Nibbles and Sips Around Town

Jordan Wright
May/June 2018
Photo credit ~ Jordan Wright

District Distilling Co. for Father’s Day ~ Filipino Cuisine at Bistro 1521 Resto + Bar ~ Jackson 20 Launches Pop-Up Beer Garden for NOVA Pride Month ~ Maydān ~ The Occidental Grill & Seafood Restaurant ~ The Fairmont Hotel Royal Wedding Watch Party ~ 2018 Washington National Opera Gala  

Dads Unite at District Distilling Co.  

The complete line of spirits at District Distillery

Father’s Day isn’t just for dads, it’s also for those who love them, and District Distillery has a sweet deal for fathers.  The June 17th program “Bottle Your Own Spirit” will be at their U Street distillery, bar and restaurant just off 14th Street where their extensive line of hand-crafted spirits are distilled and bottled within three joined-together, historic townhouses.

‘Wild June’ Gin

Head Distiller Matthew Strickland will be on hand to take guests on a tour of the copper stills while they learn about their unique distilling methods.  Tastings of their extensive line of spirits – vodka, bourbon, whiskey, gin and rhum – are just part of the fun.  On a recent visit I fell hard for their Wild June Western Style gin made with wildcrafted local juniper berries and a new release – “Embassy Row”, a white crème de menthe made with locally sourced fresh mint (from the chef’s family farm) and local wildflower honey.  This is not your grandparents’ nasty, sickly-sweet green stuff.  This one’s a game changer.  Light and white – it’s perfect for a mint chocolate martini, grownup’s smoothie or your next batch of brownies.

“Texas Muleshoe” signature cocktail served in a frosty copper mug

After the tour, fill your bottle with their award-winning C&O Tradesman Whiskey – unfiltered and cask strength – from the French rhum or apple brandy casks. The bottle then gets a personalized label.  Reservations are a must.  202.629.3787

While there, plan to dine on Executive Chef Justin Bittner’s seasonal American cuisine.  Since the event is on a Sunday, plan on brunch.  Or, if dad has plans to sleep in, they’re open for lunch and dinner too.  Faves: Smoked Trout Rillettes with cornichons, pickled onions, and pumpernickel toast points;

Chef Frank’s meatballs

Chef Frank’s Meatballs with pork, veal, lamb, fontina cheese, mascarpone polenta and house marinara; Beets Six-Ways Salad with beet raisins and beet jelly, served with herb buttermilk yogurt;

Squid ink tagliatelle

and Squid Ink Tagliatelle with shrimp, calamari, piquillo pepper and saffron cream.  Save room for a delicious slice of chocolate pecan pie à la mode.

Smoked trout rillettes

District Distillery Co. is located at 1414-1418 U Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20009. 202.629.3787  www.District-Distilling.com

Bistro 1521 Resto + Bar ~ On the Cutting Edge of Filipino Cuisine 

In a sunny corner spot along Glebe Road in the Clarendon neighborhood sits Bistro 1521, the latest outpost for Filipino food.  The spacious contemporary design features rows of booths, a large bar and plenty of outdoor seating.  The six-month old spot takes its name from a historical expedition in 1521 undertaken by noted Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, who, traveling under the Spanish crown, discovered the archipelago that later formed the nation of the Philippines.  Because of that happy accident, the typical Filipino cuisine reflects a combination of Spanish, Malaysian, Chinese and, in more recent decades, U. S. influences.

After sampling their cuisine at an afterglow party at Mosaic Theatre a few months ago, we excited to delve further and were not disappointed.  In fact, we were delighted to extend our knowledge of this much-trending cuisine and found some amazing dishes along with beautifully balanced, fantasy-like cocktails.

Kiwi cocktail ~ Delicious cocktails

Filipino cooking will remind you somewhat of other Asian cuisines, but with a twist.  They use ingredients not found on most menus – like jackfruit, tamarind, palm fruit, kalamansi (we know it as calamondin), casava and purple yams.

Ukoy fritters

Pinoy (Filipinos) love adding fruits to dishes of all kinds – beef, chicken and fish like bangus, a type of tropical fish also known as chanos or ‘milkfish’ prepared here in a dish called ‘Seafood Sinigang” – that are balanced against spicy, tart and salty ingredients.

A basket of lumpia

Expect cellophane and rice noodles in many different interpretations, as well as hot and spicy dips and smooth sauces often tempered with coconut milk.  Thankfully the menu explains everything in detail and servers can offer precise details about preparation. I even got a quick lesson in the correct pronunciation of their vowels.

Halo-halo

Halo-halo has a short ‘a’.  Unlike what an angel or saint has around its head.  Very useful, as I expect to return and don’t care to sound like a total dunce.

Palabok (cellophane noodles)

Vegetarians will find plenty of options at Bistro 1521.  If you’re in the neighborhood try the $9.99 weekday special lunchtime rice bowls or drop in for Happy Hour – weekdays from 3pm – 7pm.

Fair warning: Highlights are mind-blowing desserts like ginataan, ube cheesecake, turon, kalamansi pie and halo-halo.

Calamansi cake

Halo-halo is a fantastically festive, tripped out confection with layers of colorful fruits and ice cream – usually made from purple yams called ube.  Toppings include a combination of jellies and fruits.

Ube cheesecake

Our version had ube with lychees, jackfruit, coconut jelly squares, sweetened condensed milk and coconut shavings.

Bistro 1521 is located at 900 North Glebe Road, Arlington, VA 22203.  For information and reservations call 703.741.0918.  Email to place a catering order.

