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Nibbles and Sips Around Town ~ Mitsitam Serves Up Special Thanksgiving Menu

Jordan Wright
November 18, 2016

The entrance to NMAI

The entrance to NMAI – photo credit Jordan Wright

If your plans are not yet etched in stone for Thanksgiving Day, you may want to consider doing something a bit different this year. Our small family did one year, when we found ourselves gathered outside of our normal Northeast coastal locale. We still talk about the year we were all in Miami and decided to cook up a Cuban feast – turkey with mojito seasoning, black beans with ham hocks, a huge platter of tropical fruits, rice pilaf, hearts of palm salad and tres leches cake for dessert. That year’s holiday celebration is fondly, and amusingly, retold to this day. So, why not try something new this year and add it to your collective memories?

Here’s an outstanding option you may not have considered, or even known about. Mitsitam, the award-winning restaurant in the National Museum for the American Indian, is doing a complete Thanksgiving dinner to eat in or take out. They tried it last year and it was a huge success. It dovetails with the free three-day dance festival featuring the Northwest Coast, and will be held at the museum November 24th through the 26th to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. How much fun would that be?

The pond planted with native species at the museum

The pond planted with native species at the museum – photo credit Jordan Wright

To give you an update, recently Freddie Bitsoie (Navaho) has taken over the Executive Chef position at the restaurant since former Exec Chef Jerome Grant has moved over to Sweet Home Café in the Museum of African American History and Culture. Bitsoie, who has been at the forefront of Native American foods for over ten years, has worked on a wealth of projects with universities and museums including the prestigious Heard Museum in Los Angeles. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Scottsdale, AZ with further studies in Cultural Anthropology and Art History at the University of New Mexico, Bitsoie uses creative interpretation, coupled with years of research in culinary history, to develop his indigenous recipes.

Mitsitam Executive Chef, Freddie Bitsoie shows off some of his Thanksgiving dishes - photo courtesy NMAI

Mitsitam Executive Chef, Freddie Bitsoie shows off some of his Thanksgiving dishes – photo courtesy NMAI

Among other honors and accolades, Bitsoie was the winner of the museum’s Living Earth Festival Native Chef Cooking Competition in 2013, and was named “a rising star in the constellation of young chefs” by Native Peoples magazine in 2011. He has been featured on an episode of PBS’s Lidia Celebrates America and is working on his own show Rezervations Not Required, about indigenous cuisines around the world.

At a recent press gathering, I tasted a number of the dishes offered for this Thanksgiving feast and they are indeed unique and delicious. They are all inspired by tribal foods from the Great Plains, Meso-America, South America, the Northern Woodlands and the Northwest Coast. If you’re adventuresome, this could be the most memorable Thanksgiving you and your guests have ever experienced.

Sweet Red Chile and Orange Rubbed Free Range Turkey with pan gravy and spiced cranberry sauce - photo courtesy of NMAI

Sweet Red Chile and Orange Rubbed Free Range Turkey with pan gravy and spiced cranberry sauce – photo courtesy of NMAI

Here’s how it works. If you choose take out, you only need cook the turkey in your home, all else has been prepared for you. (See appetizers, sides, salads, gravy and desserts listed below.) If you opt for eat in, and I have been told whole families come, some laying out their best tablecloths, you will relax over your meal in the cafeteria overlooking the gardens and lovely water features. Imagine. No clean up! Just a relaxing day with friends and family. Bring as many as you like. Afterwards take in the dance festival or a stroll along the Mall.

Cedar Smoked Salmon and assorted side dishes - photo courtesy of NMAI

Cedar Smoked Salmon and assorted side dishes – photo courtesy of NMAI

The take home menu serves 6-8 people and ranges from $180.00 – $195.00 depending on your entrée. Or you can just order these dishes separately to add to your at-home dinner.

If you opt for the whole meal deal choose one of three entrees – Sweet Red Chile and Orange Rubbed Free Range Turkey with pan gravy and spiced cranberry sauce; Sumac Crusted Bison Tenderloin; or Juniper Glazed West Coast Salmon. Then build your meal around that with two large side orders of the following options – Brown Sugar and Butternut Squash Soup sweetened with Maple and topped with Candied Pumpkin Seeds or North Atlantic Clam Soup with Sunchokes and Leeks. Appetizers are Local Blue Crab Cakes or Wild Rice Baked Fritters with queso fresco and blueberries. Sides are numerous and diverse but I mention just a few of your choices – Roast Beets with Sage; a cold salad of Hominy with Fire Roasted Peppers, Onions, Lardons, and Watercress with a Lime Vinaigrette; Mashed Potatoes with Walnuts and Agave; Braised Kale with Shallots and Apricots and. A half sheet of Blue Cornbread comes with each whole meal order, as does one pint of Cranberry and Pineapple Sauce and dessert of either Apple Cobbler or Classic Pumpkin Pie.

