Nibbles and Sips Around Town – Lunch with Margrit Mondavi

The “First Lady of Napa Valley” talks love, travel and California wines.

By Special to Washington Life Magazine

Margrit Mondavi, the “First Lady of Napa Valley,” is most at home in the vineyards. (Photo courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery)

Margrit Mondavi, the “First Lady of Napa Valley,” is most at home in the vineyards. (Photo courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery)

Margrit Biever Mondavi’s book tour to Washington, DC dovetailed seamlessly with the opening of “FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950 – 2000”, an enticing new exhibition at the National Museum of American History chronicling a half century of American food and wine from farm to table. As Vice President of Cultural Affairs for the Robert Mondavi Winery, she was there to witness the opening.

Wearing a fire engine red shawl and snappy silver sequined boots, she diligently signed copies of her book, “Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook – A Reflection on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance and Life.” If that seems like a rather lengthy title, the sprightly octogenarian has unquestionably earned it. Her far-flung adventures and indelible legacy are the proof of the pudding.

It is a refreshingly candid pentimento written by a woman and accomplished artist who has found both pleasure and passion in her work and life. It reads like a private conversation with a close friend and is beautifully composed with personal photographs, recipes, tributes by friends and family, along with her whimsical watercolors that capture the couple’s private dinner menus, tablescapes and plein air landscapes.

Mondavi’s new book has reflections on everything from family to wine. (Photo courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery)

Mondavi’s new book has reflections on everything from family to wine. (Photo courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery)

From a childhood on the shores of Italy’s Lago Maggiore, to meeting the love of her life, Robert Mondavi, in 1967, she writes of the Napa Valley winery. Together, she and Robert  made it into a cultural destination for the performing arts as well as a world renowned culinary school, where three-Michelin-starred French chefs  and , and American icons like , the institute’s first guest chef, took turns teaching classes.

Over a leisurely lunch at a downtown District watering hole, I interviewed the legendary Margrit, as she prefers to be called. As she twirled lengths of truffle-topped pasta around her fork, we spoke of many things from wine to the price of olive oil, which she knows off the top of her head. She met most of my questions with questions of her own; her curiosity is insatiable. Below are just a few of the memorable anecdotes she told me over lunch on life, love, cooking and everything in between:

On life and family:

“I love life. I think everyday is a present, and as my husband would say, I have no secrets. I cannot tell a lie, because my memory is too short. In general, I like to be on the joyous side and be remembered for that. I have wonderful friends and family, but I realize that you have to accept life and I try not to ponder it too much. It’s important to participate and enjoy life as long as you can and I do with three children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren whom I adore.”

On cooking:

“Once, we were in Salzburg to do a television show. They had found a wild turkey, but it weighed only about two pounds. After the tiny bird was cooked – they actually had prepared one in advance to speed up the show – we shared it with the manager and his staff. It was the most delicious turkey I’ve ever had in my life!”

On wine:

“There was a time when the French turned up their noses at California wines. Not anymore! The tasting of 1976 with un-aged wines proved that we could do what Bob said we could do. Twelve years later they did another tasting at COPIA and proved that California wines age well if they are properly made and properly stored.”

On love:

“Love is excitement and Robert was always exciting. Our life was enjoyable, but challenging,too. I was the person who brought art into Robert’s life, because he never had time. We started the music festival and the cooking schools and he was always very supportive. And we loved to travel. When Bob was eighty-two we bought a pair of worldwide American Airlines tickets for unlimited first class travel, so we went everywhere for free.  He would say, ‘Let’s go to Berlin. Let’s go to Beijing.’ And we did!”

On letting go:

“I have to learn about tossing things aside. I want to and don’t know how to begin. I have to simplify my life. I go to work every day and I feel very betwixt and between because with my husband it was always people, people, people. It was a wonderful time.”

In a ceremony at the winery in January 2013, Margrit Mondavi will be honored as the thirtieth recipient of the Monteith Wine Bowl Trophy, given to the stalwarts and icons of the wine industry.

Margrit was recently in Washington to attend the opening of this exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on which the Robert Mondavi Winery was a consultant. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian)

Margrit was recently in Washington to attend the opening of this exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on which the Robert Mondavi Winery was a consultant. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian)

Jordan and Margrit                          The Perfect Finish                                         Lobster ravioli photo credit Jordan Wright

Jordan and Margrit                      The Perfect Finish                                               Lobster ravioli
photo credit Jordan Wright

Whisk and Quill Picks The Most Notable Cookbooks of 2012

Jordan Wright
December 13, 2012


This year’s cookbooks brought us a wealth of ways to be engaged in food in one way or another – grow it, cook it, eat it, share it, broadcast it.  While some cover the cuisines of far-off cultures, others focus on a specific region of America or share memories of meaningful meals.  Books on preparing a garden’s harvest and instructive manuals on chronicling your food adventures with blogs, photos or Pinterest.  Proust would be pleased.  Have a madeleine and read on.

Lifestyle Cooking

Each afternoon I am treated to lunch by the writers of the Canal House cooking series – virtually that is.  From their bespoke blog they email a beautiful photograph of their luncheon with a short description of how they prepared it and what they served with it.  It might come from their Lambertville, New Jersey garden; be foraged on a hike in a nearby woods; or left on their doorstep by a friend.  Sometimes a few simple ingredients combined with leftovers from their Sunday suppers or backyard cookouts become a gourmand’s delight.  Written by Christopher Hirsheimer, former executive editor and co-founder of Saveur magazine and food and design editor of Metropolitan Home; and Melissa Hamilton, food stylist and former Saveur food editor, Canal House Cooks Every Day (Andrews McMeel Publishing) is a gorgeous collection of over 250 recipes for the home cook.


Cynthia Nims’s Salty Snacks (Ten Speed Press) is a fun book with simple, but original recipes for making your own chips, crisps, crackers, pretzels and other savory bites and had me bookmarking a goodly number of pages.  I loved the Cumin Lentil Crackers, Salami Chips with Grainy Mustard, Blue Cheese Straws, Five-Spice Duck Skin, and other tasty treats.  Whether you make food for gifting, cater parties or host them, you will refer to this delightful book whenever you’re entertaining.  Heads up, family and friends, the Coconut Crisps with Basil and Chiles could be in your Christmas stocking.

How To Books

Helene Dujardin’s Plate to Pixel – Digital Food Photography & Styling (Wiley) shares secrets from her career as a professional food photographer teaching photo-by-photo how to achieve the fabulous results professional food stylists use in creating those mouth-watering photos used in ads, magazines, blogs and books.

Three food-centric books from the “For Dummies” series, give tips for DIYs on how to get your message out with Pinterest For Dummies by Kelby Carr, Food Blogging For Dummies by Kelly Senyei, and Food Styling & Photography by Alison Parks-Whitfield – all from WileyNow you can write your own cookbook, blog about your Aunt June’s recipes, or photo broadcast the last scrumptious thing you ate.

Healthful Cooking and Gardening

Health nuts delight! Mark Bittman has you in his culinary sights with Leafy Greens – An A-to-Z Guide to 30 Types of Greens (Wiley).  From the New York Times food writer and author of How to Cook Everything, Bittman puts together over 120 recipes to green up your diet.  And who isn’t going green these days?  Ramp up your anti-oxidant intake with dishes like Bitter Greens with Bacon, Grilled Radicchio and Risotto with Arugula and Shrimp.  Whether its mizuna, kale, watercress, broccoli rabe, mustard greens, dandelion or collards, this nifty book will tell you how to identify and prepare over 30 kinds of greens whether found at local farmers markets or an Asian grocery.