Jackson 20 Launches June Pop-Up Beer Garden for Pride Month 

The lobby of The Alexandrian hotel – home to Jackson 20

A beautifully planned, well-executed Spring Forager Dinner at Jackson 20 by Executive Chef James Hudson, brought wows from the journalists in attendance last month.  It began with an amuse bouche of compressed watermelon drizzled with balsamic vinegar, bits of goat cheese and micro mint.  I could have eaten a bowl of this refreshing combination.  But no.

Corn chowder with Maryland blue crab

This was just to whet the appetite for the inspired four-course dinner.  The amuse was followed by a corn and roasted red bell pepper chowder garnished with Maryland blue crab.

Skillet cornbread

I’m regaling you with all of these dishes not to torment you, but to let you know that Hudson has been killing it in the kitchen since his arrival earlier this year.

Seared red snapper with saffron sauce

The “Starter” (I tried to pace myself.  Insert slap-to-the-forehead emoji here.) was a large portion of seared red snapper with a mixed watermelon, arugula and toasted almond salad finished with creamy saffron sauce and crisp bacon.

Hickory smoked sous vide beef short rib

You could have left me right here to die until the arrival of the hickory smoked sous vide beef short rib which was falling-off-the-bone tender and served with tri-colored fingerling potatoes.

A brief note about the wine pairings carefully selected by General Manager Chris Ratier who knows wine as we have learned from past visits.  He chose a Jefferson Vineyards Chardonnay Reserve out of Charlottesville, VA to serve with the amuse bouche and a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc for the soup.  I have written about the well-priced Kim Crawford collection in the past and highly recommend these New Zealand wines.  A Ravenswood’s Sonoma Zinfandel complemented the braised short rib.

Strawberry galette

After all that, I worried that dessert might prove overkill.  But Hudson, clever as a fox, knew to bring on something light and seasonal and offered up a strawberry galette with vanilla bean gelato.

BREAKING NEWS – Okay, call it an update if you like.  In partnership with Port City Brewing Co., an Alexandria, VA-based brewing company, Jackson 20 will host a month-long beer garden in the hotel’s outdoor courtyard starting June 3rd.  That makes Alexandria, VA home to one of the area’s only pop-up outdoor beer gardens, a Prohibition-era staple.  New seasonal brews will be featured every weekend and a portion of all proceeds will benefit NOVA Pride, a non-profit organization founded to educate, advocate and celebrate in services to the LGBTQ+ community of Northern Virginia, in celebration of Pride Month.

Jackson 20, 440 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. 703.549.6080 www.TheAlexandrian.com

The Occidental Keeps History In Its Place 

New bar entry at the Occidental

The Occidental has had a redo, but never fear.  The dozens of iconic black-and-white photographs of formidable figures in Washington political history remain on the storied walls, but the bar has been relocated to the upstairs level accessed by the outdoor steps just beyond the outdoor fountain.  The two-tiered street level is now just for dining and gazing out at guests sitting beneath royal blue patio umbrellas.

About the bar.  It is now a showcase for the very talented Frankie Jones to concoct cocktails to an appreciative audience.  Jones reads his clientele like a seer.  Depending on your preferences, the DC native will design a drink to your specifications or suggest one he’s created from the new cocktail menu.  I like that kind of service.  It’s rare.  Give yourself over to Frankie’s expertise.

Dinner here is white tablecloth with tiny table lamps providing a soft glow over the dark wood.  New York-bred Jake Addeo is the recently appointed Executive Chef and has brought a few ideas of his own to the menu.  Many favorites still remain, though some have been reinterpreted to highlight local ingredients and confirm that you are indeed in the South.  I felt famed chef Sean Brock’s influence in a number of dishes.

Addeo is understandably proud that sauces, soups, savory relishes and crisp-crusted, skillet cornbread served with honey butter, are all made in house.

Lobster bisque

These are the dishes we had, and loved, and one we didn’t.  Begin with the lobster bisque.  I insist.  It is not laden with heavy cream, but boasts a rich, deeply flavored stock made with the oven-roasted shells of the cold water crustacean with lovely nibblets of lobster meat and dotted with candied fennel compote.

Pan seared foie gras

Please order the Hudson Valley foie gras.  A beautifully decorated plate of pan-seared foie gras playing off huckleberry sauce, golden raisin gel, onion confit and spiced foie gras bread pudding.  Decadent and divine.

Grilled Spanish octopus and Cheshire pork belly

We tripled our odds with grilled Spanish octopus and Cheshire pork belly, lacquered with sorghum and partnered with sunchoke cream and green tomato relish.

Eastern seaboard halibut

For entrées we chose Eastern seaboard halibut and pan seared duck breast.  The halibut with celery root purée, fried artichokes and lobster glacé was mouthwateringly delicious.  The duck, not so much.  If you like your duck with a crisp skin, and I do, this one’s not for you.

Gloss over that misstep and head straight for dessert.  We swooned over the lemon-ginger crème brûlée crowned with a cookie and a slice of chocolate dulce de leche bar (who wouldn’t?), but we were on opposing sides regarding the vinegar pie.  A quintessential American custard pie immortalized by Laura Ingalls-Wilder of The Little House on the Prairie fame, it uses vinegar in the same way that you would add vanilla – just a smidge.

The Occidental Grill & Seafood Restaurant, 1475 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  www.OccidentalDC.com  202.783.1475

The Fairmont Hotel Throws a Royal Watch Wedding Party 

Everybody celebrated including Yours Truly

Either you were curled up in bed watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle tie the knot at o’dark hundred, or you were out gallivanting in a fascinator at one of the many parties that gave Anglophiles something to cheer about.  After all, even if the royals bore you to distraction, this wedding was nothing like the pinkies-up wedding of Prince William and Kate, nor the mega-nuptials of Prince Charles and Diana.  Not even close.  Meghan has broken the mold for all future royals.  As an American, an actor, a bi-racial self-determined feminist, global ambassador for World Vision, and Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, this beautiful 36-year old stunner has won the hearts and minds of both Brits and Yanks.

