Thursday, April 29, 2010
The first thing you'll notice upon entering Nam-Viet is the random Taco Bell-shaped archway and the "fancy" mural.
The next thing you might notice is the framed pictures of old white military dudes. Anyone know the story behind this?
On the way to the restaurant I perused Yelp to see what dishes people liked at Nam-Viet. There were raves about the crispy spring rolls and the menu called them "famous," so we had to give them a try. I thought they were pretty standard spring rolls. Good, but not something that stands out from the incredibly crowded field of DC fried appetizers.
I asked the waiter for an appetizer recommendation to supplement the 2 spring rolls and he mumbled something about squid and salad. We ended up with a very tasty calamari dish served over a bed of greens. It had a nice, light crunch and a gingery finish. Thumbs up.
Continuing the deep fried tour of Vietnam, the waiter suggested that B order the soft shell crab. He did and he loved it. It had a similar light coating as the calamari, but had a unique sweetness to it that we've never experienced before. If you're cool with crunching down on crab shells, you can't lose with this dish.
I failed by not asking the waiter to recommend an entree. I was a bit overwhelmed by the lengthy menu and plethora of cilantro-laden options. I retreated to my culinary safe zone and ordered the stir fried noodles with mixed vegetables and tofu. The noodles and tofu were nicely cooked but the carrots, cauliflower, and baby corn threw me off. They just didn't seem to jive with the flavor of the dish. It definitely wasn't Nam-Viet's fault that I ordered poorly. As the kids these days like to say "Ordering Fail."
So would we venture back to Cleveland Park to test out more of Nam-Viet's extensive menu? Probably, but I think I'll skip looking at the menu and just ask the waiter. For those keeping score at home: B's streak of waiter-recommended ordering successes is at 14 million while J's streak of ordering noodles is at 7.4 million. Time for a change up!
Second Thoughts from B
This is how the ordering went:
B: What would you recommend?
Waiter: Maybe you should try the shob swelt wab (or something equality unintelligible)...
Waiter: Shob swelt wab.
B: (clearly confused and trying to not embarrass anyone) Where is that on the menu?
Waiter: Not on the menu... Very good.
B: (still confused and in a tough spot) It's good, huh? Um... ok, let's do it.
Alex: Do you know what you ordered?
B: No clue.
J: Soft shelled crab.
B and Alex: Oooooh.
So with my full plate of awkward I got a nice helping of soft shelled crab. As J said, it had a good crunch and a unique flavor. It was savory and sweet at the same time. The best way to describe it would be to think about Lay's BBQ chips. In fact, once I put it together, I couldn't get the comparison out of my mind. I guess there's a reason for the neon green sign in the window (which I should've read before coming in)...
Monday, April 26, 2010
If you're reading this, you probably know that we photograph our meals. To me, a food post without a photo is like an ice cream sundae without the toppings. Photos enhance the reading experience for you (we hope) and the writing experience for us. The photos are incredibly useful tools when we can't remember what sauce was served on our entree or what we ate last weekend. I don't think too many people would debate the fact that photos make blogs more fun.
The debate ensues when the cameras come out at restaurants to take those pretty little photos. We've blogged about over 100 restaurants and have taken photos at almost every one. B is in charge of the photography partly because he's much better at it than I am, but also because I'm shy. B is great at capturing a photo of the dining room or perching the camera on a water-glass-turned-tripod to avoid blurry photos.
We are well aware that some chefs despise photography in their restaurants. At Komi, Chef Johnny Monis has forbidden photos of the food, and the waiters and waitresses enforce this rule nightly. Komi is the only place we've been asked not to take photos (see post here). In fact, Komi is the only restaurant where anyone has ever said anything about the camera. B has developed such a discreet style of restaurant photography that people at our own table ask "When are you going to take a picture?" and B always replies "I already did."