To place an order call Miriam Menkir at 202 633-7044 or email mmenkir@restaurantassociates.com

The National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20013. nmai.si.edu/visit/washington/

Carousel ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 13, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Photo by Maria Baranova.

A brief moment of panic set in as my jaw hit the floor.  I’d just read Artistic Director, Molly Smith’s notes in the playbill and saw she was inspired by Thornton Wilder’s use of “mime in the entire show”.  Really?

“Somehow it feels right with the mythic nature of the story – and to remind us this isn’t reality TV,” she wrote, adding that collaborator David Leong is the show’s mime and fight expert.  Would the cast mime this indelibly lush score?  Would there be no orchestration?  I looked up hopefully and saw the orchestra perched on the catwalk and the conductor hidden in a cubby off to one side of the stage.  Okay, there was going to be music, but singing was still up in the air.  And maybe… literally.

Act One opens with the women miming the art of weaving on their looms.  As you’ll recall the story is set in a small town along the Maine coast, where the men are fishermen and the women work at Bascom’s Cotton Mill.  Silence.  And then an astonishing collection of lavishly costumed circus characters appears – a dancing bear, the strong man, a contortionist and other fabulous creatures parade around the revolving stage.  A coup for Designer Ilona Somogyi who presents us with a wide range of costumes from the elaborate fantasy circus characters, to the soft-colored linen dresses worn by the women – fisherman gear and natty togs worn by the men.

(L to R) Nicholas Rodriguez as Billy Bigelow and Betsy Morgan as Julie Jordan. Photo by Tony Powell.

(L to R) Nicholas Rodriguez as Billy Bigelow and Betsy Morgan as Julie Jordan. Photo by Tony Powell.

At this point we are still in mime mode.  I am crestfallen.  Until…the talking begins and Billy Bigelow, lowlife carnival barker (Nicholas Rodriguez), Mrs. Mullin (E. Faye Butler) amusement park impresario, and Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan) adorable ingénue come to life – conversationally.  Thank heavens!  The music swells to Julie and Carrie’s duet “When I Marry Mr. Snow”, and it’s game on!

(L to R) Kurt Boehm, Nicole Wildy, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Rayanne Gonzales and Ethan Kasnett. Photo by Maria

(L to R) Kurt Boehm, Nicole Wildy, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Rayanne Gonzales and Ethan Kasnett. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The story focuses on Julie and her enduring adoration of Billy who treats her worse than a junkyard dog.  Billy, a low-life gambler, is fired from the park and down on his luck, with no prospects other than his upcoming marriage to Miss, I-am-in-serious-denial, Julie.  With the help of his pal, Jigger (played skillfully and creepily by Kyle Schliefer) they concoct a scam to rob old Mr. Bascom (Thomas Adrian Simpson).  While they’re up to no good, the townsfolk merrily carry on with their annual clambake and treasure hunt in “A Real Nice Clambake”.

Expect a phenomenal cast singing their heads off to the tunes we adore.  Morgan lending her dulcet tones to songs like “If I Loved You”.  Rodriguez blowing the roof off with his tremendous baritone in “Soliloquy” and “The Highest Judge of All”.

The production, directed by Molly Smith and choreographed by the multi-award winning Parker Esse, is a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from stale summer stock versions.  This one comes at you freshly minted, with a white-washed stage set, and utterly captivating.  The composer geniuses, Rodgers and Hammerstein II, would melt at the exquisite dance routines designed by Esse and the richly orchestrated music.  We can thrill to duets like, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, sung here in operatic style by Julie and Nettie (Ann Arvia).

The biggest surprise though comes in Act Two with the introduction of Louise, Billy’s daughter, played by masterfully by Skye Mattox.  A mere slip of a girl who moves like spilled mercury, Mattox is as graceful as a prima ballerina and as fluid as a cool stream.

A twelve-member orchestra playing multiple instruments backs up the extraordinary cast.

Highly recommended.

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Izakaya Seki

Samantha Lee
November 16, 2016
Photo credit – Samantha Lee

  • Samantha Lee is a contributing restaurant reviewer for Whisk and Quill. We are pleased to share her experiences dining in the trendiest local Asian restaurants.  

Walking from the U Street Metro Station to Izakaya Seki, you may notice a prominent chōchin beside a two-story brick townhouse’s front door.  Made of shōjigami (a special type of paper), this traditional red lantern, constructed with a wooden or bamboo frame, is lit by a small candle and hung from bamboo sticks.  In Japan these lanterns are commonly found outside shrines and small bars where the color red is said to bring good luck to the business.  The term izakaya denotes a type of Japanese drinking establishment people visit after work, most notably for sake.