A trio of royal watchers ~ Old and young enjoy the royal festivities

Some watch parties around town began their festivities at the ungodly hour of 7am to synchronize with British time.  Wisely, The Fairmont chose to start at the civilized hour of 10am.  Because, really, did we need to see it in real time when we could watch it in perfect comfort and well-tended bliss on wide screen TVs?

The artistically-decorated, Union Jack-influenced, ‘Summer Berry Trifle’

After receiving our Union Jack flags for waving at the royals, bartenders mixed up G & Ts, Pimm’s Cup, and offered glasses of rosé and flutes of champagne.  Dozens of canapés flew by –  I recall duck confit and salmon-and-cucumber sandwiches.  For the sweet tooth there were cups of mixed berry trifle and squares of lemon elderflower wedding cake made from the same recipe as Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding cake.  It was an all-around posh assemblage of ladies, gents and a few Beefeaters memorializing the union of Harry and Meghan’s marriage.  No one spoke of the American War of Independence, because this was a revolution that united, rather than divided, the two countries.

Royal wedding watchers gather to celebrate

Update – The Fairmont recently unveiled their $27 million renovation – lobby, guest rooms, ballroom and courtyard gardens – and it’s absolutely beautiful.  Stayed tuned for news about the restaurant’s upcoming redo.

The Fairmont Hotel, 2401 M Street, NW, Washington, DC 20037 – 202.429.2400

Washington National Opera Gala 

Cast and chorus take their bows at the WNO Gala

On a glorious late spring evening guests gathered on the promenade for the annual Washington National Opera (WNO) Gala at the Kennedy Center.

Pre-concert buffet

The reception kicked off promptly at 4:30pm with passed canapés and a lavish hors d’oeuvres table that could have passed muster as dinner – rockfish with orzo and veal filet shared buffet table space with assorted salads and scrumptious pea and goat cheese gougéres.

Live Grecian muses grace the fountains along the promenade

Guests swanned about, champagne flutes in hand, with fellow board members, supporters, celebrities and journalists as live Grecian muses stood gossamer-clad and motionless around the fountains.

Pretty veggie posies

A lovely flutist in lavish medieval costume wandered musically amid the thousands of roses, peonies and liatris decorating the fountains.

A masked flutist strolls among the guests

Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter, Chairman David M. Rubenstein and WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello were tuxed, gowned and glam along with the hundreds of guests who came for the pre-dinner concert.  The evening celebrated the music of famed American composer Leonard Bernstein and his daughter, writer/broadcaster/filmmaker, Jaimie Bernstein was on hand to regale the audience with tales of her father.

Performers included Julie Gunn, Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard and Kathryn Luwek, Eliza Bonet, Allegra De Vita, Michael Hewitt, Christopher Kenney, Madison Leonard, Alexander McKissick and Kerriann Otaño along with mega Broadway leading lady, Patti Lupone who hilariously sang both the Tony and Maria parts of “Tonight” from West Side Story, that she declared to be her childhood favorite musical.

Famed conductor, John DeMain, who had conducted the world premiére of Bernstein’s last opera, A Quiet Place, led the WNO orchestra and the rousing chorus.  Those with premier tickets went on to deluxe post-theatre dinners at a dozen embassies around town.

Maydān 

Flames leap to the top of the copper hood as a unicorn keeps watch

Something about Maydān feels prehistoric.  As if man had just discovered fire as a way to cook food.  A massive open-flame grill in the center of the room is where chefs dart about in a cook’s ballet of sorts.  Bright orange-red flames rise up to lick the top of the massive copper dome providing much of the light to the cavernous warehouse as a silver unicorn head perches above signifying what, exactly.  Your guess is as good as mine.

The approach to the two-story brick space is through an alleyway, reminiscent of the souk markets of the Middle East.  An arched doorway washed in slate blue leads to a small anteroom curtained off from the bar and dining area.  There you wait until you are shown to your table and enter into a world apart.

The bar scene at Maydan

Inside it’s dark, cave-like, loud and festive.  Menu covers are inspired by Lebanese-American prophet, painter and poet Gibrán Khalil Gibran, and there is a distinct Middle Eastern ambiance reflected in the blue-and-white ceramic plates and handmade tiles.  A cozy booth, tucked beside the kitchen and lit with a pierced metal lantern, reminded me of Morocco.  The décor explains owner Rose Previte’s choice of ‘maydan’ – from the Persian meaning meeting place.

Lamb kebab with pickled onions

So, we are meeting… over kebabs and muhamarra, marinated lamb shoulder and baba ghanoush.  A modest supper, nevertheless lavish with exotic spices and delicious flavors.  You’ll find fresh mint and yoghurt feature prominently as do nuts and pomegranates, tahini and ras el hanout, the North African spice mix redolent with the aromas of cumin, ginger, coriander, allspice, pepper and cloves.

A sample of dishes tahini

Another spice mix you’ll find here is za’atar.  Used to season all manner of dishes in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Israel as well as other countries in the Arab world, it is made from the dried berries of the sumac tree, hyssop, thyme, sesame seeds, marjoram and oregano, and is used liberally to season meats, labneh and breads.

Lamb kebab with pickled onions

The menu is arranged by salads, spreads, condiments, “from the fire dishes”, seafood and grilled kebabs.  Two Executive Chefs Chris Morgan and Gerald Addison share the helm on alternate nights.  It’s mostly meze (small plates) with the exception of three larger main dishes – whole chicken prepared with turmeric, coriander and toum (a Lebanese whipped garlic sauce), a large ribeye spiced with fenugreek and adjika (a spicy Georgian paste), and a lamb shoulder seasoned with Syrian seven spice.  These are meant to share.