I had a lot of fun with Vegan Eats World (Da Capo) by Terry Hope Romero – named “Favorite Cookbook Author” by VegNews.  Though I am most assuredly not a candidate for a strict vegan diet, there are many wonderfully creative recipes from a wide variety of cultures that would suit an omnivore.  Romero doesn’t just share her recipes and experiences that she describes as “savoring the planet”, she dreams of a vegan revolution.  So imagine a tofu banh mi sandwich, a seitan Greek gyro, Jackfruit Tacos, and Korean bulgogi made with extra-firm tofu.

I’m all for growing your own berries and veggies.  So over the past ten years or so our family has tended a small plot at the Chinquapin Organic Gardens in Alexandria, Virginia.  Community gardening is a great way for urban gardeners to keep their hands in the soil, swap crop tips or recipes, and share summer’s bounty.  So I was particularly interested in Fruit Trees in Small Spaces – Abundant Harvests from Your Own Backyard by Colby Eierman (Timber Press) an inspiring and informative book filled with concrete advice on selecting, pruning, espalier training, and preparing the fruits of your labor.  Did you know you could make wine from fresh oranges or peach leaves?

Photos by Erin Kunkel who once served as Director of Sustainable Agriculture for the Benziger Family Winery and Director of Gardens at the recently shuttered COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa Valley, make it look easy and fun.  Expect to see his produce on your plate if you are dining at Chez Panisse in Berkeley or Girl and the Fig in Sonoma.  As an advocate for children’s gardening programs, he was the co-founder of the School Garden Project in Eugene, Oregon. 

Ethnic Cuisine

Phaidon Press, who last year charmed us with the Noma cookbook whose recipes used Scandinavian foraged ingredients, now brings us The Lebanese Kitchen by Salma Hage.  Hage has compiled over 500 recipes from every region of her native Lebanon to bring us an astonishing collection of dishes for every course from mezzes to fattoush and aromatic desserts.  Within its pinked-edged pages is also a special section devoted to recipes from noted chefs who have already come under the spell of the Lebanese cuisine.  Roasted Sea Bass in Tahini Sauce, a Middle Eastern favorite of mine, is here demystified.

Morocco (Chronicle Books) by Jeff Koehler has a subtitle – A Culinary Journey with Recipes from the Spice-Scented Markets of Marrakech to the Date-Filled Oasis of Zagora which pretty much tells you what you can expect from its matte finish pages.  If I could eat this book I would.  You can almost smell the rosewater and spices.  This is why everyone dreams of visiting the ancient North African nation and why those that have come away with stars in their eyes.  The food is lavish, sensual and colorful.  From tagines to cous cous with a section on the Moroccan pantry that defines the country’s exotic ingredients.  It is easy to follow and sublime to eat.  You can follow Jeff’s culinary adventures on his website

Also worth noting is Rice & Curry – Sri Lankan Home Cooking (Hippocrene), a re-issue written by former Rolling Stone contributor S. H. (Skiz) Fernando Jr.  The photo-laden cookbook slash travelogue, has book jacket blurbs from Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods and Anthony Bourdain who used Skiz as a guide through Sri Lanka on Travel Channel’s No Reservations.  Visit this link to read about Skiz’s DC pop up dinner this summer and more 2012 cookbook reviews.  

American Regional

Get the jump on your Charleston friends this year with Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking (Gibbs Smith).  Veteran cookbook authors Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart explore the history of Southern regional cuisine with recipes that reflect the Old South along with some modern day twists.  This summer I watched Ms. Dupree making an unholy mess at a biscuit demonstration at Maryland’s National Harbor.  She was as funny on that hot steamy day as she is in this book.  And she gave practical tips in the same generous way she shares them on these pages.

Jordan with Nathalie Dupree

Jordan with Nathalie Dupree

“I always use flexible plastic cutting boards.  They make life easy when you transfer dry ingredients to the bowl and cut out your biscuits,” she trilled.  She went on to show how the biscuits must touch, and how she uses a 9” cake pan to nestle eight biscuits together.  “That’s enough for four for the first serving.  You can put in another pan after that to keep bringing out hot biscuits.”  She is very clear in her instructions and it certainly emboldened me to learn to make the perfect biscuit.  In this terrific compendium of all things edibly Southern you’ll find classics like Fried Chicken, Pimento Cheese and Sweet Potato Biscuits along with Peaches and Figs Wrapped in Country Ham.  It’s a keeper – all 600 recipes!


Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook – Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance, and Life is a personal favorite.  Margrit, widow of Napa wine pioneer Robert Mondavi and worldly octogenarian, has written this book with her heart and soul.  It is a refreshingly candid pentimento by a lively spirit who has found both pleasure and passion in both work and life.  Enjoy a memoir that reads like a private conversation with a close friend, and is beautifully composed with personal photographs, recipes and tributes from friends and family, and illustrated with her whimsical watercolor studies chronicling the couple’s private dinner menus, tablescapes and plein air landscapes.  Visit this link to read my recent interview with Margrit Mondavi.  .

Marcus Samuelsson’s latest book, “Yes, Chef”, is an emotion-filled autobiographical journey beginning with his adoption as a child from his native Ethiopia to his new family in Sweden.  The James Beard Foundation Award winner and winner of Top Chef Masters has written a thoroughly fascinating and poignant memoir that takes the reader from his culinary education in Europe to his success at New York’s Aquavit restaurant, later culminating in the 2010 opening of his smash hit Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem.  Visit this link to read my August interview with Samuelsson at the Howard Theatre

A Table at Le Cirque: Stories and Recipes from New York’s Most Legendary Restaurant (Rizzoli, NYC) written by its creator the Tuscan-born Sirio Maccioni and Pamela Fiori, a former editor at Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, puts you squarely at the best table in Manhattan.  For close to four decades, this exclusive institution has been a glamorous watering hole for celebrities and the country’s social and business elite.  Many of the world’s leading chefs have made their mark in its kitchens and the book contains recipes of some of their legendary dishes including Daniel Boulud’s Black Bass with Barolo Sauce, Alain Sailhac’s Fettuccine with White Truffles, Pierre Schaedelin’s deconstructed Caesar Salad, and noted chocolatier Jacques Torres’s Bombolini.

Local and Notable

Jersey born and bred Mike Isabella has a passion for food – earthy, soul-stretching, heart-stirring Italian food – and he’s decided to share it with the home cook.  In Crazy Good Italian (Da Capo Press Lifelong Books) he takes you into the kitchen with his nonna to teach you the family’s favorite dishes.  Included in the over 150 recipes that speak to his Italian roots is his famous Pepperoni Sauce, the one that wowed the judges on Bravo’s “Top Chef”.  Isabella has gotten to be a familiar fixture not only on television, where he made a cameo appearance on “Life After Top Chef”, but also around the DC area with his casual resto Graffiato and Georgetown venture Bandelero.  His almond and jam flavored Rainbow cookies are perfect for Christmas with their red, gold and green layers topped with chocolate.  Visit this link to read my piece on Isabella’s opening of Bandelero earlier this year.

My first assignment as a DC-based food writer was to interview Carla Hall at DC’s CulinAerie, a catering company where she once taught cooking classes.  I found her presiding over a TV watch party with her friends and co-workers, held the night the Top Chef finalists were announced.  Though she came in second that night, the show forever changed the life of the former French fashion model in ways she could not have imagined.