You see, we understand that the people sitting at the table next to us don't want to be distracted by a flash (groan) or a giant camera (to each their own). We also understand that the chef has worked his or her butt off to ensure that the food we're eating is served at the proper temperature and shouldn't sit on the table while the next Annie Leibovitz finds the perfect angle. We get it. That's why we go to great lengths to be discreet and quick when taking photos. We could bring our DSLR to restaurants and we'd get better photos. We could bring a tripod or request tables by windows. We don't because, at the end of the day, going to a restaurant should be about the food and the company, and not the blog. This blog is the product of our life in DC. We don't live our lives for the blog, our lives are lived out and reported on through this blog. We just happen to have a (tiny) camera along to document the ride.
We would love to hear from you. What do you think about cameras in restaurants???
Second Thoughts from B
J and I, like most Washingtonians, enjoy observing tourists wander through our fair city. There's always the matching t-shirts with the American eagle superimposed over a flag and the rampant spread of misinformation, usually masked behind an oversized foldout map. But the thing that really gets me is the overuse of the video camera. Maybe I'm missing out on some great family vacation memories, but I don't think I've ever had a desire to watch a home movie that contains a 30 second panorama of a Metro escalator or a random signpost. I sometimes wonder if this dedicated camera operator will have to sit at home in front of the TV just to realize what city they just returned from...
The point is that when documenting an event gets in the way of experiencing it, you may need to reevaluate your priorities. As J said, the purpose of our blog isn't to kick start a new career, pad our egos, get special treatment, or garner free swag. It isn't a professional review site. It is essentially an online diary and if people get something out of it, all that much better. Some people live to blog and some people blog to live. We do neither. We live and we blog, and we try not to let one get in the way of the other. So it isn't that we don't love you, dear reader, it is just that we believe in giving you a taste of what we do without the manufactured facade of studio lighting.
Despite the praise from my adoring wife, I'm hardly a great photographer. However, I am a bit of a perfectionist and would like to think I have some artistic ability. Therefore, it can be difficult to settle for a blurry, dimly lit photo. On the other hand, I refuse to set up a studio in the middle of a restaurant just to make sure that I capture a garnish in a flattering manner.
On the other hand, we don't exactly side with those chefs who have declared that the emergence of the blogging culture has completely "dumbed down" the dining experience. Short of those people who make a big production out of it, the ends definitely justify the means. Because of the internet, the general population seems far more savvy about food and increasingly willing to experience fine dining because of it.
So like almost anything in life, balance is key. Keep the conversation going by embracing new media but don't let the phone/email/camera keep you from living your life. Let us not lose sight of the fact that some things are best experienced in real time.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
The first thing we noticed about Coppi's is that it is DARK. That is one sure way to keep bloggers from photographing your food! Apologies for the lack of photos but we're not going to use a flash (we think it is too distracting to other diners). Not ever. Sorry.
We then noticed that Coppi's serves organic, mostly-local, cuisine with a Northern Italian focus. The cozy dining room is plastered with photos of cycling races and cycling jerseys. It is a much less cheesy, and much tastier version of Buca Di Beppo. Further research revealed that Coppi's was founded in 1993 by a brother and sister duo. Tragically, the sister (Nori Amaya) was killed in her DC apartment in November 2009. Her brother Carlos keeps her memory alive by continuing to serve quality food and hosting entertainment events such as Rumba Nights.
For an appetizer, our waiter recommended the Bietole al Forno (seared young green chard with hot pepper, garlic, ricotta, and moscato raisins). It was an interesting dish but I have a hard time biting through veggies like chard and bok choy, so I probably wasn't the best audience for this one. A side note to all the blog-reading babies out there: don't suck your thumb or else you'll grow up to have misaligned teeth and the inability to bite through certain vegetables.
We asked two different waiters what they would recommend and both pointed us toward the Saraceno Pizza. This unique pie featured lamb sausage, smoked mozzarella, and harissa (a North African spicy, smoky chili/sun dried tomato paste). This is a prime example of why I'm glad B taught me to ask for recommendations. I would never have ordered this pizza on my own but I loved it. The smoky burn of the harissa kicked the pants off of boring old tomato sauce.
