Friday, January 29, 2010

Ping Pong Dim Sum

This had the makings of a subpar evening: trendy new restaurant serving dim sum (at night!), in a fancy setting, served by waitresses who couldn't pronounce most of the dishes on the menu. We really expected to be disappointed. As we were led to our tiny table and seated on stools with no backs in a loud (but beautiful) bar area, I was wondering why I'd opted to try Ping Pong Dim Sum. My mood brightened when I learned that the stools had little cubby holes in them to stow purses and jackets. So clever! My eyes widened when I spied the extensive drink menu that featured alcoholic bubble teas (boba, for you west coasters). This was just the beginning of a night full of welcomed surprises.

D.C. got the first U.S. outpost of this very popular London chain. Don't let the name fool you. Unlike Comet Ping Pong (see our post here), there are no ping pong tables in sight at Ping Pong Dim Sum. There are, however, thoughtful touches in abundance. I liked the cute explanation of dim sum on the back of the menu (For example, "Finally, always pick a 'wild card' dish for the table to share - something that you have never tried before - eating should always be fun.")

Though the restaurant's slogan is "little steamed parcels of deliciousness," I was still convinced it was really going to taste like "little steamed parcels of trendy, Americanized, over-priced dim sum."

Our first course was the honey glazed ribs. While the presentation was pretty bland, the ribs were tender and, according to B, spiced very authentically. They were good, but nothing amazing.

I thought we were in trouble when the waitress described char siu bao to us by saying "it's kinda like this fluffy thing with meat in it." What she didn't know is that B and I have been eating char siu bao since we were tiny tots. B's family goes to a special bakery in San Francisco to get "the best bao ever." B is HARD to please when it comes to bao, especially steamed bao. Imagine my sheer delight when he took his first bite and it passed his test! The dough was unbelievably fluffy and light. It was almost as if a cloud got tangled around bbq pork and fell from the sky onto our table. None of that too-hard, too-bland, pasty crap that is often passed off as steamed char siu bao. These definitely were steamed parcels of deliciousness! I could've eaten a dozen.

The crispy prawn balls were a challenge to eat as the crispy parts went flying across the table when I took my first bite. I could've done with a little more prawn and a little less crisp, but the flavors were great.

Next was the spicy vegetable dumpling. Maybe the chef forgot his spice rack because it was not spicy at all! While the dumpling skin was perfectly cooked, there was way too much cilantro inside for it to pass my deliciousness test.

The seafood sticky rice was one of my favorites. After removing the lotus leaf wrapper, we dove into wonderfully sticky and slightly sweet rice, packed with generous chunks of seafood and mushrooms.

This dish is traditionally made with star anise (black licorice, bleh) and I was pleasantly surprised that Ping Pong Dim Sum's version omitted the overpowering spice. Instead, they let the seafood and rice do all of the talking. What do seafood and rice say when you let them talk? "Eat me, I'm deliciously awesome!"

Next up was one of the stars of the American dim sum scene: har gau. It is so ubiquitous that you can buy it at the frozen food aisle of Trader Joe's. If you stacked all of the little shrimp balls that I've had in my life, you'd probably reach the moon. Sometimes they are too doughy, or too tough, or the shrimp is so overcooked it's like shoe leather. So simple, yet so easy to screw up. Once again, Ping Pong Dim Sum hit this dish out of the park. More please!

We debated ordering more food but decided to head straight to dessert after seeing these beauties on the menu: roasted pineapple and coconut spring rolls, served with a side of caramel dipping sauce. It was a sweet take on the egg roll and was a great way to end the meal.

I leave you with an open letter to Ping Pong Dim Sum:

Dear Ping Pong Dim Sum:

I didn't want to like you. You appeared completely shallow on the outside and I figured there was no substance behind your showy exterior. Your waitress was kind of clumsy, but by the end of the night, she was endearing. Your seats have no backs on them and it just reminds me that I have crappy posture. The review in the Post was bad, but you get major credit for taking the dishes that Tom S. didn't like off of the menu to revamp them. I thought you were going to be way too expensive, but you surprised me when you brought my check and the food was only $39 for two. Your drinks are too expensive, but I guess it's fair that you slash the prices on them during happy hour and that you gave me a coupon for free drinks if I return.

I wanted to scream and cry that you're taking authentic dim sum and white-washing it for American palates, but then you brought me one of the best bao dishes I've ever had. B and I often wonder what our quarter-Chinese kids will look like and whether we'll do a good enough job at preserving their Chinese heritage. Well, Ping Pong Dim Sum, you're probably less than a quarter Chinese, and you're beautiful and seem well-grounded in your heritage. There is hope for us yet!

