Friday, July 30, 2010

We, the Pizza

Fans of all things Spike Mendelsohn have no reason to ever leave the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue SE between 3rd and 4th streets. Just this week, Chef Spike and his team opened up We, the Pizza right next to his popular Good Stuff Eatery. As a pizza lover and Good Stuff fan (see our thoughts here), I've been eagerly anticipating opening day for months.

Since we know that every single restaurant is going to have its ups and downs in the beginning, we'll overlook the hot and smoky interior, the lack of gelato (I was crushed when I learned I couldn't try the Nutella Smores gelato due to a broken machine), and the fact that the upstairs area was closed for a private event leading to a serious lack of seating options. From what we sampled, We, the Pizza is definitely We, the Potential.

To start, the prices are surprisingly reasonable. Slices are $3 for the cheese and $4 for the other 9 specialty pies. Given the fact that We, The Pizza uses fresh, local, and top-notch ingredients (not to mention the celebrity chef buzz to drive demand), I don't think you'll find a better pizza value in town. The uber-thick Flintstones-style cast iron slices are only $5. Ridiculous. The made-to-order sodas are $3 with an extra shot of syrup setting you back only 25 cents. After the first sip, B called his Jupina Pineapple Soda "pretty much the most awesomenest thing ever." While my Don't Forget Your Ginger Roots Soda didn't change my life, I look forward to working my way through the unique soda menu.

If olde timey soda isn't your thing, you are lame. Just kidding. If olde timey soda isn't your thing, they also offer beer to wash down your pizza. If pizza isn't your thing, they have salads, pasta, subs, and wings (but you also may be lame).

As for the pizza, we ordered (clockwise, starting at the top-left) the Sicilian cast iron pie (chunky tomato sauce, mozzarella, fresh basil), the simple cheese pie (tomato sauce, mozzarella, oregano), the buffalo chicken pie (spicy boneless chicken wings, creamy blue cheese, mozzarella, miguel's hot sauce), and the forest shroomin pie (wild forest mushrooms, truffles, mozzarella, fresh thyme).

As we sat outside, I looked over at the Good Stuff tables and after staring longingly at the milkshakes, I realized I feel the same way about We, the Pizza that I do about Good Stuff. For me, it isn't the very best burger or slice of pizza in town, but when you put it all together in a complete package, I like it better than other places. Adding in the fries and shakes at Good Stuff or the sodas and gelato (someday) at We, the Pizza equals a total package that isn't easily matched. With their adjacent locations, you could create some pretty amazing (and calorically terrible) combos. Pizza and a Milky Way shake anyone?

Second Thoughts from B

We, the Work in Progress is exactly what any Good Stuff fan would expect. As J said, no single element is superior to other options in DC. But assuming some of the hiccups are resolved, I can't imagine that we don't make We, the Pizza a frequent stop.

In order to sample several of the offerings, we ordered pizza by the slice. Would our opinions change if we received a piping hot pie fresh out of the oven? Perhaps. However, even after a couple of the pieces had been sitting out for a short while, they were delicious. The crust was flavorful and perfectly cooked. The extra thick version on the Sicilian was crisp on the outside and just doughy enough on the inside, while the thin crust had the perfect amount of crunch on the bottom of each slice. All the dough was noticeably more salty than the average pizza crust which made eating it plain more of a pleasure than a chore. However, keep in mind that this is coming from someone who craves salt like Spencer Pratt craves attention...

The buffalo chicken pizza was extremely well done but it just didn't feel right to me. Maybe I'm too closed minded or maybe I just don't love buffalo wings enough (if you do, I'd recommend trying a slice). The Forest shroomin was a tutorial in umami, and I loved it. Like the crust, it was heavy on the salt but the earthiness of the mushrooms sold me. The Sicilian cast iron pie was massive and wonderful. I applaud Chef Spike for creating something that big without making the size the selling point. Not only could eating this mammoth help build your biceps, it was also a great festival of flavors and textures in your mouth. Still, I think it could be used as a weapon, so beware. I even hear that Clue is considering adding it to their game. "I propose that it was Chef Spike, in the kitchen, with the Sicilian crust..." Finally, the plain New York style pizza may be the piece I'll order the most in the future. Nothing fancy, just cheese, sauce, and dough (plus salt) that work well together and flood your mind with memories of walking across the Brooklyn bridge with an oily slice of New York's finest.
We, the Pizza on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Talk about an upgrade. When we first visited Corduroy in 2007, it was located in the dingy Sheraton Four Points Hotel on K Street. The dining room was big and unforgettable, and our service was absolutely awful. Still, we liked the food enough to keep it on our list, and when Chef Tom Power moved the restaurant to a charming rowhouse on 9th Street, we knew we needed to give it another go.

