Frenchifying Fairfax, The Gin Game Redux, J&G Steakhouse Adds a Secret Room, the Day of the Dead Comes Back to Life and Olive You Too, Espana!
If you blink you’ll pass the modest storefront of Le Mediterranean Bistro, a mere slip of a place in historic Fairfax City, Virginia that quiets down towards nightfall. Once inside the cozy bistro senses prick up. You might detect a whiff of foie gras lightly searing with brandy, lobster carapaces creating a rich seafood stock or lamb shanks braising in wine and herbs. The room is filled with the aroma of tarragon, thyme, rosemary and lavender – – the floral notes of the Midi. But wait! There’s more. Exotic spices like saffron, cinnamon and cardamom intermingle with traditional French herbs – – a clue to Chef/Owner Driss Zahidi’s Moroccan roots.
The 50-seat spot is already bursting at the seams. Last month there were lines outside and tables were filled with diners looking as blissful as Cheshire cats. The décor is simple but welcoming. Warm pumpkin-colored walls, linen covered tables and a few large contemporary paintings in a room dominated by a chalkboard announcing the evening’s food and wine specials.
Leading off with the most decadent dish on the menu might not seem like a wise beginning, but would you pass up pan-seared diver scallop and steamed lobster topped with foie gras and bathed in black truffle sauce? I think not, fellow gourmands. It’s already made my top ten dishes of the year.
A roasted beet salad with creamy goat cheese and Cara Cara orange sections hit all the right smoky-tangy notes, before moving on to into seafood paella and osso bucco. The paella served in its own pan had baby clams, artichoke hearts, scallops, lobster (Can one ever say no to more lobster?), shrimp, mussels and bits of spicy chorizo. Billowy clouds of steam rose off the dish and its saffron scented rice. An imposing portion of braised lamb shanks, falling-off-the-bone tender, was served atop fluffy cous cous, perfect for absorbing the meaty wine-infused juices on the bottom of the earthenware casserole. Each dish we tried showed the hand of an experienced chef, one who understands French country classics while celebrating his own country’s contributions.
Dessert is made in-house and you can’t go wrong with the apple tarte tatin a la mode, aswirl in caramel sauce or the last-of-the-summer peach cake with a foil of piquant raspberry coulis.
As for service, it was swift and polite. Each table in the small room seemed to get the same friendly attention. As for me, I reveled in the cheerful, well-orchestrated atmosphere that makes it feel like a private party. Reservations recommended.
The Gin Game Redux
Recently I took a stroll down memory lane and into Woodley Park. It’s been moons since I’d been to New Heights, a restaurant that’s launched more successful chefs than NASA has launched rockets, most notably – Cahal Armstrong, Brian McPherson, RJ Cooper, Ron Tanaka, John Wabeck, Logan Cox and Matthew Lake. Cutting edge dishes are de rigeur in this friendly neighborhood watering hole that overlooks Rock Creek Park.
Lately 25-year old Takeshi Nishikawa, a Japanese chef straight off a stint in Bryan Voltaggio’s Volt and earlier positions at Restaurant Eve and the now shuttered Maestro, three of the area’s most lauded kitchens, has taken the helm. Nishikawa has already put a thrilling new menu together combining some unusual ingredients and sophisticated techniques to showcase his talents and experience. From ginger and cardamom to highlight a carrot soup, beech mushrooms and eggplant paired with veal sweetbreads, and goat cheese tortellini served with pickled ramps and morels, the young chef is playing with food and thinking out of the box. Farro makes an appearance beside locally raised rack of lamb and halibut gets polenta and pearl onions. Expect the unexpected.
Owner Umbi Singh, an dashing fellow with impeccable manners, has been letting young chefs have their say in his kitchen for twenty-seven years, but lately he’s turned over the reins at the bar to Nicole Hassoum, a sprightly, and wildly inventive, mixologist who has transformed the small space into her own private laboratory. It’s called The Gin Joint and it’s a temple to gin in its many forms.
Over 45 gins from around the planet go into her cocktails. From dry gins, Old Raj from Scotland and Leopold’s of Denver; to spicy, Botanist from Islay to Green Hat, a DC distillery, to Silver Tip from Montana. Citrus flavors are a separate category and range from the juniper flavored Greylock from the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, to Damrak from Amsterdam, described as showing floral as well as blood orange notes. Two more categories define alternate profiles. More floral still are Citadelle from France revealing jasmine, honeysuckle and cinnamon, and Darnley’s View from Great Britain with overtones of elderflower. The final grouping includes Ransom “Old Tom” from Oregon, a revival gin once made in the 19th C, and Smooth Ambler Barrel Aged from West Virginia, a gin with aromas of orange, caramel and spice.
Adding to the “mix” Hassoum makes her own tonic. Seven different kinds, if you will. Crazy cool combinations like citrus cucumber, pummelo passionfruit, basil fennel, and hibiscus saffron. Using these and other ingredients sourced from the kitchen, this adorable mad scientist has invented an extensive cocktail menu to show off her seemingly unlimited imagination. I tiptoed around, choosing my target like a thief in the night, before selecting the “Filibuster” made with Jensen’s gin, heirloom tomato water, Lillet Blanc and basil. The ultimate in gin bliss which harkened me back to an afternoon utterly misspent in a garden in the English countryside. Visit her to be transported back to your own gin memories.