Until next time,


Second Thoughts from B

I think J said it all. There were so many areas that Ping Pong Dim Sum could have screwed up. Instead, they took the cuisine that has been fine tuned over centuries and beloved by billions, and simply did it really well. The best ingredients, all fresh, with the only twist being that they made it a bit more healthy by finding a way to eliminate unnecessary grease. How ironic that it took a British invasion to bring great Chinese food to Chinatown...

In my experience, DC has a wealth of sophisticated, international palates. There is no need to be afraid of foreign flavors anymore. Sure, there is always a place for Panda Express or Chipotle, but it is refreshing to have an option for quality, authentic ethnic food too. Normally J and I search out the "dirty" places; knowing that they'll be most true to the original culture. But it is nice to occasionally get those same flavors in places where you're more likely to see a cloth napkin on your lap than a cockroach.

J talked about the food specifically, and I would echo her sentiments. With all due respect to the Washington Post's venerable food critic, Tom Sietsema, and with the understanding that our respective experiences could have been very different, I'd have to say Ping Pong Dim Sum is among the best Chinese food options in the District, if not anywhere. In all my experiences with Chinese food - whether in LA, SF, or throughout China - the blend of authenticity with high-class modern dining was a perfect balance.

Many of the dishes were noteworthy, but as you probably picked up, the bao really represented the pleasant surprise that was Ping Pong Dim Sum. I can't overstate my love of bao. It holds a warm place in the hearts and stomachs of my family, and has been the driving force behind many treks to San Francisco to get the perfect bao. (One time we brought the entire family into the city just to carry my grandmother's order of 12 dozen softball-sized bao) What I'm saying is that the B stamp of approval for bao might be more difficult to obtain than bipartisan agreement on health care reform. So since we all know we shouldn't hold our breath to see if Democrats and Republicans can compromise, just head down to 7th and I St. to witness something almost as wonderful in this fair city.
Ping Pong Dim Sum on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ice Skating in the Sculpture Garden

You know those "Love is..." cartoons that used to run in the newspaper? The ones with the little naked kids? I hope you do or that you click the link, or else this post will sound creepy... Anyway, the point is that if they were to ever make one of these cartoons about me (for everybody's benefit, I would hope it would be clothed), it would say, "Love is... ice skating."

I do not like to ice skate. It is one of those things that I'm really, really terrible at. I feel completely uncoordinated and out of control. On the other hand, watching J skate is a thing of beauty. While I'm flailing around in an anxiety-riddled panic, she gracefully glides across the ice without a care in the world. It is quite a contrast.

But just because I don't like to ice skate doesn't mean I can't appreciate a unique and memorable experience that involves ice skating. Consider that last two times I've laced up a pair of skates; the top of Vail mountain as the sun set over the Rockies and in Central Park in New York. While going to the local ice rink would certainly be last on my list, there are always exceptions, and as you might have guessed by now, it is something I'll do for J.

So with an open mind (read: open to the idea of falling on my butt), I volunteered to subject myself to ridicule at the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden Ice Rink.

I guess it goes without saying that the rink is located in the shadow of the picturesque National Archives Building on the National Mall, and in the middle of a beautiful garden setting with world-class sculpture sprinkled throughout. Less obvious is the above-average cafe which is worth checking out for a hot beverage or a meal.

We chose to go on a brilliantly sunny and warm weekend, which apparently was not a unique idea. When we arrived, the line was quite long and we considered (at least, I did) throwing in the towel. But 45 minutes later, we were laced up and waiting our turn.

Basically it works like this. There are two lines, one for skates and one for tickets. You pay for your ticket ($7), skate rental ($3), and locker ($0.50 with $5 deposit), and then you get into the skate line. Tickets are sold for 2 hour blocks of time that start and end on the hour. We would recommend getting there 30 minutes before the hour on crowded days.

So the ice skating was as awkward and uncomfortable as expected. Fortunately, also as expected, the experience was very cool (insert ice pun here) and I'm glad I did it once. If nothing else, J was giddy and loved every minute of it. Love is...

J Says

Despite what B says, he is not a terrible ice skater! He didn't fall and he looked much more graceful than he lets on. However, I know how much stress skating causes him, so I'm really appreciative of the fact that he will put on a smile and ice skate with me every few years.

As B said, the setting for the ice rink is beautiful and this beauty attracts crowds. Though they limit the number of skaters per session, it can still get pretty crowded on the ice. Navigating the people falling and little kids sliding across the ice on their backs can be quite tricky. Just don't go on a weekend expecting a serene skating experience.