Corduroy would be easy to miss from the street. It is tucked between abandoned old rowhomes and a cigar store in what can best be described as the "up and coming" area surrounding the Washington Convention Center. Anyone brave or smart enough to look past the dreary streetview and walk up the (steep) steps will find a rowhouse as warm and welcoming as any in a more posh neighborhood.

We were seated at a table near the open kitchen where we could watch Chef Power and his team in action. Corduroy offers a small menu with a focus on seasonal, local ingredients. I had a simple green salad that tasted as if it had been picked minutes before. Everything was bursting with color and freshness. Though I rarely order chicken in a restaurant, I'm glad I sampled the roast baby chicken. It was tiny (and probably not enough meat for a big eater) but deliciously seasoned and juicy. I have no idea how they cook a chicken that small without drying it out. There must be magicians back there in chef whites.

We were relieved to find that the dining room wasn't the only thing that had improved. Our service was attentive without being too pushy. It was light years away from the night three years ago that we were completely ignored by the staff.

Second Thoughts from B

As J said, we had the new Corduroy on our list hoping that it had improved. Even so, despite a constant barrage of good press, I just couldn't shake the memory of its disastrous debut. This would be a meal that we were planning for my parents and some close family friends that included a rather wide range of tastes. At our table of six we had the people most responsible for our appreciation of food sitting along side others who might say that food and eating is overrated. But despite my anxiety over the planning of this meal, in the end, I felt like Indiana Jones foregoing all of the jewel encrusted golden chalices in favor of the plain "cup of a carpenter." Sometimes it pays to keep it simple.

Corduroy was a good fit. No molecular gastronomy here... it is just simple food done extremely well. And despite their "jackets recommended" policy (which we happily avoided on this sweltering summer night), the environment was comfortable and welcomed conversation befitting a group who had a lot of catching up to do.

As for my food, I started with the Tomato Tonnato, which was like a tuna-based salsa. The chopped tomato and raw tuna combined with hints of spice didn't look like much but tasted like a breath of fresh air. It was cool and light, and exactly the way to start a summer meal. As for my entree, of course I couldn't turn down the waiter's suggestion of Pennsylvannia lamb loin with garlic crepenette and cream spinach! My thoughts could be summed up by my reaction to my first bite. As my eyes rolled back in my head, I had to catch myself from turning into Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally."

As we walked back at the end of the evening with wide smiles and full bellies, I breathed a sigh of relief and heard the old Grail knight say, "You have chosen... wisely."
Corduroy on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 26, 2010

Panas - Guest Post

Our empanada-loving guest blogger is back (read his previous post on Julia's Empanadas here)! Some might say his love affair with emps takes it to a whole 'nother level, but we would argue that this is a man that simply knows what he likes. And whenever you meet a guy who can lovingly analyze the merits of various empanadas for hours on end, it is best to just get out of his way and let him do his thing.

As for us, there might just be a new favorite empanada shop in town. You could argue that comparing Julia's to Panas is like apples and oranges and I would agree... but also know that I would pick up an orange every time.

-B and J

I've spent many a night late in Dupont longing for Julia. I visit her often, and she never fails to satisfy my needs. And my needs - whether late on a Saturday night after displaying bad dance moves at Midtown or even worse dance moves at Lucky Bar - usually center on one thing: a delicious empanada. But B and J convinced me to spread my empanada love to a new kid on the block: Panas Gourmet Empanadas. Will I remain in a committed empanada relationship with Julia? Will Panas seduce me with its gourmet flavors? More on my late night empanada indiscretions later; for now, let's focus on the Panas experience.