Overall, we had a very pleasant meal at Coppi's and walked home with happily full tummies and our tongues still tingling with the harissa flavor.
Second Thoughts from B
J did a nice job of describing the unique flavors of Coppi's. In short, it was what you would expect from the stereotypical family meal in Italy with a garden out back. But aside from the food, let me touch on two other points.
First, everything was very reasonably priced. Sure, we shared a salad and a pizza, but we left full with fresh, organic homemade food for under $30 total. This was probably also aided by the fantastic (free) focaccia...
The other thing about our experience was the warmth of the service. Perfectly matching the Italian family feel, the team made us feel like we were distant cousins visiting the homeland. Each person seemed to genuinely take an interest in us, and more than just want we planned on ordering. On our walk back, I can remember thinking about what a great find this was and looking forward to stumbling across it again.
Monday, April 19, 2010
To our surprise, the White House accommodates far more people than we thought. Not only were we among the first 100 to get tickets, apparently they continued to distribute them throughout the day. Despite the rules posted, the early crowd was able to get multiple tickets and choose their entry time.
But enough of the logistics. Let's get to the gardens and grounds. After shuffling through airport-like security, the entire south lawn was open. Most of the attention was concentrated around the photos and signs staked into the ground that identified trees planted by Presidents and First Ladies. Visitors were entertained by "The President's Own" Marine Band and free to explore and photograph at their own pace. We spent about 1.5 hours and were happy to have been among the first to enter since we avoided some of the crowds and the nasty wind that was to come later in the day.
I stared up at each window thinking about all of the historical events that have taken place behind the glass. I remember Hillary Clinton writing fondly about the fan-shaped window (pictured below) in her book Living History.
Friday, April 16, 2010
On this particular night we had a friend in town (who, despite having Atkins as a last name, is not afraid of noodles) and we were scratching our heads trying to come up with a new place to try. My inner noodle lover perked up when she said she liked thai food and I remembered a friend raving about the noodles at Bangkok Joe's. A few minutes later we were in the car on our way to Washington Harbor.
This was our first Washington Harbor experience. I've always heard that the restaurants there are overpriced and parking is hard to find so we've avoided this part of Georgetown. However, we found that parking here was much easier than near M Street. For $7 we were able to park in an office building's garage right next door to the restaurant. That is half the price of the parking at the Shops at Georgetown Park.
Bangkok Joe's features a dumpling bar (pictured above) and lively dining room that was packed with patrons on this particular Friday night. The space isn't huge, so it is wise to call ahead and, despite its harbor location, there are no water views from the restaurant.
We had to try the dumplings at a place that has its own dumpling bar. To get the full experience we started with the Assorted Dumplings (shrimp dumpling, pork n' crab shu mai, chicken potstickers, mushroom n' ginger and winter squash potstickers). I liked the assortment and the uniqueness of the squash potsticker but nothing about these blew my mind. A solid start, but no homeruns yet.
B (of course) asked the waitress what she would recommend and she went straight to the pad thai. B attempted to impress upon her that he wanted something different and really spicy. He asked "if your mom was here, what would you serve her?" She then recommended the chili seafood rice bowl but didn't believe him when he said he wanted it very spicy. She agreed to give him "medium spice" and then bring him hot sauce if it wasn't spicy enough. Sure enough, it wasn't spicy enough so out came the jars of hot sauce and chili paste. This dish was packed with seafood and I think B liked it since his bowl was empty and I never got to taste it!
I zeroed in on the menu's page of noodle bowls. For me, the fatter the noodle, the better. I liked that the menu listed descriptions for each of the noodle varieties so you knew exactly what you'd be getting. I chose the drunken chicken (stir fried sen yai noodles with chicken, sweet basil, chili and garlic sauce). I really loved this dish but it tasted exactly like the basil noodles at Asia Nine (see our thoughts here). I was convinced that the owners of Bangkok Joe's also own Asia Nine but my team of noodle researchers (thanks Thar and Gordon) was unable to uncover any connection. While the atmosphere at Bangkok Joe's is better, you could save yourself a couple of dollars and the trek to Georgetown by heading to Asia Nine and ordering the basil noodles. Both versions were excellent and make the list of my favorite DC dishes.
