Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Brasserie Beck

We are lucky enough to live across the street from one of our favorite restaurants: Brasserie Beck (or "Beck" as the neighbors call it). Beck is the "brother restaurant" to the upscale Robert Wiedmaier restaurant Marcel's, which is usually ranked among DC's top restaurants. Beck is the fun-loving, more casual brother... and apparently the brother that learned to make amazing mussels and fries.

Beck is known for its Belgian beer menu. It serves several Belgian beers that are not available anywhere else in the United States and each beer is even matched with its own glass! They used to have their own sommelier of beer, Bill Catron, who was knighted in Belgium for his beer prowess. Though Bill has moved on, Beck's beer selection and the expertise of the remaining staff, offers something for everyone . . . even non-beer drinkers.

I tend to stick to the Fruit Beer part of the menu and love the cherry, apple, and raspberry beers. On this particular evening I ordered the Kasteel Rouge which has a tart cherry finish (note the castle at the base of the glass that matches the logo).

B ordered a beer that Bill highly recommended on previous visits: the Scaldis. It's too "beer" tasting for me, but he likes it.

Beck has a menu that features a wide variety of classic Belgian dishes but for us, the mussels and fries spelled love at first bite. I must confess that I don't really like mussels but I absolutely adore Beck's version. There are three varieties currently on the menu and a fourth option that they now serve as a special: 1. White Wine, Garlic, and Parsley; 2. Curry and Apple; 3. Roasted Tomato, Basil, and Rocca; 4. Fennel and Chorizo Sausage.

We've tried them all and love them all. The apple (er...mussel) of my eye is the Curry and Apple mussels. The mussels are steamed and served in a rich curry broth with chunks of apple. B tends to prefer the Fennel and Chorizo Sausage mussels (photo below).

No matter which variety you order, make sure you use the crusty french bread to soak up some of the broth. It's fantastic. Also, the fries (which can be ordered a la carte) are out of this world. They are like classy versions of McDonald's fries: not too fat, nor too well done. The fries are accompanied by a trio of Belgian dipping sauces (flavored mayos). A fry dipped in curry mayo eaten along with the curry mussels and washed down with a cherry beer is close to perfection in my humble opinion.

Beck serves brunch on the weekends and has a nice patio but we have yet to partake in either. We just can't get past those mussels!

Second Thoughts From B

I have to start with the impressive beer menu. It is more like a bible than anything else and was carefully crafted by a man whose occupation and passion must be the envy of many. Since Bill's departure, Beck has added some non-Belgian beers but I'm sticking with Scaldis. If you like beer, you'll love this. Whenever we have the chance to share Beck with friends, it is said that Scaldis is what beer should taste like. It is smooth and flavorful, and constructed in such a way that the small bite of alcohol tickles your tongue. A word of warning however. That pleasant tickle is really a reminder of the 12% alcohol content - although you'd never know it by the taste.

As for the food, J and I are fortunate to have eaten at Beck on many occasions and between the two of us, there are few items on the menu that we have not explored. Everything we've tried is very good but I always feel a tinge of regret if I don't get mussels. And as anyone who has shared a meal with me knows, I hate ordering the same thing twice. But the mussels are that good. They are far and away the best I've ever had, as are the fries. What will 2 "best-evers" cost you? The best $20 you ever ate...
Brasserie Beck on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 22, 2009

Trattoria Italiana

We were in the Woodley Park neighborhood to check in for the Avon Walk and in search of a quick dinner. Following a herd of Avon Walkers, we found Trattoria Italiana, an italian restaurant with a large front patio. Since the weather was nice, we took a seat at one of the patio tables...

The evening was more memorable for the quirky service than the food. Various waiters buzzed about and we were never sure who "our" waiter was. At one point one of them zoomed up to our table, grabbed the strip of paper that had held the silverware bundle together and started to write our order down on it! I think they were a little overwhelmed by the dinner crowd.

B started with a salad which was perhaps the most uninteresting salad we've ever seen at a restaurant. Check out the picture below. It was about 75 cents worth of ingredients (yes, that is a pile of lettuce and nothing else - they brought you a bottle of oil and vinegar for dressing) priced at something like $8.