Currently the co-host of ABC’s The Chew, Hall has written her first book Cooking With Love – Comfort Food That Hugs You (Simon and Schuster Digital Sales).  In it she offers up her versions of simple, home-style dishes like Chicken Pot Pie and Deviled Eggs with Smoky Bacon.  The amorous title best describes Hall’s easygoing approach to cooking.  She continues her presence in DC as executive chef of Alchemy, an artisanal cookie company.  Visit this link to read my interview with Hall on that auspicious night.

A Few More Treasures from This Year

Bouchon Bakery (Artisan) by Thomas Keller; Jerusalem: A Cookbook (Ten Speed Press) by Yottam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi; My Key West Kitchen: Recipes and Stories (Kyle Books, London) by Norman Van Aken and Justin Van Aken; The Complete Recipes (Flammarion, Paris) by Paul Bocuse.

The Real Spirit of Christmas in Rappahannock County – Nibbles and Sips Goes to the Country

Jordan Wright
November 27, 2012
Special to DC Metro Theater ArtsBroadway Stars, and localKicks
Thanks to Visit Rappahannock County Virginia – Office of Tourism 

‘Grey Thursday’.  Who dreamt this one up?  It’s so not right, on so many levels, and affords us little time to catch up with family, trim the tree together or settle in for a bit of football.  Turkey sandwiches anyone?  ‘Black Friday’ – a miserably stressful experience at best.  Enough said.  Now we have “Cyber Monday’ and we are urged to buy online.  Let’s just say it’s a cheerless marketing ploy devoid of Santa and his adorable elves.  Is this what Christmas has become, just a way to buy gifts more efficiently?  If the meaning of Christmas is checking off items online, or battling frantic buyers in a department store for the last cashmere sweater, then surely the spirit of the holidays will pass us by.  So count me out.  I want the old-fashioned Christmas back – that glorious time of year when we greet our neighbors and find a store where we can meet the owner or the talk to the artist.   So bundle up and sally forth with good cheer into the chill air. Have a mug of hot spiced cider, or something a bit more fortified.  Tis the best season of the year!

Rappahannock Pasture - Cluneford Sheep - Roadside Cider Shop - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Rappahannock Pasture – Cluneford Sheep – Roadside Cider Shop – Photo credit Jordan Wright

I like to inch up on Christmas slowly, smell chestnuts roasting, bake cookies, make tiny marzipan pigs, put up fruit chutneys and fill tureens with homemade pimento cheese.  As for shopping I prefer to patronize a local business.  Last weekend we decided to take our list with us to Rappahannock County, Virginia and add to it an elegant country manor, a few wineries, galleries, specialty boutiques and a few sips of damn good whiskey.

Rappahannock Historical Society & Printing Press - Gold Jewelry Shop - Photo Credit Jordan Wright

Rappahannock Historical Society – Antique Printing Press – Shops in Washington, VA – Photo Credit Jordan Wright

The Friday after Thanksgiving, as department stores and parking lots were filling up with crazed shoppers, we headed west – a quick hour and a half drive from Washington, DC.  Soon silhouettes of the Blue Ridge Mountains traced the horizon and we were motoring down country lanes past meadows dotted with Black Angus cattle drinking from placid ponds and on through valleys where horses grazed idly.  Weathered red barns and hulking silos chockfull of fodder towered over fallow fields strewn with cylinders of winter hay.  Our first stop was a mom-and-pop cider stand to pick up local sorghum and apple butter.  Rappahannock County was once one of the nation’s largest apple producers and its rich history of agriculture is still thriving.

Flint Hill 

We begin in Flint Hill.  The tiny town’s quirky not-to-be-missed 24 Crows boasts an art gallery, gift shop and lunch spot.  It’s a friendly place where neighbors linger over a glass of wine and where you can get your hands on an extendable bug zapper or choose from a selection of fine wines, gourmet goodies and hand woven socks.  The turquoise and yellow clapboard house also bears an array of gifties like dainty fabric handbags, handmade jewelry and wool scarves.  Brightly colored fur trapper’s hats with pull-down flaps float down from the ceiling and handcrafted sock animals await the children on your list.  We loved the original greeting cards and hand carved larch wood cutting boards.  For the nautically inclined on your list take note of Sperryville artist Mark Malik’s classic one-of-a-kind 1950’s runabout models reminiscent of Henry Fonda’s speedboat in On Golden Pond.

Classic Runabout Model by local artist Mark Malik - Shopping at 24 Crows - Lunch Counter - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Classic Runabout Model by local artist Mark Malik – Shopping and dining at the counter at 24 Crows – Photo credit Jordan Wright

Lunch changes daily according to owner/chefs Heidi and Vinnie’s caprices.  From the ingredient-driven lunch menu we chose a Wagyu Beef Burger with Applewood smoked bacon and Maytag blue cheese on a challah bun, and the Curried Chicken Salad with apricots and toasted almonds on organic whole grain bread.  End on a sweet note with Heidi’s Handmade Ice Cream.  The challenge was in deciding on one of the intriguing flavors like Apricot, Drunk Pumpkin made with Meyers Rum, and Curious George Banana and Peanuts.  We opted for a cone of Copper Fox Whiskey Sticky Toffee Ice Cream and didn’t regret a lick of it!  Shades of things to come…  24 Crows is open Wednesday through Sunday 11:30 till 2:30pm for lunch only.

Across Zachary Taylor Highway (Route 522) is the Horse N Hound for the pet lover and equestrian on your list.  The rustic cottage offers everything you need for riding and rough outdoor wear.  A pair of Blundstone paddock boots or a jaunty oilskin equestrian cap would satisfy the sportiest on your list – horse owner or not.  For the family dog there’s natural pet food and treats or a new collar and leash engraved in a thrice.


A few miles further will put you in Washington.  The Inn at Little Washington is the cornerstone of the town and has been a destination spot since 20th Century pioneer chef Patrick O’Connell turned a run-down garage in an off-the-the-grid town into a mecca for international gourmands and the landed gentry.  O’Connell has since bought up much of the village, turning Pre-Revolutionary homes into bespoke shops and posh accommodations.  If you’re lucky enough to secure a reservation to dine there or stay in one of their romantic suites, you will be in for an extravagant bucket list experience.  Executive Chef Scott Lyons gave me a tour of the gleaming kitchens and a dinner guest-only box of mignardises nestled in a replica box of the inn.

Little Inn Washington - Executive Chef Scott Lyons - Prepping for Dinner - Photo credit Jordan Wright

The Inn at Little Washington – Executive Chef Scott Lyons – Chefs prep for dinner service – Photo credit Jordan Wright

Housed in a 1740 restored tavern are The Shops at The Inn at Little Washington.  Here you can buy souvenirs of the inn including cookies, preserves, and pies sold in a handmade Shaker box or, for the cook that has everything, one of their signature Dalmatian-spotted aprons.  Irresistible Susan Carson and Company handbags; soaps and perfumes from the venerable 18th Century French house of Rancé; chic home accessories; fine art or a cocktail table-worthy cookbook from a fine collection in will beckon the discerning shopper.  Mystique Jewelers has a small nook with a case of designer baubles.  A pair of gold fleur-de-lis earrings caught my eye, as did some pretty silk negligees from Kumi Koocoon and lingerie from Veréna.

r.h. Ballard Shop - Little Washington Shop - Fall Floral Display - Photo credit Jordan Wright

r.h. Ballard Shop – Washington shops – Floral display at the Inn – Photo credit Jordan Wright

Stonyman Gourmet Farmer is a unique and beautifully restored 18th Century mercantile, one of the oldest in the Mid-Atlantic region.  It boasts a series of enchanting outdoor gardens offering a relaxing respite to enjoy lunch or a plate of  farmstead cheeses, pastries and fresh baked breads.