I really enjoyed Bangkok Joe's but I'm completely biased because I will really enjoy any restaurant that lets me eat spicy noodles out of a giant bowl. If you want a more unbiased opinion, listen to B.
Second Thoughts From B
Here's my "unbiased" take: it seems like I've eaten here before and in my book, that's not always a good thing. Once again, I'd have to say that we've found good but a not particularly unique experience. So the question remains, why choose Bangkok Joe's over any of the other options?
There are certainly other restaurants available in downtown that are just as good if not better. Most tend to be a little cheaper, too. Bangkok Joe's location has lots of parking and a beautiful waterfront walk nearby and I'm sure this appeals to some, but I'd prefer the more accessible downtown locations.
Despite my reservations, this was quite a hot spot and I'm beginning to think that I wasn't the targeted customer. When we asked for a recommendation and got, "Have you ever had pad thai?" I knew that in their eyes I was just another uncultured white guy who wouldn't appreciate authentic flavors. Big strike against them.
At the risk of once again showing my Asian food snobbery, I'll say that Bangkok Joe's is the perfect Thai answer to P.F. Chang's. Tasty, sleek, reliable, and generous portions of generic Asian inspired flavors while being slightly overpriced and crowded. Sound familiar? It should, because I bet you've - more or less - been there before.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Look, we understand all of the annoyances of touristy places. For us, living around the corner from a place called "Souvenir City" is certainly a constant reminder. But if something is so great that it attracts hundreds of thousands to your city every year, it seems that you should just bite the bullet and see it for yourself. Otherwise you're wasting your time and should move to a place that no one wants to visit...
We recently wrote about the Kite Festival. Now on to the main event, where people from every corner of the Earth jostle for position along the Tidal Basin to take the same perfectly framed picture... Or hope to show off their artistic prowess (and a thousand pounds of photography equipment) with a legion of other dreary eyed paparazzi wannabes.
Whatever your stlye, get out to see the cherry blossoms. Yes it is crowded and annoying and too hot or too cold or whatever. But the fact of the matter is that this is a truly unique event that causes people to plan vacations just to experience it. We lucky few that are just a Metro ride away would be foolish not to enjoy it.
But for all the lecturing, I'm a bit of a hypocrite. I grew up in LA. I even dabbled in modeling and acting as a child, and later, worked in the film industry for 4 years. You would think that I've seen all the famous sets and locations at the very least. You would be wrong. Why? Because that's something that tourists do. It's overcrowded and overpriced. Sound familiar? Lousy excuse if you ask me...
Now that we are living in DC, we have vowed not to miss the opportunities at our doorstep. So with that in mind, we dragged our butts out of bed at 6am on a Saturday morning to see the famous Japanese cherry blossoms at dawn. Sure we'd seen them before. In fact, we've seen them every year that we've lived here and often times, on multiple occasions. Still, we never attended the tidal basin's sunrise service.
We soon learned that this was not a unique idea. And you know why? Because it is a great idea. A great idea. The soft morning light on the pink-white blossoms is gorgeous. But nothing I can say will do it justice. All I can do is encourage you to see it for yourself.
I have to admit that sunrise over the blossoms was completely incredible. It was beautiful in a way that I can't describe. I even managed to find my own peaceful spot on a rock near the FDR memorial where I just sat with the sun on my face and soaked it all in.One of my favorite parts of this experience was the people watching. Before we arrived, I made a little bet with B that we'd spot at least 4 couples taking engagement photos. I saw 4 couples in the first 10 minutes! I giggled as they all struggled to get into the classic engagement photo poses while hoardes of giant-camera toting cherry blossom viewers struggled to get the perfect sunrise shot. It was hilarious and endearing at the same time. I've said it before and I'll say it again: DC is the BEST for people watching. Get out there!