My advice.  Bring a group, otherwise you might be sharing a four-top, which is fun or not, depending if you are on a date, which we weren’t, but our table strangers were and love was in bloom.  Order more condiments than you think you need.  At $1 each it’s not a big deal.  And no matter what mains you decide on, be sure to get at least three or four spreads.  All dishes come with fluffy naan bread straight from the tandoor oven.  Ask for more and ye shall receive.

Maydān – 1346 Florida Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20009 – 202 370.3696  Reservations are advised.

Paper Dolls ~ A Play with Songs ~ Mosaic Theater Company of DC

Jordan Wright
April 4, 2018 

Are you ready to plunge headlong down a rabbit hole with a cross-cultural mash-up led by five Filipino “lady boys” aka drag queens called the Paper Dolls?  No, it’s not part of the far-out Fringe Festival, but it is edgy, hilarious, mind-bending and heartwarming.  It’s a caution and a small miracle alive and kicking with hope, kindness and transformation.

Lise Bruneau, Chris Bloch, and Ariel Felix ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

First, suspend reality.  Start by allowing yourself to forgo the day-to-day grind of American politics and pop culture, then travel, vicariously that is, to Israel – the land of Yiddish, the Shabbat dinner, daily bombings and tradition with a capital ‘T’.  There’s not much milk and honey for the temporary Filipino workers whose jobs are caring for elderly Jews.  It’s their off-hours that provide the story with its humor.

Set in 2004 after the second intifada, and faced with the problem of caring for its aging population, Israel brought in 30,000 foreign workers from the Philippines.  Some of these were home health aides.  Hired through recruitment agencies to care for elderly Orthodox and Chasidic men, the workers were forced to work until they could pay off their unreasonably high agency fees.

L to R: Evan D’Angeles, Kevin Shen, Rafael Sebastian ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

Many of these were gay men looking to send money back home to their own aging parents.  Some formed strong, familial bonds with kindly employers.  Others were badly treated and fled, or were arrested and deported.  Think this isn’t happening today?  Think again.  In some Asian and Middle Eastern countries foreign workers are kidnapped or trafficked and forced to work in life-threatening conditions with no chance of escape.

Playwright Philip Himberg, who adapted the play from the 2006 documentary film by Israeli-born Tomer Heymann, weaves these wildly disparate elements into an engaging comic drama driven by the relationship between Chaim (Christopher Bloch in a standout performance as a rheumy, wheelchair-bound Jew) and Sally, short for Salvador, a Paper Doll charged with his care.

Ariel Felix (Sally) and Chris Bloch (Chaim) ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

Ariel Felix’s Sally gives an exceptionally tender portrayal of a someone who learns the culture and cuisine of his/her adopted country in order to show respect and kindness to her employer who adores and accepts Sally for what she is.

Beneath the surface of the glitz and glamour of the quintet’s drag act, are the everyday challenges they face living in Israel – homophobia, racism and exploitation – in a culture as foreign to them as to a fish on land.  Paper Dolls is about pride, fantasy as survival, activism, unexpected human connections and personal sacrifice.  It’s a hilarious stick-in-the-eye against social and religious conventions – not exactly what you might expect from a play-with-music, though the music portion ranges from what you’d expect to hear from a Tel Aviv DJ at a Miss Philippines-Israel Beauty Pageant (Yes, this happens!) to traditional Israeli songs and pop music.

Bold, entertaining and timely.

Additional cast members – Evan D’Angeles, Jon Norman Schneider, Rafael Sebastian, Kevin Shen, John Bambery, Lise Bruneau, Chris Daileader, Brice Guerriere, Dallas Milholland, and Elan Zafir.

Directed by Mark Brokaw, choreography by J. M. Rebudal, musical direction by William Knowles, vocal arrangements by Howard Breitbart, set design by James Kronzer, lighting by Brittany Shemuga, costumes by Frank Labovitz, sound by David Lamont Wilson and projections by Sarah Tundermann.

Through April 29th in the Theresa and Jane Lang Theatre at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets, info on post show discussions, special rates and discounts visit MosaicTheater Online or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  Valet parking at 1360 H Street, NE.

On Floor: John Bambery ~ L to R: Jon Norman Schneider, Evan D’Angeles, Ariel Felix, Rafael Sebastian, Kevin Shen ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

Nibbles and Sips Around Town ~ March 20, 2018

Jordan Wright
March 2018
All photos and videos by Jordan Wright

Sakura Yume Cherry Blossoms at Artechouse ~ Jackson 20 Gets New Chef ~ Sips & Suppers Breaks Its Fundraising Record ~ Blue Star Reception Celebrates Military Chefs ~ Punjabi By Nature Hidden In Plain Sight ~ Sushi Ko Offers A Great Lunch Deal ~ Le Grenier on H Street ~ Hank’s Pasta Bar Now Open For Lunch 

Sakura Yume Cherry Blossoms at ARTECHOUSE 

Interactive Japanese lanterns light up along the path

Bespoke cocktails with laser printed blooms and a trippy technicolor wonderland welcome guests to ARTECHOUSE this season and just in time to clear away our wintry blues. The interactive displays use depth cameras to cover walls with floating cherry blossoms and elusive fish that dart in and out of the picture as you sweep your hand though the air to create your own patterns.

Lorne Covington, whose company Noirflux created the enormous central exhibit, tells us he left Silicon Valley to create more relatable and engaging technology.  His first grant came from the famed Burning Man.