Before opening this restaurant, Chef Hiroshi Seki spent more than two decades as chef/owner of Seki, a successful sushi restaurant in St. Louis, MO.  More recently he left the St. Louis area, to be closer to his daughter, Cizuka.  Once here, the father-daughter team laid plans to for their partnership.  While Cizuka didn’t attend culinary school, she did gain valuable experience working one week of 16-hour shifts at Den, a two Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo.

In August 2012, they opened Izakaya Seki, serving authentic Japanese comfort food and drinks.  On the first level the Sushi Chef’s counter accommodates ten guests while on the second level, a dining room with small tables seats up 26 in a more intimate setting.  Chef’s counter seating is hard to come by and it’s a great place to sit if you like to watch how your food is prepared.  However, I prefer the upstairs dining room, which is quieter and has a more relaxing atmosphere.

i-interior

The simple first floor décor features wall-hung vases and a few paintings.  Along the stairway is a denim quilt and upstairs, among shelves of assorted sake bottles, are a pair of smaller paintings – one of a bear fishing and another of a bear eating.

The subject of the two paintings by Japanese contemporary artist Ryota Unno derive from Japanese folklore of the upland regions.  One is of a polar bear and the other is an Asian black bear, also known as a “moon bear”, or white-chested bear, because of its crescent moon-shaped marking.  In Japanese literature, the Asian black bear is associated with the mountain spirit.

i-menu

Check out the drinks menu to find an extensive array of choices including sake, Japanese whiskeys, wines, Japanese craft beers, shochu, and cocktails.  Shochu is a Japanese distilled alcoholic beverage made from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or brown sugar.  It can also be made from chestnuts, sesame seeds, potatoes or carrots though those are less common.

You’ll note the food menu is separated into categories: ‘Raw’, ‘Grilled’, ‘Fried’, ‘Noodles’, ‘Rice’, and ‘Specials’.  Our group consisted of five adults who shared many dishes from each menu.

Tuna Tataki

Tuna Tataki

Omakase Sashimi

Omakase Sashimi

From the ‘Raw’ category, we chose the Tuna Tataki and Omakase Sashimi.  The Tuna Tataki consisted of seared yellowfin tuna with ponzu sauce, topped with scallions and garlic chips.  The Omakase Sashimi was a generous chef’s selection of assorted fish (including salmon, tuna, red snapper) and other kinds of seafood (including clam, octopus, squid, oyster, and shrimp).  The plate was garnished with cucumber slices and lemon curls, and served with wasabi and pickled ginger.  I enjoyed the freshness and wide variety of the sashimi.

Saba Marinated in Sake and Miso

Saba Marinated in Sake and Miso

From the ‘Grilled’ category, we selected the Saba Marinated in Sake and Miso.  Saba is a fancy name for a Spanish Mackerel and is usually prepared with five ingredients – mackerel, miso, sake, mirin (sweet rice vinegar), and sea salt.  In Asian cultures, a salty miso marinade is used to preserve foods.  The caramel-colored mackerel is served with head intact on a banana leaf and accompanied by grape tomato, wasabi cream sauce over mountain of grated ginger and wedges of lime and lemon.

From the ‘Fried’ category, we opted for Vegetable Tempura and Baby Octopus.  The vegetable tempura consists of seasonal vegetables – ours had pumpkin, eggplant, zucchini, onion, and purple sweet potato – battered in tempura batter.  Its accompanying dipping sauce is made from a blend of mirin, soy sauce, and dashi stock.  The octopus dish is five pieces of baby octopus breaded and deep fried, served with lemon wedge and sweet, but mildly spicy, shishito peppers.

From the ‘Meats’ category, we enjoyed the Kakuni, described as “slow braised silk pork’ it arrives as lean slices of pork belly slow-braised in a sweet soy sauce and garnished with grated ginger and handful of chopped scallions.

In the ‘Rice/Noodles’ category, Chahan is a savory blend of fried rice, shallots, shiso, soy, dashi broth, garlic, and butter with garlic chips and shiso leaf.  Personally, I didn’t enjoy it as much.  I found it to be too bitter.  But my fellow dining partners loved it.

On the evening’s ‘Specials’ menu was Tamagoyaki, thin layers of pan-fried eggs rolled into a log and placed in rectangular tamagoyaki pan.  It was served warm and you could tell each layer was seasoned.  I was surprised that it wasn’t sweet like the tamago sushi, but rather natural tasting.  Despite the eggy taste, it was one of my favorites.

Warm egg omelet

Warm egg omelet

Instead of picking one of the desserts, we decided to try all the desserts on the menu – Purin with Sesame Sauce, Ginger Ice Cream and Mochi Rice Cakes with Red Beans.  These desserts are small and not the best for sharing.