When I arrived at Panas, B was sitting serenely at a table waiting for me -- something that is quite literally impossible at Julia's given that their entire dining area consists of a cluttered shelf where a couple of people can elbow their way for standing room to eat. Panas, however, is the complete opposite: the interior is clean and modern, and there's strange astroturf "growing" on one of the walls. Parkour anyone?

While a single empanada at Panas is significantly smaller than one at Julia's -- weighing in at an estimated 2.5 ounces -- diners at Panas would do well to select one of their many combo meals. All combo meals allow diners to select a certain number of empanadas, and while some come with freshly-made salads or guacamole, all of them come with plantain chips and "dripping" sauces.

In yet another contrast, while Julia's menu is limited to a handful of savory -- and a couple of sweet -- empanadas, Panas has a much more diverse and adventurous selection of empanadas, ranging from vegetarian to meat to seafood-filled pastries. As one would expect in dining with B and J, all told at least one of us tried nearly every empanada on the menu.

I know you may be saying to yourself right now, "But, empanada-loving guest blogger, how did you figure out which empanada was which?" Well, in perhaps the greatest empanada breakthrough of the 21st century, each empanada is branded with a letter or two which, when referenced back to the menu, corresponds to a different type of filling. That made splitting up the 12 empanadas among ourselves much easier: "Hey J, let me get that SE for your CS!"

Have I made it clear that Panas is very different from Julia's yet? No? Okay here's one more difference: while Julia declares that her empanadas are "baked with love," Panas seem fried to me. While they do reheat each empanada in an oven before serving, the pastry shell tasted to me much more like a Japanese Gyoza than a Julia's-style shell. One isn't inherently better than the other, but it certainly is noticeably different.

"Hey empanada-loving guest blogger, will you just talk about how the freaking empanadas taste now? B and J never take this long!" Fine. They're really good. The flavors are much more complex, and the combinations much more adventurous than those at Julia's. I had a smoked eggplant empanada which was filled with mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese and hard boiled eggs that I had assumed would be my fourth-seeded empanada, but it blew me away. It was rich, savory, and paired really nicely with the red pepper "dripping sauce." The chicken pesto empanada tasted like a delicious 2.5 ounce calzone, and the "Popeye" -- spinach, onions and goat cheese -- was a denser, slightly more flavorful rendition of my standard at Julia's.

So, am I now in a polygamous empanada relationship? As Facebook would say: it's complicated. Panas and Julia's are perfect compliments to one another. It's hard to top Julia's for a late-night empanada run after a night out, but for a more enjoyable dining experience -- complete with a comfortable place to sit and more ambitious flavors -- Panas is a great choice.

And so Julia's will remain my late-night fling, while Panas -- appropriately named after the Spanish slang for "buddy," -- is more of my empanada friend (friend with benefits, though, if you include plantain chips).
Panas on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Laughing Man Tavern

This is one of those posts that we never intended to write. I was going to write about the cool new place in downtown called Funxion, but they were closed on Saturday at lunch time. Thanks to Yelp for having the wrong hours and to Funxion for having one of the most dysfunxional websites of all time. So, picture us standing on F Street near 13th on a blazing hot Saturday in need of a lunch spot. Food court? Blah. Teaism? A favorite, but too far in this heat.

We started walking when I remembered a newish bar/grill next to my nail salon on G Street. B looked at me like he was going to melt so I hustled him inside the Laughing Man Tavern without really knowing anything about it.

The first thing we noticed is that the space is much bigger than it appears from the street. It has a downstairs area and large main floor with bar and lots of tables. Also, I don't know who this scary looking guy is. He is probably laughing at us for walking around DC on a day that feels like an armpit.

The menu looked like a pretty typical bar menu with a couple of added flourishes. We decided to start with the self-proclaimed "house specialty" crab mac and cheese. I was thrown off by the fact that it was served on a big rectangular plate making it look a bit messy. The taste didn't make up for the sloppy presentation. The cheese was too runny and it was so crabby that it tasted kind of like eating the water out of a tin of canned crab. I've never done that but if I had, this is what it would have tasted like. Anyway, what I'm saying is that you should save your nickels and your waistline, and skip this dish.