Artists Nathan Solomon and Karan Parikh designed an interactive koi pond nestled amid “mountains” where visitors can “feed” the fish and watch them swarm.

Another cleverly designed room, “Bloom” by John-Mark Collins of Storylab, invites guests to sit on tatami mats and play with room-sized light boxes to create their own psychedelic patterns while dining from bento boxes.

Cocktails have digitally printed designs

The augmented reality exhibit is on view through May 6th at ARTECHOUSE, 1238 Maryland Ave SW, Washington DC 20024  For tickets and information visit online.

Cherry Blossom Dream at Artechouse

Jackson 20 Gets New Chef 

Since the Marriott’s high end Autograph Collection took over the former Hotel Monaco in Alexandria, now called The Alexandrian, changes have been afoot.  The rooms and décor are the same but the chef is new and the wines are excellent and affordable.  In fact so much is affordable, a Saturday and Sunday Brunch that goes from 8am till 3pm!, daily breakfast specials for $5, Happy Hour rail cocktails and select wines for $5 per glass, and some delicious dishes from Executive Chef James Hudson.  The style of cuisine remains the same – upscale Southern regional served in satisfying portions – but Hudson has been given free rein to imprint the restaurant with his own twist on the classics.

Roast Salmon with succotash

A recent visit had us swooning over the shrimp and Anson Mills grits enhanced by caramelized onions and white wine and a vegetarian corn and pepper chowder that was the soup of the day.  Entrée specials change and ours was a salmon with succotash and duck with cherry sauce, a dish that recently won the restaurant a “Best of Alexandria” award.

(L-R) Banana Cream Pie with blackberries and caramelized bananas ~ Appalachian Pudding

And for a sweet finish, you can’t go wrong with the Appalachian pudding, a comfort food that shares menu space with Banana Cream Pie.  Sunday Nights are three-course Fried Chicken Suppers for $22.

Jackson 20, 480 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22314  The Alexandrian.

Sips & Suppers Breaks Its Fundraising Record 

(l-r) Friends, foodies and chefs enjoy the brunch before the Sips & Suppers dinners around town ~ K. N. Vinod, chef/owner of Indique

When top chefs and gracious hosts get together, it’s culinary magic.  Once again, Alice Waters and Joan Nathan have corralled the best of the best to prove that foodies love to get together in a relaxed setting and dish…about food and wine…what else?

(L-R) Tenth anniversary dinner for Sips & Suppers ~ The table set for Sips & Suppers at the home of Nicole and Casey Aandahl

Founded in 2009, the annual event benefits DC Central Kitchen and Martha’s Table.  This year’s event broke previous records.  In a statement on this year’s success the group declared, “We raised over $650,000K (conservative estimate) this year and nearly $4 million over ten years.”

Joan Nathan with fellow chef at her brunch

Earlier in the day Nathan hosted many of the chefs and food writers for a lavish brunch at her home.  The popular event featured dozens of dishes including shakshouka, the Israeli (by way of North Africa) egg dish that everyone is raving about.

The Gordy’s Pickles ladies make bloody marys at the home of Joan Nathan

DC-based Gordy’s Pickles and Green Hat Gin paired up for the bloody marys, mother/daughter-owned California winery Pescadero Creek Vineyard provided the wines, and there were several dishes prepared according to recipes from Nathan’s latest cookbook, “King Solomon’s Table”.

Anthony Lombardo and Sal Ferro prepare desserts

This year we were the fortunate guests at the home of Nicole and Casey Aandahl who had scored the talents of chefs, Anthony Lombardo, formerly of 1789 and now cheffing in Detroit, and Sal Ferro of Old Ebbitt Grill. The duo started us off with sparkling prosecco and frittata sarde and oysters on the half shell as hors d’oeuvres.

(l-r) Preparing the shakshouka ~ Cheese and bread display at Joan Nathan’s brunch party

This was followed by a sumptuous five-course dinner for our very large group.  The Italian-inspired meal began with creamy salt cod, bitter greens and crispy potatoes.  As pasta is always the second course in an Italian dinner, this was orecchiette and rapini ragù with pecorino and carrots.

Swordfish with cara cara oranges, fennel and pistachios

Then fish, which was pesce spade – swordfish with cara cara oranges, fennel, pistachio and gigante beans.  The meat – brasato, a red wine braised, Piedmontese pot roast was served with root vegetables.

(l-t) Brunch calls for beet and kale salad ~ A refreshing brunch dish of fresh tropical fruits

Each course was paired with a different wine including a fabulous dessert of anisette custard with Amaretto cookies paired with Malvasia.  Needless to say we waddled home, and slept like babes dreaming of the Italian Riviera.

Blue Star Reception Celebrates Military Chefs 

Top military chefs from all six branches combined their talents with DC chefs and Mixologist Todd Thrasher (Potomac Distilling Company and Tiki TNT) to provide an evening of tempting treats and fancy cocktails to celebrate Blue Star Families and Blue Star Neighbors.  The event which entertained military families as well as the nation’s top brass, was hosted by General George W. Casey, Jr., USA (ret) and Sheila Casey at the US Chamber of Commerce.  Also featured were inspiring videos and prestigious awards for a heartwarming evening of fun, food and camaraderie.

(L-R) Jennifer Medeiros and Robert Wiedmaier ~ Smoked Salmon Napoleon

At the Air Force Table, Chef and Restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel’s partnered with MSgt Jennifer Medeiros on mini Napoleons of Scottish Smoked Salmon.