Trio of desserts

Trio of desserts

Purin is a cold custard pudding dessert similar to a flan but much silkier, creamier and firmer.  It is made with four simple ingredients – milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla.  It is shaped like a plumeria – a five-petaled flower symbolic of grace, delicacy and beauty.  It is served in a sheer black sesame sauce and garnished with a slightly burnt plumeria-shaped butter cookie embossed with ‘SEKI’.

Ginger Ice Cream is two melon ball-sized scoops of homemade ginger ice cream garnished with the same cookie.

The Mochi Rice Cakes with Red Beans are made with red bean paste and topped with three powder-dusted mochi rice cakes garnished with sweet chestnut pickle.  These rice cakes are made of sweet white flour, sugar and water and shaped like golf balls.  The texture is soft and chewy at the same time.  The sweet chestnut pickle is made of cinnamon bark, caster sugar, chestnuts and water.  I enjoyed this dessert the most because it was very authentic and it brought back memories of my recent visit to Japan.

Overall, I liked The tuna tataki, omakase sashimi, saba, tamagoyaki, and mochi rice cakes with red beans, though you may want to try their cold buckwheat noodles, aka soba, which are hard to find in our area.

Izakaya Seki is the perfect venue for parties of all sizes, whether couples, friends or family.  If you find yourself in the Cardoza neighborhood craving quality Japanese cuisine, I highly recommend you go.  I know I’ll be back soon.

Izakaya Seki, 1117 V Street NW, Washington, DC 20001. 202 588.5841 www.sekidc.com

Freaky Friday ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 28, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Heidi Blickenstaff (Katherine Blake) and the cast of Disney’s Freaky Friday. Photo by Jim Saah.

Heidi Blickenstaff (Katherine Blake) and the cast of Disney’s Freaky Friday. Photo by Jim Saah.

It was a major coup for Disney Theatrical Productions to select Signature as the off-off Broadway theater to debut Freaky Fridayits latest film-to-stage production.  We all know how well Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and High School Musical fared.  And need I mention Newsies?  Just a few of the wildly successful shows Disney has produced for Broadway.

And now there’s Disney’s Freaky Friday from the film of the same name.  You might recall the first film version in 1976.  Based on the novel by Mary Rodgers, it starred the adorable Jody Foster as the daughter and Barbara Harris as her mother.  A later version in 2003 had the ever-talented Jaimie Lee Curtis and then-charming Lindsay Lohan (pre-scandal) as the mother/daughter duo.  It opened with the bubble gum tune “So Happy Together” by The Turtles, that morphed into a heavy metal version as the credits started to roll.

Heidi Blickenstaff (Katherine Blake) and Emma Hunton (Ellie Blake). Photo by Jim Saah

Heidi Blickenstaff (Katherine Blake) and Emma Hunton (Ellie Blake). Photo by Jim Saah

The success of these earlier films based on an overworked mother and her teen daughter that magically switch roles, must have been on the minds of Bridget Carpenter (Friday Night Lights), who wrote the book for this musical comedy, Lyricist Brian Yorkey and Composer Tom Kitt, who believed the material could translate into a major musical.  Because it does, and we are treated to an engaging and heartwarming musical that was just waiting in the wings to be launched to stardom.

Christopher Ashley (Memphis, Xanadu, Rocky Horror Show) directs this smashing world premiere production that is already scheduled for theaters around the country.  What’s not to like about a Broadway-alum studded cast and production team, slickly engineered choreography by Sergio Trujillo (2016 Tony Award nominee for Broadway’s On Your Feet), and a Kitt/Yorkey (Tony Award-winners for Next To Normal) score that will have you humming the tunes before you exit the theatre?  This show has smash hit written all over it.

If you remember the quirky premise, single-mom-with-issues Katherine (Heidi Blickenstaff) and her feisty daughter Ellie (Emma Hunton) magically switch roles for a day.  Katherine, who is about to marry the adoring Mike (Alan H Green) wants to shed the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting an angst-filled teen, and Ellie has had it with the restrictions and emotional upheavals of being a high schooler with a helicopter mom.  When the roles are switched and Katherine takes Ellie’s place, she experiences the day-to-day bullying and body shaming her daughter endures and Ellie sees the daily grind of raising kids without a father.

Jason Gotay (Adam) with Robert Walters, Tanisha Moore, Thaddeus McCants, Julian Ramos, Katie Ladner, and Shayna Blass in Disney’s Freaky Friday. Photo by Jim Saah.

Jason Gotay (Adam) with Robert Walters, Tanisha Moore, Thaddeus McCants, Julian Ramos, Katie Ladner, and Shayna Blass in Disney’s Freaky Friday. Photo by Jim Saah.