Also, what's with the wanna-be Brian Boitanos and Michelle Kwans who occupy the center of the rink and demonstrate their mediocre skating prowess? There was one guy who awkwardly glided/spun around the center of the rink for several hours trying to demonstrate his skating superiority. There was something both hilarious and sad about watching a grown man try to show off his skills in the middle of a crowded rink. If he was a real ice skater and needed practice time, I don't imagine he would be practicing in the middle of 8 million falling children and their falling parents. Also, he probably should have been wearing figure skates instead of hockey skates if he wanted to throw some double axels.

Despite the crowds (and the semi-creepy people in the middle of the rink), this ice rink is worth a visit. It is beautiful and a fun activity to do with friends or that special someone. In fact, two of our friends had their first date there, and they're married now!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Taylor Gourmet

I never thought I'd get so excited about a sandwich place. My only real knowledge of hoagies came from Dr. Huxtable on The Cosby Show and I could never figure out why he was so addicted to a sandwich. Thankfully, Taylor Gourmet showed me what all the hype is about.

It all started when two Philadelphia natives moved to D.C. and realized there were no good hoagies to be found. They decided to open their own version of a Philadelphia hoagie shop on H Street NE. After a successful start, they expanded to a second location on 5th/K streets NW. We visited Taylor Gourmet II last week and I'm already planning my return visit.

The interior could be described as modern garage chic. The lamp shades are made of buckets and there is a roll-up garage door on the wall facing K Street.

When you walk in the door you'll notice that the soda fountain isn't your average Coke or Pepsi machine. It features old-timey Boylan sodas made with real sugarcane. I highly recommend the black cherry and ginger ale.

Though hoagies are what Taylor Gourmet is known for, I couldn't resist sampling fare from the fritto section of the menu. We opted for Rocky's Risotto Balls (arancini, for my Italian friends) served with a side of tangy/spicy marinara. I feel really weird saying that Rocky's Balls were fantastic, but they were! Wow, cheesy risotto goodness lovingly wrapped in a thin fried shell. So simple, yet so good.

On to the main event: the hoagies. Each sandwich is named after a street in Philly. B ordered the Ninth Street Italian (genoa salami, capicola, prosciutto, sharp provolone, lettuce, tomato, onions). I'm pretty sure he giggled with delight when he took his first bite. It was awesome. A word of warning though . . . the 12" may be too much sandwich for the average eater to handle.

I tried the Race Street (home-roasted turkey, prosciutto, pesto, fresh mozzarella, lettuce, tomato). It was incredibly good. It was packed with huge chunks of fresh cheese and the bread (direct from a Philly bakery) was soft, yet not so soft that it collapsed under the weight of the mammoth sandwich. The 6-inch was more than enough sandwich for the average appetite.

After polishing off the hoagie, risotto balls, and sugary sweet soda, I wasn't sure it could get any better. That was until I found out that Taylor Gourmet delivers. I think I know what we're having for dinner tonight.

Second Thoughts from B

I've probably said it before, but this is what a sandwich should be. The combination of fresh ingredients was a thing of beauty, but what makes Taylor Gourmet stand out is that each individual element was indeed gourmet. Perhaps most striking was the cheese. You know when you go to a fancy restaurant and order a Caesar salad with the thin square slices of fresh Parmesan on top? Those slices of heaven somehow found their way into my sandwich. Each bite was layered with the best bread, the best meat, the best cheese, the best... you get the idea.

What can I say? It was a gourmet sandwich. A great big gourmet sandwich. I may regularly polish off a footlong at Subway or Potbelly's but at Taylor Gourmet, 6 inches is fine for me... plus, it leaves room for more risotto balls!
Taylor Gourmet II on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 22, 2010


In our last post, I mentioned that people either love or hate Restaurant Week. After having a wonderful meal at Hook (see our post here), I was feeling the Restaurant Week love. A trip to 1789 was enough to make me swear off Restaurant Week for good.

First off, let me apologize for the lack of photos. I left the camera in the car and since the menu asks guests to refrain from using electronic devices, I didn't want to take photos with my Droid. So instead, let me try to paint a picture of our experience with words. Here we go . . .

The evening started out on a high note with 1789's free valet parking. The restaurant is housed in an old federal rowhouse with dining rooms on multiple levels. It has an old-timey charm and cozy atmosphere.