B went the typical bar food route and ordered a burger and ended up with a pretty typical bar burger. The Andes Burger featured wild mushrooms, brown sugar-bourbon mustard sauce, and melted gruyere cheese. It was a really big burger and the ingredients were fresh but nothing too special about this one.

I won the prize with the thai chicken flatbread. While the flatbread appeared to be a store-bought pita, the flavors were really outstanding. It was drizzled in a sweet and spicy chili sauce and topped with giant chicken pieces, peanuts, green onions, and a wasabi soy reduction. I had to chase the peanuts all over my plate because they kept falling off, but it was well worth the effort.

For some reason the flatbreads are served with a giant side of fries. The fries looked really awesome (they were those crispity ones that looked like they'd been fried 4 times) but they were just kind of "eh."

While I'd probably go back to Laughing Man any time of the day to eat the thai chicken flatbread, I recommend you check it out during Happy Hour. It goes until 8pm, which is perfect for those of us who can never manage to get out of work before normal Happy Hour ends. I also hear that they have Law Firm Appreciation Night just in case you don't encounter enough lawyers in DC already.

Second Thoughts from B

The last thing you want to do on a hot and sticky summer day in Washington is stand hungrily outside a closed restaurant. As I stood there, any ability to reason or problem solve was overwhelmed by my longing for food and air conditioning, not necessarily in that order. Thankfully, my better half who enjoys heat more than I do (the tables are turned in the winter) was still able to function.

The point is that the Laughing Man Tavern will always hold a special place in my heart. As for a special place in my stomach, that's a different story. J told you about the mac and cheese and my run of the mill burger. All ok. Solid bar food, perfectly acceptable if you're in the area, nothing to freak out about. The thai chicken flatbread though, was outstanding and when you're in a bar, any food that can be described that way is noteworthy. It also explains the great mystery of the Laughing Man Tavern because clearly the thai chicken flatbread is what the fine gentleman on the logo is so happy about.
The Laughing Man Tavern on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

SCVNGR - GoSmithsonian Trek

A match made in heaven; SCVNGR and the Smithsonian Institution

If you know anything about either of us, it should not surprise you that the perfect marriage between a scavenger hunting smartphone app and the Smithsonian would get us pretty excited. So excited that we spent 4 hours scurrying through 9 museums this past Saturday just to finish the entire puzzle.

The app is free and available for the iPhone and Android systems. Working with your smartphone's GPS, the appropriately named SCVNGR facilitates scavenger hunts based on your location. Users are asked to answer trivia and take pictures to complete challenges that range in difficulty. Almost all of the questions can be solved by reading the right sign or going to the correct exhibit. Still, there are a couple that required a little bit of problem solving.

Clearly the point of the game isn't to fry your brain - though with this weather your brain might spontaneously combust on its own. Instead, users are exposed to a reasonably comprehensive highlights tour of the Smithsonian. For tourists on a first time trip to DC or residents like us, using SCVNGR is a unique and fun way to explore the treasures of the National Mall. It wound through exhibits both familiar and foreign, and seldom did we leave without a new nugget of information that we'll share with future visitors. Really, the only thing missing - besides vowels - was more time to enjoy it all.

J Says

I'll admit that B was much more excited about this latest GoSmithsonian effort than I was. I didn't know much about it, so I just downloaded the app and followed him to the Mall. By the time we completed the first challenge (at the Smithsonian Castle) I was totally hooked. My competitive drive kicked in and I was dragging B through all of the museums at warp speed trying to solve the puzzles. It was hot and crowded and I was wearing the wrong shoes, but I was still excited to be playing the game and before I knew it, it was 7:30pm and we were getting ushered out of the American History Museum at closing time.

One of the cool parts of SCVNGR was that it took us to places we've never been such as the National Museum of African Art, which was especially timely considering our recent trip to South Africa. I think the game is a great way to see the Smithsonian through fresh eyes and could keep even the most jaded Washingtonian interested.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Meet Finnegan

Today we'd like to take the opportunity to introduce you to the third member of our family (ThreeDC?): Finnegan. When you live in a downtown highrise condo and work long hours, having a dog just isn't practical. I'm uber allergic to cats, won't get anywhere near reptiles (even in Petco), and outgrew my hamster phase about the same time I realized Jordan Knight of NKOTB wasn't actually dreamy. So, to fill my pet desire, B got me a betta fish friend named Finnegan.