B ordered the linguini with sausage and mushrooms and described it as tasting exactly like something a freshman in college would make if he was making dinner for his friends. Definitely edible and filling, but not outstanding.

I chose the Penne Obama. I can pretty much guarantee that President Obama has never eaten here and probably never will. Nevertheless, his namesake pasta called my name because it promised penne in a spicy sauce. The sauce wasn't very spicy but a generous topping of mozzarella cheese can cover a multitude of sins in a baked pasta dish.

The restaurant is located along a strip of Connecticut Avenue that has dozens of restaurants. I'm not sure I'd come back to this one before I tried every other restaurant in the row (including the McDonald's and Chipotle!). It was overpriced, the service was erratic, and the food was dull.

Second Thoughts from B

In this economy, everyone seems to be selling the latest gimmick that will save you money. Well, here's my attempt at joining those masses. Follow these three simple steps and I'll save you and your significant other $50.
  1. Open a bag of lettuce and put it on a plate.
  2. Cook whatever pasta you have in your pantry and then add your favorite sauce and some cheese.
  3. Do not go to Trattoria Italiana.
Trattoria Italiano on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Comet Ping Pong

Cross another item off of our "Two Do" list! We finally ventured up to the Van Ness neighborhood (upper northwest DC) to experience Comet Ping Pong. Though it's hard to tell from the name (and the photo below), Comet Ping Pong is actually a pizza restaurant that serves up quality food alongside free ping pong tables. The restaurant has a laid-back vibe which acts as a hipster magnet, dragging faux-hawked patrons toward the suburbs.

While a lot of places get by on gimmicks, the pizza at Comet Ping Pong might make me return even if there weren't free ping pong tables.

We wanted pizza and chicken wings - and beer is the perfect sidekick for both. The only dilemma is that I'm not a big beer drinker and I usually only want about a dozen sips. Comet Ping Pong has the perfect solution for me: half pints of beer for $3! I loved my mini-sized Allagash White ale.

The chicken wings were good and messy with a unique combination of spices. Was that cinnamon we tasted?

We were joined by one of our best friends from California and decided to order 3 of the Signature Pies. Before you go thinking we're piglets, the pies are individual sized!

The Pizza

Pizza #1: “The Jimmy”: meatballs, tomato sauce, mozzarella & parmesan. This was a classic cheesy pizza with the added touch of homemade meatballs.

Pizza #2: “Yalie”: fresh clams, garlic, melted onions, thyme & parmesan. We originally ordered the "Softie" which features soft-shell crabs, but they'd run out of crab. Our waitress suggested the Yalie instead. It was deliciously heavy on the garlic and parmesan, but I kept wondering what we were missing by not getting to try the crab pizza. Maybe next time.

Pizza #3: "The Smoky”: smoky mushrooms, smoky gouda, smoky bacon, melted onions & garlic. I don't remember this one tasting particularly "smoky," but it was flavorful and the crust was cooked to a perfect bubbly crisp.

I thought the food was solid and the atmosphere was a ton of fun. It's not the "best" pizza in DC, but it probably wins for most unique experience. After dinner we headed to the back of the restaurant to challenge each other in ping pong. We had to wait a bit for a table but people were generally good natured and fun to watch.

Second Thought from B

Watching inebriated people play ping pong is highly entertaining but I'm getting ahead of myself. Comet Ping Pong's food stands on it's own, so that is where I should start.

The wings were absolutely unique as they were dominated by a salty rub with hints of smoky (paprika?) and sweet (cinnamon?). Yum... wait for it... mie. As for the pizza, the dough is thin and well done. By "well done" I mean still flavorful and light, rather than gum-cutting crunchy like other overcooked thin crusts. The Jimmy tasted like your mother's spaghetti and meatballs in pizza form, which is definitely a good thing. The other two were somewhat indistinguishable because they had similar savory flavors that were heavy on the sauteed onions and garlic. Both were good but we could have ordered better.

And now back to the ping pong... Lets just say that our friends in the back of Comet Ping Pong better resembled Lt. Dan after a handle of Jack than football star, war hero, and international diplomat PFC Forrest Gump. Regardless, game on!