(l-f) Chris Clime and Michelle Brown ~ Open Blue Cobia “Pastrami”

Chef Chris Clime of PassionFish worked with SSG Michelle Brown of the Army to create Open Blue Cobia “Pastrami” with mesquite smoked piquillo pepper and n’duja tapenade.  Kyle Bailey of The Salt Line and CSCS Derek Johnson of the Coast Guard conjured up Hiramasa Crudo with blood orange ponzu geleé, salsify-sesame pureé, popped amaranth and nasturtium leaf.

(L_R) Tyler Gaswint and David Guas ~ Shrimp Burger

Chef David Guas of Bayou Bakery and TSgt Tyler Gaswint of the National Guard came up with a Gulf Shrimp Burger dressed with pickled jalapeño okra tartar sauce.

Chef Todd Grey of Equinox and SSgt Hirram Carrion of the Marine Corps dreamed up Tahini Grits with minted lamb meatballs and z’ataar chips, and Ris Lacoste of Ris and CS1 Frida Karani of the Navy offered up New England Clam Chowder.  Dog Tag Bakery’s Chris Licciardi and Kyle Wronsky plied us with mini parfaits of cherry mousse, chocolate and whipped goat cheese.

Guests sipping Thrasher’s craft made cocktails were asked to vote by handing out beads to their favorite chefs.  I couldn’t stay to see got the prize for the most popular, but all the dishes were winners.

Punjabi By Nature Hidden In Plain Sight 

Hard by Fairfax’s Mosaic District in Vienna, VA is a small but popular Indian restaurant.  Hidden in a modern residential area a few blocks away is Punjabi By Nature, where we sampled Northern Indian dishes from New Delhi.

Owner Rajiv Chopra

Rajiv Chopra is the managing director and overseer of the menu.  His other two eateries are currently located in Leesburg and Chantilly.  He hopes to open a fourth in Reston later this year.  More manager than daily chef, the New Delhi native worked in restaurants there for 20 years. “I took no culinary courses,” he said. “I just worked in the kitchen.”  He also attributes his culinary skills to his mother.  “I learned from my Mom in New Delhi,” he said.  “Now she tells me which of my recipes to use.  And I do that.”

Chopra also relies on a partnership with his wife, Shivani Chopra.  “She believes in me and inspires me to do all this,” he said.  “And on the other hand, she helps me a lot, too.   Without her help, this would not be possible for me.”  Both his parents love that he is involved in the restaurant business, living out his life’s passion.  Moreover, Chopra says that making people happy with his food is all part of his passion.

(L-R) A pair of sweet treats at Punjabi By Nature ~ Choley bhature at Punjabi By Nature

I visited the Vienna location, where I found an extensive menu with Chopra happily acting as guide.  We began with his recommendation of a unique New Delhi treat – choley bhature, a puffed-up wheat bread that looks like a golden balloon and comes with a ramekin filled with a traditional chickpea spread, which is dark and richly flavored – unlike anything served in area Indian restaurants.  A second bread appetizer with the same chickpea spread calls for kulcha, a flat bread.  I was asked if I wanted it spicy, I did!, and wasn’t disappointed with the level of heat.

(L-R) Lamb biriyani at Punjabi By Nature ~ Curry dish from Punjabi By Nature

The balance of the menu showcases New Delhi cuisine.  Some you’ll be familiar with and some you’ll have to be brave enough to try – butter chicken, lamb seekh kabab, tandoori chicken, grilled lamb chops and lamb curry, and four different styles of the famous Indian rice specialty, biryani.  There are eleven types of breads, from onion kulcha and garlic naan to a house special – the chef’s unique chocolate naan – which is both savory and sweet.

You are sure to recognize the traditional desserts – gulab jamun/rasmalai and faluda kulfi, the traditional Indian frozen dessert.  A full bar includes frozen margaritas.

Punjabi by Nature, 2750 Gallows Rd, Vienna, VA http://www.punjabibynature.us

Sushi Ko Offers A Great Lunch Deal 

I can’t say enough about Sushiko’s Lunch Tasting Menu deal.  Three amazing courses that are quite filling and beautifully prepared for $25 per person.  For anyone who has ever dined at the popular restaurant, in the posh neighborhood of Chevy Chase, you know that dinners there can run into the hundreds of dollars – especially if you partake of the pricier sakés and the sushi chef’s omakase nigari or sashimi menu.

Owner Daisuke Utagawa schooled me in Japanese izakaya style cuisine and sakés at a three-hour dinner at his DC restaurant Daikaya back in 2013, then again in 2015 in sushi and temaki at Sushiko.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t been there since.  In all fairness, I haven’t been to Chevy Chase since then either, because… traffic.  But at lunchtime getting there from DC or Northern Virginia is a breeze.

(L-R) Assorted sushi and sashimi ~ Bread pudding with green tea whipped cream and matcha ice cream

We opted for the three-course luncheon menu.  No substitutions and only $25.00.  If you’re feeling flush there’s also a four-course lunch menu for $55.00, but that’s quite a jump in price and we’re sticking to our budget, or so we promised each other.

(L-R) Seaweed salad ~ Seared Salmon with shiitake mushrooms, bok choy and sweet potato purée

Choose from – Miso Soup or Sushiko Seaweed Salad to start.  Then a choice of Shrimp Tempura or Tsukuri, or a four-piece chef’s selection of the sashimi of the day.  Lastly roasted salmon or four pieces of nigiri and six of maki.  Each element is superbly and delicately prepared.  The salmon was exquisite and came with steamed baby bok choy, shitake mushrooms, sweet potato pureé and rice.  That course, in and of itself, was worth the $25.  My partner guarded his sushi fairly well, but I snuck in a taste with my trusty chopsticks and again, perfectly prepared with the finest and freshest fish.  Utagawa is a stickler for the best fish!

Confession:  We blew the budget slightly.  We split the Sansho Bread Pudding with green tea whipped cream and I will never regret it.  Neither will you.

