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Nibbles and Sips Around Town – December 26, 2015

Jordan Wright
December 26, 2015
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts

Destination Del Ray for Cozy New Italian Spot – Bethesda Offers Theatre-goers and Cast Members Two Great Dining Options with Silver and Urban Heights – National Geographic Live! Presents “The Science of Delicious” – Zengo Celebrates Its 10th Anniversary with New Menu

Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap

Alexandria locals have been eagerly anticipating the opening of Lena’s, the splashy new Neapolitan-style restaurant recently opened in the Del Ray neighborhood. All eyes have been trained on its build out, with area reports cheering the addition of large outdoor gas heaters, pretty landscaping and blazing fire pit for extended season dining. Situated near the Braddock Metro Station this spiffy spot is already abuzz with biz. A recent visit revealed its successful formula – reasonably priced chef-driven Italian dishes, handmade pasta, and a 4,800-pound wood-fired pizza oven in a large, yet smartly cozy, space. Featuring high ceilings and large windows facing the street, the main dining space and bar still manages to be cozy, even though it can easily accommodate 100 guests. For seasonal dining add another 68 to the spacious patio garden fronting the corner of Braddock Road and Mount Vernon Avenue.

Proud of their Italian heritage, the Yates, a well-known Alexandria family who are behind this effort, have named the restaurant after their late grandmother, Lena, a talented home cook whose ancestors hailed from Avellino and immigrated to our shores at the beginning of the 20th century. Early photographs of the matriarch and the De Gruttola and Forte families line the brick walls, bringing an air of intimacy to the space.

Chef Mauro Mollino of Lena's with one of his Neapolitan wood-fired pizzas

Chef Mauro Mollino of Lena’s with one of his Neapolitan wood-fired pizzas

On board as Executive Chef is Mauro Molino, a 22-year veteran of the restaurant and hospitality industry. Molino is an energetic ball of fire with an infectious smile and an eagerness to inform customers of the nuances of this southern Italian cuisine. Molino, who spent the early part of his culinary career in Torino and later at the historic Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza in Ohio, is a veteran of Washington’s better known restaurants including Rustico Restaurant & Bar, The Hamilton, T.J Stones and Lia’s under Chef/Owner Geoff Tracy.

(L to R) Vegetable antipasto - Kale and Gorgonzola salad with poached pears - Bunt - a Piedmontese chocolate terrine

(L to R) Vegetable antipasto – Kale and Gorgonzola salad with poached pears – Bunt – a Piedmontese chocolate terrine

But it’s Lena’s time-tested recipes that prove the greatest tribute to her family’s Campania heritage – a legacy that is revealed in the restaurant’s menu – from gourmet pizzas, polenta fries, an impressive charcuterie board, sweet and spicy mussels, five types of paninis, and an array of fresh salads. Kale Salad with gorgonzola, poached pears, toasted almonds and buttermilk dressing is my favorite, as is a vegetable antipasto (who knew wood-grilled mushrooms were so irresistible?), grilled calamari and meltingly tender, fist-sized meatballs. Basic tomato “gravy”, as the cooked sauce is called, uses the sweet, lemony type of Roma tomatoes sourced exclusively from Lena’s region of San Marzano.

Desserts are totally unnecessary, but all in the name of research, don’t you know. Try the luscious Piedmontese chocolate terrine, called Bunt, and a Nutella pizza topped with white and dark chocolate chips and extra hazelnuts.

For more information visit

Rooftop Party in Urban Heights

A roof with a view at Urban Heights

A roof with a view at Urban Heights

That Robert Wiedmaier likes to party like a rock star, is no surprise to fans of Villain & Saint where the chef/owner of the popular rhythm-and-blues venue can hang with his like-minded music lovers and fellow biker mates. Lately he’s taken the party to the rooftop of Urban Heights, his other Bethesda hot spot, where a lively scene plays out under a pavilion-tented bar whose moniker is ‘The Lotus Lounge’. Heated for winter comfort, it offers a bird’s eye view of downtown Bethesda. The new restaurant features delectable Philippine-Southeast Asian influenced cuisine.