Scour Antiques at Middle Street for vintage pieces and collectibles including clocks, toys and porcelain or seek out French tablecloths, rugs and fine art at r.h. Ballard.

A Currier & Ives Christmas

This Sunday, December 2nd, the historic town will be all aglow with its annual Christmas in “Little” Washington Festival & Holiday Parade.  Festivities begin 10am with an Artisans Market featuring over 30 local artists and crafters, along with specialty food and wine vendors.  The Market will be at both the Washington Town Hall and the RAAC Community Theatre until 4pm.

The Washington Baptist Church on Gay Street will be the site of the “Hanging of the Greens” services at 10am.  A rare Christmas stamp collection will be on display from 12:30 until 7pm.

Grand Marshal “George Washington” returns to the first town he surveyed as a young man of 19.  Accompanied by other famous Virginia patriots from “The Committee for the Republic,” he leads the Holiday Parade along Main and Gay Streets. The parade begins at 1:00pm and showcases antique cars, homemade floats, a cavalcade of animals and marching bands, and, of course, Santa Claus himself.

At 2pm Stonyman Town Square hosts Santa Claus, who will have a gift for each child who stops by.  Also on the Square, the Gold Top County Ramblers will play and sing country and Christmas favorites and visitors can stay warm by the bonfire.  Also at 2pm you can experience “living history” as the Virginia Patriots re-enact events from Valley Forge.  And for the piece de resistance magician Steve Kish performs at 2:30pm at The Theatre at Little Washington.  All events are free and held whatever the weather.


Time for check in and we drive a few short miles to Huntly.  A long stacked stone wall signals the entry to Glen Gordon Manor.  Don’t look for a sign.  The Bed & Breakfast is so understated you won’t see one.  Situated below the sight line from the road and beyond a slight rise in the terrain, its discreet profile signals a private country estate.  Winter in Virginia’s Piedmont arrives earlier here than in the city and as we come down the long drive we see the neatly stacked cords of wood, covered swimming pool and blanketed horses along with the source of our breakfast, breeds of chickens chosen for the color of their eggshells, skittering around in the backyard.

The Glen Gordon Manor in Huntly, Virginia - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Glen Gordon Manor in Huntly, Virginia – Photo credit Jordan Wright

Originally built in 1833 as a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop, the Gordon family later converted the house to a hunting lodge frequented by the Prince of Wales and his wife, Baltimorean socialite Wallis Simpson, and their tony pals.  Since then the manor has been lovingly reconfigured from residence to inn without losing any of its aristocratic identity.  You enter under an arbor, where we saw the twitching tail of an elusive cat named Oreo, into a large center hall.  We are greeted by owner Dayn Smith with a glass of wine and an invitation to relax beside the fire in the grand Hunt Room.

Dayn Smith and his wife, Nancy, are the manor’s proprietors.  Full of genuine warmth, they look like they just popped out of the pages of Town and Country.  Their nephew Trent, who is equally as charming, helps with cooking, serving and seeing to guests’ needs.  Dayn comes to innkeeping through his years as an award-winning executive chef and owner/entrepreneur of several high-profile restaurants in Puerto Rico – his wife from her years as a nurse tending to VIP clientele in an exclusive New York plastic surgeon’s practice.  Their gracious manner is reflected in the elegant details of the manor and the sumptuous cuisine.  We immediately sense we are in the lap of luxury and we curl up like kittens beside the roaring fireplace.

The inn’s rooms are tastefully adorned with good art, great books, antiques and sumptuous linens, but the piece de resistance is the food.  Though open only a short time, the area is already abuzz with talk of Dayn’s refined French cuisine and his delectable sauces.  On off nights they host a members-only “Supper Club” that has diners eagerly rebooking as soon as a new evening’s festivities is proposed.

Glencroft Cottage Windsor Suite at Glen Gordon Manor - Photo credit Jordan Wright

The Windsor Suite at Glencroft Cottage at Glen Gordon Manor – Photo credit Jordan Wright

Our quarters are a few hundred feet down the driveway in the recently redesigned Glencroft Cottage Windsor Suite.  The suite is tastefully appointed with a lavish bathroom and large tub situated beside a picture window looking out over the mountains, meadows and stables.  We dress for dinner.  And when we arrive at seven, the dining room is already lively.

Since the menu is chef’s choice the only decision we need to make is if we would like our five-course dinner paired with wines from the manor’s wine cellar.  Dayn is partial to French wines, which suits us just fine.

We begin with a Willm Alsatian Blanc de Noir Crémant made from 100% pinot noir grapes.  It is accompanied by an amuse bouche in the form of Aleppo-crusted quail with tiny potatoes fried in sumptuous duck fat.  We are swooning already.  The palate teaser is followed by cream of parsnip soup with chive spuma topped with crispy parsnip chips and paired with another Willm Alsatian wine – a Pinot Blanc Reserve.

A seasonally correct roasted pumpkin salad arrives constructed of local garden greens, jamón Ibérico, Manchego cheese and toasted pepitas dressed in a balsamic reduction.  We continue with our fish course – steelhead trout nestled in a tangle of carrots, leeks and fennel and dotted with a dill beurre blanc and complemented by a glass of Bandol, a rosé from Mas de la Rouvière.  If I were at home I would have thrown up my hands and called for my uncle, but who would turn down sheer rounds of veal cheek ravioli with truffle and wild mushroom ragout and delicate Brussel sprout leaves served with a Côtes du Rhône, Les Champauvins from Alain Jaume et Fils.  And who in their right mind would resist apple gallette with caramel ice cream and caramel Anglaise and apple butter heightened by a Dow’s 10 year-old tawny port?  It was an extraordinarily creative and outstandingly sublime meal, prepared with a light yet skilled hand and reflective of the superb ingredients and the chef’s mastery of sophisticated culinary techniques.  We resume our contented feline positions after dinner, lingering by the fire and visiting with other equally impressed dinner guests.

Organic Chicken Egg Layers - Four course breakfast - Five course dinner paired with wines - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Organic Chicken Egg Layers – Four course breakfast – Five course dinner paired with wines – Photo credit Jordan Wright

The following morning a four-course breakfast awaits us in the sunny dining room – fresh orange juice, seven-grain oatmeal with milk spuma, Greek yogurt with raspberries and blueberries and wild rice pancakes topped with an orange yolked poached egg, Hollandaise and asparagus.  Thank you little chickens.  We are tempted to linger but unfurl ourselves and embark on our mission, armed with gift lists to complete.

Glen Gordon Manor, 1482 Zachary Taylor Highway, Huntly, VA 22640.


Though Rappahannock Cellars winery is just around the corner we drive a few miles to the town of Sperryville, which lies beside the curvaceous South Fork of the Thornton River.  We head for The Shops at the Schoolhouse where we find Coterie, which is defined by a group of artisans and designers housed in a series of rooms.  Look for beautiful handmade leather belts, bags, jackets, medieval-style leather corselettes and dreamy full-length naturally dyed linen dresses perfect for wearing with cowboy boots.  In the garden room we find unusual new and vintage outdoor ornaments.  The whimsical hand made woolen figures, owls and elves, are particularly enchanting.  Pick up a few boxes of Cocoa Bella hot chocolate blend for a perfect hostess gift.