We noticed that there were three prix fixe menus: a Restaurant Week menu, a Citris Tasting menu, and a New Year menu. At a lot of restaurants, the different prix fixe menus have different numbers of courses. To allow all dinner guests at the table to be served at the same time, if one person is ordering off of the prix fixe menu, most places encourage everyone else to order from that same set menu. B didn't realize that all of the prix fixe menus had 3 courses, so he asked our waiter whether both people at the table should order from the same prix fixe menu. What happened next was so ridiculous that I was sure we wrote down the exact quotes:

B: "If one person orders the New Year menu, should both people order it?"

Waiter: "I don't want you to spend more money than you have."

B and J exchange shocked looks

J: No, I think what B is saying is that he wants to be sure we both end up ordering off of menus that have the same number of courses.

Waiter: "I can't force you to order something you can't afford."

We stared at each other in uncomfortable disbelief. Yes, we look young but we were dressed professionally and followed the restaurant's dress code (B was in a suit). We were stunned into silence by the waiter's bold suggestion that we couldn't afford the more expensive New Year menu. We considered walking out the door but decided to see if things improved. We should have left when we had the chance.

When B ordered his first course (off of the elitist New Year menu!) he requested the scallop crudo. Our waiter, suffering from a recurring case of foot-in-mouth disease, said in a condescending tone: "Do you know what crudo is?" After suggesting we were poor, he then suggested that B didn't know enough about food to know that crudo means the scallops would be served raw. I could think of about a million other ways to inform the diner that the dish is raw.

I know you're probably wondering whether we spoke to a manager. We broke one of the golden rules of dining and failed to do so while still in the restaurant. However, in our defense, the situation was so incredibly uncomfortable that we just wanted to eat our food and get out of there. That brings me to the food. It was fine but definitely not good enough to overcome the seriously uncomfortable waiter situation. Here's a brief run down of what we had:

J (Restaurant Week Menu w/ wine pairing)

Potato Gnocchi with Surryano ham, mustard greens, Serena cheese, and rosemary. It looked and tasted as if it had been sitting under a heat lamp for a long time. The sauce had separated and was congealed so that I could drag it around the plate with my fork. The greens were wilted (yes, they were cooked but cooked to death) and sad looking. I would be sad too if I had to hang out in this place.

European White Feathered Chicken - butter roasted salsify, spinach, toasted hazelnuts, and Meyer lemon. The chicken was perfectly cooked and one of the best chicken preparations I've ever had. The sauce, however, was bland and I tasted no hint of Meyer lemon.

Caramel Banana Bread Pudding - eggnog ice cream, Medjool date purée, and hazelnut-pistachio toffee. A "blah" finish to an awkward evening. The spice flavor overwhelmed the dish, leaving the whole thing tasting flat.

The wine pairing was the high point of the meal. The three half glasses were just the right amount of wine for me and I thought the $15 upcharge for the pairing was reasonable.

B (New Year menu w/ wine pairing)

Scallop crudo - I don't know if the waiter's comment affected B's impression of this dish but B said it was just ok.

Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb - crisp rosemary fingerling potatoes, stewed mustard greens and lamb jus. After the waiter said that the lamb was "why people come here," B had to order it. The lamb was perfectly cooked and completely outshone the sad potatoes and greens on the plate.

Bittersweet Chocolate Meringue Cake - peppermint stick ice cream, chocolate ganache, and pulled sugar candy. This one left us wishing we had our camera. It was a gorgeous presentation with clouds of meringue topped with thin sticks of red pulled sugar.

Even if the food was mind-blowing, I wouldn't go back. For us, 1789 felt like a restaurant that loathed Restaurant Week for the riff raff that it brings into their fine establishment. You know what? This food-blogging piece of riff raff doesn't want to return to your uppity restaurant ever again.

Second Thoughts From B

"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Maybe so, but a woman scorned hath no fury like a J when she (and worse yet, her husband) are treated like hell. Could you tell?

I try to be understanding and give people the benefit of the doubt but for the life of me, I can't figure out where this guy was coming from. Maybe he misheard or misunderstood the question. Fine. But why would you risk insulting someone who may be able to afford your restaurant? Worse yet, why would you risk embarassing someone who had saved up to treat his girlfriend or wife? Either way, that's not how you answer the question.

Getting to the food, each of our proteins were of excellent quality, and when cooked, done so perfectly. The flavors were ok, but nothing to rave about. The side dishes, however, were uniformly uninteresting and uninspired. J was pretty luke warm on her dessert, which is a shame considering her love of bread pudding and bananas, but mine was a sight to see. It was perhaps one of the most artistically constructed/presented desserts I've seen. And it tasted good too!

But even with the few highlights, the night was defined by our waiter. Should we judge a place based on one person? Maybe that's not fair but the reality is that there are plenty of great restaurants in this city that have proven themselves to us with better food and better service.