It’s nearly impossible to single out one or two cast members for recognition, as this ensemble is seamless.  But aside from the above mentioned leads, J.Elaine Marcos as Torrey, Katherine’s long-suffering assistant, Storm Lever as Savannah the bully, Jason Gotay as Ellie’s boyfriend, Adam, and Jake Heston Miller (who we raved about in this year’s Oliver at Arena Stage) as her brother Fletcher, are outstanding.  Fans of Signature will be delighted to see stage veterans, Sherri L. Edelen and Bobby Smith, each with a trio of roles.

Eighteen glorious numbers, backed by Conductor Bryan Perri’s nine-piece band, fill the two acts, giving us a diverse score of touching ballads, 50’s rock styles and Latin beats sung by a cast whose voices are beyond flawless.  And a huge nod to noted Costume Designer, Emily Rebholtz, who perfectly captures and blends the funky-cool energy of teen styles.

Highly recommended.  Run to the box office for this one and be sure to bring the kids.  You can say you saw it before it hit the big time.

Through November 20th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

Nibbles and Sips Around Town ~ October 31, 2016

Jordan Wright
October 2016
All photo credit to Jordan Wright

701 Gets Jazzy with New Fall Drinks and Dishes – An Afternoon with Andrea Cecchi and His Award-Winning Chiantis – Ottoman Taverna: SCOTUS sighting and Turkish Delight – Sofitel Wine Days and Thanksgiving Dinner – Blackwall Hitch Redux – ‘Night at The Yards’ Gives Back – Ocean Prime Hits All the Right Notes – Junction Bakery Opens in Del Ray – Barboursville Wine Dinner at Airlie

Get Jazzy at 701

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701 Restaurant has rolled out its autumn menu from Executive Chef Benjamin Lambert and the bartender has responded with creative cocktails like the ‘7th & Penn’ made with rye, aged rum, PX sherry, orange and angostura bitters or the ‘Douro Spritz’ concocted with saffron gin, white port, house tonic and soda.

Seasonal cocktails at 701

Seasonal cocktails

The kicker is you can groove to jazzmen of note, Eddie Eatmon and Gary Rowe, both native Washingtonians who are on deck throughout happy hour.

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Cauliflower Shawarma

Lambert’s specialty fall offerings include Chilled Corn Soup – topped with bacon, cornbread streusel and chili-lime sorbet; Bluefin Tuna Tartare with the unique combination of sushi rice ice cream, ponzu and wasabi oil; Corn Fonduta Agnolotti – chanterelle mushrooms, truffle and sungold tomatoes which is indelibly delicious; Cauliflower Shawarma – hummus, golden raisins, tomatoes and lavash; and Smoked Duck Breast – black beans, salsa verde and baby corn.

Chef Benjamin Lambert's latest dishes

Chef Benjamin Lambert’s latest dishes

He’s also got a few sweet endings up his sleeve – a twist on S’mores with toasted marshmallow, chocolate and graham cracker ganache and the especially yummy Sweet Corn Pudding with blueberries, crunchy yogurt and champagne.

701 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004

Wine Tasting Luncheon with Andrea Cecchi at Ristorante La Perla

The early autumn sun fell languidly through the windows of Ristorante La Perla as Andrea Cecchi, of the famed house of Cecchi, presented his wines at the elegant Georgetown spot, a few blocks from the Four Seasons.

Signore Cecchi prepares to greet his guests

Signore Cecchi prepares to greet his guests

Under shimmering Venetian chandeliers, cream-colored walls studded with celebrity photos (and a certificate from the Pope!), and an Italian mosaic of Botticelli’s Venus rising from the shell, we tasted eight Chiantis, each paired with Owner/Chef Vittorio Testa’s outstanding Italian cuisine.

Botticelli's Venus Rising at La Perla

Botticelli’s Venus Rising

It became a festive afternoon as Signore Cecchi urged us to raise our glasses in celebration of the 300-year anniversary of Chianti Classico as the world’s first designated wine region – Take that France! – while affording our small group a glimpse into the charmed life of a fourth generation winemaker.

His knowledge is boundless on the subject of Chianti and the Sangiovese and Vermentino grapes used for the estate’s wines and he was peppered with many questions. Here’s a tip for buyers: Identify these regional wines by looking for the Gallo Nero, on the label. The “Black Rooster” designation traces its lineage to 14th century Florence.

Signore Cecchi awaits guests with a collection of his estate wines

Signore Cecchi awaits guests with a collection of his estate wines

Established in 1893, Cecchi has estates in both Umbria and Tuscany in Castellino. The wines presented by our charming host ranged from the very affordable 2014 La Mora Vermentino at a suggested retail of around $20.00 to the pricier 2011 Coevo at $106.00. A table favorite proved to be the 2013 La Mora Morellino Di Scansano coming in at a modest $23.00.

For restaurants and stores in our area visit Cecchi wines.