River District Art Shops in Coterie - Cocoa Bella - Monkey Business - Artisans Market - Photo credit Jordan Wright

River District Art Shops in Coterie – Cocoa Bella – Monkey Business – Artisans Market – Photo credit Jordan Wright

Wandering around I found a few well-priced antique paisley throws, garden artifacts and collectibles in Monkey Business and I meet Rebecca Abecassis proprietor of the Knit Wit Yarn Shop.  Rebecca carries an astonishing array of fine yarns and knitting supplies along with fair trade teas, jewelry, handknit hats, gloves and scarves.

Across the way is the River District Arts, an artist collaborative laid out in a series of spaces similar to Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory.  Explore the open studios to find original art, photography, pottery and crafts.  In the Artisans Market two exhibition galleries showcase regional artists and one-of-a-kind Virginia crafts.  You’ll come upon Café Indigo for yummy soups, sandwiches and light fare.  Pumpkin cupcakes were the flavor of the day, but the choices vary daily.  After the holiday parade in Washington on Sunday, December 2nd they are planning an artist reception featuring the Small Works show.  Sip a glass of mulled cider and meet the artists.

Shops at Coterie in River's District of Sperryville - Photo credit Jordan Wright

River District Arts – Cafe Indigo – Knit Wit Yarn Shop at Sperryville – Photo credit Jordan Wright

In the heart of the historic village is Rudy’s Pizza side by side with Thornton River Grille and the Corner Store.  Warning: Do not leave town without having pizza at Rudy’s.  It is the gold standard in Italian pies and once you have had it you will be forever comparing other versions to it.  Repeat: Have this pizza.  You will thank me.

Author Ted Pellagatta signing books - Rudy's Pizza at Corner Store Sperryville - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Author Ted Pellagatta signing books at the Corner Store – Rudy’s Pizza in Sperryville – Photo credit Jordan Wright

We perused the aisles of the Corner Store discovering freshly made Hatfield pork sausage, Russian black bread, cheeses and local yogurt – picnic provisions for another day – when I ran into WJLA meteorologist and local resident, Bob Ryan, who had dropped by to say hello to his pal, local photographer Ted Pellegatta, at the counter signing his book – Virginia’s Blue Ridge – A Pictorial Journey.

Founder Copper Fox Distillery Rick Wasmund - Bottle Labeler and Wax Cap Sealer - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Founder Copper Fox Distillery Rick Wasmund – Bottle Labeler and Wax Cap Sealer – Photo credit Jordan Wright

But we are focused on gifts today so we trot down the road a piece to the Copper Fox Distillery for a few bottles of Wasmund’s Applewood Aged Single Malt Whiskey and their Copper Fox Rye WhiskeyRick Wasmund is an old friend who lives above the distillery with his beautiful new wife and baby daughter.  He showed us around the property and proudly told us his small-batch whiskies are now being exported to England and Scotland.  Now that should tell you something about the caliber of his product.  If you have a few minutes take the complimentary tour where you’ll taste the both the raw and toasted barley and learn about the process of making whiskey.  It’s highly informative and the fumes are intoxicating.

Tucker Roger musician son of Margaret Rogers owner of Central Coffee Roasters - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Tucker Rogers musician son of Margaret Rogers owner of Central Coffee Roasters – Photo credit Jordan Wright

A mile or so further down Route 211 is the cozy Central Coffee Roasters.  Margaret Rogers is the engaging and well-traveled owner who along with her musician son, Tucker, roast the coffee on site, greet visitors and hold tastings.


As you head back to DC, drive along Route 522 (which becomes 211) and on to Amissville.  There are no little shops to browse but some wonderful tasting rooms where you can pick up a few bottles of wine and wine accoutrements.  Wasn’t that on your list too?  Stop in at Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly, Narmada Winery and Gray Ghost Vineyards & Winery in Amissville.

Back to the city we go after a thrilling weekend in the country filled with real memories of the holiday spirit and a car laden with treasures.  Move over Santa this sleigh is full!


Nibbles and Sips Goes Mobile – From DC to AC to NYC and Back to DC

November 2012
Jordan Wright
Special to, and

The Federalist – A Peaceful Retreat in the Heart of Downtown

What an eclectic array of events in just the past few weeks!  Here are some highlights.  We cozy into a leather banquette for a quiet, civilized and very elegant dinner at The Federalist in The Madison hotel where Chef de Cuisine Harper McClure put us in the right frame of mind for our madcap road trip.  Soups start us off – cauliflower bisque and an aromatic she-crab soup with nubbins of lump crabmeat.  My partner went for the Shenandoah lamb loin with celery root purée while McClure kindly indulged me with a special vegetarian plate of Alsatian braised arrowhead cabbage, sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, roasted Brussels sprouts, glazed cippolini onions, Carolina Gold rice and corn drop biscuits, while I try to pack in a week’s worth of veggies.

Upscale and Downscale on the Road

In the morning we’re off to Atlantic City, New York City, and Long Island too for a quick trip down memory lane.  No, we were not the advance team for Hurricane Sandy!  But it has felt somewhat eerie this week as we view disaster photos from the very roads we traveled and places where we stayed, trying to keep in contact with our New York friends who have lost power.  But for now we are blissfully ignorant of the devastating forces lurking a mere fortnight away.

Latino fisherman casts his net into the Atlantic off the coast of Margate, NJ – Photo by Jordan Wright

After a sun-drenched ride we disembarked at the glam resort Revel.  Its blue glass windows shimmer forty-eight stories skyward upping the wow factor in Atlantic City.  The resort has five restaurants from some of the region’s top chefs, but we were headed for Robert Wiedmaier’s Mussel Bar and Michel Richard’s Central Michel Richard both of who have their original outposts here in DC.  The plan is to visit each one over the following two evenings.

But first a few words about the hotel.  It is a breathtaking $2.4 billion curvilinear building designed by Architechtonica – the über modernistic design firm whose Brickell Avenue high-rise offices were featured in “Miami Vice” , setting the tone for that show’s hipster vibe.  No glitzy faux-Venetian Vegas-inspired schlock here.  This luxury property was decorated in the trendy retro mid-century modern style.  I expected to see the Dino and Sammy and the rest of the original rat pack from the “Oceans 11” in their slender-cut suits.

Our first night was spent at Mussel Bar, a Flemish gastro-pub where we found an edgy macho vibe, where Wiedmaier’s Harley Davidson is slung atop the room-length bar and chandeliers are cobbled together from rope and old bottles.  Skull graffiti is carved in some of the tables.  Skulls are very stylish this year and not on account of Halloween.  Try the house private label Belgian beer, Antigoon, a crisp light ale that sports a graphic of a giant with severed hand.  No cause for alarm.   Brabo, the name of one of Wiedmaier’s Alexandria restos, is a much-revered hero from Belgian mythology.

Expect braised meats and root vegetables served en casserole at this time of year; fresh local oysters, clams, lobsters and mussels, of course; as well as house-made charcuterie and addictive pommes frites.  It’s Belgian meets American regional.

Central Michel Richard is its polar opposite.  A brightly lit curvaceous blonde wood nest with an open kitchen, chef’s table and dining bar, it features casual French cuisine.  Deviled eggs topped with freshly pickled sardines, a chopped salad with mustard vinaigrette, and a beef filet-derived steak tartare were more than satisfying, especially after a cone filled with Richard’s signature gougeres– melt in your mouth cheese bites perfect for snacking with a martini – or “martillery” as we fondly call them at home.