5455 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, MD 20815. Sushiko Restaurants

Le Grenier on H Street 

There’s been a lot of excitement about the revitalization of H Street.  Restaurants have come and gone and now that the trolley is running smoothly, there will surely be more changes and even more residential development.  It’s one of the hottest neighborhoods in town.  I find myself there frequently as I cover Mosaic Theatre at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, and I’m always on the hunt for a good restaurant nearby, especially one that’s warm and welcoming with good, reliable food and an excellent bar program.

(l-r) The bar ~ French onion soup at Le Grenier

Most of the places in the area are trendy, noisy and/or dark.  After-work spots for a burger and pizza, a beer (or four), and a bowl of chili or ramen.  Okay, there’s a time and place for that too.  But I recently discovered Le Grenier, and fell in love.  An indelibly charming French restaurant with classic bistro food and cool French music, it’s just the sort of place you’d find in a Parisian neighborhood.  Expect onion soup topped with gruyére, charcuterie and house made patés, a well-curated selection of French cheeses, escargots, boeuf Bourguignon, cassoulet, hangar steaks and fish – all prepared creatively and overseen by owner, Marie Ziar.

There are two ways to go.  A fancy dinner with fine wines for a romantic tête-à-tête or casual bites with well-priced wines by the glass.  We had small bites at the marble-topped bar and enjoyed talking with a very interesting group from the neighborhood.  Either way this two-level space, warmed up by exposed brick walls and antiques, has a classy clientele and a lively bar scene.  Perfect for before or after the theatre.

Le Grenier, 502 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002 www.LeGrenierDC.com.

Hank’s Pasta Bar Now Offering Lunch 

A staple in the north end of Alexandria’s Old Town, Hank’s Pasta Bar is reinstituting lunch hour dining.  The industrial look, cozy restaurant is a favorite in a neighborhood better known as residential.  Is it destination dining?  Probably not.

(l-r) The back dining room ~ A cozy seating area at Hank’s Pasta Bar

Most Old Town visitors prefer to stay closer to the King Street scene.  And the reality is there are not many offices in the area.  But there is usually parking, which in and of itself is a plus, and it’s an easy 15-minute walk to the Braddock Metro Station.  All that said, it remains to be seen if they can make a go of it during the day.

(L-r) Charred octopus with fennel arugula salad ~ A starter of meatballs and sauce

A few weeks ago I was invited to try a few of their lunch offerings and they were pleasantly surprised at the menu.  We selected a few appetizers and two entrees.  For starters charred, tender octopus with arugula fennel salad, and meatballs of beef, veal, pork and lamb in a homemade tomato sauce – likely the same pomodoro, or “gravy” as my Italian friends insist I call it, used in their pasta dishes.

(L-R) Chicken Marsala ~ Hibiscus Panna Cotta

A lovely eggy fettucine, made in house as is all their pasta, was next up.  Served with a Bolognese sauce of braised beef and root vegetables, it is exactly the sort of tummy-warming dish for a chilly day.  Ditto for the lemony Chicken Marsala with its sauce of mushrooms and tomatoes and plenty of fresh herbs.

Fettuccine with Bolognese at Hank’s Pasta Bar

After all these filling dishes, would we have room for dessert?  The question lay before us until we saw the alluring choices.  Yes!  We, most assuredly, will have the Hibiscus Panna Cotta with blueberry, lemon and lavender gelatin.  A perfect ending to our lunchtime adventure.

Hank’s Pasta Bar, 600 Montgomery Street, Alexandria, VA 22314  www.HanksPastaBar.com

On Your Feet! – The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical is a Grand Salsa Party ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
January 11, 2018 

Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and Company ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

When the original ten-piece Miami Sound Machine is banging out a full-on Latin beat smack dab onstage and bringing sizzling hot salsa rhythms and house party funk, you can party like it’s 1985, the year the group’s huge crossover hit “Conga” soared to the top of the Billboard pop charts.

Entering the theatre Emilio and Gloria Estefan graciously greet fans ~ Photo credit Jordan Wright

It didn’t mitigate the excitement that the show’s producers Gloria and Emilio Estefan were in the house last night driving the on-their-feet audience wild with cheers and selfies.  But when it comes right down to it, it’s her story.  Their story.  A universal story of hopeful immigrants everywhere, that bonds us to their triumphs and tragedies in this electrifying musical.

Christie Prades (Gloria Estefan), Mauricio Martinez (Emilio Estefan), Danny Burgos and Omar Lopez-Cepero ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

On Your Feet! tells the story of 26-time Grammy Award-winning pop singer/songwriter Gloria Estefan and her producer/husband Emilio and their sensational rise to fame.  In spite of a talent agent who blocked the act from crossing over into mainstream American pop and a record company who wouldn’t allow them to sing in English, the pair did an end-run around discrimination by directly approaching local DJ’s and dance clubs where their beat-driven music had an immediate fan base. “See this face?” Emilio demands of his agent.  “This is an American!”  With this line, the audience broke into instantaneous and sympathetic applause.  After all, it’s kill DACA season and we feel their pain.

Mauricio Martinez as Emilio Estefan, Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and Devon Goffman as Phil the Agent ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

The “jukebox musical”, as these throwback rock musicals are familiarly called (though one wonders if anyone from that era has ever played a jukebox), depicts the Estefans as children leaving on the “Pedro Pan” flights from Cuba in the early 60’s – flights that brought families from Havana to Miami from the fresh hell that was Batista’s revolution – and settling into the burgeoning Cuban community in Miami. Emilio hears Gloria sing and invites her to join his band, the Miami Latin Boys to gig weddings, bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras.  To her mother’s dismay, Gloria joins the band.  Even a mother’s wishes can’t hold back her teenager’s dreams or her talent.