Calamari Insalata at La Perla

Calamari Insalata

 

Wild boar chops at La Perla

Wild boar chops

I’d be negligent if I didn’t mention the excellent lunch dishes – the delicato calamari insalata (there is no substitute for superior olive oil), wild boar chops with sage and rosemary in a Marsala sauce (evoking memories of rustic Tuscan food), perfectly prepared pasta (it can be al dente without sacrificing a tooth!) and decadent house made Italian pastries – an almond cake with a layer of raspberries and Bacio di Napoli, a decadent chocolate cup filled with vanilla ice cream and zabaglione sauce, and topped with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

Bacio do Napoli at La Perla

Bacio do Napoli

This is an exceptional Italian restaurant that had somehow been off my radar and which merits many return visits.

The dining room at Ristorante La Perla

The dining room at Ristorante La Perla

2600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20037

Ottoman Taverna Is a Rare Bird

Ottoman Taverna

Ottoman Taverna

Ottoman Taverna is an unquestionably upscale Turkish restaurant – a rara avis that focuses on refined Turkish cuisine in a fashionable series of rooms set apart from a long bar area by lacy wood panels. The bar with its glowing stone top says “Let’s party” while the marble floors and tapestries coupled with modern chandeliers and tobacco-colored leather banquettes suggest, “Let’s settle in for a relaxing meal”.

The wood fired oven at Ottoman Taverna

The wood fired oven at Ottoman Taverna

A spectacular copper wood-fired oven set off by a collection of the-cook-is-serious copper pots, signals that food here is taken very seriously. Ask SCOTUS Elena Kagan who was enjoying dinner with friends at a four-top by the floor-to-ceiling windows while we relaxed with hand-crafted cocktails chilled by hand-made ice cubes.

Ottoman Taverna Executive Chef Ilhan Erkek

Ottoman Taverna Executive Chef Ilhan Erkek

The menu here reflects traditional Turkish cuisine yet on the higher end of the spectrum.

An assortment of mezzes at Ottoman Taverna

An assortment of mezzes

Hot and cold mezes rule the appetizers while fish, lamb, (the doner kebabs are a must have) and slow cooked dishes are the standouts.

Moussaka from Ottoman Taverna

Moussaka

Finish with baklava or the house made hazelnut ice cream. And, if Claudia is there, ask her to “read” your fortune from the muddy sediment that remains in the bottom of your Turkish coffee. Certain patterns will intuit your future.

425 I Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001

Sofitel “Wine Days”

Unfortunately, the “Wine Days” event at the Sofitel which featured the hotel’s new wine program and superb collection of French wines is coming to a close. Held in the posh Presidential Suite overlooking the city, Executive Chef Gyo Santa showcased delectable delights culled from his new menu and now being served at the hotel’s iCi Urban Bistro. Santa presented a fusion of flavors, some Asian-inspired, others adhering to the French menu the hotel is well known for.

From Sofitel's extensive wine list

From Sofitel’s extensive wine list

Smoked duck breast with Maytag blue cheese and a wedge of poached fig and spoonfuls of sesame tuna carpaccio with a sweet and tangy Asian sauce were as irresistible as beet tartlettes with Monocacy Ash goat cheese and a sliver of fresh orange. Naturally there were gorgeous platters of fruits and charcuterie, but the biggest surprise was the house made blackberry gelees and heavenly macarons. You can still find all of these and other treats on the bistro’s menu, along with such vintages as Chateau Greysac Medoc, The Seeker Pinot Noir, Louis Jadot Bourgogne, and Bieler Pere & Fils rosé from Aix-en-Provence. Did you know that rosé is the number one wine consumed in France? Perfect for Thanksgiving!

Smoked duck breast with figs

Smoked duck breast with figs

And that brings me to their Thanksgiving menu – an exceptional feast if you don’t want to cook or clean up. And who does? It starts off with a selection of butternut squash velouté with duck confit, foie gras mousse with raspberry glaze, or salmon gravlax with roasted beets, frisée and horseradish cream.

Beet tartlettes with Monocacy Ash goat cheese

Beet tartlettes with Monocacy Ash goat cheese

Entrées are classic farm raised heritage turkey with wild mushroom stuffing, cranberry jam and mashed potatoes, or lobster risotto in a rich bisque, or roasted lamb loin accompanied by seasonal vegetables and apricot pepper jus.

Assortment of macarons

Assortment of macarons

Have I got your attention yet? Finish with pumpkin cheesecake with caramel filling in a pecan crust or chocolate molten cake with fall spices in a pear purée. At $55 pp plus tax and gratuity, it’s a steal.

806 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. For reservations and information call 202.730.8800.

Blackwall Hitch Redux

Looking out at the water at Blackwall Hitch

Looking out at the water at Blackwall Hitch

Because Blackwall Hitch is eager to get things right after an uneven start last summer, we went back to see if anything had changed. First off I’m happy to report that service has improved dramatically. The staff is better trained and eager to please.