 Lunch took us to White House Subs for an Italian cold cut special made with fresh Italian bread.  The 65 year-old temple to naugahyde and formica is a must visit.  The walls are lined with celebrity habitués from the 50’s on up – a tribute to its great subs and loyal following.  We settled for half a sub each for $6 bucks a pop.

White House Sub Shop in Atlantic City – Photo by Jordan Wright

On to New York City to Wall Street and the Battery.  We pass the new World Trade Center construction in the pouring rain and walk along one of the rare cobblestone streets left in Manhattan.  Our destination was brunch at the 250 year-old Fraunces Tavern.  An inn cum history museum, it is one of the most fascinating locales in the city, adjacent to the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center, and one I had somehow overlooked in all my years in the city.  This pre-revolutionary spot is where George Washington gave his inaugural address and later his farewell address to his officers of the Continental Congress.  During the Revolution it was the site of the first U.S. Treasury and the Departments of Foreign Affairs and War.  A meeting place for the Sons of the American Revolution it is Manhattan’s oldest surviving building and part of the American Whiskey Trail.

The Bar at Fraunces Tavern – Photo by Jordan Wright

Our fixed price brunch allotted us two Bloody Marys, one entree and a dessert.  George and Martha, had they partaken, would have approved.  I had the creamy smoked haddock chowder and the Irish Breakfast with sausage, blood pudding, bacon, eggs and baked beans, while my partner opted for the tavern’s buttery-crusted turkey pot pie and goat cheese, pear and cranberry salad.  After downing two bloodies I forgot to photo the desserts – homemade pie with homemade ice cream.

Later that evening we repaired to the Lower East Side to a Keith McNally spot called Schiller’s Liquor Bar – all white subway-tiled walls with antique fittings and signage from the turn of the 20th C.  After seeing the photos from Hurricane Sandy with the neighborhood underwater, I hope the place is still up and running as it was pouring cats and dogs that night and we had to leap over puddles on tiny sidewalks.

The scene at Schiller’s Liquor Bar on the Lower East Side – photo by Jordan Wright

The place was crowded, cold and damp and all about the cocktail.  We kept our coats on.  Tables were a few feet from the constantly opening door.  I vaguely recall a too-sweet bourbon sour, which the bartender crankily corrected.  Dinner was forgettable pasta, quickly downed while being stink-eyed by a hostess eager to turn the tables.  No dessert.  We fled like thieves in the night.

Avant Le Deluge – Dodging an Impending Hurricane Sandy

Morning brought breakfast at a friend’s home on Long Island – real New York Everything bagels, scrambled eggs and baked ham too – before taking off on a tour of the island and my old homestead.  It looked exactly the same as we drove up the long circular driveway and begged entry.  A surprised and kindly eighty year-old couple were entirely amenable to our visit.  Turns out they are the same family that bought the home from my parents and have raised 14 children in a house where we two kids once cavorted like puppies throughout the home’s ten bedrooms.

Visiting my childhood home on Long Island – Photo by Roy Wright

Around the corner we stop in at The Chowder Bar.  Sixty-six years in the same spot, the clapboard cottage perches unceremoniously beside the Maple Avenue Dock,a dozen or so yards from the old ferry boats to Fire Island.  They still serve the best clam chowder on the island for a few bucks and warmed the cockles of our hearts on a blustery day.

The Chowder House voted the best chowder on Long Island – Photo by Jordan Wright

In the evening we took dinner with friends in Massapequa, a small mid-island town that boasts numerous Italian restaurants both high- and low-end.  We drive along Broadway, the main drag, past mom-and-pop storefronts with traditional pasta makers, pizza joints, bakers, butchers and delis – all Old Country Italiano.  At Fra Amici Pizzeria & Ristorante it’s pasta night and the special three-course dinner is $11.95.  Caesar salads crisscrossed with olive oil-drenched anchovies, hearty minestrone soup crammed with zucchini and kale, and baskets of just-baked Italian bread cover the small table.  Shortly huge bowls of steaming pasta piled high with meatballs the size of baseballs arrive.  The tender orbs of veal and beef in homemade “gravy” as they call marinara sauce in these parts, melt in our mouths.

From a list of over fifteen types of pasta dishes I choose linguini alla vongole.  I have eaten this dish all over seaside Italia and anywhere in the United States near a bay or ocean.  I’ve had it prepared in the shell with Cherrystones, Little Necks or canned clams.  I know my alla vongole like a fish knows its scales.  I look down at my plate.  There beforeme is a sure half-pound of rough chopped whole fresh clams, whole cloves of tender garlic sautéed in butter and parsley and pasta enough for four.  I am thinking Jonah and the Whale.  I am thinking I am the big fish and this is my odyssey and as such I need to act my part.  Como incredibile!

We all took a deep breath, dove in to our respective pasta and truth be told made room for dessert though I cannot imagine how – cannoli and Italian cheesecake followed by mugs of frothy cappuccino.  I am still dreaming of it.  Readers, for the love of Mike, please let me know if there is anything in our area with “my-Nonna’s-in-the-kitchen” real-deal Italian dishes like this.

Cookie Monsters at Peace

Fueling us along during our time in the car were the heavenly New York City Black + Blanco cookies.  We tried all four exotic flavors of the buttery Moroccan-inspired ‘sandcastles’, as they call them.  The mad delicious sweets are gluten-free – though Lord knows not calorie-free.  Made with rye flour and virgin coconut oil they are entirely vegan.  No eggs, no dairy.  Choose from Maple Dusted Cardamom, Vanilla Black Sesame, Marzipan or Deep Chocolate Infrared infused with smoked paprika.  After each box we were still unable to pick a clear winner.  We’ll keep trying till we can.

Chinese Master Hu Comes to the Mandarin Oriental DC

Master Hu
Shaolin Kung Fu Master
Mandarin Oriental, Sanya

Back in town an exclusive booking at the Asian-inspired The Spa at Mandarin Oriental with Shaolin Kung Fu Master Hu awaited us.  Master Hu is from Henan Province and is a Master of Qi Gong and Medical Qi Gong as well as massage and meditation which are his specialties.  Master Hu has been on a multi-city tour, teaching students in both the martial and the cultural arts of China, and he was only in Washington for a few days before traveling on to the Mandarin Oriental in Chicago.

Our private class was an 80-minute Shaolin Zen Tea Ceremony that addressed health and a holistic diet regime.  The result is to stimulate the senses and bring the student back to nature through the serving of tea as a means to meditate together.  It seeks to harmonize the mind and body through a spiritual experience conducive to finding your inner self.

After watching Master Hu’s intricate ceremony of making, steeping and serving several white and green teas – one being the smoky lapsang souchong from the Fujian Province of China he told me his name means ‘tiger’.  I asked him what ‘foo’ means.  “It means happy,” he translated.  “Oh well, my dog’s name is Foo Foo,” I offered.  “Means very, very happy!” he giggled nearly falling off his chair.  His charm is contagious. We sipped and grinned right along with him.

Later we floated off to lunch at the hotel’s Sou’Wester and sat at a table overlooking the harbor while watching the yachts bobbing on the Potomac along Maine Avenue.  Feeling blissed out and in a nether realm of consciousness, I dreamily ordered the Pan-Seared Red Drum, a local fish served atop jambalaya and Anson Mills Carolina Gold rice, finishing with the entirely-over-the-top Early Autumn Sundae of port-roasted figs, candied walnuts and clover honey ice cream.  We drifted like autumn leaves back to our car and workaday reality, while thoughts of a chestnut sorbet not chosen were luring me back before the season’s end.