Finnegan lives in a very posh Crate and Barrel bowl. When we first got him, the bowl was clear and when placed on a black shelf, we couldn't see him! So, B put his art skills to work and painted the back of the bowl so Finnegan's true beauty could be seen by all. When the water level is right, it's fun to watch him swim over the top of the doughnut hole.

Now I'm sure you're probably thinking that this is just a stupid $4 betta fish. You're also probably thinking that B and J ran out of post topics. Ok give us a break, we've been out of town! BUT, I'll have you know that Finnegan is the craziest, hungriest fish you'll ever meet. He goes nuts when his food is in sight and if he had his way, he'd eat an entire container of food in one sitting. A fish after my own heart.

Here he is showing off his best side:

If you're in the market for a pet, I highly recommend these lovely little fish. Every one of them deserves to be rescued from pet store plastic bowl hell and given a loving home. Do your part, rescue a beta today!

PS: RIP to my sister's betta Bluey Fish. You fought a good fight, even after all of your fins had fallen off. You will be missed.

Second Thoughts from B

This special insight into our lives has been brought to you by the letter F... as in, Finnegan is our Friendly Fish that we are Finally Featuring to Fill this space while we Find more Fine dining and Fun activities in our Favorite city.

Seriously though, there's no better urban pet than a Betta. Talk about no effort... All you need is a container, some food, and some water treatment chemical. Total package, less than $10. They are beautiful and active, and despite their delicate appearance, are very robust. Unlike many fish, they can tolerate a reasonably large range in temperature, don't require frequent water changes or regular feeding schedules, and in the wild, close relatives have been known to crawl across land or up trees (look it up!).

Sure you can't pet them or take them for walks but you also don't have to clean up after them, which is a big plus in my book. And if you could see how much fun one of us has talking to her fish, you'd see why we consider Finny a part of the family.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Food Two Go: The Bazaar

This last weekend, J and I returned to Los Angeles to celebrate one of my best friend's weddings. Somehow this fun-loving little kid from my childhood is now a married man. What's more, we attended the wedding with another one of my best friends who has recently become a father. Suffice it to say, this weekend was a wonderful - if not shocking - reminder that times they are a-changin.

When change is in the air, I think we all appreciate things that remind us of the stability of home. Since home is now Washington, D.C., what better way to feel at home than to visit Jose Andres' new LA restaurant, The Bazaar.

After The Bazaar opened in late 2008, it received a very rare 4 star review from the LA Times. Shortly thereafter we promised my parents that we'd take them there. This weekend they cashed in.

It goes without saying that we love Jose Andres and his restaurants (see here, here, here, and here) so we were eager to see what he would do in Tinseltown. Even more, we were looking forward to sharing his culinary artistry with my parents.

The appropriately named Bazaar is many things. It is part bar, part lounge, part art gallery, and of course, part restaurant. For those of us in DC lucky enough to have sampled Chef Andres' offerings, we found the menu - split between traditional and modern tapas - to be a tasting menu mainly consisting of adaptations from Jaleo and Minibar. As always, the flavors, textures, and artistry were outstanding but having access to the entire world of Jose Andres rather than a single (though diverse) menu has left us spoiled. Other than the eclectic environment (imagine if Cirque du Soleil designed a restaurant), it was hard not to pity the City of Angels for only having a singular taste of our DC master.

Still, for the uninitiated, Bazaar is unequivocally top-notch in a town that is not devoid of dining options. To borrow from the words of my father, it was "a rare and exciting culinary experience amongst LA's glitterati in a very hip venue. What fun to tantalize the taste buds with such wonderful combinations of gastronomical delights. The restaurant was aptly named and interestingly imbued with the theme of eclectic forms, sights, smells, and exotic flavors." While my father may be prone to a little hyperbole, Chef Andres' expertise is clear. And that sentiment certainly has a familiar ring to it.

