war Vienna, and sensitive impressions of Jewish customs and ceremonies.

One of the exhibits of most interest to the guests was by Philadelphia-born Andrew MezvinskyA GOOD DAY, his compelling multimedia installation, is based on Primo Levi’s account of survival in Auschwitz, and titled THE JEWISH MUSEUM VIENNA ON INTERNATIONAL COURT.   A young Jewish-American artist who, five years ago, chose the city of Vienna to be the center of his life and creative work, Mezvinsky’s work contemplates a single day in Auschwitz in 1944.  Inspired by the Jewish-Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s autobiography If This Is a Man, Mezvinsky depicts Levi’s traumatic experiences in the concentration camp, including a chapter titled “A Good Day, which describes a day at the end of winter when the first rays of sun heralded a relief from the cold.

Mezvinsky creates series of drawings, reminiscent of fairy tales, or even the figures of Commedia dell’Arte, which he brings to life in animation. What initially appear as idyllic scenes reveal themselves to be poisoned – arising to depict one of the darkest moments in the history of Europe as the Third Reich expanded.  Mezvinsky approaches the agony of Auschwitz from various perspectives; addressing the yearning for normalcy in the savage reality of an extermination camp, and reflecting on the basic conditions for human survival. His interacting multimedia exhibition, consisting of an animation film and a series of drawings, also with an interactive component, symbolizes liberation and an interminable will to survive.

For further study, read an interview with Danielle Spera at: www.austria.org/a-conversation-with-danielle-spera

ABOUT THE AUSTRIAN CULTURAL FORUM WASHINGTON
Visit www.acfdc.org for more information.

Wiener schnitzel at the Austrian Embassy luncheon

Wiener schnitzel at the Austrian Embassy luncheon

Photo credit – Jordan Wright

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