Partying with Phoenix – An Insider’s Report

A day of food and fun hosted by friends from the Phoenix CVB was on the agenda earlier this month and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.  A chance to have a private luncheon prepared by Mitsitam’s Executive Chef, Richard Hetzler at the National Museum for the American Indian (NMAI)that I knew would prove to be indelible.

The pond in autumn at NMIA - photo by Jordan Wright - Photo from Oct 2012 P

The pond in autumn at NMIA – photo by Jordan Wright

Our small group settled into a private dining room off the Main Cafeteria at tables swathed in bronze silks.  Host Greg Stanton, the Mayor of Phoenix, had been summoned to the White House that morning, following the previous night’s third Presidential debate, and he was running a tad late.  Trays of totopos, appeared with guacamole and peppery spreads with baked vegetable chips.  I toyed with a cool prickly pear agua fresca.

Stanton arrived around then apologizing for his late arrival.  He’s a good-looking, energetic man-on-a-mission eager to dispel the bad press Arizona has gotten of late.  He’d heard one of us had googled up the piece about his experiment to live on a week’s worth of food stamps.  I raised my hand.  I had been impressed by his sensitivity and drive even before our meeting.  He said we probably wouldn’t want to hear about his trip to the White House.  My hand shot up again and said, “Yes, please, Mr. Mayor, we would.”  “Well,” he recounted, “everyone’s chests were pretty puffed up after the previous evening’s success.”  And you could almost feel as though you’d been there too.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton

Lunch began with curls of cedar wrapped around seared salmon belly – the most buttery part of the fish – the poached red roe scattered like confetti over the top, the skin-on filet leaning against butternut squash bread pudding.  (Note: Hetzler achieves a crisp skin by first removing, pressing and quick searing it on a flattop grill and then reassembling the whole.)

Later a chestnut-stuffed goose terrine, sweet potato corn pone and wilted Brussels sprout leaves finished the coterie of appetizers smoothly paired with an Argentine Viognier.  Buffalo filet came glazed with fig must and clusters of plump shrimp sparkled with aji peppers and yellow yucca causa, a distinctive Peruvian dish derived from the Incans.

Hetzler showed off all the season’s glories with cauliflower-mashed potatoes made with buttermilk and horseradish, and a squash and Barlett pear gratin served in a pretty casserole.  We were a feather’s-breadth from heaven sipping a Chilean pinot noir when dessert was presented in the form of an aromatic acorn squash tart perfumed with sage and huckleberry honey plus a don’t-shoot-the-messenger apple crumble.  Take note budding chefs!   This is how one of our city’s finest chefs celebrates fall’s bounty using indigenous and sustainable foods.

A few hours later a cocktail reception was held at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).  This dramatic ultra-modern winged structure, which took three years to complete, is the newest addition to Constitution Avenue.  It features a glorious undulating glass roof called the Ansary Peace Dove.  On this night they would throw open the doors for an event that was not a peace-related program or conference and guests were head over heels to see it from the inside.

Copper casseroles filled with lavish dishes were set up around the sun-drenched room.  What I remember most is the posole, chicken braised in mole sauce, seafood tamales and crab cakes with pumpkin seed aioli, though there were countless other delights in the cavernous space.  After thoughtful remarks by the returning Mayor Stanton, Suwaimaa five-time world champion Hoop Dancer accompanied by a native drummer, performed for the riveted guests.

Five-time World Champion Hoop Dancer Suwaima and Drummer - photo Jordan Wright Photo from Oct 17, 2012

Five-time World Champion Hoop Dancer Suwaima and Drummer – photo Jordan Wright

I Love to Eat – James Beard Comes to DC 

This is the last weekend for the short run of Round House Theatre’s fabulous I Love to Eat, the one-man show on the life and times of iconic chef James Beard.  In 1946 before Julia Child, Guy Fieri and the Food Network, there was Beard, America’s first TV chef.  His NBC show was “Elsie’s Kitchen Tips”, named after the show’s sponsor Elsie the Cow, whose messages drop down to the stage á la Groucho Marx’s secret word delivering duck.

Nick Olcott photo by ClintonBPhotography. James Beard kitchen photo © Krishna Dayanidhi, courtesy of The James Beard Foundation.

Nick Olcott photo by ClintonBPhotography. James Beard kitchen photo © Krishna Dayanidhi, courtesy of The James Beard Foundation.

Actor and successful DC-based director, Nick Olcott, channels Beard in all his catty, charming, culinarily knowledgeable glory.  To prepare for the role Olcott prepared dishes from Beard’s many cookbooks and blogged about it – his knife skills on the set confirm his year long rehearsal for the role.  The set is Beard’s kitchen.  A world map signifying his world travels is hung alongside dozens of gleaming copper pans.  Stainless steel worktables frame the stage and retro Princess phones are at every corner.

The gourmand enters grandly through a refrigerator in pomegranate-hued Chinese silk pajamas, frost clouds billowing behind.  He takes a call from an admirer in Kansas concerned about her dish.  “Gird your apron a little tighter,” he advises. “It’s not Easter – no need to bring it back from the dead!”  The dialogue is familiar and intimate and we feel we’re a fly on the wall of his life where in his vernacular nonsense is “twaddle” and approval is “really tops”  “You can get away with anything if you are amusing!” he admits.  Wise words from a sage cook.

At Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD through November 4th.  For tickets and information call 240 644-1100 or visit

Nibbles and Sips Around Town: Dining Before the Show – Great Deals From Great Restaurants

Jordan Wright
October 2012
Special to, and 

When friends ask me where to dine before the theatre I try to respond authoritatively.  But, alas, my brain turns to porridge as I mentally scroll through the limitless options.  I try to hone it down by asking: Which theatre are you going to?  What kind of food do you prefer?  Do you need parking or Metro nearby?  Want something hip and trendy, white linen chic or bold ethnic flavors?  As an early diner there are great deals to be had before the swells arrive.  Here are a few dazzling spots to choose from before the curtain rises on the evening’s entertainment.  Madly sorry if I left out your favorite!

Both Rasika Penn Quarter and the new Rasika West End have a three-course pre-theatre menu for $35.00 Monday through Fridays from 5:30 till 6:30 PM and Saturdays from 5 till 6:30 PM.  Dishes are derived from regions all across India.  There’s Palak Chat and Sev Puri among other specialties and mains like Chicken Makhani, Lamb Roganjosh and Tandoori Salmon.  Desserts register with Carrot Halwah with cinnamon sabayon and Gulab Jamun with ice cream.

Crispy Spinach Chaat at Rasika

Crispy Spinach Chaat at Rasika

These two stylish Indian restaurants are on the “Hot List” making it an affordable way to sample their wares.  In the West End 1190 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20037.  For the Penn Quarter location 633 D Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004

At Ceiba the three-course early dinner is a mere $29.00 a pop.  This upscale contemporary Latin-inspired resto gives you choices like Yucatan Shrimp or Peruvian Seviche and Cuban Black Bean Soup with ham and cheese croquet.  Entrees are straight from the Dinner Menu with a $9.00 up charge for the Brazilian Seafood Stew, Churrasco Beef and Tower of Crab.

Ceiba Restaurant

Ceiba Restaurant – Photo credit Scott Suchman

A delicate Flan or Chocolate and Banana Mousse Cake and seasonal sorbets wrap up the Conga line.  Served Monday through Saturday 5:30 till 6:30PM.  Sunday from 5 till 6:30PM.  An extensive small plates Bar Menu for pre- and post-theatre is half price, and signature cocktails drop to a cheery $5.00. Check the site for exact times.  701 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005

Dinner at the Oval Room across Lafayette Park from the White House is spectacular anytime but a three-course dinner served from 5:30 till 6:30 nightly is a mere $35.00.  One of my favorite chefs in town, Tony Conte, wields an elegantly spare paradigm on Modern American cuisine.  What a terrific way to experience his exceptional cuisine for half the price of a regular dinner!  Is this really legal?