Unfortunately, a Restaurant Week trend is starting to emerge for us; the older, more established restaurants seem a lot less willing to go out of their way to impress the new business that Restaurant Week brings. Oceanaire (post), Bobby Van's (post), Prime Rib (post), and now 1789.
1789 on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Restaurant Week. Two words that divide the D.C. food community like no others. Some people love Restaurant Week for the chance to try fancy restaurants for a discounted price. Others claim that Restaurant Week allows the riff-raff to pour into fine restaurants, leading to bad service and mediocre food.

As for us, we celebrate any opportunity to try new restaurants, and B and I try to choose one or two restaurants to check out each Restaurant Week. This time, we set our sights on the traffic-choked streets of Georgetown to check out Hook. We tried Hook's casual seafood sister Tacklebox over the summer and loved it (see our post here). It turns out that the older, more sedate, and more attractive sister of Tacklebox is a fun date too.

Though I'd read about long wait times for Restaurant Week tables at Hook, we were seated immediately upon arrival at a nice table overlooking the hustle and bustle of M Street. The rapid seating set the stage for what was a wonderful, but very quick meal. Courses followed one after the next with hardly a pause in between. The service was attentive and thoughtful, but you could tell they were trying to turn over tables quickly to keep up with the Friday night Restaurant Week rush.

Hook's focus is on seasonal, sustainable seafood. If you don't like seafood, you probably shouldn't go to a restaurant named Hook. On the other hand, if you like seafood, go to Hook immediately. I started my high seas adventure with the best tartare I've ever had (and that is saying something since I order tuna tartare like B orders lamb). It was served with a citrusy sauce and big fat cranberries that were an unexpectedly awesome pairing with the sweet and silky tuna.

Our waiter convinced B to try the beet salad. He commented that this wasn't something he ever would have ordered, but he was so glad he did. The dish featured pickled watermelon to add a sweet tangy element, and wheatberries to give it a crunchy finish. One of the most complex and interesting appetizers ever devised (I'll give you a nickel if you know where the "ever devised" reference comes from. Think really bad reality TV...)

For my main course I dove into the waters of the mid-Atlantic for a taste of the signature Bluefish with creamy polenta and basil pesto. This fish was caught off of New Jersey but unlike our new friends, The Situation and J-Woww, it was blue and not orange. I guess the little guy forgot to GTL. Regardless, it was very tasty!

B tried the salmon served over a bed of creamy risotto. It certainly wasn't slacking in the flavor department, and had B smiling from ear to ear with each bite.

For dessert I tried the ice cream sandwiches. They were adorable but a little on the small side. Also, the cookies were so hard that it was hard to bite through them without leaving a huge mess of ice cream all over your face. Better dish in theory than in practice.

B's meringue was just what you'd expect with meringue: tart and sweet and pretty to look at. That sounds more like a line from a 13-year old girl's Facebook page than a dessert description.

Though we were in and out of Hook in an hour, it was one of the most pleasurable hours of dining we've had in DC. As we left, we were tempted to stop by Tacklebox to sample their amazing fried shrimp. It wasn't because Hook left us hungry, but because the fried shrimp is just that good.

Second Thoughts from B

Talk about out of my box. Beet salad. I've never really liked beets. My mother would be shocked that I ordered such a thing since she has been slipping beets into my salads for years, only to find them piled up on the side of my plate. But after a year on the soapbox pointing out the merits of waiter ordering assistance (in very DC- esque style, let's give it the acronym WOA!), I had to put my money where my mouth is.

WOA, as in, "Whoa, that was good!" I had serious doubts when I ordered it, but that probably made the beautifully presented and beautifully tasting salad all that much better. The beets had a delicious sweetness that was accentuated by the natural flavors of the watermelon. They were firm, yet light and the cheese/wheatberry combination added more interesting dimensions. This was a perfect example of getting out of the way and allowing a talented chef to do what he/she is best at.

As for my salmon, this dish was packed with flavor. The mushrooms and bacon had a party in my mouth and I was happy to accomodate them. The tartness of the lemon meringue was a perfect finish that came too soon.