J&G Steakhouse Adds a Secret Room
One of the most gorgeously contemporary designs in a dining room in Washington, DC surely has to be J&G Steakhouse in the W Hotel. After a summer shutdown, the restaurant has blossomed into a stunning space with the addition of Bar 515 beside a wall-length banquette in the dining room where guests can see and be seen. It’s got my vote for the most luxuriously chic and sophisticated décor in town.
Decorated in a dramatic palette of charcoal grey, silver and lipstick red the high-ceilinged room, surrounded by huge Palladian windows and massive columns that run the length of the room, has given Jean-George Vongerichten a perfectly sophisticated setting in which to flaunt his not-so-very-French dishes.
Anyone for a 12-ounce cut of Akaushi beef, or a 32-ounce pork porterhouse? It’s here. In the seafood category there’s fried calamari with pickled beet tartar sauce and jumbo lump crab cakes. Pretty standard bar food elsewhere – – done here with finesse. Grilled Loch Duart salmon, a farmed fish from northern Scotland, and Chesapeake Bay rockfish enhanced with mushroom dashi and Swiss chard, all rang my bell.
But I confess I’m most partial to two of the appetizers – – the beef carpaccio on flatbread and the yellow fin tuna tartare served with a tangy fennel mignonette and topped with toasted quinoa. Imagine those with a dry martini made tableside by a roving bartender with a rolling bar cart and you’ve got the picture.
My favorite niche is off the dining room down a flight of stairs where a sexy-cool secret bar has been created out of a former storage space. It’s lit mostly with candles and is so darkly intimate that on my recent visit I couldn’t get a proper photo of it. Take my word for it. The bar leads out onto a spacious patio where you can pose attractively under umbrellas while watching the swells go by. A lovely place to dream a little dream.
The Day of the Dead Comes Back to Life
That the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration coincides with Halloween is music to the ears of all things that go bump in the night – – though the pre-Columbians got the jump on the Halloween inventing Celts by about 500 years. At Oyamel drinks and dishes have been created to honor Jose Guadalupe Posada, a turn of the century artist and political cartoonist best known for his satirical skeleton illustrations called calaveras.
In a preview last week I had the chance to taste all four specialty cocktails, Resucito – Maestro Dobel Diamond Tequila, Cochi Americano Rosa, lime leaf and grapefruit bitters; Cempasuchil – House-infused lavender Pueblo Viejo Blanco Tequila, Crème Yvette, mint and lemon; Pato Borracho (drunken duck!) – house-infused duck Gran Centenario Anejo, Chihuatl chile, pomegranate and pineapple with almond air; and Atole Rico – Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal, Pueblo Viejo Tequila, house made atole, canela, piloncillo, vanilla, pineapple and lemon.
In addition to their regular menu Executive Chef Colin King has come up with five delicious new dishes. Caviar de Chapala – with carp roe, Serrano peppers and green tomatoes in chochoyotes (a kind of dumpling); Ostiones Pimenton – oysters poached with bay leaf and garlic and served in their shells with a touch of lime and caviar; Pato Frito en Chile Seco – crispy Hudson Valley duck leg with Chihuatl mole, locally foraged mushrooms, kabocha squash and served with pomegranate pico de gallo; Chichilo Negro – slow-cooked short ribs with mole negro and vegetables; Sopa de Calabaza – pumpkin and squash soup with spiced pumpkin seeds, chile and annatto oil and served with foie gras. Have I got your attention now?
King worked with famous cookbook author Diana Kennedy often cited as the “Queen of Mexican Cuisine” to, as he put it, “Advance the traditional and authentic dishes of the many regions of Mexico with an eye towards innovation.”
Olive You Too, Espana
Our dear friend, José Andrés, the most famous Spanish chef in America, has launched a new line of foods from his homeland called José Andrés Foods. Recently I served some of these delicacies at a small gathering in my home. Some of the products may sound familiar to you, others may seem mundane, but I assure you they are not ordinary. The sardines are tiny fish, not the broken and halved sort found in today’s supermarkets, full of bones and packed in cheap vegetable oil. These were delicate and the oil was first-rate. We loved the Mussels in ‘Escabeche’ that I served atop Pa de Pagès, rustic Catalan toast slices that proved to be a perfect perch for any topping, including super ripe tomatoes.
Rounding out the nibbles were Andrés’ thinly sliced potato chips and Gordal and Hojiblanca olives. The new line of foods from Andres includes white tuna in olive oil, razor clams, several types of olive oil and sherry vinegar, sea urchin caviar, Escalivada, a popular Spanish mixture of roasted eggplant, peppers and onions in olive oil, and Pista, a blend of tomatoes, red and green peppers and zucchini in olive oil. All of these and more will be at your local Whole Foods starting this month. Just add a pitcher of sangria or a nice Rioja to make your own party.
Photos by Jordan Wright