Comet Ping Pong on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Unwigged and Unplugged at the Warner Theatre

Unplugged and Unwigged isn't quite a concert and it isn't quite a comedy show, so let's just call it a performance. And just like Spinal Tap isn't quite a great rock band, the performance is highly entertaining even if you can't completely understand why.

J and I appreciate humor in any form and in almost any situation, so a blending of music and comedy is right up our alley. Not to mention these two little bits of trivia; we got married at a "This is Spinal Tap" filming location and J's sister worked on, and briefly appeared in, a recent Christopher Guest movie.

The trio of of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer are probably best known for their comedic chops (as evidenced by the long list of successful and not-so-successful films), but they are certainly more than serviceable as musicians. Each demonstrates some versatility across instruments and musical genres but let's face it, you don't like "Big Bottom" or "A Mighty Wind" for the guitar solos or three-part harmonies, even though they are quite good... you're there for the lyrics which are packed with clever double entendre, sarcasm, and hyperbole.

The audience was packed with loyal fans who were clearly more knowledgeable about the career works of Guest, McKean, and Shearer than we were. However, even for the uninitiated, the playful interchanges and stories that were highlighted by 30+ years of perfectly developed chemistry and timing made the evening a fun one.

Of particular note was the deadpan reading of NBC sensor Bill Clotworthy's notes which were prepared for the adaptation of "This is Spinal Tap" for network TV. But almost as entertaining were the playful quips and odd gyrations sprinkled throughout the show.

So whether you go for the music or go for the comedy, you'll walk out with a smile on your face even if you don't really know why. Or to put it another way, how would I rate the performance on a scale of 1-10? Well, this performance goes to 11.

J Says

I'm a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to Christopher Guest films. I started with "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind," and finally saw "This is Spinal Tap" a few years ago. As a result, a lot of the references were over my head but I was still very entertained by the music and witty dialogue. Just like it is hard to describe Christopher Guest's movies, it is hard to describe this show. It's sort of like VH1 Storytellers meets Saturday Night Live. Regardless of how you describe it, you're in for a fun (and very unique) evening.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Darlington House

Continuing the "walking to Dupont Circle for dinner" theme, we checked out Darlington House. It is next door to the aforementioned Zorba's Cafe and serves Italian fare in a neat old rowhouse. The restaurant is split into a more casual Cantina at the street level and an upscale dining room in the upper level. After reading negative reviews of the Cantina on Yelp, we opted for the dining room.

In The House

The first thing that stood out was that we were seated next to a giant column and our waiter had to poke his head around the column to talk to us. It made for a difficult situation since the dining room is very loud and our waiter had a thick accent. After we ordered and waited for our food, an older customer was standing next to our table speaking with a man who I think was one of the owners. The customer looked at our table and the table next to us and complained to the owner that "people in Washington are not sophisticated and they don't know good food." The owner nodded in agreement, which was off-putting and made us feel unwelcome. Was the food good enough to salvage the experience?

The Kitchen

We each ordered a glass of wine and started off with a cheese plate (fruit, gorgonzola, parmigiano, goat cheese, brie, honey, nuts). The selection of items on the plate was interesting and they complemented each other well.

For the main course I had Capellaci stuffed with lobster and mushrooms in a pink cream sauce. The capellaci were basically jumbo ravioli and they were packed full of lobster meat.

On the waiter's recommendation B ordered the veal scaloppini with marsala wine, sauteed zucchini, fingerling potatoes. It was a very small serving and I don't think B was particularly impressed.

For dessert we ordered the famous donut holes served in a brown paper bag with rich chocolate and caramel dipping sauces on the side. These were very memorable and I loved the presentation. It was a simple and delicious dessert.

Overall I liked Darlington House but I wasn't overwhelmed. It was a solid meal but the service was odd and the dining room noise level made conversation difficult.

Second Thoughts from B

J is right that I was not particularly impressed with my veal. Then again, maybe I'm just another unsophisticated Washingtonian who doesn't know good food...