J mentioned that Hook was criticized for their service during Restaurant Week. Maybe we got a different snapshot by going earlier in the evening or maybe they took this criticism to heart. Either way, we were very well taken care of other than the pacing. The dishes were so good that I wish we had time to sit and let it all sink in before embarking on the next culinary adventure. But even if we didn't have as much time to savor the experience, we learned what we needed to, and ultimately, this is what Restaurant Week is for... an inexpensive sampling of a fine restaurant that makes us itch to come back. And we will.
Hook on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 18, 2010

Cafe Dupont

Ever walked by one of the countless, nondescript hotel restaurants and wondered whether it was worth trying? In the case of Cafe Dupont, the answer is yes. We've found that hotel restaurants in DC run the gamut from excellent (Adour) to awful (14K). I like to try them out in the hopes of uncovering hidden gems. Cafe Dupont perhaps isn't the most precious gem, but it was no cubic zirconia either.

The restaurant is located right on Dupont Circle in the Dupont Hotel (formerly Jurys Washington Hotel). It features a glassed-in dining room and a large patio for summer nights. The restaurant was mostly empty when we arrived on a Wednesday night and, as a result, we got very attentive and quick service.

B started with a crab and corn chowder that was packed with chunks of jumbo lump crab, and featured a hearty and slightly sweet corn broth. The presentation was top-notch with the waiter pouring the broth over the crab at the table.

I started with a goat cheese salad that was like a dash of springtime on this cold winter night. The greens were (according to the website) fresh from the local farmers market and it looked as if the goat cheese fairy was working overtime at Cafe Dupont. All around, an excellent start to the meal.

I think I'm going to start calling B "Lambchop" for his penchant for lamb. I think he'd like Lambchop better than Mary...

Anyway, he ordered the lamb and it was cooked perfectly, but the item on the side was probably the most stellar part of this dish. It was a risotto/quinoa-like grain that packed a nutty and delicious crunch. It made for a great texture combo with the silky smooth lamb.
The waitress said that the pasta (tagliatelle) was her favorite dish and I'm not one to turn down fresh pasta. This dish featured wonderfully wide noodles and the sauce was light enough that it allowed the fresh noodles to shine on their own. It was also large enough for me to take home half for lunch the next day. My one complaint was the use of celery in the dish as it just didn't jive well with the soft noodles. Does anybody actually like celery? Come on, you know you just use it as a vehicle to get the peanut butter to your mouth.

Though I didn't expect too much, I came away from the meal pleasantly surprised. Cafe Dupont isn't another boring, nondescript hotel restaurant. Its emphasis on fresh ingredients and attentive service helps it stand out from the crowd. I'd like to go back on a weekend for their Soul Brunch. Chicken and waffles anyone?

Second Thoughts from B

Cafe Dupont, along with its host hotel and sister bar, underwent renovations recently. We had visited their previous version, creatively called Dupont Cafe, and had memorably good lobster mac and cheese. So we were thinking about a place to eat in Dupont Circle, we hoped that they hadn't made the mistake of messing with a good thing.

First off, the service was outstanding, top to bottom. Then again, the staff outnumbered the diners 5 to 1. As for the menu, we were told that it changes often but I instantly had two impressions of last week's edition. One: no lobster mac and cheese. Two: everything sounded good, if not safe.

Let me expand on that second thought. Usually when I go to a nice restaurant, some dishes will sing to me with ingredients and/or flavor combinations that are familiar. On the other hand, there also tend to be items that are less familiar or appealing. In the case of Cafe Dupont, everything was familiar and sounded good.

Now one could criticize and say that this indicated safe choices or a lack of imagination. I, however, said to J that if executed well, this was a very wise business decision for a hotel restaurant which needed to prioritize appealing and comfortable food to first-time (and often only-time) diners.

As for the execution, it was spot on. I think it would sell Cafe Dupont short to call it "simple food done well" but I think that gets the point across. And in certain cases, there were unexpected areas of flair that made well executed, familiar dishes a little bit more interesting. In the case of my soup and lamb, it was touches of sweetness. Vanilla or maple maybe. Either way, I liked it.

Finally, in regard to my affinity for lamb, I would like to point out that the waitress did recommend it. As far as "Lambchop" goes, it is better than Mary, but I'll still stick with B.
Cafe Dupont on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 15, 2010

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Chances are that there's not much more we can say about the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History that you haven't already seen or heard. After all, among all of the very busy museums under the Smithsonian's umbrella, the house of plants, animals, and rocks was the most popular in 2009 with almost 7.5 million people walking through its majestic doors.

Still, if there's anything we've learned in this last year of reporting our explorations in DC, there's always more to see and do. This last weekend, that meant a return trip to the Mall through the Smithsonian's Young Benefactors Second Saturday tour.

The Young Benefactors are a group of young(ish) professionals who, for a little more than the cost of a regular Smithsonian membership, enjoy unique opportunities and access to the museums. One of those opportunities that J and I have pledged to take better advantage of this year is their appropriately named Second Saturday tour.

