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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
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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.

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