What I do know is that after a couple of weeks it is pretty hard to remember many details from our evening at Darlington House. Thinking back, here's what pops into my mind - neat space but oddly put together and rather dark (as seen in the picture quality), a waiter that got too close and had awful breath, a cramped table, and somewhat pricey dishes that I have a hard time remembering (to be fair, the dessert was wonderful now that I think of it, but it certainly wasn't front of mind). It was by no means a bad night, but just the fact that it took us this long to blog about Darlington House illustrates our lack of enthusiasm for our experience. For me, I've had the pleasure of many memorable meals but this was not one of them.
Darlington House on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Zorba's Cafe

Warmer weather has finally come to DC and we're trying to take full advantage of it by walking to dinner as often as possible. On one particularly warm evening, we ventured up to Dupont Circle to try Zorba's Cafe. As you may have guessed from the name, Zorba's serves Greek food. After ordering our food at the counter, we sat on the large patio that faces Connecticut Avenue.

I ordered the Chicken Souvlaki Sandwich (marinated chicken breast, charbroiled and topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, feta cheese, and tzatziki, served in a pita). For an appetizer we got the Spanakópitta (freshly baked, triangular fillo-dough turn-over with spinach, feta cheese, eggs, sauteed onions, and herbs). I really liked the sandwich. The warm pita bread served as a great wrapper for the tangy chicken and cool tzatziki sauce. As with most pita sandwiches, it was a little on the messy side. Nothing a pile of napkins can't fix.

The Spanakópitta must have been hanging out with Barry Bonds because it was huge! I'm used to tiny little triangles of fillo dough. The flaky crust was buttery and delicious, but overall it was a bit bland (apologies for the poorly lit picture).

B ordered the Yero Plate (marinated beef and lamb cooked on a vertical rotisserie served on Greek pita bread, topped with tzatziki, and served with Greek salad and french fries). I thought french fries was an odd addition to the plate but the ones I nibbled on were pretty tasty.

As we dined on the patio we were serenaded by a group of musicians: one with a guitar, one with a violin, and two girls singing. They played mostly Beatles tunes and made for a lively and unique dinner experience.

Second Thoughts from B

I'm really surprised that J didn't like the spanakópitta. She and I tend to have similar tastes but this is one instance where we diverge. Normally, she loves spanakópitta (which is how it ended up as one of the hors d'oeuvres at our wedding) and I'm generally luke warm on it. However, I thought Zorba's offering was as good as I've had. Usually, I find the smaller versions to be dry and flaky, and not much more. However, the spanakópitta-saurus had plenty of filling to counterbalance the crust and make for a nice contrast in texture and flavor rather than just getting lost.

As for my Yero Plate, it reminded me of the first time I had a yero, which was in this funky little alley way in Paris. Needless to say, this is a good memory and favorable comparison. Not shy about flavor, the seasonings explode in your mouth and give your tastebuds a workout. Could the same be said for your digestive system? Perhaps, but this iron cast belly did just fine.

In short, big flavors, a lively atmosphere, and great outdoor seating in the heart of Dupont. Not quite nectar and ambrosia but not too shabby either.
Zorba's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Larry's Ice Cream

I love ice cream. You could say that I rarely meet a scoop that I don't like. Larry's Ice Cream is a tiny Dupont Circle shop tucked below ground level. True to its name, it dishes up homemade ice cream in unique flavor combinations. I don't know if the guy serving the ice cream is named Larry but he's not all that friendly. People on Yelp call him the Ice Cream Nazi because he's known to be tough on indecisive customers. Regardless, the ice cream is worth the trouble.

I ordered a scoop of the cinnamon cookie dough. Larry doesn't mess around with his cookie dough. He puts giant chunks of dough in the mix with a generous dash of cinnamon. Hooray!

I'm pretty sure that B got the Peppermint but I didn't get to taste it (he must have really liked it!).

Second Thoughts from B

Look, even bad ice cream is pretty good. It can satisfy a sweet tooth, bring back childhood memories, or provide a cool and creamy treat that takes the bite out of a hot summer night. And for those of us who remember the 90's with pubescent wonder, ice cream is the answer to all of life's problems--as taught to us by Jim, Cindy, Brandon, and Brenda Walsh and friends.