Last weekend's free tour was "Dinosaurs and the Hope Diamond." Growing up as one of those kids that obsessed over dinosaurs, I'm now a big kid who is still fascinated by them. (Random fact about B: His favorite class in college was "Dinosaurs and their Relatives")

Combine dinos with the newly "naked" Hope Diamond (read: temporarily out of its setting), and we were hooked.

But on this day, the best laid plans went awry and we ended up with a climate scientist from NOAA who took us through a tour of the museum's ocean exhibit.

I don't know how to put this so that I don't offend people, but ocean science isn't my favorite. For whatever reason, million year old lizard bones or the taxidermist's wet dream that is the mammal exhibit (see below) are more interesting to me.

But here's the rub. Walking through the ocean wing and looking at exhibits that we'd normally not slow down for (has anyone discussed the details of a Cape Cod depth chart before?) was awesome! All the difference was made by a contagiously enthusiastic tour guide who was far more qualified than your average museum host. And, in our experience at the Smithsonian, he's not the exception. No matter how seemingly boring (my mother, always the teacher, hates that word) an exhibit may seem, having an expert with you really brings it to life.

The point is this. We all have our favorite exhibits, or on a larger scale, our favorite parts of the city. Without something to push us out of our comfort zone (a last minute switch of Smithsonian docents or this blog), we find ourselves in those same, familiar, comfortable places. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but when we open our eyes to new experiences, it isn't hard to find wonderfully interesting things.

Most of us have been to the Smithsonian and have probably even served as tour guides for our visiting friends and family. But as we've said before, be a tourist in your own city. Go to the Mall and take a tour of something you haven't see before (and don't tell us you've seen everything). It's free and you might learn something. Even more importantly, however, you might learn something about yourself.

J Says

While B was a dinosaur geek, I was an ocean geek. Like many young girls, I went through a serious dolphin-loving phase complete with a dolphin-themed bedroom. I still get wide-eyed each time that we see the ocean on our return trips to California. With that said, I have to admit that I'm not nearly as fascinated by the ocean when you're talking about it in the abstract in a museum. One very enthusiastic and animated tour guide changed my whole perspective.

The Sant Ocean Hall at the Museum of Natural History opened in September 2008 as a collaboration between the Smithsonian and NOAA. I'd walked through it before and marveled at the giant squid and waved hello to the tropical fish in the small aquarium, but I never took the time to really (pardon the pun) "dive in."

Our tour guide made the exhibit come alive and even wove in lessons about climate change without causing our group to fall asleep. Our experience on this tour goes to show how one of the free(!) guided tours can show you a new side of the Smithsonian. So, the next time your house guests want to see a museum, don't roll your eyes and offer to pick them up later. Gather the troops and join a tour. Even the most jaded Washingtonian will learn something new.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

La Frontera Cantina

We were meeting our friend at our beloved Mr. Yogato and needed a place to grab a quick dinner beforehand. We wandered down 17th, passing several bars and a McDonald's, before we settled on La Frontera Cantina. B raised a skeptical eyebrow at me for selecting a place with the word "cantina" in it. As we've mentioned, we haven't had good luck with authentic Mexican food in DC, and B was scarred for life by eating at the Cactus Cantina two nights in a row. Long story...

With fear in our hearts, we entered La Frontera and weren't encouraged when we found the restaurant to be nearly empty. Our fear turned to smiles when our waiter presented our appetizer: one cheese and one meat pupusa served with a side of tangy salsa and marinated cabbage.

Being from LA (times we mentioned being from LA = 1.6 million and counting), the concept of the pupusa is new to us. LA is chock full of authentic Mexican food places but El Salvadorian restaurants aren't as easy to find. In DC, there are pupuserias all over the place. A pupusa is a thick corn cake stuffed with cheese, beans, or meat. You say pupusa, I say yummy.

After the pupusas, we waited a really long time for our entrees. This struck us as odd because there were only two other people in the whole restaurant and they had already eaten! Finally, the waiter placed my cheese enchiladas (exciting, I know) in front of me and I noticed that the cheese on top looked a little congealed. I cut into enchilada numero uno and expected cheese to ooze out. Apparently these enchiladas were not descendants of the ooze family. The cheese inside was almost solid. I'm guessing it had been sitting on the counter for a long time while the cook prepared B's entree.

This is a perfect example of why B asks the waiter for his recommendation. I went with my old standby and got crappy (and cold) enchiladas. B took the waiter's advice and got a really tasty fish special. Game, set, match: B.