This is certainly one of the most attractive restaurants in Northern Virginia and notable for its five bars, a spacious lounge, outdoor dining, a seafood bar and a fabulous outdoor fire pit/bar area. Hot toddies, anyone?

The décor is absolutely gorgeous, nautical with chic Hamptons style. But be forewarned. It’s quite noisy when busy, so if you have a choice, ask for a banquette downstairs by the windows overlooking the water, or a high-top table upstairs, if it hasn’t been reserved for a private party. Note: The upstairs lounge and dining area would be ideal for office holiday parties, as would the large private dining room below.

A fall offering of Cauliflower Soup

A fall offering of Cauliflower Soup

One of the highlights here is the live music which starts out most nights at 9pm and goes till 1am. On Sundays it’s from 10am – brunch time – till 3pm. Check the website for the featured artist.

Fried soft shell crabs at Blackwall Hitch

Fried soft shell crabs

So far the wine selections have been pedestrian and the food can be uneven. A delicious cauliflower soup was light and frothy with its ring of balsamic vinegar and maitake mushroom foam, and the fried softshell crabs when in season are large and succulent. But fish can be overcooked, as was a large portion of swordfish. (It’s a travesty when a beautiful piece of fish is ruined by overcooking.) And pass on the leaden, fire-roasted flatbreads, that can’t sub for an actual pizza.

Oyster platter at Blackwall Hitch

Oyster platter

Recommendations: Oysters on the half shell, fish and chips, seared Ahi tuna, crab cakes, shrimp and crab seviche, and killer sweet potato fries. I haven’t had the best of luck with the entrees since they opened. But key lime panna cotta with toasted almonds and strawberry sauce and an authentic 9-layer Smith Island cake were true winners.

Key lime panna cotta

Key lime panna cotta

Update: A new fall menu was just about to launch since I visited in late September, and newcomer Chef de Cuisine Arra Mente Lawson, a protégé of Jean Louis Palladin, aims to turn things around. Look for his daily specials he calls, “Ode to Palladin” in which he evokes dishes influenced by the great French chef. With Lawson’s experience in French cuisine along with his Southern roots, the menu is slowly evolving and I hope to keep an eye on his progress.

A basket of fluffy biscuits inspired by Chef Lawson's Southern roots

A basket of fluffy biscuits inspired by Chef Lawson’s Southern roots

Note: The restaurant will be serving a traditional Thanksgiving buffet with all the trimmings for $38 pp, plus tax and gratuity. Oysters and jumbo shrimp included!

5 Cameron Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. For reservations call 703.739-6090.

Night at the Yards Gives Back

As one of four judges at the 9th annual “Night at The Yards”, I was privileged to represent Washington Life magazine while tasting some fabulous offerings from area restaurants.

The event benefits education and job training programs serving at-risk youth and young adults. Here are the results of the competition. Best FoodCapital Crab Company; Best Food PresentationFarmers and Distillers; Best Booth Set UpIce Cream Jubilee; Best BrewDistrict Chophouse; Best CocktailLavagna. My favorite beer that didn’t win was ‘Hefeweizen’ wheat beer from Gordon Biersch. Tastiest dish that didn’t win was a creative salad from Art-Drenaline in the Anacostia Art Center. Meanwhile upstart LA/San Francisco coffeemaker, Philz Coffee, now in Adams Morgan and The Yards, was getting all the buzz.

Kids enjoy a myriad of programs from Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region

Kids enjoy a myriad of programs from Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region

Described as casual-festive, the event raises critical funds for Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region‘s hands-on education, workforce development, and violence prevention programs for at-risk youth and young adults.

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Two live bands – The Psycho Killers (a Talking Heads Tribute Band) headlined followed by a tribute to Stevie Wonder presented by Squaring the Circle & Friends. Legendary saxophonist Ron Holloway was on board and a dance performance by the young Queen Beez who are from the program that uplifts DC young girls through music and leadership.

Over 30 of the area’s restaurants served up nibbles and sips along with beer, wine and craft cocktails while guests bid on sports memorabilia, gift cards to local restaurants and businesses, and a tour through France’s Bordeaux wine country. For more info on these and other events visit. .

Ocean Prime Hits the Heights

A wall of wines at Ocean Prime

A wall of wines

Destination: Over the top luxury restaurant, tailor made to impress guests, clients and your significant others. A place to see and be seen.

'Berries and Bubbles' gets hand poured at table at Ocean Prime

‘Berries and Bubbles’ gets hand poured at table

On opening night at Ocean Prime, the sky was the limit. Seafood towers billowed with dry ice as they reached for the rafters, smoking cocktails (more dry ice), massive steaks, lobster mashed potatoes and richly lavish desserts. This is not the place to count calories. Your only challenge will be to decide from the drool-worthy items on the menu. Bring a crowd. You’ll want to try everything.