The Oval Room at night

The Oval Room at night

Try the Corn Soup with sorrel, pine nuts and brown butter or Sashimi of Tuna with smoked tapioca, tamarind and buttermilk to start.  Then it’s on to entrees like Rockfish with pumpkin seed pesto or Prime Rib with a cherry-chili relish.  Conte gets playful with dessert and I’m all in on a Chocolate S’more Bombe with salted caramel.  But wait!  A Cherry Pie with pine nut brittle ice cream?  Hmmmm….  Shouldn’t we just have dessert first?  800 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20006

At 701 Restaurant Executive Chef Ed Witthas created a stunning three-course pre-theatre menu for $32.00 with lots of options to choose from.  Appetizers like Fig and Arugula Salad with goat cheese, crispy guanciale with a vanilla vinaigrette; or Salmon Crudo with porcini powder, English peas and lemon agrumato oil raised my gastro antennae.  Two of the entrées got my attention too – NY Strip Steak with corn-cheddar grits and zucchini relish, or Duck Leg with mango curry, jasmine rice and bok choy.

Stylish cuisine by Executive Chef Ed Witt at 701 Restaurant

Stylish cuisine by Executive Chef Ed Witt at 701 Restaurant

Did I mention dessert?  There are several options, but bring on the Pear Thyme Crème Brulee with spiced fruits and thank you very very much, Chef.  Curbside valet parking is $8.00 with dinner validation Monday through Saturday.  What a steal!  701 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004

Just off Pennsylvania Avenue is Fiola – the brainchild of celebrated chef Fabio Trabocchi, who was chosen to create last year’s Garden Café Italiano at the National Gallery of Artto complement the Venetian Exhibit.  His $35.00 pre-theater menu served in a sleek modern setting doesn’t stint on elegance or ingredients.

Fine dining at Fiola

Fine dining at Fiola

The opening act is either Prosciutto with rhubarb and Monte Enebro cheese, or Burrata made with buffalo mozzarella.  Then choose from Branzino with a prosecco zabaglione; slow-cooked Ossobuco; or a light pasta dish.  Desserts are Hazelnut Crusted Caramel Tart or the traditional Zuppa Inglese – a trifle made with raspberry and lemon granita.  From 5:30 till 6:30PM. 601 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004.

Central Michel Richardhas a brand new pre-theatre dinner for $35.00.  So new it’s not even posted on their website yet!  Richard’s consistently lovely at-your-Grandmére’s French cuisine will be a real treat for theatregoers and I heartily recommend it.  Begin with a choice of Green Lentil Soup, Goat Cheese Caesar Salad, or Deviled Eggs with fresh boquerones – tiny marinated sardines.  A trip to Atlantic City last week to try his new outpost at Revel afforded me the opportunity to sample some of these delicacies.  (More deets on that in next week’s column.)

Chicken Julia from Central Michel Richard

Chicken Julia from Central Michel Richard

Entrees are Mussels in white wine; Garlic Salmon with lemongrass emulsion; or Chicken Julia, a crisp roasted chicken named after Childs.  End with Chocolate Lava Cake or Fig Tart both served with housemade ice cream or sorbet.  You can even return to enjoy your dessert after the show! 1001 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004

Johnny’s Half Shell is James Beard Award-Winning Chef Ann Cashion’s temple to Chesapeake and Gulf Coast sustainable seafood.  This Capitol Hill destination is known for its Saturday night live Jazz and Blues performers and laid back atmosphere.

Dining at Johnny's Half Shell

Dining at Johnny’s Half Shell

The three-course dinner is very specific and starts off with a mixed green salad before moving on to New Orleans-style File Gumbo Fillet of Catfish with shrimp and sausage risotto or Chicken Etouffee.  Dessert is Angel Food Cake with Caramel Sauce.  It’s $35.00 and is served nightly from 5 till 6:30 PM.   We love the complimentary validated parking in an adjacent garage. 400 North Capitol Street, Washington, DC 20001

Executive Chef Shannon Overmiller, formerly of Restaurant Eve, helms the kitchen at The Majestic – a cozy circa 1949 retro American restaurant in the heart of Old Town and within minutes of MetroStage and The Little Theatre of Alexandria.  If you’re Metro’ing just hop the free trolley from the King Street station and exit at the front door.  The cuisine is rustic with a decidedly modern twist.  The $35.00 “Royal-Fixe” menu is available all evening.  You simply select an appetizer, entrée and dessert from the regular dinner menu.  Entrées come complete with sides – no need to order veggies a la carte.  But do look for items identified with “crown” icons that have a clearly marked upcharge.

The Majestic in Old Town Alexandria

The Majestic in Old Town Alexandria

Still I like the Wild Mushroom Soup with caramelized onions and Appalachian cheese crostini, followed by the Amish Roast Chicken or the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Stew – no additional charge on any of these dishes!  Desserts are plucked right from the dinner menu and include Brownie Sundae, Churros and Pumpkin Cake.  911 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22314

José Andrés’ ever-popular Jaleo outposts include the Downtown, Bethesda and Crystal City locations.  All feature a three-course pre-theatre menu priced at $30.00 but items vary slightly.  I noted a Gazpacho with Endive and Ensalata Russo as starters, Garlic Shrimp or Pan Seared Scallops; and for dessert a Flan from Andrés’ mother’s recipe, Arroz con Leche, or Hazelnut Mousse Cake.  Check available times and locations on their website.  Be sure to try the dinner-plus-ticket offer for Synetic Theater in Crystal City where there’s also free adjacent parking after 4PM.

Culinary creative genius Jose Andres

Culinary creative genius Jose Andres


P.S. If you’re lottery-flush and with plenty of time to spare (I only mention it because some of us have been waiting for this news for a long time), his exceptional destination restaurant, Minibar by José Andrés, has reopened at last in a new location – 855 E Street, NW.  Call months in advance for a reservation.

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

Jordan Wright
September 26, 2012
Special to, and 

Executive Chef Adam Goldman - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Executive Chef Adam Goldman – Photo credit Jordan Wright

Get Global

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

Cream of Corn Soup Masa14 - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Cream of Corn Soup Masa14 – Photo credit Jordan Wright

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

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

AOL Jen Brandt Boots - Photo credit Jordan Wright

AOL Jan Brandt shows Custom Boots – Photo credit Jordan Wright

South of the Border in Clarendon

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

Prickly Pear Margarita - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Prickly Pear Margarita – Photo credit Jordan Wright

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

Chef and Restauranteur Cathal Armstrong - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Chef and Restauranteur Cathal Armstrong – Photo credit Jordan Wright

American Cuisine at the National Gallery’s Garden Café

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

American Chippendale Collection of Kaufmann - Photo credit Jordan Wright

American Chippendale Collection of Kaufmann – Photo credit Jordan Wright

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

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

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

Glazed Root Vegetable Salad - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Glazed Root Vegetable Salad – Photo credit Jordan Wright

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

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

Author and Executive Chef Mike Isabella - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Author and Executive Chef Mike Isabella – Photo credit Jordan Wright

“Down The Shore” with Mike Isabella 

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

Smoked Olives with Baby Bellas - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Smoked Olives with Baby Bellas – Photo credit Jordan Wright

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