Magical cure-all properties or no, Larry's Ice Cream is special. First off, there is no doubt that this stuff is made fresh as it cannot be mistaken for something that you bought at the store and pulled out of your freezer at home. Secondly, while many of the standard flavors are available, Larry whips up creative combinations as well. With 20-30 flavors to choose from, everyone should be able to find what they're looking for. So for a few bucks you can have that same perfectly smooth and creamy dessert without spending the past hour making your arm sore cranking away on that wooden barrel with the salt...
Larry's Cookies & New York Ice Cream on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 8, 2009

Make that Change

I'm Gonna Make A Change,
For Once In My Life
It's Gonna Feel Real Good,
Gonna Make A Difference
Gonna Make It Right . . .

Isn't it sad that Michael Jackson's legacy is so tarnished that you have to wonder if he was talking about self-improvement or plastic surgery in his song Man in the Mirror? Let's all just pretend he never had the big helping of crazy so we can still love his music. Can we agree on this? Good. Let's move on.

It should come as no surprise that DC is not wanting for ide
alistic people looking to make the world a better place. Charities, volunteerism, fundraising, and awareness campaigns are a huge part of the fabric of this city. But aside from all the obvious reasons to donate your time and energy, this is a great way to connect with the community, meet new friends, and spend quality time as a couple.

For the second year in a row, J and I participated in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. This involves us raising a minimum of $1800 each and walking 39.3 miles over two days (a marathon the first day and a half marathon the second day, while camping in between). Obviously you can't just wake up and walk 26+ miles in a day without a little bit of training. Consequently, the months ahead are usually spent wandering the city for hours, which allows us to explore new neighborhoods and forces us to take a timeout from our busy lives. The event itself is a truly inspirational experience that leaves us with a whole lot more than sore feet. Hearing the stories of survival and loss, coupled with the commitment and dedication of thousands of (mostly) pink-clad women is something neither of us will soon forget.

Maybe breast cancer isn't your cause but I defy you to say that there isn't an opportunity out there that doesn't resonate with you. So go out and change the world... make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race...

If you're interested in joining us and thousands of others in the fight against breast cancer, here's a few things you should know:
  • The first day is much harder than the second. The amount of recovery overnight is surprising. However, the body just isn't built to comfortably walk for 10 hours straight on that first day.
  • Spend $30 and get a inflatable bed from Target. I guarantee you won't regret it.
  • Be prepared. Break in your walking shoes by training early and often, and take care of your feet.
  • You will find that each mile or two there is food and water. Take advantage of both and don't be surprised if you actually gain weight over the weekend. Never were cookies so guilt free... (You didn't think we'd write a post that didn't mention the food did you?)
39.3 miles takes many forms. Sometimes the conditions are perfect (cool and dry) and you're surrounded by thousands of your closest friends.

Sometimes the conditions are less than perfect and you wonder where everyone went. This last time, that meant 13.1 miles of cold and rain, but it was for a good cause, right?

Either way, you'll find supporters everywhere, whether they come in the form of cute little kids with borderline appropriate boob jokes...

or corporate sponsored support with an international flavor.

Regardless, never will you see a more welcome sight than that of the "Wellness Village."

Tired Feet, Full Heart

Three days after our second Avon Walk, my muscle soreness was fading but the memories of the inspirational weekend continue to stick with me. My family has been hit hard by breast cancer and as a result, I have a personal attachment to this cause. B has been incredibly supportive of my desire to do all we can to fight this awful disease and has enthusiastically walked by my side every step of the way.

If you need inspiration to get involved, I encourage you to read two very touching blogs (you're going to need a box of tissues!). The first is the blog of my cousin Amy who lost her battle with breast cancer this year. The second is the blog of an Avon Walker who walks each year for his wife who passed away in 2007.

No matter whether you sport a pink ribbon, a red ribbon, a yellow bracelet, or a rainbow pin, there are so many causes out there that need your support. Get out there!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Asia Nine

We went to Asia Nine for dinner during their Thai Restaurant Week. Asia Nine is a moderately-priced asian/sushi restaurant on E Street right across from the FBI building. It's been open about a year and I eat there fairly regularly due to its proximity to my office. I love the spicy Basil Noodles dish and their sushi rolls are pretty good too.