The smoking seafood tower at Ocean Prime

The smoking seafood tower

Housed in the former Ceiba, the restaurant is now a glam spot with plenty of razzle dazzle. Four of us ate our way through the menu (well, we tried) beginning with that smoky cocktail ‘Berries and Bubbles’, a champagne and Belvedere vodka fresh fruit sparkler that brought oohs and aahs as it was hand poured at table.

Filet mignon with hollandaise at Ocean Prime

Filet mignon with hollandaise

We remarked on the fresh briny oysters and the quality of the shrimp and lobster, that sang of the sea. Prime steaks come with an assortment of sauces including black truffle butter, béarnaise, and garlic shrimp scampi, while Maine lobster tails are simply bathed in butter. Want a 16-ounce rib eye? It’ll set you back $51, but you’ll be making steak sandwiches for days.

Twin Maine lobster tails at Ocean Prime are served with asparagus

Twin Maine lobster tails are served with asparagus

 

Ten layer carrot cake with pineapple syrup at Ocean Prime

Ten layer carrot cake with pineapple syrup

This was not a night for chicken, though it is organic and antibiotic-free and is sourced from Freebird Farms in Maryland. Nor did we have our eyes on a Duroc pork chop, though they are dry-aged and beautifully marbled. The consensus at the table was to order the most decadent dinner imaginable, and that’s exactly what we got.

As an added attraction the service is impeccable – bow-and-scrape all the way. And, though the place is lively, and separated from the bar by a lacy coral screen, you can hear your tablemates, though the back dining room is quieter and more private.

A view to the bar at Ocean Prime

A view to the bar

Ocean Prime is the 25th restaurant of renowned restaurateur, Cameron Mitchell, and boasts an impressive wine list honored by Wine Spectator.

Five stars, if I gave them out. Book now for the Inaugural weekend.

1341 G Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. For reservations call 202.393.0313.

Junction Bakery & Bistro Opens in Del Ray

If you like rustic baked breads, muffins, brioche, croissants, cakes, cookies, scones and assorted pastries, trot over to Junction Bakery & Bistro, the newest kid on Monroe Avenue, and the latest venture by Noe Landini of Landini Brothers restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, and chef Nathan Hatfield.

With cold-pressed juices from their own Grateful Juice Co. and Culpeper native, Commonwealth Joe Coffee Roasters, keggers of ‘Nitro Cold Brew Coffee’, it’s an all-around hit in the neighborhood.

The day's breads at Junction Bakery

The day’s breads

Eat in or pick up grab-and-go sandwiches for breakfast or lunch. Try the Short Rib Grilled Cheese on roasted garlic sourdough or, for a vegan option, Golden Quinoa with summer veggies, fava beans, caramelized onions and almond mint pesto. Chicken Liver Toast with onion jam called to me. Soups change each day on the whim of the chef. And I loved the seasonal Pumpkin or Apple hand pies as a capper.

Junction Bakery bakes its rustic breads, muffins and sweet pastries on site in the gleaming kitchen behind the register

Junction Bakery bakes its rustic breads, muffins and sweet pastries on site in the gleaming kitchen behind the register

1508 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22301.

Airlie Plans Barboursville Wine Dinner

Airlie House

Airlie House

Located in horse country in Warrenton, the beautiful Virginia hills unfold to reveal the magnificent estate and resort of Airlie, a property of over 600-acres.

On Thursday, November 17th they will host the last of their ‘Signature Dinner’ series wine dinners featuring award-winning wines from Barboursville Vineyards.

Barbourville Wines

Executive Chef Hector Cruz and his culinary team have drawn on autumnal flavors to expertly pair with varietals from Barboursville. The evening begins at 5:30pm with a welcome reception featuring passed hors d’oeuvres and select Barboursville wines. Guests will have the opportunity to meet winemaker Luca Paschina, as he shares the story of how his humble roots in Piemonte, Italy inspired his lifelong passion for wine, food, and the soil.

Chefs in Airlie's Local Food Project Garden

Chefs in Airlie’s Local Food Project Garden

Chef Cruz will prepare a flavorful menu using vegetables and herbs from Airlie’s 4-acre organic garden as well as provisions from a hyper-local networks of farms.

The menu includes an Amuse Bouche, Scallops and Cream Polenta paired with Barboursville Viognier Fall Salad paired with Barboursville Chardonnay, all natural Grilled Veal Rack paired with Barboursville Cabernet Franc, Poached Pear, Garden Lavender and Rainey’s Dream Cheese Ice Cream paired with Barboursville Phileo.

Tickets are $75 pp and available at Dinner Reservation featuring Barboursville Wines or call 540.341.3299. For out-of-towners think about staying the night. For room reservations call 540.347.1300.