The bottom line is: La Frontera isn't bad but it wasn't remarkably good either. I think it's meant to be visited on a sunny summer day when you can lounge on the large patio and drink margaritas. On this cold winter's night, my cold enchiladas left me shivering. Thanks to the Hot Chocolato at Mr. Y for warming me up!

Second Thoughts From B

The menu describes the fish of the day as "a real treat," encouraging you to "ask your waiter." Like so many things in life, you'll save yourself a lot of trouble (and bad enchiladas) by just following instructions. When I asked, I got an enthusiastic endorsement for the snapper and heard a long list of fool-proof ingredients such as butter, garlic, onions, and mushrooms.

My fish was good, but certainly not memorable. Perhaps this is because just about anyone can throw those things in a pan and come out with something passable. What I will remember is the pupusas and the plantains. You could argue that this is not because they were exceptional but because neither are regular parts of my diet. I might even agree with you. But the ironic thing with that argument is that less than a month later, J and I spent a week in Puerto Rico where we consumed enough plantains to last a lifetime.

The bottom line is that like most restaurants in DC that claim to be Mexican or Tex-Mex or something in that genre, La Frontera Cantina is serviceable. I wouldn't ever seek it out, but if we found ourselves there again, there are items on the menu that are pretty good. If you don't believe me, just ask the waiter.
La Frontera Cantina on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 11, 2010

Cafe Mozart

The night of the ESOTC (again, that's the Epic Snowstorm of the Century - read here) we had tickets to the Kennedy Center to see the symphony with our friends. Due to the terrible road conditions, the Kennedy Center canceled the performance. Instead of the symphony, we played Beatles Rock Band at our house (see our post on it here). Not quite Handel's Messiah, but we had a good time! Before the rockfest ensued, however, we trudged through the unplowed sidewalks to Cafe Mozart in search of tummy-warming grub.

Cafe Mozart is located at the back of a German deli on H Street NW. Hidden behind shelves of German food is a quaint little restaurant. From the street, you'd never know it was there.

Once inside Cafe Mozart, you'll feel as if you're dining in your German grandma's house (I don't have a German grandma, but I'm pretty certain that if I did, her house would look like this).

This was my first German restaurant experience, so I felt a bit like a fish out of water. Lucky for us, our friends had recently returned from their honeymoon in Germany, and they pointed us in the direction of some tasty dishes and excellent (and large!) beers. We also asked the waitress for her suggestions and she recommended the Sausage Sampler. It included bite-sized cuts of different German sausages served with potato salad and red cabbage. It was like a tasty tour of a Germany on a plate... a very dense, filling plate.

B took another one of the waitress' recommendations and tried the Rahm Schnitzel (sauteed veal in champignon cream sauce) served with spaetzli and potato pancakes. While the whole dish was tasty, B raved about the potato pancakes.

Overall, the meal was most memorable for the cozy setting and the generous portions of warm comfort food. According to their website, they have live music (piano and accordion) every night. Like at the Kennedy Center, the snowstorm must have kept the musicians away from Cafe Mozart because we didn't get to experience the lively sounds of Germany.

Second Thoughts From B

When I was in grad school, I was able to travel to Munich during Oktoberfest for a scientific workshop. Needless to say, I had my fair share of authentic German food. For those who haven't been or who long to return, Cafe Mozart is a pretty good alternative. The food is true to its roots; hearty, flavorful, and generally, not the most aesthetically pleasing.

Cafe Mozart itself feels like one of those insider clubs hidden behind a secret door. You don't exactly have to exchange an egg for directions
(random 90210 reference anyone?), but like J said, you'd never know there is a restaurant in the back. Maybe it's just me, but especially when you're new to a city, it feels good to be "in the know" when it comes to some of DC's literally hidden gems.

And Cafe Mozart is a gem. It is unashamed to be the counterpoint to so many of the fancy, upscale restaurants throughout downtown that feature the chef's modern take on organic fusion blah, blah, blah... Don't get me wrong, I love all of those places that are half restaurant and half artist's studio. But I also love a place that is good at what it does and makes no apologies for it.

Speaking of doing things well, let's talk about those potato pancakes. While not Jewish, I was raised in a community that had a lot of Jewish families and some took me under their wing. And for the last 20 years or so, I thought that the best latkes by far (and matzo ball soup) were made by a mother in my hometown. I'd never tasted anything that came close until now. Perfect texture, perfect flavor, and perfect for sopping up all the sauce on my plate.

So for those of you who crave authentic German food, head down to Cafe Mozart. It might just put you in a state of U4EA (that's euphoria for you non-West Beverly kids).
Cafe Mozart Restaurant on Urbanspoon