J Says

Like B said, The Bazaar was like a taste of home. Though the dishes were familiarly fabulous, the setting was like another planet when compared to some DC restaurants. Everything about the restaurant (including the staff and most customers) was trendy and beautiful.

After chatting with our adorable waiter, we found out he was from Maryland. I asked how he ended up working in Jose Andres' LA outpost. His response was classic LA: "Well, like almost every person working here, I'm trying to be an actor." While working in LA's four star hotspot is sure to get you noticed, the staff at The Bazaar have to work extra hard to outshine the food. In a city of rockstars, Jose Andres holds his own.
The Bazaar By Jose Andres on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bibiana Osteria & Enoteca

I know I'm a little late to the Bibiana party. People (especially B) have been urging me to try it ever since it opened last fall. Add in the fact that we live just up the street and I really have no excuse other than there are a skajillion places to eat in D.C. and I've only got so much room in my stomach. Bibiana is restauranteur Ashok Bajaj's latest jewel in an already shiny and crowded crown (think Ardeo, Bardeo, Bombay Club, 701, Rasika (see our thoughts here), and the Oval Room). After the totally forgettable Luigino closed, Bajaj and his team worked their magic on the space and transformed it from snoozeworthy to sexy.

From the whimsical light fixtures to the metallic beaded curtain separating the main dining room from the private dining room, everything was modern and tastefully done. There are several outdoor tables but they don't offer much more than a view of the side of the Marriott hotel and the exhaust from buses on H Street.

My mom and her friend were visiting and wanted something a little fancier than the Surfside (see post here) and Good Stuff (post here) meals that we had on previous nights. B suggested Bibiana as he'd been before and loved it. I jumped at the chance to finally make it to the place everyone had been buzzing about.

We each ordered a starter and, while I didn't taste this salad, we wanted to include a picture of it to showcase the artistry on the plate.

If you've read our Taylor Gourmet post (see here), you know I have a serious love affair with their risotto balls. When I saw arancini (fancy pants name for risotto balls) on the menu at Bibiana, there was no question about which appetizer I was ordering. Bibiana's version is made with saffron and parmesan and, while I really liked them, I have to give the win to Taylor Gourmet. When I'm eating fried cheesy balls, I don't want them to be fancy. I want to pick them up and dunk them in spicy marinara and have the mozzarella ooze out all over the place.

B shocked everyone by asking the waitress for suggestions. She pointed him in the direction of the tempura fried squash blossoms. While it was a nice, light summer dish, there wasn't anything particularly memorable about the tempura batter or preparation.

I tend to get tunnel vision when I'm reading a menu. On this night, my eyes zoomed in on the pasta section and wouldn't look elsewhere. I was intrigued by the black spaghetti with jumbo lump crab and aglio/olio/peperoncino.

I have a theory that if you serve crappy pasta, you tend to drown it in a heavy sauce. Like somebody (probably Mr. Olive P. Garden) always says, a thick sauce can cover a multitude of sins. Fortunately, Bibiana's black spaghetti was an angel that needed no disguise. The garlic and oil lightly coated the pasta and the peperoncino added a healthy dose of spice. As you can see, the chef wasn't stingy with the lump crab portion which was a nice change of pace from other "crab" dishes I've had where you need one of those giant Sherlock Holmesian magnifying glasses to find the crab.

And here is where I was supposed to write that . . . say it with me . . . "B ordered lamb." But, after enough needling from his lovely wife, he pulled a trick play and ordered pasta. Not only could I not bear to write another description of another lamb dish that I didn't want to taste because I don't love lamb, but B also ordered lamb the first time he ate at Bibiana. Enough is enough! Thankfully, B loved his pasta dish. It was a burnt wheat cavatelli. I know that burnt is what you try to avoid when cooking but somehow it worked to add a richer flavor. Never mind the fact that wheat cavatelli look like caterpillars - they aren't - but they are fantastic.

Second Thoughts From B

Poor J would not have heard the end of it if I had bypassed the lamb, which I knew was delicious, for a pasta dish that recently debuted on the menu. It was a gamble to be sure, but one that paid off.