Urban Heights partiers

Urban Heights partiers

To celebrate the al fresco opening a whole baby pig was roasted in the roof’s open pit. Partiers enjoyed tasty nibbles – Spicy Tuna Tempura Roll, Braised Pork Belly, Bulgogi Steak Sliders, Lumpia – prepared by UH’s Chef Cliff Wharton (formerly of the late Ten Penh).

Island-influenced craft cocktails fired up the festivities while local musician Phil Kominski entertained the crowd with his fierce vocals and hot guitar licks.

Local musician Phil Kominski on the rooftop Lotus Lounge at Urban Heights

Local musician Phil Kominski on the rooftop Lotus Lounge at Urban Heights

Silver – Upscale Brasserie Opens in Bethesda

It’s been a few years since we profiled Ype Von Hengst and his 180-degree lurch from the American style gut-busting dishes of his chain of Silver Diners to the lightened, seasonal, farm-to-table dishes he instituted at all his restaurants. Along with partner Robert Giaimo, the duo has since revolutionized what we think of as diner food to reflect a forward-thinking sensibility more in line with today’s calorie-conscious clientele. In addition to tweaking all aspects of American classic dishes – reducing the amount of salt and sugar and using healthier fats – they present a wealth of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free choices.

The bar at Silver

The bar at Silver

Introducing Silver, a stunning French-inspired, Art Deco-designed restaurant with its black-and-white tiled floors, large banquettes, wood and stainless walls and columns reminiscent of New York’s Chrysler Building.

Tuna tartare with lime cilantro peanut dressing and crispy wontons - Wild caught scallops with feta and lemon garlic sauce

Tuna tartare with lime cilantro peanut dressing and crispy wontons – Wild caught scallops with feta and lemon garlic sauce

Breakfast here starts at 7am and extends till midnight with an all-day brunch to cover the in-between times. The flexitarian menu depends on local farms and suppliers – names familiar to those that shop at farmers’ markets and specialty gourmet stores. The passionate conceptualists are proud of their relationships with Firefly Farms for goat cheese, Parker Farms for produce and Richardson Farms for kale – all based in Maryland. Oysters come from the Chesapeake Bay, Black Angus steaks from nearby ranches. In Pennsylvania eggs come from Amish farmers at Martin’s Eggs, organic chicken from Bell & Evans Farms, blue cheese from Buck’s County and mushrooms from Basciani Farms.  Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, maker of Surryano ham, a dry-cured, hickory-smoked, heritage breed pork that mimics prosciutto, provides the ham.

(L to R) 72 hour short rib with horseradish demi glace, cholula onions, garlic spinach, butternut squash and cauliflower parsnip mash - Chia banana pudding

(L to R) 72 hour short rib with horseradish demi glace, cholula onions, garlic spinach, butternut squash and cauliflower parsnip mash – Chia banana pudding

It’s well nigh impossible to relate even a fraction of the dishes listed on the five distinct menus. I will, however, make mention of the fact that all sodas, fresh-pressed juices and cocktails are made from scratch, teas are organic, and coffee is fair trade certified.

NatGeo Live! Series Taps into “The Science of Delicious”

At National Geographic

At National Geographic

Do your brain or your taste buds interpret what you’re eating? Maybe it’s your DNA. This and other nerdy questions were explained and debated at a lively dinner last month at the organization’s dining space on 17th Street where guests sipped heavenly cocktails paired with hors d’oeuvres – ‘Walking on Water’, a mix of pear and basil tea with Calvados brandy, Walnut bitters and pear eau de vie; and the ‘Dorian Grey’ jasmine mate tea with Irish whiskey, peach eau de vie, salty foam banana cream and mace dust. Todd James, Senior Photo Editor at National Geographic Magazine, moderated the presentation along with Dr. Julie Mennella, Biopsychologist at the Monnell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia where she conducts research on taste, smell and chemosensory irritation.

Together they guided us on a virtual tour to explain recent scientific developments in the biological mechanics of how we taste, why we taste things differently from one another, and how some scientists are trying to make insect larvae taste palatable. Hilarious photos of babies responding to new flavors accompanied some of the photographs. Dr. Mennella explained, “The foods you are eating when pregnant are probably what you are going to feed your child.”