Monday, April 12, 2010
Mazu is located on the corner of New York Avenue and 11th street and, as many times as we walk by it, I always forget it is there. It, like so many other restaurants in DC, serves an eclectic Asian fusion menu. Their website says that their "meticulously selected assortment of Pan-Asian cuisine fuse tradition with contemporary flare, to create a culinary excursion into the elaborate palate of the Orient." Huh? I think all of that mumbo-jumbo translates to "we want to appeal to the widest variety of people possible so we're not focusing on any particular thing."
We didn't really care whether it was focused or authentic, we just wanted some food that we could take home and eat in front of the TV. Though told the food would be ready in 10 minutes, it was probably closer to 25 minutes before we had the food in hand. We didn't mind the wait on the big patio but we probably could've had food from Sushi Aoi and been on our way home before our order at Mazu was finished. Oh, and while we waited on the patio, we had our backs turned to the TVs inside the restaurant because we were recording one of the Final Four games and didn't want to know the result. Just as we were about to head home, a tourist wanders down the sidewalk, sees the TV and screams "oooh 2 seconds left, the underdog is going to win!" Thanks for ruining the Butler game, dude.
Anyway, back to the food. We ordered the Spicy Yellowtail Roll (left) and the Kalbi Roll (right). I think their sushi chef was trained in the land at the end of Jack's beanstalk because these rolls were ginormous. I really liked the spicy sauce combined with the smooth yellowtail in the first roll but there is something about beef in a sushi roll that just isn't right to me. It was very tasty but felt wrong.
Next was an assortment of nigiri (yellowtail, salmon, and tuna) served with sliced jalapenos. I thought the jalapenos distracted from the fish and preferred to leave them off. The fish was fresh and the portions were generous.
We definitely didn't need any more food but I was craving noodles so we ended up with the pad thai. The flavor was your run-of-the-mill pad thai but the thin glass-like noodles added a more interesting dimension.
While the food was good and filled our needs on this particular night, it isn't cheap enough to be our go-to takeout option (don't worry Kabab House, we still love you the most).
I've heard that Mazu has a great happy hour and they must because the place is usually empty when I walk by during non-happy hour times. It appears they carry their eclectic theme through to their drink specials: Sapporo and margaritas???
Second Thoughts from B
To quote a friend of ours... Boring! The food was about as generic as their description was flowery. But before you go thinking that I didn't like it, let me explain.
Mazu's take on sushi and pad thai was exactly what you would expect. Nothing more and nothing less. Is this a bad thing? Not always. And in the case of take out, it hit the mark.
Reliable might not make us rave about a place but there is something to be said about food that is around the corner and predictable. We weren't looking for fine dining that would dazzle our taste buds or expand our appreciation of culinary artistry. We were hungry, we wanted Asian food, and we didn't want to have to change clothes and make a reservation to do it. Boring? Yes. "Fit for Foodies" as OpenTable likes to ask? No. Worth a trip back on another lazy night? Sure...
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
I bet you're wondering: what is up with that name? Well, Sou'Wester refers to a wind from the southwest (think Nor'Easter), and since the restaurant is in Southwest, DC and serves southern food, it makes some sense. It probably wouldn't be on my short list of names though. As for the pronunciation, according to the staff, it is intentionally ambiguous and can be pronounced multiple ways.
The dining room is just casual enough to make you fit in wearing jeans but just fancy enough to feel like a special night out. I loved the waterfront view from our table by the window.
Now that I have a bread machine (see here), I have no sympathy for restaurants with crappy, stale bread baskets. Making bread is so easy. Sou'Wester won me over with their cornbread/sweet potato roll/biscuit basket. I liked the creativity and generous portions.
After a nice chat with the sommelier and a good wine recommendation, we ordered oysters, which were pan-fried then served in the shell with a spicy, creamy sauce. The flavor was great but the presentation was the star. The oysters were served over a bed of rock salt piled high to look like ice and dotted with black peppercorns. While the plates fit the southern theme, we thought they were too ugly and too old-fashioned to fit with the modern dining room.