At the risk of being politically incorrect and quoting the Hungry-Man TV dinner company, this pasta was "man food." The portion was not necessarily large but the pasta was hearty and the flavors were bold. We're talking punch you in the face bold. Grow hair on your chest bold. You know, bold enough to make you feel like a man... or at least that's what Mike Golic would be screaming at you if this was a TV commercial.

If anything, I'd prefer something a little more subtle. Since each of the ingredients were so good and because I love fresh pasta so much, I didn't feel that the in-your-face flavors were necessary. But even if a little refining is needed, I can't help but fully endorse Bibiana and welcome it to the neighborhood... and that's not just because they serve great lamb.
Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ella's Wood Fired Pizza

In our neighborhood, if you want "real pizza" for takeout, your options are Matchbox (see our post here) and Ella's Wood Fired Pizza. Though we like Matchbox, I just didn't want to wade through the crowds to get my order so I suggested we try Ellas's instead. I've had numerous lunch-sized pizzas from Ella's and generally find it to be like a less fantastic 2 Amy's.

I called Ella's and was immediately put on hold . . . for 5 MINUTES! I finally hung up and called back and someone mumbled "Ella's hold" to which I exclaimed "NO!" but was put on hold anyway. I was about to give up again when someone came back on the line to take my order. I couldn't hear anything he was saying over the din in the background, so I just shouted my order at him. Ella and I were not off to a good start but I was hungry. About 20 minutes later we ventured down 9th Street to Ella's to pick up our pies. If you're going to eat in, be aware that there is usually a wait and really nowhere to do so. Your best bet is to try to squeeze in at the bar and order a drink while waiting for your table.

I squeezed my way to the host stand but it was empty. I caught the eye of an employee and asked him where I could get my takeout order. He went to the back and came out quickly with my two pizzas. We ordered two large pizzas so we could have leftovers for lunches and for guests who would be arriving at the airport in a few hours.

Our first selection was the Di Mare described on the menu as "shrimp, pesto, roasted red peppers, and pine nuts." We were surprised that the pizza didn't have any cheese on it. I guess if it doesn't describe cheese as one of the pizza toppings, it doesn't come with cheese. Somehow that seems to go against the rules of the pizza universe but we went with it. Despite the initial awkwardness, this pizza oozed so much flavor that we didn't miss the cheese. This would be a good choice for a stomach that isn't best buddies with dairy.

Next, for the reheating for leftovers option, we chose the classic margherita pizza (buffalo mozzarella, basil, tomato sauce, olive oil, and sea salt). Ella's gets extra credit for putting the basil in a separate container so it wouldn't wilt or get soggy on the ride home. Good thinking! The olive oil and sea salt jazzed this one up beyond a normal cheese pie. My one quibble about both pizzas is that the crust was cracker thin. I've always loved the pillowy crust on Ella's small (10") pizzas. I think stretching their pies to a large causes the crust to suffer. On the Di Mare, the crust was so thin and cracker like that it was ridiculously hard to chew the next day when reheated for leftovers.

Though Ella and I didn't start off as friends, my stomach told me to get over it and play nice. Ella makes a tasty pie (better served in the 10 inch variety) but it doesn't come cheap. These two large pizzas set us back nearly $60. We were able to stretch these out into several meals which made the pricey pies a bit easier to swallow.

Second Thoughts from B

In light of J's challenges with the ordering process, I was fortunate that my interaction with Ella's was limited to the eating portion of the night. Mostly this involved the Di Mare. For those with short memories, that is the cheeseless shrimp pesto pizza. Normally I'd talk about what was on the pie but like J, I'm more interested in what was missing. Cheese? Sure, no cheese to be found. But more importantly, where was the sauce? This was a job for NCSI. No, not Special Agent Gibbs and his team at NCIS but B and J of NCSI: The No Cheese and Sauce Investigators.
The first case was the lack of cheese. This one seemed easy. It wasn't listed on the menu, so perhaps its absence was by design. If the goal was to recreate shrimp and pesto pasta (a personal favorite), then no cheese was necessary. Case closed. Cheese was never involved.