On this night we started things off with a bottle of berry flavored soju (a Korean liquor). It was very strong and made going back to work afterward quite amusing.

For our appetizer we tried something off of the special Thai Restaurant Week menu: shrimp rolls served atop a bed of crispy noodles and carrots with a tangy dipping sauce.

Sushi Roll - tempura shrimp roll topped with a crispy basil leaf and sriracha chili sauce.

On our quirky but charming waiter's recommendation, B ordered the Ginger Sauté: fresh ginger, onions, scallion, mushroom, and bell pepper sautéed in Chinese soybean sauce with shrimp.

My entree was from the special menu. It was a Thai seafood curry served in a young coconut. The presentation of this dish was beautiful. The jasmine rice was wrapped in a pouch made from a leaf and the curry was oozing out of the top. I spooned the spicy curry over the sweet rice and scraped out a bit of the coconut meat to add another textural dimension. What a unique and flavorful dish. I wish Asia Nine would add this to their regular menu.

We had a very pleasant dinner at Asia Nine with attentive service and interesting dishes. They are also a reliable option for take-out and a fun Happy Hour spot for office gatherings. I don't think I'd go out of my way to stop at Asia Nine but I like having it in the neighborhood.

Second Thoughts from B

My main dish was good but certainly nothing to write home... er... write a blog about. The appetizers on the other hand were noteworthy. The shrimp rolls may have been presented on the bed of crispy noodles and carrots but eating that bed along with the dipping sauce was the real treat. The crunch of the noodles, sweetness of the carrots, and zing of the sauce was a nice surprise on what would otherwise have been thought of as nothing more than a garnish. Like the presentation of J's entree, these thoughtful touches are what makes a meal memorable.
Asia Nine on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 4, 2009

Tidal Basin Paddle Boats

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." The 'em in those sage words would be DC's beloved tourists who descend upon our fair city every spring to remind us that we are all very lucky to live in such a beautiful place. But before all of you locals out there board up your homes and don't come out until the tour buses leave in a few months, take a look outside and see what all the fuss is about. I would even go so far as to encourage you to be a tourist in your own city.

Along that line of thinking, one particularly warm spring day, J and I channeled our inner tourist and ventured to the Tidal Basin to rent a paddle boat. Or is it pedal boat? Even the website seems confused...

Whatever you want to call them, they'll cost you $10 for 2 ($18 for 4) per hour and 1 hour is just about right. That is how long it took us to pedal our paddle boat around the Tidal Basin's pretty perimeter. To permit this alliteration to persist, planning is particularly paramount if a peaceful perusal of the panorama is a priority. The tidal basin can get crowded on warm, sunny days so it is recommended that you go early. We were lucky to be one of the first boats out, but by the time we were coming in (around 11:30am), the basin was starting to resemble a bumper car pavilion. Unfortunately, ramming of paddle boats is not permitted.

The Tidal Basin's scenery clearly speaks for itself and floating on the water with the sun on your face was as serene as anyone could hope for - so long as you pedaled to a relatively unpopulated area. On the down side, the water was murky, at best, in parts. Nevertheless, you get a new perspective on one of the most beautiful parts of the city.

The First Mate Speaks

I'm definitely a sucker for the touristy aspects of DC. I've had my eye on those blue paddle boats since I first set foot on DC soil. The paddle boats give you a unique vantage point so even if you've been to see Mr. Jefferson 8 million times, I bet you'll see something new on the paddle boat. For example, we saw these interesting faces carved into the side of this bridge. We'd never noticed these before and I think they're probably hard to spot unless you're on a boat.

Yes, the paddle boats are cheesy and the water is pretty dirty, but you've got to try it at least once. We had fun pedaling around and wondering how many cameras, engagement rings, and other items of tourist paraphernalia line the bottom of the Tidal Basin. We also got a good laugh when the boat dock employee told us that two or three people had fallen into the water this year. Be careful out there!