We ordered a side of hushpuppies and grits to go along with our meal. The grits weren't memorable (though B may disagree), but the hushpuppies were the first hushpuppies I've ever had that weren't hard as rocks. One time in college the dining hall served hushpuppies. They were so hard that people took to throwing them around. Well, everything is funny until a hushpuppy lands in your cereal bowl and splashes milk all over your face. But I digress....
For his entree, B had the red snapper with mashed potatoes. For good measure, they added a hearty dose of bacon. In B's world, bacon makes everything better.
I had my heart set on fried chicken and ordered it even though it didn't make the waitress' list of suggestions. Unlike so many over-fried chickens, this one struck the perfect balance between juicy and crispy. It had me comparing it to the fried chicken that my Grandmother's brother makes, and if I'm comparing fried chicken to Uncle Boyd's chicken, you know it is good!
For dessert we ordered the fried apple pie which was not worth the calories. It had a lot of pastry shell and not a lot of filling, and just tasted dry overall. The vanilla ice cream was good but not good enough to rescue the pie. I put down my fork with pie left over and that is a very rare event for me. Next time, I'll skip dessert and focus on finishing all of my fried chicken and hushpuppies.
Second Thoughts From B
I'm a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy. I'm in no way uncomfortable in formal situations but I more in my element when I don't have to worry about presenting myself with utmost decorum. That's probably why I so enjoyed Sou'Wester. You'll find better dining options in DC (look next door at CityZen) but you won't find many that are as casually comfortable as this. And don't be confused; this is mostly a one-way street. While most guests are dressed down, the staff is buttoned up and treat you as a fine diner whether you're in shorts or a tux.
As J said, we had a beautiful window table overlooking the marina and Jefferson Memorial. Dressed up or down, it was a million dollar view. The food in my opinion - including the creamy grits and comfortingly simple apple pie - was more representative of the view than my outfit... in other words, high-class. My fish tasted like a perfectly deconstructed seafood chowder. Whether that was the intention, I don't know, but it was good. I enjoyed the oysters and felt that the hushpuppies were as good as they get (granted, my experience is limited). The winner though was J and her fried chicken. Unlike hushpuppies, I've eated a lot of fried chicken in my life and this might top the list. Even if it doesn't, it makes the conversation. In my opinion, great fried chicken makes your mouth water weeks after you've eaten it and by that criteria, we've got a winner.
Friday, April 2, 2010
Some may remember the debut of Grease on Broadway in 1971. Some may remember the original release of the movie in 1978. Others might have first been exposed to Grease via cable TV or VHS. And some may remember the movie's re-release in 1998. I'm part of the latter two categories. I fondly remember going to the theater with a large group of friends and doing the hand jive and Greased Lightning choreography in our seats. Maybe it was just my group of friends or maybe it was something L.A. kids do, I don't know... but it was fun.
Wrong! Not one hand jive to be seen. Just polite applause. Frankly, I was shocked. Grease isn't exactly a buttoned-up, high brow cultural event. It is meant to be over the top and down-right raunchy. Still, the crowd was reserved.
Don't get me wrong, I wasn't disappointed. In fact, the production was rather good. Not surprisingly, the choir's strength was the vocals and weakness was the acting and dancing. Overall, it was a very entertaining night... just no revelry.
So now to the question everyone is wondering... at least the one that we were wondering prior to the performance. How would an all gay male cast treat the traditionally female roles? Would the pink ladies be in drag and treated as heterosexual relationships or would they be the "pinkmen" and portray all homosexual relationships? Those would be the choices, right? I guess not. The pink ladies were still treated as ladies (referred to as gals/chicks/etc., while talking about and grabbing female body parts) but played by men dressed as men. Personally, it made it a bit confusing. I'm hardly the authority on LGBT issues but I wished they went all in and just made Sandy, Rizzo, and the rest fully male characters...
So bottom line. I'd absolutely go see another Gay Men's Chorus of Washington DC production, whether theatrical or choral. But I'd probably have to practice my yoga before I can comfortably fit into Lisner again.