But what about sauce? Primary suspect: pesto. It was listed on the rap sheet but where did it go? Pesto's fingerprints were all over this pie. You could see bits of basil and smell the garlic. However, the pizza was completely dry. No moisture, not even oil. What pizza doesn't have oil... Wait, that's it! Oil! What happens when you put oil on bread and bake it thoroughly? You make crackers and that is exactly what the crust tasted like (as evidenced by my jaw muscles that could now grace the cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine).

Case closed, the pizza was baked to death. Whether this was premeditated or not isn't relevant. Either way, the punishment for this crime is the same. B and J will be spending a lot more time at Matchbox.
Ella's Wood Fired Pizza on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 2, 2010

Hollywood East Cafe

Can you really find authentic dim sum in a gleaming Westfield shopping mall? Can you eat good har gow and shu mai next to Victoria's Secret and Banana Republic? And really, can you trust a place that has a cheesy "Hollywood" theme and an equally cheesy website? My friends, the answer is unequivocally "Yes!"

As we've mentioned, if you want real dim sum you've gotta go to the suburbs. We like China Garden in Rosslyn, but I've long heard tales of glittering dim sum palaces tucked in the faraway lands of Wheaton and Silver Spring. From what I read, Oriental East and Hollywood East were the two not to be missed. Despite sharing a part of their names, they aren't related and each has loyal devotees that swear by one over the other. Well, I'm a sucker for anything Tom Sietsema blesses, and he raved about Hollywood East in his latest dining guide. After a quick text message to our buddies M & A (wouldn't it be cool if they specialized in mergers and acquisitions?), we decided to venture out to Hollywood East on a Sunday morning. The four of us are DC dwellers through and through, and we only had a vague notion of where Wheaton was. "I think it is somewhere in Maryland" was the consensus. Our Droids and car's GPS led the way to the Westfield Wheaton. I could sense B rolling his eyes as we pulled into the mall's parking structure. Mall dim sum? Really?

B rolled his eyes one more time as we arrived at the front entrance to a half-empty restaurant. The rest of us wanted to go early because we'd heard about long wait times on weekends and knew of the long line that forms outside China Garden before the doors open. Well, maybe it is because nobody can figure out where Wheaton is, but it definitely wasn't packed when it opened. By the time we left, however, the place was jumping.

Though it felt a little odd eating dim sum in a mall (in a space that would seem a better match for some Asian-fusion monstrosity), once the silver carts began to speed past, I knew we'd be ok.

We pointed out our favorite dishes and shook our heads at the duck feet, and within 3 minutes had a table full of goodies. Since I was definitely the impetus in our Wheaton excursion, I held my breath as the others took their first bites. Would I forever be blamed for dragging the group (too early on a Sunday morning) to Wheaton for crappy dim sum? A few bites in and . . . Hooooray! The food was really good and they don't hate me!

I don't need to tell you about each dish. If you've had dim sum, you know what this stuff tastes like. If you haven't had dim sum or have only had dim sum in DC, then log off the computer and get your butt in a car and point it toward Wheaton or Silver Spring or some other place off in the distance. This was what dim sum is supposed to be: plump dumplings showcased on silver carts and served with such speed that you're done eating in 10 minutes and hungry again 15 minutes later.

Second Thoughts from B

As J said, I clearly played the "I told you so" card when we arrived at a mostly empty restaurant at 10:30am after being told that there would be an hour wait starting at 10am. While doing so probably won't win me any husband of the year awards, I think the group was happy that I was right. Along the same lines, I was thrilled to have been proven wrong about the lack of quality dim sum in the DC area. So let me say it here publicly, "J, nice job! You were right. Thank you!"

Hollywood East Cafe, with their cheesy website and oddball theme, fits beautifully into my idea of the perfect dim sum place. Consider that I grew up with ABC, NBC, and my grandmother's favorite, CBS, not as network channels but more as the three best options for Chinatown dining. In that case, why would our latest find be all that odd to me? In fact, it makes perfect sense. The owners have clearly found a way to bring Hollywood's Chinese cuisine - in all its delicious, yet quirky glory - to the East coast. Now doesn't that sound like something this pair of transplants would support?
Hollywood East Cafe on Urbanspoon