Nancy Ticotin as Gloria Fajardo and Company ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Flashbacks include Havana’s Montmartre Club and her mother’s truncated career as a nightclub singer, her Vietnam vet father José’s (Jason Martinez) tragic end, and little Gloria’s fondness for her grandmother (Alma Cuervo) and her guitar.  The story charts the pop star’s meteoric success and the near career-ending tragedy of the car accident that left her unable to perform for months.  It’s a deeply personal story that parallels artists’ dreams and immigrants’ aspirations.

Colored by the aqua and hot pink colors made popular by Miami Vice, it stars Christie Prades and Mauricio Martinez (from the original Broadway cast) as Gloria and Emilio.  The Tony Award-winning musical includes many of Gloria’s greatest hits in 26 numbers from “Live for Loving You”, “Get on Your Feet” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”, to heart-melting ballads like “Don’t Wanna Lose You” and “Here We Are”.  80’s period costumes by Emilio Sosa and Cuba-evoking sets by David Rockwell, the band is joined by three additional musicians from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

Filled with uplifting sparkle.  Get ready to party Latin-style!

Highly recommended for the whole family.

Through January 21st in the Opera House at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Company of the National Tour ~ Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Les Miserables ~ The National Theatre

Jordan Wright
December 23, 2017 

(From L) Josh Davis as ‘Inspector Javert’ and Nick Cartell as ‘Jean Valjean’ ~ Photo by Matthew Murphy

(From L) Josh Davis as ‘Inspector Javert’ and Nick Cartell as ‘Jean Valjean’ ~ Photo by Matthew Murphy

The year was 1985 when Les Miserables hit London’s West End.  It wowed critics then – Patti Lupone won the Laurence Olivier Award (Britain’s equivalent of an Oscar) for “Best Actress in a Musical” in her role as Fantine and the musical was further nominated for two awards for “Best Actor in a Musical’ (Colm Armstrong for Jean Valjean and Alun Armstrong for Thénardier) – and now.  Through all its reincarnations, the operatic sing-through, backdropped by the French Revolution, still fills theaters around the world.

The spirit of this musical is as relevant as if Victor Hugo had just set pen to paper.  Let’s reflect on Louis XVI’s agenda, shall we?  Alienate the lower classes through starvation.  Ignore science and reason for traditions.  Keep monarchical rule in place amid mass resistance.  And cut taxes on the privileged nobles thus keeping the peasants and rising middle class at bay.  Hmmm.  Didn’t work out so well for old Louis, hung for his Draconian policies.

“I Dreamed A Dream” - Melissa Mitchell as ‘Fantine’ ~ Photo by Matthew Murphy

“I Dreamed A Dream” – Melissa Mitchell as ‘Fantine’ ~ Photo by Matthew Murphy

At its very soul is the heartbreaking love story of the abandoned prostitute Fantine (Melissa Mitchell) and the reformed thief Valjean(Nick Cartell); Valjean’s death bed promise to adopt Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Jillian Butler); the heartwarming love story of the innocent Cosette and the idealistic Marius(Joshua Grosso); the tragic Éponine (Phoenix Best) and her unrequited love for her compatriot Marius; and the glory and desperation of a revolution led by Enjolras (Matt Shingledecker) that arose from social and economic inequality.  There hasn’t been a story with as much 18th century history, nor as much inspirational music, till Hamilton arrived on the scene.  And you know how that’s turned out.  Tickets to that blockbuster are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

Matt Shingledecker as ‘Enjolras’ ~ Photo by Matthew Murphy

Matt Shingledecker as ‘Enjolras’ ~ Photo by Matthew Murphy

In this national touring company staging the intensity of both the battle and escape scenes are greatly enhanced by projections by Fifty-Nine Productions who have drawn inspiration from the apocryphal paintings of Victor Hugo.  And as grim as the story may be, the drama of Valjean’s misery is lightened up decidedly by the characters of Madame Thénardier and her husband Thénardier.

Allison Guinn as ‘Madame Thénardier’ ~ Photo by Matthew Murphy

Allison Guinn as ‘Madame Thénardier’ ~ Photo by Matthew Murphy

Played by Allison Guin and J. Anthony Crane respectively, this hilariously dastardly duo are innkeepers of the iniquitous, Au Sergent de Waterloo, where Cosette is raised in indentured servitude.

J Anthony Crane as ‘Thénardier’ ~ Photo by Matthew Murphy

J Anthony Crane as ‘Thénardier’ ~ Photo by Matthew Murphy

Whether you’ve seen it once or a dozen times, as I suspect many in the opening night audience had, Co-directors Laurence Connor and James Powell give us an awe-inducing production so magnificently staged, so brilliantly performed, and so beautifully sung.  Kudos too, for the evocative golden-hued scenes by Lighting Designer Richard Pacholski, who conjures up street scenes reminiscent of Dutch artist Petrus van Schendel’s firelit paintings and edge-of-your-seat, new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker that are gloriously played by Conductor Brian Eads 14-piece orchestra on a total of 28 separate instruments.

(From L) Joshua Grosso as ‘Marius,’ Phoenix Best as ‘Éponine’ and Jillian Butler as ‘Cosette’ ~ Photo by Matthew Murphy

The night I saw it the magnificent operatic baritone, Andrew Love, received a standing ovation and rousing cheers for his understudy performance of Javert.  And, in an eyebrow-raising surprise, the audience stayed through all the bows.  Not one person fled before the lights went up.  A rare sight in today’s theaters.

Absolutely brilliant in every way.

Through January 7th, 2018 at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets call 202.628.6161 or visit OnLine Ticket Office