Particularly intriguing was our virtual visit to NOMA, in Denmark. Known as “The World’s Finest Restaurant”, Chef/Owner Rene Redzepi has taken the foraging of Nordic plant life into the realm of haute cuisine. N. B. This should not be confused with your grandma’s dandelion salad. NOMA has three kitchens. The first is what they call the ‘Science Bunker’ where experiments are conducted to determine food’s reaction to an array of scientific applications. Then there’s a development kitchen for conceptualization, and future implementation if all goes well. Lastly, there’s the restaurant kitchen where food is prepared by highly regimented cooks for elegantly plated service in the dining room.

Cocktail progression menu

Cocktail progression menu

Another fascinating virtual visit was to British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck restaurant to experience a fish course aptly named “Song of the Sea” which is served alongside a large Nautilus shell housing ear buds for listening to the sea.

Our two presenters were joined by Pam Caragol, Executive Producer of “EAT: The Story of Food” for National Geographic Studios/National Geographic Channel; Chef Myo Htun, Co-owner and Chef of Chaplin’s Restaurant, and Micah Wilder and his partner and brother Ari Wilder, Restaurateur and Co-owner of Chaplin’s who catered the event with an Asian inspired menu.

NatGeo Senior Photo Editor, Todd James, describes the "Science Bunker" at NOMA in Denmark

NatGeo Senior Photo Editor, Todd James, describes the “Science Bunker” at NOMA in Denmark

The carefully orchestrated dinner celebrated the Society’s December magazine’s feature story written by David Owen. The story is part of NatGeo’s Future of Food initiative, a special five-year project that seems to show how what we eat makes us who we are.

Zengo Maps Out an Asian Adventure

Zengo Chef de Cuisine Jason Streiff

Zengo Chef de Cuisine Jason Streiff

World-renowned chef, Richard Sandoval, is celebrating his Latin-Asian restaurant Zengo’s 10th anniversary in Penn Quarter by rolling out a new menu based on his recent culinary exploration of Hong Kong, Tokyo and Thailand. Along with Chef de Cuisine Jason Streiff, they have seized on unique and delicious combinations of Asian-Latin flavors to dazzle the intrepid diner with bold, flavor-forward creations. Forewarned: Menu items marked with the Chinese character for new, are available now till the end of January and only available at dinner service after 5pm.

I lost track of how many plates were set in front of us, but there were easily over a dozen. Especially memorable from the Sushi & Crudo Bar was the Thai seafood ceviche and grouper ceviche with uni, leche de tigre, cilantro and sea beans, that crunchy, lemony seaweed that I adore. All of Sandoval’s restaurants make one version or another of ceviche and they are all outstanding.

Pork and foie gras shumai dumplings

Pork and foie gras shumai dumplings

The appetizer and dim sum portion of the menu lists 16 different selections from bulgogi ribeye tacos and pork and foie gras shumai dumplings to Thai chicken empanadas and duck confit-daikon tacos. Slow-cooked pork ribs with roast garlic chipotle glaze and spicy cucumber pickle are sweet and sticky, exactly as it should be.

(L to R) Thai seafood ceviche - Slow cooked pork ribs - Grouper ceviche with sea beans

(L to R) Thai seafood ceviche – Slow cooked pork ribs – Grouper ceviche with sea beans

For a main dish, especially fun for a group, you may want to try the tempura whole fish. Ask what the chef is preparing as it changes daily.

One section of the menu features exclusively wok-cooked dishes inclouding short rib udon noodle with XO, Thai basil and long bean in a drunken noodle broth; bibimbap with pork belly, soft egg, gochujang, pickled vegetables and sticky rice; as well as chili crab “Hong Kong” noodle accompanied by crispy noodles with sugar snap peas, asparagus, egg and spicy curry. An unusual entry is the chili crab “Hong Kong” noodle that adds Maryland blue crab as well as the hard-to-find roe.

Photo credit – Jordan Wright

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